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Even in a society that is built on the idea of positive change, it can be hard, if
not impossible, to identify what it is that calls people to work for change, or moves
them to resist it. Yet, when it comes to the issue of basic human rights, the study of
these two tendencies is undeniably important when establishing theory and
analysis to legitimize a movement. Not only must a theory be able to gain popularity,
but also it must be able to stand up to criticism and pave a path for sustainable
change. In the second wave of the feminist movement in the United States, four
different activist organizations attempted to appeal, with varying degrees of success,
to their peers to change in four very different ways: the liberal feminists, the
socialist feminists, the radical feminists, and the separatist feminists. Each of their
theories had something missing which hindered its success. In this paper I will
investigate these theories and one other queer theory. A newer movement that
takes ideas from post-modernism and post-structuralism, I will explore how ideas
and tactics from queer theory could and should be implemented in the
aforementioned main feminist theories.
In looking at what liberal feminism, socialist feminism, radical feminism, and
separatism, could gain from queer theory, it is first necessary to examine what
makes a strong theory within the context of a human rights movement. I will first
attempt to identify what the desired strengths in a base theory for a human rights
movement are, and then will seek to understand how the four feminist theories, as
well as queer theory, do and do not exemplify them. Finally, I will look to queer
theory to help supplement the four feminist ideologies where they require
strengthening, and discover how this may or may not be possible.
Qualities of a Strong Human Rights Theory
The ideological basis of a human rights movement such as the feminist
movement or the gay movement must not only display a deep understanding of the
root of the issue which it attempts to address, but also allow for the greatest amount
of support for the movement possible. Meaning the theory must be inclusive of, and
relevant to, as many different types of people as possible in order to improve its
likelihood of sustainable success. By this same standard, it is very important that the
theory be applicable to, or at least acknowledges, multiple forms of oppression and
the intersectionality that exists in the day-to-day experience of the majority of
Additionally, in order for a movement to be productive and successful, it
needs to encourage its followers to understand that pent up aggression and
harbored hatred of those who are comparatively more privileged will not lead to a
more peaceful future. Rather, this legitimate frustration and anger ought to be
directed towards the system that enforces the oppression, not necessarily those
who operate within that system.
Liberal Feminism
The basic ideology of liberal feminism takes root in liberalism and the same
philosophers ideas on which the United States was founded. It began with women
such as Betty Freidan suggesting that women were not completely fulfilled by being
housewives and secondary citizens to their husbands. Radical ideas though they
were at the time, it would be followed by increasingly drastic theories. Liberal
feminism emphasizes that humans are individualistic and competitive, and at the
same time inherently capable of sound reasoning (Jaggar, 173). Because of this
assumption, liberal feminists place an emphasis on education and reasoned
argument as a means of achieving equality for women.
Ironically, the theory followed, and goals held, by liberal feminists are in
many ways the least radical and least inclusive of the four main feminist ideologies.
One of the foremost reasons for this is that liberal feminism does not successfully
acknowledge other forms of oppression besides sexism as it affects mainly white,
middle class women. Especially in its early forms, liberal feminism was a theory
created for middle and upper class housewives; it ignored the varying types of
oppression that faced both working class women and women of color. And, because
the targeted audience was one that for the most part benefitted from the political
and economic system in place, with the exception of structural sexism, it advocated
assimilation into mainstream male society rather than an overall change of the
system. To many women, this would leave them outside the mainstream yet again,
but to males in power, this made liberal feminism more attractive than some of the
comparatively radical factions of feminism.
Besides leaving out working class women and women of color, liberal
feminism also did not have a place for lesbians or queer advocates, especially in its
early days. In fact, liberal feminism was quite heteronormative in its ideology and
practices. Although Betty Friedan claims that the revolution must be one that is
applicable to all women in her article Tokenism and the Pseudo-Radical Cop-Out,
she does not follow through with this statement in the rest of her article (Freidan
116-117). She calls for equal pay and a reformation of marriage, but she does not
mention anything about how this might affect queer people; heterosexuality, and
the nuclear family ideal, is in this case simply assumed.
Socialist Feminism
Socialist feminism, which finds its root in the Marxist belief that the
economic structure of a nation determines all aspects of society, both identifies the
root cause of a problem and is fairly inclusive of those within and outside of
mainstream society (Kerbo 101-102). Because socialist feminists believe that
society is a product of economic structure, they think that the capitalist system of
the United States is the source of sexism and all other forms of oppression (Radical
Women Manifesto 11). The reasoning for this is that in capitalism those who have
power are for the most part rich white men who are ensuring their continued
success by oppressing any and all other groups that are not comprised of rich white
men. Socialist feminists believe that the reason men came to have this power was
because of the natural division of labor in pre-industrialized times (Radical Women
Manifesto 4-5).
Socialist feminists would explain family structures and sex relations in terms
of the substructure of a society as well; meaning these things are results of the
economic system, and are thus not biological or psychological absolutes (Kerbo,
101-103). This theory suggests that socialist feminists find heterosexuality just as
natural as homosexuality or any other sexual attraction and behavior, in that they
are all constructed as a result of the substructure and necessarily unnatural. Despite
this fairly pro-queer theory opinion, much of the writings on socialist feminist
theory are still somewhat heteronormative in both the issues they choose to address
and the language used to discuss these issues. In the same vein, there is a tendency
for socialist feminist writings to group all minority or subjugated groups into one
blanket statement. This is evident in the Radical Women Manifesto, in which
capitalisms effects on Black people, all other racial minorities, and women of all
races and sexual orientations are lumped into one paragraph and made to seem
exactly the same (13). This type of analysis does not account for either the
differences in oppression among these groups or really even the similarities, as no
other causes besides capitalism are explored. It is also not evident how socialism
will affect varying groups on more than just an economic level, and is thus less than
Radical Feminism
Radical feminism centers on the idea of exploring and cultivating an inherent
bond between females in order to boost womens culture. Radical feminists are very
much interested in the process of analyzing society, and specifically the ways in
which patriarchy manifests itself, in order to make changes to resist that patriarchy.
An example of this is displayed by Marilyn Fryes essay Oppression, in which Frye
examines in detail the societal conditions that work to uphold patriarchy and keep
women in a cage. Additionally, radical feminists pioneered the idea that the
personal is political, a method whereby women would share their personal stories
about rape, sexual abuse, and other forms of oppression publically as a political tool.
This idea was a particularly successful one and was later employed in a slightly
different form by many in the gay movement who put an emphasis on coming out
as a similar political tool.
The ultimate goal for radical feminists was to achieve an androgynous
society free of gender distinctions and hierarchy. In order to reach this goal, radical
feminists believed there had to be an emphasis on the cultivation of womens
culture in order for it to reach equal standing as that of mens (Kreps, 238).
Additionally, radical feminists opposed marriage as an institution and the
traditional notion of love associated with it (Kreps, 237-239).
In some ways radical feminism was able to be more inclusive than some of
the other forms of feminism, as it sowed its roots in the idea of not associating itself
with a particular political faction in order to not isolate itself within a party label
(Bunch 47). And, although radical feminism can in some ways be seen as alienating
men because it places a considerable emphasis on women, Allan Johnson in his
article Can Men Take Responsibility for Patriarchy? demonstrates the influence
male allies could have in the movement. However, as with liberal feminism, many
radical feminist writings, despite their sense of desire for equality among races and
sexual orientations, seem to be most applicable to white middle class women; a
reflection of both the main leadership and support of these organizations.
Feminist Separatism:
Unlike the previous three feminist ideologies, the feminist separatist
movement has a distinct connection to lesbianism (Frye, Some Reflections on
Separatism and Power 95). Separatism, as associated with the feminist movement,
is essentially a womans removal of herself in varying degrees from male
institutions or patriarchy by her own choice (Frye, Some Reflections 96-97).
According to Frye, most, if not all, feminists practice some form of this type of
separatism from mainstream male society in their everyday lives (Some
Reflections 98). The three patriarchal institutions to which separatist feminists
mostly strongly object are heterosexuality, marriage, and motherhood (Frye, Some
Reflections 108). A womans removal of herself from these institutions, however,
can be as small as breaking up with a significant other, to as great as living on a
female-run and owned farm.
Because of both the close connection between separatism and lesbianism,
and the exclusion of men from this theory, separatism limits itself by definition from
a large network of allies. Additionally, as are some of the other feminist theories,
separatism is mainly practiced by white women (Hildenbrand, 4-5). This is because
it is unable to fully recognize and address other forms of oppression besides sexism,
and thus it limits itself further in those who support it. Separatism also does not
necessarily give either a sustainable solution to the oppression facing women, nor
does it explore in depth the root cause of this oppression.
Queer Theory:
Queer theory is a relatively new movement that attempts to leave identity
politics behind, and instead work from a post-modernist, constructionist
perspective (Duggan 7). Queer theory acknowledges sexuality and gender not in
biological terms, but rather as something more fluid; the identity of queer, thus
signifies not a particular gender or sexuality, but rather an opposition to the
normative gender or sexuality in an unspecified way. Additionally, queer theory has
been explored more deeply academically and philosophically than some of the other
movements, and thus has more of a developed argument behind it. Queer theory
works to incorporate the intersectionality of its supporters and encourage coalition
building in that sense.
These qualities, however, do not make queer theory a perfect option. In fact,
like so many other theories, queer theory does have the possibility of being turned
into an us vs. them fight (us being queers and them being heterosexuals),
which alienates the possibility of coalition building among various human rights
groups and positive change in mainstream society (Cohen 209-210). Queer theorys
strength instead lies in the potential it has to change the way that minority and/or
subjugated groups can work for change it offers the possibility for those affected
by more than one type of oppression to not be forced to define themselves in one
category, be that race, gender, sexual orientation, or class (Cohen 221). Rather, it
embraces intersectionality by recognizing that in fact no ones experience with
oppression is the same even if they do share the same gender, sexual orientation,
race, and social class.
Queer Theory and Feminist Theory:
Something that all four feminist theories could benefit from learning from
queer theory is the possibility of a movement that encompasses more than just one
type of oppression. This would involve letting go of identity politics and the
problems that come with it. Mainly, it would allow for recognition of differences
within a singular movement, and a celebration of those differences. These
differences could be both between specific people in the movement, and various
types of oppression that exist within society. Each theory liberal feminism,
socialist feminism, radical feminism, and feminist separatism could greatly benefit
from being able to better accept people of different backgrounds into their
movements, and better recognizing other forms of oppression and the interrelation
that exists between them. Simply addressing sexism and patriarchy will not lead to a
more just future. Not only is it nearly impossible to eliminate sexism without also
working against racism and heteronormativity, it is also somewhat elitist to ignore
the plight of others when working to create a more equal society.
If these four feminist theories were to incorporate more differences, it could
have a profound effect on each movement. In the liberal feminist movement it would
allow organizations like N.O.W. (National Organization of Women) to work with
groups that address other issues of oppression and thus increase their visibility and
support network. In the socialist feminist movement, this would allow them to
perhaps not root themselves so deeply into only the economic structure of society,
but rather to acknowledge the effect other institutions have on the everyday life of
people. In the radical feminist movement, this idea of being open to multiple
identities could change their idea that every woman has an innate connection that
must be celebrated to rather that every human has this connection. In the feminist
separatist movement, it could manifest itself by, instead of white women resigning
themselves from working within male institutions, those who are against any form
of oppression withdrawing themselves from oppressive institutions as a whole.
Despite the possible gains that could be made as a result of these feminist
movements adopting ideas from queer theory, not every aspect of queer theory
could or should be translated into feminist theory. It would be quite difficult for a
theory such as liberal feminism to completely adopt post-modernism as a base
theory. In fact, the main idea of post-modernism, that all human behavior is
constructed, contradicts some of the main arguments in liberal feminism. A theory
such as radical feminism, however, might be more conducive to incorporating this
aspect of queer theory, as they adhere to the idea that gender is socially constructed
rather than biological.
Each of the five theories I discussed in this essay have their own individual
strengths and weaknesses, and each can stand to learn from each other. However, it
is also important that they all simply coexist, along with many others, and that they
compliment and challenge each other in varying ways. It is very unlikely that
without multiple theories the gains that have been made for women thus far would
have been possible. It is only with multiple diverse approaches and opinions that
everyone who wants to be can become involved, and that those in power will be
forced to listen.
However, looking at the state of the feminist movement today, it is my
opinion that the four main feminist ideologies here discussed could benefit greatly
from adapting ideas from queer theory for their own use. The problem today is not
necessarily that people do not recognize these issues; it is that our solutions to the
problems are stale, and the negative stigma associated with feminism has been
ingrained. The feminist movement needs to be renovated. Even after all the effort
that has gone into improving womens and other subjugated groups opportunities
and place in society, there is still much work to do, and the movements of second
wave feminism will have to adapt themselves in order to be successful. Hopefully,
with modifications inspired by queer theory and input from the people, one of the
many existent ideologies, or even a brand new one, will be able to fully permeate
mainstream culture and create the drastic change that so many of these
organizations have been, and continue, working towards. It is not yet clear which
movement it will be, but I have a feeling it will be one that is inclusive, non-
judgmental, and applicable to many different forms of oppression.