Feminist Theory in Sociology

Feminist theory is a major branch of theory within sociology that is distinctive for how its creators shift their
analytic lens, assumptions, and topical focus away from the male viewpoint and experience. In doing so,
feminist theory shines light on social problems, trends, and issues that are otherwise overlooked or
misidentified by the historically dominant male perspective within social theory. Key areas of focus within
feminist theory include discrimination and exclusion on the basis of sex and gender, objectification, structural
and economic inequality, power and oppression, and gender roles and stereotypes, among others.


Many people incorrectly believe that feminist theory focuses exclusively on girls and women and that it has an
inherent goal of promoting the superiority of women over men. In reality, feminist theory has always been about
viewing the social world in a way that illuminates the forces that create and support inequality, oppression, and
injustice, and in doing so, promotes the pursuit of equality and justice.

That said, since the experiences and perspectives of women and girls were historically excluded from social
theory and social science, much feminist theory has focused on their interactions and experiences within
society in order to ensure that half the world's population is not left out of how we see and understand social
forces, relations, and problems. Most feminist theorists throughout history have been women, however, today
feminist theory is created by people of all genders.

By shifting the focus of social theory away from the perspectives and experiences of men, feminist theorists
have created social theories that are more inclusive and creative than those which assumes the social actor to
always be a man. Part of what makes feminist theory creative and inclusive is that it often considers how
systems of power and oppression interact, which is to say it does not just focus on gendered power and
oppression, but on how it might interact with systemic racism, a hierarchical class system, sexuality, nationality,
and (dis)ability, among other things.

Key areas of focus include the following.

Gender Differences

Some feminist theory provides an analytic framework for understanding how women's location in, and
experience of, social situations differ from men's. For example, cultural feminists look to the different values
associated with womanhood and femininity as a reason why men and women experience the social world
differently. Other feminist theorists believe that the different roles assigned to women and men within
institutions better explain gender difference, including the sexual division of labor in the household. Existential
and phenomenological feminists focus on how women have been marginalized and defined as “other” in


but that patriarchy. and experience of. They offer the important insight that not all women experience oppression in the same way. Gender Oppression Theories of gender oppression go further than theories of gender difference and gender inequality by arguing that not only are women different from or unequal to men. has historically denied women the opportunity to express and practice this reasoning. and that the same forces that work to oppress women and girls also oppress people of color and other marginalized groups. Intersectionality theorists seek to explain oppression and inequality across a variety of variables. but they think that patriarchy can be defeated if women recognize their own value and strength. but that they are actively oppressed. and even abused by men. One way in which structural oppression of women. and childhood development. Structural Oppression Structural oppression theories posit that women's oppression and inequality are a result of capitalism. race. confront oppression critically. They identify physical violence as being at the base of patriarchy. including class. and form female separatist networks in the private and public spheres. Radical feminists argue that being a woman is a positive thing in and of itself. social situations are not only different but also unequal to men's. establish a sisterhood of trust with other women. Liberal feminists argue that women have the same capacity as men for moral reasoning and agency. patriarchy. but that this is not acknowledged in patriarchal societies where women are oppressed. Psychoanalytic feminists attempt to explain power relations between men and women by reformulating Freud's theories of the subconscious and unconscious. These dynamics serve to shove women into the private sphere of the household and to exclude them from full participation in public life. but they seek to extend this exploitation not just to class but also to gender. particularly the sexist division of labor. ethnicity. gender. Gender Inequality Feminist theories that focus on gender inequality recognize that women's location in. Power is the key variable in the two main theories of gender oppression: psychoanalytic feminism and radical feminism. and age. and racism. They believe that conscious calculation cannot fully explain the production and reproduction of patriarchy. the sexual division of labor in both the public and private spheres needs to be altered in order for women to achieve equality. specifically 2 . married women have higher levels of stress than unmarried women and married men. Socialist feminists agree with Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels that the working class is exploited as a consequence of capitalism. subordinated. According to liberal feminists.patriarchal societies. and how its development interacts with the process of developing feminity in girls. Some feminist theorists focus specifically on how masculinity is developed through socialization. Liberal feminists point out that heterosexual marriage is a site of gender inequality and that women do not benefit from being married as men do. human emotions. Indeed.

is a social classification based on one's identity. they actually refer to two very different things: sex and gender. power and oppression. on the other hand. how gender interacts with other social forces in society. In the late-twentieth century. Most people fall into the categories of male and female. social interaction. which sees men routinely earn more for the same work as women. is understood by sociologists to be a biological categorization based on reproductive organs. sex. presentation of self. Though male/female and man/woman are often conflated in the English language. An intersectional view of this situation shows us that women of color. The former.S. Sociologists within this subfield study a wide range of topics with a variety of research methods. class. and how gender relates to social structure overall. 3 . Gender. Sociologists view gender as learned behavior and a culturally produced identity. and men of color too. other genders exist too. including things like identity. The Social Construction of Gender That gender is a social construct becomes especially apparent when one compares how men and women behave across different cultures. religion. Either way. however. among others. and as such. and the interaction of gender with other things like race. and they are known as intersex.the economic kind. sex is a biological classification based on body parts. this strain of feminist theory was extended to account for the globalization of capitalism and how its methods of production and of accumulating wealth center on the exploitation of women workers around the world. and interaction with others. people tend to think of masculinity and femininity in dichotomous terms. manifests in society is in the gender wage gap. culture. and how in some cultures and societies. In Western industrialized nations like the U. and sexuality.. are even further penalized relative to the earnings of white men. The Sociology of Gender Studying the Relationships Between Gender and Society The sociology of gender is one of the largest subfields within sociology and features theory and research that critically interrogates the social construction of gender. behavior. The Difference Between Sex and Gender To understand the sociology of gender one must first understand how sociologists define gender and sex. some people are born with sex organs that do not clearly fit either category. it is a social category.

these theorists see wage inequalities as the result of choices women make. gender differences exist in the likelihood of drug and alcohol abuse. which renders them less valuable employees from the managerial standpoint. which is one’s definition of oneself as a man or woman. Berdaches married other ordinary men (not Berdaches). we are socialized by family. peer groups. However. Gender identity also has an especially strong effect on how we dress and present ourselves. One result of gender socialization is the formation of gender identity. Most will recognize that media and popular culture play important roles in teaching us gender too. During the mid-twentieth century. who teach us what is expected from us in terms of appearance and behavior based on whether they code us as a boy or a girl. and aggressive driving. and what we want our bodies to look like. religious leaders. and there is now plenty of scientific evidence to suggest that the wage gap is influenced by deeply ingrained gender biases rather than by choices men and women make about family-work balance. which focuses on the micro-level everyday interactions that produce and challenge gender as we know it. Gender identity shapes how we think about others and ourselves and also influences our behaviors. They viewed a gendered division of labor as important and necessary for the smooth functioning of a modern society. who were anatomically normal men but who were defined as a third gender considered to fall between male and female. this process begins before they are even born. For many people. and by decorating the incoming baby's room and selecting its toys and clothes in color-coded and gendered ways that reflect cultural expectations and stereotypes. although neither was considered homosexual. which works to the benefit of society. as they would be in today’s Western culture. Other cultures. challenge this assumption and have less distinct views of masculinity and femininity. this perspective suggests that our socialization into prescribed roles drives gender inequality by encouraging men and women to make different choices about family and work. violent behavior. What this suggests is that we learn gender through the process of socialization. For example. from infancy on. most sociologists now view this functionalist approach as outdated and sexist itself. with parents selecting gendered names on the basis of the sex of a fetus. Then. Sociologists West and Zimmerman popularized this approach with their 1987 article on "doing 4 . educators. historically there was a category of people in the Navajo culture called berdaches. Major Sociological Theories of Gender Each major sociological framework has its own views and theories regarding gender and how it relates to other aspects of society. however. as measured by normative standards. functionalist theorists argued that men fill instrumental roles in society while women fill expressive roles. assuming they choose family roles that compete with their work roles. and the wider community.viewing men and women as distinctly different and opposites. depression. A popular and contemporary approach within the sociology of gender is influenced by symbolic interactionist theory. For example. For example. Further.

cisgender.gender. building on aspects of the three areas of theory described above. those men in power have historically been wealthy. those inspired by conflict theory focus on how gender and assumptions and biases about gender differences lead to the empowerment of men. and especially within Western nations. and designed to privilege their values and experiences at the expense of others. Not just for women. These sociologists see gendered power dynamics as built into the social structure. So what is feminism really all about? Equality. The term itself is so widely contested and derided that many people adamantly state that they are "not feminists. The focus of a feminist critique is a social system that is designed by men. it is fundamentally changeable. What is Feminism Really All About? What feminism means is a hotly contested debate in the twenty-first century. worldviews. one can see that feminism has never really been about women. For example. 5 . among other things. which more often than not serve to create unequal and unjust systems. from this viewpoint. culture. Within the sociology of gender. wage inequalities that exist between men and women result from men’s historic power to devalue women’s work and benefit as a group from the services that women’s labor provides. regardless of gender. experiences. But at a global level. but for all people. they also focus on how these social forces can be changed to create a just and equal society in which no one is penalized for their gender. and norms. nationality. and thus manifested throughout all aspects of a patriarchal society." despite espousing what many consider feminist values and views. and interests. Often. guided by their particular gendered world views and experiences. in terms of race and class. values. Importantly. Those in power determine how society operates. and heterosexual." which illustrated how gender is something that is produced through interaction between people. efforts to define feminism are hatched in response to critiques or dismissals of it as angry. sexuality. and they determine it based on their own perspectives. focus on the structural forces. which is an important historical and contemporary point. Who those men are. or age. Viewed this way. and as such is an interactional accomplishment. varies from place to place. Studying feminism from a sociological perspective brings all of this to light. and everyday behaviors that create inequality and injustice on the basis of gender. and the structural inequality of women relative to men. and man-hating. Feminist theorists. religion. irrational. This approach highlights the instability and fluidity of gender and recognizes that since it is produced by people through interaction. class. oppression of women. white. ability. race.

Collins's articulation of the concept (and the lived reality of it) is what makes race. heterosexism and homophobia. the persistent problem of sexism. This concept has become central to today's feminism because understanding intersectionality is central to understanding and fighting inequality. life chances. gender. ability." This approach recognizes that systems of power and privilege. sexuality. For. and rely upon each other. the approach to studying them. privilege. and of oppression. how we actually study them. to de-center whiteness. one of the most accomplished and important American sociologists alive today. It is also about fighting these on a global level. and values. Definition of Intersectionality Intersectionality refers to the simultaneous experience of categorical and hierarchical classifications including but not limited to race. ability. middle and upper-class status. Patricia Hill Collins. global corporate colonialism. referred to this approach to seeing the world and its peoples as "intersectional. xenophobia. sexuality. the development of a feminist perspective and feminist theories have always been about de-centering the privileged white male perspective from framing social problems. and nationality. Feminist social science begins by casting off the assumptions derived from the particular standpoint of privileged white men. are actually mutually dependent and intersecting in nature. religious intolerance. perspectives. nationality. the privileges we enjoy and the discrimination we face are a product of our unique positioning in society as determined by these social classifiers. class. It also refers to the fact that what are often perceived as disparate forms of oppression. work together. classism. sexism. and of course. including classism. and xenophobia. intersect. and inequality operate on a global scale. like racism. So what is feminism really all about? Feminism is about fighting inequality in all of its forms. Thus. because we are all connected by globalized systems of economy and governance. and together they compose a unified system of oppression. 6 .Within the social sciences. and what we try to do about them as a society. class. heterosexuality. power. but also. This means not just reconfiguring social science to not privilege men. racism. and because of this. and other elements of the dominant perspective in order to create a social science that combats inequality and fosters equality through inclusion. one is never simply just a woman or a man: one is defined by and operates within these other social constructs that have very real consequences that shape experiences. what we conclude about them. and not just within our own communities and societies. and many other things necessary to include in a feminist perspective.

for example. published in 1990. many of today's sociologists also include categories like age. Discrimination at individual. Sociology of Social Inequality Social inequality results from a society organized by hierarchies of class. and material goods. unstable. unequal access to education and cultural resources. health status. This is reflected in measures such as level of education. where some are poor. which allows them greater access to rights and resources than other Americans. people of color typically experience racism. while others are invested in by business and government so that they thrive and provide safe. gender. rewards. and happy conditions for their inhabitants. and treatment by the criminal justice system. is an inequality of conditions with the homeless and those living in housing projects sitting at the bottom of the hierarchy while those living in multi-million dollar mansions sit at the top. Inequality of opportunities refers to the unequal distribution of life chances across individuals. Racism. Inequality of conditions refers to the unequal distribution of income. For example. is understood to be a phenomenon whereby access to rights and resources is unfairly distributed across racial lines. and gender that broker access to resources and rights in ways that make their distribution unequal. and even looks in their intersectional approach. and differential treatment by the police and judicial system. class. Overview Social inequality is characterized by the existence of unequal opportunities and rewards for different social positions or statuses within a group or society. Social inequality goes hand in hand with social stratification. queer studies. for example. ethnicity. and punishments. race. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge. and a critical sociological approach. Consciousness. and nationality. and plagued by violence. like income and wealth inequality. opportunities. and institutional levels is a major part of the process of reproducing social inequalities of race. It can maninfest in a variety of ways. Housing. For example. Another example is at the level of whole communities. In addition to race. gender. There are two main ways to measure social inequality: inequality of conditions. the sociology of globalization. among others. and sexuality. culture. feminist studies. class. It contains structured and recurrent patterns of unequal distributions of goods. secure. wealth. body type. In the context of the U. sexuality.. generally speaking. which benefits white people by conferring on them white privilege. Today intersectionality is a mainstay concept of critical race studies. which privileges the educational outcomes of white men by channeling a biased amount of mentoring and educational resources to them. wealth. and inequality of opportunities. women are systematically paid less than 7 . religion. and the Politics of Empowerment. studies have shown that college and university professors are more likely to ignore emails from women and people of color than they are to ignore those from white men. ability. community.Sociologist Patricia Hill Collins developed and explained the concept of intersectionality in her groundbreaking book.S.

view inequality as resulting from groups with power dominating less powerful groups. Two Main Theories of Social Inequality There are two main views of social inequality within sociology. lead to a meritocracy based on ability. and is present in all of our social institutions.men for doing the same work. Social inequality and social stratification. and sociologists have conclusively demonstrated that racism is built into the very foundation of our society. this work of domination is achieved primarily through the power of ideology--our thoughts. on the other hand. Conflict theorists. In today's world. 8 . One view aligns with the functionalist theory and the other aligns with conflict theory. beliefs. norms. and expectations--through a process known as cultural hegemony. Functionalist theorists believe that inequality is inevitable and desirable and plays an important function in society. according to this view. Important positions in society require more training and thus should receive more rewards. values. They believe that social inequality prevents and hinders societal progress as those in power repress the powerless people in order to maintain the status quo. world views.