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Feminist Theories and Practice

1. Feminism: the advocacy of women's rights on the ground of the

equality of the sexes
2. Feminism: What is it?
3. Feminism is a multi-disciplinary approach to sex and gender equality
understood through social theories and political activism. Historically,
feminism has evolved from the critical examination of inequality between
the sexes to a more nuanced focus on the social and performative
constructions of gender and sexuality.
4. Feminist theory now aims to interrogate gender inequalities and to
effect change in areas where gender and sexuality politics create power
imbalances. Intellectual and academic discussion of these inequalities
allows our students to go into the world aware of injustices and to work
toward changing unhealthy gender dynamics in any scenario.
5. Feminist political activists campaign in areas such as reproductive
rights, domestic violence, gay marriage, and workplace issues such as
family medical leave, equal pay, and sexual harassment and
6. Anytime stereotyping, objectification, infringements of human rights, or
gender- or sexuality-based oppression occurs, it's a feminist issue.
Liberal feminism is an individualistic form of feminist theory, which
focuses on women's ability to maintain their equality through their own
actions and choices.
Liberal feminism is a particular approach to achieving equality between
men and women that emphasizes the power of an individual person to
alter discriminatory practices against women. For example, pretend it's
1913, and you're walking from New York City to Washington, DC, a hike
over 200 miles, because you believe in women's suffrage, or a woman's
right to vote.
Over 100 years ago, participants in the Women's Suffrage Parade of
1913 took a liberal feminist approach by using their democratic right to
protest to promote women's rights. And it worked! In 1920, the U.S.
Congress ratified the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which gave
women the right to vote.
Liberal feminism aims for individuals to use their own abilities and the
democratic process to help women and men become more equal in the
eyes of the law, in society and in the workplace. By organizing women
into larger groups that can speak at a higher level, lobbying legislators
and raising awareness of issues, liberal feminists use available
resources and tools to advocate for change. As such, they stand in
contrast to Marxist or socialist feminists who believe the democratic
process itself needs to be changed.
For instance, what would you do if someone at work repeatedly made
inappropriate remarks to you or your coworkers? Would you speak with
your supervisor? Would you file a complaint with the company's human
resources department? If the company did not comply with harassment
laws, would you seek legal representation or speak out publicly against
the company's lack of compliance?
If you'd been in the workforce prior to the passing of the 1964 Civil
Rights Act, you might have sought out other people in your community
who had experienced the same thing, or voted for someone supporting
legislation to prevent sexual harassment. Or, perhaps you would have
kept working for the same company, hoping for a promotion and the
authority to change its corporate culture over time.
The actions we've just discussed demonstrate the liberal feminist
approach of working within the democratic system to improve
Liberal Feminism
First published Thu Oct 18, 2007; substantive revision Mon Sep 30,
Liberals hold that freedom is a fundamental value, and that the just state
ensures freedom for individuals. Liberal feminists share this view, and
insist on freedom for women. There is disagreement among liberals
about what freedom means, and thus liberal feminism takes more than
one form. This entry discusses two basic kinds of liberal feminism. Part
one discusses what, in the philosophical literature, is commonly called
simply liberal feminism. Liberal feminism conceives of freedom as
personal autonomyliving a life of one's own choosingand political
autonomybeing co-author of the conditions under which one lives. Part
two discusses what is commonly called classical-liberal feminism, or
sometimes libertarian feminism (these terms will be used
interchangeably here).[1] Classical-liberal or libertarian feminism
conceives of freedom as freedom from coercive interference. While
liberal feminism is established in academic philosophy, much of the
classical-liberal or libertarian feminist literature is oriented towards a
more popular audience. (Note that there is dispute over whether
classical-liberal or libertarian feminism ought to be considered a version
of liberal feminism (see section 2.7)).
1. Liberal Feminism
o 1.1 Personal Autonomy
o 1.2 Political Autonomy
o 1.3 Justification
o 1.4 Historical Sources
o 1.5 Criticism
2. Classical-Liberal or Libertarian Feminism
o 2.2 Equity Feminism
o 2.3 Cultural Libertarian Feminism
o 2.4 Sources
o 2.5 Anti-Discrimination Law and Preferential Treatment
o 2.6 Justification
o 2.7 Criticism
o Liberal Feminism Works
o Classical-Liberal or Libertarian Feminist Works
o Historical Sources
o Selected Feminist Criticism
Academic Tools
Other Internet Resources
o Cited Resources
o Classical-Liberal or Libertarian Feminist Internet Resources
o Liberal Feminist Internet Resources
o Other Resources
Related Entries
1. Liberal Feminism
Liberal feminism conceives of freedom as personal autonomyliving a
life of one's own choosingand political autonomybeing co-author of
the conditions under which one lives. Liberal feminists hold that the
exercise of personal autonomy depends on certain enabling conditions
that are insufficiently present in women's lives, or that social
arrangements often fail to respect women's personal autonomy and
other elements of women's flourishing. They hold also that women's
needs and interests are insufficiently reflected in the basic conditions
under which they live, and that those conditions lack legitimacy because
women are inadequately represented in the processes of democratic
self-determination. Liberal feminists hold that autonomy deficits like
these are due to the gender system (Okin 1989, 89), or the patriarchal
nature of inherited traditions and institutions, and that the women's
movement should work to identify and remedy them. As the protection
and promotion of citizens' autonomy is the appropriate role of the state
on the liberal view, liberal feminists hold that the state can and should be
the women's movement's ally in promoting women's autonomy. There is
disagreement among liberal feminists, however, about the role of
personal autonomy in the good life, the appropriate role of the state, and
how liberal feminism is to be justified
1.1.1 Procedural Accounts of Personal Autonomy
Liberal feminists hold that women should enjoy personal autonomy. That
is, they hold that women should live lives of their own choosing. Some
offer procedural accounts of personal autonomy (MacKenzie and
Stoljar discuss these, 1999, 1319). These accounts suggest that to say
women should enjoy personal autonomy means they are entitled to a
broad range of autonomy-enabling conditions. On this view, the women's
movement should work to identify and promote these conditions.
Identifying these enabling conditions requires careful attention to the
particular ways in which autonomy deficits are produced in diverse
women's lives. Procedural accounts avoid judging directly the substance
of women's choices or the arrangements that ensue. The following list of
enabling conditions is representative.
Being free of violence and the threat of violence: Violence and the threat
of violence violate women's dignity; they make women do what others
want or reduce women's sphere of activity to avoiding harm. In some
cases violence fractures the self and takes from women their sense of
self-respect (Brison 1997). The feminist literature on violence against
women documents the particular role that violence and the threat of
violence play in unfairly disempowering and limiting women (Cudd 2006,
Being free of the limits set by patriarchal paternalistic and moralistic
laws: Patriarchal paternalistic laws restrict women's options on the
grounds that such limits are in women's interest. Think for example of
laws that limit women's employment options on the grounds that taking
certain jobs is not in women's interest (Smith 2004). Patriarchal
moralistic laws restrict women's options on the grounds that certain
options should not be available to women because morality forbids
women's choosing them. Think for example of laws that prohibit or
restrict prostitution or abortion, or laws that favor certain kinds of sexual
expression or family forms (Cornell 1998; Brake 2004). Together,
patriarchal paternalistic and moralistic laws steer women into socially
preferred ways of life. These are unfair restrictions on women's choices,
on the liberal feminist view, because women's choices should be guided
by their own sense of their self-interest and by their own values. (But see
Chambers (2008, 203231) for liberal feminist uses of paternalism.)
Having access to options: On the liberal feminist view, women are
entitled to access to options (Alstott 2004, 52). Women's access to
options is frequently and unfairly restricted due to economic deprivation,
in particular due to the feminization of poverty (Pearce 1978; see also
Cudd 2006, 119154). Other sources of unfairly reduced options for
women are stereotyping and sex discrimination in education and
employment (Smith 2004; Rhode 1997). Such stereotyping and
discrimination affects some racial, ethnic and cultural groups in
particularly pernicious ways. Liberal feminists also point to the way
cultural homogeneity unfairly limits women's options (Cudd 2006, 234),
for example when culture assigns identities and social roles according to
sex (Okin 1989, 170ff; Alstott 2004; Meyers 2004; Cornell 1998, x;
Chambers 2008).
Some emphasize the importance of internal, psychological enabling
conditions as well, for example the ability to assess one's own
preferences and imagine life otherwise (Meyers 2002, 168; Cudd 2006,
234235; MacKenzie 1999). Without the ability to assess the
preferences on the basis of which one makes choices, and the ability to
imagine life otherwise, one can't meaningfully be said to have options
other than affirming the status quo (see also Chambers 2008, 2634).
These internal enabling conditions are related to the external ones.
Violence and the threat of violence, stereotyping and discrimination,
material deprivation, and cultural homogeneity all can have the effect of
closing down reflection and imagination.
On this view, the women's movement should work to identify and
promote autonomy-enabling conditions. Identifying these conditions
requires careful attention to the particular ways in which autonomy
deficits are produced in women's lives. On the liberal feminist view, the
state has an important role to play in promoting these conditions (see
sections 1.1.4, 1.2.1, and 1.2.2). But there is much that cannot be done
by the state (Cudd 2006, 223). For example, while the state can refrain
from blocking such endeavors, women themselves must develop new
alternative emancipatory imagery (Meyers 2002, 168), and fashion new
ways of being a woman and new kinds of relationships through
experiments in living (Cudd 2006, 234; Cornell 1998).
Some critics argue that freedom is of limited value because, even when
enabling conditions like these are in place, women may choose limiting
and disadvantaging social arrangements. Some point to the
phenomenon of deformed preferences: when attractive options are
limited or arrangements unfair, people may develop preferences for
those limits or for less than their fair share (Nussbaum 1999a, 33, 50;
Cudd 2006, 152). This phenomenon makes changing preferences
through increased freedom problematic, and leads some feminists to
reject theories that prioritize free choice (Yuracko 2003). Advocates of
procedural accounts of autonomy concede that the enabling conditions
do not rule out that a woman could choose, for example, to undergo
clitorectomy (Meyers 2004, 213) or become a pornographic model (Cudd
2004, 58). As Ann Cudd explains, possibilities like these must be
accepted because liberal feminism values freedom and thus cannot
advocate direct preference education (Cudd 2004, 57). Liberal
feminism must offer only a gradualist approach. Individuals and
groups will make various experiments in living that we cannot now
precisely imagine. They will sometimes go on a mistaken path (57).
But they must be freed up to find their own way. As Diana Meyers
explains, the moral imagination of feminist theorists and activists is
limited (as is everyone's); they cannot know with certainty what
substantive choices are compatible with personal autonomy (Meyers
2004, 213). Moreover, one should expect autonomous lives to take
diverse forms in diverse cultural contexts. On this view, a morally
defensible and politically viable conception of autonomy for an era of
global feminism must be agnostic about the content of women's choices
as long as they do not close off autonomy (205).
1.1.2 Fairness in Personal Relationships
Some liberal feminists hold that the social arrangements of personal life
should not only be freely chosen, but should be characterized by
fairness or justice. Jean Hampton draws on the contractualist tradition in
moral and political philosophy to describe one way in which heterosexual
intimate relationships often fail to be fair or just (Hampton 1993). (For
extended discussion of Hampton's feminism, see Abbey 2011, 120151.
For more on feminist uses of contractualism, see section 1.2.1.)
On Hampton's view, a personal relationship is fair only if both parties to it
could reasonably accept the distribution of costs and benefits (that is,
the costs and benefits that are not themselves side effects of any
affective or duty-based tie between us) if it were the subject of an
informed, unforced agreement in which we think of ourselves as
motivated solely by self-interest (Hampton 1993, 240). Of course, many
women choose to enter or remain in relationships in part because of
affective benefits; for example women often get satisfaction from
satisfying others or fulfilling a duty. Why set aside these affective
benefits, as Hampton recommends, when evaluating the fairness of a
relationship? Hampton does not set them aside out of a conviction that a
woman's affective nature is not part of her essential self. Nor does she
set them aside out of a conviction that this aspect of a woman's nature is
not valuable. (For criticism of Hampton, see Sample 2002.) Her test sets
them aside because affective benefits of relationships are not received
from the other; they are benefits that flow from one's own nature (Radzik
2005, 51). Thus while they may, and probably should, figure in a
woman's overall decision about whether to enter or remain in a particular
relationship, Hampton believes they should not figure in the evaluation of
a relationship's fairness. As Linda Radzik explains in her defense of
Hampton, a relationship is fair or just if the benefits that flow from each
to the other are on par, that is, if each gives as much as she gets (51).
When one party gets from the other significantly more than he gives, he
is denying the other her legitimate entitlement to reciprocation.
This test formalizes an important insight of the women's movement:
personal relationships, in particular traditional heterosexual relationships,
are often unfair to women, indeed often exploit women's tendency to
care about others. Injustice of this sort is not uncommon. Thus
Hampton's test invites criticism of a wide swath of human social life
(Sample 2002, 271). But Hampton does not call on women to cease
valuing others' satisfaction or the fulfillment of duty (Hampton 1993,
227). Instead, she calls on the women's movement to cultivate in women
and men a sensitivity and an aversion to this kind of injustice, and to
develop remedies.
Procedural accounts of personal autonomy (see section 1.1.1) do not
require that relationships be just in the way Hampton recommends.
According to procedural accounts, it is possible that a choice to enter or
remain in a personal relationship in which one gives more than she gets
from the other can be autonomous. Therefore, according to procedural
accounts, liberal feminists should focus on ensuring that women are not
pressured into or unable to exit them.
To be sure, Hampton's account of justice in personal relationships can
be a resource to women and men reflecting on their own preferences. It
invites reflection on how one's own preferences affect the distribution of
benefits and burdens within a relationship. Also, moral criticism of
relationships that exploit women's preferences reminds us that
relationships can be otherwise (because ought implies can). This
reminder enhances personal autonomy by broadening the imagination.
Thus procedural accounts of personal autonomy can include Hampton's
test, not as definitive of the acceptability of social arrangements, but as a
contribution to the kind of reflection about the good life on which the
personal autonomy of individuals depends.
1.1.3 Personal Autonomy and Human Flourishing
Martha Nussbaum proposes an account of the good life that has at its
heart, a profoundly liberal idea the idea of the citizen as a free and
dignified human being, a maker of choices (Nussbaum 1999a, 46).
Echoing procedural accounts of personal autonomy (section 1.1.1),
Nussbaum explains: If one cares about people's powers to choose a
conception of the good, then one must care about the rest of the form of
life that supports those powers (45). But for Nussbaum personal
autonomy is merely one of the major human functionings (43) which
define a good human life (42). These functionings include, among other
things, bodily health and integrity, affiliation, and political participation
(4142). To be sure, personal autonomy, or in Nussbaum's words
practical reason, is a good that suffuses all the other functions (44).
But personal autonomy is not prioritized. A good life is one in which one
is able to enjoy all of the major human functionings, that is, to flourish.
Nussbaum's approach takes on the problem of deformed preferences
(see section 1.1.1) directly. To be sure, some may choose lives that do
not include the actual exercise of some of the functioningsan ascetic
may choose to compromise bodily health. But, Nussbaum explains, one
must be able to function in each of these ways. Social arrangements are
to be criticized if they render their participants unable to function in the
valued ways regardless of their preferences (50). The women's
movement should sensitize women and men to the injustice of denying
women the ability to function in these valued ways, identify
arrangements that are unjust to women by paying careful attention to
diverse women's lives, and recommend remedies. Nussbaum holds that
her account is compatible with global moral pluralism and thus may
function as a foundation for a global feminism (Nussbaum 1999a, 40).
Nussbaum's capabilities approach may be compared with procedural
accounts of autonomy (see section 1.1.1). Procedural accounts suggest
that the women's movement should work to protect and promote
women's ability to live lives of their own choosing by identifying particular
autonomy deficits in women's lives and promoting the conditions that
enable autonomy. These approaches avoid directly judging the
substance of the choices women make or the arrangements that result.
They leave it to individuals and groups to fashion new, diverse, non-
oppressive ways of life. The list of enabling conditions for personal
autonomy is not unlike Nussbaum's list of human functionings. But
advocates of procedural approaches may worry that the goal of the
women's movement, according to the capabilities approach, is to bring to
women a particular way of life, namely one in which women can function
in these ways, instead of freeing women up to find their own way (Cudd
2004, 50). As Drucilla Cornell, an advocate of a procedural approach
explains, social equality [should be] redefined so as to serve freedom
(Cornell 1998, xii) because there is nothing more fundamental for a
human being (17; see also Cudd 2004, 5152). Procedural accounts of
autonomy can include Nussbaum's approach, not as definitive of the
kinds of lives women should live, but as an important contribution to the
kind of reflection on the good life on which personal autonomy depends.
(There is a large literature on Nussbaum's liberal feminism; for liberal
feminist discussion, see for example Abbey 2011 152205; and Robeyns
1.1.4 Personal Autonomy and the State
There is substantial agreement among liberal feminists that the gender
system, or the patriarchal nature of inherited traditions and institutions,
plays an important role in perpetuating morally objectionable deficits in
personal autonomy in women's lives, and that the state can and should
take action to remedy them. There is also substantial agreement among
liberal feminists concerning what the state should do. There is
disagreement about some hard cases, however, that pit liberal values
against one another.
Liberal feminists hold that the state must effectively protect women from
violence, regardless of where that violence takes place (Cudd 2006, 85
118, 209; Rhode 1997, 119395). They also hold that sexist paternalistic
and moralistic laws are an unjust use of state power. Such laws place
control over women's lives in the hands of others and steer women into
preferred ways of life. Laws restricting access to abortion are of
particular import in this context because they take an extremely
momentous choice away from women, and together with the cultural
assignment of caregiving duties to women, steer women into the social
role of mother. Women must have a legal right to abortion and
meaningful access to abortion services. In addition, liberal feminists hold
that the state must not grant preferential treatment to particular family
forms (Brake 2004, 293; Lloyd 1995, 1328; McClain 2006, 60). Some
argue that this means giving gay and lesbian partnerships the same
recognition currently available to heterosexuals (McClain 2006, 6;
Hartley and Watson 2011). Others argue for removing marriage's
privileged legal status altogether or treating it legally more like other
associations (Case 2006; Metz 2010).
Liberals tend to reject laws prohibiting prostitution. They advocate
instead the legal regulation of the sex trade prioritizing women's safety
and women's control over their own working conditions (Cornell 1998,
57; Nussbaum 2002, 90). They support the right to collective bargaining
to secure decent wages and working conditions (Cornell 1998, 57; Cudd
2006, 211), as well as a guaranteed minimum income (Cudd 2006, 154).
They also support laws against sex discrimination in education,
employment, and public accommodations. According to liberal feminists,
the refusal to hire or promote a woman or do business with her because
she is a woman is a morally objectionable limit on her options. So are
workplaces that are hostile to women. Liberal feminists argue that laws
prohibiting sexual harassment, and requiring affirmative action and
comparable worth policies are often called for to remedy past and
ongoing sex discrimination (Williams 2000, 253).
Liberal feminists hold also that a significant source of women's reduced
options is the structure of the workplace, which assumes that workers
are free of caregiving responsibilities (Okin 1989, 176; Williams 2000).
Women, and increasingly men, do not fit this model. The effect of not
fitting the model is dramatic. As Anne L. Alstott explains: Caretakers at
every income level have fewer options than noncaretakers at the same
income level (Alstott 2004, 97). She continues: I am worried that child-
rearing too dramatically contracts the options among which mothers can
choose (23). Alstott and others argue that the state must ensure that the
socially essential work of providing care to dependents does not
unreasonably interfere with the personal autonomy of caregivers.
Policies proposed to ensure sufficient personal autonomy for caregivers
include parental leave, state subsidized, high quality day care, and
flexible work schedules (Cudd 2006, 228; Okin 1989, 175). Some
recommend financial support for caregivers (Alstott 2004, 75ff), others
suggest guaranteeing a non-wage-earning spouse one half of her wage-
earning spouse's paycheck (Okin 1989, 181).
But workplaces fail to accommodate the socially essential caregiving
work of their employees in various ways. Thus Joan Williams has argued
for legal recognition of the right to not be discriminated against in
employment on the basis of one's caregiving responsibilities. Williams
recommends, if necessary, legal action alleging failure to recognize this
right as an incentive to employers to accommodate caregivers (Williams
2000, 274).
There is disagreement among liberal feminists about some hard cases
that pit liberal values against one another. Liberal feminists tend to reject
legal limits on pornography (Cornell 1998, 5758). But some hold that
arguments for restricting violent pornography are not unreasonable
(Laden 2003, 148149; Watson 2007, 469; for what such a not
unreasonable argument might look like, see Eaton 2007), and that the
best arguments for freedom of expression fail to show that it should not
be limited (Brison 1998). Indeed some argue that violent pornography
can undermine the autonomy of viewers (Scoccia 1996) and the status
of women as equal citizens (Spaulding 198889).
Other hard cases concern the role of the state in family life. Family life
has dramatic effects on the personal autonomy of its adult members.
Assuming the role of caregiver, for example, dramatically contracts
women's options. On a liberal feminist view, the state has an interest in
ensuring that family life does not undermine women's personal
autonomy. Some hold that the state should promote justice in the family
for example, the sharing of paid and unpaid labor by its adult
members (Okin 1989, 171). Others hold that the state may not be guided
by a substantive ideal of family life (Alstott 2004, 114; see also
Nussbaum 2000, 279280; and Wolf-Devine 2004). (See section 1.2.1
for more discussion of this issue).
Girls' participation in families is, especially in the early years,
nonvoluntary. The family affects the development of girls' sense of self-
worth, as well as their preferences, and the capacities, like the capacity
for reflection and imagination, on which their ability to live lives of their
own choosing depends (Okin 1989, 97). Liberal feminists hold that the
state must protect and promote the development of autonomy capacities
in children, especially girls. For example they hold that child-marriage
should be legally prohibited (McClain 2006, 79); girls should have
access to abortion without parental consent or notification (Rhode 1994,
1204); girls must receive a formal education free of sexist stereotyping,
including instruction in the legal equality of women (McClain 2006, 81;
Lloyd 1995, 1332), including autonomy-promoting sex education
(McClain 2006, 5758), and ensuring that girls are prepared to be
economically independent (Lloyd 1995, 1332). Beyond this some hold
that girls' interest in developing autonomy capacities requires that
families be internally just, that is, that there be an equal division of paid
and unpaid labor between adults, so that families are not characterized
by dependence and domination (Okin 1989, 99100; see also
Follesdal 2005). Others are not convinced that there is a necessary
connection between this kind of justice in families and the development
of girls' autonomy capacities (Lloyd 1995, 13351343), and hold that the
state may not be guided by a substantive ideal of family life (Alstott
2004, 114; see also Nussbaum 2000a, 279280; and Wolf-Devine
2004). (See section 1.2.1 for more discussion of this issue).
1.2 Political Autonomy
Some liberal feminists emphasize the importance of political autonomy,
that is, being co-author of the conditions under which one lives. Some
use contractualist political theory to argue that the state should ensure
that the basic structure of society satisfies principles of justice that
women, as well as men, could endorse. Others argue that the
democratic legitimacy of the basic conditions under which citizens live
depends on the inclusion of women in the processes of public
deliberation and electoral politics.
1.2.1 Distributive Justice
Some liberal feminists, inspired by John Rawls' contractualist liberal
theory of justice (Rawls 1971; 1993), argue that the state should ensure
that the basic structure of society distributes the benefits and burdens of
social cooperation fairly, that is, in a manner that women as well as men
could endorse (Alstott 2004; Baehr 2004; Bojer 2002; Lloyd 1998;
McClain 2006; Okin 1989; Thompson 1993; for an overview of feminist
responses to Rawls, see Abbey 2013). They argue that the basic
structure currently distributes benefits and burdens unfairly, in part due
to the gender system, or the patriarchal nature of inherited traditions and
As Rawls puts it, the basic structure of society is: The way in which the
major social institutions distribute fundamental rights and duties and
determine the division of advantages from social cooperation. By major
institutions I understand the political constitution and the principal
economic and social arrangementsCompetitive markets and the
monogamous family [are] examples of major social institutions The
basic structure is the primary subject of justice because its effects are so
profound and present from the start. The intuitive notion here is that this
structure contains various social positions and that men born into
different positions have different expectations of life determined, in part,
by the political system as well as by economic and social circumstances.
In this way the institutions of society favor certain starting places over
others (Rawls 1971, 67).
Rawls argues that the fairness of the basic structure of society may be
assessed by asking what principles representatives of citizens (parties)
would choose to determine the distribution of primary goods in society if
they were behind a veil of ignorance (Rawls 1971, 12). The veil of
ignorance blocks from the parties knowledge of their place in society: for
example their socio-economic status, religion, and sex. (Rawls does not
include sex in A Theory of Justice (Rawls 1971), but adds it in Fairness
to Goodness (Rawls 1975, 537).) Susan Okin proposes we take
seriously both the notion that those behind the veil of ignorance do not
know what sex they are and the requirement that the family and the
gender system, as basic social institutions, are to be subject to scrutiny
(Okin 1989, 101).
Rawls argues that parties behind the veil of ignorance would choose two
principles: a liberty principle providing for the most extensive total
system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty
for all; and a principle of equality requiring equality of opportunity, and
permitting inequalities only if they are to the benefit of the least well off
(Rawls 1971, 302303).
Okin argues that the gender system violates both the liberty and
equality of opportunity principles because by effectively assigning roles
to citizens according to sex it circumvents citizens' free choice of
occupation (Okin 1989, 103). On Okin's view, this means that in a just
society gender could no longer form a legitimate part of the social
structure, whether inside or outside the family (103). None of the
institutions of the basic structure, including the family, could assign roles
according to sex.[2] It is common to argue that the state, educational
institutions, and workplaces should not assign roles according to sex.
But Okin argues that this applies to the family as well. Gender blindness
must play the same role in the family that it plays in these institutions. In
Okin's words, there must be congruence between the principles that
govern these institutions and those that govern family life (21). That is,
families must be just.
Okin offers a second argument to support the claim that families must be
just. Rawls explains that a society based on his two principles of justice
can be stable because within it citizens develop a sense of justice
(Rawls 1971, 453ff). For our purposes consider that citizens must
develop the conviction that citizens generally are due the rights of equal
citizenship. Okin argues that when children are raised within unjust
families, families which lack equality and reciprocity, and are
characterized by dependence and domination, they are not likely to
develop the requisite sense of justice (Okin 1989, 99100; see also
McClain 2006, 7384). Instead, girls and boys and may grow to believe
that women are not entitled to equal citizenship. Therefore, if the society
governed by Rawls' two principles of justice is to be stable, families must
be just.
What can and should the state do to ensure that gender no longer forms
a part of the social structure, whether inside or outside the family (Okin
1989, 103)? Okin endorses measures for the workplace, for example
state subsidized daycare, parental leave, and flextime (176, 186). These
accommodations make it possible for women and men to choose
against traditional roles. She also recommends protecting from
vulnerability those women who do choose traditional roles by making
them entitled to half of their spouse's paycheck (181). But Okin does not
think that the state should stop at increasing the voluntariness of
women's choices and compensating for disadvantage. She argues
instead that the state may and should promote a particular ideal of family
life. She tells us that the state should encourage and facilitate the equal
sharing by men and women of paid and unpaid work, or productive and
reproductive labor (171). Accommodations by employers may be
understood, then, not only as a way of making options available to
women, but as a way of encouraging the sharing of paid and unpaid
work by spouses. Another way the state may encourage such
egalitarianism is through autonomy-promoting education, especially for
girls (177). To be sure, Okin argues that what is desired is a future in
which all will be likely to choose this mode of life (171, my emphasis).
But the fact that many people currently don't choose it does not mean,
for Okin, that it is not an appropriate goal of state action (172). (There is
a substantial literature on Okin's use of Rawls' theory of justice. See for
example Reich and Satz 2009. See also Liberal Feminism Works.)
Other feminists apply contractualist political philosophy inspired by
Rawls to the problem of justice for women but draw slightly different
conclusions from Okin. S.A. Lloyd (1998), Anne L. Alstott (2004) and
Linda C. McClain (2006) each argue that a basically Rawlsian
contractualist argument supports the claim that the current
disadvantages women suffer as a result of their shouldering a
disproportionate share of the burdens of social reproduction must be
remedied by state action. All three endorse many of Okin's policy
proposals (Lloyd 1995, 1332; 1998, 218; Alstott 2004). But they reject
Okin's claim that the state should promote a particular substantive ideal
of family life (Lloyd 1995, 13401341; Lloyd 1998, 218; McClain 2006,
78). Alstott writes: The egalitarian family is, even in principle, a troubling
ideal. Strictly equal sharing seems unduly constraining, not merely
because families today deviate from the idea, but because free people
might want to organize their lives differently (Alstott 2004, 113). Other
liberal feminists have voiced similar concerns. Ann Cudd worries that
state action intended to promote gender fairness and foster women's
autonomy could impose a homogenizing conception of the good life, and
stifle the very reinventions of self and experiments in living that women's
liberation requires (Cudd 2006, 209, 223; see also Wolf-Devine 2004).
Elizabeth Anderson writes: The plurality of conceptions of the good that
are likely to survive in a world in which the state has done all it can be
reasonably and justly expected to do will include a host of unreasonable
conceptions of the good, some of which may well be patriarchal. In the
face of such injustices, liberals counsel feminists to redirect their claims
from the state to those promulgating such unreasonable conceptions of
the good, and to redirect their activism from a focus on state action to
other domains, including civil society, churches, and the family. I think
this counsel is wise, which is why I am a liberal feminist (Anderson
2009, 131; see also 141144).
A substantial liberal feminist literature engages this tension between
associational liberty and possible state action aimed at remedying the
way the current distribution of the burdens of reproduction
disadvantages women. Much of this literature draws on both the liberal
tradition within feminism and feminist work on caregiving (Barclay 2013;
Bhandary 2010; Brighouse and Wright 2008; Engster 1995, 2010;
Gheaus 2009, 2012; Gornick and Meyers 2008; Hartley and Watson
2012; Lloyd 1995, 1998; Robeyns 2007; Gheaus and Robeyns 2011;
Wright 2008).
1.2.2 Public Deliberation and Electoral Politics
Some liberal feminists, who emphasize the importance of political
autonomythat women be co-authors of the conditions under which
they livefocus in particular on participation in the processes of
democratic self-determination. These processes include both political
deliberation in the many arenas of public political discourse, and
electoral politics. Liberal feminists hold that the conditions under which
women live lack legitimacy because women are inadequately
represented in these processes. They hold that this political autonomy
deficit is, in large part, due to the gender system (Okin 1989, 89), or the
patriarchal nature of inherited traditions and institutions, and that the
women's movement should work to identify and remedy it.
Attempts to increase women's participation in public deliberation and
electoral politics confront a vicious circle of women's exclusion. The
gender system leads to women's being underrepresented in influential
forums of public deliberation, including in elected law-making bodies. For
example women have less free time to engage in public deliberation
because of the double-burden they carry of paid and unpaid labor; sex
stereotyping leads many to think that women (especially women from
particular ethnic and cultural groups) are less capable of leadership than
men; the behavior called for in agonistic public deliberation and electoral
politics is understood to be masculine; issues of particular interest to
women are seen as personal and not political issues; women lack power
in the many institutions (like churches, universities, and think tanks) that
influence political debate, etc. But when women are underrepresented in
these forums and law-making bodies, it is unlikely that the justice of the
gender system will become the subject of public conversation or its
dismantling a target of legislative action.
Some liberal feminists explore ways to escape this vicious circle.
Because women are excluded from important forums of public
deliberation and electoral politics in complex ways, remedies must
address a variety of problems. Justice in the distribution of benefits and
burdens in society would go some way towards enabling women to
access forums of public debate on equal terms with men (Okin 1989,
104). But cultural change is necessary as well if stereotypes about
women's abilities are not to interfere with their participation, if women's
needs and interests are to be understood as legitimate claims on
democratic power, and if men's dominance in institutions of influence is
to be overcome. Seyla Benhabib argues that the women's movement,
along with other new social movements like the gay and lesbian
liberation movement, has begun this work (Benhabib 1992). While much
of this change is cultural and must come about through civic action, the
state has a role to play. Linda McClain argues that all children must
receive civic educationto equip them for democratic citizenship
including instruction in women's equality (McClain 2006, 81). She also
argues that the state may use its persuasive power to put traditionally
excluded issues, like violence against women or the dilemma of
balancing work and family, on the agenda for public deliberation (78).
Others take on the vicious circle of women's exclusion by recommending
legal mechanisms for the inclusion of women in electoral politics (see
Rhode 1994, 12051208; Peters 2006; Phillips 1991). Some suggest
that legal mechanisms for including those who have been systematically
excluded may be justified as remedies for the unjust disproportionate
political power enjoyed by others (Phillips 2004, 610). Suggested
mechanisms include targets or quotas for women (and other
underrepresented groups) on party slates, or proportional representation
in elected bodies. Karen Green, for example, argues for guaranteed
equal representation of both sexes in parliament (Green 2006). There is
diversity of opinion, however, among liberal feminists about the justice
and efficacy of such mechanisms (Peters 2006; see also Rhode 1994,
1.3 Justification
We can distinguish between comprehensive liberal feminisms and
political liberal feminisms (or feminist political liberalisms). The distinction
between political and comprehensive doctrines in political theory is due
to Rawls (1993) but has been taken up by some liberal feminists in
recent years. (For explicit discussion of the distinction in liberal feminism,
see for example Abbey 2007; 2011, 7282, 226247; Baehr 2008; 2013;
Chambers 2008, 159201; Enslin 2003; Hartley and Watson 2010; Lloyd
1998; Neufeld 2009; Neufeld and Schoelandt 2013; Nussbaum 1999b,
108; 2000b, 76 fn38; Okin 1994; 1999, 129130; and Watson 2007).
Comprehensive liberal feminisms are grounded in moral doctrines.
Liberal feminisms typically give accounts of how state power should be
used to feminist ends; so a comprehensive liberal feminism typically
includes the claim that state power should be used to some particular
feminist ends because some moral doctrine requires it. A comprehensive
liberal feminism typically gives an account of how part of associational
lifebeyond what is traditionally understood as the politicalshould be
arranged, for example that the family should foster women's and girls'
personal autonomy, or that domestic associations should distribute
benefits and burdens fairly. Some comprehensive liberal feminisms
focus primarily on associational life and only peripherally on the role of
the state. Comprehensive liberal feminist accounts of how associational
life generally should be arranged may, but need not, include the claim
that the state ought to enforce such arrangements. There is nothing
about grounding in a moral doctrine that forces a comprehensive liberal
feminism to include the claim that the state should enforce liberal
feminist values outside of what is traditionally understood as the
political. To be sure, comprehensive liberal feminisms typically do this.
The reason is that comprehensive liberal feminisms typically reject the
traditional public/private distinction, and hold that the political justice
liberalism promises for women can be realized only when associational
lifethe family, for exampledoes not undermine girls' and women's
personal autonomy, or distribute benefits and burdens unfairly. (But note
that to reject the traditional public/private distinction is not to reject any
and all such distinctions.)
Political liberal feminisms (or feminist political liberalisms) are accounts
of how state power should be used to feminist ends that are grounded in
public political values. Public political values are not the particular values
of any one moral doctrine; they are values that are shared by the many
reasonable comprehensive moral doctrines citizens hold (Rawls 1993,
227230). Advocates of political liberal feminism hold that state power is
used justly when supported by values that are endorsable by all
reasonable citizens. Like comprehensive liberal feminists, political liberal
feminists typically reject the traditional public/private distinction. Thus
they typically hold that public values can justify using state power to
compensate for, or even to dismantle, patriarchal (and other
disadvantaging) hierarchies that are pervasive in associational life.
(Again, to reject the traditional public/private distinction is not to reject
any and all such distinctions.)
Among comprehensive liberal feminists we may count Jean Hampton,
Drucilla Cornell, Ann Cudd, Susan Okin, and Clare Chambers.
Hampton's feminist contractualist account of justice in personal
relationships (see section 2.2.1) is explicitly grounded in Kant's moral
philosophy (Hampton 1993, 241; on Hampton, see Abbey 2011, 120
151). Cornell's psychoanalytically informed liberal feminism (Cornell
2003) focuses on the right to intimate and sexual self-determination and
is also grounded in Kant's moral theory (Cornell 1998, 1718; see also
Thurschwell 1999, 771772). Cudd explains that her liberal feminist
account of oppression as harm is grounded in a background moral
theory, namely a liberal contractarian view of the sort developed by
John Rawls in A Theory of Justice, or the more libertarian version of
David Gauthier in Morals by Agreement (Cudd 2006, 231). Okin's liberal
feminism draws on Rawls' A Theory of Justice, which Rawls himself
claims is a comprehensive liberalism (Okin 1999, 129; Rawls 1993, xvii).
(But note that Okin claims hers is in between comprehensive and
political liberalism (Okin 1999, 129130).) Chambers' liberal feminism
which explores the relationship between social construction and choice
may also be counted among comprehensive liberal feminisms as it is
grounded in personal autonomy as a moral value (Chambers 2008).
Among political liberal feminists we may count S.A. Lloyd, Linda
McClain, Martha Nussbaum, Christie Hartley, Lori Watson, and Amy
Baehr. Lloyd constructs an argument based on public political values to
the conclusion that women's disproportionate burden in social
reproduction [must] be eliminated (Lloyd 1998, 214). McClain argues
that sex equality is a public and constitutional value (2006, 60; see also
2223, 6062, and 76) which requires state opposition to relations of
subordination and domination in the family (62); state support for
autonomy in intimate matters (22); and support for the development of
autonomy capacities in children, especially girls (109). Nussbaum also
presents her capabilities approach as a political, and not a
comprehensive, liberalism (see section 1.1.3.). The capabilities list, she
argues, can be shared by citizens holding a wide variety of
comprehensive conceptions of the good life, and thus should be able to
function as a foundation for a political liberalism (Nussbaum 2000b, 76
fn38). Hartley and Watson argue that public deliberation based on
shared values is incompatible with pervasive social hierarchies (Hartley
and Watson 2010, 8). As Watson puts it, a central task of public reason
arguments, in the context of social hierarchy and inequality, is to expose
the ways in which background conditions (inequalities) undermine the
necessary conditions for reasonable deliberations among citizens to
occur (Watson 2007, 470).
Political liberal feminists suggest some advantages of political liberal
feminism over comprehensive liberal feminism. According to S.A. Lloyd,
it's true that confining the argument to talk of socially recognized values
requires operating with one hand tied behind one's back, so to speak.
Conclusions that would be quite easy to reach from stronger feminist
principles, or other comprehensive principles, are much harder to reach
using the sparse toolbox [of public reason] (Lloyd 1998, 210). But if
we can reach feminist conclusions on these sparse grounds, they will be
much more difficult to reject. Amy Baehr suggests that arguments to
feminist ends from public political values can move the political
community toward a more reasonable understanding of those values
(Baehr 2013; see also Rawls 1993, 227). (For further examples of
political liberal feminism, see Neufeld (2009) and Neufeld and
Schoelandt (2013).)
Comprehensive liberal feminists argue that political liberalism (and thus
political liberal feminism) will not be adequately feminist if it is grounded
in the public values of a still-patriarchal society (Abbey 2007; Chambers
2008, 159201; Enslin 2003; Okin 1993; see also Munoz-Darde 1998,
1.4 Historical Sources
Liberal feminism is part of, and thus finds its roots in, the larger tradition
of liberal political philosophy; thus we see much liberal feminist work
inspired by Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, and John Rawls (and other
figures in this tradition). But liberal feminism shares with feminist political
philosophy generally a concern with understanding the gender system
(Okin 1989, 89), that is, the patriarchal nature of inherited traditions and
institutions, so that it might recommend a remedy. To get a good picture
of that system, liberal feminists draw broadly from the rich tradition of
feminist theorizing. For example, some liberal feminists draw on radical
feminist insights into the nature of violence against women (Nussbaum
1999a) and into the nature of gender identity (Chambers 2008m 4380);
some draw on psychoanalytic feminist theory (Meyers 2002; Cornell
2003); some on socialist feminist work on women's exploitation in the
home (Anderson 2004; Gheaus 2008); and some on feminist theories of
care (Alstott 2004; Bhandary 2010).
1.5 Criticism
1.5.1 Liberal Criticism
Some argue that liberal feminisms run the risk of being insufficiently
liberal. Measures intended to promote gender fairness and the
autonomy of women could end up unreasonably hindering autonomy
(Cudd 2006, 223). Some argue that Susan Okin's claim that the state
should be guided by an egalitarian ideal of family life is an example of
such a measure (see section 1.2.1). Other measures recommended by
liberal feminists that some hold may be illiberal include quotas on party
slates or in elected bodies (Peters 2006) (see section 1.2.2), and bans
on violent pornography (see section 1.2.4).
Classical liberals or libertarians are critical of liberal feminisms because,
on their view, liberalism cannot support the claim that the right of some
against coercive interference may be violated in order to promote the
autonomy capacities of others, such as we find in affirmative action
programs, or in the substantial taxation that would be necessary to fund
the social programs liberal feminists endorse (Epstein 2002; Tomasi
1.5.2 Multicultural Criticism
Multicultural critics of liberal feminism suggest that liberal feminism's
emphasis on autonomy and fairness in personal and associational life
runs the risk of elevating one particular comprehensive conception of the
good life over the many others found in multicultural societies (Shachar
2009; for discussion, see Okin 1999).
1.5.3 Conservative Criticism
Conservatives hold that reformers can do more harm than good when
they undermine the institutions and norms which, while surely offending
in many ways, also serve as the foundation for many people's well-being
(Muller 1997; see also Fox-Genovese 1996). Such conservatives worry
about the radical implications of liberal feminism, its willingness to put
women's autonomy ahead of institutions and norms on which many
people rely for their well-being. Ann Cudd suggests that the expansion of
opportunity and equality promised by liberal feminism makes us all
better off (Cudd 2006, 237). Conservatives encourage us to consider
also the loss that is in liberation.
1.5.4 Feminist Criticism
Some comprehensive liberal feminists (see section 2.3) argue that the
public political values on which feminist political liberalism relies render
the latter insufficiently critical of precisely those hierarchies and forms of
disadvantage liberal feminism aims to criticize and undermine (Abbey
2007; Baehr 1996; Chambers 2008, 12, 159201; Okin 1994).
Some nonliberal feminists argue that even comprehensive liberalism will
be insufficiently critical. Several reasons are offered. Some argue that
feminist political theory must rely on a much more robust feminist ideal of
the good life than liberal feminism provides (Yuracko 2003). Some argue
that liberal feminism's commitment to moral individualism and ideal
theory renders it incapable of identifying and criticizing the oppression of
women (Schwarzman 2010). Some argue that liberal feminism's focus
on the distribution of benefits and burdens in society neglects power
relations (Young 1990, 37) and the eroticization of domination and
subordination that are the true linchpins of the gender system
(MacKinnon 1987; 1989). Still others argue that liberal feminism inherits
from liberalism a focus on the autonomous individual and is, for this
reason, incapable of accounting sufficiently for the fact of human
dependency, the value of being cared for, and the role that caregiving
plays in a good society (Held 1987; Kittay 1999).
2. Classical-Liberal or Libertarian Feminism
Classical-liberal feminism or libertarian feminism (these terms will be
used interchangeably heresee fn. 1) conceives of freedom as freedom
from coercive interference. It holds that women, as well as men, have a
right to such freedom due to their status as self-owners. It holds that
coercive state power is justified only to the extent necessary to protect
the right to freedom from coercive interference. Equity feminists are
classical-liberal or libertarian feminists who hold that, in societies like the
United States, the only morally significant source of oppression of
women is the state. They hold that feminism's political role is to bring an
end to laws that limit women's liberty in particular, but also to laws that
grant special privileges to women. Some equity feminists see a
nonpolitical role for feminism, helping women to benefit from their
freedom by developing beneficial character traits or strategies for
success, or navigating among their increasing options. Other equity
feminists are socially conservative and argue that, while the state should
not enforce them, traditional values function as bulwarks against state
power and produce independent and self-restraining citizens. Cultural
libertarian feminists are classical-liberal or libertarian feminists who hold
that the culture of societies like the United States is patriarchal and a
significant source of oppression of women. They hold that the patriarchal
culture and the state are complementary systems of oppression. Cultural
libertarian feminists hold that much of the oppression women suffer
today is noncoercive, however, and thus should not be met with state
remedies but with a nonviolent movement for feminist social change.
2.1 Self-Ownership and Women's Rights
Classical liberalism or libertarianism holds that women and men are self-
owners capable of acquiring property rights over things. As such women
and men, equally, have the right to freedom from coercive interference
with their person and property. This right to freedom from coercive
interference consists in, at least, rights to freedom of conscience and
expression, freedom to control what happens to one's body, freedom of
association, freedom to acquire, control and transfer property, freedom
of contract, as well as the right to compensation when rights are violated.
The state's role is, exclusively, to protect citizens from coercive
interference by protecting their rights. Some reject even a limited state,
however, holding that nongovernmental means of protecting rights are to
be preferred.
Classical-liberal or libertarian feminists hold that the right to freedom
from coercive interference has powerful implications for women's lives. It
implies that women have the right to freedom in intimate, sexual and
reproductive matters. This includes sexual autonomy (the right to
engage in sexual activity of one's choosing including the buying and
selling of sex (Almodovar 2002; Lehrman 1997, 23), and the right to
defend oneself against sexual aggression, including the use of firearms
(Stevens et al. 2002)); freedom of expression (the right to appear in,
publish, and consume pornography free of censorship (McElroy 1995;
Strossen 2000)); freedom of intimate association (the right to partner or
enter into a private marriage contract (McElroy 1991a, 20)); and
reproductive freedom (the right to use birth control, have an abortion (on
the minority of pro-life libertarians see Tabarrok 2002, 157), and buy and
sell bodily reproductive services, for example as in surrogate
motherhood (Lehrman 1997, 22; McElroy 2002b; Paul 2002)). Freedom
from interference with person and property also means that women have
the right to engage in economic activity in a free market, entering
contracts, and acquiring, controlling and transferring property free of
sexist state limits (Epstein 1992; Kirp, Yudolf, and Franks 1986, 204).
One way to characterize the wrong involved when states fail to
recognize these rights of women is as a failure to respect women's right
to be treated as men's equal, or the right to equal treatment under the
law. To be sure, classical-liberal feminists hold that the law should not
treat women and men differently. But this is because they believe
everyone has the same rights, not because they believe women have a
right to be treated the same as men. This is clear when we note that, for
classical-liberal or libertarian feminism, equal treatment under unjust law
is not justice (McElroy 1991a, 3).
Same treatment under the law does not guarantee same outcomes.
Classical-liberal or libertarian feminists hold that women's rights are not
violated when citizens exercise their rights in ways that create unequal
outcomes (Epstein 2002, 30). A woman's rights are violated only when
she is interfered with coercively, that is, when there is, or is a threat of,
forced loss of freedom, property or life (which does not serve as just
restraint or compensation).
2.2 Equity Feminism
Equity feminism is a form of classical-liberal or libertarian feminism that
holds that feminism's political role is simply to ensure that everyone's,
including women's, right against coercive interference is respected
(Sommers 1994, 22). Wendy McElroy, an equity feminist writes: I've
always maintained that the only reason I call myself a feminist is
because of [the] gov[ernment]. By which I mean, if the government (or
an anarchist defense assoc[iation]) acknowledged the full equal rights of
women without paternalistic protection or oppression, I would stop
writing about women's issues (McElroy 1998c).
Feminism's political role involves assuring that women's right against
coercive interference by private individuals is recognized and protected
by the state (for example women's right against groping on the street or
rape within marriage (McElroy 1991a)), and that women's right against
coercive interference by the state itself is respected. The latter means
feminists should object to laws that restrict women's liberty in particular
(for example laws that limit women's employment options (Taylor 1992,
228)), and laws that protect women in particular (for example laws
granting preferential treatment to women (Paul 1989)). Equity feminists
suggest that this has been largely accomplished in countries like the
United States. Joan Kennedy Taylor explains: feminism's goal of equal
political liberty for women has been pretty much reached in the United
States (Taylor 2001; see also Sommers 1994, 274).
2.2.1 Equity Feminism on the Oppression of Women
On the equity feminist view, the feminist slogan the personal is political
is accurate when the state fails to recognize women's right against
coercive interference, especially in women's personal lives. So, for
example, in some countries husbands have legal control over their
wives' persons and property. (Some equity feminists argue that the
women's movement in Western countries should not hesitate to criticize
countries in which this occurs (Sommers 2007).) But in countries like the
United States, where the right of women against this sort of coercive
interference is recognized and protected by law, equity feminists hold
that the personal is no longer political (Lehrman 1997, 5; see also 21).
If an individual or group of individuals suffers sustained and systematic
denial of their rights, on the equity feminist view, we may call them
oppressed. Women were oppressed in the United States during most of
its first two centuries; people of African descent were oppressed before
the dismantling of Jim Crow laws. While the culture of the United States
supported this denial of rights, equity feminists hold that the oppressor
was the state (McElroy 1998c), which refused to recognize and protect
the right of women and people of African descent to treatment as self-
owners. When the state recognizes and protects this right of women and
Americans of African descent, they are no longer oppressed, even if the
culture disadvantages them. So, for example, in a discussion of whether
Muslim women are oppressed, Cathy Young focuses on whether
women's conformity with a religious tradition that subordinates them is
enforced by law. If it is, then women are oppressed (Young 2006).
If women are to be described as currently oppressed in societies like the
United States, on the equity feminist view, one must show that the state
fails to protect women, as a group, from sustained and systematic rights
violations. Some feminists have argued that violence against women is
pervasive in societies like the United States so that, even though the law
recognizes women's right against it, that right is insufficiently protected,
and thus women endure sustained and systematic denial of their right to
bodily integrity (Dworkin 1991). Equity feminists endeavor to refute this
claim by showing that the prevalence of violence against women has
been exaggerated. For example Rita Simon contests the claim that as
many as 154 out of 1,000 women have been raped. On her accounting,
the number is closer to 19 per 1,000; and rape is less common than
other violent crimes(Simon 2002, 235). In addition, she claims, the
criminal justice system does not ignore or make light of crimes against
females(Simon 2002, 236). Katie Roiphe argues that date rape is not a
significant threat to women (Roiphe 1994). Concurring with Roiphe,
Cathy Young writes: women have sex after initial reluctance for a
number of reasons fear of being beaten up by their dates is rarely
reported as one of them (Young 1992).
Women have also been said to be oppressed because their right to be
treated the same as men by employers, educational institutions, and
associations has been violated in a sustained and systematic way. That
is, some argue, women have been regularly denied the right to equal
access to opportunities because they are women. Equity feminists
generally hold that no rights are violated when employers, educational
institutions, public accommodations or associations discriminate against
women (see section 1.5). Nonetheless, equity feminists argue that
discrimination against women is not a serious problem. Diana
Furchtgott-Roth and Christine Stolba argue that complaints about
systematic economic discrimination against women simply do not square
with the evidence (Stolba and Furchtgott-Roth 1999, xi; see also 2001).
They argue that women's wages and education levels are closing the
gap with those of men (xii). In addition, Stolba and Furchtgott-Roth
claim that women have surpassed men in education (23; see also 23
43). Christina Hoff Sommers concurs, arguing that, rather than failing to
provide girls with an education equal to that of boys, our current
educational system disproportionately benefits girls (Sommers 2000, 20
23, 178).
Equity feminists argue that the differences in outcomes between women and
men can be explained, not by violence against women and sex discrimination,
but by differences in the preferences of women and men (Epstein 2002, 33;
Stolba and Furchtgott-Roth 1999, xii). In many cases where women remain
behind men, personal choices explain outcomes more readily than does overt
discrimination (Stolba and Furchtgott-Roth 1999, xii). To be sure, classical-liberal
or libertarian feminists hold that women and men are sufficiently the same that
they have the same political interests, in particular the interest in being
treated as a self-owner (McElroy 2002, 1415). But, for some equity feminists,
biological differences between the sexes largely explain the sex segregation in
the workplace
in family roles still common in countries like the United States (Epstein 2002;
Lehrman 1997, 5, 31).
Other equity feminists think biological sex differences alone do not
explain this phenomenon (Young 2004). Women's preferences may
reflect the effects of socialization or incentives: for example women may
be socialized to prefer stereotypically female roles, or th e rewards
associated with such roles for women may provide motivation for women to take
them up. But equity feminists hold that, because women are not legally required,
or actually forced in some other way, to choose traditional roles, their choices
are not coerced, and thus state remedies are inappropriate. On the equity
feminist view, a law prohibiting women to become surgeons is coercive because
it constitutes a threat of loss of liberty or property. But if one is socialized to
prefer stay-at-home motherhood, or one discovers that one prefers to stay home
with children given the other real options, one may still choose to become a
surgeon without risking loss of liberty or property. As Stolba and Furchtgott-Roth
put it (using the wordprevents in a very strong sense): Nothingprevents
women from choosing the surgical specialty(Stolba and Furchtgott-Roth 1999,
60; my emphasis).
2.2.2 Feminism's Nonpolitical Role
While equity feminists hold that feminism's political tasksecuring for
women the right to freedom from coercive interferenceis nearly
completed, some equity feminists believe that feminism has a
nonpolitical role to play in women's personal lives. In its nonpolitical role,
feminism can help women to develop character traits and strategies that
will help them benefit from their freedom; and it can help women to
navigate personally among their increasing options.
Karen Lehrman writes: Men have typically held title to quite a few traits
that women can now put to good use. In addition to ambition,
assertiveness, and independence, there's also decisiveness (Lehrman
1997, 33; see also 62). Other character traits emphasized by equity
feminists includeself-confidence (Stevens et al. 2002, 255), being able
to think and argue independently (McElroy 1998a), and taking
responsibility for oneself (Taylor 1992, 86). Some equity feminists
suggest that feminism offers individual women and men the opportunity
for freedom from conformity with sex roles (Lehrman 1997, 6; Taylor
1992, 2324).
Equity feminists recommend strategies for success for women in
education and employment as alternatives to state regulation. In male
dominated fields, for example, equity feminists recommend that women
mentor one another, or organize supportive associations, making use of
the techniques of 1960's feminism like consciousness-raising (Taylor
1992, 100101). In What You Can Do About Sexual Harassment When
You Don't Want to Call the Cops, Joan Kennedy Taylor argues that
women can avoid sexual harassment or lessen its impact if they learn to
diffuse conflicts with men and understand the role of sexual banter in
male culture (Taylor 1999). Equity feminists also recommend that women
make full use of their right to contract by turning their preferencesfor
example the preference for being paid and/or promoted on the basis of
one's job performance and not on the basis of sexual favorsinto rights
through contract (Epstein 2002, 40; Taylor 1992, 169).
Some equity feminists stress that women need not give up their gender
difference to benefit from their freedom (Lehrman 1997, 198). As Karen
Lehrman writes, completing the feminist revolution primarily involves
[women] completing their own personal evolutions (35). Lehrman
quotes Elizabeth Cady Stanton:the strongest reason for giving woman a
complete emancipation from all forms of bondage of custom,
dependence, superstition is the solitude and personal responsibility of
her own individual life (Lehrman 1997, 201). An important part of this
individual life, on Lehrman's view, is navigating among sexual difference
and sameness in the personal construction of a satisfying life.
2.2.3 Socially Conservative Equity Feminism
Some equity feminists are socially conservative (Morse 2001; Sommers
2000). To be sure, equity feminism as described here is a form of
classical-liberal or libertarian feminism. As such it involves the claim that
traditional values should not be imposed on citizens by the state. For
example, the state should not tax citizens to support institutions that
promote traditional values, nor should the criminal or civil law create
incentives for adherence to such values. But some equity feminists hold
that it is best when citizens voluntarily adhere to traditional values. They
hold that widespread voluntary adherence to traditional values is
conducive to well-being in society because traditional values make
possible the reproduction of independent and self-restraining citizens
which are the basis of free institutions, both economic and political
(Morse 2001, 161).
Socially conservative equity feminists do not take the classical liberal or
libertarian theory of the limits of state power to imply endorsement of a
libertine cultural ethos. So, for example, while socially conservative
equity feminists hold that the state should not force citizens to accept
traditional family forms (because individuals have a right against such
coercive interference), they hold that society should strongly discourage
disfavored ways of life and encourage favored ones through
noncoercive, nonstate means. Socially conservative equity feminists
hold that when feminism strays from its political role of assuring equal
rights and ventures into women's personal lives it tends to discourage in
women the kinds of delayed gratification and self-sacrifice on which vital
social institutions, like the family, depend (Morse 2001, 133).
To be sure, there are political conservatives who take equity feminism's
claim that women and men should be treated the same by the law as a
rule of thumb. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese is an example of such a political
conservative (Fox-Genovese 1991; 1996). The difference between
political conservatives who embrace the equity feminist account of
women's equality and socially conservative equity feminists is that the
former endorse the use of state power to promote traditional values
while the latter do not. Also, socially conservative equity feminists hold
that individuals' political rights derive from their status as self-owners
(Morse 2001, 57) while political conservatives hold that citizens' political
rights derive from their status as members of communities (Fox-
Genovese 1991, 9). In contemporary popular political discourse it is
often hard to distinguish these two, as they are in political coalition. To
appeal to both libertarian and socially conservative constituencies, on
occasion theorists help themselves to a bit of both traditions. For
example, Jennifer Roback Morse identifies herself as a libertarian:
When the topic is the proper relationship between the individual and the
state, libertarianism is pretty much the right path (Morse 2001, 4). She
tells us that the moral and ethical system underlying the polity must be
secured outside the political process itself (124). But she also makes
the un-libertarian and politically conservative recommendation that the
state should intervene in personal relationships by making it costly to
divorce (164, see also 104, 111).
2.3 Cultural Libertarian Feminism
Cultural libertarianism is a form of classical liberalism or libertarianism
that is concerned about constraints on individual freedom from
government as well as from traditionalist familial, religious, and
community institutions-the same civil institutions that conservatives see
as necessary for ordered liberty to thrive(Young 2007). Cultural
libertarian feminism holds that these institutions reflect the patriarchal
nature of society and are oppressive of women. Thus cultural libertarian
feminism recognizes sources of women's oppression other than the
state (Presley 2000; Johnson and Long 2005see Other Internet
Resources). As Charles Johnson and Roderick Long put it, patriarchal
culture and the state are interlocking systems of oppression (Johnson
and Long 2005see Other Internet Resources), both of which should be
opposed by feminists. They explain: There is nothing inconsistent or un-
libertarian in holding that women's choices under patriarchal social
structures can be sufficiently voluntary, in the libertarian sense, to be
entitled to immunity from coercive legislative interference, while at the
same time being sufficiently involuntary, in a broader sense, to be
recognized as morally problematic and as a legitimate target of social
activism (Johnson and Long 2005see Other Internet Resources).
Calling this view anarchist feminism, Sharon Presley writes: What the
anarchist feminists are calling for is a radical restructuring of society,
both in its public and private institutions (Presley 2000). Such feminists
hold that much of the oppression women currently suffer is noncoercive,
however. Laws against prostitution are coercivethe state can put a
violator in jail or force her to pay a fine. But on the cultural libertarian
feminist view, much of the pressure to conform to gender roles is not
coercive. Noncoercive oppression can be resisted, although it is often
not easy to do so. Cultural libertarian feminists hold that noncoercive
oppression should not be remedied by the state (see also Tomasi 2009).
As Presley and Kinsky explain, on the cultural libertarian view, to try to
remedy the noncoercive oppression of women with coercive state action
just changes the sort of oppression, not the fact (Presley and Kinsky
1991, 78). This oppression should be opposed by a nonviolent
movement for feminist social change.
Cultural libertarian feminists target the patriarchal culture by, for
example, developing in individuals (especially women) the ability to be
independent. This involves enabling individuals to resist authority and
think for themselves (Presley 2001). Cultural libertarian feminists also
recommend the development of more deeply consensual relationships
and institutions (Heckert 2004see Other Internet Resources),
relationships and institutions in which there is an equality of authority
(Long 2001see Other Internet Resources). While some equity
feminists (see section 1.2) would applaud this work, they would call it
personal, reserving the term political for the work of securing for
women their right against coercive interference. Equity feminist Wendy
McElroy writes: I understand that there is a cultural form of feminism
and many women would still fight for improved prestige or status, and I
wouldn't criticis[e] them for doing so. It just wouldn't grip me. Guess I'm a
political animal after all(McElroy 1998c). But cultural libertarian feminists
consider this work to be an integral part of a larger political struggle for
women's freedom.
2.4 Sources: Classical-liberal or libertarian feminists understand
themselves as heirs to the first generation of feminist political
philosophers, for example Mary Wollstonecraft, Harriet Taylor Mill, and
John Stuart Mill (Taylor 1992, 2539); the first generation of feminist
political reformers in the United States, for example the abolitionist
feminists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Sarah Grimke (McElroy 2002, 6
7); and the tradition of 19th century anarchist feminism, including figures
such as Voltairine de Cleyre (McElroy 2002, 8; Presley 2000; Presley
and Sartwell 2005). Equity feminists stress the extent to which these
early thinkers and activists identify women's liberation with equal respect
for women's right against coercive interference (Stolba and Furchtgott-
Roth 2001, 12). Cultural libertarian feminists emphasize the extent to
which these thinkers and activists challenged both coercive state power
and the patriarchal culture (Presley 2000; Johnson and Long 2005see
Other Internet Resources).
Classical-liberal or libertarian feminists hold that the very arguments
that rightly led to the legal reforms affecting the status of women during
the 19th century militate against the demands for reform from the late
20th century women's movement (Epstein 2002, 30). That is, they hold
that the defense of equal rights and independence for women
promulgated by these early feminists is incompatible with the tendency
of the contemporary women's movement to call on the state to improve
the lives of women.
2.5 Anti-Discrimination Law and Preferential Treatment
Classical-liberal or libertarian feminism requires same treatment of
women and men under just law. This means that sex discrimination by
the state, for example when the state functions as an employer, is
impermissible (Block 1991, 102; Epstein 2002, 34; Warnick 2003, 1608).
But classical-liberal or libertarian feminists oppose laws that prohibit
discrimination against women by nonstate actors, for example in
employment, education, public accommodations, or associations
(McElroy 1991a, 2223; Epstein 1992). They hold that the interaction of
citizens should be subject to state control only to the extent necessary to
protect citizens' right against coercive interference. Businesses violate
citizens' right against coercive interference if they steal from their
customers or employees; associations violate it if they extort their
members; colleges violate it if they kidnap students. But businesses do
not violate this right if they refuse to do business with women, pay
women less for the same work, or create a working environment that is
hostile to them because of their sex. Private educational institutions do
not violate this right if they refuse to educate girls or women, offer them
an inferior education, or create a learning environment that is hostile to
them because of their sex. Business and professional associations do
not violate this right if they refuse to admit women as members or make
them feel unwelcome because of their sex.
Classical-liberal or libertarian feminism, as described here, clearly
implies rejection of legal prohibition of private discrimination in
employment, education, public accommodations, and associations. But
in the literature one finds a range of views. Some categorically reject any
legal protection against private discrimination (Taylor 1992, 62). Others
accept basic protections such as those afforded in U.S. law by the Equal
Pay Act of 1963, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and title IX of
the Educational Amendments of 1972; but reject more robust
protections, such as non-remedial affirmative action or comparable worth
(Stolba and Furchtgott-Roth 2001, 179; see also 107108).
Classical-liberal or libertarian feminism holds that private businesses,
educational institutions, and associations are free to give or withhold
preferential treatment to women. But the state may not treat women
preferentially because the state must treat citizens the same regardless
of sex. Nor may the state require that private businesses, educational
institutions, or associations treat women preferentially. This is because,
on the equity feminist view, failure to treat women preferentially is not a
violation of anyone's right against coercive interference. Examples of
preferential treatment under the law, which classical-liberal or libertarian
feminists oppose, include affirmative action in employment and
education (Lehrman 1997, 25), comparable worth (Paul 1989), and
advantages for women in the legal treatment of custody and domestic
violence (Simon 2002).
While equity feminists resist state remedies for private discrimination
against women, they also hold that such discrimination is not currently a
serious problem in countries like the United States (see section 1.2.1). In
addition, they argue, even where discrimination may exist, we find little,
if any, evidence that expanded government intervention would serve any
useful purpose(Stolba and Furchtgott-Roth 1999, xii), and speculate
that freer markets would make whatever discrimination currently takes
place even more rare (McElroy 2002a, 187).
2.6 Justification
Why should individuals be treated as self-owners? Much of the classical-
liberal or libertarian feminist literature, especially the equity feminist
literature, is written for public policy and popular audiences. Thus more
attention is paid to implications and policy applications than to
philosophical justification. Several justifications are mentioned in the
literature. Kirp, Yudoff, and Franks, for example, refer to Kant's
categorical imperative and claim that treating individuals as self-owners
is what is meant by treating individuals as ends in themselves ((Kirp et
al. 1986, 1314). Wendy McElroy grounds her thought in the natural law
tradition (McElroy 1998b). Some imply a perfectionist justification
according to which the perfection of the human being requires being
treated as a self-owner (Presley 2001).
By far the most common argument in the classical-liberal or libertarian
feminist literature is consequentialist. The argument says that the
political arrangements recommended by classical-liberalism or
libertarianism, as compared with the alternatives, will provide women
with more of what is good for them: for example safety, income and
wealth, choices, and options. Liberalizing guns laws will make women
safer (Stevens, et al. 2002); legalizing prostitution and porn will improve
the lives of women in those trades (Almodovar 2002; Strossen 2000)
and open opportunities for others; freer markets will root out
discrimination against women and stimulate the proliferation of amenities
essential to working women, like daycare centers (Epstein 2002, 33;
Paul 2002, 208209; Stolba and Furchtgott-Roth 2001, 124, 180;
Conway 1998). Indeed, some argue that liberalizing the market will
release such an explosion of prosperity that women will not need help
from a welfare state (Long 1997see Other Internet Resources).
2.7 Criticism
Some critics take aim at the consequentialist argument offered in
support of classical-liberal or libertarian feminism. The consequentialist
argument says that the political arrangements recommended by
classical-liberalism or libertarianism, as compared with the alternatives,
will provide women with more of what is good for them. Following Ashlie
Warnick, we can distinguish the claim that particular liberty-restricting
policies are bad for women (and that some liberty-enhancing policies are
good for women) from the claim that all liberty-restricting policies harm
women, or that a minimal state (or no state) would be better for women
overall (Warnick 2003). It is surely possible to cite liberty-restricting
policies that are bad for womenlaws limiting women's employment
optionsand thus to cite liberty-enhancing policies that are good for
womennot having such laws. But it is also possible to cite liberty-
restricting policies that are good for womenfor example the legal
prohibition against sex discrimination in employment, education, and
public accommodations (which classical-liberal or libertarian feminists
recommend dismantling (see section 2.5)). Of course, if sex
discrimination is rare, as some classical-liberal or libertarian feminists
contend (see section 2.2.1), laws prohibiting it will not produce much
benefit. But, as liberal feminists Deborah Rhode and Ann Cudd argue
sex discrimination is all too common (Rhode 1997, 156; Cudd 2006,
140142). Think also of the classical-liberal or libertarian feminist
recommendation that women and men be treated exactly the same by
the state (see sections 2.1 and 2.5). While different treatment can
stigmatize and entrench stereotypes, same treatment can disadvantage
women if they are not similarly situated to menwhich, arguably, is the
case (Minow 1990). So the larger casethat all liberty-restricting
policies harm women, or that a minimal state (or no state) would be
better for women overallhas not been made convincingly (Warnick
2003). Another concern about the larger case is that much of the support
offered is speculative, for example Roderick Long's assertion that the
explosion of prosperity that a libertarian society would see would go a
long way toward providing women with an economic safety net more
effective than any government welfare program (Long 1997see Other
Internet Resources).
In addition to the consequentialist argument, classical-liberal or
libertarian feminists offer an argument from principle. According to this
argument, regardless of the consequences, women and men should be
treated as self-owners with rights to property justly acquired and to
freedom from coercive interference because this is what they deserve as
ends in themselves, or because this is what moral insight teaches, or
because this is what their perfection requires (see section 2.6). In short,
the claim is that the dignity of women and men depends on their being
treated as self-owners.
Critics urge us to consider that all human beings are utterly dependent
on the care of others for many years at the start of life; many come to
need the care of others due to temporary or permanent disability later in
life; and many require care as they become infirm at the end of life.
Those who provide care for those who cannot care for themselves will
also find themselves dependent on others for material support. These
are enduring features of any human community. Thus all individuals
have a high priority interest in receiving care when it is needed (Kittay
1999; Nussbaum 2000). As liberal feminist Susan Okin argues, a theory
that ignores this interest must assume that there is a realm of private life
in which the reproductive and nurturant needs of human beings are
taken care of (Okin 1989, 75). This assumption hides the fact that it is
women who typically satisfy this interest, and do so often without pay
and at great sacrifice to themselves. This renders classical-liberalism or
libertarianism, including its feminist versions, blind to the nature of
obligations to, and entitlements of, children and others who require care.
In addition, because caring labor is hidden from view, it becomes
impossible to evaluate the justice of the arrangements under which the
interest in receiving care is commonly satisfied. This suggests that
freedom from coercive interference fails to capture what human dignity
requires. At the very least, that dignity requires the right to care when
one is unable to care for oneself and the right to a share of resources if
one is charged with providing care for those who require it.
In a related criticism, Okin argues that classical-liberal or libertarian
views are self-refuting. If individuals have a right to control their bodies
and own the fruits of their labor, then womenwho presumably make
children from resources that have been given to them freely or were
bought by themown their children (Nozick 1974; Okin 1989, 80, 81;
see also Jeske 1996; and Andersson 2007). But if women own their
children, and everyone begins as a child, then no one owns herself (Okin
1989, 85).
Jennifer Roback Morse, herself a classical-liberal or libertarian feminist,
concedes: I think it is well to admit that our inattention to family life
and community responsibility has left libertarians open to the charge that
we do not care very much about these matters (Morse 2001, 28).
Liberal criticism of the argument from principle begins by noting that the
liberties championed by classical-liberals and libertarians are valuable
because of what they make it possible for individuals to be and do. But it
is not liberties alone which facilitate our being and doing what we value.
We require also, at least, adequate material resources, genuine
opportunities, and standing as an equal in society (Rawls 1971; Rawls
1993). What is needed is a basic structure of society, including property
rules, that secures these. Thus freedom from coercive interference fails
to capture what human dignity requires.
Critics have also taken aim at the treatment of oppression in classical-
liberal or libertarian feminism. Recall that equity feminism holds that
women are oppressed when the state fails to protect them, as a group,
from sustained and systematic rights violations. Recall also that for
equity feminists the only rights that create coercible duties are the rights
to justly acquired property and freedom from coercive interference.
Equity feminists argue that, in western countries like the United States,
women are not oppressed because the state protects these rights of
women. It should be conceded that much violence against women which
was, in the past, tolerated or condoned is now unambiguously
prohibited. But, critics contend, violence against women remains all too
common in western countries, and thus it is premature to suggest that
women are not oppressed, that is, are not effectively protected against
sustained and systematic rights violations (Rhode 1997, 120; see also
Cudd 2006, 93ff).
As we have seen, cultural libertarian feminists criticize equity feminism
for ignoring significant, though perhaps more subtle, constraints on
women's individual freedom that stem from traditionalist familial,
religious, and community institutions (Young 2007). Cultural libertarian
feminists recommend social activism, not state power, as a remedy for
this oppression. Liberal feminists disagree, arguing that state power is
legitimately used to ensure the fair value of women's liberties and
opportunities. Think here, for example, of the liberal feminist claim that
workplaces should be structured by law so that care-givers are not
disadvantaged, given the traditionalist familial, religious and community
pressure on women to assume caregiving responsibilities for dependent
family members (see section 1.1.4). Think also of the liberal feminist
claim that the education of girls must ensure the development of their
autonomy (see section 1.1.4).
As we have seen, while cultural libertarian feminists are culturally liberal,
some classical-liberal feminists are culturally conservative. They content
that classical-liberalism or libertarianism must call for voluntary
adherence to traditional morality because that morality is necessary for
the reproduction of citizens capable of independence and self-restraint.
Critics respond that the traditional morality championed by cultural
conservatives disadvantages women and girls in myriad ways. Think
here, for example, of how the traditional nuclear family places on women
a disproportionate and disadvantaging share of the burdens of
reproduction (Okin 1989). Socially conservative equity feminists are
untroubled by this disadvantage as long as it is voluntarily chosen. Some
nonliberal feminists argue that the fact that a political philosophy
grounded in the value of voluntary choice is compatible with traditions
and institutions that disadvantage women shows that feminism should
not be so grounded (Jaggar 1983, 194; Yuracko 2003, 2526). Liberal
feminists embrace the value of voluntary choice for feminism, but argue
that women often cannot exercise it, because sexist socialization and a
homogeneous culture render them incapable of critically assessing their
preferences and imagining life otherwise (Meyers 2004; Cornell 1998;
Cudd 2006). Indeed, if critical thinking is necessary for freedom but
corrosive of tradition, cultural conservatives must be wary of freedom.
Thus there is a tension within culturally conservative equity feminism
between the emphasis on voluntariness and the value of tradition. (For
related criticism, see Loudermilk 2004, 149172).
To summarize, critics suggest that classical-liberal or libertarian feminism
is not adequately supported by a consequentialist case; fails to
recognize our obligations to those who cannot care for themselves;
hides from view the way in which the work of care is distributed in
society; denies that state power should be used to ensure equality of
opportunity for women and women's equal standing in society; and
(cultural libertarianism excepted) is uncritical of traditional social
arrangements that limit and disadvantage women. For reasons such as
these, some have argued that classical-liberal or libertarian feminism
counts as neither feminist nor liberal (Minnich 1998; see also Freeman
Radical Feminism is a trend in the Women's Movement which openly
espouses that men are the enemy. For women who hold this line,
complete separation from men in all areas of life is the solution to
women's oppression.
Radical Feminism
Perhaps the stereotype of feminists that we discussed before is most
closely associated with our first type of feminism, called radical
feminism. Radical feminism is a movement that believes sexism is so
deeply rooted in society that the only cure is to eliminate the concept of
gender completely. How would this be possible?
Radical feminists suggest changes, such as finding technology that will
allow babies to be grown outside of a woman's body, to promote more
equality between men and women. This will allow women to avoid
missing work for maternity leave, which radical feminists argue is one
reason women aren't promoted as quickly as men. In fact, radical
feminists would argue that the entire traditional family system is sexist.
Men are expected to work outside the home while women are expected
to care for children and clean the house. Radical feminists note that this
traditional dichotomy maintains men as economically in power over
women, and therefore, the traditional family structure should be
Socialist feminism: Radical feminism is the most extreme form. The
second type of feminism, called socialist feminism, is slightly less
extreme but still calls for major social change. Socialist feminism is a
movement that calls for an end to capitalism through a socialist
reformation of our economy. Basically, socialist feminism argues that
capitalism strengthens and supports the sexist status quo because men
are the ones who currently have power and money. Those men are more
willing to share their power and money with other men, which means that
women are continually given fewer opportunities and resources. This
keeps women under the control of men.
In short, socialist feminism focuses on economics and politics. They
might point out the fact that in the United States women are typically
paid only $0.70 for the exact same job that a man would be paid a dollar
for. Why are women paid less than men for the same work? Socialist
feminists point out that this difference is based on a capitalist system.
Psychoanalytic Feminism
First published Mon May 16, 2011
This article will discuss psychoanalytic feminism, not feminist
psychoanalysis (i.e., except indirectly, it will not address ideas about
developing feminist principles in clinical practice, although most of the
authors discussed below are trained analysts). Psychoanalysis develops
a theory of the unconscious that links sexuality and subjectivity
ineluctably together. In doing so, it discloses the ways in which our
sense of self, and our political loyalties and attachments, are influenced
by unconscious drives and ordered by symbolic structures that are
beyond the purview of individual agency. It might appear at the outset
that any alliance between feminism and psychoanalysis would have to
be coordinated on treacherous ground: in Sigmund Freud's lecture on
Femininity, for instance, while discussing the riddle of femininity
(Freud 1968 [1933], 116) or of sexual differentiation, Freud's rhetoric
impeaches women as the problem (113) and excuses members of his
audience from this indictment by offering the hope that they are more
masculine than feminine (117). Many feminists have been wary both of
the biases contained in Freud's oratory and of the overt content of his
claims. This article will explain how and why feminist theory has,
nonetheless, undertaken a serious reading of Freud and developed
careful analyses of his fundamental concepts, working out their limits,
impasses, and possibilities.
In the same essay cited above, Freud writes that psychoanalysis does
not try to describe what a woman isthat would be a task it could
scarcely performbut sets about enquiring how she comes into being,
how a woman develops out of a child with a bisexual disposition (Freud
1968 [1933], 116). In using the term bisexual, Freud refers to a quality
of the sexual instinct, not a relation to a sexual object (which would be
denoted by the term inversion); the bisexual child is one who
psychically is not yet either a man or a woman, whose instinctual life
functions prior to sexual difference. Freud here portrays femininity as
one trajectory of the Oedipal Complex and indicates that sexed identity
is a fragile achievement rather than a natural given or essence. By
circumscribing the terrain on which the psychoanalytic account of sexual
difference moves, and by seeing unresolved, even unresolvable, riddles
where others might see the work of nature or culture, Freud
problematizes any causal, seamless, or direct tie between sex, sexuality,
and sexual difference. Psychoanalytic inquiry does not fit comfortably
with, and even unsettles, biological theories of sex and sociological
theories of gender, thus also complicating the sex/gender distinction as it
has often been formulated in feminist debates. While sex and gender are
sometimes construed in feminist theory in terms of the contrast between
biology and culture, or nature and nurture, Freud's theory, as discussed
below, challenges these dualisms, developing an account of the sexual
drive that traverses the mental and the physical, and undergoes
idiosyncratic vicissitudes rather than assuming a uniform anatomical or
social shape. Whatever the hazards of Freud's writings on women, then,
his work explores in new ways the meaning and possibilities of sexed
identity. Likewise, as I will argue below, psychoanalytic feminism
interrupts many assumptions about what feminism is and the conceptual
and material objects it theorizes, including especially the very concept of
woman. In unsettling our understanding of this concept, psychoanalysis
also poses questions to feminism about the value of difference and the
quest for equality, and the unresolved tensions between these divergent
While there is no doubt a vast ouvre of disparate positions that might fall
within the framework of psychoanalytic feminism, what is shared in
common is a descent from, respect for, and some minimal borrowing of
Freudian accounts of the unconscious, even while criticizing and/or
revising his theoretical apparatus. Any properly psychoanalytic theory
must at the least offer an account of the unconscious and its bond with
sexuality and, arguably, death. Precisely this descent, however, has also
provided a barrier to feminist deployment since Freud is sometimes
read, at least superficially, as proffering misogynist, and perhaps
Procrustean, elaborations of psychic structuration, curtailing and
diminishing the diversity of individual women's experiences into a
restricted and unvarying formula that will fit within its own theoretical
parameters. Nevertheless, Freud's reflections and hypotheses
concerning hysteria, the Oedipal Complex, female sexuality and
femininity, and women's role in civilization, among other ideas, have
provided the volatile grounds, the sites of contention, for feminist re-
articulation. Before any of the multiple and divergent articulations of
psychoanalytic feminism can be discussed in more detail, we must thus
first establish their historical roots and the conceptual terrain on which
they arise. Since a great deal of psychoanalytic feminist theory is
specifically concerned with revising the Oedipal narrative of Freud, this
article will devote particular attention to Freud's theories of the
unconscious as they pertain to the Oedipal Complex.
1. The Freudian Riddle of Femininity
2. Feminist Criticism of Psychoanalysis
3. Language, Law, and Sexual Difference
4. French Feminism
o 4.1 The Impasse of Feminine Subjectivity
o 4.2 Subjectivity, Alterity, and Alienation
5. Anglo-American Psychoanalytic Feminism
6. Conclusion
o Cited Works
o Further Reading
Academic Tools
Other Internet Resources
Related Entries
1. The Freudian Riddle of Femininity
Rooted in both clinical practice with patients and speculative attempts to
apprehend and delineate foundational concepts, Freud's psychoanalysis
aims to offer descriptions of psychical structures that underlie and
account for individual experience in the variety of its empirical
formations. Rather than the rationally self-interested individual presumed
by liberal political theory or the self-contained and independent cogito
presumed by Cartesian epistemology, Freud puts forward a divided
subject, unknown to itself, an I traversed by multiple agencies.
According to Kristeva, Freud's discovery designated sexuality as the
nexus between language and society, drives and the socio-symbolic
order (Kristeva 1984, 84). Freud's break-through insight, in other words,
is that sexual bonds initiate us into subjectivity and civilization.
Freud distinguishes human drives from instincts insofar as drives (unlike
instincts) have no pre-given aim or object supplied by nature and follow
no pre-set biological path. For those who inhabit a human world, drives
might come to be attached to any number of aims or objects, and felt
through any number of bodily locales. Drives, according to Freud,
become specified in these ways through the mediation of ideas or
representations. Human embodiment is thus imbued with opaque
meaning, and sexuality emerges from a kind of instinctual inadequacy
that presents desire as a difficulty or problem, and propels its increasing
The core of Freud's claim about the impact of sexuality on psychic
processes can be discerned starting with Freud's early works on
hysteria, although a crucial transformation in his thinking must be
clarified. In Studies in Hysteria (1895), written in collaboration with Josef
Breuer, Freud examines the phenomenon whereby a symptom might
exist in the absence of an organic lesion. Hysteria is diagnosed when it
is an idea or memory that makes one ill, without any physical disease
being the cause. By definition, hysteria is ideogenic (caused by an idea),
as it designates the process by which a troubling but repressed idea is
converted into a bodily symptom. Freud initially posits that hysterical
symptoms arise as a result of violent childhood seduction (what today
would be called molestation), a real trauma that is then retroactively set
in motion by a second, comparatively more mild, event, after a period of
latency. The seduction hypothesis is an attempt to explain the aetiology
of hysteria (the origins of neurosis) by the traumatic force of a premature
sexual experience occurring in early childhood, an external event that
impinges upon the psychical apparatus but whose memory is repressed,
cut off from consciousness. The repressed memory becomes somatized
(enacted on the body and in bodily symptoms) when a later event,
usually occurring in puberty, catalyzes the earlier memory traces. The
talking cure is developed as a way to bring repressed memories forward
and abreact or release them, re-binding the idea to its severed and
dispersed affect (unrepressing it) and thereby dissolving the bodily
In the later Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905), Freud
contends, contrary to the earlier supposition that sexuality intervenes
from the outside, that sexuality is a primordial and innate (if also
inchoate) force of infantile life, arising from the bodily sensations that
accompany the life processes. In the interim between these two works,
Freud had abandoned the seduction hypothesis and replaced it with the
thesis of infantile sexuality and the idea that symptoms are brought
about via the conflicts and repressions of unconscious fantasy. In other
words, it is no longer repressed memory that makes one ill and traumatic
sexual violence no longer figures as the primary cause of symptoms.
Instead of an actual past experience, Freud posits fantasy as the
determining factor of neurotic symptoms. To understand the significance
of this transition in his thinking, we must grasp what Freud means by
psychical reality and its distinction from material reality. In contrast to the
historical, intersubjective domain of material reality, psychical reality is
the vital domain of fantasy and intra-psychic life, operating
independently of objective considerations of veracity. In Freud's view,
unconscious fantasies are not lies or deceptions, but reveal a truth, not
about the objective world, but about the internal life of the subject, who
one is and what one wants. It might be better to say that fantasies
conceal this truth, since conscious articulations of desire and identity will
often lead us astray, expressing but distorting, manifesting but denying,
the subject's wishes.
As Freud documents in Remembering, Repeating, and Working-
Through (1914), the conjectural move from memory to desire and from
fact to fantasy is also a move from external scenes of seduction to
internal psychical acts, from past events to present-day forces, and from
passive submission to active maintenance of discord. Instead of an
external event impinging upon a child's undeveloped sexuality, the idea
of infantile sexuality presupposes both an energetic drive force at work
from earliest childhood and an internal or intrapsychic dissension, a
subject at odds with its own desires. The thesis of infantile sexuality
universalizes the event of trauma, locating its experience in the
instinctual excitations that overwhelm the psychical apparatus which is
prematurely affected. In discarding the seduction hypothesis, Freud not
only discovers the domain of fantasy and psychical reality, but he also
paves the way for considering the energetics of the libido, the
intrapsychic conflict that is intrinsic to human being, and the idea of
responsibility for the dissonances of desire and the skirmishes that
shape a life and its patterns. While controversy has swirled around
Freud's rejection of the seduction hypothesis, without the scandalous
supposition of infantile sexuality there would be no psychoanalytic theory
of the unconscious. Although some revisionists have argued that Freud
abandons his principles and betrays his patients, in fact Freud never
abjures the reality of sexual abuse or denies that some children are
molested. Rather, the transformation in his thinking concerns the
aetiology of hysteria in a diagnostic sense; neuroses are no longer said
to originate in (presumably rare) childhood sexual violence, and thus
they can be seen to pervade rather than oppose whatever might be
considered normal sexual development. In discarding the idea of a
primary or ontological innocence of the psyche which is then violently
imposed upon from the outside, Freud arrives at the fundamental
premise of psychoanalytic thought.
The exemplar of this phantasmatic activity of the unconscious is the
Oedipal Complex. In Freud's later writings on femininity, including
Femininity (1933), Female Sexuality (1931), and On the
Psychological Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction between the
Sexes (1925), Freud postulates that the little girl's Oedipal Complex
runs a different course than the little boy's and holds a different relation
to castration anxiety. Crucially, Freud maintains that femininity cannot be
grasped from a biological or conventional perspective (Freud 1968
[1933], 114). Another way of putting this is that sexual difference is
centrally concerned with psychical reality rather than material reality, with
the realm of fantasy rather than nature or culture. The Oedipal story is
the story of psychic development, the story of how we become subjects
and in becoming subjects, how we become sexually differentiated.
The boy and the girl start off, pre-Oedipally, in the same emotional place,
attached to the mother, and it is because of this shared starting point
that Freud claims the little girl is a little man; they are not yet distinct or
sexually differentiated. It is for this reason as well that Freud maintains
the idea of a single, masculine, libido: the libido is not neutral in Freud's
view since its original object is the mother and this desire for the mother
is associated by Freud with masculinity and activity, just as he
associates infant clitoral pleasure with phallic enjoyment. Still Freud
acknowledges that in the libido's most primordial stages, there can be no
sexual distinction. It is not until children pass through the Oedipal
Complex that they can properly be said to have a genital organization
since this is acquired through a relation to castration and is the last stage
in sexual development (following oral, anal, and phallic stages). Hence
both children at infancy are little men, their desire construed through the
terms of a single masculine libido.
Freud seems genuinely puzzled by how femininity comes about: given
the girl's prehistory of love and attachment to the mother, why would she
switch allegiances to the father? And since, prior to genital organization,
she too goes through a phallic (masturbatory) stage, why would she
switch the site of bodily pleasure from the clitoris to the vagina? These
are among the mysteries he means to designate when referring to the
riddle of femininity. That he understands it to be a riddle also intimates
that he understands sexual identity not as a natural pre-given essence,
rooted in anatomy, but rather as a form of individuation and
differentiation realized through complex interaction between the bodily
drives and familial others. The boy's story is more seamless and
continuous since he retains his phallic pleasure and, although he must
displace the immediate object of his desire (no longer the mother, but
someone like her), can look forward to substitute objects. The boy's
Oedipal attachment to the mother follows uninterruptedly from a pre-
Oedipal attachment and it is brought to an end by the threat of castration
emanating from the father. At the conclusion of the Oedipal Complex the
boy identifies with the father, establishes a super-ego within, and
abandons the immediate object of desire with the promise that he too
will one day possess a similar object modeled on the mother. But the
girl's Oedipal Complex is necessarily more complicated since it can only
be instigated by a break from the pre-Oedipal relation to the mother and
is therefore a secondary formation. Freud postulates that it is the
realization that the beloved mother is castrated that prompts the little girl
to turn her love toward her father. For the girl, in other words, castration
does not resolve the Oedipal Complex but leads her to enter it, and for
this reason Freud claims that it is never wholly brought to a conclusion or
demolished, thus accounting, in his view, for girls' weaker super-egos
and lesser capacity for sublimation. The girl turns from her mother not in
fear but in contempt and because of envy for what the mother does not
possess. The father represents for her neither a threat (she finds herself
already castrated) nor the prospect of a fulfilled desire in the future (the
only replacement for the missing penis is a child of her own), as he does
for the boy who can identify with him and hope to eventually have what
he has. The father's only promise is thus as a refuge from loss,
represented by the mother who bears this loss and who is at fault for the
girl's own. In the girl's Oedipal scenario, the father, unlike the castrated
mother, stands for the virile capacity of desire itself, which she herself
lacks but might reclaim through another man's provision of the
opportunity to have a child. In the trajectory of the girl's Oedipal
Complex, femininity is realized as the desire to be the object of
masculine desire.
Freud's theories of sexuality and the unconscious implicate not only
individual psychology but also the constitution of social life. Formed in
ambivalent relation to others, sexuality and sexual identity permeate the
bonds of civilization and ramify throughout all social relations. In turning
his attention to broader cultural questions, Freud offers a story or myth of
the origin of political structures that parallels and echoes his
understanding of the individual psyche. To understand the political import
of the Oedipal Complex, it will be helpful to place it more generally within
the scope of Freud's understanding of group psychology. In Group
Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921), Freud contests any
clear-cut opposition between group and individual psychology and
alleges that human infancy is from the beginning immersed in a world of
others. Even in ostensibly individual psychology, there is always another
involved, as model or object, as site of identification or as object of love.
Identification and love, which form the core of identity, are already social
phenomena and, inversely social relations are themselves premised on
developments that occur in the family. It is thus mistaken to sever
individual from group psychology as though they were not by nature
intermingled or to suppose that there is some kind of special social
instinct separate from the drives that energize the individual. Put another
way, the individual subject is neither formed wholly independently in a
kind of solitary interiority nor formed as merely an effect of exterior social
Totem and Taboo (1913) is Freud's attempt to explain the origin of social
life, the bonds that, on his account, hold men together, on the basis of
psychic phenomena. Freud envisages a primitive pre-political sociality in
which a primal horde of brothers is oppressed by a powerful father who
claims for himself all the women, all the enjoyment, available in the
community. The brothers are deprived or exiled, and they are motivated
to bond together to overthrow the father; they aim, that is, to kill the
father and take for themselves his women, offenses that mirror, at a
collective level, the Oedipal desires of male children. In Freud's story,
the father's murder results not in lawless freedom and unlimited access
to sexual objects (a fraternal civil war), but rather in the creation of
totems and taboosthe primal father becomes a totemic figure, a
revered ancestral object, and the brother's actions in killing him and
claiming his women are reconceived as the prohibited transgressions of
murder and incest. The two blood taboos that are instituted as law, the
prohibitions on incest and murder, thus have a common origin and
emerge simultaneously, and together they mandate the social processes
of exogamy (marriage outside one's own kin) and totemism (communal
bonds of affiliation established through the medium of a common
ancestor). Freud thereby allies political formation with the two primal
wishes of children and the two crimes of Oedipus, predicating exogamy
on the incest taboo, and fraternal bonds on the sacralization of life and
the prohibition on murder. Totemism and exogamy also entail fraternal
equality: in order that no one take the place of the father and assume his
singular power, the brothers are equally constrained and equally
respected, the distribution of women equally allotted. Depicting the
creation of a stable society grounded in law (though founded in
violence), Freud's tale serves as a paradigm for not only rudimentary,
but also enduring and contemporary, political relations, which he views
as rooted in unconscious drives but oriented toward achieving a
stabilization or equilibrium of those drives at the communal level. In
Freud's narrative, it is the father/son relationship that matters for the
establishment of this semi-stable political relation, a band of brothers
with equal rights. This lineage founds political order in murderous
fraternity, with women as objects of exchange not citizen-subjects.
Moreover, in explaining the advent of lawful existence, Freud identifies
something recalcitrant, intractable in social arrangementsa kind of self-
assault (the super-ego) that links pleasure with aggression, and thus that
carries a potentially destabilizing force. The sons' attitude toward the
father is one of ambivalence, hatred qualified by admiration, murder
followed by guilt and remorse. The brothers commemorate this loss and
maintain their bond with one another in the public ceremony of the totem
meal where together they consume a common substance (the father's
body transubstantiated into the sacrificed totem), and thereby affirm their
fellowship and mutual obligation. This confirmation of shared paternal
substance and kinship, and the collective affect of love, loss, guilt, and
mourning, maintains ties of identity. The law that emerges from the
father's murder ritualizes and enforces his edicts, forbidding murder and
incest in the public realm, and takes hold internally in the superegoic 'no'
of prohibition, producing a permanent sense of guilt that drives
civilization and renders it a perpetual source of discontent. Women,
however, appear not as subjects of the law but as objects of its
exchange; moreover, given the indefinite prolongation of their Oedipal
Complex, women will be more likely to be hostile to the edicts of
civilization insofar as these infringe upon family life.
The relation between father and son is also contained, if concealed, in
the account Freud offers in The Ego and the Id (1923) of how the ego
emerges. There Freud writes that identification is the earliest expression
of an emotional tie with another person (Freud 1968 [1923], 37), i.e., it
is prior to object-cathexes or relations of desire. The primordial libidinal,
but non-objectal, attachment is with the father of personal prehistory
(Freud 1968 [1923], 37). The subsequent and recurring retreat from
object-cathexis (investment of instinctual energy in an object) to
identification (withdrawal of that energy into the self), is the primary
mechanism of ego-formation, taking the lost object into oneself. Since
the ego is the precipitate of abandoned objects, it is configured through
loss, in a melancholy reabsorption that incorporates via identification
objects from which the ego would otherwise be exiled. Just as the father
retains dominance in political life after his death, so he dominates
psychic life even prior to the ego's formation. In Freudian theory, the
father's reign is pervasive, his sovereignty extended in every domain.
Freud's privileging of paternal and fraternal relations provides the
impetus for much of psychoanalytic feminism, as will be discussed
2. Feminist Criticism of Psychoanalysis
Even in Freud's circle, not all analysts agreed with Freud's assessment
and there were debates concerning women's sexuality and the roles of
castration and penis envy therein, notably among Karl Abraham, Ernest
Jones, Helene Deutsch, and Karen Horney. Horney in particular argued
for an inherent feminine disposition that is not merely a secondary
formation premised on castration and she took issue with the ostensible
effects of penis envy and women's supposed feelings of inferiority. As
with some later feminist criticisms of Freud, Horney attempted to retrieve
female sexuality, and by extension a valid form of feminine existence, by
appealing to a genuinely independent nature and holding culture
culpable for women's subordinate status. By thus reasserting the
primacy of biological and social forces, however, Horney disputes
precisely the idea that is central to Freud's hypothesis and that marks
psychoanalysis as a unique field of inquiry, that of a distinctive psychical
realm of representation that is unconscious.
Somewhat later, Simone de Beauvoir addressed the discourse of
psychoanalysis in The Second Sex (1989 [1949]), devoting an early
chapter to her distrust of The Psychoanalytic Point of View (Beauvoir
1989, 3852). Like Horney, Beauvoir denounces Freud's idea that there
is but one, masculine, libido and no feminine libido with its own original
nature (Beauvoir 1989, 39). Freud, in her view, takes for granted what
he needs to account for, namely the value placed on virility. Beauvoir
takes Freud to task for not considering the social origins of masculine
and paternal power and privilege and deems his theory inadequate to
account for woman's otherness. If women envy men, she argues, it is
because of the social power and privilege they enjoy, and not because of
anatomical superiority. Unlike the determinisms and objectifications of
human life offered by biological science (which treats human beings as
determinate objects in the natural world and thus not as free or self-
determining subjects with agency), but similar to the economic monism
of historical materialism (Beauvoir 1989, 52), psychoanalysis is
characterized by Beauvoir as sexual monism (Beauvoir 1989, 52):
everything in its purview is interpreted through a single lens. Beauvoir
indicates at the opening of the chapter that psychoanalysis offers a
perspective which she does not intend to criticize as a whole (Beauvoir
1989, 38), especially since it does understand that no factor becomes
involved in the psychic life without having taken on human significance
(Beauvoir 1989, 38), but she questions both its dogmatic reliance on
determinate elements of development and its embarrassing flexibility on
a basis of rigid concepts (Beauvoir 1989, 38). Most seriously, in
Beauvoir's view, psychoanalysis allots to women the same destiny of
self-division and conflict between subjectivity and femininity that follows
from social dictates and biological norms. Psychoanalysis presents the
characteristics of femininity and subjectivity as divergent paths,
incompatible with one another. Women might be able to be full persons,
subjects with agency, but only at the expense of their femininity; or they
can embark on the course of femininity, but only by sacrificing their
independence and agency. This either/or between the masculinization of
subjectivity and the submission to femininity retains the moral, political,
and metaphysical opposition between free self-creation and corporeal
incarceration that precludes the possibility of being both a woman and a
Beauvoir alleges that psychoanalysis holds women to a fixed destiny, a
developmental and teleological life process, precisely insofar as it
defines subjects with reference to a past beyond their control. By
assigning to women an essence or determinate identity, the
psychoanalytic reliance on sexual categories once again renders woman
as the other to a subject rather than a subject herself, and thereby
denies her existential freedom. In Beauvoir's view, however, if women
are not themselves subjects, but that in contrast with which men's
subjectivities are constituted, they are still freely responsible for this
situation, insofar as women collaborate in this process by seeing
themselves through the eyes of men, justifying their existence through
their romantic relationships, and attempting to mirror men's being. By
casting women's otherness as an effect not only of their social situation
(with its power relations), but also of their choices (and hence
responsibility), Beauvoir preserves women's freedom, unlike the
psychoanalytic discourse that she claims rejects the idea of choice and
the correlated concept of value (Beauvoir 1989, 45).
Beauvoir's misgivings about Freud's account of femininity stem from two
sources, a feminist suspicion that women, in psychoanalytic discourse,
are understood on the basis of a masculine model, and an existentialist
conviction that human beings are self-defining, choosing themselves
through their own actions. Following her existentialist convictions,
Beauvoir insists that even when women abdicate their freedom, they do
so as agents responsible for their own destinies, not merely as passive
victims following a developmentally determined fate. Following her
feminist convictions, Beauvoir recognizes that women's choices may be
constrained by powerful social and bodily forces, but insists that women
nonetheless bear ultimate responsibility for realizing their own
possibilities by emancipating themselves. Her reading of Freud is thus
largely directed against the perceived determinism of psychoanalysis
and less against the idea of an unconscious per se, although she does
want to defend the notion of a unitary subject at the origin of choice,
insisting that psychic life is not a mosaic, it is a single whole in every
one of its aspects and we must respect that unity (Beauvoir 1989, 44), a
supposition that certainly limits the affinities between existentialism and
psychoanalysis. Nonetheless, Beauvoir's dispute with Freud appears to
be less about whether constraint is part of our being in the world, and
more about where that constraint is located: psychoanalysis locates
constraint internally, in the constitution of the psyche itself, not only in the
situations of social life, whereas Beauvoir locates it externally, in the
cultural forces that impact even the most intimate sense of our own
agency. Beauvoir thus claims that her own interpretations of women's
femininity will disclose women in their liberty, oriented freely by the future
and not simply explained by a past. She thereby ratifies the promise of
existentialism for feminism.
Beauvoir's own project of elucidating the paradoxical relation between
femininity and subjectivity is nonetheless influenced by psychoanalytic
concepts and appropriates its theoretical insights in various ways. The
Second Sex highlights the practices by which women become women
through their appropriation of bodily (sexual) difference, as well as the
manner in which a human being generally is limited and compelled by
bodily and unconscious forces. Indeed Beauvoir and Freud seem to
agree that one is not born but becomes a woman, i.e., that femininity
involves some sort of (social or psychical) process rather than a
biological or natural given. Both are interested in the how of this
process, how one becomes a woman, although, as discussed above,
they disagree about what this how is. Moreover, in her articulation of
women's ambivalent attitudes toward embodiment, sexuality, and
maternity, Beauvoir is clearly indebted to the attention psychoanalytic
practice gives to listening to women's first person narratives, interpreting
the emotional impact of events that can not be easily categorized, and
heeding attachments that carry both affection and resentment. Like
Freud, Beauvoir recognizes that we are embodied as sexual beings and
that our bodies not only testify to our own finitude and limits but also
matter as sites of encounters with others, encounters that are multivalent
including loving connections and threatening defenses, moments of
affirmation and of dissolution. Beauvoir refuses any political program that
demands we deny our bodily possibilities in order to be fully human and
proclaims that bodies and bodily difference are integral to projects of
selfhood, and not merely accidental contingencies of a rational and
disembodied mind. For Beauvoir, as for Freud, there is no such thing as
a disembodied, non-sexed human being; any ideal of the human apart
from sexual identity or difference is an abstraction that can only be
affirmed on the basis of a mind/body dualism. Femininity for her is not
merely a mystification that imprisons women's subjectivity (even if its
social construal has had this effect). Finally, like Freud, Beauvoir is fully
aware of the impact on children of their domestic situation, the way
familial life resonates with meaning that informs not only intimate
relations but relations to the larger world.
Beauvoir's portrayal of living a feminine existence, of sexual difference
as an embodied situation, developed through a series of
phenomenological descriptions, tries to understand how women have
been cast as other in the drama of masculine subjectivity and doubts the
premise that this is an historical event, occurring at some definitive point
in time. Beauvoir herself has often been (mis)read in a way analogous to
her (mis)reading of psychoanalysis, as proferring a determinate
succession of experiences for women, rather than describing socially
extant processes. But The Second Sex depicts the effects on women's
character of inequitable social arrangements; it neither proffers a
normalized destiny for women nor presupposes a common metaphysical
identity. Even so, in many ways Beauvoir's work is more easily aligned
with the sociologically oriented Anglo-American feminists than with
Irigaray and Kristeva.
3. Language, Law, and Sexual Difference
In considering the background of psychoanalytic feminism, a large portion of
which is rooted in or aligned with what gets called French Feminism, the French
context of psychoanalytic theory is also crucial, and in particular the work of
Jacques Lacan. Lacan's work has been both a powerful influence on, and an
object of critique for, feminist appropriations of psychoanalysis, and his ideas
have been taken up, transformed, and challenged by Luce Irigaray and Julia
Kristeva (both of whom are discussed below), among others. Lacan's work is both
praised for its de-biologization of Freud and pilloried for

s phallocentrism. Thesetwo aspects are in fact imbricated, as both hinge

on Lacan's elaboration of language as a symbolic order that precedes
and makes possible human subjectivity. In order to stay focused on the
feminist deployment of the psychoanalytic theoretical apparatus, I will
concentrate first on Lacan's understanding of the intersection of
language and law in the symbolic order, a nd then on his account of the
ego's formation in the imaginary order. The imaginary and symbolic are modes of
representation that make the world and the self intelligible. The symbolic is
Lacan's term for the way in which reality becomes intelligible and takes on
meaning and significance, through words; the imaginary refers to the mode of
intelligibility offered by images. The concordant and conflicting mediation of the
world by images and words coordinates, or makes sense of, reality and instigates
both subjectivity and social relations. As with Freud, maternal and paternal
figures are central to his account of subjectivity.
Lacan characterizes his own work as fundamentally a return to Freud,
albeit one that brings the insights of structural linguistics, especially
Ferdinand de Saussure and Roman Jakobson, and structural
anthropology, primarily Claude Levi-Strauss, into the domain of
psychoanalysis. Even so, his returns are also revisions; he not only
retrieves but renovates Freud's central concepts. According to Lacan,
Freud's theory of sexuality anticipates a theory of signification that he
could not yet elaborate. The anthropological and linguistic lineage of
Lacan's thought is central to this conceptualization of a symbolic
universe. Lacan explicitly endorses Levi-Strauss's conception of the
transcendental law at the origin of human sociality as the incest taboo;
he writes that the fundamental or primary law, the one where culture
begins in opposition to nature, is the law of the prohibition of incest
(Lacan 1992 [1986], 667). The intrusion of language and law institutes
a break with nature, one that transfigures the world by imbuing it with
meaning. Following the logic of Totem and Taboo, social identities are
constituted on the basis of exclusions that establish kinship networks.
These social bonds are maintained through mandates and prohibitions
(what is required and what is forbidden), and in particular through the
mandate of exogamy (with its structures of exchange) which determines
that the Oedipus complex is both universal and contingent (Lacan
1991b [1978], 33): paternal prohibition provides the conditions for human
sociality without the prohibition itself being innate. Lacan thus accounts
for the transgenerational transmission of elementary structures of kinship
without appealing to any natural necessity. Lacan takes this law of
kinship (dictating desire and its limits) to be fundamentally co-terminous
with the order of language since it is instituted through a symbolic
Lacan calls the paternal prohibition (the incest taboo) the law of the
father, and he develops the connection between law and language by
way of a pun. In French Non (No) and Nom (Name) sound alike. The no
that prohibits (the father's law) and the name that establishes authority
(the father's name or the proper name) are conferred simultaneously. By
submitting to the law of the father (his no and name) the child assumes a
symbolic identity and place in the human universe of meaning, i.e., the
child becomes a subject, bound by law and bearer of language. With this
compliance, the child takes on a life of desire and incompletion, pursuing
lost objects with no firm ground or fixed purpose, a lack of plenitude in
being that Lacan designates as castration.
As discussed above in the section on Freud, Freud understands women
to be castrated, deprived of a penis, and men to live under the threat of
castration. Lacan complicates this theoretical perspective by deeming all
subjects, all speaking beings, to be castrated, by which he means
deprived of the phallus, which is not the same as the penis. While the
penis is a biological organ, the phallus is a signifier which invokes or
points toward other signifiers, or toward a system of signifiers. The
moment of castration is the primordial moment of loss, the fracturing of
being by language. With entry into the reign of law and language,
subjects are cut off from the immediacy of bodily experience; relations to
things, and to oneself and others, are now mediated by words and
representations. The distinction between phallus and penis can be seen
to carry forward Freud's own distinction between instinct and drive, since
in each case the latter term indicates that the experience of the body has
meaning insofar as it takes place in the medium of language and in a
world of others.
Castration takes place when the child recognizes lack in the mother and
her maternal omnipotence is annulled. The mother, for the child, ceases
to be the all-powerful provider of every satisfaction as she herself is a
desiring being deprived of satisfaction. This conundrum of maternal
desire points elsewhere, toward the law introduced by the father
(Lacan 2006 [1970], 582). The paternal prohibition intervenes to warn
the child that s/he is not the answer to the question of the mother's
desire. Galvanized by the mother's lack, the law of the father (which
need not be embodied in an actual person) takes the place of the desire
of the mother, substitutes for it, occludes it. Indeed the paternal function,
working through name and law, indicates a dead father, just as Freud
understands in Totem and Taboo that the murdered father, the
precondition of law, is stronger than the living one. In the Lacanian
version of the Oedipal Complex, human beings achieve a sexual position
by traversing the Oedipal Complex, i.e., by submitting to castration, also
called the phallic function, and thereby entering into signification. There
is thus no sexual difference prior to representation.
Here we arrive at the phallocentrism, if not the patriarchalism, of Lacan's
thought, the central role of the phallus in his thinking about subjectivity
and sexual difference. According to Lacan, the phallus instates the
signifier into the subject regardless of any anatomical distinction
between the sexes (Lacan 2006 [1970], 576). The phallus, in other
words, is responsible for the child's passage from immersion in
perceptual immediacy to a representational domain in which the world
takes on meaning. It is this claim that de-biologizes Freud, since it
articulates the function of the phallus apart from any particular bodily
attributes. Lacan insists that the phallus is a signifier, not an image or
bodily organ, and that in relation to it all are castrated. The father's No
effectively says to the child you are not the object of the mother's desire
or you are not her phallus, the thing that fulfills her. As such, it also
conveys the message that the child too is lacking or desiring. Although
Lacan distinguishes between a seeming to be which characterizes
femininity, in the attempt to be the phallus that one is not (to be the
object of desire), from a seeming to have which characterizes
masculinity in the attempt to have the phallus that one does not have (to
possess the object of desire), he still maintains that everyone is lacking
the phallus in some way, either in the mode of not being it or in the mode
of not having it. Nonetheless, while Lacan centers human experience not
on the supposed biological fixity of anatomical distinctions, but on a
representational economy, the phallus retains its associations with
masculinity and remains the focal point of sexual identity.
As already discussed, Freud had theorized that there is only one libido
and it is masculine. In The Signification of the Phallus, Lacan explicitly
addresses, and criticizes, the alternative view that there might be two
libidos, which he satirizes as a kind of sexual equality, the equality of
natural rights (Lacan 2006 [1970], 577). This is the view I earlier
mentioned as belonging to Karen Horney who defends the idea of an
inherent, underived, biologically-based, nature of feminine sexuality.
Lacan also disparages the idea that the final stage of genital sexuality is
directed toward the entire person in his or her personhood, the
achievement of a kind of tenderness toward the whole being of another
(Lacan 2006 [1970], 580). Lacan disputes both of these positions as
normalizing and biologizing and claims that the psyche is not
harmonized with nature in either of these ways. In contrast to this
fantasy of sexual complementarity, the idea that men's and women's
sexual interests converge, Freud, Lacan claims, understood the
essential disturbance of human sexuality (Lacan 2006 [1970], 575), that
we are always lacking, always in search of aims and objects, the
deviation of man's needs due to the fact that he speaks (Lacan 2006
[1970], 579), and that this discordance means also that there is no
symmetrical or harmonious sexual relation between well-integrated and
self-realized men and women.
This symbolic dimension of human relations must be clearly
distinguished from the imaginary as the domain of the ego. The
imaginary order is most fundamentally and plainly elucidated in Lacan's
essay The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function as Revealed in
Psychoanalytic Experience, where he elaborates Freud's insights in The
Ego and the Id, taking up the idea that the ego is first and foremost a
bodily ego formed through the projection of a surface (Freud 1968
[1923], 27), a visual representation of an external veneer or faade.
Lacan concurs, writing that consciousness occurs each time there's
a surface such that it can produce what is called an image (Lacan
1991b [1978], 49). The mirror stage commences, pre-Oedipally, when
the infant is around 6 months old. The infant at this age is literally infans,
without speech and moreover, without bodily coordination or motor
control. Born prematurely, at a point prior to any adequate capacity for
self-care, the infant is wholly instinctually inept. By identifying itself with
an image, a coherent unity that contrasts to its own fragmented and
dispersed bodily existence, the infant forms a preliminary self, one
animated by an illusion but an illusion that allows it to anticipate its own
future organization.
Lacan's account of the mirror stage establishes the ego as
fundamentally imaginary, formed through the infant's specular
captivation with the unitary form presented in images of itself which it
assumes as its own through identification. This perceptual image of
coherent bodily contours and boundaries is at odds with the infant's
motor incapacity and the turbulent movements or fragmented drives
that animate its own body and processes. The ego, with its illusion of
self-mastery and containment, is formed through misrecognition, an
anticipatory identification with an idealized, stable, self-enclosed, citadel
of self. This identification with an image of oneself sets up the ego as
rivalrous, narcissistic, and aggressive. While the act of misrecognition
becomes the basis for a sense of self or for self-consciousness, it is also
an act of alienation, exclusion, or self-division; by erecting an imaginary
ideal, representing oneself in a perfected image, the self is also split and
rendered unconscious to itself, cut off from the multiplicity of dispersed
For Lacan, the ego is a knot of imaginary servitude (Lacan 2006
[1970], 80) and thus the site of the subject's stagnancy and inertia. The
mirror stage also forms the basis of Lacan's critique of ego psychology;
whereas the latter takes strengthening the ego to be the aim of analytic
practice, Lacan takes the aspirations of the ego to be a lure (Lacan
2006 [1970], 78) of self-possession, an armor that rigidifies the subject
and resists freedom and movement, a defensive structure that provides
an alienating identity. With this theory of the ego, Lacan presents a
subject at odds with itself, non-self-identical, in primordial Discord
(Lacan 2006 [1970], 78), torn between unity and anarchy, organization
and chaos, integration and fragmentation. The withdrawal of the self
from itself proceeds from the reflexivity of representational practices of
language. The ego as object is trapped in oppositional relationships,
including with itself, and cannot therefore be equated with the subject as
speaking being who, in the use of words, signifiers that are differentially
related to one another, is capable of more complex plays of presence
and absence; language, unlike perception (I perceive an object or I
don't), can evoke simultaneously the presence and the absence of the
thing (I can represent objects that are not present).
While the advent of the symbolic order is tied to Oedipalization, and the
imaginary order is tied to the pre-Oedipal period, it would be mistaken to
think of the imaginary and symbolic in only developmental or
chronological terms as they are also ongoing structures of experience.
Even in the seemingly dyadic relation between mother and child, Lacan
argues, a third term is always at work. Initially this third term is simply a
question, the question of the mother's desire, of what she wants, but
already this question interrupts or destabilizes the child's position, rents
dyadic unity, even as the child takes itself to be this object of desire,
since it indicates in a preliminary way that the mother is lacking, that she
is not whole, entire, omnipotent. The question of desire, in other words,
means that the phallic mother of the imaginary is already the castrated
mother of the symbolic, and that the imaginary unity of the ego, with its
oppositional relations, is bound to be sublated into a symbolic relation of
It is important, however, not to conflate the mother with the woman or
maternity with femininity. Lacan famously declares that there's no such
thing as Woman, Woman with a capital W indicating the universal
(Lacan, 1998 [1975], 72), a metaphysical concept with determinate and
substantive content. In asserting that The Woman does not exist, Lacan
indicates that something of the psyche escapes castration, limitation,
signification, and the demands of the law of the father. Symbolic and
imaginary representations leave something out, hit their limit, produce an
impasse that presents a fracture or fissure in the symbolic order. While
sexual difference is mediated by representation, it cannot be fully
contained within its terms.
The idea that sexual difference is not biologically innate but established
through language and law has led some feminists to conclude that
Lacan is on the side of social constructionism but this would be
mistaken. Lacan is adamant that the choice between nature and culture
is a false one, and that language is not a social phenomenon (Lacan
2006 [1970], 578). Language and law, personified by the name of the
father, are irreducible to social practices and processes and are in fact
the condition of their possibility. While Lacan is criticized for constituting
sexual difference on the basis of the phallic function and subjectivity on
the basis of paternal authority, what the Lacanian project does provide
for feminism is not the idea of a malleable culture, susceptible to human
mastery, as distinct from a fixed nature that escapes it, but the more
disconcerting idea that human mastery, of ourselves, of others, of nature
and culture, is itself illusory. Rather than the promise of a rational
progress toward greater and greater equality, respect for individual
difference, and universality, Lacan's insights, like Freud's, point toward
the precariousness of identity and social bonds and to the instability of
the drives that attach us to one another. Subjectivity and sexuality are
not natural adaptations but deviations, detours, breaks from nature that
undermine identity and divide or limit any unity of self or community. In
addition to the distinctiveness of his method, focus, and insight, this
willingness to grapple with the limits of self-mastery is one reason why
Lacan has been taken as an innovative and amenable resource for
some feminist theorists. In exposing the inadequacies of social or
empirical accounts of sexual difference, identity, and the power relations
built upon them, Lacan confronts the fundamental structures at the root
of empirical socio-historical circumstances.
4. French Feminism
French Feminism is in many ways a misnomer since the authors thus
characterized are rarely of French origin or nationality (although French
is the predominant language of their writing) and not necessarily overtly
self-identified as feminist. The writers affiliated with French Feminism,
including Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, Sarah Kofman, Catherine
Clement, and Helene Cixous, among others, variously ask about the
relation between the maternal and the feminine, doubt that we can say
what a woman is, worry about Freud's lack of attention to mothers, play
with writing style, wonder about feminine subjectivity, ask if women can
be subjects or citizens without adapting to masculine norms, impeach
Lacan's phallocentrism, and suspect that access to language assimilates
women into neutralized brothers. Unlike Beauvoir, they are
philosophically and temperamentally more sympathetic to the split of
subjectivity detailed by psychoanalysis, the idea that I am not I, that self-
division rather than self-identity is the fundamental feature of human
existence, and therefore that the subject is not a unitary point of origin
for choice. Like Beauvoir, they ask whether the structures of femininity
and the structures of subjectivity are compatible, commensurable,
reconcilable, and are vexed by the apprehension that they are
fundamentally at odds. While they aim to disentangle femininity from
maternity, and provide a critique of their conflation, they also take
seriously the significance of maternity for women and for children of both
sexes. Because they concede the limits of socio-cultural explanations for
women's lack of standing in the social contract, and take femininity and
the feminine body as points of departure for speech or writing, they have
often been accused of essentialism. Below I focus on the work of
Irigaray and Kristeva, examining how they engage with and transform
the ideas of Freud and Lacan, and how they articulate sexual difference
as integrally connected to the foundation, and disruption, of a symbolic
4.1 The Impasse of Feminine Subjectivity
Irigaray characterizes her own project as taking place in three stages:
first, deconstructing the masculine subject; second, figuring the
possibility for a feminine subject; and third, construing an intersubjectivity
that respects sexual difference (Irigaray 1995a, 96). Sexual difference, in
her view, is not a system of domination to be overcome but a cultural
process and practice to be achieved and nourished; the actual relations
of domination and subordination that characterize Western politics,
society, history, literature, language, and law, epitomize for Irigaray the
reign of sexual indifference, the fraternal order of equal brothers/citizens
that is inattentive to the self-division of nature, its immanent sexual
differentiation. Irigaray's writings implicate Freud in this culture of sexual
indifference, his work a symptom of masculine metaphysics and its
dream of self-identity and self-mastery. I will discuss Irigaray's
understanding of sexual indifference further below, after first describing
and elucidating her style of writing.
Irigaray's writing style is often mimetic, an approach that she claims has
been historically assigned to the feminine (Irigaray 1985b, 76) and
therefore that she adopts deliberately in order to try to recover the place
of her exploitation by discourse (Irigaray 1985b, 76). Irigaray's writing
does not proceed propositionally, laying down theses and supporting
arguments, nor is it formulated through conventionally linear
explanations. This is not to say, of course, that she does not draw
conclusions or that her writing is empty of insight. But these insights are
reached by mirroring the text she is reading, allowing it to play out its
tensions and contradictions, juxtaposing, transfiguring, and intensifying
its crises and putting its parapraxes (its textual and conceptual slips of
the tongue) on display. Her writing is driven by the vagaries of the author
before her, and makes appear, or unmasks, the structuring forces of the
text and its impasses and limits. This reading strategy goes to work on
the unconscious logic of a text, revealing the author's underlying
fantasies and anxieties by amplifying and reflecting them, and thereby
attempting to loosen the masculine hold on the symbolic by conveying
its unstated postulates and conversing from a different perspective.
Intently attentive to the signifer, to the words and silences of
psychoanalytic texts, she aims to retrieve the bodily in language,
something underlying symbolic processes of representation, and to
invent a new language and imagine new forms.
Speculum of the Other Woman (her dissertation and the work that got
her exiled from the Lacanian school) includes The Blind Spot of an Old
Dream of Symmetry, Irigaray's long essay on Freud's writings on
femininity. Irigaray's essay on Freud begins by tackling head-on his
articulation of the riddle of femininity (Irigaray 1985a, 13) in his lecture on
Femininity. Here already we can recognize both Irigaray's unique style
and her critical project, and the way these two features of her writing are
imbricated and entangled with one another, propelling a distinctively
mimetic method of reading, repeating, and reproducing the text,
mirroring Freud's speculative discourse but also transforming and
sabotaging its terms. Her text opens as Freud's does, with his words,
and is comprised of long quotations that follow the course of Freud's
essay. Insofar as this appropriation might at first appear as the passive
listening of a dutiful daughter, Irigaray performs a kind of masquerade of
femininity: receptive, submissive, obedient. But this performance does
not merely reiterate or reproduce; in exemplifying the ways in which
women have no language of their own, can only speak in or through the
voice of the father, she is establishing the symbolic terrain upon which
any critique must move while also subverting its presuppositions. Her
own words are inserted as commentary, question, counterpoint, breaking
open the Freudian text, usurping its privileges, revealing its wounds. By
engaging Freud in a conversation, she insists on her own status as a
speaking subject, and not merely an object of study in support of the
expansion of a sexist science.
Irigaray's insistence on her own speech is especially crucial given
Freud's reprimand to women: you are yourselves the problem (Freud
1968 [1933], 113). Freud's lecture had ventured to address the question
of sexual difference, and had endeavored to complicate rather than
simplify our perceptions and certainties concerning its meaning and
status. Irigaray, however, by retrieving and replaying Freud's voice,
attempts to show that he remains caught up in certainties and
dogmatisms about sex, so that ultimately his discourse is one of sexual
indifference, as I will discuss next. Freud is thus not the master of
Irigaray's essay: his words do not so much determine her trajectory as
reveal their own (freely) associative character, his own unmastery, the
egoic and identificatory fantasies that haunt his texts on femininity.
According to Irigaray, Freud's work is sexually indifferent because of its
assumption of a kind of symmetry or harmony between masculine and
feminine identities and sexualities. With regard to sexual desire, Freud
assumes that normal women will desire men and be desired by them
and thus that each sex can fulfill the longings of the other. With regard to
sexual identity, Freud models the feminine Oedipal Complex on a
masculine paradigm and origin, with the feminine as its distorted copy. In
both cases, Freud contrives to understand women as the
complementary other to men, an other modeled on the same. Irigaray
considers this to be a monosexual, homosocial economy governed by
specular opposition or mirroring. It is this sexual indifference that is
referenced in the title of Irigaray's essay as the old dream of symmetry.
But, as also indicated by her title, Irigaray believes this dream is
premised on a blindspot. Freud characterizes the girl's relation to the
maternal figure as an especially inexorable repression (Freud 1968
[1931], 226) and views the little girl as a little man; the mother/daughter
relation is not seen or apprehended by him. The crime here, in Irigaray's
view, is matricide and the suppression of maternal genealogies or lines
of descent. The law of the father, the patrimonial order by which sons
inherit the father's name by submitting to his prohibitions, privileging this
name over the maternal body, appropriates even birth to the father. The
maternal lineage is suppressed. Irigaray argues that this means that a
pre-Oedipal mother-daughter relationship has not been taken up by the
signifying order; in fact that order retroactively denies that such a relation
ever existed, since a daughter becomes a daughter properly, becomes
feminized or sexually differentiated (as a girl or woman), only post-
Oedipally. In Lacanian terms, Freud excludes the mother/daughter
relation from the symbolic order. Not only is the maternal connection lost
or repressed, but the ability to name or identify the loss as a loss is also
barred. Banished from memory, the loss of the mother cannot be
mourned. Irigaray claims that it is this genealogical asymmetry, with the
father's name memorialized and the mother's body sacrificed to it, that
sustains the legitimacy of patriarchy and propels the fantasy of a
harmony of sexual difference, the conviction that the sexes are
reciprocal and complementary in their identities and desires.
Sexual difference, in Irigaray's reading of Freud, is thus subsumed under
or derived from the problematics of sameness (Irigaray 1985a, 26) and
oriented by the fantasy of auto-genesis, being one's own origin, an ideal
of self-mastery that is not threatened by any real difference. Freud's
account of sexuality presupposes that the sexual subject is male, and
even that there are no women, only mothers or those destined to
become mothers, that is that the meaning of being a woman is fully
exhausted in the meaning of being a mother. In the psychical pre-history
of the little girl as elaborated in the idea that the little girl is a little man
(Freud 1968 [1933], 118), she will not have been a daughter. As little
girls diverge from little boys, as they cease to be little men, they are
expected to be appealing visual objects, the mirror of men's desires,
enabling men to represent themselves, shore up their self-image with an
adoring reflection. Irigaray sees in this account a masculine desire for
women's desire to be directed toward men. Women are expected to
provide the mirror that supports men's projects, nurtures and nourishes
their identities, energizes their drive for mastery, by presenting
themselves as an alter ego. This imaginary, specular, order is matricidal,
feeding on the blood of women, leaving unpaid its fundamental debt to
the mother, and abandoning the subjectivity of the daughter. By
repressing dependence on the maternal origin of life, the masculine is
marked as originary, that from which differentiation proceeds. What
functions as a primal loss for boys/sons, the cause of their desire, can
only function as a gap in language, an absence of meaning for
girls/daughters, an exile from desire, language, and other women, an
irretrievable void that cannot be recuperated in language because it is
instigated by language, by the entry into symbolic order called forth by
the paternal prohibition of the father's no/name. Irigaray's concern is that
for Freud, the mother is only a mirror and her relationship is always to a
son; there are no mother/daughter relations. Not only is Western culture
premised on matricide, which she claims is more primordial than the
patricide of Totem and Taboo, but this matricide is forgotten and the
mother remains unmourned.
Repressing any maternal genealogy, political life has been predicated on
the lineage between fathers and sons and the bonds of brotherhood,
appropriating universality and citizenship to men and rendering women
as objects of their desire and exchange. The exploitation of women is
not merely a phenomenon that takes place within the social order, it is its
very foundation and premise. Irigaray calls the fraternal order
hom(m)osexuality, meaning both that it is an order of the same (homo)
and that it is the order of men (homme): the regime of sexual
indifference ignores relations among women, and especially between
mothers and daughters, and situates women as the medium of men's
alliances with one another, as the buried support and energetic reserves
of the body politic. This forgetting of the mother supports vertical and
horizontal relations between men but leaves women unrepresented in
language (as subjects) and incapable of achieving representation in the
body politic (as citizens). Irigaray's own project thus aims to criticize the
hom(m)osexual order and its specular economy, to reinvigorate
mother/daughter relations to make possible a feminine subjectivity, and
to cultivate sexual difference in the political realm, in civil identity.
Developing the resources for transformation, i.e., for women to become
citizens and subjects, entails disrupting the transmission of power
between men and rethinking the passage from nature to culture
represented by the Oedipal Complex. This task requires intervening in
the symbolic and imaginary realms, creating a new language that would
not be severed from the body and ending the division of labor between
love and law.
The structure of the representational economy, its association of
subjectivity with masculinity, precludes the convergence of being a
woman and being a speaking being. Although of course there are words
for women, these words constitute her only with reference to masculinity,
as a photographic negative of man, or in response to a patriarchal
exertion of feminine norms and expectations. They secure her in a
masculine universe, they say in advance what she is, they render her
captive to an idea of feminine essence. By contrast, Irigaray seeks to
create a representation for women that would not be a designation of
what she is, defining her by and holding her to some concrete essence,
but would allow her to exist on her own terms and speak for herself.
Irigaray believes that this type of self-determination is barred by the
exclusion of mother-daughter genealogies, an exclusion that works to
assign woman to a maternal destiny (as mothers of men). Neither
denotative nor expressive, neither speaking of woman (as though
woman were a determinate object of study) nor speaking as one (as
though the aim were to express an inner essence), Irigaray's writing
establishes a reflexive relation to language. By acquiescing, in her
mimetic writing style, to the cultural expectation of feminine artifice,
Irigaray stages her own exiled agency and thereby extends the
possibilities for being a woman to include being not only an object in or
reference of language but a transformer of language. Without claiming to
say what a woman really is, to get right what the symbolic order gets
wrong, she shows that in speaking differently, the very meaning of being
a woman (or being a man) can be transformed, so that sexual difference
remains open to new possibilities. She thus does not so much refute
Freud's account of the Oedipal Complex and the little girl's purported
masculinity as re-present its primal crime against women, the Oedipal
exclusion of maternal dependency, thereby altering the scene of its
Irigaray also challenges the Lacanian idea of the law of the father and
the phallic signifier, pillorying the way in which natural birth has been
assigned to maternity while cultural birth is assigned to paternity,
equating the woman-mother with body and the man-father with language
and law, and relegating the bodily process of parturition (maternity) to
mute nature while valorizing the symbolic process of legitimation
(paternity) as constitutive of civilization. Human subjectivity has been
masculinized, while human flesh is both feminized and animalized.
Irigaray aims to provoke a legitimation crisis in the paternal legacy and
the name of the father that bestows on the child a political and familial
The erasure of sexual difference enables a metaphysics of substance in
which sexual identity is a matter of fixed and pre-determined being, of
underlying essences or common properties, rather than a form of
becoming and self-generation. Irigaray's genealogical account of sexual
difference resists both the idea of an invariant universal (and hence
sexually neutral) human essence that subtends (and thereby expels)
human multiplicity and the idea of sexual essences that consist in self-
enclosed identities between which there is an uncrossable divide. That
is, she rejects the ontological assumptions of both universal equality and
separatism, taking both to be implicitly masculine and patriarchal, bound
to a metaphysical essentialism that aims to capture diversity in first or
final principles, or to subsume particulars under general concepts.
Challenging the logic of the one and the many, Irigaray takes the self-
division of nature, its being-two, as a model of autonomous self-
development. When Irigaray says that human nature is two, she does
not mean that there are two fixed sexual substances, but that to be
natural is to be embodied, finite, divided, that the fundamental character
of nature is growth through differentiation. Human nature, in her view, is
not disembodied or neutral; it is always distinctively sexed or sexuate, a
neologism for sexed, but not necessarily erotic, bodily difference.
Viewing the natural body as self-differentiating rather than self-identical,
Irigaray also articulates distinctive capacities for generation
corresponding to differing morphological possibilities (the possibilities of
bodily form) that entail different subjective configurations (Irigaray 2001
[1994], 137).
If human nature is two, and always divided, Irigaray argues, then civil
identity is also two and divided; the two of nature needs to be brought
into the two of culture. The one is an illusion of patriarchy, while the two
threatens the phallocentric order and challenges the supposition that
universality must be singular. The scandalous idea of a feminine
subjectivity means that the universal must be doubled. Doubling the
universal does not, for Irigaray, mean merely replacing a neutral
universality (something that holds true for all human beings) with two
wholly distinct and separate truths. A universal that has been doubled
has also been split or divided from itself, no longer one, and Irigaray
sees in this the possibility for cultivating sexual difference and
overcoming a culture of sexual indifference that is dependent on the idea
of the generic human.
If the other has always been formulated on the basis of the same, as
merely a specific difference from some underlying generic identity, there
has only been complementarity and opposition, there has never been an
actual other subject, each with its own path of development. Women
have mirrored men's subjectivities, reflected their egos back to them in
an illusion of wholeness and unity, submitted to the demand that they
perform or masquerade femininity. Given this criticism of the exploitation
of otherness, and despite her criticism of a feminist politics of equality,
Irigaray thus cannot be simplistically aligned with the project of
difference, if this means asserting features of women's biological or
social specificity as essential and innately valuable attributes, since
these Irigaray takes to be framed already and in advance by a
patriarchal symbolic and imaginary order. Irigaray's affirmation of sexual
difference does not mean affirming the feminine traits that have been
ascribed to women, since these are actually, in her view, the traits of
sexual indifference, defined only with reference to men. Sexual
difference has yet to appear and it is her task to bring it into being.
Being-two is counterposed to the metaphysical alteration between the
one and the many, with its incessant oscillation between the essentialism
of a rigid identity and the laissez-faire contingency, independent of any
determining essence, of unlimited multiplicity and atomistic individualism.
It is on the basis of this being-two that Irigaray attempts to build an ethics
of sexual difference, a political relation between-two, with civil rights
appropriate to sexuate identity, so that one's identity as a citizen is not
cut off from the body, and law is not severed from nature. If sexual
difference is not simply an effect of oppression, then freedom does not
mean freedom from sexed embodiment. While political neutrality can
only recognize disembodied subjects deprived of their bodily life, for
Irigaray, citizens are not abstractions. The doubled, non-neutral,
universal allows for distinctively feminine (and distinctively masculine)
subjects to be recognized politically.
Similarly to Beauvoir, who ascertains that language and culture
constitute the subject as masculine, and the feminine as other to him,
Irigaray maintains that inhabiting a feminine subjectivity is paradoxical in
a fraternal social order. But, for Irigaray, both Beauvoir and Freud fail to
address sexual difference insofar as they retain a singular notion of
masculine subjectivity, Freud because he presumes the libido is always
masculine, and Beauvoir because she reckons the aim of women's
emancipation as equality with men (for instance by concluding the
Second Sex with a call to brotherhood and seeming, arguably, to be
calling for women to assimilate to masculine norms of selfhood). Irigaray
rejects the project of equality, since equality can only ever mean
equality to men, and proposes instead doubling the notion of subjectivity
in line with the subject's own self-division. This might seem unnecessary,
especially to equality-oriented feminists, since of course, women can, at
least in much of the liberal, democratic world, be citizen-subjects, just
like men. But Irigaray's point is that women can have the rights of men
only so long as they are like men, i.e., insofar as they are brothers,
subsumed into the neutral individuality of the liberal social contract. This
purportedly equal access to citizenship and subjectivity thus does not
resolve the paradox, since it merely takes the side of subjectivity over
that of femininity, retaining the constitution of the feminine as lack, the
inverted image of man, the other of the same, that which stands in the
way of political agency and obstructs autonomy, and which thus must be
overcome in order to achieve self-determination. In the prevailing social
contract, femininity and subjectivity remain opposed.
Irigaray does not think she can say what a woman is or what femininity
is. Familial, social, and symbolic mechanisms of exchange have denied
femininity its own images and language, fashioning women through
men's language, images, and desires, and thereby producing an
apparent, but false, symmetry within a single, monotonous, language.
Against this homogeny, with its same and its other, Irigaray construes
the production or work of sexual difference, sexual difference as a
relation between-two, to be the path toward liberating both femininity and
masculinity from their metaphysical and political constraints by allowing
them each to cultivate their own interdependent natures. The idea of a
between-two does not mean a singular path that is shared by both, but
rather indicates, in addition to the value of a specifically feminine sexual
identity and a specifically masculine sexual identity, the ethical path of an
intersubjective relationality that allows them to appreciate and value one
another. Since the between-two is premised on being-two (self-
differentiated), it is in the cultivation of this sexual difference that we will
find the possibility of an ethical sexual relation, what Irigaray calls an
ethics of sexual difference. For Irigaray, then, contra Lacan, there can be
a sexual relation. Irigaray's undertaking thus involves not merely an
assertion of difference against equality, nor certainly a simple reversal;
such stances take place on the basis of an already existing symbolic
order and imaginary relation and are themselves what need to be
interrogated. To find a language for feminine sexuality and feminine
subjectivity, we must go back through the dominant discourse (Irigaray
1985b, 119) with its metaphysical assumptions of substance or essence,
and its concept of identity which adheres to the regime of sexual
Although Irigaray often invokes the maternal as the source of life and
subjectivity, she does not equate maternity with femininity or the mother
with the woman. Among many others, Jessica Benjamin (whose work
will be discussed below) seems to share the mistaken view that
Irigaray's theoretical project is premised upon valorizing female genitals
as a starting point for a different desire (Benjamin 1988, 276). No doubt
this (mis)interpretation stems from Irigaray's difficult text When Our Lips
Speak Together. But what Irigaray means by speaking from the body is
moving away from a singular conception of origin and desire, and most
especially the origin of desire. Her writing of women's bodies, like her
retrieval of mother/daughter genealogies is a strategy of language and
imagination, situating the body as fluid border, the site of the overflow of
culture into nature and vice versa, rather than a self-enclosed egoic
center. She is not an essentialist who views women's biology as their
destiny. Instead she challenges the nature/culture divide, and the
either/or of biology or civilization.
4.2 Subjectivity, Alterity, and Alienation
While often grouped together in cursory overviews of so-called French
Feminism, Irigaray and Kristeva have fundamentally disparate projects
(and locations in the academy), both with regard to their critical analyses
and with regard to their political enterprises. Whereas Irigaray was a
student of Lacan who breaks with (even as she is inspired by) his
teachings from her earliest work, Kristeva has a much more ambiguous
relationship to his school of thought and was never his student or
attended his seminars. Their respective views can perhaps best be
captured with respect to their attitude toward the symbolic violence of
castration (the Oedipal Complex) and the social contract. As explained
above, Irigaray envisions a sexuate culture that would overcome the
Oedipal demands of a sacrificial economy and restore feminine
genealogies to the work of civilization. Kristeva, by contrast, argues that
there is no subjectivity beyond sacrifice and does not believe Oedipus
can or should be overcome. Kristeva and Irigaray do not form a cohort
and they do not respond to each other's writings. But they both have
psychoanalytic training and practices and both attend to the body and
the drives, taking up the theme of loss or exile of the mother's body and
the impact of matricide on social relations. Kristeva even (echoing
Irigaray) condemns humanism as the fraternity of the same (Kristeva
1998, 168) and, like Irigaray, she plays with writing style, offering
experimental, innovative, sometimes imagistic portraits of psychical
moods, maternal practices, and artistic endeavors.
Kristeva's connection to feminist thought is also unsettled and volatile,
although her focus on questions pertaining to language, femininity, and
the maternal body has made her work amenable to feminist interest and
development. In her essay Women's Time, she classifies the feminist
movement into three distinct times or generations, each with its own
approach to and vision of justice. The first generation is universalist in
principle and aspires to give women a place within history and the social
contract; this generation takes equality as its mission and asserts
women's identification with the dominant values of rationality. Kristeva
aligns Beauvoir with this project of pursuing access to universal
subjectivity. The second generation is reactive, rejecting the idea of
assimilation to values taken to be masculine; this generation insists on
feminine difference. While Kristeva does not mention Irigaray, it seems
clear that Kristeva would align her with this strategy and the project of
recognizing feminine specificity. In Kristeva's view, the first generation is
so committed to universal equality that it denies bodily difference, and
the second generation is so committed to difference that it refuses to
partake of a history it deems to be masculine. The third generation
follows neither the path of fixing identity nor the path of neutralizing
difference in the medium of universality. Instead it embraces ambiguity
and non-identity, respecting both the value of participating in historical
time and the ineluctability of bodily difference. The third generation
recognizes that it is as embodied beings that we enter into the social
contract and community with others.
Since Kristeva believes that there is no subjectivity and no sociality
without the violence of the symbolic contract and the splitting of
subjectivity, the feminism that she proposes would not take refuge from
this violence either by standing outside history (as the second generation
does), or by denying women's bodies and desires (as the first generation
does). Taking seriously the intransigence of sexual difference, and the
violent fractures within and of identity, Kristeva advocates feminist
support for alienation that would not pretend to reconcile the rupture
between body and law (what Lacan calls castration) and would refuse
the solace of identity. Kristeva mentions the bodily experience of
pregnancy, an experience of being split, of being two in one, as
manifesting the instability of, and alterity within, identity.
This insistence on the fragility and precariousness of identity can be
grasped in the first instance by looking at Kristeva's understanding of the
drives and language. Kristeva introduces the notion of the semiotic as
the affective dimension of language that facilitates its energetic
movement. The semiotic is the materiality of language, its tonal and
rhythmic qualities, its bodily force. In Kristeva's account, the drives are
not simply excluded by language but also inscribed as an alien element
within it. While more primitive than signification, the semiotic participates
in signifying practices.
Kristeva's elaboration of the semiotic situates it at a point prior to the
Lacanian imaginary, i.e., prior to the moment at which the infant
identifies with its own ego and distinguishes itself from an object. Still in
porous relation to another body, without clear borders or limits, the infant
is propelled by the anarchic, heterogenous, rhythmic flow of drive energy
which has no thesis and no position (Kristeva 1984, 26). Mobile and
provisional, moving through the body of the not-yet subject, the semiotic
is a chaotic force anterior to language, unlocalizable because it courses
through an as yet undifferentiated materiality in which the infantile body
is not yet distinct from the maternal body. Kristeva calls this stage pre-
thetic since it is prior to the reign of propositions, judgments, positions,
and theses, these being subsequent possibilities that might arrest or
seize a movement that always exceeds them. Since the image is itself a
kind of sign, a first representation, the advent of the imaginary
demarcates the first thetic break, a break from nature and into the realm
of convention. What Kristeva means by the thetic then includes both the
imaginary (the mirror stage) and the symbolic (the Oedipal Complex)
dimensions of Lacan. Only with the advent of the thetic phase, the
threshold of language (Kristeva 1984, 45), can there be said to be
signification proper along with negation as judgment. In thereby altering
Lacan's understanding of the imaginary or mirror stage, she attends to
the pre-Oedipal mother/child relation in a way he does not, while also
elaborating on an underdeveloped theme in Freud's work.
Freud distinguishes between auto-erotism and primary narcissism,
attributing to the latter a new psychical action. While auto-erotism
precedes the formation of the ego and the individuation of the self,
primary narcissism only ensues with the preliminary development of
egoic unity, when the ego is able to demarcate itself from the
surrounding world and take itself for an object. The semiotic corresponds
to the diffuse drive energy of auto-erotism and Kristeva takes up Freud's
challenge to assess the psychical action of ego-formation that enables
primary narcissism, which she attributes to a primary identification with
the imaginary father. In Tales of Love, which jumps off from Freud's claim
in The Ego and the Id that identification with the father of individual pre-
history is prior to and more primary than object-cathexis, Kristeva offers
an original account of the pre-Oedipal period, finding a paternal figure
there. Since the bond of identification precedes any bond with objects,
the imaginary father is what makes possible the initial separation
between ego and object, or rather proto-ego and proto-object. This
father is not the first object, but the first identification, making language
and love possible, movement within and among a world of others. This
identification, Kristeva hypothesizes, alters maternal space, interrupts it
with something beyond its borders. But it also indicates that there is a
preliminary pre-thetic symbolic capacity at work in infantile life. As the
drives expel, detach, or isolate a proto-object, the space of differentiation
is supported by identification with the imaginary father, who holds it
open. The imaginary father is here associated with love (unlike the
symbolic father who is associated with law), an invitation to language
and subjectivity, to become a being who can have relations with others.
Kristeva accepts Freud's insight that the thetic break, or the prohibitory
break of the Oedipal Complex and the dead father, that founds law and
sociality is violent and murderous (Kristeva 1984, 70). The capacity for
representation transforms our perceptual universe, entailing that no
bodily immediacy is possible, that all experience will be mediated by
significatory practices and filtered through the ego's organization. But
although this rent in experience is suffered by the signifying child as a
loss to be mourned, it is also, Kristeva claims, a gift, the gift of a self that
can navigate language. With words and memories available, the child
can compensate for the loss of objects in perception (in the exemplary
case, learning to endure the mother's absence). On Kristeva's view, the
structural violence of language's irruption as the murder of soma, the
transformation of the body, the captation of drives (Kristeva 1984, 75), is
preceded by a loving father who makes possible the preliminary
individuation of the infant from the mother. Although symbolic violence is
integral to the maintenance of a social order, the promise of language on
Kristeva's account is initially brought forward by love, not by law. Unlike
Irigaray, who wants to retrieve the pre-Oedipal period in order to reclaim
feminine genealogies, Kristeva wants only to redescribe it in order to
reassess its import for individuation and creative self-transformation. She
takes infantile matricide (separation from the mother) to be a necessary
condition of subjectivity and not a remnant of patriarchal violence.
Still, Kristeva charts differing arcs for the paternal and maternal
relationships in the constitution of subjectivity. The imaginary father
empowers a new psychic space premised on the distinction between
internal and external, self and other. The breaking in of the signifier
inaugurates individuation, the assumption of bodily form and corporeal
unity, and thereby entails loss of the maternal body. In Kristeva's view,
matricide, repression of the maternal body, is a necessary event on the
way to subjectivity. The bodily exchange between mother and child can
serve as a barrier to love, imprisoning the child in an overwhelming
bond. The loving mother provides the first approach to language and law
by demonstrating love for an object who is not the child, a third outside
this dyad who makes the dyadic relationship itself possible and releases
the emotional pressure of it. The loving father proffers a kind of promise,
even as he disrupts fusion with the mother, allowing and encouraging the
child to represent itself. Kristeva's thought here follows Lacan's idea that
a mother whose only object of desire is her child will produce a child who
cannot move beyond the psychosis of being the phallus for her.
Signification and language are sites of sublimation, creative workings out
of the drives, but they can be stalled by abjection and melancholia which
are both preconditions for, but also limits to, subjectification. Kristeva
identifies abjection and melancholia as sites of psychical (and social)
crisis rooted in narcissistic disorder. In them, the tenuous processes of
ego-formation risk collapse; faced with difficulty clarifying the boundaries
of the self, the subject reverts to ambivalent aggressivity. While Kristeva
understands narcissism to be a fundamental, if unstable, structure of the
psyche, abjection and melancholia are problematic relations to the
maternal body and its loss (or the malfunctioning of its loss). They are
experiences of disintegration or dissolution of the ego without
reorganization, but also of its rabid fortification.
In Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, the abject is described as
neither inside nor outside, neither subject nor object, neither self nor
other, troubling identity and order with the instability of boundaries,
borders, and limits. Kristeva offers the examples of bodily fluids, sweat,
blood, pus, milk, as non-objects that are banished in the course of ego-
formation. These non-objects also include the mother's body; indeed the
maternal body is a privileged site of abjection, as it is that which must be
excluded in order for individuation and separation to take place, so that
one can distinguish self from other and establish a dyadic (imaginary)
relation out of undifferentiated maternal space or the semiotic chora, the
pre-spatial relation of fluid (although not entirely unregulated) drives. The
abject can then also be called the primally repressed, primal because
prior not only to the secondary symbolic prohibition of the incest taboo or
Oedipal Complex, but also prior to the establishment of any identity.
The abject is horrifying, repellent, but also fascinating; it is strange but
familiar. The process of abjection is not merely a symptom of phobia or
borderline disorder, but a necessary and even recurring ordeal in any
subject's transition to identification with the father and accession to
language. It is the most archaic form of negativity, an exclusion or
expulsion which functions by securing the borders of self, carving a
space, marking a divide, out of which the ego can emerge. Kristeva calls
it the violent attempt to release the hold of maternal entity (Kristeva
1982, 13) or rather what will have been the mother, since this process
establishes the distinction between the maternal body and the infant in
the first place, making possible primary narcissism. The abject exposes
the precariousness of the subject/object divide, the fragility of identity,
the need to constitute oneself against the threat of, and desire for,
Although this is not primarily Kristeva's concern, abjection can also be
understood as a social phenomenon, one with political implications. The
psychically primitive experience of egoic instability can be propelled into
the political realm, and be socially accentuated or reinforced. In
abjection, subjects confront what they must exclude or expel in order to
maintain identity, that is, they confront their own dependency, mortality,
finitude, and materiality. This strangeness experienced at the porous
edges of identity can rebound into troubling relations with others,
including especially with others who are perceived as lacking intelligible
identity, socially marginal, or refusing cultural assimilation. While
Kristeva's own focus is less on what is abjected than the process of
abjection, that is, less on the expelled non-object than on the violence of
separation that brings objects (and others) into being, her work provides
the theoretical underpinnings to ask questions about who bears the
burden of abjection, how and why some are figured as inhuman, animal,
or alien. Her analysis of abjection exposes the ways in which social life is
dependent on jettisoning or containing disorder and disruption, and
managing the fear of contamination.
The confusion of borders, the ambivalent relation to maternal space at
the outskirts of narcissism, also motivates melancholia. The idea of the
maternal as the primally repressed recurs in Black Sun: Depression and
Melancholia, where Kristeva claims, matricide is our vital necessity
(Kristeva 1989, 27), the founding partition that facilitates the birth and
growth of the ego. Kristeva praises the child, the intrepid wanderer who
leaves the crib to meet the mother in the realm of representations
(Kristeva 1989, 41). Maintaining that the organization of the psyche is
premised on loss, Kristeva also understands that the suffering entailed
by loss can derail the formation of a self, that loss itself can become the
dominant reality for some who are unable to establish a secure relation
to themselves. While mourning, for Kristeva as for Freud, enables a
subject to, gradually and painfully, let go of loss by establishing a relation
in language to it, melancholia is a practice which enables the subject to
hold onto lost objects, most especially the mother or, better, the dead (or
repressed) mother. The loving father facilitates mourning and linguistic
creativity; the deadening mother disables self-creation. The generation
of the ego out of expulsion, the division of unity, is not simply a mournful
moment, but also potentially a joyous one, in which the advent of
language, the promise of the father, offers reparation and life with a
world of others, so that words can provide the nourishment that the
breast previously had. The father makes it possible to fill the void with
language and the formation of signifying bonds.
In Kristeva's understanding of melancholic breakdown, the problem is
similar to the one discussed above in the section on Irigaray, namely that
loss goes unnamed and unmourned but thereby stays unprocessed
within, leaving the subject stagnant and inert. Women, in Kristeva's view,
suffer the loss of creativity, the incapacity for sublimation, more severely
than men. Women's access to language, and creative self-
transformation, is more vulnerable to disturbance both because of the
(previously discussed) inexorable repression of their pre-Oedipal relation
to the mother and because they have greater difficulty establishing a
primary identification with the father. Whereas the loss of the archaic
bond with the maternal body is (potentially) sublated by men into the
rhythms of language, for women it often becomes a dead space where
once there was life, filled only with loss and emptiness. Imprisoned by an
undead, unmourned, mother, excluded from language or representation,
women are vulnerable to the devastations of symbolic sacrifice without
Psychoanalysis is presented as a counter-depressant, as are art and
writing, able not only to keep the drives or semiotic forces moving
through language but also to foster their revolutionary potential to
transgress symbolic limits and laws and to creatively rework self and
society. Accessing the drives and rhythms that symbolic law and order
typically repress, psychoanalytic practice, like the poetic text, revitalizes
or reactivates the semiotic chora, a connection to the maternal body or
to femininity. Such practices let loose the disorganizing energies of the
body, the pleasurable rupture of sense and nonsense. They take
productive advantage of the dialectical discord between semiotic and
symbolic and thus keep this discord oriented toward dissent and protest
rather than inner collapse.
Although the semiotic resists the symbolic order, or cannot be contained
by it, the two are always entangled and imbricated in language; drives
both support and subvert the symbolic operation, bringing bodily rhythms
and forces to signification, both impelling and pulling apart its
organization and stases. This disruptive potential of semiotic drives and
rhythms is associated with negativity as a force of revolt, an excess,
most archaically, the force of bodily expulsion, but more generally the
forces that continually spur the dissolution of one's own organization.
Negativity maintains life, keeps it going by circulating energy, rendering
the subject always in process. Through its movement, the subject is not
a rigid identity, but always developing, reconfiguring itself through the
interplay of drives and language, in the tensions between body and
mirror image and between mirror image and self.
While Kristeva advocates for poetic revolution, (meaning the ongoing
process of reconfiguring language and oneself by exploiting the
heterogeneities between semiotic and symbolic elements), she is
sometimes read as a conservative thinker because of her commitment to
maintaining a symbolic order and social contract. The danger of a too
strong or too weak symbolic order is that it encourages a return to
abjection or melancholia, to the point prior to ego-formation, to a
dissolution of the borders that maintain social life and creative
subjectivity, contributing to the ego's collapse into an empty abyssal void
and discouraging semiotic creativity. Such a fragile, fragmented,
disintegrating ego, always in search of objects to heal the rift of being,
dreaming of a return to unity but suffering the nightmare of upheaval and
collapse of identity, is especially susceptible to the traumatic impact of
encountering the stranger, the unfamiliar other or alien who provokes
turmoil and who is repudiated in a rebound to delirious narcissism and a
reassertion of self-mastery and self-identity. The stranger disturbs
boundaries, indicating the failure to fully eliminate the refuse of identity
and purify oneself. Kristeva sees in the ethics of psychoanalysis,
premised on self-division, being strange to oneself, the possibility of
establishing an ethical relation to alterity, inviting it into our political
bonds (and warding off the most virulent forms of abjection). Where
Irigaray aims to introduce sexual difference into the social contract and
the domain of law and rights, Kristeva proposes that we introduce self-
5. Anglo-American Psychoanalytic Feminism
There are a number of Anglo-American (and Australian) feminist
theorists and scholars who read Lacan and laid the groundwork for the
passage from French to English and from France to the US, Britain, and
Australia in the 1970's, 1980's, and early 1990's. Among these are Juliet
Mitchell (Psychoanalysis and Feminism), Teresa Brennan (The
Interpretation of the Flesh: Freud and Femininity), Elizabeth Grosz
(Jacques Lacan: A Feminist Introduction), Jane Gallop (Reading Lacan
and The Daughter's Seduction), and Jacqueline Rose (Sexuality in the
Field of Vision). While writing in English, these theorists take their
bearings from the French Lacanian approach to psychoanalysis and can
generally be classified in the field of what today gets called Continental
Feminism. Responsible for revitalizing psychoanalysis for feminist
thought and countering earlier feminist dismissals, they aim to reclaim
Freud's central analyses for feminist purposes. Juliet Mitchell, for
instance, develops the insight indispensable to any feminist reading, that
psychoanalysis is not a recommendation for a patriarchal society, but an
analysis of one (Mitchell 1973, xiii). Mitchell and Rose are also the co-
editors of Feminine Sexuality, a selection from Lacan's seminars, for
which both editors wrote influential introductions.
This section will address, however, not the Lacanian inspired feminist
appropriation of psychoanalysis in the English speaking world, but the
Anglo-American development of feminist psychoanalysis that has
descended from and is indebted to British object relations theory and its
focus on the pre-Oedipal mother-child bond, especially the work of
Melanie Klein and Donald Winnicott. Authors who work in this vein include Nancy
Chodorow (The Reproduction of Mothering), Dorothy Dinnerstein (The Mermaid
and the Minotaur), and Jessica Benjamin (Bonds of Love and Like Subjects, Love
Objects). What distingu

es this Anglo-American tradition from the French-influenced one is its emphasis

on pre-Oedipal sociality or intersubjectivity and its focus on the values of
integration, harmony, and wholeness, as opposed to those of self-division and
respecting the alien within.
The remainder of this section will focus on the work of Benjamin as
exemplary of the Anglo-American approach, and clarify its differences
from and similarities with the French approach. Like Irigaray, Benjamin is
perturbed by the psychoanalytic depiction of social life as the world of
men, developed on the basis of the father-son relation and its
aggression, hostility, love, and mourning. Deploring this struggle for
power (Benjamin 1988, 6) in which women are merely the triangulating
object of desire, Benjamin argues that, in the formation of identity,
subjects become bound by love to oppressive social relations. She
worries that domination is anchored in the hearts of the dominated
(Benjamin 1988, 5), that women are erotically attached to patriarchal
power, and she believes that psychoanalysis can help explain how and
why this is so. Psychoanalysis thus offers to Benjamin insights not only
into the individual psyche but also into the organization, structure, and
distribution of political power and hierarchy. Her aim is to grasp the deep
structure of gender as a binary opposition which is common to psychic and
cultural representations (Benjamin 1988, 218). Unlike Kristeva and Irigaray,
both of whom problematize the duality and comprehensiveness of the
nature/culture distinction, and emphasize transformation of symbolic bonds,
Benjamin highlights the role of (contradictory) cultural stereotypes in bringing
forth gender as we know and live it, and emphasizes the need for social
Taking what she calls an eclectic approach, and eschewing
methodological orthodoxy with regard to Freudian metapsychology and
the theory of the instincts, Benjamin establishes her project on the basis
of a two person relational perspective, with the other as a separate
independent subject. Rather than an undifferentiated unity governing
early infantile life in the pre-Oedipal period, which would make of the
infant merely a monadic energy system (Benjamin 1988, 17), she
maintains that a genuine duality and relationality exists from the start
and that the process of growth entails development within relationships
rather than a development of them. The infant, she postulates, is a
fundamentally active and social creature, reaching out to the world and
expressing a desire for recognition. The knots of identity are formed via
the interplay of this desire with the response of another who variously
affirms or defies the child. Benjamin claims that this emphasis on
sociality and intersubjectivity is not intended to disregard the intrapsychic
elements of subject formation, and in fact she argues for the interaction
between the psyche and social life (Benjamin 1988, 5). She holds that
the inner and the outer are not competitive but complementary
theoretical perspectives. Nonetheless, she does want to situate identity
generally, and gendered identity more specifically, within the purview of
the subject's multiple and ambiguous social identifications.
Domination, she argues, ensues from the failures of recognition built into
the political and social order, not merely failures that take place at the
personal or individual level in a single relationship. Borrowing an initial
insight from Foucault, Benjamin looks at the way power shapes and
forms identities and desires, producing gendered relations (Benjamin
1988, 4). Borrowing another insight from Hegel, Benjamin depicts the
dialectic of recognition in the struggle for identity as a conflict between
independence and dependence (Benjamin 1988, 33). In her view,
however, the Hegelian tale, like the Freudian one, erroneously begins
with a monadic, self-interested ego (Benjamin 1988, 33) and it thus
concludes with the inevitability of breakdown and domination. According
to Benjamin, Winnicott resolves the Hegelian and Freudian dilemma
(Benjamin 1988, 38), the solitary egoism of the fight to the death, by
reformulating the problem of recognition at the level of fantasy and
distinguishing between internal and external worlds. The infant feels
confident in asserting its independence, and destroying its object in
fantasy, so long as that object is discovered to have a secure external
existence in reality. In other words, the fantasy of destruction is
appeased by its failure; the infant destroys internally but externally is
relieved to still have an object to address and interact with. More
particularly, the infant destroys or separates from the mother internally
and in fantasy, but simultaneously retains a relation to her externally and
in reality. The good enough mother must foster this relationship between
two separate egos, neither allowing the child to succeed in destroying or
dominating her, nor allowing herself to squash the child's nascent
attempts at self-assertion. The mother-child relation is then a kind of
revised neo-Hegelian struggle for power, retaining the aim of mutual
recognition or respect, but risking domination and rebellion. The violent
conflicts within are not repressed but neutralized and pacified in the
reality of intersubjective life that affirms and recognizes autonomy.
Asking, as do Chodorow and Dinnerstein, about the genesis of
patriarchal power, Benjamin concludes, as they also do, that a main
source or component lies in exclusive childrearing by women/mothers,
which occasions the related risks of collapsing maternal authority into
mere dominance, supporting the fantasy of maternal omnipotence,
centering potent ambivalence on the mother, and fostering rigid gender
identities and identifications. While the boy attains autonomy via loving
identification with the father and separation from the mother, the girl's
relation to paternal power is complicated by its inaccessibility to her. If
she seeks liberation in the father (Benjamin 1988, 99), she connects
her femininity to submission rather than agency, and attaches to
masculinity as an idealized object of love (and as its love-object),
conferring on it value while devaluing the mother, and creating a divide
between feminine sexuality and autonomous subjectivity. Benjamin
argues, however, that the protean impersonality (Benjamin 1988, 216)
of male domination cannot be addressed by a critique that focuses
solely on the family and childcare and that power relations cannot be
overcome solely through a transformation in caretaking roles, although
the equation of women with motherhood is certainly one component of
the problem. If gendered identities are encouraged by social power
relationsmasculinity is developed as a denial of dependency and
assertion of independence, while femininity is developed in an
identification with nurturing and concession of autonomythen real
transformation requires attention to social roles and cultural
representations (Benjamin 1988, 217), since the core feature of the
gender systempromoting masculinity as separation from and femininity
as continuity with the primary bondis maintained even when mother
and father participate equally in that bond (Benjamin 1988, 217). In
Benjamin's theoretical model, children are responsive not only to their
social environment, but also to ideas with opaque meanings (mandates,
expectations, prohibitions, exhortations, etc.) that are often covertly,
indirectly, or unknowingly conveyed in parental language and edicts.
Gender equality thus requires that women be recognized, by themselves
and by men, as subjects in culture and that intersubjectivity itself be
Benjamin's analysis can be distinguished from those of Irigaray and
Kristeva precisely by the way in which it tends to conflate or collapse the
distinction between representation and social roles. While Anglo-
American psychoanalytic feminism theorizes gender as derived from or
dependent on social (including familial) inequalities and power relations,
and thus aims to reduce its psychic effects by redressing social and
familial domination/subordination, French feminism does not calibrate
the psyche on socio-cultural relations but on imaginary and symbolic
representations. Benjamin's partitioning of intrapsychic life into internal
and external relations, and her vision of intersubjective equilibrium is, in
contrast to Irigaray and Kristeva's assertion of discord within and
between subjects, oriented by the conviction that social harmony is
desirable and attainable.
6. Conclusion
Psychoanalysis presents a critical and diagnostic project, not necessarily
a normative or liberatory one. In developing a theory of the drives and
the non-rational forces that move and impel us, the idea that we are
opaque rather than transparent to ourselves, incapable of complete self-
knowledge or self-mastery, psychoanalytic theory also challenges the
rationalist, humanist ego and proposes that our ethical characters and
political communities are not perfectable, exposing the precariousness of
both psychic and political identity. The unconscious cannot be assumed
to be inherently either a transgressive or a conservative force, but an
unreliable one, promoting revolt or rebellion sometimes, intransigence
and rigid border preservation at other times.
Although they are in often uneasy alliance, the psychoanalytic account
of the unconscious provides feminist theory with resources for both
political and ontological inquiry. Ontologically, psychoanalysis offers a
distinctively psychical understanding of sexual difference, how we come
to inhabit our bodies and our identities, and misinhabit them, an analysis
reducible to neither social nor biological categories. Politically,
psychoanalysis offers a depiction of the forces that impel us to organize,
disorganize, and reorganize the bonds that hold us together. By offering
insight into the formation of subjectivity and the animating fantasies of
social life, psychoanalysis thus also facilitates feminist analysis of the
obdurate elements of patriarchal social relations, including the symbolic
bonds and internal forces that undergird identity and attach sexed
subjects to relations of dominance and subordination. Psychoanalytic
feminist attention to the core constituents of civilization, to the nuclei of
sexual difference and communal affiliation, helps explain the
perpetuation of masculine power and enables feminist theorists to
articulate possible correctives, challenges, routes of amelioration, or
ethical interruptions that go to the roots of political life and to its beyond
and do not simply operate on the given social terrain
4. But Isnt Feminism About Hating Men?
Simple answer: No.
Feminists dont hate men. We hate male privilege and the systems that
create and reinscribe it. Not all men are awful, but all men benefit from
male privilege.
Feminism is about dismantling the systems in which people are
oppressed for their gender identity, those same systems that privilege
cisgender men.
Thus, men can play a role in dismantling those systems so long as they
are following the leadership of those who dont share their gender
Notably, though, many men think feminists and feminism hates them
because men are not centered or made to feel comfortable in their
We need to be clear not to conflate men not being the center of a
movement with that movement marginalizing or hating men.
5. Can I, As a Man, Call Myself Feminist?
This is the sticky part.
Its not a mans place to label themselves as a feminist since at its core,
feminism is for gaining equality for women. A woman you are close to
can assign that label to you, but you have to earn it!
And you have to keep earning it.
Its important to incorporate feminist practice in your daily life earning
the label of feminist isnt even half of the work. Its a challenge to unlearn
harmful patriarchal ideas, and its work you must do routinely in order to
be a strong ally within feminist spaces.
In feminist spaces, its best for men to take the backseat and actively
listen to womens concerns while thinking of productive ways to
challenge their own privilege while lending support to the movement.
. As a Man, Why Would I Want to Be a Feminist or Hold Feminist Ideals?
Why not?
As a man, you also benefit from feminist ideals!
Feminism is about getting rid of oppressive forces that hold women
down and also make men adhere to restrictive norms and ideals.
Patriarchy wants you to be dominating, assertive, hyper-masculine,
athletic, emotionless, and the breadwinner of a heteronormative family.
Thats a lot of pressure!
Feminism seeks to eradicate patriarchal norms like these that have men
bound and women perceived as inferior.
Perhaps more importantly, though, the people in our lives who dont
share our identity are hurt to greater and varying degrees by patriarchal
That should be enough for us to want to strive for an intersectional
feminist understanding of justice.
What brings many men to feminism in the first place is realizing how
much our current society hurts those we love. And that empathetic
concern should inform our own values!
7. Why Is There a Need for Women-Only Spaces? Isnt Segregation
You know whats bad? State-sanctioned segregation meant to reinforce
the oppression of already marginalized people.
You know whats awesome? Allowing for, encouraging, and protecting
spaces for those who are marginalized in our wider society to meet in a
space that offers reprieve from microaggressions and other enactments
of oppression.
Thus, lets stop using segregation is bad to break up protected spaces
for women, people of Color, and other marginalized and oppressed
In our society, there are very few spaces where cisgender men arent
welcomed, centered, and safe. Thats not true for people of other
genders, so those spaces have to be created.
Women-only spaces (and remember, when we say women, we are
absolutely including trans women) are necessary because women can
share their ideas and mobilize without the interference of someone who
holds the privilege they are actively fighting against and who may not
fully understand how they benefit at the expense of womens oppression.
Its an uncomfortable experience to be confronted with your own
privilege and also your ignorance of oppressions others may face so
you must willing to let go of control and allow for spaces where you are
not centered or welcome.
But Arent Men Oppressed, Too?
No And yes.
Men are not oppressed as men, though transgender men do often
experience gender oppression.
A woman being mean to you online or rejecting your romantic advances
is not oppression. But you may experience oppression due to other
aspects of identity racist oppression, classist oppression, ableist
oppression, religious oppression, and so on.
Feminism is all about working on the intersections of identities to
challenge societal oppression. And men do suffer and struggle within our
patriarchal systems.
The patriarchal pressures put on men do lead to higher rates of suicide,
and men are expected to go fight wars for the oligarchys empire when
thats not necessarily expected of women.
But all of these things are rooted in violent patriarchy, which only furthers
why men ought to strive to be in feminist solidarity and to live out
feminist ideals.
10. So What Is My Role As a Man in Feminism?
Were sure youre sensing a theme here, but theres no easy answer.
Simply put, your role is to listen to womens concerns, challenge your
male privilege, and hold other men accountable.
You can be an invaluable ally to the feminist movement because you can
challenge yourself and others to acknowledge gender inequalities in our
society, which will bring us one step closer to eradicating injustice.
Perhaps the best way to answer this question, though, is to ask the
feminist people in your life!
Different people who are experiencing oppression want different things
from those they consider allies.
Thus, perhaps the best thing that men can do in feminism is to listen to
the feminist cis women, transgender people, and non-binary people in
our lives and take cues from their leadership about working for justice!
We hoped to have made things clearer for you, and hopefully, its easier
for you to approach feminists in your community!
So, can men be feminist? From our perspective, definitely, so long as
youre not simply self identifying as such without any accountability!
After all, labels arent as important as the actions behind them. We hope
youre willing and able to hold yourself and other men accountable and
work to support and uplift the women around you while working to
dismantle harmful patriarchal systems.
Yes, feminism is for you as well! You can be a powerful ally for fighting
against patriarchal oppression and eradicating injustices in our society
will set you free as well.
Postmodern feminism is an approach to feminist theory that incorporates
postmodern and post-structuralist theory, seeing itself as moving beyond
the modernist polarities of liberal feminism and radical feminism.
Postmodernism is, well, post modern. So what's modern? While there
are several philosophers from the"modern" generation, Jean-Paul Sartre
(1905-1980) is considered the most influential. Sartre said that existence
precedes essence, that is,"essence" or the meaning of things, is not
given by God, but is a machination of man. There is no ultimate force or
meaning, meaning is something we make up for ourselves as we go
along. In the existentialist view of Sartre, we are entirely free to make our
own choices and create our own meanings. Any time we do not accept
our essential freedom, we are acting in bad faith. Critics of Sartre's view
questioned the place of societal expectations in individual's lives: Do we
really all have complete freedom? Simone de Beauvoir, in The Second
Sex, said that we are all brought up in a world defined by men, where
women are defined as "Other" or not normal (maleness being the norm).
According to de Beauvoir, no woman in this society can act outside of
this constriction. The Structuralists were also critical of Sartre's views.
Claude Levi-Strauss, using the work of linguist Ferdinard de Saussure
(1857-1913), saw that the structure of language, looked at as a whole,
could tell us something about society's structure. Levi-Strauss believed
that there are rules of human relations and culture has rules centered
around binary oppositions like good/bad, male/female, up/down.
Learning the language containing these binaries, one is not free to think
outside its confines.
The next important step towards Postmodernism is Michel Foucault. In
The Order of Things, he starts with this list, from Borges, that is
supposedly from a Chinese encyclopedia and divides the animals of the
kingdom into the following categories:
"a) belonging to the Emperor,
b) embalmed,
c) tame,
d) suckling pigs,
e) sirens,
f) fabulous,
g) stray dogs,
h) included in the present classification,
i) frenzied,
j) innumerable,
k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush,
l) et cetera,
m) having just broken the water pitcher,
n) that from a long way off look like flies."
Of this ridiculous list, as he says, "In the wonderment of this taxonomy,
the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the
fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought,
is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that." (p. xv)
He points out that we all know when categories make sense and when
they don't, and then traces how the structure of knowledge and therefore
what makes sense) has changed throughout time. In this changing
world," One thing in any case is certain: man is neither the oldest nor the
most constant problem that has been posed in human knowledge." He
postulates that modernism is drawing to a close and that "man would be
erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea." (p. 386-387)
While the humanist modernism of Sartre placed man as central and
surmised that God was dead, Foucault said Man was Dead. This
negation of the centrality of man was a direct challenge to Sartre. In fact,
to make the challenge even more clear, the French title of The Order of
Things was Les Mots et les Choses ("Words and Things"). Sartre's
autobiography was entitled Les Mots ("Words").
Another important philosopher to mention is Jacques Derrida, who
continued the rejection of essentialism in almost everything. A search for
meaning is pointless, because there isn't one. What would be most
freeing is to liberate our thoughts from binary oppositions (male/female,
nature/culture, speech/writing). Derrida's rejection of a single truth is
important to an understanding of Postmodern feminism.
Postmodern Feminism
Postmodern Feminists have built on the ideas of Foucault, de Beauvoir,
as well as Derrida and Lacan (who I'm not going to talk about). While
there is much variation in Postmodern feminism, there is some common
ground. Postmodern Feminists accept the male/female binary as a main
categorizing force in our society. Following Simone de Beauvoir, they
see female as having being cast into the role of the Other. They criticize
the structure of society and the dominant order, especially in its
patriarchal aspects. Many Postmodern feminists, however, reject the
feminist label, because anything that ends with an "ism" reflects an
essentialist conception. Postmodern Feminism is the ultimate acceptor
of diversity. Multiple truths, multiple roles, multiple realities are part of its
focus. There is a rejectance of an essential nature of women, of one-way
to be a woman." Poststructural feminism offers a useful philosophy for
diversity in feminism because of its acceptance of multiple truths and
rejection of essentialism." (p. 19, Olson).
This is in contrast to some other feminist theoretical viewpoints. Feminist
empiricism, or liberal feminism, sees equal opportunity as the primary
focus. They are concerned with "leveling the playing field." It does not
question the nature of the knowledge or the structure of human
interactions, but rather the events that go on within that structure.
Accepting the idea that there is a single knowable truth has led liberal
feminists to use the accepted methodologies in research, believing that
they just need to be used in different ways.
Radical feminism has focused on how deeply entrenched the
male/female division is in society. Women have been oppressed and
discriminated against in all areas and their oppression is primary. Their
focus has been to detail how the male dominated society has forced
women into oppressive gender roles, and has used women's sexuality
for male profit. Radical feminist proposals for change include creating
woman-only communities to embracing androgyny. Criticism of radical
feminism include that it suggests that men and women are two separate
species with no commonality and that it romanticizes women and
interactions between women.
Famous Postmodern feminists
Three writers have been instrumental in the establishment of
Postmodern feminism as a philosophy: Hlne Cixous, Luce Irigaray,
and Julia Kristeva. There are many others who deserve mention but in
this cursory treatment, they're not going to get it.
Hlne Cixous is a writer of prose who built on Derrida's works to
criticize the very nature of writing. According to Cixous, man's writing is
filled with binary oppositions but woman's writing is scribbling, jotting
down, interrupted by life's demands. She also relates feminine writing to
female sexuality and women's body concepts. Her idea is that
development of this kind of writing will change the rules that currently
govern language and ultimately (remember what Levi-Strauss thought)
the thinking processes and the structure of society.
Luce Irigaray is a psychoanalyst whose primary focus is to liberate
women from men's philosophies, including the ones of Derrida and
Lacan, on which she's building. Irigaray takes on Freudian and Lacanian
conceptions of child development, and is one of the thousands who
criticize the Oedipal complex. However, since Western culture is not
going to abandon Freud, Irigaray has three strategies for woman to
"experience herself as something other than 'waste' or 'excess' in the
little structured margins of a dominant ideology." (Tong, p 227): 1. create
a gender neutral language, 2."engage in lesbian and autoerotic practice,
for by virtue of exploring the multifaceted terrain of the female body,
women will learn to speak words and think thoughts that will blow the
phallus over;" 3."mime the mimes men have imposed on women. If
women exist only in men's eyes, as images, women should take those
images and reflect them back to men in magnified proportions." (Tong, p.
228). This means wear red high heels.
Julia Kristeva rejects the idea that the biological man and the biological
woman are identified with the "masculine" and "feminine" respectively. To
insist that people are different because of their anatomy is to force both
men and women into a repressive structure. Kristeva openly accepts the
label of feminist, but refuses to say there is a "woman's perspective":
"The belief that 'one is a woman' is almost as absurd and obscurantist as
the belief that 'one is a man.' I say 'almost' because there are still many
goals which women can achieve: freedom of abortion and contraception,
daycare centers for children, equality on the job, etc. Therefore, we must
use 'we are women' as an advertisement or slogan for our demands. On
a deeper level, however, a woman cannot 'be'; it is something which
does not even belong in the order of being." (Kristeva, New French
Feminisms, as quoted in Rosemarie Tong)
Kristeva sees the problems of women as Other similar to the problems of
other groups excluded from the dominant: Jews, homosexuals, racial
and ethnic minorities. Like other Postmodern feminists, she viewed the
use of language as crucial. In her view, linear, logical "normal" writing
was repressed, and writing that emphasized rhythm and sound and was
syntaxically illogical was unrepressed.
Critiques of Postmodern Feminism
A major critique of Postmodern Feminism is its seeming identification of
women with the feminine and the biological body. Many view
Postmodern Feminists as valorizing women and the feminine over male
and the masculine. To many feminists I have known, the idea that we
should embrace the feminine, or "mime the mimes men have imposed
on women" (Irigaray) feels awfully similar to the pressure to be feminine
from the dominant society. Some of us didn't want to wear feminine
looking dresses when our mothers tried to make us to go to the
patriarchal church and we don't want to wear them in graduate school
However, most of the criticism in this vein simplifies Postmodern
Feminism. As we have seen, there are widely varying viewpoints within
this theoretical framework. While this diversity is sen as empowering by
some feminists, many are concerned with the potential loss of feminist
community. With no essential philosophy accepted by all feminists, it is
difficult to make political action.
One of the most prevalent criticisms of Postmodern Feminism, and
Postmodernism in general is its apparently nonsensical writing. Much of
the writing of Postmodernists reject linear construction in their writing.
And so accusations of eliticism have been leveled at the Postmodern
Feminism as a whole. Critics contend that only few academics can
participate because the jargon is so thick, and that "true" feminists
address issues of political import. Considering that Postmodernist reject
essentialist, there is an obvious lack of conceptual understanding of
Postmodern Feminism reflected in these criticisms. Also, because linear,
syntaxically normal speech and writing are viewed as part of the
propaganda of the dominant order, breaking them down the linguistic
power structure is, in their philosopies, an important part of undermining
that power. So in fact, being obtuse and chaotic is their way of
introducing change and therefore offering new meanings.
Postmodern Feminism has resulted in some of the most ground
breaking research in the last twenty years. Its major technique,
discourse analysis has been used in many different fields to ask many
different questions. A logical progression of Postmodern theory, it has
revitalized feminism by questioning many assumptions that were
previously unexamined. While as of yet it has not been a major presence
in the field of library and information studies, the number of studies
utilizing it is steadily increasing.

Feminist theory
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
For the journal, see Feminist Theory (journal).

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Feminist theory is the extension of feminism into theoretical, fictional,

or philosophical discourse. It aims to understand the nature of gender inequality. It examines
women's social roles, experience, interests, chores, and feminist politics in a variety of fields,
such as anthropology and sociology, communication, psychoanalysis,[1] home
economics, literature, education, and philosophy.[2]
Feminist theory focuses on analyzing gender inequality. Themes explored in feminism
include discrimination, objectification (especially sexual objectification), oppression, patriarchy,[3]
stereotyping, art history[5] and contemporary art,[6][7] and aesthetics.[8][9]




o 2.1Bodies

o 2.2The Standard and Contemporary Sex and Gender System

o 2.3Epistemologies

o 2.4Intersectionality

o 2.5Language

o 2.6Psychology


o 2.7Literary theory

o 2.8Film theory

o 2.9Art history

o 2.10History

o 2.11Geography

o 2.12Philosophy

o 2.13Sexology
o 2.14Compulsory heterosexuality

o 2.15Monosexual paradigm

o 2.16Politics

o 2.17Economics

o 2.18Legal theory

o 2.19Communication theory

o 2.20Feminist Theory of Design

o 2.21Black Feminist Criminology

o 2.22Feminist science and technology studies

3See also



6External links

Feminist theories first emerged as early as 1794 in publications such as A Vindication of the
Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft, "The Changing Woman",[10] "Aint I a Woman",
"Speech after Arrest for Illegal Voting",[12] and so on. "The Changing Woman" is a Navajo Myth
that gave credit to a woman who, in the end, populated the world.[13] In 1851, Sojourner
Truth addressed womens rights issues through her publication, "Aint I a Woman." Sojourner
Truth addressed the issue of women having limited rights due to men's flawed perception of
women. Truth argued that if a woman of color can perform tasks that were supposedly limited to
men, then any woman of any color could perform those same tasks. After her arrest for illegally
voting, Susan B. Anthony gave a speech within court in which she addressed the issues of
language within the constitution documented in her publication, "Speech after Arrest for Illegal
voting" in 1872. Anthony questioned the authoritative principles of the constitution and its male
gendered language. She raised the question of why women are accountable to be punished
under law but they cannot use the law for their own protection (women could not vote, own
property, nor themselves in marriage). She also critiqued the constitution for its male gendered
language and questioned why women should have to abide by laws that do not specify women.
Nancy Cott makes a distinction between modern feminism and its antecedents, particularly
the struggle for suffrage. In the United States she places the turning point in the decades before
and after women obtained the vote in 1920 (19101930). She argues that the prior woman
movement was primarily about woman as a universal entity, whereas over this 20-year period it
transformed itself into one primarily concerned with social differentiation, attentive
to individuality and diversity. New issues dealt more with woman's condition as a social
construct, gender identity, and relationships within and between genders. Politically this
represented a shift from an ideological alignment comfortable with the right, to one more radically
associated with the left.[14]
Susan Kingsley Kent says that Freudian patriarchy was responsible for the diminished profile of
feminism in the inter-war years,[15] others such as Juliet Mitchell consider this to be overly
simplistic since Freudian theory is not wholly incompatible with feminism.[16] Some feminist
scholarship shifted away from the need to establish the origins of family, and towards analyzing
the process of patriarchy.[17] In the immediate postwar period, Simone de Beauvoir stood in
opposition to an image of "the woman in the home". De Beauvoir provided
an existentialist dimension to feminism with the publication of Le Deuxime Sexe (The Second
Sex) in 1949.[18] As the title implies, the starting point is the implicit inferiority of women, and the
first question de Beauvoir asks is "what is a woman"?.[19] Woman she realizes is always perceived
of as the "other", "she is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with
reference to her". In this book and her essay, "Woman: Myth & Reality", de Beauvoir
anticipates Betty Friedan in seeking to demythologise the male concept of woman. "A myth
invented by men to confine women to their oppressed state. For women it is not a question of
asserting themselves as women, but of becoming full-scale human beings." "One is not born, but
rather becomes, a woman", or as Toril Moi puts it "a woman defines herself through the way she
lives her embodied situation in the world, or in other words, through the way in which she makes
something of what the world makes of her". Therefore, woman must regain subject, to escape
her defined role as "other", as a Cartesian point of departure.[20] In her examination of myth, she
appears as one who does not accept any special privileges for women. Ironically, feminist
philosophers have had to extract de Beauvoir herself from out of the shadow of Jean-Paul
Sartre to fully appreciate her.[21] While more philosopher and novelist than activist, she did sign
one of the Mouvement de Libration des Femmes manifestos.
The resurgence of feminist activism in the late 1960s was accompanied by an emerging
literature of concerns for the earth and spirituality, and environmentalism. This in turn created an
atmosphere conducive to reigniting the study of and debate on matricentricity, as a rejection
of determinism, such as Adrienne Rich[22] and Marilyn French[23] while for socialist
feminists like Evelyn Reed,[24] patriarchy held the properties of capitalism. Feminist psychologists,
such as Jean Baker Miller, sought to bring a feminist analysis to previous psychological theories,
proving that "there was nothing wrong with women, but rather with the way modern culture
viewed them."[25]
Elaine Showalter describes the development of feminist theory as having a number of phases.
The first she calls "feminist critique" - where the feminist reader examines the ideologies behind
literary phenomena. The second Showalter calls "Gynocritics" - where the "woman is producer of
textual meaning" including "the psychodynamics of female creativity; linguistics and the problem
of a female language; the trajectory of the individual or collective female literary career
and literary history". The last phase she calls "gender theory" - where the "ideological inscription
and the literary effects of the sex/gender system" are explored."[26] This model has been criticized
by Toril Moi who sees it as an essentialist and deterministic model for female subjectivity. She
also criticized it for not taking account of the situation for women outside the west. [27] From the
1970s onwards, psychoanalytical ideas that have been arising in the field of French
feminism have gained a decisive influence on feminist theory. Feminist psychoanalysis
deconstructed the phallic hypotheses regarding the Unconscious. Julia Kristeva, Bracha
Ettinger and Luce Irigaray developed specific notions concerning unconscious sexual difference,
the feminine and motherhood, with wide implications for film and literature analysis. [28]

There are a number of distinct feminist disciplines, in which experts in other areas apply feminist
techniques and principles to their own fields. Additionally, these are also debates which shape
feminist theory and they can be applied interchangeably in the arguments of feminist theorists.
In western thought, the body has been historically associated solely with women, whereas men
have been associated with the mind. Susan Bordo, a modern feminist philosopher, in her writings
elaborates the dualistic nature of the mind/body connection by examining the early philosophies
of Aristotle, Hegel and Descartes, revealing how such distinguishing binaries such as
spirit/matter and male activity/female passivity have worked to solidify gender characteristics and
categorization. Bordo goes on to point out that while men have historically been associated with
the intellect and the mind or spirit, women have long been associated with the body, the
subordinated, negatively imbued term in the mind/body dichotomy.[29] The notion of the body (but
not the mind) being associated with women has served as a justification to deem women as
property, objects, and exchangeable commodities (among men). For example, womens bodies
have been objectified throughout history through the changing ideologies of fashion, diet,
exercise programs, cosmetic surgery, childbearing, etc. This contrasts to men's role as a moral
agent, responsible for working or fighting in bloody wars. The race and class of a woman can
determine whether her body will be treated as decoration and protected, which is associated with
middle or upper-class womens bodies. On the other hand, the other body is recognized for its
use in labor and exploitation which is generally associated with womens bodies in the working-
class or with women of color. Second-wave feminist activism has argued for reproductive rights
and choice, womens health (movement), and lesbian rights (movement) which are also
associated with this Bodies debate.
The Standard and Contemporary Sex and Gender System[edit]
The standard sex and gender model consists of ideologies based on the sex and gender of every
individual and serve as "norms" for societal life. The model claims that the sex of a person is the
physical body that the individual is born with, strictly existing within a male/female dichotomy
giving importance to the genitals and the chromosomes which make the organism male or
female. The standard model defines gender as a social understanding/ideology that defines what
behaviors, actions, and appearances are proper for males and females living in society.
The contemporary sex and gender model corrects and broadens the horizons of the sex and
gender ideologies. It revises the ideology of sex in that an individual's sex is actually a social
construct which is not limited to either male or female. This can be seen by the Intersex Society
of North America which explains that, "nature doesn't decide where the category of male ends
and the category of intersex begins, or where the category of intersex ends and the category of
female begins. Humans decide. Humans (today, typically doctors) decide how small a penis has
to be, or how unusual a combination of parts has to be, before it counts as intersex". [30] Therefore,
sex is not a biological/natural construct but a social one instead since, society and doctors decide
on what it means to be male, female, or intersex in terms of sex chromosomes and genitals, in
addition to their personal judgment on who or how one passes as a specific sex. The ideology of
gender remains a social construct but is not as strict and fixed. Instead, gender is easily
malleable, and is forever changing. One example of where the standard definition of gender
alters with time happens to be depicted in Sally Shuttleworths Female Circulation in which the,
"abasement of the woman, reducing her from an active participant in the labor market to the
passive bodily existence to be controlled by male expertise is indicative of the ways in which the
ideological deployment of gender roles operated to facilitate and sustain the changing structure
of familial and market relations in Victorian England".[31] In other words, this quote shows what it
meant growing up into the roles of a female (gender/roles) changed from being a homemaker to
being a working woman and then back to being passive and inferior to males. In conclusion, the
contemporary sex gender model is accurate because both sex and gender are rightly seen as
social constructs inclusive of the wide spectrum of sexes and genders and in which nature and
nurture are interconnected.
The generation and production of knowledge has been an important part of feminist theory and is
at the centre of discussions on feminist epistemology. This debate proposes such questions as
"Are there womens ways of knowing and womens knowledge?" And "How does the
knowledge women produce about themselves differ from that produced by
patriarchy?"[32] Feminist theorists have also proposed the "feminist standpoint knowledge" which
attempts to replace "the view from nowhere" with the model of knowing that expels the "view
from womens lives".[32] A feminist approach to epistemology seeks to establish knowledge
production from a woman's perspective. It theorizes that from personal experience comes
knowledge which helps each individual look at things from a different insight.
Central to feminism is that women are systematically subordinated, and bad faith exists when
women surrender their agency to this subordination, e.g., acceptance of religious beliefs that a
man is the dominant party in a marriage by the will of God; Simone de Beauvoir labels such
women "mutilated" and "immanent".[33][34][35][36]
Main article: Intersectionality
Intersectionality is the examination of various ways in which people are oppressed, based on the
relational web of dominating factors of race, sex, class, nation and sexual orientation.
Intersectionality "describes the simultaneous, multiple, overlapping, and contradictory systems of
power that shape our lives and political options". While this theory can be applied to all people,
and more particularly all women, it is specifically mentioned and studied within the realms of
black feminism. Patricia Hill Collins argues that black women in particular, have a unique
perspective on the oppression of the world as unlike white women, they face both racial and
gender oppression simultaneously, among other factors. This debate raises the issue of
understanding the oppressive lives of women that are not only shaped by gender alone but by
other elements such as racism, classism, ageism, heterosexism, ableism etc.
In this debate, women writers have addressed the issues of masculinized writing through male
gendered language that may not serve to accommodate the literary understanding of womens
lives. Such masculinized language that feminist theorists address is the use of, for example,
"God the Father" which is looked upon as a way of designating the sacred as solely men (or, in
other words, biblical language glorifies men through all of the masculine pronouns like "he" and
"him" and addressing God as a "He"). Feminist theorists attempt to reclaim and redefine women
through re-structuring language. For example, feminist theorists have used the term "womyn"
instead of "women." Some feminist theorists find solace in changing titles of unisex jobs (for
example, police officer versus policeman or mail carrier versus mailman). Some feminist theorists
have reclaimed and redefined such words as "dyke" and "bitch" and others have invested
redefining knowledge into feminist dictionaries.
Feminist psychology, is a form of psychology centered on societal structures and gender.
Feminist psychology critiques the fact that historically psychological research has been done
from a male perspective with the view that males are the norm.[37] Feminist psychology is oriented
on the values and principles of feminism. It incorporates gender and the ways women are
affected by issues resulting from it. Ethel Dench Puffer Howes was one of the first women to
enter the field of psychology. She was the Executive Secretary of the National College Equal
Suffrage League in 1914.
One major psychological theory, Relational-Cultural Theory, is based on the work of Jean Baker
Miller, whose book Toward a New Psychology of Women proposes that "growth-fostering
relationships are a central human necessity and that disconnections are the source of
psychological problems."[38] Inspired by Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique, and other feminist
classics from the 1960s, Relational-Cultural Theory proposes that "isolation is one of the most
damaging human experiences and is best treated by reconnecting with other people," and that a
therapist should "foster an atmosphere of empathy and acceptance for the patient, even at the
cost of the therapists neutrality."[39] The theory is based on clinical observations and sought to
prove that "there was nothing wrong with women, but rather with the way modern culture viewed
See also: Psychoanalysis and Feminism and the Oedipus complex
Psychoanalytic feminism and Feminist psychoanalysis are based on Freud and
his psychoanalytic theories, but they also supply an important critique of it. It maintains
that gender is not biological but is based on the psycho-sexual development of the individual, but
also that sexual difference and gender are different notions. Psychoanalytical feminists believe
that gender inequality comes from early childhood experiences, which lead men to believe
themselves to be masculine, and women to believe themselves feminine. It is further maintained
that gender leads to a social system that is dominated by males, which in turn influences the
individual psycho-sexual development. As a solution it was suggested by some to avoid the
gender-specific structuring of the society coeducation.[1][4] From the last 30 years of the 20th
Century, the contemporary French psychoanalytical theories concerning the feminine, that refer
to sexual difference rather than to gender, with psychoanalysts like Julia Kristeva,[40][41]Maud
Mannoni, Luce Irigaray,[42][43] and Bracha Ettinger,[44]have largely influenced not only feminist theory
but also the understanding of the subject in philosophy and the general field of psychoanalysis
itself.[45][46] These French psychoanalysts are mainly post-Lacanian. Other feminist psychoanalysts
and feminist theorists whose contributions have enriched the field through an engagement with
psychoanalysis are Jessica Benjamin,[47] Jacqueline Rose,[48]

Girl with doll

Ranjana Khanna,[49] and Shoshana Felman.[50]

Literary theory[edit]
Main article: Feminist literary criticism
See also: Gynocriticism
Feminist literary criticism is literary criticism informed by feminist theories or politics. Its history
has been varied, from classic works of female authors such as George Eliot, Virginia Woolf,
and Margaret Fuller to recent theoretical work in women's studies and gender studies by "third-
wave" authors.[52]
In the most general, feminist literary criticism before the 1970s was concerned with the politics of
women's authorship and the representation of women's condition within literature. [52] Since the
arrival of more complex conceptions of gender and subjectivity, feminist literary criticism has
taken a variety of new routes. It has considered gender in the terms
of Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis, as part of the deconstruction of existing power
Film theory[edit]
Main article: Feminist film theory
Film theory is often dominated by feminism being played a major antagonist side of the film or
made fun of. Feminists have taken many different approaches to the analysis of cinema. These
include discussions of the function of women characters in particular film narratives or in
particular genres, such as film noir, where a female character can often be seen to embody a
subversive sexuality that is dangerous to males and is ultimately punished with death. [citation needed] In
considering the way that films are put together many feminist film critics, such as Laura Mulvey,
have pointed to the "male gaze" that predominates in classical Hollywood film making. Through
the use of various film techniques, such as shot reverse shot, the viewers are led to align
themselves with the point of view of a male protagonist. Notably, women function as objects of
this gaze far more often than as proxies for the spectator.[53][54] Feminist film theory of the last
twenty years is heavily influenced by the general transformation in the field of aesthetics,
including the new options of articulating the gaze, offered by psychoanalytical French feminism,
like the matrixial gaze.[55]
Art history[edit]
Linda Nochlin[56] and Griselda Pollock [57][58][59] are prominent art historians writing on contemporary
and modern artists and articulating Art history from a feminist perspective since the 1970s.
Pollock works with French psychoanalysis, and in particular with Kristeva's and Ettinger's
theories, to offer new insights into art history and contemporary art with special regard to
questions of trauma and trans-generation memory in the works of women artists. Other
prominent feminist art historians include: Norma Broude and Mary Garrard; Amelia Jones; Mieke
Bal; Carol Duncan; Lynda Nead; Lisa Tickner; Tamar Garb; Hilary Robinson; Katy Deepwell.
Main article: Feminist history
Feminist history refers to the re-reading and re-interpretation of history from a
feminist perspective. It is not the same as the history of feminism, which outlines the origins and
evolution of the feminist movement. It also differs from women's history, which focuses on the
role of women in historical events. The goal of feminist history is to explore and illuminate the
female viewpoint of history through rediscovery of female writers, artists, philosophers, etc., in
order to recover and demonstrate the significance of women's voices and choices in the past. [60][61]

Main article: Feminist geography
Feminist geography is often considered part of a broader postmodern approach to the subject
which is not primarily concerned with the development of conceptual theory in itself but rather
focuses on the real experiences of individuals and groups in their own localities, upon the
geographies that they live in within their own communities. In addition to its analysis of the real
world, it also critiques existing geographical and social studies, arguing that academic traditions
are delineated by patriarchy, and that contemporary studies which do not confront the nature of
previous work reinforce the male bias of academic study.[65][66][67]
Main article: Feminist philosophy
The Feminist philosophy refers to a philosophy approached from a feminist perspective. Feminist
philosophy involves attempts to use methods of philosophy to further the cause of the feminist
movements, it also tries to criticize and/or reevaluate the ideas of traditional philosophy from
within a feminist view. This critique stems from the dichotomy Western philosophy has
conjectured with the mind and body phenomena.[68] There is no specific school for feminist
philosophy like there has been in regard to other theories. This means that Feminist philosophers
can be found in the analytic and continental traditions, and the different viewpoints taken on
philosophical issues with those traditions. Feminist philosophers also have many different
viewpoints taken on philosophical issues within those traditions. Feminist philosophers who are
feminists can belong to many different varieties of feminism. The writings of Judith Butler, Rosi
Braidotti, Donna Haraway, Bracha Ettinger and Avital Ronell are the most significant
psychoanalytically informed influences on contemporary feminist philosophy.
Main article: Feminist sexology
Feminist sexology is an offshoot of traditional studies of sexology that focuses on
the intersectionality of sex and gender in relation to the sexual lives of women. Feminist sexology
shares many principles with the wider field of sexology; in particular, it does not try to prescribe a
certain path or "normality" for women's sexuality, but only observe and note the different and
varied ways in which women express their sexuality. Looking at sexuality from a feminist point of
view creates connections between the different aspects of a person's sexual life.
From feminists perspectives, sexology, which is the study of human sexuality and sexual
relationship, relates to the intersectionality of gender, race and sexuality. Men have dominant
power and control over women in the relationship, and women are expected to hide their true
feeling about sexual behaviors. Women of color face even more sexual violence in the society.
Some countries in Africa and Asia even practice female genital cutting, controlling womens
sexual desire and limiting their sexual behavior. Moreover, Bunch, the women's and human rights
activist, states that the society used to see lesbianism as a threat to male supremacy and to the
political relationships between men and women.[69] Therefore, in the past, people viewed being a
lesbian as a sin and made it death penalty. Even today, many people still discriminate
homosexuals. Many lesbians hide their sexuality and face even more sexual oppression.
Compulsory heterosexuality[edit]
The feminist theory touches upon the intersectionality of many disciplines such as race, gender,
sex, socioeconomic status, etc. According to the writings of Adrienne Rich, there is revelation on
the topic of compulsory heterosexuality. Rich argues that the feminist theory has in some ways
overlooked and marginalized the topic of sexuality, specifically lesbian experience. The sexuality
of women is a topic that is generally associated with feminist theory; however there is not much
focus on the life and experience of those women who do not fit the traditional heterosexual
standards. Although feminist theory considers intersectionality of many topics, lesbian experience
is often set to the side. In many aspects of feminist theory, there is a slight reference of
compulsory heterosexuality. Compulsory heterosexuality is the assumption that it is traditionally
"normal" or favorable to be heterosexual. However, in the aspects of womens sexuality, it is
completely possible to be free and feminist, and not heterosexual. This, in many ways relates to
the patriarchal perspective of women and their sexuality. By denying one gender the freedom to
their sexuality, the concept of compulsory heterosexuality is enforced; thus marginalizing
womens sexuality and the lesbian experience overall.
Monosexual paradigm[edit]
Main article: Monosexuality
Monosexual Paradigm is a term coined by Blasingame, a self-identified African American,
bisexual female. Blasingame used this term to address the lesbian and gay communities who
turned a blind eye to the dichotomy that oppressed bisexuals from both heterosexual and
homosexual communities. This oppression negatively affects the gay and lesbian communities
more so than the heterosexual community due to its contradictory exclusiveness of bisexuals.
Blasingame argued that in reality dichotomies are inaccurate to the representation of individuals
because nothing is truly black or white, straight or gay. Her main argument is that biphobia is the
central message of two roots; internalized heterosexism and racism. Internalized heterosexism is
described in the monosexual paradigm in which the binary states that you are either straight or
gay and nothing in between. Gays and lesbians accept this internalized heterosexism by
morphing into the monosexial paradigm and favoring single attraction and opposing attraction for
both sexes. Blasingame described this favoritism as an act of horizontal hostility, where
oppressed groups fight amongst themselves. Racism is described in the monosexual paradigm
as a dichotomy where individuals are either black or white, again nothing in between. The issue
of racism comes into fruition in regards to the bisexuals coming out process, where risks of
coming out vary on a basis of anticipated community reaction and also in regards to the norms
among bisexual leadership, where class status and race factor predominately over sexual
orientation. [70]
Main article: Feminist political theory
Feminist political theory is a recently emerging field in political science focusing on gender and
feminist themes within the state, institutions and policies. It questions the "modern political
theory, dominated by universalistic liberalist thought, which claims indifference to gender or other
identity differences and has therefore taken its time to open up to such concerns". [71]
Main article: Feminist economics
Feminist economics broadly refers to a developing branch of economics that applies feminist
insights and critiques to economics. Research under this heading is often interdisciplinary,
critical, or heterodox. It encompasses debates about the relationship between feminism and
economics on many levels: from applying mainstream economic methods to under-researched
"women's" areas, to questioning how mainstream economics values the reproductive sector, to
deeply philosophical critiques of economic epistemology and methodology.[72]
One prominent issue that feminist economists investigate is how the Gross Domestic
Product (GDP) does not adequately measure unpaid labor predominantly performed by women,
such as housework, childcare, and eldercare.[73][74] Feminist economists have also challenged and
exposed the rhetorical approach of mainstream economics.[75] They have made critiques of many
basic assumptions of mainstream economics, including the Homo economicus model.[76] In the
Houseworker's Handbook Betsy Warrior presents a cogent argument that the reproduction and
domestic labor of women form the foundation of economic survival; although, unremunerated
and not included in the GDP.[77] According to Warrior: "Economics, as it's presented today, lacks
any basis in reality as it leaves out the very foundation of economic life. That foundation is built
on women's labor; first her reproductive labor which produces every new laborer (and the first
commodity, which is mother's milk and which nurtures every new "consumer/laborer"); secondly,
women's labor composed of cleaning, cooking, negotiating social stability and nurturing, which
prepares for market and maintains each laborer. This constitutes women's continuing industry
enabling laborers to occupy every position in the work force. Without this fundamental labor and
commodity there would be no economic activity." Warrior also notes that the unacknowledged
income of men from illegal activities like arms, drugs and human trafficking, political graft,
religious emoluments and various other undisclosed activities provide a rich revenue stream to
men, which further invalidates GDP figures.[77] Even in underground economies where women
predominate numerically, like trafficking in humans, prostitution and domestic servitude, only a
tiny fraction of the pimps revenue filters down to the women and children he deploys. Usually the
amount spent on them is merely for the maintenance of their lives and, in the case of those
prostituted, some money may be spent on clothing and such accouterments as will make them
more salable to the pimps clients. For instance, focusing on just the U.S.A., according to a
government sponsored report by the Urban Institute in 2014, "A street prostitute in Dallas may
make as little as $5 per sex act. But pimps can take in $33,000 a week in Atlanta, where the sex
business brings in an estimated $290 million per year." [78]
Proponents of this theory have been instrumental in creating alternative models, such as
the Capability Approach and incorporating gender into the analysis of economic data to affect
policy. Marilyn Power suggests that feminist economic methodology can be broken down into five
Legal theory[edit]
Main article: Feminist legal theory
Feminist legal theory is based on the feminist view that law's treatment of women in relation to
men has not been equal or fair. The goals of feminist legal theory, as defined by leading theorist
Claire Dalton, consist of understanding and exploring the female experience, figuring out if law
and institutions oppose females, and figuring out what changes can be committed to. This is to
be accomplished through studying the connections between the law and gender as well as
applying feminist analysis to concrete areas of law.[80][81][82]
Feminist legal theory stems from the inadequacy of the current structure to account for
discrimination women face, especially discrimination based on multiple, intersecting identities.
Kimberl Crenshaws work is central to feminist legal theory, particularly her
article Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of
Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics. DeGraffenreid v General
Motors is an example of such a case. In this instance, the court ruled the plaintiffs, five Black
women who were employees of General Motors, were not eligible to file a complaint on the
grounds they, as black women, were not "a special class to be protected from discrimination".
The ruling in DeGraffenreid against the plaintiff revealed the courts inability to understand
intersectionalitys role in discrimination.[83] Moore v Hughes Helicopters, Inc. is another ruling,
which serves to reify the persistent discrediting of intersectionality as a factor in discrimination. In
the case of Moore, the plaintiff brought forth statistical evidence revealing a disparity in
promotions to upper-level and supervisory jobs between men and women and, to a lesser extent,
between Black and white men.[83] Ultimately, the court denied the plaintiff the ability to represent
all Blacks and all females.[83] The decision dwindled the pool of statistical information the plaintiff
could pull from and limited the evidence only to that of Black women, which is a ruling in direct
contradiction to DeGraffenreid.[83] Further, because the plaintiff originally claimed discrimination as
a Black female rather than, more generally, as a female the court stated it had concerns whether
the plaintiff could "adequately represent white female employees".[83] Payne v Travenol serves as
yet another example of the courts inconsistency when dealing with issues revolving around
intersections of race and sex. The plaintiffs in Payne, two Black females, filed suit against
Travenol on behalf of both Black men and women on the grounds the pharmaceutical plant
practiced racial discrimination.[83] The court ruled the plaintiffs could not adequately represent
Black males, however, they did allow the admittance of statistical evidence, which was inclusive
of all Black employees.[83] Despite the more favorable outcome after it was found there was
extensive racial discrimination, the courts decided the benefits of the ruling back pay and
constructive seniority would not be extended to Black males employed by the company.
Moore contends Black women cannot adequately represent white women on issues of sex
discrimination, Payne suggests Black women cannot adequately represent Black men on issues
of race discrimination, and DeGraffenreid argues Black women are not a special class to be
protected. The rulings, when connected, display a deep-rooted problem in regards to addressing
discrimination within the legal system. While the cases of DeGraffenreid (1976), Moore (1983),
and Payne (1976) are not recent accounts; they provide proof of the courts inconsistency in
procedures and rulings on the basis of sex and race, which serves to reinforce the need for
Feminist legal theory to not only be further developed, but also applied.
Communication theory[edit]
Feminist communication theory has evolved over time and branches out in many directions.
Early theories focused on the way that gender influenced communication and many argued that
language was "MAN made". This view of communication promoted a "deficiency model"
asserting that characteristics of speech associated with women were negative and that men "set
the standard for competent interpersonal communication." These early theories also suggested
that ethnicity, cultural and economic backgrounds also needed to be addressed. They looked at
how gender intersects with other identity constructs, such as class, race, and sexuality. Feminist
theorists, especially those considered to be liberal feminists, began looking at issues of equality
in education and employment. Other theorists addressed political oratory and public discourse.
The recovery project brought to light many women orators who had been "erased or ignored as
significant contributors." Feminist communication theorists also addressed how women were
represented in the media and how the media "communicated ideology about women, gender,
and feminism."[84][85]
Feminist communication theory also encompasses access to the public sphere, whose voices
are heard in that sphere, and the ways in which the field of communication studies has limited
what is regarded as essential to public discourse. The recognition of a full history of women
orators overlooked and disregarded by the field has effectively become an undertaking of
recovery, as it establishes and honors the existence of women in history and lauds the
communication by these historically significant contributors. This recovery effort, begun by
Andrea Lundsford, Professor of English and Director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric
at Stanford University and followed by other feminist communication theorists also names
women such as Aspasia, Diotima, and Christine de Pisan, who were likely influential in rhetorical
and communication traditions in classical and medieval times, but who have been negated as
serious contributors to the traditions.[85]
Feminist communication theorists are also concerned with attempting to explain the methods
used by those with power to prohibit women like Maria W. Stewart, Sarah Moore Grimk,
and Angelina Grimk, and more recently, Ella Baker and Anita Hill, from achieving a voice in
political discourse and consequently being driven from the public sphere. Theorists in this vein
are also interested in the unique and significant techniques of communication employed by these
women and others like them to surmount some of the oppression they experienced. [85]
Feminist Theory of Design[edit]
Technical writers have concluded that visual language can convey facts and ideas clearer than
almost any other means of communication.[86] According to the feminist theory, "gender may be a
factor in how human beings represent reality."[86]
Men and women will construct different types of structures about the self, and, consequently,
their thought processes may diverge in content and form. This division depends on the self-
concept, which is an "important regulator of thoughts, feelings and actions" that "governs ones
perception of reality."[87]
With that being said, the self-concept has a significant effect on how men and women represent
reality in different ways.
Recently, "technical communicators terms such as visual rhetoric, visual language, and
document design indicate a new awareness of the importance of visual design." [86]
Deborah S. Bosley explores this new concept of the "feminist theory of design" [86] by conducting a
study on a collection of undergraduate males and females who were asked to illustrate a visual,
on paper, given to them in a text. Based on this study, she creates a "feminist theory of design"
and connects it to technical communicators.
In the results of the study, males used more angular illustrations, such as squares, rectangles
and arrows, which are interpreted as a "direction" moving away from or a moving toward, thus
suggesting more aggressive positions than rounded shapes, showing masculinity.
Females, on the other hand, used more curved visuals, such as circles, rounded containers and
bending pipes. Bosley takes into account that feminist theory offers insight into the relationship
between females and circles or rounded objects. According to Bosley, studies of women and
leadership indicate a preference for nonhierarchical work patterns (preferring a communication
"web" rather than a communication "ladder"). Bosley explains that circles and other rounded
shapes, which women chose to draw, are nonhierarchical and often used to represent inclusive,
communal relationships, confirming her results that womens visual designs do have an effect on
their means of communications.
Based on these conclusions, this "feminist theory of design" can go on to say that gender does
play a role in how humans represent reality.
Black Feminist Criminology[edit]
Black Feminist Criminology theory is a concept created by Hillary Potter in the 1990s and a
bridge that integrates Feminist theory with criminology. It is based on the integration of Black
Feminist theory and Critical Race theory.
For years, Black women were historically overlooked and disregarded in the study of crime and
criminology; however, with a new focus on Black feminism that sparked in the 1980s, Black
feminists began to contextualize their unique experiences and examine why the general status of
Black women in the criminal justice system was lacking in female specific approaches. [88] Potter
explains that because Black women usually have "limited access to adequate education and
employment as consequences of racism, sexism, and classism, they are often disadvantaged.
This disadvantage materializes into "poor responses by social service professionals and crime-
processing agents to Black women's interpersonal victimization. [89]" Most crime studies focused
on White males/females and Black males. Any results or conclusions targeted to Black males
were usually assumed to be the same situation for Black females. This was very problematic
since Black males and Black females differ in what they experience. For instance, economic
deprivation, status equality between the sexes, distinctive socialization patterns, racism, and
sexism should all be taken into account between Black males and Black females. The two will
experience all of these factors differently; therefore, it was crucial to resolve this dilemma.
Black Feminist Criminology is the solution to this problem. It takes four factors into account: One,
it observes the social structural oppression of Black women. Two, it recognizes the Black
community and its culture. Three, it looks at Black intimate and familial relations. And four, it
looks at the Black woman as an individual. These four factors will help distinguish Black women
from Black males into an accurate branch of learning in the criminal justice system.
Criticisms of Black Feminist Criminology
It has been said that Black Feminist Criminology is still in its "infancy stage;" therefore, there is
little discussion or studies that disprove it as an affective feminist perspective. In addition to its
age, Black Feminist Criminology has not actively accounted for role of religion and spirituality in
Black women's "experience with abuse."[90]
Feminist science and technology studies[edit]
Main article: feminist technoscience
Feminist science and technology studies (STS) refers to the transdisciplinary field of research on
the ways gender and other markers of identity intersect with technology, science, and culture.
The practice emerged out of feminist critique on the masculine-coded uses of technology in the
fields of natural, medical, and technical sciences, and its entanglement in gender and identity.[91] A
large part of feminist technoscience theory explains science and technologies to be linked and
should be held accountable for the social and cultural developments resulting from both fields. [91]
Some key issues feminist technoscience studies address include:
1.) The use of feminist analysis when applied to scientific ideas and practices.
2.) Intersections between race, class, gender, science, and technology.
3.) The implications of situated knowledges.
4.) Politics of gender on how to understand agency, body, rationality, and the boundaries
between nature and culture.[91]