Political Philosophy Part 2


Feminism and political philosophy (pp21)


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      Political Philosophy Contents Page.

Note: this document is restricted mainly to the impact of feminism on political thought.


For other aspects of feminism, see:

Simone de Beauvoir (feminism and existentialism)      Feminism: extracts (a small selection of quotes, some of which appear in the text below).

Feminism: statistics on inequality                                 Feminism and Postmodernism (not completed yet…)

Feminism Today (miscellaneous notes on various topics relevant to feminism, taken from the press etc).     

The Women's Movement (a historical account of the activities of women in the movement for liberation).


Outline of these notes:


1: feminism: #definitions


2: new concepts derived from feminist thought:  

            2.1 #sex vs gender

            2.2 #sexism

            2.3 #dualisms in language (normative)

            2.4 #patriarchy

            2.5 #the personal is the political 

            2.6 # political correctness


3. #historical overview of attitudes to women in philosophy, religion and science:

            3.1 "pre-history"

            3.2 classical world: Plato, Pythagoras, Galen

            3.3 Christianity

            3.4 scientific revolution

            3.5 French (and other) Revolution(s) - Mary Wollstonecraft

            3.6 Darwin – and theories of evolution


4. #viewpoints - brief notes on political/philosophical perspectives associated with the "waves" of the women’s movement:       

            1 #first wave feminism - political equality (the vote); political perspective (philosophical viewpoint): #liberal feminism; and #socialist/Marxist feminism.

                                                See The Women's Movement for more details.

            2 #second wave - radical feminism: goes into power relations beyond the political. See Notes on de Beauvoir for more details. 

            3 #third wave - post-modernism (deconstruction of all dominant narratives); political perspective (philosophical viewpoint): post-feminism?

                                                See Feminism and postmodernism for more details.



Feminism and political philosophy: notes.

1: definitions of feminism:


Maggie Humm (author of: Feminisms, a Reader, Harvester 1992 and The Dictionary of Feminist Theory, Harvester 1989):


            "[feminism] incorporates both a doctrine of equal rights for women (the organised movement to obtain women's rights) and an ideology of social transformation aiming to create a world for women beyond simple equality... it is the ideology of women's liberation since intrinsic in all its approaches is the belief that women suffer injustice because of our sex.”


Rebecca West, 1913:


            “I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is; I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute."


Wilson, E.: Hidden Agendas... Tavistock 1986:


            “[Feminism] embraces many theories - is a political commitment – or... an ethical commitment.. - to giving women their true value. It is not even possible to say it is a commitment to equality, since some feminists have argued... for separate spheres of influence, emphasising difference and complementarity rather than equality...”


We see from the above several key (and contentious!) issues: that women ‘suffer injustice because of our sex’ – that is, women as a category are in a different position to men; also, although there may be other injustices (due to class, ethnicity etc) the way we deal with the sexes is unfair to one of them.


Feminists are not all in agreement on everything, however, since some argue for equality (and would minimise the differences between the sexes), and others argue for a new order that recognises the differences between men and women but does not privilege men at the expense of women.


Feminism as a social movement will be dealt with elsewhere (see The Women's Movement): here we are concerned with feminist philosophy, and the impact of feminism on philosophy, and especially political philosophy.


2 new concepts and perspectives: 


Feminism has had a substantial impact on philosophy: it has developed new perspectives, and new concepts – or at the least, a re-thinking of existing concepts.

Some of these concepts have entered our everyday language – though not always in the sense intended by feminist thinkers!


2.1 sex vs. gender 


For much of our intellectual history we have assumed that men have certain ‘natural’ characteristics, and women have others. Feminists have pointed out that there is a difference between ‘male’(a biological category) and ‘masculine’ (a character trait), likewise: ‘female’ and ‘feminine’. Men (males) do not have to be ‘masculine’ (strong, ambitious, ‘big boys don’t cry’ etc) – nor do women (females) have to be ‘feminine’ (delicate, sensitive, nurturing, intuitive etc).


In other words we need to distinguish between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’:

Men and women have different biological characteristics = sex (male/female), but culture determines/defines gender, i.e. what "masculinity/femininity" mean.


As an illustration of the feminist view, here is what Simone de Beauvoir wrote in 1949 in The Second Sex Part IV:


            "One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman. No biological, psychological, or economic fate determines the figure that the human female presents in society; it is civilisation as a whole that produces this creature, intermediate between male and eunuch, which is described as feminine.."


i.e. de Beauvoir challenges accepted views of the “nature" of woman, and asks that we examine the question: how is woman constituted? (see: Simone de Beauvoir).


2.2 sexism:


To my mind, this is one of the least-understood words used in discussions about the relations between the sexes. Too often it is used whenever someone says something about a difference between men and women… However, it should only apply in situations where ‘women's characteristics’ are said to be not just different to men’s but "inferior" or not "normal".


Simone de Beauvoir pointed out that, of course, "different" implies different from something, and the crucial question that is often overlooked is that men’s characteristics are regarded as ‘normal’ or ‘essential’ and women’s as somehow lacking or inferior. As she said: the question is often asked ‘what is a woman?’ – whereas no-one asks ‘what is a man?’ ‘Man’ is assumed to be the norm, woman somehow deviant from the norm. I return to the question of ‘differences’ after giving a more precise definition of ‘sexism’:


Sexism means arguing three things:


(i) Women are different, and (ii) this is by nature (women – and men - have no choice over how they are, they cannot be changed...), and (iii) since it is assumed that ‘men’ represent what is normal, or best, then women are (by nature) inferior (if they were merely culturally inferior they could be re-educated...).


Notice, in other words, that the concept ‘sexism’ depends on what was said above about the difference between ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ with regard to sex/gender….


The consequence of sexism is to reinforce the lack of power that women have – to continue to take power from women by defining them in a certain way.

It is when we look - closely and critically - at the ways in which women have been described as different that we begin to see the power-relations involved.


So, it is not sexist per se to say women are different – it depends on the kind of difference! It is not sexist to say women are biologically different (unless from this you draw conclusions that put women down). The term ‘sexism’ was devised by analogy with ‘racism’…  There is no point in pretending that black people don’t have black skins, and other physical difference to whites. On the other hand, if you use these differences in a way which indicates you think they make the black person inferior, you are being racist. So, feminists are not trying to claim there are no biological differences between men and women, but they are wary of differences which are given different values. (See the list of ‘dualisms’ that comes at the end of this section).


To my mind – and this may be controversial but I believe it follows from the above, and many feminists would also argue this way: a disparaging remark or statement about men is not truly sexist: men generally (men as men – this is not a question merely of individuals, as there are of course exceptions to the rule) are in a position of power and privilege, and no amount of negative remarks or statements about men can alter that. On the other hand, the problem with sexism is – as stated above – precisely that it reinforces a position of inferiority on the part of those to whom it is directed (and superiority on the part of the originator). Of course, if the intention is to bring about social change which reverses the order of power-relations, making women as a category superior to men – then I guess ‘sexist’ is an apposite description of the position being taken. Similarly, blacks may make derogatory remarks about whites, but the intention may be to bring about equality, or to highlight white racism: only if the meaning is that the white race should be kept under by the black race could we appropriately call this sexism.


In sum, power-relations are at the heart of the matter: men who treat women as inferior do so in order to make themselves feel superior. Note Virginia Woolf's (1929) vivid account of this: (quoted in Feminism: A Reader ed. Humm 1992)


            Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size. Without that power probably the earth would still be swamp and jungle.


            Whatever may be their use in civilised societies, mirrors are essential to all violent and heroic action.  That is why Napoleon and Mussolini both insist so emphatically on the inferiority of women, for if they were not inferior, they would cease to enlarge.....[imagine the effects on a man of criticism from a woman - doesn't it hit harder than if it comes from another man?  so:] How is he to go on giving judgement, civilising natives, making laws, writing books, dressing up and speechifying at banquets, unless he can see himself at breakfast and dinner at least twice the size he really is!


2.3 It is important to note that sexism can be deeply embedded in the language we use:


I call this way of thinking ‘normative dualism’ - the pairs of characteristics represent: the ‘norm’ – on the left below - and against it an inferior or ‘abnormal’ counterpart. But of course, the left-hand side represents attributes of men…


same thing, different values:


angry                                                                hysterical

assertive/dominant                                            bitchy/bossy

talk/converse                                        gossip/chatter

complain                                                           nag

stud/Don Juan/Casanova                                   whore/slut/slag


hierarchical categories:


superior                                                            inferior

normal                                                  different

essential                                                            complementary


distinct characteristics:


mind                                                                 body

reason/logic/analysis                              intuition/feeling/hunch

transcendence                                       immanence

culture                                                  nature

active                                                               passive

public/state/society                                private/community/family

universal                                                           particular

impartial/objective                                             personal/subjective

truth                                                                 opinion

autonomous/independent                                   dependent/nurturing/relational

self-regarding                                        other-regarding/altruistic

hard/strong                                                       soft/sensitive/weak

polygamous                                                      monogamous

penetrating                                                        receptive

active                                                               masochistic/narcissistic


2.4 patriarchy:


(a) Definition;


The theory of patriarchy argues that the power of men/those with male characteristics is systematically/systemically exercised over women (and it usually extends to all who are not part of the ‘dominant male’ group – children, gays, bi/trans-sexuals… grouped together nowadays as LGBT):


thus Kate Millet (Sexual Politics: Virago 1977):


            "sex is a status category with political implications...[we need to define] a theory of politics which treats of power relationships on grounds less conventional than those to which we are accustomed [i.e.] on grounds of personal contact and interaction between members of well-defined and coherent groups: races, castes, classes, and sexes. For it is precisely because certain groups have no representation [as groups?] in a number of recognised political structures that their position tends to be so stable, their oppression so continuous... However muted its present appearance may be, sexual domination obtains nevertheless as perhaps the most pervasive ideology of our culture and provides its most fundamental concept of power" [my emphasis].


Maggie Humm (The Dictionary of Feminist Theory: Harvester 1989):


            "[patriarchy is] a system of male authority which oppresses women through its social, political and economic institutions.  In any of the historical forms that patriarchal society takes... feudal, capitalist or socialist, a sex-gender system and a system of economic discrimination operate simultaneously. Patriarchy has power from men's greater access to, and mediation of, the resources and rewards of authority structures inside and outside the home."


Note here the political implications: replacing capitalism with e.g. socialism will not necessarily remove the dominance of men… (see below on the different strands of feminist politics).


(b) Evidence.


What evidence is there to support the idea of ‘patriarchy’?  Throughout the world, and including most of the developed nations, most of the positions of high status, wealth and power are occupied (as they have been for centuries) by men.


Sheila Rowbotham, in Women in Movement, (Routledge 1992 p.5), argues:


            "Women receive less than one-tenth of the world income, but do two thirds of the world's work. Although earning less than men, they work longer hours - 2 to 5 hours more in developed countries, 5 to 6 hours more in Latin America and the Caribbean, and as much as 12 to 13 hours more in Africa and Asia.  When housework and childcare are taken into account, women on average have a 60 to 70 hour week."


- and from Modern Sexism by N.V. Benokraitis and J.R. Feagin, (Prentice Hall  1995):


            "Only 7.5% of the 1,315 board members at America's 100 biggest companies are women.  Of the highest paid officers and directors of the 799 public companies, virtually none (less than 0.5%) are women! Only 27 women, or 11.5%, hold leadership positions in the country's 25 biggest unions... An estimated 7 million women now run their own businesses, generating $500 billion in annual revenues... About 30% of the small businesses are owned by women.  Although women-owned firms employ more workers than all the Fortune 500 companies combined, they are awarded only 1% of all federal government contracts....


            When the United Way fired its president...his replacement, a woman, was paid less than half the salary of her predecessor... A survey of 1,029 female and male managers employed by 20 Fortune 500 companies found that... the women's salaries increased 54% over the study's 5-year period while men's increased 65%."


For more statistics, go to: Statistics on women’s inequality.


2.5  a new way of seeing the world: the personal is the political:


            The pioneering 18th century feminist Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 – 1797), author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1791), argued that women (a) have the ability to reason but (b) have been prevented from developing and using it by being expected to be merely "beautiful": they are told their main value is in their beauty – they are praised for this to ‘compensate’ for their treatment as inferior beings:


            "Pleasure is the business of woman's life, according to the present modification of society; and while it continues to be so, little can be expected from such weak beings.  Inheriting ... the sovereignty of beauty - they have, to maintain their power, resigned the natural rights which the exercise of reason might have procured them, and chosen rather to be short-lived queens than labour to obtain the sober pleasures that arise from equality. Exalted by their inferiority... they constantly demand homage as women...


            Why do they not discover that they are treated like queens only to be deluded by hollow respect, till they are led to resign, or not assume, their natural prerogatives?... It is true they are provided with food and raiment, for which they neither toil nor spin; but health, liberty and virtue are given in exchange.


            I lament that women are systematically degraded by receiving the trivial attentions which men think it manly to pay the sex, when in fact, they are insultingly supporting their own superiority."


This kind of view explains why some women feel patronised by having doors opened for them, or being called ‘dear’ or ‘darling’ (terms which when used between

people who are close indicate simply affection; addressed by a male stranger to a woman they reinforce the perception of the man’s superiority).


An early demand of the women’s movement was for ‘wages for housework’ – this raises other issues, but also relates to the question of what is personal or private

and what is ‘political’ (i.e. reflecting power relations – not only between the individuals concerned but in the wider society as well). As John Lennon pointed out, in the

context of revolutionary politics, ‘how do you treat the woman back home?’ is a pertinent question! In looking at the origins of the women’s movement we can see

that the way women were treated in radical, even supposedly revolutionary, left-wing groups (to mind the crèche, sell papers, make the tea – but not get involved in

serious debates) led many such women to build their own movement.


Finally, as can be seen from the statistics on domestic violence, as well as in the anger at the inadequate policing of rape and stalking, violence even in the home

is not a purely ‘personal’ matter… (See: Statistics on Inequality etc).


2.6 Political Correctness:


As with the term ‘sexism’ it seems to me that this word has become ‘problematic’ – mainly because it is often used now to oppose attempts to get people to use language sensitively. The word ‘correct’ is tellingly (mis-)used to suggest that those who advocate political correctness want to control our thoughts as well as our behaviour. 


A few words on this [and a few words bracketed in by myself] from Hilary Wainwright (Guardian 04.10.99): ‘the term originated in the women’s movement debates when some of us would criticise the others for turning the need to contest oppressive values into a dogma [i.e. only dogmatists attempt to control the way we use words…]. But, in the contrary way of history, the phrase was taken up by the radical right in America to attack any kind of affirmative action’ [i.e. attempts to redress the balance when women (or ethnic minorities) have been disadvantaged for so long that it is more difficult for them than for men to get the jobs they are entitled to without some kind of pressure from legislation].


She goes on to argue that it gained ground in America when the right, with their social conservatism plus market economics, opposed liberal and egalitarian ideas. The focus became narrow: to oppose affirmative action policies, rather than opposing all subordination, cultural or material.


This Guardian article was in response to Judge Henry Pownall who made a blistering attack on political correctness ‘in all its horrid forms’ during his retirement address. But Wainwright says that he was simply defending the right of upper-class white men to ‘spout their patrician values’ – when there is pressure on judges to pay full attention to the rights and values of the lower classes (in which they include women).


Wainwright says she would never defend ‘political correctness’ as it would make her feel ‘boxed in’. The movement has moved ‘way beyond defending a dogma to constructing a new reality’.


See also Ruth Perry (1992), and This article points out that the term was (often) used ironically by feminists, among themselves, as Hilary Wainwright pointed out.


It seems to me that what is really going on when someone makes a joke out of ‘political correctness’, and when newspapers write of ‘political correctness gone mad’ (along with health and safety of course!) is that they are showing they would prefer the term not to exist, so they are not reminded of the way in which language and thought has become sexist, racist, homophobic etc. This practice, of mocking political correctness, shows how the right-wing have co-opted the concept, and then twisted it in order to ridicule it!


How sad, also, that many well-intentioned people have got themselves tied up in knots because they don’t know what kind of language is ‘allowed’ – why is it so difficult to try to use language sensitively, so as not to hurt the less powerful or the less privileged?


3. Historical overview (attitudes to women, and feminism):


Although much of history has been just that (history), there were, in early times, cultures with significant goddesses; these were superceded by e.g. Judeo-Christianity and a "male" God. There is evidence for this in the fact that Celtic Christianity has retained the equal treatment of male and female.


In early political philosophy, Plato was unusual in that he permitted the possibility of women philosopher-rulers, but Aristotle believed they were inferior (see below), and most political philosophers since have agreed - only J.S. Mill, who was married to Harriet Taylor, argued differently (see Lloyd 1984; Okin 1980 & 1991)



What I have called a discriminatory ‘dualism’ (see above) also started early; note Pythagoras (500 BC): (a number of these quotes are taken from notes by my former

colleague at UEL, Judy Greenway):


            "there is a good principle which created order, light and man, and a bad principle which created chaos, darkness and woman."


It might be worth pointing out that other early philosophies, notably Taoism, believed everything in the world could be put into one of two categories – however, for Taoism both elements of the duality are equally important (you cannot have light without dark, dry without wet, success without failure, etc).



The great philosopher Aristotle (4th century BCE) believed that there was a distinction between (mere) ‘matter’ and ‘form’. Whatever gave matter its form was clearly of more importance than the matter itself. He then decided that when a child is created, the ‘matter’ is provided by the mother (in the womb), and the ‘form’ by the father (presumably via the sperm). He also argued that women (like slaves and children) did not have the same reasoning capacity as men, and therefore should not be given citizenship, or involved in political decision-making, let alone become rulers. (Ironically, Plato, whose overall political philosophy is much more reactionary, and less democratic, and who argued that women could become rulers, was Aristotle’s tutor).




The 2nd century AD physician and biologist wrote:


            "The female is more imperfect than the male... just as man is the most perfect of all animals, so also, within the human species, man is more perfect than woman.  The cause of this superiority is the [male's] superabundance of warmth, heat being the primary instrument of nature."



With the advent of Christianity came the view that Eve was responsible for tempting Adam to disobey God – leading to our inherent sinfulness, and the need for Christ to come and die for us to save us from our sins… Although the Virgin Mary has an important part in Catholic doctrine, God is of course a Father, and Jesus was his son. The disciples were all men (though radicals argue that Jesus mixed happily with women, even with a prostitute). Given this dominant hostility to women, the native idea of the "wise woman" had to be replaced by male priests, bishops etc, and male religious experts. The ideas of St Paul and St Augustine were part of the ‘mix’ as they continued the Judaic tradition of regarding the body as sinful, and women as temptations for the body. 



The growth of science from the sixteenth century on, in Europe, reinforced these patterns: male experts in ‘medicine’ replaced wise women, even in matters such as childbirth (apart from the midwife – whose role to this day is sometimes contested by more reactionary elements in the medical profession!). Although Europe moved into a so-called "scientific" era, based on objective tests (experiments) and not just observation, "witches" were killed off in vast purges: some were burned, others were drowned – if they failed the notorious test: they were held or thrown into water, and if they floated they must be witches, if they drowned they weren’t...


- Isaac Newton (perhaps our greatest scientist) saw sexual temptation as a threat (Easlea 1981)

- Francis Bacon, 1561  - 1628, (who laid down the principles of scientific procedure) saw women as closer to nature (cf. "dualisms"...), and science's task was to unveil nature, penetrate her secrets even against her will (Easlea). This reflected a broader anti-woman stance:


            "He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or of mischief.  Certainly the best works, and of greatest for the public, have proceeded from the unmarried or childless men."  Bacon  - Quoted by Mary Wollstonecraft, see Ball and Dagger 1991 p 342.  Mary adds "I say the same of women".


Eighteenth century:


Despite all this, in the 17th and 18th centuries, women played important roles in revolts against slavery in Caribbean; and against the power of the old regime, the king and aristocracy, in the French Revolution. Olympe de Gouges wrote a Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen in 1791. Written after the revolution of 1789, it expresses the disillusion that was growing among women with the male-oriented new regime – despite its dedication to ‘liberty equality and fraternity’. The Declaration includes the view that: “ignorance, omission or scorn for the rights of woman are the only causes of public misfortunes and of the corruption of governments…”.


Article 10 states that “woman has the right to mount the scaffold [i.e. to be guillotined!], she must equally have the right to mount the rostrum…” – women should have the same share of jobs, official positions etc as men.


The following Article declares that women should have the right to identify the father of their child, and not be forced to hide the truth – clearly the latter must have been a common practice at the time.


Article 17: “Property belongs to both sexes…” and no-one can be deprived of it without due legal process.


For the full text go to:


Mary Wollstonecraft: (see also enl10slaveryracewomen link)


I have already mentioned Mary Wollstonecraft, and her Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) - but most of the ‘progressive’ thinkers of the times before the French Revolution of 1789 were not progressive in their attitude to women. Note especially Rousseau's ambiguous view that women were more sensitive than men, and therefore it was right to leave childcare to them, so as to cultivate ‘sensitivity’ in the boys who would grow up to be the decision-makers in government… The education of boys and of girls should be different, as well, to prepare them for their different roles in society.




In the 19th century, with the development of biology as a science, it is perhaps not surprising to find that ‘explanations’ for the differences between men and women were promulgated; (even!) Darwin, (1809 – 1882) in The Descent of Man...(early 1871) said:


            "Man is the rival of other men; he delights in competition, and this leads to ambition... With woman, the powers of intuition, of rapid perception, and perhaps of imitation, are more strongly marked than in man, but some, at least of these faculties are characteristic of the lower races, and therefore of a past and lower stage of civilisation.


            The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shown by man attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than woman can attain – whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands". 


(Extracts from Judy Greenway’s notes again). Note the combination of sexism and racism…


Comment: ‘difference’ versus ‘sameness’ :


I doubt that anyone today would agree with Darwin’s statement above! However, some evolutionary psychologists, who combine cognitive psychology with

Darwinism, argue that not only is feminism not incompatible with Darwinism, but we need to understand the evolutionary explanation for differences between men and

women. (See for example Helena Cronin of the LSE – further notes at Feminism Today (updates to notes on feminism).


Note that this point goes to what some (e.g. Andrew Heywood in Political Ideologies: an Introduction (Palgrave, 3rd edn 2003) see as at the heart of feminist

discussion: are there important differences between men and women, or not?  (Difference vs. sameness). Those feminists who accept ‘difference’ are likely to argue

that the differences should be treated with equal respect and reward, and not used as a pretext for subduing women. Those who reject the ‘difference’ argument are

likely to argue either that a woman can do equally well anything a man can do, once they overcome the conditioning that tells them they can’t; or that once social

structures and values are changed, we will have both ‘new men’ and ‘new women’ – since neither sex is reaching its full potential under the present system.


4. Philosophical positions associated with the ‘waves’ of the women’s movement – introduction

See also: Notes on the women's movement and Feminism and postmodernism [latter not completed yet].


NOTE: it is difficult to disentangle the ‘theoretical’ side of feminism from the ‘activist’ side: and it is easy to fall into the trap of putting so much

emphasis on the theory that we come to believe that theory alone can change the world…. There is, therefore, bound to be some duplication of

material here and in my notes on the Women’s Movement.


1 first wave – early feminists believed that with political equality (the vote) would come legal, economic, and social equality and equal treatment/rights – and changes

in attitude.


Associated political perspectives (philosophical viewpoints): (i) liberal perspective: central: beliefs/values – the need to change attitudes. The aim was to establish that women had an equal ability to reason... and therefore could exercise moral, hence political, responsibility. The liberal feminist view then minimises the differences between men and women - all are rational etc.  cf. Wollstonecraft "the distinction of sex (i.e. gender) [should be] confounded in society, unless where love animates the behaviour."


(ii) Socialist feminists were also involved in the first wave of feminism: for them, economic and social equality would entail equality for women. This was because economic inequality and exploitation was seen as at the root of all other forms of inequality and exploitation. Moreover, capitalist property relations were such that they exclude women as well as men – all are part of the exploited working class, and only a revolution abolishing class difference would bring equality for women.


2 second wave – or radical feminism developed in the 1960s, drawing on the New left, the Civil Rights and anti-psychiatry movements… anti-Vietnam campaigns and CND’ (Humm, 1992 p 54). I would add that it was the negative experience of some women in the socialist and "liberation" movements (being allocated women’s tasks such as looking after the crèche, distributing leaflets or selling papers – while the men made the policy decisions) that strengthened the radical side of this phase. Above all, it was felt that the first-wave political struggle had failed to deliver a change in women’s position, even with the vote.


Second wave feminism stressed "difference", and problems of “identity”, and the question of ‘reproduction’. It drew on biological, anthropological and psychological evidence and theories (e.g. de Beauvoir). These feminists argued that women lack control, even - or especially - over their own bodies, sexuality, and reproduction. In other words, there are  physical/biological as well as psychological and socio-economic dimensions to the domination of women by men, which go beyond capitalism (that is, they are not found only in capitalism).


The importance of control over reproduction led to demands for ‘a woman’s right to choose’: if men decide when a woman ‘is allowed’ to become or to remain pregnant (through control over contraception and abortion), then women are immediately constrained and prevented from going into a career, or into public life – or realising their full potential as they would like.


The insight that control over reproduction was so important was then extended, so that feminists focused on ‘reproduction of the existing structures of social and political life and of ideas…’ This, when combined with new ways of thinking such as that of Lyotard, Derrida and others, led to what might be called ‘postmodern feminism’ (or ‘third wave’).


Key text:

The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, 1963 – when this text appeared, says Maggie Humm (1992) ‘feminism… was invisible in the media.’ Friedan’s aim is to resist the pressure on women to adopt the role ascribed to them of mother; she used arguments such as that the children of mothers who stayed at home did not benefit from the close contact with their mother, but were bored and dependent on her.


See also:

Of Woman Born by Adrienne Rich, 1976 – saw motherhood as penal servitude, and as a patriarchal institution.

Backlash, by Susan Faludi, 1991 – noted that feminism was being blamed for women’s woes in the ‘80s. This backlash she saw as a way of re-domesticating women.


3 third wave (and perspective): post-modern (deconstruction of all dominant narratives…) – and post-feminism?


For postmodernism, and postmodern feminism, the hidden assumptions in ‘modern’ thinking needed to be exposed. Nearly all philosophical writing has been the work of men – and since the beginnings of the ‘modern’ period, the men have been propertied, privileged, and white!  Consciously or unconsciously the ideas of such male, white, middle-class philosophers may well reflect the interests of this already privileged and powerful group. In the words of Whelehan (1995): "discourses of power [writing about politics etc] assume inequality at their very roots." 


For example, the political philosophy of such as John Locke affirmed the rights of ‘man’ – which was taken as subsuming woman. The sole purpose of the state was to protect ‘man’ and his property. But Locke didn’t see that when he strongly argued that property is what defined a citizen, and it was their ownership of property that gave someone the right to be protected and consulted by the state, then, since only men owned property, women had no rights and were excluded from citizenship …


The strength of recent, ‘postmodern’ feminist thought lies in its interdisciplinary approach, questioning the fragmentation and pigeonholing of knowledge into ‘disciplines’ (an idea associated mainly with Foucault). Maybe the very ‘division of knowledge’ that we have relied on, as well as the language and concepts we have been using, are the creation of men, and serve the purpose of perpetuating existing power-relations (and not only between the sexes). If this is so, the chances are that the way knowledge is classified, and the terms and concepts used, will be such as to promote the interests and power of men. This takes the question of the ‘dualisms’ described above even further.


Some radical feminists use the concept of phallocentrism to describe this treating of the world from a male point of view… (see Feminism and postmodernism, also:

Postmodernism). [These documents not yet completed]


On the other hand, maybe this is all simply too academic in its approach? 


However, another insight of the latest strand of feminism is that previously the differences between women had been minimised (differences of race, class and sexual preference). In the 1990s, says Maggie Humm (1992) feminists celebrated “the electric charge of racial and sexual ‘difference’… [which] liberates women from the conviction of a single, universal experience into a world of multiple and mobile racial, class and sexual preferences.”.


More recently, some feminists wanted to refuse the usual account of the ‘difference’ between men and women, in order to be able to behave like men: especially to be openly sexual – e.g. by performing in pole-dancing establishments (whereas earlier feminism had seen this as dangerous as what was sexually attractive was defined by men – and some feminists became distinctively prudish as a consequence of this way of thinking).


This debate raises other issues (see Notes on the Women's Movement) and it still leaves unanswered the ‘original’ question: are women and men ‘the same’, or if not, what are the ‘differences’? 



Postscript: other feminists:  Interview by Emma Brockes. Also extract from her memoir.