Feminist Theory in Sociology

By Olivia Guy-Evans, published Aug 22, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


What Is Feminist Theory?

Feminist theory is a major branch within sociology. It is a set of structural conflict approaches which views society as a conflict between men and women. There is the belief that women are oppressed and/or disadvantaged by various social institutions. 

Feminist theory aims to highlight the social problems and issues that are experienced by women. Some of the key areas of focus include discrimination on the basis of sex and gender, objectification, economic inequality, power, gender role, and stereotypes.  

Feminists share a common goal in support of equality for men and women. Although all feminists strive for gender equality, there are various ways to approach this theory. 

Some of the general features of feminism include:

  • An awareness that there are inequalities between men and women based on power and status.

  • These inequalities can create conflict between men and women. 

  • Gender roles and inequalities are usually socially constructed. 

  • An awareness of the importance of patriarchy: a system of social structures and practices in which men dominate, oppress, and exploit women.

What Are The Goals of Feminism?

The perspectives and experiences of women and girls have historically been excluded from social theory and social science. Thus, feminist theory aims to focus on the interactions and issues women face in society and culture, so half the population is not left out. 

Feminism in general means the belief in the social, economic, and political equality of the sexes.

The different branches of feminism may disagree on several things and have varying values. Despite this, there are usually basic principles that all feminists support:

Increasing gender equality

Feminist theories recognize that women’s experiences are not only different to men’s but are unequal. Feminists will oppose laws and cultural norms that mean women earn a lower income and have less educational and career opportunities than men. 

Ending gender oppression 

Gender oppression goes further than gender inequality. Oppression means that not only are women different from or unequal to men, but that they are actively subordinated, exploited, and even abused by men. 

Ending structural oppression

Feminist theories posit that gender inequality and oppression are the result of capitalism and patriarchy in which men dominate. 

Expanding human choice

Feminists believe that both men and women should have the freedom to express themselves and develop their interests, even if this goes against cultural norms. 

Ending sexual violence 

Feminists recognize that many women suffer sexual violence and that actions should be taken to address this.

Promoting sexual freedom 

Having sexual freedom means that women have control over their own sexuality and reproduction. This can include ending the stigma on being promiscuous and ensuring that everyone has access to safe abortions. 

The Waves Of Feminism

The history of modern feminism can be divided into four parts which are termed ‘waves.’ Each wave marks a specific cultural period in which specific feminist issues are brought to light. 

First wave feminism

The first wave of feminism is believed to have started with the ‘Women’s Suffrage Movement’ in New York in 1848 under the leadership of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Those involved in this feminist movement were known as suffragettes. The main aim of this movement was to allow women to vote. During this time, members of the suffrage movement engaged in social campaigns that expressed dissatisfaction with women’s limited rights to work, education, property, and social agency, among others. 

Emmeline Pankhurst was thought to be the leader of the suffragettes in Britain and was regarded as one of the most important figures in the movement. She founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), a group known for employing militant tactics in their struggle for equality. 

Despite the first wave of feminism being mostly active in the United States and western Europe, it led to international law changes regarding the right for women to vote.  It is worth noting that even after this first wave, in some countries, mostly white women from privileged backgrounds were permitted to vote, with black and minority ethnic individuals being granted this right later on. 

Second wave feminism

Second wave feminism started somewhere in the 1960s after the chaos of the second world war.

French feminist author Simone de Beauvoir published a book in 1949 entitled ‘The Second Sex’ which outlined the definitions of womanhood and how women have historically been treated as second to men. She determined that ‘one is not born but becomes a woman’. This book is thought to have been foundational for setting the tone for the next wave of women’s rights activism.   

Feminism during this period was focused on the social roles in women’s work and family environment. It broadened the debate to include a wider range of issues such as sexuality, family, reproductive rights, legal inequalities, and divorce law. 

From this wave, movement towards women’s rights included the signing of the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which stipulated that women could no longer be paid less than men for comparable work.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 included a section which prevents employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex, race, religion, or national origin. Likewise, the famous Roe v. Wade decision protected a woman’s right to have an abortion from 1973. 

Third wave feminism

The third wave of feminism is harder to pinpoint but it was thought to have taken off in the 1990s. Early activism in this wave involved fighting against workplace sexual harassment and working to increase the number of women in positions of power. 

The work of Kimberlé Crenshaw in the 1980s is thought to have been the root. She coined the term ‘intersectionality’ to describe the ways in which different forms of oppression intersect, such as how a black woman is oppressed in two ways: for being a woman and for being black.

Since there was not a clear goal with third wave feminism as there was with previous waves, there is no single piece of legislation or major social change that belongs to the wave. 

Fourth wave feminism

Many believe that there is now a fourth wave of feminism which began around 2012. 

It is likely that the wave sparked after allegations of sexual abuse and harassment, specifically of celebrities, which gave birth to campaigns such as Everyday Sexism Project by Laura Bates and the #MeToo movement. 

With the rise of the internet and social platforms, feminist issues such as discrimination, harassment, body shaming, and misogyny can be widely discussed with the emergence of new feminists. 

Fourth wave feminism is digitally driven and has become more inclusive to include those of any sexual orientation, any ethnicity, and trans individuals. 

Types of Feminism?

Liberal feminism

Liberal feminism is rooted in classic liberal thought and these feminists believe that equality should be brought about through education and policy changes. They see gender inequalities as rooted in the attitudes of social and cultural institutions, so they aim to change the system from within. 

Liberal feminists argue that women have the same capacity for moral reasoning and agency as men, but that the patriarchy has denied them the opportunity to practice this. Due to the patriarchy, these feminists believe that women have been pushed to remain in the privacy of their household and thus been excluded from participating in public life. 

Liberal feminists focus mainly on protecting equal opportunities for women through legislation. The Equal Rights amendment in 1972 was impactful for liberal feminists which enforced equality on account of sex. 

Marxist feminism 

Marxist feminism evolved from the ideas of Karl Marx, who claimed capitalism was to blame for promoting patriarchy, meaning that power is held in the hands of a small number of men. 

Marxist feminists believe that capitalism is the cause of women’s oppression and that this oppression in turn, helps to reinforce capitalism. These feminists believe that women are exploited for their unpaid labor (maintaining the household and childcare) and that capitalism reinforces that women are a reserve for the work force and they must create the next generation of workers. 

According to Marxist feminists, the system and traditional family can only be replaced by a socialist revolution that creates a government to meet the needs of the family.  

Radical feminism

Radical feminists posit that power is key in gender oppression. They argue that being a woman is a positive thing but that this is not acknowledged in patriarchal societies. 

The main belief of radical feminists is that equality can only be achieved through gender separation and political lesbianism. They think the patriarchy can be defeated if women recognize their own value and strength, establish trust with other women, and form female-based separatist networks in the private and public spheres. 

Intersectional feminism

Intersectional feminism believes that other feminist theories create an incorrect acceptance of women’s oppression based on the experiences of mostly western, middle class, white women.

For instance, while they may acknowledge that the work of the suffragette movement was influential, the voting rights of working class or minority ethnic groups was forgotten at this time.  

Intersectionality considers that gender, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, and others, are not separate, but are interwoven and can bring about different levels of oppression. 

This type of feminism offers insight that not all women experience oppression in the same way. For instance, the wage gap shows that women of color and men of color are penalized relative to the earnings of white men. 

Strengths And Criticisms Of Feminist Theory

Feminist theory is important since it helps to address and better understand unequal and oppressive gender relations. It promotes the goal for equality and justice while providing more opportunities for women. 

True feminism benefits men too and is not only applicable to women. It allows men to be who they want to be, without being tied down to their own gender roles and stereotypes.

Through feminism, men are encouraged to be free to express themselves in a way which may be considered ‘typically feminine’ such as crying when they are upset. In this way, men’s mental health can benefit from feminism since the shame associated with talking about their emotions can be lifted without feeling the expectation to ‘man up’ and keep their feeling buried. 

With the development of intersectionality, feminism does not just focus on gendered power and oppression, but on how this might intersect with race, sexuality, social class, disability, religion, and others. 

Without feminism, women would have significantly less rights. More women have the right to vote, work, have equal pay, access to health care, reproductive rights, and protection from violence. While every country has its own laws and legislature, there would have been less progress in changing these without the feminist movement. 

Feminist theory is also self-critical in that it recognizes that it may not have been applicable to everyone in the past. It understood that it was not inclusive and so evolved and may still go on to evolve over time. Feminism is not a static movement, but fluid in the way it can change and adjust to suit modern times. 

Some critics suggest that a main weakness of feminist theory is that it is from a woman-centered viewpoint. While the theories also mention issues which are not strictly related to women, it is argued that men and women view the world differently.

Some may call feminist theory redundant in modern day since women have the opportunity to work now, so the nature of family life has inevitable changed in response. However, a counterpoint to this is that many women in certain cultures are still not given the right to work. Likewise, having access to work does not eradicate the other feminist issues that are still prevalent. 

Some feminists may go too far into a stage where they are man-hating which causes more harm than good. It can make men feel unwelcome to feminism if they are being blamed for patriarchal oppression and inequalities that they are not directly responsible for.

Other women may not want to identify as a feminist either if they have the impression that feminists are man-haters but they themselves like men. 

There are criticisms even between feminists, with some having values that can lead to others having a negative view of feminists as a whole. For instance, radical feminists often receive criticism for ignoring race, social class, sexual orientation, and the presence of more than two genders. Thus, there are aspects of feminism which are not inclusive.

What is the main goal of feminism?

The goal of feminism is to reach social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. 

Feminists aim to challenge the systemic inequalities women face on a daily basis, change laws and legislature which oppress women, put an end to sexism and exploitation of women, and raise awareness of women’s issues. 

However, the different types of feminists may have distinct goals within their movement and between each other.

How was feminist theory founded?

Although there are many early writings that could be characterized under feminism or embodying the experiences of women, the history of western feminist theory usually begins with the works of Mary Wollstonecraft. 

Wollstonecraft was one of the first feminist writers, responsible for her publications such as ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ published in 1792. 

How does feminist theory relate to education?

Feminist theory helps us understand gender differences in education, gender socialization, and how the education system may be easier for boys to navigate compared to girls. 

Many feminists believe that education is an agent of secondary socialization that helps enforce patriarchy. 

Feminist theory aims to promote educational opportunities for girls and assures that they should not limit their educational aspirations just because they may go against what is traditionally expected by them. 

What are feminist sociologists view on family roles and relationships?

Some feminists view the function of the nuclear family as a place where patriarchal values are learned by individuals, which in turn add to the patriarchal society. Young girls may be socialized to believe that inequality and oppression is a normal part of being a woman and boys are socialized to believe that they are superior and have authority over women. 

Feminists often believe that the nuclear family teaches children gender roles which translate to gender roles in wider society. For instance, girls may learn to accept that being a housewife is the only possible or acceptable role for women. Some feminists also believe that the division of labor is unequal in nuclear families, with women and girls accepting subservient roles in the household. 

How does feminist theory relate to crime?

Feminists recognize that there is a disproportionate amount of violence and crime against women and that the reason may be due to the inequalities and oppression that women face. 

If the patriarchy posits that men are more powerful, this can lead them to abuse this power over women, resulting in harassment, physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, and even murdering of women. 

Feminists point out that there is a lot of systemic sexism in the justice system which needs to be tackled. Female victims of sexual abuse from men may often feel as if they are the one put on trial and even experience blame for what happened to them. Thus, many women do not report their sexual abuse for fear of not being believed or taken seriously in a system that favors men. 

Therefore, many feminists would aim to fix the system so that less men commit these crimes and that there is proper justice for women who experience violence from men. 

How far would sociologists agree that feminism has changed marriage?

Feminists often believe that the meaning of marriage is deeply rooted in patriarchy and gender inequality. In modern times, it would therefore not make sense for a woman to get married unless she has a partner willing to overturn a lot of the traditional and sexist values of marriage. 

Most feminists believe that women should have the choice over whether they want to get married or even be in a relationship at all. Marriage for feminists can be however they want it to be, including their own vows and values that make them and their partners equals. 

A study found that having a feminist partner was linked to healthier heterosexual relationships for women (Rudman & Phelan, 2007). They also found that men with feminist partners reported more stable relationships and greater sexual satisfaction, suggesting that feminism may predict happier relationships. 

There are differences between radical and liberal feminism when it comes to ideas about the private sphere. Liberal feminists are generally not against heterosexual marriage and having children, as long as this is what the woman wants. If the woman is being treated as an equal by their partner and chooses how to raise their family, this is a feminist choice.

Even in modern marriage, radical feminists argue that women who are married to men are under patriarchal rule and are still made to complete much of the unpaid labor in the household compared to their husbands.

About the Author

Olivia Guy-Evans obtained her undergraduate degree in Educational Psychology at Edge Hill University in 2015. She then received her master’s degree in Psychology of Education from the University of Bristol in 2019. Olivia has been working as a support worker for adults with learning disabilities in Bristol for the last four years.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Guy-Evans, O. (2022, Aug 22). Feminist Theory in Sociology. Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/feminist-theory-sociology.html

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