Postmodern Feminism Theory

By Charlotte Nickerson, published Aug 08, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Summary

  • Postmodern feminism is a type of feminism that emerged in the late 20th century. It is marked by a rejection of traditional feminist ideas and an embrace of postmodern philosophy.
  • Postmodern feminism is critical of essentialism, patriarchy, and binary thinking. Instead, it emphasizes the importance of social context and power relationships in understanding gender.
  • Postmodern feminism has been criticized for being too theoretical and disconnected from real-world issues.

What is Postmodern Feminist Theory?

Postmodern feminist theory is a school of thought that emphasizes the importance of social and political factors in understanding gender. Postmodern feminists believe that gender is not determined by biology, but rather by culture and society. They argue that women have been oppressed not because they are biologically inferior to men, but because they have been socially and politically marginalized.

Postmodern feminism began in the 1970s as a reaction to second-wave feminism. Second-wave feminism was based on the belief that women were oppressed due to their biology (i.e., their sex). This led to a focus on issues like reproductive rights and equal access to education and employment.

However, postmodern feminists argued that these issues were not enough to liberate women from oppression. Instead, they believed that women’s oppression was the result of social and political factors (Waugh, 2012).

Postmodern feminism is associated with thinkers as diverse as Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, and Donna Haraway.

Post-modern feminists assume that the modernist conception of feminism emphasizes gender differences between women and men whilst ignoring the differences within each gender. For example,  while all women may be oppressed by patriarchy, not all women experience this oppression in the same way. White, middle-class women, for example, may have more privilege than women of color or working-class women. Similarly, lesbians may experience different forms of oppression than heterosexual women (Waugh, 2012).

Postmodern feminists also critiqued the notion of a unified “sisterhood” among all women. They pointed out that there are many factors that divide women along lines of race, class, sexuality, and other categories. As such, they argued that it was important to focus on the unique experiences of each group of women.

Key assumptions of postmodern feminism include:

The personal is political

This means that the private experiences of women are shaped by larger social and political structures. For example, if a woman is being abused by a male partner, postmodern feminists contend that the societal oppression of women is an important factor in explaining this abuse. This term was popularized by Carol Hanisch's 1970 essay, "The Person is Political."

There is no one way to be a woman

This means that there is no universal experience of womanhood. Instead, each woman experiences gender in their own unique way. 

Postmodern feminists also believe that gender is not something that people are born with, but rather something that they perform.

In the postmodernist view, feminism is for everyone. This means that feminism is not just for women. It is for anyone who experiences oppression due to their gender, including transgender and genderqueer people (Rossitier, 2000).

Knowledge is power

This means that women can empower themselves by acquiring knowledge about the social and political factors that shape their lives. For example,  women can learn about sexism, racism, and other forms of oppression. This knowledge can then be used to challenge and resist these structures of oppression.

Postmodern feminism has been critiqued for its focus on individual experience and its lack of attention to structural issues. However, it has also been praised for its inclusiveness and its emphasis on the diversity of women’s experiences (Rossitier, 2000).

What are Patriarchy and Sexism?

Patriarchy is a social system in which men hold primary power and predominate in roles of political authority. It occurs in both one's personal life and within the workplace.

Sexism, meanwhile, is prejudice or discrimination based on sex; typically directed against women and girls. It manifests in subtle ways, such as through jokes or comments, as well as more overt forms of discrimination, such as denying women equal opportunities in education or employment.

Combined, patriarchy and sexism create a system in which women are oppressed both socially and economically. Patriarchy reinforces sexist attitudes and beliefs, and provides men with the power to act on them. This can result in women being denied equal rights and opportunities, or experiencing violence and abuse.

Sexism, on its own, can also lead to discrimination and oppression. For example, women may be paid less than men for doing the same job, or be passed over for promotions because of their gender (Lerner, 1986).

What is the Difference Between Feminism and Postmodern Feminism?

Feminism is a political movement that aims to end gender inequality and oppression. It emerged in the 19th century in response to the Industrial Revolution, which led to new opportunities and challenges for women.

Postmodern feminism is a later form of feminism that critiqued some of the assumptions of earlier feminist thought through combining both post-modern and post-structuralist theory.

Postmodern feminists reject essentialism, which is the belief that there is necessarily an inherent difference between men and women. Postmodern feminists also put an emphasis on the theory of the symbolic order.

The Symbolic Order contends that when young children learn language they will have to submit to the Order so they can follow linguistic patterns of society (Tong & Botts, 2018).

This symbolic order regulates society through individuals, who constantly use the language that perpetuates gender and other social roles (Ebert, 1991).

Examples of Postmodern Feminism Theory

Judith Butler

Judith Butler is an American philosopher and gender theorist whose work has been extremely influential within the field of postmodern feminism.

Butler's most famous work is Gender Trouble, in which she challenges the idea that there is a natural, essential difference between men and women.

Instead, Butler argues that gender is something that is performed. This means that it is not something that people are born with, but something they do (Salih & Butler, 2004).

For Butler, the performativity of gender is related to power. She argues that gender is not simply imposed on by society; rather, people continually reproduce and reinforce it through their actions and words. In other words, people perform gender every time they speak or act in a gendered way. I

n Gender Trouble (2002), Butler also argues that sex, or at least gender, is constructed through language. This draws on a critique of Simone de Beauvoir, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, and Luce Irigary's argument that what is conventionally feminine is a reflection of what is considered to be masculine.

Butler also criticises the distinction between biological sex and socially constructed gender. She argues that this distinction reinforces the idea that there is a natural, essential difference between men and women. This, in turn, justifies men's dominance over women.

Yet, this argument implies that women's subordination has no single cause or solution. In lieu of the criticism that postmodern feminism offers no clear path to action, Butler herself rejected the term postmodernism as too vague to be meaningful. Instead, she advocated for a feminism that is more inclusive and attentive to the particularities of women's lives (Salih & Butler, 2004).

Mary Joe Frug

Mary Joe Frug was an American lawyer and legal scholar. She was a professor at Harvard Law School and New York University School of Law. Frug's work focused on gender and the law, as well as postmodern feminist theory.

Legal postmodern feminist theory is a theory that critiques the legal system from a feminist perspective. Frug's work is significant because she was one of the first to bring postmodernism into the field of law (Frug, 2014).

Frug argued that the law is inherently patriarchal and that it therefore benefits men more than women. She critiqued the way that the law treats women as property, rather than autonomous individuals.

Frug also criticized the fact that the law often reinforces gender roles, such as women being expected to be wives and mothers, rather than workers or professionals.

In addition, Frug argued that the law is biased against women in divorce proceedings and child custody cases (Frug, 2014). Frug's work was groundbreaking in its application of postmodern feminist theory to the field of law.

She showed that the law is not neutral, but rather that it benefits those who are already in a position of power. Frug's work has been highly influential in subsequent feminist legal scholarship, and her casebook, Women and the Law, is still in publication and used by legal scholars (Schneider, 1991).

Nonetheless, Frug's work was controversial for its time. Eventually, Frug was murdered by who police believed to be an academic rival in an unsolved case.

French Feminism

French feminism is a branch of feminist thought that originated in France during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. French feminists typically draw on the work of thinkers such as Simone de Beauvoir, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, and Luce Irigary.

Helen Cixous

Helen Cixous is a French-Algerian feminist writer, thinker, and literary critic. She is best known for her work in feminist theory and for her writing style, which she has termed "écriture féminine". Cixous' work often focuses on women's relationship to language and literature (Cixous & Derrida, 1994).

Cixous, most famous for her article, "the laugh of the Medusa," is critical of the way that women have been excluded from the field of literature (Cixous, 2009). She argues that this exclusion is due to the fact that literature has been seen as a masculine activity.

Cixous also critiques the way that women have been portrayed in literature, arguing that they have typically been shown as objects or subordinate to men. In order to counter this, Cixous advocates for a "feminine " writing style that would be more inclusive of women's experiences and perspectives.

Cixous' work has been highly influential in feminist literary criticism. Her ideas about écriture féminine have been particularly influential, as they have allowed for a re-examination of the relationship between women and literature.

Cixous' work has also been significant in its application of postmodernist thought to feminist issues (Cixous & Derrida, 1994).

Luna Irigaray 

Luna Irigaray is a Belgian-born French feminist thinker and philosopher. She is best known for her work "Speculum of the other woman," and studies the uses and misuses of language in relation to women. Irigaray's work often focuses on the ways that women have been marginalized by Western thought.

In Speculum of the Other Women (1974), Irigaray critiques Freud's theory of the Oedipus complex, arguing that it relies on a masculine understanding of sexuality.

She also argued that Freud's theories about women are based on stereotypes and that they serve to further marginalize women. In addition, Irigaray critiqued Lacan's re-interpretation of Freud, arguing that it perpetuates the same problems with Freud's theories.

Irigaray has also written about  the ways that women have been excluded from the field of philosophy. She has argued that this exclusion is due to the fact that Western philosophy is based on a masculine understanding of reason.

Irigaray's work has been highly influential in challenging traditional conceptions of psychoanalysis and philosophy.

Julia Kristeva

Julia Kristeva is a Bulgarian-born French thinker, writer, and psychoanalyst. She is best known for her work in feminist theory, psychoanalysis, and linguistics. Kristeva's work often focuses on the ways that women have been marginalized by Western society.

In her most famous work, "Women's time" (1996) Kristeva argues that women have been excluded from history because they have typically been associated with the private sphere of domestic life.

Kristeva also critiques the way that women have been portrayed in literature, arguing that they have typically been shown as objects or subordinate to men.

She also argues that Children undergo various stages in learning languages, where they learn to ascertain shared cultural meaning from language.

Postmodern Feminism Criticism

There have been numerous critiques of postmodern feminism since it originated in the 1990s. Most notably, postmodern feminism has been critiqued for its focus on deconstruction and its alleged rejection of the notion of "woman" as a coherent category.

Some feminists have argued that postmodern feminism's focus on deconstruction leaves women without a stable identity or sense of self. This critique is based on the belief that postmodernism, with its emphasis on instability and flux, is inherently anti-feminist.

Other feminists have argued that postmodern feminism's rejection of the notion of "woman" as a coherent category further marginalizes women. These critics argue that by denying the existence of a shared female identity, postmodern feminism essentially denies the very existence of women as a group (Ebert, 1991).

Despite these critiques, postmodern feminism has had a significant impact on feminist thought. In particular, its focus on deconstruction has allowed for a re-examination of the relationship between women and literature.

Additionally, its application of postmodernist thought to feminist issues has sheds new light on familiar problems. Modernists have also notably criticised postmodern feminism for its abandonment of the values of Enlightenment thought, which precludes the possibility that postmodernists can justify liberating political action.

By emphasizing its rejection of essentialism, critics claim that postmodern feminism has failed to provide a viable political program for women's emancipation.

Moreover, because postmodernism is often associated with relativism, some modernists argue that it is impossible to make any claims about the oppression of women under patriarchy. In response, postmodern feminists have argued that their critique of essentialism does not mean that they are unable to make political claims.

They maintain that their approach simply takes into account the complex and intersectional nature of women's experiences (Ebert, 1991).

Alison Assister, in her book Enlightened Women, critiqued postmodern feminism for its focus on deconstruction and its alleged rejection of the notion of "woman" as a coherent category.

Assister argued that postmodern feminism's focus on deconstruction leaves women without a stable identity or sense of self. This critique is based on the belief that postmodernism, with its emphasis on instability and flux, is inherently anti-feminist.

Other feminists have argued that postmodern feminism's rejection of the notion of "woman" as a coherent category further marginalizes women. These critics argue that by denying the existence of a shared female identity, postmodern feminism essentially denies the very existence of women as a group.

The field has additionally been criticized by others for its overly academic focus and inaccessibility to those unfamiliar with its jargon (Ebert, 1991).

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archaeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

Fact Checking

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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)

Nickerson, C. (2022, Aug 08). Postmodern Feminism Theory. Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/postmodern-feminism.html

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