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Feminist Theory: Explained
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Haley Baird Riemer,
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Feminist: a word you're probably familiar with. It's come a long way since being included on TIME Magazine's list of Words to Ban in 2015. Many people today are outspoken about being feminists, and you can't go into a fast fashion store without seeing merchandise sporting feminist phrases.

You may be less familiar with the details of feminist theory, the social science behind the feminist movement. A subcategory of sociological and anthropological theory, feminist theory is the collection of critical thought and discourse that analyzes social and political spheres from a gendered lens. It dives into the "why" of the way women experience gender inequality in the world and is made up of a series of philosophies that feminist thinkers have put forth in an attempt to uncover and dissect the foundational blocks of patriarchy

Here's a brief (and non-exhaustive) overview of feminist theory: its evolution over time, current ideas and prominent figures.

Background

Feminist theory grounds and drives the feminist movement. It also separates schools of thought within it; the development and evolution of theory has shaped the different waves of feminism and ongoing debates about feminist ideals. 

Feminist theory has evolved (over the course of some decades), from recognizing gendered differences between men and women and advocating for equality in spite of them, to a more nuanced and thorough critique of the structural aspects of gender, sexuality and race, that make up the patriarchy – and advocating for dismantling them.  

First wave feminism gave rise to liberal feminist theory, which relied on individualism and argued for equality from within mainstream understandings of gender. The second wave, influenced by existentialisms, saw theory that started pushing back on ideas of gender roles, domesticity and the foundational aspects of gender. Second-wave theorists called for sexual liberation and women's control over their own bodies and included some prominent black feminists whose ideas about layered levels of oppression from race and gender would influence the theory of intersectionality. The coining of this term marks the beginning of the third wave and describes the particular oppression black women face due to the position of being both black and female. This wave also saw advanced ideas about sexual empowerment, the influence of class and capitalism on inequality and a deeper consideration of LGBTQ+ issues. We are currently in the fourth wave, characterized by theory that fully embraces intersectionality, structural approaches to combatting inequality and a more thorough queer critique of gender and sexuality.

Some believe that theory is too grounded in intellectualism, at times rendering the feminist movement inaccessible and elitist; some feminist theorists are notoriously difficult to read and understand and are accused of talking more than acting. However, theory can act as inspirational philosophy behind a movement — the site of the inception of a resistance. bell hooks, in "Theory as a Liberatory Practice", redefines theory as a place where healing and subversive thought can take place — one that blurs the lines between talking and acting and even becomes a necessary form of action.

Topics

The canon of feminist theory is constantly and comprehensively changing, expanding and bringing new topics and questions to light. Here's a look into some of the building blocks of feminist theory:

Gender inequality 

Theories of gender inequality recognize that we organize gender into a binary of women and men, and women are the side of that binary that has been historically defined as less-than. In response to calls for more neutral language surrounding the movement, feminists have held strong to the woman-centric language; feminism is oriented towards women in order to combat discrimination against women specifically is that women have been — historically, statistically, and structurally — not equal to men. 

Built upon evidence ranging from the history of voting rights and citizenship, constructed by and for (white, enfranchised) men, to gendered pay gaps, to the long, violent history of sexual assault against women, gender inequality theory argues that women's experience of gender is both different from and not equal to men's. 

From gendered difference to a critique of gender construction

Early feminist theorists recognized gender differences between men and women; that is, women and men experience the world in different ways, and they are not equal. The way these differences are treated varies. Cultural feminists of the second wave leaned on gender differences, touting women's "natural" feminine traits and nurturing tendencies, arguing that women can and should be empowered in spite and because of these differences from men. 

More structural gender theorists delved deeper into the conversation to ask: what exactly is gender? Why does the category of 'woman' exist in the first place? Did we, as a society, make up gender and give it meaning? Perhaps the system under which women are defined is inherently sexist. Under this theory, the aim of feminism then becomes to deconstruct the system of gender, rather than merely advocate for women's worth from within the system. 

Simone de Beauvoir, in "The Second Sex"calls into question the social construction of "woman," arguing that women are defined as the other, in the absence of masculinity and maleness. Other social theorists discuss how our binary system of gender reinforces each other — femininity is consistently defined by what masculinity is not, and masculinity is constantly defined in an effort to distance from femininity. Feminist theory has built upon this idea to recognize that gender is a societal construct, with some distinguishing between biological sex and gender and recognizing the binary system in both. 

Sex is recognized by current feminist theory to be the category of a person's physical body and genitalia, split into the categories of male and female (though there are many intersex people who do make this binary questionable). Gender, on the other hand, is described as the category of personality traits, strengths and weaknesses, social roles and behaviors mapped onto a person's body at birth. We code bodies who are biologically female as women and those that are male as men. Gender identity and expression occur on a spectrum that reflects the human experience, regardless of what we perceive to be biological predisposition. Furthermore, postmodernist feminist theorists go on to argue that our understanding of biological sex is also socially constructed and does not necessarily reflect a male/female binary as clearly as believed. 

Oppression

Oppression is the process by which people are marginalized within society based on certain identities, according to a complex and very neat system that keeps power structures in place. This theory often draws on Marxist ideas of oppression under capitalism, and socialist feminists even consider the systems of patriarchy and capitalism to be intertwined, with the liberation of the working class inherently linked with the liberation of marginalized identities. 

Most modern feminisms believe in gendered oppression on a structural level: the idea that women are not only unequal to men but actively subordinated within patriarchal society. Often mistaken for the belief that all men actively oppress women individually, this idea rather recognizes the system by which women face setbacks and disadvantages on institutional and cultural levels. This includes the sexist biases we internalize that are reinforced by our media, the pervasiveness of rape culture and violence against women and proven disadvantages women face in the workplace. Put simply, it's the idea the cards are stacked in the favor of men (particularly those who are cisgender, white and straight) and against women and nonbinary people. 

A good (read: bad) example of structural oppression is the gender pay gap, which consistently shows that women are paid less than men for equal work. A comprehensive an intersectional view of structural oppression takes into account how systems of oppression work together: there is a proven pay gap based on race, and black women and women of color make even less money to a white man's dollar than white women do. 

Black feminist theory and intersectionality

The feminist movement has been historically, cripplingly white and has been criticized for failing to adequately take into account the experiences of black women. The rise of black feminist theory within the second wave sought to combat this inequality within the feminist movement and argue that feminism that fails to advocate for women of color cannot claim to fight for equality for women. 

In 1974 The Combahee River Collective, a black lesbian organization, made the argument that an agenda that fights for and is fought by black women will lead to liberation for all oppressed identities. It means advocating for the margins of the margins; in representing the needs of the people at the bottom of the most systems of power, you inherently advocate for everyone "above." These ideas built a foundation for Kimberlé Crenshaw's coining of the term intersectionality in 1989 to articulate the experience of black women, giving a name to the theory of considering the experience of people with multiple marginalized identities. This means considering structural oppression across lines of race, class, gender and sexuality.

Queer feminist theory

Queer feminist theory is built upon the idea that our hierarchal, binary system of gender has created a society that is founded on heterosexism. It also includes theories that reject feminism that centers biologically female characteristics and body parts. Instead, queer feminist theory views gender as a societal construction, as mentioned; this means not all women have the same sex characteristics. Queer feminists advocate for an intersectional approach to gender and sexuality that takes into account the specific oppression of the LGBTQ+ community and the experiences of women, nonbinary people and especially transgender women. Trans women, especially trans women of color, experience violence and sexual assault at inordinately higher rates, and bisexual women report higher rates of sexual assault than straight women or lesbians. 

Queer feminist theory considers gender experiences outside of the binary and views gender categories in general as pillars of the patriarchy to be subverted for liberation. Queer feminist theorists that take an intersectional, truly queer approach reject TERFs (trans exclusionary radical feminists) that advocate for only cis women, including sectors of the lesbian community that uphold transphobia.

A reading list:

To continue learning about feminist theory, here is a (very abridged) sampler list of works you can read

  • "The Second Sex" by Simone de Beauvoir
  • "Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory" by Judith Butler
  • "The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House" by Audre Lorde
  • "Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference" by Audre Lorde
  • “Intersectionality and Identity Politics: Learning from Violence against Women of Color” by Kimberlé Crenshaw
  • "Bad Feminist" by Roxanne Gay

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Haley Riemer is a multimedia writer and performer interested in telling stories that are important to women. She's a recent graduate of Tulane University, and her current hobbies include drinking too much iced coffee and talking about feminist political theory at parties.

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