Sociology can be understood as a field that focuses on the interaction of individuals within society, examining the diversity of men’s and women’s lives and the fundamental structures of power, inequality, and opportunity that shape their experiences. Numerous feminist theories have entered sociological discourse through textbooks, scholarly articles, and at conferences. However, as Judith Stacey and Barrie Thorne (1985) conclude in their far-reaching critique of the discipline, sociology, unlike history and anthropology, has not undergone the conceptual transformation necessary for a feminist revolution. Similarly, Joan Acker’s 1989 article argues that the extensive knowledge and critiques of recent feminist scholarship “neither have been integrated into, nor have they transformed the old, ‘general’ theories of society” (Acker 1989, p. 65). Although feminist work challenges theories based on a normative male subject, mainstream sociological research often does little more than add women and stir into existing frameworks.
Feminist studies, which seeks to interpret women’s position and identity in society, is inherently fused with sociological questions surrounding social structure, culture, and economic stratification. Feminist scholars within sociology, like their counterparts in other disciplines, have asked how gender is constructed, how it is organized in social institutions, and how social change is possible. It has been argued that gender differences are not natural or biological but learned from infancy. Gender differences are maintained by key social institutions such as education, marriage, popular culture, news media, religion, government, and law. The concept of patriarchy, the systematic organization of male supremacy, is one that many feminist theorists find useful. This concept does not refer simply to a collection of individuals but a system whose core value is control and domination. Everyone is involved and implicated in this system, but each can choose how he or she participates. This emphasis on a wider system is crucial. Without it, one’s thinking and discussion are reduced to the personal level, resulting in accusations, defensiveness, and hurt feelings.
Sociology’s own male bias and Western foundation structures academic scholarship and theory within a male interpretation. From its inception, the discipline was conceptualized and articulated by men with interpretations of social issues and phenomenon grounded in their own experiential backgrounds. The epistemological issues that feminist researchers address when applying research methodologies are rooted in ideas and methods influenced by male hegemony over academic and scientific discourse. These issues encompass, but are not limited to, examinations of the multiple dimensions and processes that generate women’s social standing, as undertaken by Niara Sudarkasa (1973), Rae Blumberg (1984), and Susan Tiano (1987). Such examinations allow for the understanding that women may have autonomy but little power, economic resources but limited autonomy, or power as members of kin groups but no access to economic resources independent of kin ties. Without an awareness of such multidimensionality in classic stratification models, inequalities seem reducible to natural differences between men and women.
Much of the work of liberal, socialist Marxist, and radical feminist theories and some of the paradigms developed, such as the woman as other, woman as victim, woman as private property, and woman for exchange are consistently found in sociological works. Gender inequalities play a significant role in the triangle of sociological stratification—race, class, and gender—in addition to the stratification among feminist theorists themselves. For example, debates within the women’s movement have highlighted some of the original notions of feminism as supporting a white, middle-class ideology that negated women of color and those with lower economic positions. The effect of this stratification among feminist theorists themselves has had an impact on feminist sociology’s role in the twenty-first century, rendering it difficult to address feminist issues for women all over the world and bringing forth the field’s own Western female bias.
The feminist movement, from its inception, has often been critiqued by African American women and other nonwhite women, such as Willa Hemmons (1980), Vivian Gordon (1987), and Rebecca Walker (1995), as being racist and exclusive. “Contemporary feminist theory, however,” as Delores P. Aldridge notes, “attempts to embrace multiculturalism, which mandates curricular attention to the experiences, historical and contemporary, of women and men of color, lesbians and gay men of all racial and ethnic groups, and women with diverse sexual, racial, and ethnic identities” (2005, p. 405). Nonetheless, feminist theory continues to face challenges as it attempts to explain the realities of these various groups of color. Many nonwhite women are calling for new theories with new names such as Africana womanist theory, Latina feminist theory, and Chicana feminist theory.
SEE ALSO Epistemology; Feminism; Feminism, Second Wave; Gender; Gender Gap; Identity; Inequality, Gender; Intersectionality; Multiculturalism; Patriarchy; Racism; Sexuality; Sociology; Stratification; Women’s Liberation; Women’s Movement; Women’s Studies
Acker, Joan. 1989. Making Gender Visible. In Feminism and Sociological Theory, ed. Ruth A. Wallace, 65–81. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Aldridge, Delores P. 2005. African American Women Since the Second World War: Perspectives on Gender and Race. In A Companion to African American History, ed. Alton Hornsby Jr., 395–411. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Blumberg, Rae L. 1984. A General Theory of Gender Stratification. Sociological Theory 2: 23–101.
Gordon, Vivian V. 1987. Black Women, Feminism and Black Liberation: Which Way? Chicago: Third World Press.
Hemmons, Willa M. 1980. Black Women and the Women’s Liberation Movement. In The Black Woman, ed. La Frances Rodgers-Rose, 285–299. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
Pateman, Carole. 1988. The Sexual Contract. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press.
Smith, Dorothy E. 1990. The Conceptual Practices of Power: A Feminist Sociology of Knowledge. Boston: Northeastern University Press.
Stacey, Judith, and Barrie Thorne. 1985. The Missing Feminist Revolution in Sociology. Social Problems 32 (4): 301–316.
Tiano, Susan. 1987. Gender, Work and World Capitalism: Third World Women’s Role in Development. In Analyzing Gender: A Handbook of Social Science Research, eds. Beth B. Hess and Myra Marx Ferree, 216–243. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Walker, Rebecca, ed. 1995. To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism. New York: Anchor Books.
Wallace, Ruth, ed. 1989. Feminism and Sociological Theory. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Delores P. Aldridge