Feminist Theory

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The term feminist theory is an invention of the academic branch of the mid- and late twentieth-century feminist movement. It refers to generating systematic ideas that define women's place in society and culture, including the depiction of women—large questions, indeed. The task of feminist theorists is necessarily monumental. It requires the wisdom, courage, and perseverance that Penelope displayed as she wove and unwove her tapestry to trick the suitors who sought to appropriate her kingdom and so steal her child's birthright.

For many reasons the task of feminist theorists is difficult. First, it is interdisciplinary. Literary critics, art historians, musicologists, historians, and philosophers—to name some specialists associated with the humanities—have all offered powerful and sometimes conflicting ideas about women in society and culture. So have sociologists, anthropologists, economists, psychologists, and psychoanalysts. Although the biological and physical sciences do not usually make fruitful contributions to contemporary debates about social and cultural issues, feminist scientists have posed questions that challenge the presuppositions of their own fields. They, too, have augmented the scope of feminist theory. Indeed, specialists in so many disciplines have offered apt ideas that no one essay or writer can even pretend to outline the scope of contemporary feminist theory. This presentation will concentrate on ideas developed in the social sciences.

Second, because feminist theory has its basis in the current women's movement, it is necessarily infused with the political concerns of the contemporary era. (Any system of arranging facts, including the writing of history, is necessarily influenced by the dominant concerns and ideologies of its times.) The most important of these is the relationship among race (ethnicity), gender, and class, both cross-culturally and historically. For even as Americans and Europeans have sought to confront institutionalized racism and sexism, as well as the unequal distribution of income and wealth in their own nations, women in developing nations have posed issues regarding the application of generalizations based on those experiences to their own situations. So, too, historical research has raised the challenge of process—namely, the problem that any particular historical outcome is not predetermined, so that the development of relationships among gender, class, and race (or ethnicity) may vary greatly. Such variations make the act of generalizing hazardous, if not foolhardy.

Third, feminist theory has not merely existed in a sociopolitical context but has been informed by it. This means that many theorists realize that their ideas have been influenced by their own material conditions and cultures. Thus, they have had to confront epistemological issues, including the meaning of objectivity and the way male dominance has shaped notions important to all branches of human inquiry. Put somewhat differently, theorists have broached two issues: (1) the inextricable association between ideas and methods of inquiry, and (2) how both dominant ideas and methods have been influenced by the male hegemony over academic and scientific discourse. As is true in most contemporary fields of study, each of these issues is controversial.

Given these challenges, one might well wonder why anyone would try to generate feminist theory. But feminist academics felt that they could make a significant contribution by using their training first to document and later to analyze women's place in society. When the feminists of academe began to debate their understandings of women's place in society and culture, no sure path seemed available. With the exception of Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex (1952), men had penned the two canonized (nineteenth-century) texts most familiar to these academics, namely John Stuart Mill's The Subjection of Women and Frederich Engels's The Origins of Private Property, the Family, and the State. Although Western women had debated their own situation since at least 1400, when, as Joan Kelly (1982) notes, Christine de Pisan "sparked . . . the four-century-long debate . . . known as the querelle des femmes," twentieth-century academics were largely ignorant of that polemical tradition. Instead, they had been schooled in the thought of great men—whose writings were included in the first anthologies of feminist thought, such as Miriam Schneir's Feminism: The Essential Historical Writings (1972) and Alice Rossi's The Feminist Papers (1973). Such anthologies also introduced American academics to great women outside their own fields.

Nonhistorians learned of the generative ideas of participants in the Seneca Falls convention of 1848, as well as about Susan B. Anthony, Emma Goldman, and the British activist Emily Pankhurst; noneconomists met Charlotte Perkins Gilman; non-literary critics met Virginia Woolf. Although feminist intellectuals might find strength in the knowledge that other women had provided trail markers to guide their way, antifeminists were not convinced that gender inequality still existed.

Thus, the first task confronting feminist theory was to document both past and present inequalities. Many of the early writings addressing this project discussed women as either "other" or "victim." These characterizations ran through writings that might be classed as either liberal (the belief that women have the same capabilities as men and should receive equal treatment); socialist Marxist (variations of the notion that capitalism created or augmented gender inequality); or radical feminist (versions of the idea that women are inextricably different from men and at least equal, and possibly superior, to them).


To some extent the notions of "other" and "victim" are implicit in any mid-twentieth-century demonstration of inequality. Those who are maltreated for unacceptable reasons appear to be victims, as implicit in the late 1960s' and early 1970s' political slogan "Don't blame the victim." They seem to be "others" because of the historical and cross-cultural tendency of dominant groups to justify discriminatory actions by arguing that members of subdominant groups are "alien," not fully human, or simply "not like us." (In the American case, blacks were deemed "not fully human" when procedures for counting the male population were defined in the early years of the Republic.) This dichotomy between "subject" and "object," "self" and "other," has also been crucial to modern European thought, including the philosophic basis for de Beauvoir's The Second Sex, which was Jean-Paul Sartre's concept of existentialism. Such notions seemed to provide a conceptual framework with which to document sexism, a term introduced by those members of the American women's movement who had participated in the civil rights movement and who wished for a term that reverberated with connotations of despicable conduct implicit in the more familiar term racism. That is, academic feminists could view themselves as demonstrating how specific practices or institutions viewed women as "others," maltreated them, and so transformed them into "victims" not responsible for their "despised" status. Once those processes were identified, feminist activists could seek to reform or to revolutionize the relevant institutions.

Social scientists provided confirmation of victimization by gathering data comparing women and men. Men were more likely to dominate professions (even such "female work" as grade school teaching and librarianship, in which men were likely to be principals and department heads), earn more money, receive higher education, be awarded scholarships and fellowships, earn advanced degrees, hold positions of political leadership, be granted credit cards, be treated as legally responsible for their actions, and be permitted to make decisions about their own bodies. (Both theorists and activists hotly discussed the "body issues" such as abortion, incest, rape, and sexual harassment and wife battering.) Psychologists and psychiatrists pointed out that their colleagues had equated mental health with supposedly male characteristics. Humanists demonstrated that in art, music, and literature, men had inscribed themselves in the "cultural canon." Not only did the canon identify men's accomplishments as the "most important" Western works, but the so-called Western cultural tradition also represented history, literature, art, and philosophy from a male point of view. Sometimes these great works dwelled on the dichotomy between the concepts of madonna and whore; sometimes on the secular objectification of women's sexuality (as seen in renditions of the female nude). Whether religious or secular, both the cultural canon and academic knowledge were discovered to ignore or belittle women in various ways, as well as to devalue their contributions to civic and cultural life throughout the centuries.

Feminists confronted the dilemma of what to do about this devaluation. Liberal feminists seemed to echo one theme implicit in de Beauvoir's The Second Sex and Mill's The Subjection of Women: Become more like men—that is, remove the barriers preventing women from having the same opportunities as men, and, in the future, women will accomplish as much as men. Because, as some psychologists argued, there is no innate difference between women and men, equal treatment and equal opportunity will result in equal accomplishment.

The solution offered by Marxist and socialist feminists was not all that different from the ideas of liberals. They, too, believed that the eradication of obstacles would liberate women. But Marxist and socialist feminists were haunted by the "problem of the hyphen." That is, for them, the barriers confronting women were not simply posed by what all feminists termed "patriarchy" (shorthand for "male dominance"). Rather, as they saw it, patriarchy was itself inextricably related to capitalism. So, disentangling that relationship was a complex task. If capitalism had been a primary cause of women's inferior position, then women should have found greater equality in noncapitalist nations. In actuality, women had not prospered under the brands of communism found in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, or China. In those nations, too, women were clustered in jobs that paid less than those filled by men of equivalent education.

As feminists learned, communist lands had treated women favorably while still in their revolutionary stages. For example, in the Soviet Union of the 1920s, "changes in property relationships and inheritance laws weakened the family as an economic unit and reduced the dominance of the male household head, while new family codes undermined the legal and religious basis of marriage and removed restriction on divorce" (Lapidus 1978, p. 60). By undercutting the power of both the church and the traditional family, these measures strengthened the state. Once the Communist party had institutionalized its power and declining birthrates challenged economic growth, however, it redefined the family as "the bulwark of the social system, a microcosm of the new socialist society . . . [supposed] to serve above all as a model of social order" (Lapidus 1978, p. 112). Divorce became difficult; motherhood was defined as a contradiction, simultaneously a joy and the "supreme obligation of Soviet women." As in capitalist countries, the Soviet Union then began to glorify women's role in the family (what feminist theory identified as the private sphere).

The discrepancy that arose between communist practice and socialist theory created a theoretical dilemma. One might insist that the so-called communist countries had radically departed from the theoretical ideal, and so the impact of socialism on women's lives had yet to receive a valid test. One might point to the relatively enlightened laws of the Scandinavian societies, where social policies assisted women who tried to combine work and family life. But even in these nations, women assumed more of the responsibility for children than did men. Although Scandinavian laws enabled father or mother to take parental leave after the birth or adoption of a child, few men exercised that legal right. Thus, another option seemed necessary: One might seek to reconceptualize the link between private property and patriarchy.

Anthropologists and historians were among the first feminists to attempt that (re)vision. Three of their solutions were particularly influential. First, drawing on de Beauvoir, some anthropologists (and at least one sociologist) returned to the idea of woman as other (see Rosaldo and Lamphere 1974). They suggested that extant societies embodied an analogy: Woman is to nature as man is to culture. That is, traditional and industrialized societies assumed that woman is closer to nature than man is. Men had supposedly thrust themselves upon nature and transformed it.

Second, some theorists incorporated Marxist notions by pointing out that men had defined women as private property. Rubin (1975) offered the most influential argument about what she termed "the sex/gender system." Assuming that women and men are more like than unlike one another, she asked how societies create "difference" or transform sex into gender. Answering her question, she retained her anthropologist's conviction that kinship relations are at the basis of society while she drew on her own "freely interpretive" readings of Claude Levi-Strauss and Sigmund Freud. In essence, Rubin argued, men exchange women to create and to cement their own social relationships. This exchange "does imply a distinction between gift and giver. If women are the gifts, then men are the exchange partners. And it is the partners, not the presents, upon whom reciprocal exchange confers its quasi-mystical powers of social linkage. The relations of such a system are such that women are in no position to realize the benefits of their own circulation. As long as the relations specify that men exchange women, it is the men who are the beneficiaries of the product of such exchanges—social organization" (Rubin 1975, p. 174).

Prohibitions on incest keep this exchange system going because they intend to ensure the availability of women to be exchanged. Yet the women must be willing to be "gifts"; that is, they must have internalized the appropriate societal norms. Supposedly, what Freud describes as the Oedipal complex provides that internalization. According to Rubin, the Oedipal complex is a record of "how [contemporary] phallic culture domesticates women" (1975, p. 198). Furthermore, psychoanalytic findings about women's inferiority to men is a palimpsest "of the effects in women of their domestication" (p. 198). Thus, any society based on the exchange of women has molded the inequalities of the sex/gender system into its very essence. According to Rubin, this generalization is as applicable to today's industrialized societies as to nonindustrial societies. What feminists term patriarchy is actually the operation of the sex/gender system. By implication, to achieve equality, feminists had to challenge the sex/gender system.

Third, some historians and anthropologists responded to the conflation of capitalism and patriarchy by seeking nonindustrial models where women held power. Mainly they sought examples of women as a force in the public sphere. Eleanor Leacock wrote about one classic case, the Iroquois. In the Iroquois Confederation, women elected the (male) chiefs and were also empowered to remove them from office. In medieval society, Joan Kelly maintained, (aristocratic) women had power over the education of their daughters. During the Renaissance, men absconded with that power, devalued the knowledge women had shared, deprived women of the right to educate one another, and also denied women equal access to the then newly discovered "classics." Kelly concluded her article by suggesting that the Renaissance had a different meaning for women and men; and so, by challenging historians' periodization, another conclusion was also possible. One might infer that during the Renaissance, men transformed women into victims.

By viewing women as either other or victim, all these theorists were implicitly accepting the male assumption that the public sphere is more important than the private. Even the search for examples of women who had once collectively held significant political power can be viewed as an affirmation of the dominant (male) view that the public sphere is more important than the private (home). However, the third approach—the search for examples of institutionalized female power—also foreshadowed a new phase of feminist theory: "the (re)vision of public and private spheres." As introduced by the poet Adrienne Rich, the term (re)vision is a deliberate pun referring to both a reconsideration of past ideas and a new vision of women's role in society.


In the late 1970s, the feminist movement was maturing; many middle- and upper-class women (including nonfeminists) began to flock to the male-dominated professional schools from which they had once been excluded. Feminists in several fields began to reassess the value of activity in the private sphere—the world of the home in which most women were ensconced. Could the private sphere serve as a launchpad for social change? Had it ever done so? Are these spheres indeed separate, or does the persistence of this dichotomy conflate the errors of nineteenth-century thought? (A reconsideration of the relationship between the public and private spheres is implicit in the titles of such books as Beyond Separate Spheres and Private Woman, Public Stage. In sociology, Marxist and sociolist feminists use different language to discuss women's and men's spheres.)

Nineteenth-century social theories had implied that the private sphere was of equal importance to the public world of work. Although the early nineteenth-century "cult of domesticity" banished women to the home, where they were to serve as models of religiosity and virtue, they were also enshrined as "mothers of civilization"—a role that might imply power. But from the vantage of the late twentieth century, the role of "mother of civilization" did not seem so vital. If the private sphere was so important, why was the role of "parent of civilization" not available to men, who historically seemed almost to have monopolized positions of power? If the roles of women and men (wives and husbands) were of equal importance, as Talcott Parsons had implied, why were American women more likely than men to complain of the sorts of physical and mental ailments associated with an inferior social position?

Yet, in the late 1970s, historians, anthropologists, and some sociologists began to find positive aspects of women's role in the private sphere. According to historians, women had used their roles to initiate social reforms. They had been especially active in trying to ameliorate some of the social problems resulting from the transformation of an agricultural society into an industrial one. For example, through voluntary associations, middle- and upper-class women in New York tried to decrease the destructive impact of poverty on the poor, especially on poor women. In Oneida County, they sought to reform the behaviors of the many single men who had moved to the city from the farms, lived in boarding houses, and sometimes disrupted the civil order. That the activities of the volunteers resulted in the enshrinement of women in the home once their activities had been successful is a historical irony (Ryan 1981). But that outcome is irrelevant to the main theoretical point offered by feminist theorists: Activity that nineteenth-century women had viewed as an extension of their roles in the private sphere had indeed influenced the public sphere. Put somewhat differently, the domestic and public spheres are not necessarily dichotomous.

Yet problems remain. First, variations suggest that generalization is premature. Second, rejection of the dichotomy between domestic and public spheres challenges the residues of nineteenth-century thought remaining in twentieth-century theories but does not necessarily lead to new theoretical formulation. Indeed, neither historical nor anthropological discoveries of variations on the common pattern—male dominance—necessarily facilitate theorizing. Rather, they might and did lead some feminists to search for the origins of male dominance (as in the article by Gayle Rubin) and to champion causal explanations.

Yet the (re)vision of public and private spheres did enable some feminist theorists to ask new questions. The anthropologist M. Z. Rosaldo (1980) explains:

Sexual asymmetry can be discovered in all human social groups, just as can kinship systems, marriages, and mothers. But asking "Why?" or "How did it begin?" appears inevitably to turn our thoughts from an account of the significance of gender for the organization of all human institutional forms (and reciprocally, of the significance of all social facts to gender) toward dichotomous assumptions that link the roles of men and women to the different things that they, as individuals, are apt to do.

Rosaldo (1980) continues:

What traditional social scientists have failed to grasp is not that sexual asymmetries exist but that they are as fully social as the hunter's or the capitalist's role, and that they figure in the very facts, like racism or social class, that social science claims to understand. A crucial task for feminist scholars emerges, then, not as the relatively limited one of documenting pervasive sexism as a social fact—or showing how we can now hope to change or have in the past been able to survive it. Instead, it seems that we are challenged to provide new ways of linking the particulars of women's lives, activities, and goals to inequalities wherever they exist.

To advance beyond naivete, feminist theories must grasp how meanings of gender are constructed, not why they exist.

Sociologist Nancy Chodorow provided one such demonstration in her now-classic but still controversial The Reproduction of Mothering. Using psychoanalytic object-relations theory and some elements of Marxist thought, she argued that in contemporary capitalist societies the roles of women and men within the family (re)produce the roles women and men are expected to fill in Western societies. Because women are responsible for the care of small children, young girls and boys initially identify with their mothers. Girls are encouraged to continue this relational identification with their mothers; boys are not. For girls, the omnipresence of women in early childhood leads to a problem of boundaries—of knowing where their mothers end and they begin. As adults, this lack of boundaries may be advantageous: Out of their ability to see the world as others do, they may have a richer emotional life than men and also be more emphathic than they are. For boys, the omnipresence of women means that men learn the meaning of masculinity through the eventual demand that they separate from their mothers and identify with a role (male gender). Theirs is a positional identification. Ultimately, Chodorow argues, these scenarios play themselves out so that women and men try to reproduce the sorts of modern families in which they were reared. Additionally, Chodorow (1978) claims,

An increasingly father-absent, mother-involved family produces in men a personality that both corresponds to masculinity and male dominance as these are currently constituted in the sex-gender system, and fits appropriately with participation in capitalist relations of production. Men continue to enforce the sexual division of spheres as a defense against powerlessness in the [capitalist] labor market. Male denial of dependence and of attachment to women helps to guarantee both masculinity and performance in the world of work.

She continues,

The relative unavailability of the father and the overavailability of the mother create negative definitions of masculinity and men's fear and resentment of women, as well as the lack of inner autonomy in men that enables, depending on the particular family constellation and class origin, either rule-following or the easy internalization of the values of the organization.

Chodorow's theory is controversial. Some liberals object to the inference that women are more emphathetic than men. They claim that psychological studies show that women and men have the same innate emotional capabilities. Nevertheless, radical feminists—people who believe that male dominance is the primary cause of women's subjugation—sometimes celebrate women's alleged superiority to men.

Others challenge Chodorow's theory by questioning whether any theory about the modern American family can possibly be applied to other historical epochs or cultures. Yet this objection misses the point in two ways. First, Chodorow discusses a specific time and place—contemporary America. Her contrast between how women and men learn their (relational or positional) roles should be even more important today than it was in 1978 when The Reproduction of Mothering was first published. Since 1978 the percentage of female-headed households has increased. Concomitantly, more young boys have even less contact with men; they must form the positional identifications that, Chodorow claims, prepare them to uphold the orientations to work and family required to maintain postindustrial capitalism. Second, Chodorow anticipated Rosaldo's call to understand how gender is socially constructed to articulate with other roles. She did not ask the origin of all sex/gender systems.

Chodorow's argument is important in a third way: She transforms "normal" understandings of men's and women's roles. She turns one current interpretation of Freud's thought, object-relations theory, on its head. Woman-centered (written from the perspective of a feminist) yet comparative (examining both women and men), Chodorow's book anticipated the challenge that feminist scholarship currently offers other theoretical projects.


The theme of difference is key to Carol Gilligan's In a Different Voice (1981). Extending and (re)vising Lawrence Kohlberg's work on the development of moral judgments among men, Gilligan argues that Kohlberg's scale of moral maturity slights women. Kohlberg argues that the highest stages of maturity involve the application of "rules to universal principles of justice" (Gilligan 1981, p. 18). In Kohlberg's model, women seem stuck at an intermediate stage because of their lack of opportunity to enter the public sphere and so to master and to apply those universal principles. Gilligan contends that Kohlberg has erred in his assessment of women (and other subordinated groups). In the case of women, he has not understood how their concepts of morality are based on their socialization. On the basis of her empirical studies and Chodorow's argument, Gilligan concludes that women do not make inferior moral judgments but different ones. They employ a relational ethic that stresses interpersonal caring, including a responsibility for self and others.

Gilligan's theory is as controversial as Chodorow's—perhaps even more so. Radical feminists cite this theory to argue again that women are morally superior to men. Some liberal feminists, who are interested in pushing for women's entry to upper levels of corporate management, use Gilligan's theory to claim that women are better equipped than men to develop innovative management styles that bind teams to the corporation. Other liberals (e.g., Epstein 1989) insist that there are no innate psychological distinctions between women and men.

However, both Chodorow and Gilligan raise an additional issue, potentially more controversial than the debates about "innate" gender differences. They try at one and the same time to follow the practices of their respective disciplines and to view social life from a woman's perspective. Since science, social science, and the literary canon are based on male perspectives (as is true of Kohlberg's studies), how are we to forge an epistemology (and hence a methodology) that can simultaneously claim veracity and be true to women's experience of the social world? Can any theory that is either androcentric (man-centered) or gynocentric (woman-centered) be valid?


Some scientists or social scientists might believe that the question of validity applies only to explicitly interpretive work. After all, many decades have passed since Heisenberg enunciated his famous principle that the technologies (and by extension the theories and methods) used to view a phenomenon necessarily influence what is viewed. Supposedly, scientists and social scientists have been taking this principle into account as they explain how their generalizations apply "all other things being equal." But feminist theorists, like postmodern theorists, have challenged the very basis of the deductive methods at the heart of contemporary science and social science. They "question the very foundation of post-Enlightenment science and social science: the 'objectivist illusion' (Keller 1982) that observation can be separated from explanation, the knower from the known, theory from practice, the public from the private, culture from nature, and other dualisms that undergird systems of social stratification" (Hess 1990, p. 77). The feminist challenge differs from other deliberations about epistemology because, as Hess observes, it is "more political."

The work of scientist Evelyn Fox Keller is exemplary of this controversy. Keller has written rather abstract philosophic essays on such issues as Plato's epistemology and Bacon's notions of mastery and obedience to argue that modern science is infused with "male" notions. Rather than attempt to present these complex arguments briefly, let us concentrate on a more concrete work, Keller's biography of biologist Barbara McClintock, A Feeling for the Organism (1982).

In this biography, Keller claims that McClintock accomplished her Nobel Prize–winning research on the transposition of genes in part because McClintock's research style radically departed from the dominant male model, molecular genetics. According to Keller, the dominant model presumed a hierarchical structure of genetic organization that resembles organizational charts of corporate structure and assumes a unidirectional flow of information. That assumption permitted the quick payoffs in research on the structure of specific bacteria that facilitates significant scientific findings (and so careers). The hierarchical model, though, is also supposedly a "male" model.

McClintock, however, believed in a more complex and less hierarchical "old-fashioned" model: "To McClintock, as to many other biologists, mechanism and structure have never been adequate answers to the question 'How do genes work?' To her an adequate understanding would, by definition, have to include an account about how they function in relation to the rest of the cell, and, of course, to the organism as a whole" (Keller 1985, p. 168). In this view, even a genome is an organism, and it, too, must be considered in relation to its environment.

Keller does not claim that McClintock's model was female: McClintock was trained by men. Keller does argue that many biologists have missed the essence of McClintock's vision. Keller includes among them biologists who are trying to incorporate McClintock's work on transposition into the hierarchical model. And, Keller believes,

The matter of gender never does drop away. . . . The radical core of McClintock's stance can be located right here. Because she is not a man, in a world of men, her commitment to a gender-free science has been binding; because concepts of gender have deeply influenced the basic categories of science, that commitment has been transformative. In short, the relevance of McClintock's gender in this story is to be found not in its role in her personal socialization but precisely in the role of gender in the construction of science. (Keller 1982, p. 174)

For, Keller explains, contemporary science names the object of its inquiry (nature) "as female and the parallel naming of subject (mind) as male" (1982 pp. 174). Thus, women scientists are faced with a necessary contradiction between their roles in the world and their role as scientist. Even as the social structure of science tends to place women on the periphery of the invisible colleges that constitute the scientific world, that contradiction may limit the creative scientific imagination of both women and men.

However, as Keller readily admits, not all men believe in the hierarchical model. Nor, to paraphrase Keller, have they all "embraced" the notion of science as a female to be put on the rack and tortured to reveal her secrets. But, Keller insists, both the naming of subject and object and the hierarchical model are androcentric and limit the possibilities of scientific inquiry.

Keller's work has been challenged on a number of grounds. Stephen Jay Gould has launched the most telling attack. His field, paleontology, is also dominated by men but rejects the hierarchical "male" model. Unlike nineteenth-century evolutionary thought, contemporary theories do not view human beings as the proud culmination of the past. Other lifeforms have been more successful. Furthermore, to reconstruct the past, paleontologists must grasp "wholes." Cynthia Fuchs Epstein adds that one cannot even argue that, as social scientists, women have been more empathic or observant than men. Epstein's counterexample is Erving Goffman, whose ability to "see" is almost legendary among sociologists.

For the purposes of this article, it is irrelevant whether Keller, Gould, or Epstein is correct. What matters is that developments in feminist theory have led feminists to participate in the postmodern debate about the nature of knowledge. During the late 1980s, this debate was at the center of controversies in the social sciences and the humanities. It will probably remain important for some years to come. The debate infuses interpretations of literary works, reconstructions of the past, and understandings of social scientific models. It seems to transcend schools of thought. Marxists are divided about postmodernism, as are liberals and, within the feminist community, radicals. Feminist theory has followed the course of all contemporary theories because feminists, too, are members of the societies about which they write and which they are trying to change.

Throughout this essay, terms such as liberal, Marxist or socialist, and radical feminists have been intended to distinguish different political orientations and experiences that shaped each group of feminists, as so well documented in histories and sociologies of the mid-twentieth-century feminist movement. By 1990, these very different groups of feminists had become self-consciously aware; that is, many understood that even as feminism had sought social change, it, too, had shaped and been shaped by its environment. For instance, Stacey (1990) argued that in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as feminism stressed female participation in the public sphere and denigrated motherhood, it contributed to rising divorce rates and the devaluation of feminine tasks.

In the 1990s, feminist theory has maintained its own questions and has continued to be divided into camps that emphasize either the similarities between women and men or the differences between them. However, as is axiomatic, all enterprises are embedded in and shaped by their structural contexts. Feminist theory has not been an exception to this well-known rule.

In the 1990s, feminist theories have been influenced by general tendencies in other academic specialties. Although it is still rare (and perhaps because it is still rare) for someone to receive a Ph.D. from an academic department called "women's studies," "gender studies," or "feminism," feminist theory has become increasingly influenced by movements toward specialization within the social sciences. These movements have included the ever more narrow delineation of topics of inquiry, such that a business school course on women in nonprofit organizations may share few if any readings with a sociology course on women and the professions and a course on men and masculinity taught in a school of family studies may not overlap an anthropology course on cross-cultural notions of masculinity. Additionally, within the social sciences, academic disciplines are so beset by specialized theories that researchers may encourage a thousand flowers to bloom by ignoring one another's ideas rather than by addressing the basic and competing philosophic premises on which their theoretical systems are built. Within sociology, for instance, the articles of feminist theorists who pledge allegiance to rational choice theory rarely cite the works of feminist theorists who use key ideas of the symbolic interactionists—and vice versa. Indeed, they may not even agree to call themselves feminist theorists, but rather speak of themselves as rational choice theorists interested in the problems of gender or as symbolic interactionists exploring theories about how women experience their bodies under the parameters set by a national medical system.

Nonetheless, there have been some general ideas about which feminist theorists have come to agree. Perhaps the most important of these is a problem central to all social science: to wit, the theoretical tension between approaches that emphasize individuals as the agents of social stability and social change and approaches that stress how either macroor microstructures influence and shape both individuals and their decisions. Indeed, as more social scientists have come to agree that nature and nurture interact, the theoretical problems posed by agency and structure have become more salient.

One basic way that feminist theorists have dealt with these problems is to redefine gender itself. In the past, gender has been thought of as a cultural phenomenon—either normative patterns of behaviors, roles, or scripts. Today gender itself is being viewed as a structural phenomenon. This means that many feminist theorists now define gender as an institution, as basic to social structure as the economy, religion, education, and the state—and perhaps more basic than the family (Connell 1995; Lorber 1994). Such theorists emphasize that in some societies there are more than two (dichotomous) genders and that socially and historically embedded notions of gender influence the operation of all institutions, even as they are influenced by other sociohistoric institutions. Further, these theorists continue, identification of gender as an institution enables one to recognize that gender is stratified and that it is also processual (part of unfolding social processes). Thus, this redefinition of gender enables theorists to link structure and agency by discussing how individuals' gendered behavior (re)produces gendered social structures, much as Giddens's (1984) structuration theory seeks to marry structural and agentic approaches. Furthermore, the recognition of gender as an institution entails such a broad paradigmatic shift that, at one and the same time, it refocuses how theorists view gender and facilitates work within different theoretical traditions. Adherents of symbolic interactionism, neofunctionalism, or rational choice theory could all absorb this notion into their work and test its implications with their method of choice (Ferree et al. 1999).

(see also: Comparable Worth; Gender; Social Movements)


Chodorow, Nancy 1978 The Reproduction of Mothering. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Connell, R. W. 1995 Masculinities. Berkeley: University of California Press.

de Beauvoir, Simone 1952 The Second Sex. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Ferree, Myra Marx, Judith Lorber, and Beth Hess, eds. 1999 Revisioning Gender. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage.

Giddens, Anthony 1984 The Constitution of Society. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gilligan, Carol 1981 In a Different Voice. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Hess, Beth 1990 "Beyond Dichotomies: Drawing Distinctions and Embracing Differences." Sociological Forum 5:75–94.

Keller, Evelyn Fox 1982 A Feeling for the Organism. New York: W. H. Freeman.

——1985 Reflections on Gender and Science. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

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Gaye Tuchman