September 8, 2011

To speak of feminism in the context of a set of overarching ideals that define a unified movement is a misrepresentation. It is more accurate to speak of feminisms, which highlights the fact that identifying oneself as a feminist can mean different things. Characteristic of any expanding movement, there are disagreements and overlap between feminists. This does not mean to suggest that feminism is fragmented, but rather to emphasize the diversity of feminist thought and belief that is respected.

Radical feminism is paramount among the many flavors of modern feminism. Often characterized as feminism’s unappealing element, radical feminism has been the creative engine generating the theoretical development that has formed the foundation of contemporary feminist thought. Radical feminism was born out of the civil rights and peace movements of the late 1960s. Radical feminists view the oppression of women as the most fundamental form of oppression, one that cuts across boundaries of race, culture, and economic class.

Their goal is revolutionary social change. At the heart of radical feminism is challenging how gender is constructed and reified into gender roles. Radical feminism questions authority, including authority arising from within feminism, and as such has been responsible for spawning many of the other varieties of feminism.

As radical feminism splintered into several other groups, cultural feminism came into prominence. Although some claim that radical feminism simply evolved into cultural feminism, the fundamental approach of the two movements is quite different. While radical feminism seeks to transform society, cultural feminism is pessimistic about the possibility for sustainable social change and instead focuses on building alternatives. Cultural feminists rationalize that if changing the dominant culture is unrealistic, then at least they can avoid it as much as possible. The justification for abandoning social change as a goal emerges out of a collection of theoretical work that argues for the inherent superiority of the female sex (women are kinder and gentler). Regardless of whether it is biologically determined or socially constructed, cultural feminists believe that women’s kinder and gentler nature is so thoroughly ingrained that it is intractable.

A second group that splintered from the radical movement of the 1960s consists of the separatists. Commonly but incorrectly labeled lesbians, these are feminists across all sexual orientations who advocate separation from men; in some cases it is total, whereas in others it is partial. The essence of separatism is that by separating from men, women are able to view themselves in a different context. Many feminists embrace this belief by participating in various forms of temporary separation for personal growth (e.g., all-women retreats). The difference is that separatists practice this philosophy as a lifestyle.

Marxist/socialist feminism is another branch that splintered from the radical movement. Marxist/socialist feminists argue that women are oppressed, and attribute that oppression to the capitalist/private property system. They advocate the overthrow of the capitalist system as the ultimate way of ending women’s oppression.

Radical feminism and its numerous branches primarily represent a movement focused on issues defined by white women, rendering women of color invisible. However, out of the civil rights movement of the 1960s emerged a strong group of feminists of color who paralleled the philosophy and the dynamic nature of radical feminism in many respects but would not, because they could not, limit their focus to women’s issues. Feminists of color maintain that women’s oppression must be considered in a broader context than just a myopic focus on sexism.

Departing from the political and theoretical focus of other branches, ecofeminism is more spiritually oriented and in some circles is combined with Goddess worship and/or vegetarianism. The essence of ecofeminism is the belief that the exploitation of resources without regard to long-term consequences is the direct result of attitudes fostered by a patriarchal/hierarchical society. Thus, parallels are often drawn between society’s oppression of women and its treatment of the environment. By resisting patriarchal domination, ecofeminists believe that they are also resisting the plundering and destroying of the Earth. Beyond its focus on socially conscious environmentalism, ecofeminism is a variation on Marxist/socialist feminism.

Liberal feminism is a variety of feminism that works within the structure of mainstream society to integrate women into that structure. It is basically a social justice movement that seeks equality for women and traces its roots back to the feminism of past centuries, such as the suffragist movement. The compromise and accommodation strategies of liberal feminists line up well with the kinder and gentler beliefs of cultural feminists. However, these methods have met with limited success. Although liberal feminists are associated with some of the most profound advances for women, more often than not, the advances were the result of a radical movement emerging out of dissatisfaction with the slow pace of progress that pushed the liberal feminist agenda to the left of center.

SEE ALSO: Femininity, Feminist ethics, Gender, Gender role, Lesbian, Lesbian ethics, Masculinity, Queer

Suggested Reading

  • Cott, N. F. (1989). The grounding of modern feminism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Hooks, B. (2000). Feminism is for everybody: Passionate politics. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.
  • Moraga, C. L., Tinker, J., & Anzaldua, G. E. (1984). This bridge called my back: Writings by radical women of color (2nd ed.). New York: Kitchen Table Press.

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