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Using Feminist Theory to Study Families. What is feminist theory? . “An analysis of women’s subordination for the purpose of figuring out how to change it” (Gordon 1979) Includes theories about: the origins and nature of inequality the social construction of sex and gender

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what is feminist theory
What is feminist theory?
  • “An analysis of women’s subordination for the purpose of figuring out how to change it” (Gordon 1979)
  • Includes theories about:
    • the origins and nature of inequality
    • the social construction of sex and gender
    • Evaluative AND empirical
    • Often used in combination with other theories of families (e.g., exchange, life course).
where does it come from
Where does it come from?
  • Emerged from three waves of feminist (political) movements.
    • First Wave – (1840s)-1880s-1920s
    • Second Wave – 1960s-1990s
    • Third Wave – 1990s-present
  • Developed by scholars in a variety of academic disciplines (especially anthropology, philosophy, history, sociology, psychology).
what is it good for
What is it good for?
  • Helping to explain:
    • Power relations in families.
    • Division of labor in families and societies.
    • Meaning-making in (and about) families.
    • How understandings and assumptions about gender influence family dynamics and public policies.
three waves of western feminism
Three Waves of (Western) Feminism

Second Wave


First Wave


Third Wave


the first wave
The First Wave
  • Heavily influenced by Enlightenment thinking
  • Chief goals: Women’s suffrage (right to vote), access to education, family planning
  • Critique of women’s (restricted) role in the home

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (c. 1848)


Anna Julia Cooper (1893)

the second wave
The Second Wave
  • Liberal and cultural variants
  • Sought to expand access to education, types of paid work, equal pay for equal work
  • Focus on sexual liberation and freedom from sexual violence
  • Aimed to free women from excessive concern with beauty and appearance

Gloria Steinem &

Dorothy Pitman Hughes

the third wave
The Third Wave
  • Recognizes diversity among women across race/ethnicity, class, sexual orientation
  • Promotes breaking down/ playing with gender categories
focus and premises
Focus and Premises
  • Women’s experience is central
    • Can provide a basis for knowledge claims
  • Feminist theory has many voices
    • Because different women come from different social locations (e.g., by race, ethnicity, social class, sexual orientation, age, nationality)
  • Feminist theory is emancipatory
    • In addition to trying to predict social processes, seeks to describe, evaluate, and prescribe social action
main concepts
Main Concepts
  • Sex and gender
    • Sex = biology
    • Gender = social and cultural
  • Three dimensions of gender:
    • Gender identity
    • Structural gender (social status)
    • Cultural gender (symbols and meanings)
  • Sexism
    • Harmful attributions made about everyone with a certain trait believed to be inherent or genetic (e.g., sex)
main concepts12
Main Concepts
  • Family and household
    • HH = coresidential units
    • F = prevailing ideologies about how/where/with whom people should live and divide labor
  • Public and private
    • Gendered spheres (c. 1830s onward)
    • Seen as artificial distinction that supports and maintain an inequitable gender system
  • Gender structures our experiences.
  • Gender structures all societies.
  • Women as a class [sic] are devalued and oppressed.
  • As a result of sex, gender beliefs, and historical and continuing sexism and oppression, there exists a “female culture.”
  • The family is not monolithic.
    • In terms of organization and in terms of patterns by race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation.
  • The family is a central institution for the reproduction of oppression.
    • Via socialization and social expectations
    • In terms of support for work, etc. [not in book]
varieties of feminist theory
Varieties of Feminist Theory
  • Liberal Feminism
  • Marxist/Socialist Feminism
  • Cultural Feminism
  • Multicultural and Critical Race [and Third World] Feminism
  • Other variants: Lesbian, psychoanalytic, anarchist, etc.
liberal feminism
Liberal Feminism
  • Rooted in Enlightenment philosophy: “All men [sic] are created equal.”
  • Emphasis on equality of opportunity and removal of barriers (e.g., to education, work, leisure activities)
  • Mostly closely associated with first (and less-radical second) wave
marxist socialist feminism
Marxist/Socialist Feminism
  • Rooted in Marx and Engels’ writings
  • Who controls the means of reproduction (as well as the means of production)?
  • “Sex class” underlies other social divisions (e.g., race, SES)
  • Employers exploit women’s free reproductive labor, “cooperate” with male employees to limit women’s paid work (even though women might work for less)
cultural feminism
Cultural Feminism
  • Posits men and women as (inherently) different, seeks to revalue traditionally devalued feminine traits (e.g., nurturing, expressiveness)
  • Mostly closely associated with radical second-wave feminism
multicultural critical race and third world feminism
Multicultural, Critical Race, and “Third World” Feminism
  • Questions basic constructs like “women” & “female” (and “family”)
  • Focus on intersecting identities
  • Concern with exploitation of immigrant and poor women
  • Draws on poststructuralist and postmodernist theory
  • Associated with third-wave feminism
empirical applications
Empirical Applications
  • Understanding the gendered division of labor
    • Second shifts and the stalled revolution (Hochschild)
    • Equal vs. fair?
    • The role of ideology
    • “Capitalization” of housework (Ehrenreich)
  • Measuring Diversity in Feminism
    • Are different strands of feminism associated with age, social class, occupation, race, etc.?
practical applications
Practical Applications
  • Family policy reform
    • To reflect facts that families are diverse and that different family members may have different interests
    • Examples: Sexual violence & domestic violence, wage discrimination, day care, accounting for unpaid work
  • Family therapy
    • Revising traditional family therapy to acknowledge that conflict may be useful and good.
  • Family scholarship and the research process
    • Critiquing research that presumes families are private, neglects diversity of family forms, avoids gender analysis
    • Incorporating reflexive methods