The origins of the term feminism are not clear. There are several opinions, but the generally accepted version is that it was first used by the Utopian Socialist Charles Fourier in the 19th century, to refer to the question of equal right for women. In the West, women emerged in the early 19th century as a distinct interest group, partly because by that time it was clear that the promise of equality made by the bourgeois democratic revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries excluded women, and partly because the Industrial Revolution had led to the increasingly visible presence of women in public employment. The Women Question emerged at about this time, articulating the questions arising from the exclusion of women from the fruits of Enlightenment Thought.
In other parts of the world, the emergence of the question in the public arena was in the context of anti-imperialist movements and struggles against feudal oppression. Thus, feminist interventions in post-colonic societies had to engage with both the old oppression of tradition as well as the new oppression of colonialism.
Feminist theory and politics is marked by intense internal debates, and it is generally recognized by now that it would be more accurate to talk about “feminisms” in the plural, rather than one single feminism. Nevertheless, what all feminist positions share is recognition that women are placed in an inferior position in society and that this hierarchy is based on gender. Further, although this hierarchy is justified on grounds of natural differences between men and women, feminists hold that it is in fact based on socio-cultural and economic power structures which have little to do with the biological difference between the sexes.
Types of Feminism
Over a century of feminist thought and politics in different parts of the world has produced a rich body of work. The conventional analysis of feminist thought has tended to group it into three streams-liberal, socialist and radical feminism. Liberal feminism is understood to work within the framework of the liberal state, theorizing equality, freedom and justice in the context of liberal philosophy, pointing out that these concepts are inadequate until the gender dimension is taken into account.
Socialist feminism links women’s oppressions to class society, and their critique draws from the Marxist categories of analysis, while simultaneously being critical of gender-blindness in Marxist theory. Radical feminism theorizes patriarchy as a system of male dominance independent of prior to all other systems of domination-that is, in the radical feminist understanding, all other forms of exploitation and oppression are in a sense shaped by oppression based on sex, since that is historically the oldest form of oppression.
However, this outline does not capture the complexities of the debates within feminism, although it is a useful entry point into feminist theory, as long as these distinctions are not understood to be watertight compartments. In this chapter we will provide an introduction to some of the key issues in feminist thought, through an examination of three specific themes-a) patriarchy, b) the sex-gender distinction and c) critique of the public/private dichotomy- and different feminist positions on these issues.
The Sex/Gender Distinction
1. Sex is to Nature as Gender is to Culture.
One of the key contributions of feminist theory is the making of a distinction between “sex” and “gender”. Sex as referring to the biological differences between men and women and gender as indicating the vast range of cultural meanings attached to that basic difference. This distinction is important for feminism to make because the subordination of women has been fundamentally justified on the grounds of the biological differences between men and women. This kind of biological determination has been one of the most important legitimizing mechanisms of women’s oppression over the centuries. The challenge to biological determinism is therefore, crucial for feminist politics.
2. Masculinity, Femininity and Cultural Differences
Feminist anthropologist, pre-eminent among whom is Margaret Mead, have demonstrated that what is understood as masculinity and femininity varies across cultures. In other words, not only do different societies identify a certain set of characteristics as feminine and another set as masculine, but also, these characteristics are not the same across different cultures. Thus, feminists have argued that there is no necessary co-relation between the biology of men and women and the qualities that are thought to be masculine and feminine.
Rather, it is child-rearing practices which try to establish and perpetuate gender-specific forms of behavior, play, dress and so on. This training is continuous and most of the time subtle, but when necessary, can involve punishments to bring about conformity. So feminists argue that sex-specific qualities (for example, bravery and confidence as “masculine” and sensitivity and shyness as “feminine”) and the value that society attributes to them are produced by a range of institutions and beliefs that socialize boys and girls differently. As Simone de Beauvoir put it,” one is not born, but becomes, a woman.”
In addition, societies generally value “masculine” characteristics more highly than “feminine” ones, while at the same time ensuring that men and women who do not conform to these characteristics are continuously disciplined into the “appropriate” behavior.
So there is nothing “Natural” about the sexual division of labor. The fact that men and women perform different kinds of work both within the family and outside has little to do with biology. Only the actual process of pregnancy is biological, all the other work within the home that women must do-cooking, looking after children and so on (in other words, the whole range of work we may call “domestic labor”)-can equally be done by men. But this work is considered to be “women’s work”.
3. Sexual Division of Labor and Work Place
The sexual division of labor is not limited to the home, it extends even to the “public” arena of paid work, and again, this has nothing to do with “sex” (biology) and everything to do with “gender” (culture).Certain kinds of work are considered to be “women’s work” ,and other kind’s men’s, but more important is the fact that whatever work that women do, gets lower wages and is less valued. For example, nursing and teaching (particularly at lower levels) are predominantly female professions and are also comparatively ill-paid in relation to other white-collar jobs which the middle classes take up. Feminist point out that this “ feminization” of teaching and nursing is because such work is seen as an extension of the nurturing work that women do within the home.
4. Ideological Assumptions behind Sexual Division of Labor
The fact is that it is not a “natural” biological difference that lies behind the sexual division of labor, but certain ideological assumptions. So on the one hand, Women are supposed to be physically weak and unfit for heavy manual labor, but both in the home and outside, they do the heaviest of work-carrying heavy loads of water and firewood, grinding corn, transplanting paddy, carrying head-loads in mining and construction work. But at the same time, when the manual work that women do his mechanized, making it both lighter and better-paid, then it is men who receive training to use the new machinery, and women are edged out.
This happens not only in factories, but even with work that was traditionally done by women within the community; for example, when electrically operated flour mills replace hand-pounding of grain, or machine-made nylon fishing nets replace the nets traditionally hand-made by women, it is men who are trained to take over these jobs, and women are forced to move into even lower-paid and more arduous manual work.
In other words, the present subordination of women arises, not from unchangeable biological differences, but from social and cultural values, ideologies and institutions that ensure the material and ideological subordination of women. Thus feminist view questions of sex-differentiated work, the sexual division of labor, and more fundamentally, questions of sexuality and reproduction, as issues to be extricated from the realm of “biology” ,which is understood to be natural and unchangeable. The feminist agenda is to relocate these issues in the realm of the “political”, which suggests that they can and must be transformed.