Sociological Theory

Feminist Theory in Sociology

Feminist Theory as Microanalysis and Macroanalysis

Feminist theory considers power in relation to gender and analyzes how gender informs both microinteractions and the macro social system.
Feminist theory is an approach centered on questions of power and gender. It is related to feminism and the feminist movements of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. It considers gender inequality and how to promote gender equality. Feminist sociology arose out of the Marxist tradition but expanded to take a broad, interdisciplinary approach. It incorporates ideas from conflict theory, functionalism, symbolic interactionism, and fields outside of sociology. The term feminist theory actually encompasses a variety of approaches. Some feminist sociologists focus on macroanalysis of social institutions and social structure, placing the question of gender at the center of their approach. They often investigate how patriarchy, social organization that places men at the center of society and gives men social power, impacts society. Others analyze the role of gender in microinteractions. They might look at norms for how men and women behave in conversations or how girls use language, sports, or fashion to bond. Many feminist theorists emphasize that social systems are interlocked and may only be understood, reproduced, or challenged in relation to the other systems. These systems operate differently for white women and women of color, for wealthy women and poor women, for heterosexual women and LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual) women. Questions of gender and power overlap with other issues of social power and social identity.

Early Feminist Theory and Marxism

Feminist theory began to develop when women began to hold more teaching positions in colleges and universities. Prior to the 1970s most women were barred from participating as professional social scientists, and sociological research was done almost entirely by men. Feminist theorists point out that the absence of women from the profession affected research and the development of sociological theory. Early feminist theorists worked mainly within conflict theory, heavily influenced by Marx. However, the Marxist approach considers the conflict between economic classes, not gender classes. Marxist feminists adopted the conflict approach, arguing that the capitalist system oppressed women systemically to benefit from their unpaid labor, including tasks such as child care, housework, educational support of children, and volunteer work. For example, in 1965, women spent an average of 30 hours per week on housework. This number steadily declined over the last decades of the 20th century. In 2000, women spent an average of 15 per week on housework, with this figure remaining steady into the first decades of the 21st century. The decline in hours spent on housework and other types of unpaid labor parallels the growth of the feminist movement, which led to changes including more women in the workforce and an increase in hours of unpaid labor performed by men in the home and community.

Feminist Theory and Symbolic Interactionism

Over time, feminist theorists expanded beyond a Marxist approach, seeking to understand the position of women in society more broadly, rather than only in economic terms. Many feminist theorists draw on the concepts of symbolic interactionism, an approach that stresses the subjective and personal nature of social experience. They note that scientific practice itself is subjective, since a researcher cannot form a question without expressing a socially influenced perspective. Another key idea is that the personal is political—experiences considered personal are constrained by existing systems of oppression and privilege. Individual men and women have different relationships to practices such as men opening doors for women and the principle of "ladies first" when entering a building or taking a place in line. Symbolic interactionism explores the various facets of meaning behind these practices. Since men hold the majority of social power and privilege, such practices can be understood as minor concessions that serve to keep power relations in place. If men open the car door and let women go first in the buffet line, or if women expect or embrace these actions, perhaps this communicates their approval of gender roles as they are.

Feminist Theory and Macroanalysis

On a macro level, feminist theory considers how social institutions reinforce women's position in society. For example, education, religion, and family are social institutions that contribute to or maintain rigid ideas of gender roles. Feminist theorists look at how schools encourage boys to pursue scientific studies but push girls toward the arts and humanities. They also note the different opportunities for earning power and social status connected to professions in these areas. In considering the law, feminist sociologists analyze laws and sentencing regarding rape, domestic violence, and divorce and how they influence and are influenced by gender norms. Analyzing religion, they look at how religious institutions frame expectations for women. For instance, many evangelical churches stress that a woman's natural role is to be a mother and homemaker. The Catholic Church prohibits divorce and birth control and bars women from the priesthood. In terms of the family, feminist theorists look at how gender roles and expectations are communicated to children who see parents doing different tasks at home. Looking at society on a macro level, many feminist theorists argue that because social institutions are inherently patriarchal, they support gender oppression and limit the power, status, and opportunities of women and girls.

Feminist Theory and Microanalysis

On a micro level, feminist theorists look at the role of gender in individual social interactions. They analyze how and why men and women communicate in different ways. For example, women and girls tend to use more prosocial communication strategies, such as listening supportively or taking turns in conversation. In studying interactions between men and women, feminist sociologists consider how gender roles and norms impact women's social experience. For instance, women frequently receive comments about their appearance, from both acquaintances and strangers. Feminist theorists explore how these types of social interactions impact women.
Analyses of Gender as a Factor in Macrosystems and Microinteractions
Macro Level Micro Level
Men
  • Are frequently the primary wage earner in a family.
  • Occupy more positions of leadership in government, business, and religious institutions.
  • Are more frequently involved in declaring and waging war.
Men
  • Are more likely to interrupt during a conversation.
  • Are more likely to air grievances to a boss.
  • Are more likely to accept friend requests from women on social media.
Women
  • Are more frequently homemakers.
  • Are more frequently the primary caregiver to children.
  • Contribute more to linguistic innovation and change.
Women
  • Use prosocial speech patterns more frequently.
  • Are more likely to use "friendly" markers such as exclamation points in e-mails and texts.
  • Receive more unsolicited comments about their appearance.

Criticisms of Feminist Theory

Some approaches to feminist theory are criticized for excluding questions of race, class, and gender nonconformity.

Some critics argue that feminist theorists lack a coherent research agenda and a unified goal or approach. While many feminist theorists agree that gender oppression exists, they differ on its causes or even on what a desirable alternative would be. Others object that feminist theory has historically ignored issues of race, sexual orientation, gender identity, and multiculturalism. Most early feminism, from the 19th century through the mid–20th century, was driven by middle-class white women and reflected only their values and concerns. Women of color and poor women often did not find their interests and experiences reflected in the work of white feminist theorists. Black feminists, in particular, have challenged the notion that white feminists are allies. Many of them point out that white theorists may have no real understanding or concern for the social experience of black women. Whereas white women have to contend with power structures that discriminate against them based on their gender, women of color face this same discrimination but also face discrimination based on race. Feminist theory that concentrates solely on questions of gender fails to consider the ways that race, class, and other factors impact women in society.

Another criticism of feminist theory is that it ignores sexual orientation and gender nonconformity. Heterosexual feminists have examined the role of marriage, both as a power dynamic and as a social institution, without considering the experience of homosexual women. Trans and gender-nonconforming people have also challenged what it means to be a woman and argue that feminist theory does not consider them when studying the role of gender in society.

Feminist theorists have also been criticized for failing to consider or accept cultures outside of Europe and North America. Some cultures embrace practices that Western feminists find oppressive, such as arranged marriage, bans on women driving, and requiring women to wear covering clothing in public. Sociologists generally strive to take a position of cultural relativism, which posits that all cultures are equal in value and avoids viewing or judging a culture from the perspective of another culture. Some feminist theorists argue that it is important to identify and analyze gender-based oppression in all cultures. Others argue that Western feminists operate within a larger framework of global systems of oppression and impose their values and beliefs on other cultures without considering how women within other cultures feel and think about the customs and structures that Western theorists find oppressive.

Feminist Theory and Intersectionality

Intersectionality is an influential concept that supports analysis of gender along with other factors of social identity.

Influenced by criticism that feminist theory focuses only on the experience and values of white, middle-class, Western women, many feminist theorists seek to go beyond those limitations. One influential approach is intersectionality, a framework for examining how factors of social stratification such as gender, age, race, class, and sexual orientation are not separate, but intertwined. American social theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw (b. 1959) proposed this term in 1989 to describe how power and oppression come from multiple sources in a society. A related concept is the matrix of domination, the social environment in which multiple sources of oppression, based on factors such as race, ethnicity, class, sex, and gender, intersect to affect individuals' lives. American sociologist Patricia Hill Collins (b. 1948) introduced this term in 1990 to provide a framework with which to analyze the context of multiple forces of discrimination and oppression. For example, in the United States a black, lesbian Muslim woman with a physical disability may have more trouble finding a job than a white, heterosexual, able-bodied Christian woman. Since their introduction in the late 20th century, both intersectionality and the matrix of domination are concepts that are applied to the study of various issues of social stratification.

An intersectional feminist approach recognizes and analyzes the effects of multiple, overlapping social forces on individuals. It argues that gender, age, race, class, and sexual orientation cannot be fully understood when considered independently but must also be understood in combination. Intersectionalist feminists stress that each individual's social experience is different and cannot be understood without considering all the factors that impact a person's place and experience within a society.

Intersectionality

Intersectionality is the understanding that people are affected in different ways, and to different extents, by multiple power dynamics within society. These power dynamics are linked to issues of gender, race, class, ability status, citizenship status, and many other factors of identity.