Feminist political theory

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Feminist political theory is a diverse subfield of feminist theory working towards three main goals:

  1. To understand and critique the role of gender in how political theory is conventionally construed.
  2. To re-frame and re-articulate conventional political theory in light of feminist issues (especially gender equality).
  3. To support political science presuming and pursuing gender equality.

Feminist political theory encompasses a broad scope of approaches. It overlaps with related areas including feminist jurisprudence/feminist legal theory; feminist political philosophy; ecological feminism; female-centered empirical research in political science; and feminist research methods (feminist method) for use in political science the social sciences. Indeed, one scholar notes that, insofar as almost all versions of feminism involve "demonstrating the ways in which politics, understood as power relations, is present in our everyday lives," one could reasonably "describe feminist theory as a whole as a kind of political philosophy."[1] What frequently distinguishes feminist political theory from feminism broadly is the specific examination of the state and its role in the reproduction or redressing of gender inequality.[1] In addition to being broad and multidisciplinary, the field is relatively new, inherently innovative, and still expanding; the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains that "feminist political philosophy serves as a field for developing new ideals, practices, and justifications for how political institutions and practices should be organized and reconstructed."[2]


For summary of feminist history more broadly, see feminism. Feminist political theory as a term only consolidated in the West during Women's Liberation movements of the 1960s and 70s. Previously, very few works of political theory explicitly considered women's political situation. John Stuart Mill’s 1861 call for women's suffrage in The Subjection of Women is a notable exception.[3] In the early 20th Century, Simone de Beauvoir’s 1949 work The Second Sex exposed the power dynamics surrounding womanhood and laid the foundation for subsequent feminist theories exposing women's social subjugation. In the 1980s and 1990s, feminist theory expanded into the legal realm led by Catharine MacKinnon’s and Andrea Dworkin’s campaigns against pornography.[4] Several distinct stages are sketched out below.

Radical feminism[edit]

Early radical feminism was grounded in the rejection of the nuclear family and femininity as constructed within heterosexuality.[5] and Radical feminism abdicated any previous forms of political theory to develop entirely new theories rooted primarily on the direct experiences of women. Radical Feminism[6] has experienced many transitions over time, including facing an anti feminist backlash[7](humanism)[8][9] but the theoretical history and survival[10] remains important to understand.[11]

Liberal feminism[edit]

Liberal feminism marks an important approach to feminist politics which was especially pervasive during the first half of the twentieth century. Some of the most well known examples of liberal feminist writing were published far earlier, including Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) and John Stuart Mill's The Subjection of Women (1869). A common theme of liberal feminism is an emphasis on equal opportunity via fair opportunity and equal political rights. In addition, according to The International Encyclopedia of Ethics, "[L]iberal feminisms of both the past and the present retain some commitment to the distinction between the public and private realms – a distinction [which is the] focus of much critique within feminist political theory."[1]

Marxist and socialist feminism[edit]

Marxist feminism and socialist feminism considered classism as the primary source of women's oppression.[12][13] "... Marxist theory does not allow women any more than other classes of oppressed people to constitute themselves as historical subjects, because Marxism does not take into account the fact that a class also consists of individuals one by one. Class consciousness is not enough. We must try to understand philosophically (politically) these concepts of 'subject' and 'class consciousness' and how they work in relation to our history.[14]"

Ecological feminism or Ecofeminism[edit]

In the 1970s, the impacts of post-World War II technological development led many women to organise against issues from the toxic pollution of neighbourhoods to nuclear weapons testing on indigenous lands. This grassroots activism emerging across every continent was both intersectional and cross-cultural in its struggle to protect the conditions for reproduction of Life on Earth. Known as ecofeminism, the political relevance of this movement continues to expand. Classic statements in its literature include Carolyn Merchant, USA, The Death of Nature;[15] Maria Mies, Germany, Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale;[16] Vandana Shiva, India, Staying Alive: Women Ecology and Development;[17] Ariel Salleh, Australia, Ecofeminism as Politics: nature, Marx, and the postmodern.[18] Ecofeminism involves a profound critique of Eurocentric epistemology, science, economics, and culture. It is increasingly prominent as a feminist response to the contemporary breakdown of the planetary ecosystem.

Postmodernist feminism[edit]

Postmodernist feminists agree with others that gender is the most important identity, however what makes Postmodern feminists different is that they are interested in how people 'pick and mix' their identities. This is a key part of Postmodernist thought, not just from feminism. They are also interested in the topic of masculinity, and instead reject the stereotypical aspects of feminism, embracing it as a positive aspect of identity. One of their key goals is to disable the patriarchal norms that have led to gender inequality.[19]

Topics of inquiry[edit]

Feminist epistemology[edit]

A key aspect of feminist political theory/philosophy is feminist epistemology. Feminist epistemologists question the objectivity of social and philosophical sciences by contending that standards of authority and credibility are socially constructed and thus reflect and re-entrench the sociopolitical status quo.[20] Thus, one common feminist methodological solution is to include many diverse voices reflecting all parts of society in the process of knowledge-making.

Gendered political institutions[edit]

Political theory on the gendering of institutions explores questions such what does it mean for an institution to be “gendered," how can one evaluate whether an institution is gendered, and what are the consequences of gendered institutions for the people who work within them (of all genders). An example of such related scholarship is Eileen McDonagh's book The Motherless State which explores how socially feminized "motherly" attributes have been stripped from modern governance models.[21] An exploration of the history of patriarchy is central to understanding how political institutions have become gendered and the impact this has on feminist political theory. The importance of understanding patriarchy historically is explored in Judith M. Bennet's book 'History Matter: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism'.[22] A definition of patriarchy is provided by Sylvia Walby in her book 'Theorising patriarchy'.[23] This shows how patriarchal systems have historically caused the oppression of women and the male domination of politics.

Group identity/identity politics[edit]

Theorists studying this aspect of feminist political theory question the construction of women as an identity group. On a basic level, they consider whether it is even possible to come to some sort of conclusion about a "women" group’s relation to politics. One facet of the debate involves intersectionality and whether women from different racial and cultural backgrounds have enough in common to form a political group.[24] Another facet questions whether transgender women should be included in the group "women" insofar as they lack many of the experiences of girlhood and womanhood which bind "women" together as a distinct group.[25]

Yet another approach to this topic includes redefining "groupness;" for example, Iris Marion Young has suggested women are more of a "seriality" rather than a group insofar as they undergo similar experiences but in isolation of each other, lacking a sense of group identity.[26]

Political leadership and gender[edit]

This field addresses how women lead differently than their male counterparts as legislators, executives, and judges. Some scholars in this field study how political leadership is itself masculinized to exclude the kinds of political leadership women most frequently provide, often outside of formal offices. For example, Hardy-Fanta looks at grassroots political work in Latino communities in the U.S. to identify feminized political leadership roles, ultimately concluding that Latina women provide the most critical leadership and work in those communities—despite the fact that most studies overlook their leadership because it does not occur within formal officeholding roles.[27]

See also[edit]

Related journals[edit]

  • Politics & Gender[28]
  • Signs[29]
  • Feminist Theory[30]
  • International Feminist Journal of Politics[31]


  1. ^ a b c Watson, Lori (2013-01-01). "Feminist Political Theory". International Encyclopedia of Ethics. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. doi:10.1002/9781444367072.wbiee757. ISBN 9781444367072.
  2. ^ McAfee, Noëlle (2014-01-01). Zalta, Edward N. (ed.). Feminist Political Philosophy (Summer 2014 ed.).
  3. ^ "John Stuart Mill: The Subjection of Women". www.constitution.org. Retrieved 2015-10-13.
  4. ^ "philosophical feminism". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 2015-10-13.
  5. ^ Echols, Alice (1989). Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967-1975. University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 978-0816617876.
  6. ^ Bryson, Valerie (2016). Feminist Political Theory. Palgrave. ISBN 9781137439048.
  7. ^ Tolentino, Jia (8 February 2017). "The Case Against Contemporary Feminism". newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-case-against-contemporary-feminism. Retrieved 11 July 2018.
  8. ^ Johnson, Pauline (1994). Feminism as Radical Humanism. Routledge. ISBN 9780429969065.
  9. ^ Johnson, Pauline (2015). Feminism and Humanism. In The Wiley Blackwell Handbook of Humanism (Eds: Copson & Grayling): Wiley. pp. Chapter 16. ISBN 9781118793305.
  10. ^ Sullivan, Mairead (Spring–Summer 2016). "Kill Daddy: Reproduction, Futurity, and the Survival of the Radical Feminist". Women's Studies Quarterly. 44 (1–2): 268–282. doi:10.1353/wsq.2016.0012.
  11. ^ Dow & Wood (2014). "Repeating History and Learning From It: What Can SlutWalks Teach Us About Feminism?". Women's Studies in Communication. 37: 22–43. doi:10.1080/07491409.2013.867918.
  12. ^ Hartmann, Heidi (2003). The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism: Towards a More Progressive Union. Feminist Theory Reader (Eds: McCann & Kim): Routledge. pp. 206–21. ISBN 978-0-415-93152-6.
  13. ^ Kaplan, Cora (1985). Pandora's Box: Subjectivity, class, and sexuality in socialist feminist criticism. Feminisms (1997) (Eds: Warhol & Herndl): Rutgers University Press. pp. 956–975. ISBN 978-0-8135-2388-0.CS1 maint: location (link)
  14. ^ Wittig, Monique (2003). One is Not Born a Woman. Feminist Theory Reader, Eds: McCann & Kim: Routledge. pp. 253. ISBN 978-0-415-93152-6.
  15. ^ Merchant, Carolyn (1980). The Death of Nature: Women and the Scientific Revolution. New York: Harper & Row. p. 348. ISBN 0062505955.
  16. ^ Mies, Maria (1986). Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale (1st ed.). London: Zed Books. p. 280. ISBN 9780862323424.
  17. ^ Shiva, Vandana (1989). Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development. London: Zed Books. p. 256. ISBN 9780862328238.
  18. ^ Salleh, Ariel (1997). Ecofeminism as Politics: Nature, Marx and the Postmodern (1st ed.). London: Zed Books. p. 400. ISBN 9781856494007.
  19. ^ Ebert, Teresa L. (December 1991). "The "Difference" of Postmodern Feminism". College English. 53 (8): 886–904. doi:10.2307/377692. ISSN 0010-0994. JSTOR 377692. ^ Jump up to: a b
  20. ^ "philosophical feminism". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 2015-11-04.
  21. ^ McDonagh, Eileen (2009). The Motherless State. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  22. ^ Bennett, Judith (2006). History Matters: patriarchy and the challenge of feminism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  23. ^ Walby, Sylvia (1990). Theorizing patriarchy. Oxford, UK ; Cambridge, MA, USA: B. Blackwell.
  24. ^ Mansbridge, Jane (1999). "Should Blacks Represent Blacks and Women Represent Women? A Contingent Yes". Journal of Politics.
  25. ^ "The Dispute Between Radical Feminism and Transgenderism". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2015-11-04.
  26. ^ Young, Iris Marion (1994). "Gender as Seriality: Thinking About Women as a Social Collective". Signs. 19 (3): 713–738. doi:10.1086/494918.
  27. ^ Hardy-Fanta, Carol (1995). "Latina Women and Political Leadership". New England Journal of Public Policy.
  28. ^ "Politics & Gender". Retrieved 2015-12-11.
  29. ^ "Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society". Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. Retrieved 2015-12-11.
  30. ^ "Feminist Theory | SAGE Publications Inc". us.sagepub.com. Retrieved 2015-12-11.
  31. ^ "International Feminist Journal of Politics - Volume 17, Issue 4". www.tandfonline.com. Retrieved 2015-12-11.

External links[edit]