Gender feminism

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Gender feminism is a term used by Christina Hoff Sommers and other writers to describe the feminist view of gender as socially constructed and distinct from biological sex. In her 1994 book Who Stole Feminism?, Sommers used the term gender feminist in contrast to equity feminist to refer to "radical" feminists who endorse the notion of patriarchy, i.e. male dominance reinforced through society's institutions.

Other feminist scholars have largely rejected the term as overly broad or misrepresentative. The philosopher Martha Nussbaum states that Sommers' definition of gender feminist "fits almost all contemporary social thinkers in political thought and economics", and so does not correspond with a particular brand of feminism.[1]


Prior to the usage of the term gender feminism Gayle Rubin's essay The Traffic in Women: Notes on the "Political Economy" of Sex (1975) was published. In it she devised the phrase "sex/gender system", defining it as "the set of arrangements by which a society transforms biological sexuality into products of human activity, and in which these transformed sexual needs are satisfied."[2]

In the same year Sandra Lee Bartky, founding member of the Society for Women in Philosophy,[3] wrote the essay, Toward a Phenomenology of Feminist Consciousness,[4] in which she said, "[w]omen have long lamented their condition, but a lament, pure and simple, need not be an expression of feminist consciousness. As long as their situation is apprehended as natural, inevitable, and inescapable, women's consciousness of themselves, no matter how alive to insult and inferiority, is not yet feminist consciousness... The very meaning of what the feminist apprehends is illuminated by the light of what ought to be."[4]

In 1983 the philosopher Alison Jaggar wrote of the need for a new name for the direction that socialist feminism was taking. "Socialist feminism," she said, "has indicated a new domain for political economy; it has identified the questions that feminist political theory must ask, and it has shown the sorts of answers that are acceptable. However, socialist feminism has not yet provided the answers, in part because of continuing uncertainty about how the redefined domain of political economy should be conceptualized."[5]

In the late 1980s the philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers criticized the attempt to increase the amount of feminist philosophy being taught making reference to what she called academic feminism.[6][7]

Sommers, Steven Pinker, and others have described gender feminism as asserting that sex differences in psychology have little or nothing to do with evolution, but instead are largely or solely socially constructed.[8][9][10] It has also been used[by whom?] in relation to some feminists' arguments that all cognition is gendered and that all knowledge is gendered.[11]

Use by Sommers[edit]

Sommers endorses equity feminism which she equates with first-wave feminism, rooted in the philosophy of liberalism. She distinguishes this perspective from second-wave feminism or gender feminism, which she describes as regarding all women as oppressed by an all-encompassing system of patriarchy.[12]:22

In 1994 Sommers described Rubin, Bartky, Jaggar and others as "gender feminists" in her book, Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women.[9]

American feminism is currently dominated by a group of women who seek to persuade the public that American women are not the free creatures we think we are ... The feminists who hold this divisive view of our social and political reality believe we are in a gender war, and they are eager to disseminate stories of atrocity that are designed to alert women to their plight. The "gender feminists" (as I shall call them) believe that all our institutions, from the state to the family to the grade schools, perpetuate male dominance. Believing that women are virtually under siege, gender feminists naturally seek recruits to their side of the gender war. They seek support. They seek vindication. They seek ammunition.

— Christina Hoff Sommers, Who Stole Feminism? (1994)[9]

Sommers has used the term to distinguish what she calls "radical" feminism from her own "liberal" feminism.[13] Sommers further describes gender feminists as supporting difference feminism, quoting authors who assert that standards for good art are gendered.[12]:64 For Sommers, gender or political feminism is defined in opposition to individualist feminism.[12]


Feminists have largely dismissed Sommers' claims. They have asserted that Sommers' concept of gender feminism is merely a straw man.[14][15]:229, 241 They have asserted that many of feminisms and feminist authors grouped together by Sommers are incompatible in their basic philosophical presuppositions.[14][16][15]:229 Victoria Davion[a] has asserted that no one believes in gender feminism as Sommers defines it, based on its conceptual incoherence.[15]:229 Specifically, both Alison Jaggar[17][18] and Marilyn Friedman have both asserted that Sommers severely misrepresented their views.[19][20]

Retrospectively Jaggar stated that prior to the publication of Who Stole Feminism?, "Sommers was establishing her reputation as a defender of so-called traditional family values against those whom she called radical "gender feminists," a term she invented [in her book] to refer to any feminist who had moved beyond the ideas of nineteenth-century philosopher, John Stuart Mill."[21]


Comparing the advantages that American women have to women in developing countries, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum states that Sommers seems to think that women have no urgent complaints to press and she is critical of Sommers for not saying what she thinks about "legal developments aimed at securing full political and social equality for women ... [e.g.] laws against sexual harassment and marital rape." By not stating her views, Nussbaum says, "it is difficult to tell how close [Sommers] really is to the 'grass-roots constituency' that she claims to be representing."[1]:132–133

A gender feminist, for Sommers, is any thinker who believes that (1) women's suffrage did not remove a systemic asymmetry of power between women and men in our society, and/or (2) the existing preferences of women and men in our society concerning gender issues may be corrupted by social forces and not always reliable bases for the formation of social policy ... this definition is not ultimately helpful in sorting feminists into two categories ["gender feminists" or "equity feminists"] because it fits almost all contemporary social thinkers in political thought and economics.

— Martha Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice (1999)[1]

Nussbaum responds to Hoff Sommers with three questions:

  1. Do American women have complaints that have not been adequately addressed by the agenda of "equity feminism"? In other words, do they have good reasons to become "gender feminists"?
  2. Does the thought of radical feminist thinkers make a valuable contribution to addressing those complaints?
  3. Do the views of these "gender feminist thinkers" about preferences and desires pose a threat to democracy?

The first two questions Nussbaum answers with a "yes" and the third with a "no."[1]:133


Steven Pinker, in his book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, elaborating on the dichotomy of Hoff Sommers, states that gender feminism is allied with Marxism, postmodernism, and social constructionism, and as such is based on three claims: gender differences are purely socially constructed and have no biological basis, human behavior is shaped by the single motive of desire for power, and human interactions are best understood not from individual psychology but from the motives of groups responding to groups.[22]:341–342 Pinker endorses Hoff Sommers' contrast of gender feminism vs. equity feminism, with the latter seen as making a moral claim in favor of legal and social equality without making particular assertions about human behavior or biology. He regards difference feminism as an offshoot of gender feminism.[22]:343

Use by McElroy[edit]

Wendy McElroy also defines gender or political feminism in opposition to individualist feminism,[23] and synonymous with radical feminism.[23][24] McElroy describes gender feminism as rooted in social constructionism. She describes gender feminists as asserting that women lack agency and are solely defined by the social institutions they inhabit, unable to make free choices. Accordingly, McElroy describes the gender feminist agenda as the destruction or transformation of social institutions. McElroy rejects these views as a means of disregarding the free choices of women to support existing institutions and oppose gender feminism.[25]:29

See also[edit]


  1. ^ See "Victoria Davion". University of Georgia Department of Philosophy (Webpage). 5 November 2017.


  1. ^ a b c d Nussbaum, Martha (1999). "American women: preferences, feminism, democracy". Sex and Social Justice. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 131–133. ISBN 9780195355017.
  2. ^ Rubin, Gayle (2011) [1975]. "The traffic in women: notes on the 'political economy' of sex". In Reiter, Rayna R. Toward an anthropology of women. Delhi: Aakar Books. p. 159. ISBN 9789350021620.
  3. ^ Roberts, Sam (23 October 2016). "Sandra Lee Bartky, at the vanguard of feminist philosophy, dies at 81". The New York Times. Retrieved 29 March 2018.
  4. ^ a b Bartky, Sandra Lee (Fall 1975). "Toward a phenomenology of feminist consciousness". Social Theory and Practice. 3 (4): 425–439. JSTOR 23557163.
    • Also available as:
  5. ^ Jaggar, Alison M. (1983). "Socialist feminism and human nature". Feminist politics and human nature. Totowa, N.J: Rowman & Allanheld. p. 155. ISBN 9780847672547.
  6. ^ Sommers, Christina (July 1988). "Should the academy support academic feminism?". Public Affairs Quarterly. 2 (3): 97–120. JSTOR 40435687.
  7. ^ Sommers, Christina (11 October 1989). "Feminist philosophers are oddly unsympathetic to the women they claim to represent". The Chronicle of Higher Education.
  8. ^ Pinker, Steven (2003). "The official theory". The blank slate: the modern denial of human nature. London: Penguin. p. 6. ISBN 9780140276053.
  9. ^ a b c Hoff Sommers, Christina (1995). "Preface". Who stole feminism? How women have betrayed women. New York: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster. p. 16. ISBN 9780684801568.
  10. ^ Kuhle, Barry X. (January 2012). "Evolutionary psychology is compatible with equity feminism, but not with gender feminism: A reply to Eagly and Wood". Evolutionary Psychology. 10 (1): 39–43. doi:10.1177/147470491201000104. PMID 22833845.
    • See also:
  11. ^ Yates, Steven (October 1992). "Multiculturalism and epistemology". Public Affairs Quarterly. 6 (4): 437. JSTOR 40435825. Feminists offer their distinctive twist to this approach by saying that all knowledge and cognition are "gendered"; hence the term gender feminism.
  12. ^ a b c Hoff Sommers, Christina (1995). "Women under siege". Who stole feminism? How women have betrayed women. New York: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster. ISBN 9780684801568.
  13. ^ Beckwith, Francis J. (September 1992). "Reply to Keenan: Thomson's argument and academic feminism". International Philosophical Quarterly. 32 (3): 369–376. doi:10.5840/ipq199232321.
    • Beckwith, Francis J.; Geisler, Norman L. (1991). "Moral questions". Matters of life and death: calm answers to tough questions about abortion and euthanasia. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House. pp. 77–96. ISBN 9780801010019. Sommers, who calls herself a 'liberal feminist' and distinguishes herself from 'radical (or gender) feminism'
  14. ^ a b Bartky, Sandra Lee (June 1992). "Letter to the editor". Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association. 65 (7): 57. doi:10.2307/3130256. JSTOR 3130256.
    • See also:
  15. ^ a b c Davion, Victoria (July 1997). "Rape research and gender feminism: so who's anti-male?". Public Affairs Quarterly. 11 (3): 229–243. JSTOR 40435979.
  16. ^ Friedman, Marilyn (September 1990). "Does Sommers like women? More on liberalism, gender hierarchy, and Scarlett O'Hara". Journal of Social Philosophy. 21 (2–3): 75–90. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9833.1990.tb00280.x.
    • See also:
  17. ^ Jaggar, Alison (June 1992). "Letter to the editor". Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association. 65 (7): 67. doi:10.2307/3130256. JSTOR 3130256.
  18. ^ Full citation for quote of Jaggar's used by Sommers in Who Stole Feminism?
    • Jaggar, Alison M. (1983). "Socialist feminism and human nature". Feminist politics and human nature. Totowa, N.J: Rowman & Allanheld. p. 148. ISBN 9780847672547. Radical and socialist feminists have shown that the old ideals of freedom, equality, and democracy are insufficient. Women are not free as long as their sexuality is male-defined and as long as they cannot make their own decisions to bear or not to bear children. Women are not equal with men as long as they are forced to do a disproportionate amount of childcare, maintenance work and nurturing.
  19. ^ Friedman, Marilyn (September 1993). "Letter to the editor". Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association. 67 (1): 25. doi:10.2307/3130782. JSTOR 3130782.
  20. ^ Friedman, Marilyn (1995). "Codes, canons, correctness, and feminism". In Friedman, Marilyn; Narveson, Jan. Political correctness: for and against. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield. pp. 30–31. ISBN 9780847679867. First, feminists in general do not promote an attitude of resentment against individual men unless those men, as individuals, abuse, exploit, or oppress women (as rapists, batterers, harassers, misogynists, etc.) ... Second, the charge that feminists resent men ignores the focal point of feminist concern. Women, and not men, occupy the centerstage of feminist attention. The failure to recognize this shift in attentiveness exemplifies the same male-centered bias of our culture that feminism has always sought to contest.
    • Responding to:
  21. ^ Jaggar, Alison M. (2006). "Whose politics? Who's correct". In Burns, Lynda. Feminist alliances. Amsterdam New York: Rodopi. p. 20. ISBN 9789042017283.
  22. ^ a b Pinker, Steven (2003). "Hot buttons: Gender". The blank slate: the modern denial of human nature. London: Penguin. pp. 341–343. ISBN 9780140276053.
  23. ^ a b McElroy, Wendy (2002). "Introduction". Liberty for women: freedom and feminism in the twenty-first century. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee. p. 14. ISBN 9781566634359. Ideologically speaking, individualist and radical or gender feminism are mirror images of each other
  24. ^ McElroy, Wendy (2003). "Gender feminism and Ifeminism: wherin they differ" (PDF). Ethics & Politics [Etica & Politica]. V (2). hdl:10077/5456. As a school within the broader feminist tradition, individual feminism contrasts sharply with gender feminism both in its theory and its history. Indeed the two schools define the ideological extremes of the feminist movement
  25. ^ McElroy, Wendy (March 2005). "Religion and American feminism". Society. 42 (3): 28–31. doi:10.1007/bf02802983.

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