Compare any two feminist theories

The aim of this essay is to compare two feminist theories, I will describe both of them first then go into more detail later, and at the end make my comparisons and criticisms. I shall draw heavily in my conclusion of this essay on the work of Gail Chester (1979)[1], this will become clearer later on. The two theories I have chosen are: Radical Feminism and Socialist Feminism. The main authors of Radical Feminist theory come from such countries as: Australia, Britain, America and France; this area of feminism makes the fact that the oppression of women is the first and primary oppression its main, basic argument. It is a theory that is centred around women and is an interdependent one. It is created from the experiences the women it focuses on have managed to survive through. It therefore makes the personal into a political matter, while making it clear that men are the oppressors of women because of patriarchy (which is a system of structures, institutions, and ideology that has been created by men so that they can have more power over women).[2]

Radical Feminism maintains that women’s oppression is world-wide and that it passes through both race and culture, more importantly, this leads to the `sisterhood’ becoming an empowering idea and concept. At the same time it also acknowledges, realises and incorporates the differences that exist between women within the definitions of the kinds of women’s oppression there is. Another issue for this theory of feminism is the attention it gives to the power men have in key areas over women, it places considerable emphasis on the need for women to have complete control over their bodies so that they can gain total freedom. This means that the Women’s Health

[1] G.Chester, 1979, `I Call Myself A Radical Feminist’ in Feminist Practice: Notes From The Tenth Year.

Movement pursue more results connected to the problem of violence against women, it is also a contributing factor with regards to the examination of sexuality as a convention.[3]

The whole traditional idea of the `family’ is viewed as being restricting and binding to enforced heterosexuality, economic reliance and finally, the patriarchal standpoint on being a mother . This negatively affects the individuals image of herself and leaves her isolated and alone. Radical Feminists concentrate on making and keeping the culture women possess regardless of the nature it takes — this is a political action. Another important idea for this kind of feminism is women’s opposition to patriarchy, both in the present day and in the past. It has to be said that this feminist theory is the only one that has been made for women, by women, and comes directly from women. Its most leading figures connect the theory with the steps that are taken continuously and often in many ways with the aim of giving power in many senses towards the liberation of women.[4]

Socialist Feminism is based mainly around Socialist and Marxist theory, this means that it wants to investigate and bring to an end the oppression of women in capitalist societies. The ideas of Marx and Engels are used by this branch of feminism and this is shown through the arguments and discussion about what the woman’s place should or should not be in production and social production. Those from this area try to form a theory that relates to Marxism, Feminism and Patriarchy. It can be argued that Marxism has caused problems for Socialist Feminists because

[2] S.Gunew, 1990, Pages 8–9.

[3] S.Gunew, 1990, Pages 8–9.

of the work of Marx and Engels having a tendency to treat gender as being an insignificant subject and assuming it as a set category, because of this it is not an easy (and some would say, impossible) task to fit women into Marxism. Socialist Feminists now take this into consideration and no longer try to apply Marxist ideas to women, instead they make attempts to redefine these ideas. This is the new, `materialist’ basis for Socialist Feminism and it uses feminist theory and its most important views, as well as historical materialism — this means that there is not a great deal of focus on the entire theory that Marx and Engels outlined.[5]

There is much close inspection and evaluation inflicted on this new materialist basis that is involved in Socialist Feminism and, it has since been discovered that it was mostly formed by white, well-off women who are more interested in Marxism than feminism. There is now a growing awareness and realisation of the fact that the world is separated and divided into its various segments through such categories as: sex, class, and capital — this is the basis that Socialist Feminism uses for its work.[6]

It becomes clear when studying Radical Feminism that it has very little in the way of a set, defined theory and that it prefers to concentrate on women’s lived experiences, unlike Socialist Feminism which as outlined briefly earlier has Marxist roots (Liberal and Semiotic Feminism have theoretical roots too). It is Radical Feminisms intention to present a new social and political

[4] S.Gunew, 1990, Pages 8–9.

theory of women’s oppression and, to put forward some ideas to help put an end to this oppression. There has been work written on the subject of women’s friendships and the closeness of them, as well as the hardships — through this avenue criticism of the view that women must be there for men becomes apparent. The theory of social control referring to women used by Radical Feminism and also, theories of women’s bodies, sexuality and their lives that are also involved within this branch or area are clear in the works of Kathleen Barry, Catharine MacKinnon, Susan Griffin and Andrea Dworkin. These women wrote about such theoretical ideas under headings like: the international sexual slavery trade, woman-hating and pornography. Another aspect of Radical Feminist writing is the fact that it sometimes combines creative writing with its theory,

especially in the shape of poetry and prose (Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Robin Morgan, Susan Griffin and Judy Grahn), this demonstrates the emotional aspects of the theory involved and not just the intellectual characteristics of it. Other Radical Feminists include: Anne Koedt, Judith Levine and Anita Rapone.[7]

A problem of Radical Feminism for some writers or theorists is that it makes the argument of women’s inability to walk down the street or live in her home without the ongoing threat of violation from men — this is the claim that every woman is oppressed, it makes extreme generalisations. The French feminist writer, Christine Delphy considered the issue of women not wanting to be seen as oppressed and how they will try various methods of denying it to make sure they are not identified as being that way. Because of changes in the attitudes towards men within

[5] S.Gunew, 1990, Page 9.

[6] S.Gunew, 1990, Page 9.

feminist theories, the most favoured branches focus on individualism which means Radical Feminism is not as popular as perhaps it once was. Socialist Feminism finds more interested parties due to the ease of its ready-made structure, this helps in the attack of those responsible for the oppression of women. An important part of Radical Feminism is that for these writers, `emancipation’ or `equality’ on men’s terms is not acceptable, patriarchy must be ended and the social structures currently in existence must be changed. According to Gail Chester, Radical Feminisms intentions are Socialist and revolutionary which will be given due consideration in the conclusion of this essay.[8]

One of the most well-known Socialist Feminists was Juliet Mitchell, she wanted feminists to take Marxism back into account and this happened, she set about in her work to use Marxist ideas with relation to feminism and she came up with four main structures of women’s situation — these were: production, reproduction, sexuality, and the socialization of children. Collaborating with J.Rose, Mitchell used Louis Althusser’s version of Marxism and this meant that ideology in terms of being both a material and cultural force was important to her, she looked at the exchange theory of Levi-Strauss, Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan when writing about the oppression of women and through these figures she built an idea of patriarchy that pushed the issue of sexuality to the forefront in feminist discussion. There is much sharp criticism of Mitchell’s route through Psychoanalysis and there is also some doubt that such a theory can be called Socialist Feminism.

Another key feminist writer of this vein was Betty Friedan, she compiled a study called `The

[7] S.Gunew, 1990, Ch.9., Page 271.

Feminine Mystique’ (1963) and focused on a problem affecting middle-class women….the image of the ideal women who existed for her husband, children and keeping house for them. The main guest she wanted to answer was: did women have only these things to look forward to? A problem that has also cropped up in Socialist Feminism is not just the Marxist foundation of it, but the fact that many of these feminists have an uncanny ability to misread Marx which causes obvious difficulties in basing their work on it. This may be a large factor in the development of them seeking to answer questions concerning sexuality and power instead of putting all their efforts in staying true to Marxism. [9]

One fine example of Socialist Feminism is Christine Delphy’s pamphlet on `The main enemy’, this work argues that there should be separateness and primacy in the domestic world for women and she describes this world as the one where women are exploited, a world that is a separate

mode of production. Delphy does not use Marxism in her analysis of this, instead she uses examination of the labour that married women in France perform as her foundation, she only uses Marxism in small amounts when it comes to the concepts. A criticism of Delphy by Maxine Molyneux states that she does not use Marxist categories accurately and that concepts like `mode of production’ and `labour power’ have been turned into: `empiricist, common sense, constructs…quite at variance with conventional definitions.’ This does not change the fact that Delphy highlights male oppression of women and that it may not be possible to concentrate on it

[8] S.Gunew, 1990, Ch.9., Pages 271- 272.

using Marxism…this is an important issue in Socialist Feminism.[10]

To conclude this essay, I will use the words of Gail Chester to make my case for me:

“Radical Feminist theory is that theory follows from practice and is impossible to develop in the absence of practice, because our theory is that practising our practice is our theory.” It is a major criticism of Radical Feminism that it has rejected theory, which is the basis of Socialist Feminism, this is not entirely true because they accept its relevance if it is not too esoteric or separated from women’s real-life experiences. It is Chester’s argument that Radical Feminist theory has not been recognised as a `theory’ because it has not always been written down, she then argues that its intentions are Socialist which means that in practice, the only differences between the two theories should be that Radical Feminism has not written the structure of its theory down (or had it laid down for it in the way of Marx and Engels), and that it is more selective over what theories it uses because it prefers action to talking and does not want to forget that its main principle is to serve women.

Word Count Approx: 1961.

[9] S.Gunew, 1990, Ch.9., Pages 271–272.

[10] C.Delphy, 1984, `Close To Home: A Materialist Analysis of Women’s Oppression’ & M.Molyneux, 1979, `Beyond the domestic labour debate’, New Left Review, 116, pp.3–27: Source: S.Gunew, 1990, Ch.9., Pages 271 -272.


Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Feminism Without Illusions, The Uni of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill & London, 1990.

(Ed) Sneja Gunew, Feminist Knowledge — Critique and Construct, Routledge, London,1990.

Maggie Humm (Ed), Feminisms — A Reader, Harvester Wheatsheaf, London, 1992.

Terry Lovell (Ed), British Feminist Thought — A Reader, Basil blackwell Ltd., Oxford, 1990.

Miriam Schneir (Ed), The Vintage Book of Feminism, Vintage, London.

Chris Weedon, Feminist Practice and Poststructuralist Theory, Basil Blackwell Ltd., Oxford, 1987.

[1] G.Chester, 1979, `I Call Myself A Radical Feminist’ in Feminist Practice: Notes From The Tenth Year.

[2] S.Gunew, 1990, Pages 8–9.

[3] S.Gunew, 1990, Pages 8–9.

[4] S.Gunew, 1990, Pages 8–9.

[5] S.Gunew, 1990, Page 9.

[6] S.Gunew, 1990, Page 9.

[7] S.Gunew, 1990, Ch.9., Page 271.

[8] S.Gunew, 1990, Ch.9., Pages 271- 272.

[9] S.Gunew, 1990, Ch.9., Pages 271–272.

[10] C.Delphy, 1984, `Close To Home: A Materialist Analysis of Women’s Oppression’ & M.Molyneux, 1979, `Beyond the domestic labour debate’, New Left Review, 116, pp.3–27: Source: S.Gunew, 1990, Ch.9., Pages 271 -272

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