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To what extent is feminism a single doctrine?

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Until the 1960s, feminism was widely regarded as a sub-set of liberalism and socialism, rather than as an ideology in its own right. Today, however, feminism can be considered a single doctrine in that all feminists subscribe to a range of ‘common ground’ beliefs, such as the existence of a patriarchal society, and the desire to change gender inequalities. Then again, it can be argued that feminism is characterised more by disagreement than consensus, as three broad traditions: liberal feminism, Marxist or socialist feminism, and radical feminism, which often contain rival tendencies, are encompassed within each core feminist theme. This essay will argue that, despite tensions between its various elements, feminism is indeed a single doctrine.

Firstly, it can be argued that feminism is a single doctrine as it is united within the core theme of ‘patriarchy’. Patriarchy, literally meaning ‘rule by the father’, is a term used by feminists to describe the power relationship between men: the domination of men and the subordination of women within society at large. Feminists have therefore advanced a theory of ‘sexual politics’ in much the same way as socialists have expressed the idea of ‘class politics’. They are also aligned in their belief that sexism is a form of oppression, drawing similarities to racism, although sexual oppression has traditionally been ignored by conventional political thought. Feminist writer Millett, for instance, described ‘patriarchal government’ as an institution wherein ‘half the populace which is female is controlled by that half which is male.’ She also implied that patriarchy is a hierarchic society in her assertion that it consists of two principles: ‘male shall dominate female, elder male shall dominate younger.’

Feminists also agree that the concept of patriarchy is broad: that men have dominated women in all societies, however the form and degree of oppression has varied substantially depending on the culture and time period. In the western world, the position of women in society has been considerably improved over the twentieth century, for example through the achievement of the vote, changes in marriage and divorce law, and the legalisation of abortion. However in certain developing countries, women are still subjected to cruelly oppressive practices such as genital mutilation and the dowry system.

Nonetheless, it can be argued that feminism is fragmented in terms of its analysis of patriarchy. Liberal feminists, for instance, use the term to refer to the unequal distribution of rights within society. The philosophical basis of liberal feminism lies in the principle of individualism, thus leading them to believe that all individuals are entitled to equal treatment and rights. Mary Wollstonecraft, for example, insisted that education be opened up to women, and J.S. Mill argued in favour of equal citizenship and rights. The face of patriarchy, therefore, according to liberal feminists, is the underrepresentation of women in senior positions in public and political life. Socialist feminists, however, view patriarchy from an economic standpoint, believing that it operates in tandem with capitalism, and that gender and class oppression are inevitably linked.

For example, Engels suggested that the ‘bourgeois family’ is patriarchal and oppressive as men wish to ensure that their property will be passed on to their sons. Some socialist feminists have even rejected the concept of ‘patriarchy’ completely on the grounds that gender inequality is merely a consequence of the class system, and therefore capitalism is the only issue. Finally, radical feminist fervently emphasise patriarchy, believing it to be a systematic and institutionalised form of male power which is rooted in the family. Eva Figes’ Patriarchal Attitudes, for example, drew attention to the fact that patriarchal values pervade the culture, philosophy, morality and religion of society, and that in all walks of life, women are portrayed as inferior and subordinate to men.

Overall, it is clear that there are indeed varying paths of thought within the feminist belief in patriarchy, with radical feminism undoubtedly placing the most stress on the issue. However, whilst each ‘strand’ of feminism views patriarchy differently, it could be argued that rather than considering patriarchy as three different entities, they are in fact each observing a different angle of the problem. They are all in agreement, nevertheless, that women are indeed subordinate to men within society, and that this needs to be changed. Therefore, in terms of the core theme of
patriarchy, feminism can be considered a single doctrine.

Secondly, feminism can be considered a single doctrine with regard to the core goal of redefining ‘the political’. Feminists argue that sexual inequality has been preserved because the sexual division of labour within society is thought of as ‘natural’ rather than ‘political’. The ‘public sphere’ of life, comprising for example politics, careers, art and literature, has traditionally been the preserve of men, whilst women have been confined to the ‘private sphere’, centred on the family and domestic responsibilities. Women are, in this effect, excluded from politics, and therefore the question of sexual equality is an issue of little, or no, political importance. Feminists are thus united in their desire to challenge the divide between what Elshtain described as the ‘public man’ and ‘private woman’.

Then again, feminists have differed in their beliefs about what it means to break down the public/private divide, and the way in which this would be achieved. Radical feminists have most enthusiastically put forward the view that the divide should be broken down, asserting that ‘the personal is political’. Female oppression is present in all walks of life and much of it originates from within the family, which has led radical feminists to analyse what is referred to as ‘the politics of everyday life’. This includes the process of conditioning within the family, the distribution of domestic responsibilities, and personal and sexual conduct. This could be solved through an increase in ‘symmetrical families’, wherein roles and responsibilities are shared equally between the husband and wife. However, for some radical feminists, a true breakdown of the public/private divide would imply a transfer of the responsibilities of private life to the state, for example the burden of child-rearing could be relieved by welfare support for families or the provision of crèches at work.

For radical feminists, therefore, a redefinition of the ‘political’ would likely imply severe social change, as the concept of the family which is widely held today would need to be reformed. Socialist feminists have also claimed that that the private sphere is political, however, once again, from an economic perspective. They believe that the confinement of women to the domestic sphere serves the economic interests of capitalism, and some have argued that women constitute a ‘reserve army of labour’, which can be recruited into the workforce when an increase in production is necessary, but easily shed and returned to domestic life during a depression. Therefore, capitalism would need to be overthrown as a socialist feminist means to breaking down the divide. Finally, liberal feminists tend to hold a view which seems to most strongly challenge the general feminist perspective on the issue. Although they object to restrictions on women’s access to education, work and political life, they warn against the dangers of politicising the public sphere, which is a realm of personal choice and individual freedom, according to liberal thought.

Evaluating the above arguments, it is evident that feminists have not always agreed on how to redefine the ‘political’, or how far it is desirable. However, although the means may differ, there is a clear aim: that the political sphere should be opened up to women, whether in the sense of equal rights to education and work, or of a surrender of domestic responsibilities to the state. Therefore, in this regard, feminism can be viewed as a single doctrine.

Finally, it can be reasoned that feminism is a single doctrine as it is cohesive within the core theme of ‘sex and gender’. Within feminism, the term ‘sex’ is used to describe the natural, biological differences between men and women, whereas ‘gender’ refers to the different cultural roles that society ascribes to men and women. Feminists insist that biological differences, such as a woman’s capacity to bear children, do not determine their social position, and that the typical domestic responsibilities of a woman such as looking after the children and the house are culturally constructed.

Whereas patriarchy blurs the distinction between sex and gender, and emphasises the contrasting stereotypes of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’, most feminists believe that sex differences between men and women are in fact relatively minor; at least to the extent that they have no social, political or economic significance. Human nature is thus seen as androgynous, and men and women should be judged as individuals, by the concept of, as described by Mary Wollstonecraft, ‘personhood.’

However, differences do exist with regard to sex and gender, and certain feminists have gone so far as to attack the distinction between the two. ‘Difference feminists’, for example, suggest that there are profound and ineradicable differences between men and women. Some take an ‘essentialist’ stance in that they see social and cultural characteristics as a reflection of deeper biological differences. Difference feminists often take on a ‘pro-woman’ position, which accepts that sex differences (such as the aggressive and competitive nature of men and the creative and empathetic nature of women) have political and social importance. They are a result of hormonal and genetic differences, rather than the structure of society, and therefore to ignore them and idealise androgyny is a mistake.

Women should celebrate their distinctive characteristics, for example, through ‘cultural feminism’, which places an emphasis on women’s crafts, art and literature and experiences that are unique to women. This, as well as opposing the mainstream feminist view of sex and gender, blatantly contradicts the position of ‘equality feminism’, which links ‘difference’ to patriarchy, seeing it as a manifestation of oppression or subordination. Cultural feminism could even be seen to promote the stereotype of ‘femininity’ which is widely condemned by most feminists.

Comparing these arguments, whilst evidently there are certain groups of feminists which completely oppose the notion of gender being simply a social construct, this appears to be the minority. For the most part, liberal, socialists, and certainly radical feminists believe that biological differences are largely irrelevant, and that gender equality is indeed achievable. Therefore, whilst it is difficult to see feminism as a completely cohesive doctrine with respect to its view on sex and gender, it is clear that the majority of feminists are united on the issue.

In summary, we can observe that feminism contains many different components which may cause it to appear fragmented: liberal feminism, which emphasises individualism and is committed to achieving equal access to the public sphere; socialist feminism, which highlights the economic basis for gender inequality; and radical feminism, which claims that sexual inequality is rooted in the private sphere and strives to overthrow patriarchy. Tensions also exist between ‘equality feminism’ and ‘difference feminism’, the latter believing that men and women are irredeemably different. However, on a wider scale, it becomes evident that all the ‘fragments’ of feminism are in fact united by a set of core, underlying beliefs. All feminists fundamentally agree that society is characterised by unequal gender power and status, upheld by patriarchal values and a confinement of women to the private sphere, and that this gender inequality can be altered or reversed. Therefore, in conclusion, feminism is indeed a coherent, single doctrine.

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