Professor Marshall

LESSON 9: Feminist Theory

Envisioning Feminist Theory

By definition, using a feminist lens requires us to ask the main question: How is social life experienced by different genders?

Feminist theories can be used in either macro or a micro points of view--this means that, unlike our first major theories (functional, conflict and interactionism) feminist theories can use a structural or an agentic approach to society and what makes society tick.

The Macro Feminist Theory Perspective

Macro Feminist theories would also assert to us that if something is not functioning, gender groups whose needs aren't being met will compete with those gender groups in power to change the system. In other words, THE GENDER WITH THE MOST TOYS WINS. The answers to the two key questions:

  1. How do we exist? Feminist macro/conflict theory rests on the notion that things are NOT working in a balanced state via an examination of gender. This theory explains social reality in terms of unequal access to scarce social resources dependent on gender--whatever those resources are. We could be competing for power, status, employment, shelter, food, etc.
  2. How do we change? Feminist macro/conflict theory tells us that a revolutionary process will force changes to a gender imbalanced society--further, we must intervene to make these changes happen. This requires the disadvantaged gender to have an awareness of their standing and to band together to change society so that systems and structures are "fairer" to all members of society. This "revolution" will cause society to become a better place

Early feminist theory relied very heavily on conflict theory as a foundation, and therefore was MACRO in orientation, which means the focus is on the structure and systems of society and their impacts on the individual. Contemporary advances in feminist theory have expanded to include a MICRO orientation, which means the focus is on the the individual and how smaller group interactions change the structure of society.

The Micro Feminist Theory Perspective

Micro Feminist theories want us to see society and its structures as changing due to the interactions of individuals. This theory rests on the notion that PERCEPTION OF GENDER IS REALITY. The answers to the two key questions:

  1. How do we exist? Feminist micro/interaction theory suggests that shared meanings based on gendered experiences allows society to exist. These experiences are often the result of symbols which are heavily weighted with regard to gender.
  2. How do we change? This theory states that reality can only be negotiated and changed when we agree on what symbols mean, and use them to advance our understandings of social reality. This requires the genders to have an understanding of how their interactions with same and opposing sexes impact the individual, and also how the individual and small groups can have an impact on how we see gender in society.

Remember that this is a MICRO theory, which means the focus is on the the individual and how smaller group interactions change the structure of society.

Now, let's review some of the historical concepts which lay the foundation for contemporary feminist theory. This Lesson is structured in three sections. The first part deals with the historical significance of feminist theory, the second deals with the emergence of the modern women's movement, and the third introduces us to the main contemporary interpretations of feminist theory.

Historical Interpretations

Clarifying Feminism and Feminist Theory


There are strong connections between the concept of feminism and theories which are feminist in origin. While the two ideas are closely related, they are also different:

Feminism versus Feminist Theory


First Wave: 1848-1920

The first mentions of feminism within American society came in the late 1700s, and these early writings and ideas were often tied to a woman's place in society. In the US, the first wave of feminism was concerned with women's right to vote (called suffrage). This wave was considered the foundation from which all other movements have arisen. In 1848, a convention was held (the Seneca Falls Convention) which was the first women's right convention in history. The idea for this convention came from 1840, where a few forward thinking women had attended the World's Anti-Slavery Convention in London as delegates along with their husbands. At the meeting, the women were deemed "constitutionally unfit for public and business meetings," and sent to a segregated women's section; the men were permitted to speak, the women were not. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott sat in the segregated area discussing the idea of holding a mass meeting to address the rights of women. Both were committed to the cause of abolition of slavery; their experience in working for freedom in one arena seemed to solidify their sense that full human rights must also be extended to women.

In 1848 the idea of a women's rights convention turned into plans, and Seneca Falls became a reality. The first suffragists were interested in the anti-slavery issue, and women's rights. They decided a convention to discuss the social, civil and religious condition and rights of woman was in order. The five original suffragists worked to prepare an agenda and a document to be considered for passage at their convention. Even though the convention had only been publicized in a small, local paper in the Seneca Falls area, on the first day of the Seneca Falls convention, over 300 people attended-- 40 of the participants at Seneca Falls were men, and the women quickly made the decision to allow them to participate fully, even in the first day which had been meant to be "exclusively" for women.

The first day of the Seneca Falls convention began with discussion of the prepared Declaration of Sentiments. Amendments were proposed and some were adopted. On the second day, ten of the eleven resolutions passed quickly. The resolution on voting, however, saw more opposition and resistance. Elizabeth Cady Stanton continued to defend that resolution, but its passage was in doubt until an ardent speech by ex-slave and newspaper owner, Frederick Douglass, on its behalf. The closing of the second day included readings of Blackstone's Commentaries on the status of women, and speeches by several including Frederick Douglass.

Even though the convention only lasted two days, the story of Seneca Falls wasn't over. Newspapers reacted with articles mocking the convention, some printing the Declaration of Sentiments in its entirety because they thought it was ridiculous. As a result of the criticisms, some of the attendees asked to have their names removed from the declaration.

The focus of the first wave was to become a woman's right to vote, which would eventually happen in 1920, with the passage of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution. Along with the right to vote, these early suffragists worked on education reform, issues in the workplace and professions, and health care issues for women.

Second Wave: 1960- 1990

We think of the second wave as a movement that was a part of US history, but it is wise to note that this movement was worldwide.

The second wave of feminism occurred in the 1960s and is said to have "ended" in the late 1980s. It was also tied to a woman's place in society, and picked up the fight for Equal Rights where the first wave left off. In the US, the second wave opened new avenues to the discussion of women's rights. Where the first wave was mainly focused on voting rights for women, the second wave had many concerns: sexuality, family, the workplace, reproductive rights, and de facto and legal inequalities. There was also, for the first time in the US, a discussion about marital rape, family violence, and custody and divorce laws.

Why did the second wave happen when it did? Theorists think that the second wave was a result of issues surrounding WWII and men returning to America after the war. During the war many women had, for the first time in modern America, been the main breadwinners in their homes. They had taken jobs outside the home, raised families, and learned to be self-sufficient. Once the men returned and went back into the workplace, it was assumed that women would go back into the home and retake the role of "housewife." In short time however women began to think of being at home as limiting to their possibilities and began to view their role as "housewife" as somewhat degrading. It was the early 1960s, and the second wave had begun. This feeling of dissatisfaction was coupled with President Kennedy's Commission on the Status of Women's report on gender inequality, which showed significant discriminations against women in the workplace. The report (along with the movement's credited founder, Betty Freidan) ushered in the Equal Pay Act of 1963, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the extension of affirmative action rights to women, the Women's Educational Equity Act of 1972 and 1974, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, and the foundation of the National Organization for Women (NOW).

These two waves of feminism laid the foundation for contemporary feminism, the third wave.

Third Wave: 1990 - present

Third wave feminism overlaps with second wave feminism, with both existing in the 1990s. The third wave formed as a response to some of the issues surrounding the second wave, primarily related to class and race. Third wave feminists, as first and second wave feminists, embrace change, however, the third wave has expanded feminist views of diversity to include the realization that women are of many diverse backgrounds, races, ethnicities and religions. In this respect, the third wave may be viewed as less organized under a single cause (as were the first and second waves). Third wave feminist seek to expand our definitions of what it means to be women in society, and third wavers concentrate more on a postmodern interpretation of femininity. Where the second wave presumed what is "good" for all women, the third wave focuses less on structural issues, and more on micro level interpretations of woman-ness.

Third wave feminists prefer to allow women to have active and individual definitions of what it means to be a feminist, and some might view this as a problem as the movement would appear to be less organized than movements of the past.

By the early 1990s, people began to believe that the movement had met its goals, and the movement subsided. While the movement went a long way toward acknowledging equal rights, there is still a long way to go. It is also important to understand the shortcomings of the second wave (primarily issues related to race and class) which helped to instigate movement toward the third wave. Some of the issues that have become prominent in the third wave are gender violence, reproduction, and issues related to race, class and gender. In this respect, the roots of the third wave are firmly planted in the two previous waves. In addition to these core issues, third wave feminists have attempted to reclaim and "rebrand" discourse and discussions--taking on social conceptions of words such as "slut," "whore," and "bitch" to redefine these words in their own, powerful and meaningful ways.

These three waves of feminism in the United States went hand-in-hand with developments in feminist theory. Taking a historical view of feminist thought via the primary social theories helps us to see how feminist theory has developed in the field of sociology.

Feminist Theory

By using the major theories we've explored throughout these lessons, we can see how feminist theory has progressed alongside the development of general sociological theory.

Functionalism and Feminist Theory:

Conflict and Feminist Theory:

These two theories can be considered a part of the historical emergence of contemporary feminist theories, meaning that the ideas that we had about gender equality "back in the day" was a foundation for the contemporary path which feminist theory has taken.

Contemporary Interpretations

With the recognition of sociology as an academic discipline, and the importance of our major theoretical stances, it was only a matter of time before feminist theory emerged as a serious and robust way to interpret micro level social experiences.

Since the mid-1980s, feminist theory has taken on a multicultural, inclusive approach.

The Multicultural Feminist Movement

The women who formed the multicultural feminist movement in the 1960s wanted all of us to acknowledge:

  • The idea that "woman" is not ONE category
  • The idea that all women do not share the same life experiences.

Feminist researchers sought to help us see that the experiences of poor, black, lesbian or disabled women were different from those of middle-class white women (the "original" second wave feminists). Multicultural feminist researchers (MFR) showed us how race, class, and gender combine to set women on a path--a destiny which is often outside of our control. Prior to work in this area, there was no sociological theory which addressed the realities of people who were subjected to multiple forms of subordination.

Multiculturalism is a way of thinking--a philosophy--about ways to respond to cultural diversity. In the US, this is a social and political movement that recognizes group differences as a way to strengthen the power of marginalized people. The multicultural movement includes group rights (such as the rights of Native Americans) and individual minority rights (such as an individual who is granted an exemption from a draft due to religious beliefs). This term is often used as an "umbrella" term which encompasses the rights of many politically and socially disadvantaged groups: African Americans, gays and lesbians, women and the disabled. Immigrants (such as migrant farm workers) and religious groups (Muslims in the west) are also included.

The definition of multiculturalism depends on context: how is the term being used? The concept is also changing as more people have their voices heard ("Didja..." 2012). Multiculturalism values the diverse opinions, perspectives and experiences that people have regarding their own social realities. Experiences related to race, gender, class, and sexual orientation are highlighted in research that uses a multicultural approach and often the concepts of equality and respect are the foundations of multicultural discussion.  


Intersectionality suggests that expressions of oppression are interdependent--they work together and reinforce one another. For example, we must examine socialization processes, class structures, social constructions (gender, race), and social institutions (education, government, family, religion, etc.) to fully understand how oppression is experienced. For example, knowing an African American lives in a racist society is not enough information to describe that person's experiences--it is also necessary to know that person's gender, class, sexual orientation AND society's attitude toward each of these things.... These things ADD UP to create the lived experience of an oppressed individual--taken alone, each does not give us a complete picture. Taken together, we begin to see how intersectionality FRAMES the lives of minorities and other disenfranchised groups.

While this line of thinking originated in the research of oppression of women in society, it is used by sociologists today to describe the experiences of many different marginalizes groups. It began in the late 1960s as a response to the multiracial feminist movement and became a significant "lens" through which up and coming feminist researchers could examine social reality as well as through which new research could be presented. It highlighted the shortcomings of early feminist thought in that it finally gave voice to groups who had not been heard in feminist research in the US. It also challenged the notion that "gender" is the primary determining factor in the realities of women's social experiences. Perhaps, this idea asserts, race, age, and other factors have equal (an multiplicative) impacts.

In addition, feminist theorist have continued to develop their thoughts about how statuses and identifications impact experiences; this line of thinking is called "intersectionality." Intersectionality is an important theoretical advance, not only for feminist theory, but for general sociology, cultural studies and anthropology. The earliest mention was by Kimberle Crenshaw (a prominent law professor who has researched impacts of myriad "isms" in her career) in 1989, who coined the term. While intersectionality itself is a theory, it can be used as a method to highlight the relationships we have with others which are often summarized by social and cultural categories beyond individual control (race, class, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) These multiple identities contribute to social inequality and to oppression. Further, intersectionality highlights how forms of oppression (racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.) do not exist independent of each other--they exist in an interrelated way which creates INTERSECTIONS in the system of oppression.

This concept was further explored by Patricia Hill Collins in the 1990s, who crafted the "Matrix of Domination" to illustrate how intersectionality works as a system of oppression:

Matrix of Domination

Collins reintroduced us to ideas surrounding oppression in her work on black feminism. Intersectionality replaced her previously coined expression "black feminist thought," and opened the doors for her work to be applicable not only to African American women, but to all women. While all factors of oppression are important to note (sexual orientation, age, gender, etc.), Collins and other multicultural feminist researchers would assert that race is at the "crossroad" of oppression. Understanding this important concepts is a necessary component to improving social and political equity in our institutions.

Reviewing the Key Concepts of Intersectionality

  • The interlocking matrix of oppression - how differences serve as oppressive measures toward females and ultimately change their experiences of women living in society today.
  • Standpoint - recognizing that knowledge is distinct and individual--it varies depending on the social conditions under which is was created/produced. Our standpoints are our own, and researchers must understand, acknowledge and appreciate individual standpoints are relevant and real.
  • The Outsider Within - This is a standpoint that recognizes the experiences of the oppressed minorities of society as having to "fit into" a culture which is not theirs. This gives the individual of a feeling of "one foot in and one foot out" of their social world. It is closely related to W.E.B. Du Bois' concept of "double consciousness."
    • Double Consciousness: WEB Du Bois (lived in the 1800s-early 1900s and is considered one of the first American social theorists to explore the experiences of African Americans in society) coined this term to describe the reality of black people who are forced to have a "place" in two worlds--one white and one black. He expressed that minorities are forced to integrate to the world of the dominant group while also attempting to live within their own culture. He called this dual world existence "code switching," meaning that African Americans learn to act one way among their own group and another way in white society. Note the time period in which Du Bois made his observations--Collins reinterprets Du Bois' work on the oppression of African Americans to show how women are oppressed in contemporary America.
  • Resisting Oppression - Domination always involves objectification (being defined by others as an object). Resistance to this form of oppression requires one to evaluate one's self and to define one's own reality. This preserves the view of self as important and self-aware and helps one to avoid being dehumanized by oppressive influences. While research on marginalized groups often begins with the notion of "otherness," at some point, the gained group status must be claimed and reinterpreted by the individual. If group otherness is allowed to flourish, stereotypes and misrepresentation is bound to occur. At this point, individual psychological oppression happens. Having a strong sense of self-worth and a solid self-definition is a form of oppression resistance which helps to overcome these generalizations.

Unlike the early sociologists, feminist researchers have stressed the importance of the researcher as an active part of the research process.

Early and Feminist Theory

This line of thinking has resulted in some interesting theoretical and methodological advances. One of the leading theorists in this area is Dorothy Smith, whose STANDPOINT METHOD has become a mainstay of feminist, interactionist and phenomenological research projects:


While Feminist theory relies on some of the other major theories for its foundations, it brings a distinct, definitive point of view to how we study groups and society in general. Without a conversation about how gender impacts our experiences, we miss how ALL people act and interact. While some people who aren't familiar with feminist thought balk at the notion of being identified as "Feminists" or "Feminist Theorists," it is a good idea to be in the practice of examining social reality from a gendered perspective. To neglect to do so only masks the "good, bad and ugly" experiences of us all.