Feminism, Gender Equality, and Civil Society

I. The History of Feminist Thought

One of the glaring characteristics of the history of political thought is the silence of women’s voices within it. At this point in the text, the reader may have noticed that very few women have been included in the discussion so far. This is because the social and cultural contexts of the Western world in which our philosophical legacy is situated did not recognize the full equality of women. The respect for women’s rights, both philosophically and in political practice, is a relatively recent historical development and is the result of important thinkers and activists who have moved this progress forward. In this chapter, we will approach the exclusion of women as a significant problem for the history of political thought, consider feminist critiques of some influential philosophers, and examine several of the contributions feminist philosophers have made to the ongoing struggle for gender equality in political thinking, political theory, and civil society.

Historically speaking, the struggle for gender equality has been situated in contexts that have required activists to focus on particular political problems. Because of this, the rise of feminist philosophy in the twentieth century can best be understood as a set of phases, or waves, that have each focused on a set of problems and their possible solutions. Early feminism, arising in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was focused primarily on the right to vote as a significant hindrance to equality. The liberal ideal of individual rights and liberties to that point in history had essentially been limited to men, and the first-wave feminists fought to have political rights extended to women.

While legal recognition of women's rights (specifically, voting rights and property rights) was accomplished by first-wave feminism, social and economic inequality continued. This led to feminist theories that challenged structures of oppression that continued to exist despite the achievement of equality in some legal and political forms. Second-wave feminism in the middle and late twentieth century focused on economic and social structures that disadvantaged women, and feminist theory focused on issues such as workplace rights, reproductive rights, and family rights. A set of legal issues was also important for second-wave feminists, including laws about domestic violence, rape, and sexuality. Feminist theory expanded, proliferated, and diversified during this period, and many of the philosophers discussed in this chapter are engaged in debates about these issues.

Third-wave feminism emerged in the 1990s, and its arguments challenge the gender assumptions and class suppositions its advocates find in the theories of earlier feminists. Third-wave feminism is influenced by the postmodern ideas of thinkers like Nietzsche and Foucault and rejects many of the ideas of gender, the body, sexuality, and victimhood its advocates find in earlier feminist thought. Not satisfied with gender essentialism or gender binaries, third-wave feminists instead argue that “man” and “woman” are not natural categories and that the relationship between genders should not exist as a two-option choice.

Third-wave feminism also resists the idea that feminism needs to reject the notion of gender altogether. The recognition that gender is socially constructed can lead to the conclusion that gender should be embraced and celebrated. With the advent of online communities, some activists challenge the idea that feminism requires any particular unified response and instead embrace individual celebrations of gender identity. In this stage of feminism, some have even argued that the notion of "feminism” itself should be rethought or rejected, as should the generational idea of “waves” of feminism.1

Particularly troubling for some recent feminist theorists is that many of the social and political projects of earlier feminist movements have focused on the experience of middle-class white women, where voting and economic equality means freedom only for people who already experienced racial and economic privilege. In more recent feminist philosophy, the ideas presented by its advocates become even more differentiated and diverse, leading to the question of whether these philosophers are continuing the feminist tradition or are engaging in a critical set of arguments that propose something new.

Perhaps most remarkable for feminist theory is how impactful it has been in civil society at the start of the twenty-first century. If there is a fourth wave of feminism, it is occurring right now, with an increased awareness and influence of the ideas of feminist theory in the broader world of society and politics. In 2017, millions of people went online to share their experiences of sexual harassment and oppression with the tagline "#metoo.” Referred to now as the #MeToo movement, exposing and punishing those guilty of gender discrimination, harassment, and violence has become more prevalent. In this movement, the ideas found in feminist theory are applied to call out the patterns and behavior that exist in a society that continues to be dominated by a gender hierarchy.

As feminist theory continues to evolve, and the arguments it makes increasingly influence civil society, it is important to understand the philosophical history and underpinnings of the feminist political project. In the discussion that follows, we aim to highlight significant voices and arguments in feminist thought as they are influenced by the political theories that preceded them. This overview is intended to provide a look at the variety and scope of the dialogue and an understanding of how this dialogue engages the history of political theory that has been presented thus far and continues to push political theorists to think differently about gender.

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