Feminist Theory

The different feminist theories walk into a bar…

Okay, for the sake of this thought experiment, it’s not a bar. It’s an office boardroom. Or, more accurately, different feminists try to walk into a boardroom. To their dismay, there is a group of cackling men inside the boardroom: they have locked the door and have hung up a sign in the window that says: boys rule, girls drool! The fine print below their slogan is very legally binding legalisation that lays out the new rules: women are not allowed in the boardroom and will not be granted a seat at the table. And, for an extra bit of fun (because they can), if a woman does try to open the door to the boardroom and come inside, the men are legally allowed to boo. Very loudly. And then kick them out. 

Reasonably, the feminists standing outside the room are incensed.

They all agree that this is wrong and oppressive. They all agree that something has to be done and action needs to be taken! But they’re not as unified on the why and the how. 

We’d like to believe that feminists are a unified group of people fighting for the same goals. This is true to a large extent. Feminists fight for inclusion, equality, participation in society, equity, protection, and equal rights both at home and in public. They stand against gendered exclusion, oppression, violence, harm, and discrimination based on gender. But feminists also have many different ideas of what society should look like and how we should get there.

Back outside the boardroom, the Liberal Feminist is the first to speak up.

She feels that she has been excluded from the boardroom because the men inside do not think that she is capable of meaningfully contributing. The men have determined that she is inferior due to her sex and, therefore, does not deserve a seat at the table. But she knows differently! She will not be reduced to her sex. Just as a man is capable of many things, she is capable of exactly the same. Barring her from the boardroom is wrong precisely because she is not inferior to men but equal. She should be able to do exactly what the men inside the boardroom are doing.

The liberal feminist looks at the sign hanging on the door. She knows what she needs to do: she needs to overturn the ruling that girls drool while boys rule by gaining the legally binding right to access the boardroom for herself. If the legalisation says she has the right to be in the boardroom, men cannot bar her from it ever again. Once her access to the room is secured, she can prove that she is just as capable as the men inside. And while she’s at it, maybe she can set up a few quotas to secure seats at the table for capable women. She just needs the men to stop booing first… Maybe if she really proves herself to be their equal, they’ll surely stop! 

Liberal feminism, at its core, seeks to achieve equality between men and women by securing women the same rights that men have granted themselves.

Liberal feminists fight to gain equal rights and representation through legislative change. For liberal feminists, liberation is achieved when women are able to freely choose how they want to live their lives, same as men, and we get there by granting women equal rights to men. By normalising women taking up the same positions and choices as men, liberal feminism maintains that the cultural attitude will change until there is also social equality in society. 

Meanwhile, the Radical Feminist has no intentions of joining the boardroom.

Frankly, she has no interest in joining their ranks or gaining a seat at their table. If that boardroom gave those men the security and entitlement to exclude and oppress people, she feels it would only reinforce that behaviour to take a seat alongside them. What good is being on equal standing to those men, being at their table, if it only emboldens their behaviours and beliefs? She certainly does not want to try to convince the men in that boardroom that she is also capable or deserving of sitting at that table. No, the boardroom has to go completely. And while she’s at it, so does everything that built it. 

Radical feminism views society fundamentally as a patriarchy, where male supremacy creates and maintains gendered inequality, oppression, violence and abuse.

The goal of radical feminism is not to gain equal rights in the patriarchy; as those “equal rights” would continue to exist within the patriarchy and would only sustain inequality and oppression, this theory argues that this is not a desirable or possible goal. Radical feminists ask the question: equal rights to whom? They argue that gaining equal rights to men within an unchallenged patriarchal system is harmful and near impossible. These feminists call for a radical restructuring of society where male supremacy is eliminated, hence the reputation that these feminists can be extreme and controversial. Radical feminism challenges behaviours, attitudes and social institutions that they feel prop up and fuel the patriarchy, thereby hoping to achieve gender liberation by eliminating the patriarchy at its source. 

Back outside the boardroom, the Intersectional Feminist is taking some more time to observe the situation.

While they watch their peers jump to indignation and anger, they know that their experience outside that boardroom is different to the liberal feminist’s experience. This is not the first boardroom that they have been excluded from, and frankly, they know that they have not been excluded from this boardroom because of their gender alone. Their identity is much more expansive than their gender, and they have felt exclusion and deep discrimination for other parts of their identity as well: their race, their class, and their sexual identity… these all overlap with the gendered discrimination they face.

The intersectional feminist wants to sit at a table where they are equally respected, protected and seen as all others also sitting around the table. But they know it won’t happen at the table in the boardroom currently barred from them – that respect and liberation will not come from sitting at a table that allows any form of discrimination and oppression, regardless of whether men or women occupy its seats. They need to build a new table and a new boardroom that advocates for all women and marginalised genders – one that recognises the full experiences of their identities. 

‘Intersectionality’ describes how people with marginalised identities experience a distinct form of discrimination that is based on the interplay of their identities.

The origins of intersectional feminism are anti-racist; there was a need for recognition that Black and marginalised women experience oppression and inequality differently than white women. The theory of intersectionality has grown to address many intersecting aspects of identity. Intersectional feminism reflects the interplay between discrimination based on gender, race, class, ability, socioeconomic status, religion and sexual identity. Intersectional feminism challenges the idea that women’s liberation comes from striving for equality with men, especially white men. Equality with men in a system where there continues to be racial discrimination, for example, is not liberation; the exercise of power needs to be challenged until there is no more oppression. The patriarchy does not exist in a vacuum and gendered oppression interacts with many oppressive structures and systems. So, intersectional feminism seeks to target these systems of oppression. 

Finally, the Socialist Feminist is much more bothered than their peers about the setting of the exclusion; of course, the men would be barring them specifically from a boardroom.

The socialist feminist knows that it has never been just about exclusion based on gender; this is also a class conflict. By keeping women and marginalised genders out of the boardroom, men are excluding them from meaningfully engaging with the economy. They cannot sit in the boardroom, but the men will certainly exploit them for their labour. They are trapped in an office symbolic of the unequal forces of capitalism and patriarchy. To achieve gendered liberation, they first need to reject the boardroom and then get out of that building as fast as they can. Liberation will not be found within the confines of existing labour systems. They nudge their friend, the intersectional feminist… talk about a system of oppression.  

Capitalism and patriarchy trap women and marginalised genders in a vicious cycle: capitalism exacerbates the harmful gender roles put into place by the patriarchy, and the patriarchy maintains the structures that allow capitalism to thrive and reinforce itself.

Gender liberation cannot be achieved without the dismantling of capitalism. Similarly, capitalism cannot be dismantled, and socialist liberation cannot be achieved, without acknowledging gendered oppression in society. These feminists are concerned with the unpaid domestic labour of women, how women reproduce the labour force through child-rearing and the exploitation of women as free and cheap labour. Their agenda for women’s liberation is to first tackle capitalism and then perhaps create a classless society. 

All four of our feminists agree that the current situation, the exclusion from the boardroom, is a problem that has to be tackled.

And as friends and allies to each other, they don’t need to act separately. Their perspectives and agendas can overlap and a feminist’s ideology and practice is often a blend of these theories. The different ways of thinking about gender prove that feminism, just like the women it seeks to liberate, is complex and personal. Our expressions of feminism often begin with our personal experiences of exclusion: what boardrooms have you been kept out of and what have you wanted to do about it?  

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