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Cultural Feminism: Definition & Overview

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  • 0:03 What is Cultural Feminism?
  • 0:56 Roots in Radical Feminism
  • 1:45 Contributions of…
  • 3:55 Challenges & Criticisms
  • 5:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

In this lesson, we explore a theory of feminism that sees women as special and different. You will examine the roots of this philosophy and weigh its pros and cons.

What Is Cultural Feminism?

Cultural feminism refers to a philosophy that men and women have different approaches to the world around them, and that greater value should be placed on the way women approach the world. In some cases, cultural feminism argues that a woman's way of looking at the world is actually superior to men's. This perspective aims to unite all women, regardless of ethnicity, race, class or age.

The essence of being a woman is what makes women special and different compared to men, according to this view. This female essence includes a greater emphasis on cooperation, relationships and peace, also referred to as an ethic of care. Cultural feminists can either believe that being more nurturing is biologically determined, or they might believe that this trait was taught to them by society, or some combination of both.

Roots in Radical Feminism

Cultural feminism originally evolved from radical feminism. Radical feminism points out that our society is based on an understanding of the world through the eyes of men and not women. Radical feminism believes that the oppression of women goes so deep that it will take a significant overhaul of existing society to make the world more fair to women.

Cultural feminists overlap with radical feminists. However, their solution is not about completely uprooting beliefs about men and women. The movement is about finding ways to make the female essence a more appreciated part of society and using women's special gifts to contribute positively to the world. The belief includes the idea that women in leadership positions would be more likely than men to cultivate a more peaceful, less war-torn world.

Contributions of Cultural Feminism

Some argue this movement has had very positive and lasting impacts to our society. Taking a fresh look at the different experiences of women opened up many insights that were previously overlooked, such as in art, law or medicine, for example.

The argument of cultural feminists points out that it does not always work to treat women the same as men in all situations. Consider what it would be like, for instance, to be told what type of symptoms to expect when you are having a heart attack so you can seek medical attention when appropriate. Now let's say that all of the research on this topic had been done based on members of the opposite sex. No one checked to see if the same rules applied to you and your biology. You could miss signals that would save your life.

This is an example of how some industries, such as the medical field, have missed important details in the past by seeing women as just another version of men. By not researching women as thoroughly, differences between the sexes could be overlooked.

Another positive aspect of cultural feminism, and feminism overall, is the creation of safe spaces for women, including rape crisis centers, shelters and women's centers that help give women a location dedicated to their needs. Women also have been encouraged by cultural feminism to feel that their caregiving responsibilities have made an important contribution to the world. Some forms of feminism emphasize paid work outside the home as a better path for women, but cultural feminists make sure to celebrate the value of the unpaid work women have performed in the home.

The work of cultural feminists also helped to debunk the idea that women's moral development is inferior to a man's. By researching women in action, cultural feminists pointed out the areas where men had assessed women as inferior. In many cases, a woman's approach tended to be different than a man's approach to the same situation. If a man was judging this, he might not appreciate the value of her ways. Even when a woman's approach could offer an even better solution, he might not acknowledge it. This is the problem with men being the standard by which women were judged.

Challenges and Criticism

Some argue that elements of cultural feminism could have very negative side effects.

If women are more likely to have an ethic of care, does that mean that their abilities are different than men? Extending this view, one might conclude that women and men should have different opportunities available to them to match these skills. Men and women might be judged based on how well they fit with the essence of their biological sex.

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