Judith Butler on Feminism: Theory & Overview

Instructor: Robin Harley

Robin has a PhD in health psychology. She has taught undergraduate and graduate psychology, health science, and health education.

Judith Butler is an American gender theorist whose writing has influenced our understanding of feminism and gender identity. In this lesson, we will define feminism and discuss Butler's perspectives.

What is Feminism?

What do you picture when you think of the word 'feminism'? Because the term is so broad, it might mean one thing to you and something else entirely to another person. You might think of the popular song lyric 'I am woman, hear me roar,' or the muscular image of Rosie the Riveter. In this lesson, we will discuss the perspectives and work of an influential American gender theorist named Judith Butler. First, however, let's define feminism and discuss its evolution in order to fully appreciate Butler's unique viewpoint.

Feminism is a very broad set of ideologies and movements that focuses on defining and achieving social, economic, and political equality for women. The term was coined in 1837 by a French philosopher named Charles Fourier and has undergone a great deal of change since then. There has been much debate about which historical movements and events would fall under the umbrella of feminism, but it's been generally agreed upon that Western feminism occurred in three waves throughout history.

First-wave feminism occurred during the 19th and early 20th centuries and was prominent in the U.S. and the U.K. Activists focused on women's suffrage, or equal voting rights, as well as equality in marriage, sexuality, property ownership, and economic matters.

Second-wave feminism began in the U.S. in the 1960s, and it soon spread throughout the world. While the first wave focused on more basic property and voting rights, this new movement drew attention to the cultural and social arenas, including reproductive rights, family issues, domestic violence, and workplace equality. This movement was heavily criticized for paying more attention to upper-class white women than to other groups.

Third-wave feminism is the most recent movement that began in the 1990s in the U.S. It addresses the limitations of the second movement by giving more attention to non-white ethnic groups. This movement challenges definitions of gender and promotes sexuality as female empowerment.

Judith Butler on Feminism

Judith Butler is an American gender theorist and professor of comparative literature and rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley. Since 1988, she has written many books and articles on feminism, gender theory, philosophy, and culture. Here we will focus on her ideas about feminism and gender, particularly those presented in her most well-known book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. In this work, she challenged the existing feminist model in terms of how it has defined the female gender.

Judith Butler
Judith Butler

Butler states that, historically, feminism (and the world at large) has viewed gender in a binary fashion. In other words, humans are typically divided into two distinct categories: men and women. She argues against these binary categories, stating that gender should be seen as a human attribute that shifts and changes rather than remaining fixed. She contends that women have been lumped together in a group with shared characteristics and interests, and this limits their ability to choose their own unique identities.

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