What is Feminist Theory? - Definition & Overview

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Kimberly Moffitt

Kimberly has taught college Sociology and Criminal Justice classes and has a Master's Degree in Criminal Justice.

Expert Contributor
Jennifer Levitas

Jennifer has a Ph.D. in Psychology. She's taught multiple college-level psychology courses and been published in several academic journals.

Do all feminists have the same beliefs about equality? Find out in this lesson, where we'll discuss the different types of feminism, as well as some of the basic feminist ideas. After the lesson, you can test your knowledge with a quiz. Updated: 06/15/2020

What Is Feminist Theory?

Feminist theory, or feminism, is support of equality for women and men. Although all feminists strive for gender equality, there are various ways to approach this theory, including liberal feminism, socialist feminism and radical feminism. Let's take a look at the basic feminist ideas and various approaches to achieving gender equality.

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  • 0:25 Basic Feminist Ideas
  • 1:29 Types of Feminism
  • 4:01 Summary
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Basic Feminist Ideas

Both females and males who identify themselves as feminists disagree on many things. That being said, most feminists agree on five basic principles:

  • Working to increase equality: Feminist thought links ideas to action, insisting we should push for change toward gender equality and not just talk about it.
  • Expanding human choice: Feminists believe that both men and women should have the freedom to develop their human interests and talents, even if those interests and talents conflict with the status quo. For example, if a woman wants to be a mechanic, she should have the right and opportunity to do so.
  • Eliminating gender stratification: Feminists oppose laws and cultural norms that limit income, educational and job opportunities for women.
  • Ending sexual violence & promoting sexual freedom: Feminists feel that women should have control over their sexuality and reproduction.

Types of Feminism

There are three basic forms of feminism: liberal, social and radical feminism. Liberal feminism is rooted in classic liberal thought and believes that individuals should be free to develop their own talents and pursue their own interests.

This approach sees gender inequalities as rooted in the attitudes of our social and cultural institutions. Liberal feminists do not see women's equality as requiring a reorganization of society, but they do seek to expand the rights and opportunities of women.

They focus mainly on protecting equal opportunities for women through legislation. Passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972 was a big step forward for liberal feminist agenda, which in part states that, 'Equality of rights under the law shall not be abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.' To date, 35 states have ratified the amendment; 38 are needed for it to become part of the U.S. Constitution. The 15 states that have not ratified the Equal Rights Amendment include those in the Deep South, Midwest and Southwest and include Florida, Missouri and Nevada.

Socialist feminism evolved from the ideas of Karl Marx, who blamed capitalism for promoting patriarchy by concentrating power in the hands of a small number of men. Socialist feminists believe that the traditional family is based upon a capitalist system, where women stay home and men work. As the main source of women's inequality, the system and traditional family can only be replaced by a socialist revolution that creates a government to meet the needs of the family.

By comparison, radical feminists find the attempts by liberal and socialist feminists to address issues related to gender inequality inadequate. Radical feminists believe that men not only benefit from the exploitation of women but are also responsible for it as well.

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Additional Activities

Feminist Theory Activities

Writing Prompt 1:

The essence of feminist theory is equality between the sexes. A child's upbringing generally has a lot to do with how he or she views this notion. Think about your own upbringing as it relates to feminism. Was feminism celebrated and encouraged, or were women, overtly or covertly, thought of as second-class citizens in your household? Write a journal entry about how you were raised with regard to this topic, and take it a step further to identify whether you want to change the trajectory of your thinking and beliefs. For example, you may have been raised in a small town with a traditional setting, with the unspoken understanding that men were the bread winners and women played a supporting role. Being older and able to think these issues through on your own, you may decide that true equality between the sexes is a just goal, and that you will strive to think and behave in alignment with this notion.

Writing Prompt 2:

When you hear the phrase "liberal feminist," what comes to mind? The lesson defines this term as the belief that women should be able to pursue their own talents and interests, even if it goes against gender role norms. In a two to three paragraph essay, describe how the lesson's definition of this term is different from your previous understanding of it. For example, the phrase may have brought to mind bra-burning and the hating of men, which is quite different than the actual definition of the term. Next, write a persuasive paragraph either supporting or opposing the idea that liberal feminism is a good ideal for which to strive.

Writing Prompt 3:

Three forms of feminism were discussed in the lesson: liberal feminism, socialist feminism, and radical feminism. For this activity, provide an example of how an activist with each of these different orientations may behave. What would be their different goals? How might their demonstrations or protests look different? Write a two to three paragraph essay describing how these forms of feminism would differ in these respects.

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