Feminism: A Very Very Short Introduction

Article by Lucy Ryder

Artwork by Indira Falle

Feminism is ‘the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes’. For many, this is synonymous with the oppression and hatred of men. As common as this belief is, it is completely inaccurate! And so, for those of you still reading, I will briefly introduce you to this socio-political movement and hopefully alter any incorrect preconceptions you may have. I will outline the sources of gender inequality, how feminists explore them and the different branches of feminism, all while introducing a few of history’s notable feminists. All I ask is that you read with an open mind and stand ready to quash some stereotypes!

Gender inequality is suggested to come from two sources; primary and secondary socialisation. Primary socialisation is the process by which a family teaches its children social values. This becomes known as canalisation when children are taught gender-specific values. For example, canalisation occurs when girls are given dolls and toy kitchens and boys are given tools and toy cars. This teaches young children gender roles and contributes to the maintenance of the patriarchal society – a system of society in which men exclusively hold power. The patriarchy is then perpetuated by secondary socialisation. This is where the values taught through primary socialisation are either challenged or supported in ‘social institutions’ like schools or friendship groups.

In wider society, evidence of gender inequality is present in a diverse range of sectors from the workplace to the Criminal Justice System (CJS). One of the most obvious forms of gender inequality is the gender pay gap, which was reported as 17.3% in the UK in 2019. In other words, a woman in the UK makes 83p for every £1 made by a man. A more theoretical issue is Double Deviance Theory, in which female offenders are suggested to be treated more harshly in the CJS, as they have broken both the law and the stereotypical female mould. This is countered by the Chivalry Thesis, in which female offenders are suggested to be treated more leniently in the CJS, as they are subject to more empathy than men. Both of these theories are from the feminist perspective, as they involve the unequal treatment of women. Phenomena involving gender inequality are often investigated by feminist sociologists and protested against by feminist activists of any gender.

Within feminism, there are different branches; radical feminism, Marxist and Socialist feminism, cultural feminism and liberal feminism. Each branch holds the core beliefs about gender inequality, however, they differ on its specific source and how it should be eradicated:

Radical feminism is the most extreme branch of feminism, which also receives the most media attention. Indeed, it has been suggested that this branch is the easiest to misinterpret and misquote. It is the belief that the system of gender promotes the oppression of women and must therefore be dismantled in order for a state of equality to be achieved. Radical feminists believe that the family unit as we know it makes equality impossible and must be altered significantly.

Marxist and Socialist feminism is the belief that women are oppressed not only by the patriarchy, but also by capitalism. This focuses on the exploitation of working-class women both in the home and the workplace. Marxist and Socialist feminists believe that capitalism and the exploitation of women within the family must be dismantled in order for gender equality to exist.

Cultural feminism is the belief that male behaviour is often valued over female behaviour. In order to counteract this, women and men should be treated with equal respect, but not exactly the same. Cultural feminism teaches that biological and social differences between men and women should be celebrated rather than eradicated. For example, instead of dismantling the family unit, the role of women in domestic labour and childcare should be better appreciated in society as a whole.

Finally, liberal feminism is the belief that the oppression of women has lessened due to legal and social reforms such as the Sex Discrimination Act (1975). Instead of dismantling social institutions such as the family, the system of democracy and individual rights should continue to be used to reach a state of equality. This is one of the most common branches of feminism.

As Emma Watson says, ‘Feminism is not here to dictate to you. It’s not prescriptive, it’s not dogmatic. All we are here to do is give you a choice’. A common misconception is that feminism aims to reduce the power of men and promote female superiority. However, even the most extreme of the branches above does not hold this belief. If the term ‘feminism’  is still jarring to your eyes and ears due to the connotations of ‘feminine’ and ‘female’, then its origin is worth exploring. The term first rose to popularity during the early 1900s with the seeds of the Suffrage movement. As the issue of gender discrimination predominantly affected women in this era, the fight for gender equality was inherently established as the fight to give women equal rights to men. Fundamentally, the fact that ‘feminism’ has a feminine Latin root does not limit the position of feminist to women.

In fact, notable modern feminists such as John Legend and Chris Hemsworth say, ‘all men should be feminists’. Hemsworth summarises the contemporary feminist belief as believing in equality ‘regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation… We should all have the same opportunities’. More frankly, Watson comments, ‘If you stand for equality, then you’re a feminist. Sorry to tell you’. This belief has been shared throughout history by figures such as Ida B. Wells and Emmeline Pankhurst. Regardless of the ‘man-hater’ label, the above description is simply what feminism is, as a socio-political worldview and movement.

And that’s not to say that feminism is without its critics. Many have said that the movement has become a commercial tool and lost its meaning, or that the connotations of the term ‘feminism’ overpower its literal meaning. Wherever you may fall on the issue, it is important to be educated on what you are supporting or opposing. And so, in the spirit of a very very short introduction, I’ll leave you to make up your own mind.

Educational Resources and Further Reading: