Feminism is not a single uniform movement but a diverse multifaceted grouping of ideas and actions. There are different streams of feminisms with sometimes opposing ideologies. The various feminisms, however, share the fundamentals premises that women occupy only an inferior position in society and that they are discriminated on account of their sex. All known societies are patriarchal in nature, which rests upon “the birthright priority of the males upon the females.” Patriarchal ideology sustains the belief that both nature and culture make men superior to women. As a result of the all-pervasive and aggressive patriarchy women have been silenced or marginalized at all times in all places. In the process of socialization women are taught to internalize the reigning patriarchal ideology of male superiority and female submissiveness.
The second major premise of feminism is that the inequality between the sexes is not a biological necessity but a cultural construct. They make a distinction between ‘sex’ (biological) and ‘gender’ (which is the result of social acculturation). Sex refers to the determining of identity on the basis of biological category whereas gender connotes “the cultural meaning attached to sexual identity” (Gender stereotypes). As Simone de Beauvoir famously put it, “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman… it is civilization as a whole that produces this creature… which is described as female”.
The third major premise of feminist criticism is that the masculinist or androcentric ideology has established the literary canon and in the male canonical literature women are seldom represented. In the university syllabi women writers find a place only if they receive the canonical verdict in their favour. Another concern of feminist criticism is that the most highly regarded works of literature have focus on male protagonists and women characters are relegated to subordinate position. (Hamlet, Oedipus, Ulysses, Tom Jones, Huck Finn, Captain Ahab). These works do not contain any autonomous female role models.
In the male canonical literature the admirable male is the energetic hero and the admirable female is the passive Sleeping Beauty. The female characters fall into two categories. They are either the idealized projection of men’s desires (the Madonna, Dante’s Beatrice, the pure innocent virgins, the Angel in the House) or the demonic projections of men’s sexual resentments and terrors (Eve, Pandora, Delilah, Circe, the Witch etc.)
The major concerns of the first wave feminism were equal justice, equal education, widening of access to profession and amendment of existing marriage laws. Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929) and Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1942) are the theoretical texts that set the first wave feminism in motion.
Liberal feminists like Betty Friedan argued that women should seek full political and legal equality and that this would remove their inferior status in society. Liberal feminism rests upon the presupposition that equal participation and equality before law are sufficient to secure freedom. Once this equality has been achieved, freedom should be the inevitable result. Liberal feminists had no way of explaining or rectifying the continued equality of women under the conditions of political equality.
In the twentieth century a number of feminists used Marx’s theories to formulate Marxist/Socialist feminism. They attacked the capitalistic system, which is sexually as well as economically exploitative. Marxism sees class division rather than gender as the root of women’s oppression. It looks upon the private family as the key to women’s oppression. Engels, in his The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1845), argues that the bourgeois family rests on a material foundation of inequality between husband and wife, where the latter is a kind of unpaid prostitute, producing heirs for the transmission of property in exchange for board and lodging. Emancipation of women is possible only through the abolition of bourgeois family, an aim that chimes in well with the aims of radical feminism. For Marxists, much feminism is a bourgeois theory that seeks to reform the system to the advantage of some women, rather than get rid of the system that exploits vast majority of men and women. Nevertheless feminism sees Marxist economic theory as often blind to gender issues and argues that Marxism has yet to explain with reference to the needs of capitalism how women’s oppression seems to exist in all known societies. Juliet Mitchell developed ‘dual-systems theory, the position that women are oppressed not only by capitalism, but also by patriarchy. Nancy Hartsock took Marx’s concept of the proletarian standpoint and used it to develop what she called the ‘feminist standpoint’. She, like Mitchell, argued that women must attack both patriarchy and capitalism to achieve liberation.
Marxist feminism goes beyond liberal feminism in exploring the societal rather than the strictly political and legal roots of women’s subordination. By arguing that it is the structure of patriarchy that oppresses women, it expands the understanding of the causes of women’s oppression. But like liberal feminism, Marxist feminism is still limited to an examination of the objective structures of society. It was only with the advent of the next stages of feminism that feminist thought developed as a critical theory of society. Radical, psychoanalytic and postmodern feminisms explore, although in different ways, how women become ‘women’ in our society.
One of the main themes of this branch of feminism is the effect of the patriarchal system on the oppression of women. Unlike the liberationists, radical feminists believe that male power is at the root of the social construction of gender. They do not believe that the system can be reformed or improved .It must be eradicated, not only at the political and legal level but also at the social and socio-cultural level. Activists such as Ti-Grace Atkinson in Amazon Odyssey (1974) suggest that liberal feminism is “worse than useless” and that an open declaration of war against men and society is the only way out of the present stalemate. A central element of the radical feminist movement was the effort to analyze women’s role in reproduction. Radical feminists turned their attention to the practices surrounding mothering, sexuality and the definition of gender roles. Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics (1970) argues that biology is used as a defence for the ideological domination of man over woman.
Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex (1970) was one of the first clear statements of the radical feminist position. She argued that it is the fact that women bear children and are responsible for raising them that keeps women in a subordinate position. It follows that even if legal, economic and political barriers to women’s equality are removed, women’s status will not change. Women will still be mothers and hence subordinate.
Firestone argued that only if women abandoned the role of mothering altogether could true emancipation be achieved. She thus advocated a form of artificial reproduction -- test-tube babies or ‘parthenogenesis’ (the feminist fantasy of reproduction without male intervention; even though reproductive technology has done much to separate reproduction from sex act, ‘parthenogenesis’ in which ovum reproduces without fertilization from sperm, is not as yet realizable) that many feminists found bizarre and unacceptable.
In almost complete reversal of Firestone’s position, many radical feminists asserted that, far from abandoning motherhood, women should embrace it as a positive good. Mary O’Brien and Adrienne Rich argue that women should redefine mothering as a positive, life-affirming activity rather than the source of women’s oppression. Underlying these arguments is the thesis that it is the cultural creation of the concept of woman and not the biological or the structural forces that define her subordination. Kate Millet, for example, argues that literature is suffused with sexual meanings that demean women. Mary Daly attributes women’s oppression to the institution of Christianity, especially the patriarchal structure of the church.
Radical feminism represents an important juncture in the history of feminist thought. Liberal and Marxist/Socialist feminism focussed on the objective structures of society, law, politics and economics as the cause of women’s oppression. But radical feminists turned the lens of feminism beyond politics and economics to the processes by which cultural life is structured and perpetuated. It also effected a shift in feminist thought from equality to difference. Liberal/Marxist/Socialist feminisms are about equality; i.e. bringing women up to the standard set by men. Equality is here defined in terms of women being equal to men. Radical feminists want to positively affirm woman’s difference and to remove women’s subordination without erasing their difference.
The shift from equality to difference led a number of feminists in the1970’s to psychology to explore this difference. In the late 1970’s two feminist theorists, Dorothy Dinnerstein and Nancy Chodorow asserted that mothers raise boys and girls according to very different patterns (object-relations theory). They asserted that since the difference between men and women is caused by the parenting style of mothers, that difference could be erased by what they called dual parenting. Object-relations theory is not the only psychological theory employed by feminists. Some of them applied Freudian theories and others used the findings of Jacques Lacan. Despite these differences two themes dominate psychoanalytic feminist approaches. For most psychoanalytic feminists, women are, in de Beauvoir’s sense, made rather than born. They argue that the psyche is a social product, thereby shifting the focus from nature and biology to nurture and culture. Second, psychoanalytic feminists emphasize difference rather than equality.
Within the feminist minority there are other significant minorities. The most prominent among them are the black and lesbian feminists. Lesbian feminist critics, along with African-American and Hispanic feminists, repudiated the notion of woman posited by white heterosexual feminists, regarding it as a universalizing of particular privileged interests. They challenge the ethnocentricism of mainstream feminist criticism. As Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has pointed out, the apparently simple identities are not truly self-identical but composed of multiple and contradictory elements. Thus the problems of the female are not the same everywhere in the world.
Elaine Showalter is the most vociferous spokesperson of Anglo-American feminism (as opposed to the French feminism). In her A Literature of Their Own (1977) she argued that the work of women writers had been systematically excluded from the male dominated literary canon and that feminist critics must work to retrieve this history of female literary endeavour. She divided female literary history into three phases: feminine (1840-80) when women writers imitated men; feminist (1880-1920) when women made political protest in their writings, and female (1920-to the present) when women’s writing has become preoccupied with self-discovery. In “Towards a Feminist Poetics” (1979) she coined the term ‘gynocriticism’ to describe the practice whereby the “psychodynamics of female creativity” can be explored and recorded.