Feminist Theory

--What is feminism?

Feminism is both an intellectual commitment and a political movement that seeks justice for women and the end of sexism in all forms. However, there are many different kinds of feminism. Feminists disagree about what sexism consists in, and what exactly ought to be done about it; they disagree about what it means to be a woman or a man and what social and political implications gender has or should have. Nonetheless, motivated by the quest for social justice, feminist inquiry provides a wide range of perspectives on social, cultural, and political phenomena. Important topics for feminist theory and politics include: the body, class and work, disability, the family, globalization, human rights, popular culture, race and racism, reproduction, science, the self, sex work, and sexuality


--What is gender? How is it produced? How is it different from sexuality or sexual difference or sexual orientation?

--What is patriarchy? Sexism? Male chauvinism?

--What is phallocentrism? The phallus? Phallogocentrism?

--What is significance for feminism of: heterosexuality/homosexuality/queer studies?

--Freudian issues: castration, penis envy, oedipus complex and its resolution.


--Difference between western and 3d world feminism.

--What is womanism? Response to criticism re race? Is it also relevant to Africa?

--stages in feminism, for west, for africa? Why stages? How link west and Africa w/r/t stages?

--de Beauvoir, a woman is made/constructed,  not born


It is important to remember that 1950 is only five years into a campaign to encourage women to return to home and hearth, leaving the jobs they had taken on as part of the war effort.[1] As one telling example, consider Adlai Stevenson's 1955 address to the Smith College graduating class urging these educated women not to define themselves by a profession but to participate in politics through the role of wife and mother. While McCarthyism rooted out political subversion, science and the media worked to instill proper gender roles. A 1956 Life magazine published interviews with five male psychiatrists who argued that female ambition was the root of mental illness in wives, emotional upsets in husbands, and homosexuality in boys.


First in the South and eventually everywhere in this country, women were involved in these struggles. Some white women learned the degree to which black women were worse off than they were, or than black men. White and black women learned what the minority of women active in the organized labor movement had learned much earlier: that women were typically excluded from policy-making leadership roles of even the most radical movement, a lesson that would have to be relearned again and again in the political and peace campaigns of the late sixties. The National Organization for Women forms in 1966, petitioning to stop sex segregation of want ads and one year later to request federally funded childcare centers. By 1968 NOW begins to focus on legalizing abortion. In 1967 Eugene McCarthy introduces the Equal Rights Amendment in the Senate. In 1968 feminists in New York protest the Miss America pageant and crown a live sheep as Miss America and set up a ‘freedom trashcan’ in which to dispose of oppressive symbols, including bras, girdles, wigs, and false eyelashes. (Although there was no fire, it was this symbolic protest that the media transformed into the infamous ‘bra burning’ incident.) The Stonewall riot in 1969 marks the beginning of the gay and lesbian rights movement.


In 1970 the San Francisco Women's Liberation Front invades a CBS stockholders meeting to demand changes in how the network portrays women, and a model affirmative action plan is published by NOW and submitted to the Labor Department. In this same year three key texts of the U.S. feminist movement are published: Shulamith Firestone's The Dialectic of Sex; Kate Millett's Sexual Politics; and Robin Morgan's Sisterhood is Powerful. In 1970 a press conference headed by women's movement leaders Gloria Steinem, Ti-Grace Atkinson, Flo Kennedy, Sally Kempton, Susan Brownmiller, Ivy Bottini, and Dolores Alexander expressed solidarity with the struggles of gays and lesbians to attain liberation in a sexist society. However, in 1971, at a Women's National Abortion conference, while adopting demands for repeal of all abortion laws, for no restrictions on contraceptives, and taking a stance against forced sterilization, the group votes down a demand for freedom of sexual expression, causing many in the audience to walk out in protest and seeding the development of a separatist movement within the feminist movement

1980s  90s

The second wave of the women’s movement turned out differently. It did not narrow ideologically, nor did it run into any dead end, as its predecessor had. If anything over time the radical currents within the movement gained influence; women who had entered the movement thinking that women’s equality would not require major social changes tended to become convinced that gender inequality was linked to other dimensions of inequality, especially class and race. The women’s movement declined, in the eighties and nineties, mostly because the constituency on which it had been largely based, young, mostly white, middle-class women, gradually put political activity behind them. These women were beneficiaries of, what John Kenneth Galbraith has called, the “culture of contentment” of the eighties and nineties. The emergence of the second wave of feminism in the United States, was connected to a transformation of the economy that was drawing women into the labor force on a permanent basis. Before the Second World War few women worked outside the home after marrying and having children; most of the few who did were blacks or immigrants. The middle class set the cultural standard: marriage meant domesticity for women. Working-class people, including immigrant groups, strove to attain this idea. The postwar United States was suddenly prosperous. The struggles of the thirties (and the fear that those struggles might continue once the war was over) helped to prompt the creation of a large welfare state bureaucracy and a wide array of social services. This brought new jobs, mostly white-collar jobs. Prosperity also led to a massive economic expansion and to the creation of many white-collar jobs in the private sector as well. Many of these jobs required some higher education. By the late fifties many women—mostly white middle-class women with some college education—were taking such jobs, partly because there were not enough men to take them, partly because many families and women needed more income, and partly because some women were tired of domesticity and wanted jobs. In the sixties, these trends accelerated. By the seventies it became clear that it was not only middle-class but also working-class women who were in the labor force for good. Meanwhile, during the fifties and sixties, higher education had expanded dramatically, and women, mostly white middle-class women, had begun attending colleges and universities in large numbers. College and university degrees gave expanding numbers of young women the credentials they needed in order to get the jobs that were becoming available. Colleges and universities also provided the arenas that young women needed to form bonds with each other, to develop a new female consciousness and a feminist movement. The movements of the sixties, despite their problems of sexism, provided a supportive environment for the development of a radical women’s consciousness and a movement that demanded women’s equality and linked it to demands for class and racial equality. Women civil rights activists, prompted by the parallel between the oppression of blacks and that of women, were the first to develop a feminist perspective. The antiwar movement on northern campuses provided a supportive environment for the growth of a large and radical feminist movement. For women, working for wages outside the home has become the norm. This, in combination with feminist pressure for greater gender equality on all levels of society, has transformed the lives of U.S. women as well as the very structure of U.S. society. The feminist goal of gender equality has not been achieved; not only do women still earn less than men, but in the ranks of the poor, single women and their children have come to predominate. The prejudices that discourage women from entering traditionally male fields remain and violence against women persists. Though the nuclear family of the forties and fifties was based on male supremacy, the increasing instability of family life has hardly been a blessing for women. But women’s equality has become a publicly accepted principle. Glaring deviations from this principle are open to challenge, and very large numbers of women are ready to make such challenges when necessary.


From from Hypatia Volume 12, Number 3


Surfing the Third Wave: A Dialogue Between Two Third Wave Feminists



First wave and second wave feminisms are marked by large, distinct activist movements. A great deal of first wave feminism was concerned with women's suffrage, and second wave feminism with the radical reconstruction or elimination of sex roles and the struggle for equal rights. No large, distinctive activist feminist movement seems to be occurring, out of which a third wave of feminism is rising. Third wave feminism seems to be more of an academic construction, used to mark the development of postmodernist critiques of second wave feminism. I cannot help feeling that one must be a postmodernist to be a third waver. fear that third wave feminism, because it is not arising from a mass-based social movement, may be even less class-conscious than much second wave feminism has been. More and more, the problems feminist thinkers take up are problems that arise out of academic discourses. They are not the socio-political problems ordinary women of different races, classes, sexualities, ethnicities face in their everyday lives. As I see it, feminist philosophy has to play its part in promoting feminist change, and this change cannot be limited to the world of academic philosophy. Feminist philosophers are responsible to all aspects of feminism. In selecting the kind of work they do, feminist philosophers should not ask, ''What seems most interesting to me?'' but instead, ''What needs to be done?'' U.S. feminists need theories about race, class, poverty, eating disorders, families, homophobia, work--theories they can ''hold in their hands'' and use and share easily. If I had to prescribe something for feminist philosophy, it would be pragmatism. I was very excited about the special issue of Hypatia devoted to feminism and pragmatism. That a number of feminist philosophers are interested in pragmatism gives me a sense of hope.

I also have serious concerns about the difficult, specialized, jargonistic language in which much recent feminist philosophy is being presented. These theories are accessible only to the most highly educated. I would like to think it ironic that theories about oppression are being presented in a manner that the majority of those who are oppressed cannot understand. But finding it ironic would not adequately convey the gravity of the problem this poses. This type of language perpetuates elitist power relations associated with who gets to speak about oppression. Every time I bring this up, people treat me as if I am so pedestrian that I cannot understand the significance of the insights of these theories, as if form and content were separable. I do not think feminist philosophers have seriously addressed the problem of power relations and of who is empowered to speak, write, and publish about oppression in our country. I find it beyond ironic that this type of specialized theorizing about oppression is emerging at the very same time that the gap between the rich and the poor has widened in the United States, that higher education is seriously suffering financially, and that it has become significantly more difficult for people from low-income families to go to college. Feminist theory is becoming the product of the privileged few who hold academic positions, a product to which non-academics do not have access. While it may seem that what characterizes my ''political generation'' is a general lack of cohesiveness or continuity, as well as a lack of political conviction in the face of a more politically conservative environment, we should remember that this is with respect to the liberalism of the 1960s. As a consequence of changed political conditions, the goals and strategies that some third wave feminists elect do not always coincide with the goals and strategies associated with the second wave of feminism; sometimes they even go against some perceived second wave feminist positions. Again, even if third wave feminists perform their feminism in ways that may, in many cases, be continuous with second wave feminism, these performances might not even *register* as feminist performances on a traditional, liberal feminist scale.

From: Jo Trigilio (trigilio@oregon.uoregon.edu)
To: Rita Alfonso (dralfonso@cc.memphis.edu)
Subject: Sexy sexuality

I went to a dyke punk show the other night. Tribe 8 was one of the bands. It made me seriously consider the differences between second and third wave feminists. Their antics most likely would have seemed offensive and male-identified to feminists twenty years ago. Two members of the band are hard core butches, one is a sexy femme complete with a low-cut shirt, and the lead singer performed bare-breasted and with a big black dildo hanging out of her pants zipper. She cut it off with a giant knife and flung it into the audience during the second to last song.

All of this led me to think about feminist theorizing about sexuality. Second wave feminism has been marked by strands that appear prudish. For example, some early radical feminist groups such as the Feminists and Cell 16, believed that all sexual relations were oppressive (Echols 1989, 173-74). By the 1980s, huge debates about pornograpy, butch-femme and s/m had arisen (Vance 1989). These tensions persist to this day. Tribe 8 served to remind me that many younger lesbians who are feminists are faced with the task of reconciling feminism with sexuality centered around neo-butch-femme or s/m (Nestle 1992; Morgan 1993). Second wave feminism seems to say no to these forms of sexuality. It seems that second wave feminism has put up more restrictions than green lights when it comes to sexuality. This is not to say that it has not seriously challenged the institution of compulsory heterosexuality and sex defined as male-centered intercourse. These challenges have been liberatory, but more needs to be done. Second wave feminism has not been successful at producing new, interesting forms of sexuality. It has, in part, relied on popular essentialist notions of sexuality as an empowering force within, as per Helene Cixous and Audre Lorde.

On the other hand, postmodernism seems to say yes indiscriminately to all forms of ''disruptive'' sexuality. By doing so, it sanctions the production of new sexualities without providing coherent political strategies through which to evaluate them. Madonna is a good example of this. She is constantly changing identities, resisting definition, transgressing boundaries; but it is not clear that her disruptions constitute positive feminist change. My point is that I do not think that second wave feminism has done a very good job of offering viable redefinitions of sexuality. This leaves young feminists either alienated, confused, or in the sex shop, spending lots of money on overpriced sex toys.

From: Rita Alfonso (dralfonso@cc.memphis.edu)
To: Jo Trigilio (trigilio@oregon.uoregon.edu)
Subject: Riot grrrls

The antics of Tribe 8 remind me of the riot grrrl movement, which has intrigued me since the early 1990s. From what I have gathered, riot grrrls was originally the name of an all-girl punk rock band based in Olympia, Washington. They quickly disbanded, but they lent their name to a surge, around 1991, of all-girl bands in Olympia and Seattle. What was special about the riot grrrls was their antics and strategies, which reminded me of those I have read were used by the early radical feminists, the Redstockings (Redstockings 1975). For example, riot grrrls started up what they called ''rags,'' which were magazines written and published on personal computers, and distributed both electronically and through a more conventional grassroots operation. These ''rags'' were devoted to the expression (from poems and short stories, to letters and sketches) of dissatisfaction with the status quo, heterosexual arrangement between the sexes. The riot grrrls conducted their own versions of consciousness-raising sessions, according to Amy Raphael, who has researched and formally written about them (Raphael 1994, xxvii). Similarly, Kathie Sarachild writes that the first thing which the Redstockings did as a group was to put out a journal devoted to their common experiences as women (Sarachild 1975, 147).

Among the riot grrrls antics was dressing up in baby doll dresses, usually worn with combat boots, colorful but torn stockings, and any number of tiny plastic hair barrettes, but writing ''slut'' on their bodies to preempt society's judgment of them.2 I interpret these antics as an intentional ''putting on'' of the *girlishness* and innocence preserved with the societal ideal of femininity, (remembering that these were post-pubescent women) while simultaneously writing over and naming the performance of femininity as such, revealing femininity to be exactly its opposite--*sluttishness*. What this performance speaks to is the essential sameness of these two opposite poles of femininity; and it is a play on the ancient virgin/whore dichotomy. Unlike the Redstockings, who protested by throwing items used in the oppression of women into the ''freedom trashcan'' at the 1968 Miss America Beauty Pageant, the riot grrrls donned and reclaimed, in a perverse manner, the accoutrements of femininity. They made a display of the power that these accoutrements brought to them, and simultaneously mocked this power through parody. More than about performing music, the riot grrrls were about performing their gender.

What is unfortunate about the riot grrrls, though is that they never really managed to gain momentum because they were quickly co-opted and merchandised. The surge of all-girl bands--including Bikini Kill, 7 Year Bitch, and best known of all, Hole--had been incorporated into the Seattle grunge scene by 1993. But I think that their example still speaks to the great difficulties of sustaining a feminist movement today. ''All'' the Redstockings did to catch the attention of the national *and* international media, according to Sarachild herself, was to throw some items representing ''femininity'' into a trashcan, while this same act today, I should think might only serve as a ten-second sound bite (Sarachild 1975, 147). The example of the riot grrrls also invokes a way of performing feminism that pushes against the conceptual boundaries of the Anglo-American, liberal feminist tradition. This issue of femininity provides one of the notable differences between second and third wave feminists. Whether it makes sense or not, young women today seem to be experiencing femininity and reacting to its exhortations in another way--they seem to be reclaiming it, taking it on--in contrast with the predominant androgyny of the earlier wave. Beyond the rise of political conservatism, this might be a plausible explanation for the increasing popularity not only of the work of the feminist Carol Gilligan and her care-based ethics, but also of the theorists of sexual difference--Irigaray, Cixous, and Kristeva--in the United States.

From: Jo Trigilio (trigilio@oregon.uoregon.edu)
To: Rita Alfonso (dralfonso@cc.memphis.edu)
Subject: Surfing freestyle

How to understand and situate femininity has been a subject that has haunted second wave feminism. Second wave feminists faced the difficult task of saying that women are not naturally feminine but socialized to be feminine, while at the same time trying to give value to feminine traits. They have broken ground for third wave feminists to redefine femininity, to perform it differently. But this will be no easy task for third wave feminists, because we have to contend with new forms of oppressive and objectifying femininity. The normalization of cosmetic surgery--of breast implants, facial reconstruction, and liposuction in particular--is creating new racist, classist, thin-centered, sexually objectifying forms of femininity. Femininity is no longer just about make-up and high heels. It is now being constructed surgically. Perhaps the normalization of cosmetic surgery should be taken as an indication that second wave feminism has in some way failed to provide viable practices and redefinitions of appearance. Second wave feminism has been astoundingly successful in changing socio-political structures and attitudes associated with sexual assault, sexual harassment, and domestic violence. Public consciousness has been transformed with regard to these issues. This is not the case with appearance.

As I see it, feminist philosophy has only begun its work. Being an academic feminist philosopher comes with a price. Surviving in academic philosophy involves proving to the boys that you can ''do'' philosophy. As a result, I fear that different kinds of philosophizing are not being facilitated. Academic philosophy in general suffers from having replaced the love of wisdom with the love of linearity and the love of citing other academic philosophers. Feminist philosophy has not done enough to challenge the dominant form of philosophy as linear and rationalistic. While feminist philosophy, in just a short time, has been amazingly successful at challenging the content of Western philosophy, it has not done much by way of challenging its form. Nonlinear writing, imbued with passion and emotion, has not found its way into the mainstream of feminist philosophy. When power relations have changed to the extent that feminists no longer have to prove they can ''do'' philosophy in the dominant, traditional form, radical fundamental change can take place. As it is, established feminist philosophers are still training feminist students to prove that they can ''do'' philosophy the traditional academic way. There are other ways of ''doing'' philosophy: storytelling, narratives, dialogues, aphorisms, to name a few. These forms of philosophizing are better suited for conveying emotion, passion, and wonder. They also make philosophy potentially more accessible to non-philosophers and non-academics.

I think feminist philosophers have not yet learned the art of freestyle thinking. I want to tell a story to illustrate this point. I studied calligraphy intensively for months with a very good but very strict teacher. I spent hours on hours drawing carefully measured guidelines for the letters and then making perfectly uniform, beautiful letters. The calligraphy society was impressed by my work, and accepted it into a show. To my surprise, my calligraphy teacher told me after the show that I was too constrained, that I needed to be freer, to let go. This made me feel both anxious and confused. It made me feel anxious because the thought of drawing outside the lines was scary. Staying within the lines was safe--not necessarily easy, but familiar. It confused me because the very teacher who seemed to have demanded that I stay within the lines, was telling me something ''else.'' To draw outside the lines? To not have lines? To use different kinds of guidelines? I have come to realize that what she was saying was that the real art lies not in mastering how to make beautiful letters within the lines but in using what you learn from drawing within the lines to do something ''else.''

This is the lesson feminist philosophers have not yet learned. We are all very busy drawing within the lines of different traditions and schools of thought. The ''liberties'' we take are within the realm of safety, like taking the serifs of a different character set and putting them on the character set with which we are familiar.




Issues to consider:

Woman’s liberation as a movement

Radical feminism

Butler and performativity

Class—middle class vs working class

Race--bell hooks


Body: gilbert and gubar


--How is sexual identity established and maintained? How is it tied to patriarchy, domination, phallocentrism.

--Strategies for resistance and struggle—a movement, individual

--Ambivalences, concerning categories: Male/female: binary, frozen, naturalized, normalized; logocentric; phallocentric: Ideology

--vs. androgency; goorgijeen; homme-femme; queer.


“Doing gender” as interactive performance (aimee van wagenen wrin) that leads to accomplishment of gender

--ask what gender is if not innate, essential identity. How is it created.

--this question can obscure the question of how dominance worked historically and continues to work socially, i.e. how patriarchy worked in the past, and reproduces itself

--role of desire, seen psychoanalytically

--role of fantasy as basis of law

--tie to Name of the Father/Law of the Father. Castration-desire>unconscious; identification with Law of the Father figure; internalization of object of desire/phallus. Phallus as signifier of signifiers, as transcendental signifier.

Phallocentrism vs. institutional roles: social (race, class, 3d world issues)

--interpellation>normal, natural.

Social order<> natural order

--what are stages of liberation; leading where?


Another way to think about stages or phases:

First phase: immediate economic, social, and political issues: equality, equal rights; job opportunities; education; entry into govt positions.

Converse side: the ugly power of the use of armed force in struggle, economic domination and exploitation; women as enjoying privilege, along with or without men, over others, men and women—i.e.class or political power, caste.

Issues that have been important in africa: marriage (forced, polygamous); divorce (men imposing it, vs women’s right to it); costs of raising family devolving on first or second wives; need for women to defer to men for jobs, i.e. sexual abuse.

Less central: prudishness>increasing intolerance for some public forms of sexual display, i.e., sexual scenes in films like Les Saignantes.


First phase, then, oriented around issues of patriarchy primarily, even if shifted increasingly into economic spheres: e.g., Spivak’s presentation of women in sweatshops as consequence of globalization. In senegal it is boys, not girls, on the street as talibe; where are the girls of poor families>in servile roles facing equally oppressive conditions, with sexuality added to the mix. Cases of 9 year old girls married or impregnated.

Linked to this: FGM as an issue appropriated from the west, now with women’s movements standing up for woman facing rape from Judge when she applied for work. Women’s way of dealing with FGM, vs. Sembène’s Moolade.


Male ways of directly asserting dominant position. Tied to heterosexual norming of gender roles. Link to notion of eroticizing of those roles as consequence or ideological functioning that obscures socio-economic dimensions of domination: the norm of what it is to appear a woman hides what male dominant exploitation of this situation yields.


What is the final consequence for women in Senegal? How does it compare with the west?


Next Phase: 2nd phase: subversion of dominant symbolic order. To the extent that that order is constructed about systems of norms, norms for values that break down into binary pairs, opposites, with dominant and subordinate terms paralleled at all levels: good/ bad, while/black; etc male/female. Strong/weak; ruling/ruled; master/servant. The term that defines the underlying value is phallus, and it depends on two key concepts: center and presence. I.e., that there is a coherent order, centered, with well-defined relations that are comprehensible, graspable, capable of being controlled, etc. These relations define the way that society is structured, and therefore the norms on which that order is built: order that is always marked by  hierarchy and domination, by forms of patriarchy. Those norms might include god/man, but also man/woman. They are consequences of a sense of order given as rational, i.e.logos, around which value is constructed>logocentric. But that logocentrism is everywhere also built on an ordering principle which is that of the dominant figure, i.e. the phallus as signifier of power, order, meaning, ego presence in a sensible world: that phallus is the basis for masculinist sense of self as the center, and as feminist sense as derivative and subordinate to the masculinist. Thus the woman is the one without the penis, without the authority, without the moral backbone, etc. Male priority<>phallus>phallocentrism. Patriarchy now sublimated into Order, be it History, Ethics, Knowledge, Rule, Society, Civilization, Culture, the Word, God.


Ecriture is the escape mechanism since it is a function of the signifier, not the signified. Signifier is marked always by excess, not neat box of signified; always implying another term to which it is partially related, never completely nailed down. The turn to fixed meaning is the work of the phallus; the turn to subversion of fixity, in meaning, in position, in relations, in discourse, in texts, is ecriture feminine.


Masculinist>proper, propre, own, owning, controlling, property, propriety. Culler: preference for metaphor over metonymy (see Hassan on pomo over modernism); concept of author (Foucault, Death of Author); legitimate vs illegitimate meaning; promotion of paternal: patriarchal authority>unity of meaning, certainty of origin (originary, historicism). Rational/irrational; sense/sensibility; mind/body; active/passive.


French feminist: ways to undo above:

Cixous: write the woman.

Irigaray: fem body; overcome proper meaning of words, of nouns, of syntax.  Proper>unity; fem language cannot be described or defined. Also, body breaks unity of phallus: woman double and less than one: self pleasure with two lips of vulva; pleasure and jouissance that exceeds language.

Kristeva: subversive text: modernist disruptions of language


Butler: attack on identity politics: that one is defined and definable as: woman, black, wolof, etc. that politics is made possible on basis of such identifications, all of which are repetitions of notions of essential qualities, all of which obscures what produces these identities (i.e., the ideological processes, the interests served by the practices/rituals of institutions that interpellate us, and whose interpellations are met by our repetitions of rituals/roles thought to conform to expectations. Normal/natural>identity> reinforcement of dominant social order that generates values that sustain order of domination.

Disruption of reason, or norm, of order can be done by highlighting how all identity positions are performances, like Genet’s blacks, like gendered practices. Playing at a role makes the constructed nature of the role visible, and points back to that which is producing the performance, like language that calls attention to that which speaks it rather than to its own qualities: turning from signified to signifier<>turning from performer to performativity of identity. Essentialism and foundationalism revealed to be constructs by this approach.


Difference: not only difference between male and female, but différance that undoes solidity,k unitary presence of male or female, of any identity position. Woman divided: language divided.