Sociology 319 – Contemporary Social Theories

March 17, 2006

Feminist Sociological Theory


Readings:          Adams and Sydie, chapter 10

Handout from Denzin


1. Introduction


Over the last 40 years, feminist analysis has made a major contribution to and has changed some parts of sociological theory, making sociologists aware of issues that were previously ignored.  Feminism as a social movement is also associated with changes in society – especially in North America and Western Europe.  Many aspects of what were once considered to be “private life,” associated with male/female relations in household, family, and other social relationships have been transformed and have acquired a public aspect (day care, violence against women, abortion), and there been an increased involvement of women in public life (management, politics).  Feminists argue that there is still a long road ahead before the goal of equality of males and females is achieved, but there can be no doubts that major advances have occurred toward such equality – examples include employment equity legislation and increased involvement of women in the labour force and post-secondary education.


While it has been women and men, through their social actions and interaction that have changed social relationships, feminist writers and theorists have contributed to these social changes and to the development of attitudes and views more supportive of equality.  As a demonstration of how social theory can be socially engaged, feminist theory has often been exemplary and, at least through the 1990s, was involved in applied social issues faced by women in their involvement in the social world (abortion rights, employment equity, equal pay legislation, politics).  Many feminist writers from the 1960s through the 1990s were directly involved in activist feminist groups that carried out political and social agitation as well as “consciousness-raising” among women themselves.  Currently, many feminist writers are involved in or closely associated with women’s groups or social reform activities (health issues, aboriginal issues, immigrant support). 


A section on feminist social theory would probably not have been included in a course in sociological theory a generation ago.  However, feminist social theory has made major contributions not just to feminism but also to social theory in general.  Feminist writers and theorists have led sociologists to reexamine and revise their social theories as a result of focus on issues such as:

·      differences between biological and social influences on and aspects of social activity

·      the scope and limitations of what is meant by the “social” – generally creating a much broader scope than earlier sociology

·      how a person’s experience affects her or his understanding of the social world – for example, in the analysis of Dorothy Smith

·      how males and females are the same or different

·      how social relationships between males and females are patterned or structured

·      how social relationships are accomplished and social institutions maintained and changed.

Among the issues that have entered into contemporary sociological discussion and analysis are the standpoint of women and others outside the mainstream of society, the sociology of bodies, understandings of power, sexual violence, patriarchy, and sexuality. These issues were ignored or treated as minor sociological problems – now they are often key in discussions of contemporary sociology.  Feminists have raised radical questions about “social roles, gender identities and biological sex characteristics” so that sociologists have developed new understandings and analysis of “the relationship between society and culture, public and private, and between society and nature” (Turner, 1996, p. 304). 


Adams and Sydie argue that feminist sociology is a critical theory in three ways (p. 210):

·      Women-centred perspective

·      Questions core concepts and assumptions of sociology

·      Asks how social change can occur to produce a more humane social world.

As a result, feminist theories move well beyond the issue of women themselves, and a feminist sociology can point the way toward a more creative and emancipatory form of sociology for everyone, and can be particularly useful for people who are in oppressed or subordinate situations. 


Three waves.  The feminism that is termed the second wave of feminism refers to the feminist ideas, writers, activists, and social movements that emerged in the 1960s and had a great initial impact on women and society in the 1970s.  The first wave of feminism occurred in the mid to late nineteenth through the early twentieth century and had, as major focuses, issues such as obtaining the right to vote, reform of legal structures to permit greater equality for women, education, and reproductive rights.  Much of the organizing effort and theorizing concerned attempts to obtain formal equality of women with men in the legal arena in Western Europe and North America.  Some writers refer to a third wave of feminism, from the 1990s on, where issues such as the meaning of gender, queer theory, and sexual self-esteem are emphasized.  In academic feminism, there is concern with linguistic issues and psychoanalytic influences.


 In particular, we will examine the following feminist perspectives:

  • Issues of equality, inequality, difference, inclusion, meanings of woman, and sex and gender.  These include a discussion of “liberal” feminism.
  • Marxist feminist approaches – problems with Marxian social theory from a feminist perspective and how modifications of a Marxist approach can be constructed.  As Adams and Sydie indicate (pp. 208-210), Marxism and feminism were closely connected in the 1970s, and were often at odds with one another.
  • Issues related to sexuality, patriarchy, violence against women, maternal feminism, and biology and bodies. 

Following this introductory survey, we will examine the approach of the Canadian sociologist, Dorothy Smith.


2. Problems with earlier social theory


The classical social theorists and twentieth century social theorists through the 1970s generally ignored women or had misleading analysis of issues related to women.  A detailed analysis of the approach the classical social theorists took toward women and issues related to male/female relationships is contained in Natural Women, Cultured Men: A Feminist Perspective on Sociological Theory by Rosalind Sydie.  A summary of a few of the problem areas in earlier sociological perspectives is presented here.


a. Women Ignored.  One general line of criticism of feminists is that women are absent from the social analyses and social world of sociology.  The language and analysis of classical sociologists is that of men, male activities and experiences, and the parts of society dominated by males.  Marx, Weber, and Durkheim were typical of nineteenth century European writers who assumed that the social world was primarily the public world of male activities – the labour force, city life, and politics.


One aspect of the long history of modern, urban, industrial society was the development of a separation between the public and private spheres.  These had not always been separated in traditional societies, although there was usually a sex-based division of labour, often associated with a patriarchal system of male dominance.  With the development of capitalism, cities, and industry, a public sphere dominated by men and male activities developed and expanded.  Women generally became restricted to the private sphere of household and family, and had limited involvement in political, economic, or even public social life.  While some women were involved in more public activities, in the nineteenth century there were movements to restrict the participation of women in public life – for example, factory legislation and the family wage.   


In order to understand some of the difficulties women faced in this era, some of the details of the situation of women should be considered.  First, women in late nineteenth century England were not recognized as individuals in either the legal or the liberal theoretical sense.  Men still held formal power over the rest of the family, and women were mostly excluded from the public sphere.  John Stuart Mill and Harriett Taylor, along with some early United States feminists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, argued that the equality of women required full citizenship for women.  This would include giving women enfranchisement.  After 1865, when Mill was in the English Parliament, he fought for women's suffrage.  He also fought “to amend the laws that gave husbands control over their wives' money and property.”  He also supported the campaign for birth control information to be available, and was active in other campaigns that were aimed at assisting women and children.  (Eisenstein, p. 128). 


While there was feminist agitation in the nineteenth century, formal equality for women did not come until much later.  In Canada, women did not have the right to vote in federal elections until 1918, although the franchise was extended to women two years earlier in the Prairie provinces.  Quebec women did not receive the vote in provincial elections until 1940.  Property ownership also rested with men through most of the nineteenth century, with changes that allowed property purchasers to become owner, regardless of sex, coming between 1872 and 1940.  “By 1897 in English Canada and 1931 in Quebec, a wife employed outside the home was allowed to retain her wages” (Burt, p. 214).  Also note that in Canada it was not until the 1969 amendments to the Criminal Code that sales of contraceptives became legal, or that abortions became legal. 


In Canada, there is now formal equality in most areas of social life, with women and men having the same legal rights.  The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in the 1982 Constitution Act states that “every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability” (Section 15).   Section 28 states that “Notwithstanding anything in this Charter, the rights and freedoms referred to in it are guaranteed equally to male and female persons.”  In the early 1980s, women’s organizations had to mobilize to have equal rights by sex included in the Charter.  Many feminists would argue though that this is only formal equality, not true equality.

Out of the conference came a call for a stronger Equality Rights clause in the Charter (Section 15) and a specific guarantee for gender equality rights (Section 28). Both reforms made it into the final version of the Charter.


In terms of how sociology considered public and private, recall that the classical social theories emerged in Europe as a way of explaining the society that emerged as part of the modern era.  This was primarily the public sphere of social life.  Since sociologists were concerned with explaining its emergence, characteristics, and forms of development, little attention was paid to the private sphere – the sphere more likely to be occupied by women.  As a result, early sociological theory paid little attention to this part of social life.  While the sociological analysis of the classical sociologists can be applied to both women and men, by ignoring a large part of the social world, early sociologists had little or no theory of gender relations, sexuality, or male/female inequalities – essential aspects of contemporary social theory.  In addition, by not analyzing the private part of the social world, early sociology may not have developed an adequate understanding of all parts of the social world. 


b. Definitions of Sociology and the Social World.  Each social theory has a definition of what is meant by the “social” or what is the scope of social theory.  For Goffman this was the interaction order, for Parsons it was social action, and for Marx it was the study of class relationships emerging from the relations of production and ownership of property.  It was the classical sociologists who first defined the field of sociology.  Each of these writers developed a definition of the social world, even if only implicitly, and proceeded to analyze it.  For feminists and contemporary sociologists, a major problem is that the classical definitions of the social world exclude large parts of human action and interaction.  Many of the excluded portions of the social world are those that were typically occupied by women and children, with classical writers showing little interest in or analysis of institutions such as the household, family, or community where women’s experiences have often been centred. 


The emphasis on labour and the commodity for Marx, and the division of labour for Marx and Durkheim, provide an example of this.  Durkheim, concentrates his study and anaysis on the division of labour, how this is connected to legal systems, and what are the implications for social development and social solidarity.  Traditional societies, with a limited division of labour, are held together by similarity, or what Durkheim termed mechanical solidarity.  In modern society, with its more highly developed division of tasks in the economic and public sphere, social solidarity occurs as a result of difference, of the need each person has for the work of others.  But, since women did not generally participate in the labour force in Durkheim’s day, this eliminates women from the division of labour.  To the extent that the division of labour forms the basis for morality and organic solidarity in modern society, it is primarily the activity of men that create this solidarity.  In Durkheim’s model, it is difficult to see how women’s activities contribute to organic solidarity.  Since the proper study of sociology is social facts, but women are absent from the creation of social facts, women are not the proper subject of sociology.


Another way that classical sociologists define the social world is through their categories and concepts.  For Marx, class and class struggle, exploitation and surplus labour, and accumulation and crises have little to do with what women experience or do, since they refer to activities in the economy and the labour force.  Similarly, Weber’s class, status, and party, domination, authority, bureaucracy, and rationality are all part of a public sphere in which women play little part.


Classical sociologists recognized patriarchy as a social and political system that involved the exercise of power by males over females, family, children, and household.  But their conception of patriarchy was somewhat different than that of feminist analyses of patriarchy.   Feminists emphasize rule by males over females but include issues such as violence, control of sexuality, and other forms of domination by males and oppression of females.  Classical sociologists, especially Weber, considered it to be a part of political power and traditional authority involving control by a senior male over other males as well as females.  Classical sociologists also appear to have considered it as emerging from natural differences between men and women, whereas feminists consider it more socially constructed. 


In summary, the social world of the classical sociologists generally excluded the actions of women.  As a result, sociology as a discipline did not have much to say about women.  While each of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim did have some comments on women and family, these were generally limited comments and their sociological models would be little different if women did not exist.


3. Feminist Approaches


a.  Emphasis on equality


Emphasis of first part of the second wave of feminism. 


b. Difference


Difference and diversity that make it difficult to speak of a common situation and set of experiences for women.  As a result “‘woman’ and ‘women’ … are not unitary categories” (Lovell, p. 302).  While the second wave of feminism often argued that there were common experiences of women and similar social position of women with respect to men in society, Lovell argues that there are a number of differences.  Some of these sexual and gender differences; differences by race, ethnicity, and class; sexuality; and difference as a general concept (Lovell, p. 301).  This makes it difficult to deal with issues of equality in a manner acceptable to all women, feminists may not speak for all women, and generalizations concerning all women may be trivial or false (Lovell, p. 305).  For example, Lovell notes how feminism has sometimes been labeled as bourgeois or middle class and has been attacked as representing privilege of women in these groups (pp. 302-3). 


While these attacks have sometimes been a smokescreen to discredit some feminists, these are difficult issues that feminists must address.  More recent feminist approaches have emphasized the importance of building alliances across difference, although this requires “genuine dialog and mutual exchange between those who are unlike” (Lovell, p. 304).  Further, some emphasize local and interpersonal issues, rather than focus exclusively on societal level political issues such as equal rights.  In considering these, gender, class, and race are not discrete and cumulative forms of oppression” (Lovell, p. 304) but are constructed in relation to each other in particular ways. 


Perhaps the first concern of feminist sociology is to recognize women as full-fledged social actors in the social world.  While women were always part of the social world, theoretical perspectives often did not recognize them as such.  In some cases, earlier theoretical perspectives can be modified or extended so that women are recognized as such, in other cases it may not be possible to do so, thus requiring that these perspectives be rebuilt or that their limitations be recognized.  For example, it would seem possible to introduce feminist theory into symbolic interaction perspectives in a way that would enrich these.  Theories such as Parsons’s model of the family or the instrumental and expressive appear to be much more limited and perhaps incapable of basic revision.  


c. Sex and gender


A second overriding concern of feminist sociology is to recognize the difference between biology and the social – the difference usually associated with sex (as biologically ascribed) and gender (as socially constructed).  A “distinction between sex and gender initially provided a firm plank for both Marxist and radical feminists … the social construction of femininity” (p. 308).  She also notes how “women’s biological functions have over and over again been used to rationalize and legitimate” (p. 308) the social status of women.  A large part of feminist theory and research has been devoted to explaining how the status, role, and position of women in the social world was socially constructed, and was not natural or unchangeable.  This involved studies of the different experiences of women in different times and places, showing the great variety of ways that societies dealt with male/female relationships, resulting in the view that gender differences were much more variable and malleable than biological differences.  For feminists, biological realities may be relatively unchangeable, but “what is constructed in social relations and in culture is more readily reconstructed” (p. 308). 


Such an approach is consistent with a sociological approach – where social construction is always emphasized over biological explanations.  It is also consistent with liberal or equal rights approaches to feminism.  Those approaches tended to argue that the mind/body split that accorded rationality and mind to males and nature and body to females were incorrect.  That is, feminists argued that both males and females have bodies that differ, but similar minds and capabilities.  They argued that is was a male view that women were more connected to nature and the body, and male domination and power over females meant the relegation of females to the private sphere.  But these were socially constructed views of gender by powerful males who perpetuated such differences through laws, exclusion of females, and domination of personal relationships.  Feminists thus argued that females were as capable and rational as males, and there should be equality between males and females in all aspects of life, both in the public and private spheres.  That is, the social construction of gender was the problem, not some inherent biological difference between men and women. 


But it has not been easy to completely ignore biological realities and radical feminism has reintroduced the body and biological characteristics.  While these are in quite different ways than in nineteenth century writings, it has become clear that the division between sex and gender is not clear-cut, nor so useful for feminist analysis as once thought.  There are several problems with this distinction.


First, if feminists found oppression of women to be very widespread across time and place, “biology must have something to do with it” (p. 309).  Anthropological and sociological evidence found great difference of experiences, role, and situation of women in different societies, so this was strong evidence for the difference between sex and gender.  But feminists also made the argument that the situation of women tended to be inferior in most, if not all societies.  But what does this say about social construction of gender?  Does such social construction always lead to male domination and female subordination?   If this is the case, then it is difficult to argue that there is not some biological aspect to this power differential.  Systems of patriarchy may be a means of explaining this, but how do these systems of patriarchy emerge?  (We will examine analyses of patriarchy next week).


Second, while gender may be socially constructed, so are class, race, ethnicity, and sexuality, as third world women, minority women, lesbians, and others have made clear.  Differences between sex and gender often did not make this apparent, and did not consider the diverse ways that these may be interconnected.  As a result, a simple sex/gender distinction may not capture the variety of experiences and situations of women.  This has meant that some women were reluctant to become feminists, or were in outright opposition to feminism.  Some of these viewed feminism as an ideology of privileged, middle-class, white females. 


Third, how are feminists to deal with biological realities?  (see Lovell, pp. 309-310).   One approach was to argue for freeing women from childbirth through “a revolution in the technology and social relations of reproduction, in which the womb would be by-passed in favor of new technologies” (Lovell, p. 310).  While this may be in the realm of science fiction, it has been argued by feminists such as Shulamith Firestone.  A more conventional approach has been to argue that women should not be bound by biological realities, but participate more fully in all activities.  Where these require accommodations, such as leave for childbirth, laws, policies, and organizations should restructure labour force and other activities so that full participation for women can occur.  While some of this has occurred, the current structure of career and public life will require more change if this is to occur, and it may be difficult to achieve full equality with just this approach.


Fourth, Marxist analysis provided an explanation of social construction of relations of reproduction, rooted in material reality.  But issues of violence against women in their personal and family life are difficult to explain within the Marxian model.  While capitalism might well use women in an oppressive manner, why should “the sexual domination of women, and the extent of male violence against them” (Lovell, p. 310) be so great and so widespread – there appears to be no explanation for this within a strictly Marxian framework of class relationships.


Finally, some feminists emphasize the superior and positive characteristics of women.  The alleged expressive, caring, maternal, nurturing, and conflict resolving characteristics of females are missing from instrumental, utilitarian, rational, and aggressive males.  But if there is to be equality, and women and men are the same, which of these characteristics is to emerge.  Would the equal female adopt the supposed male characteristics.  Historically, feminists often argued that women could bring their more positive expressive characteristics to public life and social relationship, thus producing a more caring and human society.  But if this is so, which of these characteristics emerges from biological sex differences and which are socially constructed gender differences?


While the distinctions between sex and gender has been extremely useful from a feminist and sociological perspective, the above arguments show that it is not without its own difficulties and contradictions.  The aim of the above arguments is not to abandon this conceptual distinction as to note how it may need to become more carefully used and modified in improving social theory.  In terms of several of these issues, there will be changes in the social construction of gender as women participate more fully in all aspects of life, as men change their forms of participation, and as social relationships change – social theory should attempt to understand and explain these.





Burt, S., L. Code and L. Dorney. 1993. Changing Patterns: Women in Canada, second edition, McClelland and Stewart, Toronto.  HQ1453 C48 1993

Eisenstein, Zillah. 1986. The Radical Future of Liberal Feminism, Northeastern University Press, Boston.  HQ1154 E44 1986

Lovell, Terry. 2000.  “Feminisms Transformed? Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism,” in Bryan S. Turner, The Blackwell Companion to Social Theory, second edition, Blackwell Publishers, Malden, Massachusetts.

Sydie, Rosalind. 1987. Natural Women, Cultured Men: A Feminist Perspective on Sociological Theory, Methuen, Toronto.

Turner, Bryan.  1996.  The Blackwell Companion to Social Theory, 1st edition, Blackwell Publishers, Malden, Massachusetts.


Last edited on March 26, 2006