Understanding feminism and its different types

In our last blog, we discussed and dispelled some myths about feminism and explored what is not feminism. In this article, let us focus on understanding feminism and the different approaches people have towards it.

Feminism is an interdisciplinary approach to issues of equality and equity based on gender, gender expression, gender identity, sex, and sexuality. It has evolved from the critical examination of inequality between the sexes to focus more on social and performative roles of gender and sexuality.

The term “feminism” has many different uses and its meanings are often debated. For example, some writers use the term “feminism” to refer to a historically specific political movement in the United States and Europe; other writers use it to refer to the belief that there are injustices against women, though there is no consensus on the exact list of these injustices. Although the term “feminism” has a history in English linked with women’s activism from the late nineteenth century to the present, it is useful to distinguish feminist ideas or beliefs from feminist political movements, for even in periods where there has been no significant political activism around women’s suffering, many individuals have been concerned with about justice for women.

Feminism is both an intellectual commitment and a political movement that seeks justice for women and the end of sexism in all forms. Motivated by the search for social justice, feminism provides a wide range of perspectives on social, cultural, economic, and political phenomena.

Susan James characterizes feminism as follows:

“Feminism is grounded on the belief that women are oppressed or disadvantaged by comparison with men, and that their oppression is in some way illegitimate or unjustified.”

Under the umbrella of this general characterization there are many interpretations of women and their oppression, so that it is a mistake to think of feminism as a single philosophical set of beliefs, or as implying an agreed political program. As a social movement, the main characteristics and demands of feminism include:

  • Equal pay in the workplace
  • Reproductive rights
  • Women’s suffrage
  • The right to an education
  • Fighting against gender stereotypes and performative behaviours
  • Protection against sexual harassment and assault
  • The right to own property

Understanding feminism begins with attention to women, to their roles and locations. What are women doing? What social/political locations are they part of or excluded from? How do their activities compare to those of men? Are the activities or exclusions of some groups of women different from those of other groups and why? What do the various roles and locations of women allow or preclude? How have their roles been valued or devalued? How do the complexities of a woman’s place in society, including her class, race, ability, and sexuality affect her locations? To this we add attention to the experiences and concerns of women. Have any of women’s experiences or problems been ignored or undervalued? How might attention to these problems change our current methods or values? And from here we move to the realm of the symbolic. How is the feminine aspect expressed and constructed within the philosophical texts? What role does the feminine play in forming the central philosophical concepts? And so on.

Feminism is one of those waves in the history of mankind that has been diversely interpreted, widely manifested, enthusiastically celebrated and yet utterly neglected. Feminism spews different notions for different people. But what remains at the essence of this greater fold of feminism is equality and equity for all, irrespective of gender. The fact that feminism has forever been perpetuated and understood diversely has led to the emergence of different types of feminism. Here we trace out a few types of feminism you must know about to decide whether you are indeed some feminist or not-

Liberal Feminism

This is the variety of feminism that works within the structure of mainstream society to integrate women into that structure. As is often the case with liberals, they slog along inside the system, getting little done amongst the compromises until some radical movement shows up and pulls those compromises left of center. This is how it operated in the days of the suffragist movement and again with the emergence of the radical feminists.
Liberal feminism is so rooted in equality that it can easily pass of as a notion instilled in humanism in essence. Liberal feminists call for gender inequality to be done away in such public and social spheres that emerge based on gender causes, but are actually imposed by society rather than genuinely stemming from the differences between sexes.
The liberal version of feminism advocates for justice and sexual equality to rule supreme through reforms on existing political and legal reforms laws. It’s basically the assertion of an individual’s right to live and exist as they wish that forms the core of the agenda for liberal feminists.
Whether it be equality in education or workplace, social or political issues, this is the type of feminism that is deeply ingrained in the free and fair functioning of the society in a way that impair neither gender. It calls for a more liberal view that does not seek to drastically alter the prevailing social mechanism; rather it is concentrated in making the whole social and public setup a better place to coexist for all as individuals no lesser than any other.

Radical feminism

Radical feminism, as the name suggests, calls for radical encompassment of the need to view women as independent individuals free from the subjugation of the patriarchal society. This is the one among the many types of feminism that is absolutely critical in its attack on the male hierarchy as being the roots that led women to being subjected to oppression for ages. Certain items that were important to radical feminists include:

  • Challenging heteronormative gender roles
  • Raising awareness of sexual assault and harassment
  • Reproductive rights
  • Identifying the sexual objectification of women

This term refers to the feminist movement that sprung out of the civil rights and peace movements in 1967-1968. The reason this group gets the “radical” label is that they view the oppression of women as the most fundamental form of oppression, one that cuts across boundaries of race, culture, and economic class. This is a movement intent on social change, change of rather revolutionary proportions, in fact.
Radical feminism tends to reside in extremes, sometimes perhaps even in vague fears, trying to overrule the very basis of the gender differentiation. While some of its notions that it is the natural way the woman body has been perpetuated that leads what is called the fairer sex to be treated as weaker and therefore inferior might seem like too harsh or illogical a reason to either support or banish feminism, not all the radical views of feminism are unduly publicized.
At the core of radical feminism also rests the notion that because the traditional gender roles have been perpetuated as such that puts women at a disadvantage, it is so necessary to do away with all such differentiation. Also radically challenged are the ‘desires’ that view women as mere objects of sexual gratification including oppressive practices as pornography and prostitution. Because either of this traditional or modern gender roles necessarily stem from the sexual anatomy of the woman body, radical feminists consider it extremely necessary to do away with the whole concept of gender and the issues stemming from therein. From eliminating male superiority and doing away with all forms of violence against women, feminism in its most radical form urges to eliminate the very root of the problem that necessitated the emergence of feminism in the first place.

Cultural Feminism

From radical feminism is believed to stem yet another of the types of feminism, manifested as cultural feminism. This version of feminism obliges cultural norms also by including them within its fold. Women have been created and moulded in a way that makes them inherently superior than their male counterparts. The female nature is believed to be a boon for the world and feminism is sought to be celebrated through cultural beliefs, though its basis on the innate female essence renders it somewhat akin along the lines of the radical views of feminism. But the difference between the two is quite striking: whereas radical feminism defines a movement to transform society, cultural feminism is vanguardism, working instead to build a women’s culture. Some of this effort has had some social benefit: rape crisis centers, for example; and of course many cultural feminists have been active in social issues (but as individuals, not as part of a movement). Some other ideals that are championed in cultural feminism include:

  • Promoting gender differences
  • Celebrating stereotypical female traits such as maternity, passivity, or peacefulness

Cultural feminism believes that the women form isn’t just unique when compared to men, it is also better and kinder. Essentially then, cultural feminism propagates the belief that even the defining characteristics that identify women folk are the kind that are more powerful, even when being essentially demure. It is this feminine force that is urged to be the basis of a stable human existence, one that can end wars and eliminate violence because women by nature are more loving and more considerate than the masculine notion that seeks emphasis upon the power of the body. In their very feminine aspect that allows the world to sustain and survive, women are seen as the ones that prolong human existence on earth and are therefore culturally and socially indispensable and even unsurpassable.

Socialist feminism

Socialist feminism is a broader notion than radical feminism, even though it is not that different from it. This type of feminism feeds on the inequalities propagated by society as the basis of gender inequality and does not confine or concentrate on patriarchy as the breeding ground for female oppression. Some of the most important beliefs of socialist feminists include:

  • Freedom from traditional domestic duties, characterized as oppression and slavery
  • Creating wages for domestic and household labor in order to compete in the market
  • Acknowledgement of emotional labor placed on traditionally domestic women
  • Challenging women’s connection to reproductive labor

Rather, adherers of socialist feminist are strongly bound by the idea that over time some women have been so financially dependent on the male folk that they fuel the belief that women are incapable of being and sustaining their own. This has been the basis of not just inequality and the notion that women are weaker, but also is the basis which has lead to the perpetuation of subjugation of females through violence or any other means whatsoever. The uneven gender balance is sought to be eliminated by feminism in its socialist ideals which believes that even capitalism and classism are the grounds on which female oppression has been continuing unabated. Social and economic inequalities are sought to be done away with by socialist feminists to propagate a society free and fair for all genders, races including the womenfolk.
Socialism recognizes that women are oppressed, and attributes the oppression to capitalism. Thus they insist that the only way to end the oppression of women is to overthrow the capitalist system. Socialist feminism is the result of Marxism meeting radical feminism. Socialist feminism is a marriage between Marxism and radical feminism, with Marxism the dominant partner. Marxists and socialists often call themselves “radical,” but they use the term to refer to a completely different “root” of society: the economic system.

Intersectional feminism

Over the course of its existence, feminism has mainly focused on the issues experienced by white, middle-class women. For example, it is largely shared and advertised that a woman makes 78 cents to a man’s dollar. But this is only the statistic for white women. As upsetting as it is, women of minority groups make even less. Black women earn 64 cents to white men’s dollar and Hispanic women only earn 56 cents. Intersectional feminism takes into account the many different ways each woman experiences discrimination. “White feminism” is a term that is used to describe a type of feminism that overshadows the struggles women of color, LGBTQ women and women of other minority groups face. So, essentially, it’s not true feminism at all. “White feminism” ignores intersectionality and neglects to recognize the discriminations experienced by women who are not white. It’s important to note that not all feminists who are white practice “white feminism.” “White feminism” depicts the way white women face gender inequality as the way all women experience gender inequality, which just isn’t correct.

The key to combating “white feminism” is education about intersectionality. The term intersectionality was coined by civil rights activist and professor Kimberlé Crenshaw and can be defined as “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.”

So, now that we understand what intersectionality is, how can we incorporate it into our feminism? There can be three easy steps in achieving intersectional feminism.

The steps are as follows:

1. Examine our own privilege.

2. Listen to each other.

3. Practice feminism through a broader, more inclusive lens.

It’s crucial to check your own privilege in society in order to be a better feminist. I, for example, am a fair skinned, straight, educated, able-bodied woman who comes from a financially sound background and who lives in a metropolitan city with parents willing to adapt to new changes according to changing times. I have to acknowledge that I had certain privileges growing up that other women didn’t have due to varied factors. It’s important that I recognize my privilege and listen to women who experience the world differently than I do. On the feminist issues where we hold privilege, it’s crucial to listen to women whose life lacks those privileges. To listen to their experiences, to see the world through a more complex lens and to raise the voices of those who have less power, less means to fight. Inspite of how daunting and intimidating the term intersectionality may seem, it’s just about women standing up and looking out for each other, regardless of their biological sex, sexuality, race, color, caste, religion or any other factor.
Intersectional feminism is the idea that ‘gender’ or ‘women’ doesn’t just refer to a single unified concept: all women have a race, class, ethnicity, religion, color, etc., and their experiences as ‘women’ differ because of those other differences.

In India, a woman born in a Hindu Brahmin family is penalized for her gender but she has the advantage of caste and religion. A woman born in a Dalit family is penalized for her gender and her caste both. Whereas, a dark skinned woman born in a Dalit family is penalized for her gender, caste and her color. All these women face discrimination based on their gender but each have their unique discriminatory factors to it too. Same goes for factors like financial status, educational background, societal class, geographical location, etc. When we combine the problems of all these varied women, the movement arising against them will be intersectional feminism which is all-inclusive.

So how can we gain a deeper understanding of where we personally stand on the issue of whether we identify as a feminist or not?

Asking yourself these questions and answering them candidly will get you closer to recognizing what you honestly believe:

  1. Do you believe that women deserve equal rights and equal opportunities as men have? If not, why not, specifically?
  2. Do you oppose the idea that every human deserves equal rights and equal access to all opportunities? If you oppose it, what are you concerns, if equality is achieved? What are the downsides, in your opinion?
  3. Do you believe that only certain groups of people should be allowed to have access to certain opportunities and rights? If so, which groups should be granted this access, and who gets to decide that?
  4. Do you believe that people should be given different roles and responsibilities in society based on their social and financial status, race, gender, caste, religion, etc.?
  5. Do you believe that it would be inherently fair to grant women access to only some rights while men have access to all rights and opportunities?
  6. Think back on what has shaped all your beliefs about these issues. Where did they come from, childhood, early adulthood? Your personal experiences with men and women, or what you read and watch in the media? Who in your family or friends influences your beliefs today?
  7. What makes you agitated to read in the media about men, women and equality?
  8. Do you believe that a world that prevents certain people from accessing full rights and opportunities would lead to a fair, healthy, prosperous world for all?
  9. In the end, do your beliefs actually feel aligned with who you really are?
  10. Do your beliefs and behaviors support equality for all, or just for some?
  11. Could there be hidden biases that affect your experiences with people of different genders, race, color, religion, etc?
  12. If you believe in equality for women, but not in feminism, can you point out why?
  13. If you believe in equality for all, are you taking a brave stand for it, in your own life and in your own sphere of influence?