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Schools of Feminist Thought: Factions and Subsets of the Feminist Movement

By Cindy Moore

It's important to the credibility of feminism as a movement that differing schools of feminist thought be recognized. A major criticism of modern-day feminism is that the mainstream of the movement tends to reject any ideological dissent from within. A number of self-proclaimed feminist women have been summarily rejected from the movement and even called anti-feminist just by daring to make any criticism of the movement's goals or actions. The visible vanguard of the movement attempts to paint itself as a purely homogeneous sisterhood of women, united and unified under one ideology in the name of one singular feminist movement. In reality, of course, the situation is much more complex, and richer in diversity of ideas, priorities, and activist involvement. Feminism is a much broader umbrella than it appears.

I wanted to give some idea of what feminism means to different women who claim the label as their own on this site--after all, the very idea at the core of this project is to illustrate that not all feminism falls under the ball-breaking reverse-double-standard militant stereotype that is so prevalent today. But as it turns out, someone had already tackled this task, and to a more ambitious extent than I had intended to apply myself in the first place. The newsgroup soc.feminism posts several periodic FAQ lists (Frequently Asked Questions), and one of them (posted as "Soc.Feminism Terminologies" by Cindy Moore) describes the "various kinds of feminism" in conscientious detail. She includes the following factions of feminism on her list:

I would take exception with the fact that there is no entry for "Equity Feminism" in this list. If Ms. Moore is so generous as to extend an entry for Rush Limbaugh's term "Feminazism", you'd expect the reason would be that she intends to give consideration to all factions of feminism, major or minor, actual or perceived. But this appears not to be the case: "equity feminism" is a term that has been at the center of controversy within feminist circles since at least 1994, and certainly has more real-world relevance to feminist policy than does the ridiculous and inflammatory non-movement called "feminazism". The closest thing you can find to an Equity Feminism category in this list is Liberal Feminism, and even here the language reverts from a matter-of-fact, unbiased and informative tone to a sniping, subjective and insulting dismissal: "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".

Aside from this small backslide into nasty but perhaps unsurprising radical-centricism, this document is still extremely informative and well-rounded in its sources. So with that note of caution from me, I will step aside and let Ms. Moore and her co-authors have the virtual podium here.

A variety of movements in feminism means that calling one's self a feminist can mean many things. In general, members of the following categories of feminism believe in the listed policies; however as with any diverse movement, there are disagreements within each group and overlap between others. This list is meant to illustrate the diversity of feminist thought and belief. It does not mean that feminism is fragmented (although it often seems that way!). Much of the definitions presented here are inspired from American Feminism by Ginette Castro; there is a definite American bias here. Other sources were Feminist Frameworks (2nd ed.) by Jaggar and Rothenberg (which is a worthwhile but incomplete reader that tried to sort out these various schools of feminist thought). Any additional, balancing information from other countries and/or books is more than welcome (and will be incorporated).

Defining various kinds of feminism is a tricky proposition. The diversity of comment with most of the kinds presented here should alert you to the dangers and difficulties in trying to "define" feminism. Since feminism itself resists all kinds of definitions by its very existence and aims, it is more accurate to say that there are all kinds of "flavors" and these flavors are mixed up every which way; there is no set of Baskin Robbins premixed flavors, as it were.

+ Amazon Feminism

Amazon feminism is dedicated to the image of the female hero in fiction and in fact, as it is expressed in art and literature, in the physiques and feats of female athletes, and in sexual values and practices.

Amazon feminism is concerned about physical equality and is opposed to gender role stereotypes and discrimination against women based on assumptions that women are supposed to be, look or behave as if they are passive, weak and physically helpless.

Amazon feminism rejects the idea that certain characteristics or interests are inherently masculine (or feminine), and upholds and explores a vision of heroic womanhood. Thus Amazon feminism advocates e.g., female strength athletes, martial artists, soldiers, etc.

+ Anarcho-Feminism

Anarcho-feminism was never a huge movement, especially in the United States, and you won't find a whole lot written about it. I mention it mostly because of the influential work of Emma Goldman, who used anarchism to craft a radical feminism that was (alas!) far ahead of her time. Radical feminism expended a lot of energy dealing with a basis from which to critique society without falling into Marxist pleas for socialist revolution. It also expended a lot of energy trying to reach across racial and class lines. Goldman had succeeded in both. Radical feminist Alix Schulman realized this, but not in time to save her movement. She's put out a reader of Goldman's work and a biography, both of which I recommend highly.

+ Cultural Feminism

As radical feminism died out as a movement, cultural feminism got rolling. In fact, many of the same people moved from the former to the latter. They carried the name "radical feminism" with them, and some cultural feminists use that name still. (Jaggar and Rothenberg don't even list cultural feminism as a framework separate from radical feminism, but Echols spells out the distinctions in great detail.) The difference between the two is quite striking: whereas radical feminism was a movement to transform society, cultural feminism retreated to 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).

Cultural feminists can sometimes come up with notions that sound disturbingly Victorian and non-progressive: that women are inherently (biologically) "kinder and gentler" than men and so on. (Therefore if all leaders were women, we wouldn't have wars.) I do think, though, that cultural feminism's attempts to heighten respect for what is traditionally considered women's work is an important parallel activity to recognizing that traditionally male activities aren't necessarily as important as we think.

I have often associated this type of statement [inherently kinder and gentler] with Separatist Feminists, who seem to me to feel that women are *inherently* kinder and gentler, so why associate with men? (This is just my experience from Separatists I know...I haven't read anything on the subject.) I know Cultural Feminists who would claim women are *trained* to be kinder and gentler, but I don't know any who have said they are *naturally* kinder.

As various 1960s movements for social change fell apart or got co-opted, folks got pessimistic about the very possibility of social change. Many of then turned their attention to building alternatives, so that if they couldn't change the dominant society, they could avoid it as much as possible. That, in a nutshell, is what the shift from radical feminism to cultural feminism was about. These alternative-building efforts were accompanied with reasons explaining (perhaps justifying) the abandonment of working for social change. Cultural feminism's justification was biological determinism. This justification was worked out in great detail, and was based on assertions in horribly-flawed books like Elizabeth Gould Davis's The First Sex and Ashley Montagu's The Natural Superiority of Women. So notions that women are "inherently kinder and gentler" are one of the foundations of cultural feminism, and remain a major part of it. A similar concept held by some cultural feminists is that while various sex differences might not be biologically determined, they are still so thoroughly ingrained as to be intractable. There is no inherent connection between alternative-building and ideologies of biological determinism (or of social intracta- bility). SJ has apparently encountered alternative-builders who don't embrace biological determinism, and I consider this a very good sign.

I should point out here that Ashley Montagu is male, and his book was first copyright in 1952, so I don't believe that it originated as part of the separatist movements in the '60's. It may still be horribly flawed; I haven't yet read it.

+ Erotic Feminism

[European] This seemed to start (as a movement) in Germany under the rule of Otto von Bismarck. He ruled the land with the motto "blood and iron". In society the man was the _ultra manly man_ and power was patriarchal power. Some women rebelled against this, by becoming WOMAN. Eroticism became a philosophical and metaphysical value and the life-creating value.

+ Eco-Feminism:

This branch of feminism is much more spiritual than political or theoretical in nature. It may or may not be wrapped up with Goddess worship and vegetarianism. Its basic tenet is that a patriarchical society will exploit its resources without regard to long term consequences as a direct result of the attitudes fostered in a patriarchical/hierarchical society. Parallels are often drawn between society's treatment of the environment, animals, or resources and its treatment of women. In resisting patriarchical culture, eco-feminists feel that they are also resisting plundering and destroying the Earth. And vice-versa.

This is actually socially-conscious environmentalism with a tiny smattering of the radical and cultural feminist observation that exploitation of women and exploitation of the earth have some astonishing parallels. The rest of "eco-feminism" turns out to be a variation on socialism. The Green movements of Europe have done a good job of formulating (if not implementing) an environmentally aware feminism; and while Green movements were not originally considered a part of eco-feminism, they are now recognized as a vital component.

(If I remember correctly, a couple of feminist groups, including NOW have joined up with Green parties.)

+ Feminazi:

This term was "invented" by the radio/tv host Rush Limbaugh. He defines a feminazi as a feminist who is trying to produce as many abortions as possible. Hence the term "nazi" - he sees them as trying to rid the world of a particular group of people (fetuses).

This term is of course completely without merit, but there's the definition of it FYI.

+ Feminism and Women of Color:

In _feminist theory from margin to center_ (1984), bell hooks writes of "militant white women" who call themselves "radical feminists" but hooks labels them "reactionary" . . . Hooks is refering to cultural feminism here. Her comment is a good introduction to that fractious variety of feminism that Jaggar and Rothenberg find hard to label any further than to designate its source as women of color. It is a most vital variety, covering much of the same ground as radical feminism and duplicating its dynamic nature. Yet bad timing kept the two from ever uniting. For more information you might want to also read hooks' book and her earlier reader, ain't i a woman? Whereas radical feminism was primarily formulated by educated white women focusing on women's issues, this variety was formulated by women who would not (because they could not) limit their focus. What is so extraordinary is that the two converged in so many ways, with the notable exception that the women of color were adamantly opposed to considering one form of oppression (sexism) without considering the others.

I think an important work in the history of feminism and women of color is Gloria Anzaldua and Cherrie Moraga's anthology, This Bridge Called My Back: Writings By Radical Women of Color. It's my belief that the unique contribution of women of color, who experience at least two forms of discrimination daily, provides balance and reality to much of the more theoretical forms of academic feminism favored by educated white women.

+ Individualist, or Libertarian Feminism

Individualist feminism is based upon individualist or libertarian (minimum government or anarchocapitalist) philosophies, i.e. philosophies whose primary focus is individual autonomy, rights, liberty, independence and diversity.

+ Lesbianism:

There are a couple of points to make here. First is that Lesbianism is not necessarily a *de facto* part of feminism. While it is true that merely being a lesbian is a direct contravention of "traditional" concepts of womanhood, Lesbians themeselves hold a wide variety of opionions on the subject of feminism just as their straight sisters do.

On the other hand, Lesbianism has sometimes been made into a political point by straight women "becoming" lesbian in order to fully reject men. However, it is never accurate to characterise all feminists as Lesbians nor all Lesbians as feminists.

The reader should also note that homophobia is as present among feminists as it is in any other segment of society. Lesbianism and feminism, for all their common points and joint interests, are two very different groups.

+ Liberal Feminism:

This is the variety of feminism that works within the structure of mainstream society to integrate women into that structure. Its roots stretch back to the social contract theory of government instituted by the American Revolution. Abigail Adams and Mary Wollstonecraft were there from the start, proposing equality for women. 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.

+ Marxist and Socialist Feminism

Marxism recognizes that women are oppressed, and attributes the oppression to the capitalist/private property system. 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. Jaggar and Rothenberg point to significant differences between socialist feminism and Marxism, but for our purposes I'll present the two together. Echols offers a description of socialist feminism as 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.

+ Material Feminism

A movement in the late 19th century to liberate women by improving their material condition. This meant taking the burden of housework and cooking off their shoulders. _The Grand Domestic Revolution_ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is one reference.

+ Moderate Feminism:

This branch of feminism tends to be populated by younger women or other women who have not directly experienced discrimination. They are closely affiliated with liberal feminism, but tend to question the need for further effort, and do not think that Radical feminism is any longer viable and in fact rather embarrassing (this is the group most likely to espouse feminist ideas and thoughts while denying being "feminist").

+ 'pop-feminism'

This term has appeared several times on soc.feminism. It appears to be a catch-all for the bogey"man" sort of feminism that everyone loves to hate: you know, the kind of feminism that grinds men under its heel and admits to no wrong for women. It is doubtful that such a caricature actually exists, yet many people persist in lumping all feminists into this sort of a category.

+ Radical Feminism:

Provides the bulwark of theoretical thought in feminism. Radical feminism provides an important foundation for the rest of "feminist flavors". Seen by many as the "undesireable" element of feminism, Radical feminism is actually the breeding ground for many of the ideas arising from feminism; ideas which get shaped and pounded out in various ways by other (but not all) branches of feminism.

Radical feminism was the cutting edge of feminist theory from approximately 1967-1975. It is no longer as universally accepted as it was then, nor does it provide a foundation for, for example, cultural feminism. In addition, radical feminism is not and never has been related to the Maoist-feminist group Radical 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 opression, 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.

Ironically, this get-to-the-roots movement is the most root-less variety of feminism. This was part of its strength and part of its weakness. It was always dynamic, always dealing with factions, and always full of ideas. Its influence has been felt in all the other varieties listed here, as well as in society at large.

To me, radical feminism is centred on the necessity to question gender roles. This is why I identify current "gender politics" questions as radical feminist issues. Radical feminism questions why women must adopt certain roles based on their biology, just as it questions why men adopt certain other roles based on theirs. Radical feminism attempts to draw lines between biologically- determined behavior and culturally-determined behavior in order to free both men and women as much as possible from their previous narrow gender roles.

The best history of this movement is a book called Daring to be Bad, by Echols. I consider that book a must!

Another excellent book is simply titled Radical Feminism and is an anthology edited by Anne Koedt, a well-known radical feminist.

Radical feminist theory is to a large extent incompatible with cultural feminism. The reason is that the societal forces it deals with seem so great in magnitude that they make it impossible to identify any innate masculine or feminine attributes except those which are results of the biological attributes. (This is what I think the [above] "view[s] the oppression of women as the most fundamental form of oppression," [is getting at] although I don't agree with that statement in its context.)

+ Separatists:

Popularly and wrongly depicted as Lesbians, these are the feminists who advocate separation from men; sometimes total, sometimes partial. Women who organize women-only events are often unfairly dubbed separatist. Separatists are sometimes literal, sometimes figurative. The core idea is that "separating" (by various means) from men enables women to see themselves in a different context. Many feminists, whether or not separatist, think this is a necessary "first step", by which they mean a temporary separation for personal growth, not a permanent one.

There is sometimes some overlap between separatist and cultural feminists (see below).

It is equally inaccurate to consider all Lesbians as separatist; while it is true that they do not interact with men for sexual fulfillment, it is not true that they therefore automatically shun all interaction with men.

And, conversely, it is equally inaccurate to consider all separatists Lesbians. Additionally, lesbian feminism may be considered a category distinct from separatist feminism. Lesbian feminism puts more emphasis on lesbianism -- active bonding with women -- than separatism does, in its emphasis on removing bonds with men.


Cindy Moore gives thanks to:

  • Ellen Eades
  • David desJardins
  • Jym Dyer
  • Thomas Gramstad
  • Rebecca Grinter
  • David Gross (incl. all info on men's movements)
  • Stacy Johnson
  • Rudy Zalesak

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