The feminist perspective is the political stance of someone committed to changing the social position of women to bring about gender equality (Pilcher and Whelehan, 2004), whilst gender is described as the characteristics taken on by males and females in social life and culture through socialisation. Gender is a process and not a permanent state, implying that gender is being produced and reproduced, whereas inequality refers to the unequal rewards or opportunities for different individuals or groups within a society (Wharton, 2005). This essay will define how the feminist perspective has influenced the sociological study of gender inequality. It will summarise how the three founding fathers of sociology viewed men’s oppression and women’s subordination and discuss how earlier feminists viewed their counterpart’s attitudes.
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In the late 19th and early 20th century sociology remained a male dominated discipline with the classical theorists Marx, Durkheim and Weber. This was surprising due to the fact that the pre-existing patterns of gender inequality brought about modernisation. Women’s labour contributed vastly to industrial capitalism. Although the classical theorists had literature and theories of contemporary feminist movements they never addressed the gendered process of modernisation, they saw women in more traditional roles within the family (Bilton et al, 2002).
According to Giddens (2009) Marx viewed gender differences in power and status between men and women in the divisions of class. Gender inequality only appeared when industrial capitalism was formed; men went out to work and controlled the family income and the women stayed at home doing the housework whilst looking after the children. Fulcher and Scott (2003) noted that Marx viewed women’s oppression as serving the capitalists society.
Durkheim (1897 cited in Simpson 1952) viewed gender inequality as entrenched in society. In his discussion of suicide, Durkheim stated that men are a product of society while women are a product of nature. Durkheim suggested that women and men have different identities because women are less socialised then men. Likewise, Giddens (2009:91) stated “Women’s social position and identity are mainly shaped by their involvement in reproduction and childrearing.” Durkheim (1897 cited in Simpson 1952) argued that women bear and rare children whereas men are active in the public spheres of politics and work. Yet, today feminists would argue that women are shaped as much as men through socialisation.
Waters (1994) pointed out that Weber’s theory on gender inequality is confined to a system of organisational domination rather than power. Weber used the word patriarchalism rather than patriarchy to describe his category of traditional domination, where a person in authority inherits a particular status at birth. Weber indicated that the power of the man in the household is unimpeded and that women and children are his property. Women, Weber (cited in Roth, G. & Wittich, C. 1968:1007) argued, are dependent because “of the normal superiority of the physical and intellectual energies of the male.” According to Waters (1994) Weber viewed the status of women and children under patriarchalism as similar to slaves in that they are capable of being bought, sold and rented.
The first wave of feminism coincided with the classical theorists Marx, Durkheim and Weber. Giddens (2009) highlighted the fact that from 1800 to 2000 there had only been five feminist sociologists: Harriet Martineau 1802-76, Simone de Beauvoir 1908-86, Betty Friedan 1921-2006, Judith Butler 1956 and Vandana Shiva 1952. Martineau, the earliest sociologist and feminist was famous for introducing sociology to Britain through her transcript of Comte’s thesis of sociology. In Giddens (2009) Martineau argued that if a society is to be studied, sociologists must focus on political, religious and social institutions. Secondly, that a society must include an understanding of women’s lives. Thirdly, issues of marriage, children and domestic life should be left unchallenged and that sociologists must do more than view but act in ways to benefit society.
Erstwhile influential figures of first wave feminism were Mary Wollstonecraft, Harriet Taylor Mill and her husband John Stuart Mill. Wollstonecraft (1792 cited in Abbott and Wallace, 1990:191) emphasised that “inequalities between men and women were not the outcome of natural (biological) differences but due to the influence of the environment, and especially the fact that women were excluded from education”. Wollstonecraft argued that it was essential to educate women and change society so women and men were seen as equal (Abbott et al, 2005).
In Harriet’s essay, ‘The Enfranchisement of Women’ 1851, published under her husband’s name she campaigned that women should be given equal rights to the same jobs as men and that women should not live in separate spheres. Harriet’s views were seen as more radical than that of John’s however, they both argued in their book ‘The Subjection of Women’ 1869 that women should have the same rights as men under law (Mill 1851, 1869 cited in Abbott, Wallace, 1990).
The suffragettes and other campaigners of the 19th and 20th century campaigned for change. In 1839 women won the right to custody of an infant child, in 1882 the right to own their own property, in 1918 the right to vote and in 1934 they won the right to divorce on the same grounds as men. The 19th and 20th century feminism was all on the subject of change and having the same legal rights as men. Although women did not achieve equality with men in the 19th or early 20th century, most rights had been won. This first wave of feminism saw social change and therefore sociologists could no longer ignore gender inequality (Abbott, Wallace, 1990).
Whilst the feminist theories had developed independently to sociology, the study of gender in sociology came from the second wave of the women’s movement. Academic subjects like sociology appeared to ignore women. Women were rarely the subjects of research, and activities dominated by women such as house work and childcare received little interest. Oakley (1972) criticised sociology for generating knowledge more to do with men’s lives rather than women’s. At the time sociology was expressed in a quote by sociologist Jessie Bernard (1973 cited in Wharton, 2005:4) “Can sociology become a science of society rather than a science of a male society?”
According to Waters (1994) feminist sociologists used the expression malestream to illustrate the mainstream discipline of sociology. Feminists implied that sociology was blind to gender and that it viewed gender difference and male oppression as symbolic, thus, sociological explanation was not needed. Giddens (2001) pointed to the fact that feminism and the women’s movements had forced fundamental changes in sociology. Feminists argued that men and women had different experiences and viewed the world differently they did not build their understandings in equal ways. According to Waters (1994) women’s experiences are intentionally ignored and the ways in which men dominate women is seen as natural. Additionally, when women were included in research, they were presented from a male perspective.
Oakley (1972) suggested sociology had been biased from the beginning. Sociology was predominately a male profession and the principles of gender resulted in assumptions about differences between males and females. She argued that despite the criticism of the discipline for its malestream views little has changed over the years. Although women are studying the subject, the majority of lecturers are male. According to Abbott & Wallace (1990) there has been some change in that sociologists can no longer afford to ignore the feminist perspective and there has been converse about the changes needed for male bias in sociology to be overcome.
It has been noted that gender is a generally formed perception which contributes differing social roles and identities to males and females. According to Giddens (2009) gender differences are rarely neutral and that gender is a significant form of social stratification. Giddens (2009: 614) emphasised that “gender is a critical factor in structuring types of opportunity and life chances faced by individuals and groups, and strongly influences the roles they play within social institutions from the household to the state.” Fulcher and Scott (2003) stated that for many feminists, social stratification has been seen as entrenched in relations of sexual power that are built around natural differences of sex. Similarly, Giddens (2009) stressed that even though men and women’s roles vary from society to society, there is no known society in which women are more dominant than men. Men’s roles are usually highly rewarded and valued more than women’s. Firestone (1971) argued that societies are separated into opposed sex classes and that all men oppress all women, thus the struggle between men and women is the driving force in human history.
Although women have made a number of advances around the globe, gender differences serve the foundation for gender inequality. There are many academic perspectives relating to gender inequality and how men dominate women in the public and private sphere (Giddens, 2009). The functionalist theory searches to show that gender differentiation contribute to social stability and integration. According to Waters (1994) Parsons and Murdoch studied the family in industrial societies and how children were socialised. They noted that the stability of the family contributed to successful socialisation. Parsons argued that the family operated more efficiently were women acted in an expressive role, caring for the children and offering them emotional support. Whereas the men performed better in an active role by going out and earning money for the family, Murdoch added that males and females are best suited to the roles they are biologically determined to perform. According to Giddens (2009) Feminists argued that women are not prevented from occupations on the basis of biological features, they suggested humans are socialised into roles that are culturally expected of them and there is nothing natural about the distribution of tasks in society.
Liberal feminists looked for explanations of gender inequality in social and cultural attitudes. They also fought for the equal rights of women through democratic means (Waters, 1994). The Liberal theory came to light with the suffragist movement in the early 20th century and fought against laws that gave rights to men and not women. They campaigned to pass laws to outlaw discrimination against women and to give women rights in the workplace, educational institutes and the media. Abbott et al (2005) criticised liberal feminists of not dealing with core issues of gender inequality, they do not acknowledge the nature of women’s oppression.
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According to Bilton et al (2002) radical feminists alleged that men had an interest in controlling women through various tactics, including rape, genital mutilation, domestic violence and sexual harassment. The violence that women were exploited to showed a source of male supremacy. Giddens (2009) noted that radical feminists concentrated on the family home as one of the primary areas of women’s oppression. Radical feminists argued that men exploited women by relying on unpaid domestic labour. Firestone (1971 cited in Giddens, 2009:617) expressed that “…..because women are biologically able to give birth to children, they become dependent materially on men for protection and livelihood.” Radical feminists argued that men see women as sexual objects whose main purpose is to entertain and please them. Additionally, radical feminists see patriarchy as a phenomenon. They suggest gender equality can only be gained by overthrowing the Patriarchal order.
Marxist and socialist feminists argued that women’s oppression was a symptom of capitalism rather than patriarchy. Like radical feminists, Marx feminists argued that the household was the location of women’s oppression arising from the fact that women took part in unpaid work in the private sphere, that is, caring for the labour force and raising the next generation of workers to benefit the capitalists at no cost to them (Bilton et al, 2002). However, Marx had little to do with gender inequality, according to Giddens (2009) it was Engel’s who did more than Marx’s in relation to gender inequality. Engel’s did so through the Marxist perspective. Engel’s (in Giddens, 2009) argued capitalism strengthens patriarchy by putting wealth in the hands of capitalists which underpins women’s subordination to men. Both Marxist and radical feminists saw how capitalism effected gender relations in both the public and private spheres. They wanted to see a restructuring of the family and an end to domestic slavery, however Marx argued this would only be achieved through a revolutionary change.
hooks (1981 cited in Haralambos & Holborn, 2008) criticised white feminists of failing to acknowledge how race and racism impacts on women’s experiences. She argued that white feminist theories of oppression applied to all women; therefore this institutionalised racism. Giddens (2009) pointed out that although black feminists stood next to their suffragette counterparts for women’s rights they realised race could not be ignored. Black women were at a disadvantage on the basis of their colour, race, gender and class position. Black feminists concluded that if gender equality is to prevail then racism needed to be addressed in mainstream feminism.
Post-modern feminism came about in the 1980’s and challenged the definition of modern feminism. Post-modern feminists argued that ‘woman’ is a debatable category, complicated by issues of class, ethnicity, sexuality and other facets of identity. They rejected the claim that there is a grand theory that can explain the position of women in a society because each society has complex social relations and women do not actually have a fixed identity. Post-modern feminists accept that there are many different points of view that are all equally valid (Marsh and Keating, 2006).
Characteristics of Masculinity and femininity differ from one society to another, not only do the characteristics differ but so do the sexual activities in which people engage. Connell (1995 cited in Macionis & Plummer, 2008: 366) described this as part of a gender order in which “societies shape notions of masculinity and femininity into power relationships.” Connell argued that femininity and masculinity were arranged around hegemonic masculinity and suggested that men produced and maintained gender inequality. According to Giddens (2001) Connell used pragmatic data on gender inequality to show how women were kept in subordinate positions to men. Connell categorised society’s gender order into three facets: labour that referred to the sexual divisions of labour in the home and place of work, power that referred to domestic violence within the home and cathexis which related to the mechanics within emotional sexual relationships.
According to the Office for National Statistics (2010) the pay gap for full-time employees in 2009 is down from 12.2% to 10.2%. For women, full-time earnings increased more across the bottom 10% of the distribution with a growth of 1.8% compared to 0.8% for their male counterparts. Similarly, the hourly earnings of the top 10% women went up by 2.1% compared to the 0.8% for men. In addition, the Office for National Statistics (2008) noted that in 2007/08 women were five times more likely to suffer from domestic violence than men, this accounted for 85% of women compared to 15% of men.
Up until 1970, crime and deviance like other areas of sociology had ignored women. Sociologist, Carol Smart (1979 cited in Haralambos & Horn 2008) criticised criminology for being male dominated and sexist. She argued that because women committed fewer and less insignificant crimes then men, women were undeserving of research. The Office for National Statistics (2008) reported that in 2006 males where more than likely to be found guilty of crime than women. In England and Wales between 82% and 94% of males were found guilty of a violent crime and 97% of males were found guilty of sexual offences.
Criminologist Otis Pollock (1950 cited in Haralambos & Horn 2008) claimed that women were more deviant then men. He argued that statistics on crime and gender were deceptive and that certain crimes women committed were likely to go unreported. Firstly, Pollock stated that the police and magistrates tended to be men and were chivalrous. Secondly, women were clever in hiding their crimes; Pollock linked this to female biology. Thirdly, Pollock saw women’s domestic role as an opportunity to commit crime in the private sphere and that this type of crime went undetected. Although, Pollock’s theories have been heavily criticised by other criminologist, his critics do give him creditability for being the first to say statistics did underrate female criminality.
In summary, it is evident that in the 19th century men dominated society, early sociological theories ignored gender issues in particular women. Feminists such as Martineau fought against these sexiest ideologies arguing that malestream research did not relate to the lives of women or indeed their concerns. Feminists stressed that society could not be fully understood without taking women into consideration. The first wave of feminism was all about how men viewed and marginalised women and equal rights.
As feminism developed in sociology, individual theories formed within feminism thinking. These theories highlighted and explained how women viewed gender inequality and how men oppressed women in the public and private sphere. Feminists believed that developing such theories would help them understand their subordination and help liberate themselves from men’s control. Feminism has also helped sociologists understand how masculinity and femininity is arranged around the dominance of men and how the power relations of gender order keep women in subordinate positions within the home and at work.
Whilst the feminist perspective has influenced the study of gender inequality by obtaining the same civil rights as men, acquiring rights in the workplace, the home and in politics. Some feminists still argue that there needs to be a total rethinking of sociological theory around the issues of women, although some progress has been made. It would appear that women still have a considerable way to go in closing the gendering gap and having the same equal opportunities as men. Yet, it remains to be seen if women will ever break through the glass ceiling and reach the top of the social mobility ladder or earn the same wage as men in high flying positions.
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