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Sociology Feminist Theory
by
Jennifer Carlson, Raka Ray

Introduction

Feminist theory explores both inequality in gender relations and the constitution of gender. It is best understood as both an intellectual and a normative project. What is commonly understood as feminist theory accompanied the feminist movement in the mid-seventies, though there are key texts from the 19th and early- to mid-20th centuries that represent early feminist thought. Whereas feminist theories first began as an attempt to explain women’s oppression globally, following a grand theoretical approach akin to Marxism, the questions and emphases in the field have undergone some major shifts. Two primary shifts have been (1) from universalizing to particularizing and contextualizing women’s experiences and (2) from conceptualizing men and women as categories and focusing on the category “women” to questioning the content of that category, and moving to the exploration of gendered practices. Thus, while many theorists do focus on the question of how gender inequality manifests in institutions such as the workplace, home, armed forces, economy, or public sphere, others explore the range of practices that have come to be defined as masculine or feminine and how gender is constituted in relation to other social relations. Feminist theories can thus be used to explain how institutions operate with normative gendered assumptions and selectively reward or punish gendered practices. Many contemporary feminists look beyond the United States to focus on the effects of transnational economic, political, and cultural linkages on shaping gender.

Journals

While Signs and Feminist Studies were the first journals dedicated to interdisciplinary feminist work, there are now several specialist journals across the social sciences. Feminism & Psychology is a leading journal in psychology and gender, while Feminist Media Studies focuses on media and communication studies. Gender & Society is the top journal in sociology of gender. While Hypatia and Feminist Theory mainly publish feminist philosophy, their articles draw heavily on works across the humanities and the social sciences.

Anthologies

Rather than textbooks per se, many courses use the following collections of essays in their syllabi. These essays are usually clustered around certain themes such as race or politics and provide an excellent entry into feminist thought. Freedman 2007 and Nicholson 1997 provide excellent compilations of feminist thought from the 19th century to the second wave, while Moraga and Anzaldúa 1983 and Anzaldúa 1995 bring together important anthologies of the writings of US women of color, and Mohanty, et al. 1991 broadens the field to include women of the third world. Butler and Scott 1992 introduces readers to a wide range of poststructuralist feminist thought while McClintock, et al. 1997 provides an engagement with a range of postcolonial feminism.

  • Anzaldúa, Gloria, ed. 1995. Making face, making soul = haciendo caras: Creative and critical perspectives by feminists of color. CIC Women’s Studies Preservation Project 119.2. San Francisco: Aunt Lute.

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    Key essays and creative writing by Anzaldúa, Norma Alarcon, and Trinh Minh-ha, among others, showcase the different ways in which experiences of race, class, gender, and sexuality can be theorized.

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  • Butler, Judith, and Joan Scott, eds. 1992. Feminists theorize the political. New York: Routledge.

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    A collection of essays by leading feminist scholars that engages with the concept of the “political” and in particular with the place of postrstructuralist thinking within feminism.

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  • Freedman, Estelle, ed. 2007. The essential feminist reader. New York: Modern Library.

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    This is one of the best collections of early feminist thought from John Stuart Mill to Egyptian feminist Huda Sharaawi, on the one hand, and from the classic essay on the politics of housework by Pat Mainardi to Rebecca Walker’s manifesto on third-wave feminism, on the other.

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  • McClintock, Anne, Aamir Mufti, and Ella Shohat, eds. 1997. Dangerous liaisons: Gender, nation and postcolonial perspectives. Cultural Politics 11. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press.

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    This anthology addresses the place of gender in postcolonial nations, how women have been effectively excluded from power, and the historical aftermath of colonialism on relations of race and gender.

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  • Mohanty, Chandra Talpade, Ann Russo, and Lourdes Torres, eds. 1991. Third world women and the politics of feminism. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press.

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    This collection addresses the international race and class contradictions of feminist politics, includes Chandra Mohanty’s now-famous essay “Under Western Eyes,” and is one of the first anthologies to interrogate the role of postcolonial states in creating particular gendered orders.

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  • Moraga, Cherrie, and Gloria Anzaldúa, eds. 1983. This bridge called my back: Writings of radical women of color. New York: Kitchen Table, Women of Color Press.

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    An important collection of writings from Audre Lorde, Cherrie Moraga, and others, first published in 1979, which attempted to create conversations between women of color and contemplated the possibility of creating a third world feminism.

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  • Nicholson, Linda, ed. 1997. The second wave: A reader in feminist theory. New York: Routledge.

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    This volume contains some of the most important essays that served as turning points in feminist debates. The essays are arranged chronologically so that readers get an excellent entry into debates that marked each decade, from questions about Marxism to questions about difference.

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Classic Texts

From the 19th century on, thinkers such as Mary Wollstonecroft (see Wollstonecraft 2010) and John Stuart Mill (see Mill 1997) attempted to understand the “woman question” and made arguments for the importance of granting legal equality to women. These writings may be thought of as the precursors to liberal feminist thought. In very different contexts, Gilman 1997 and Hossain 1988 created feminist utopias in the late 19th and early 20th century. The work of Simone de Beauvoir (see Beauvoir 1989) was the first major attempt to think about how men and women were constituted differently and unequally, while Betty Freidan’s portrayal of the subordination of middle-class housewives in mid-century America is also considered a landmark text (see Freidan 2001).

  • Beauvoir, Simone de. 1989. The second sex. 4th ed. Translated and edited by H. M. Parshley. New York: Vintage.

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    First published in 1949, this book draws from biology, psychoanalysis, literature, history, and cultural tradition to demonstrate how women become the Other of men, a cultural arrangement that stifles not only women but also men.

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  • Freidan, Betty. 2001. The feminine mystique. New York: Norton.

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    First published in 1963, it critiques the monotonous and stifled domestic lives that middle-class American women accept in pursuit of femininity. The Feminine Mystique is lauded as a breakthrough feminist text, though it has been widely critiqued for its inordinate focus on the experiences of middle class, white women as well as its underlying heterosexism.

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  • Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. 1997. “The yellow wallpaper” and other stories. Mineola, NY: Dover.

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    Part feminist fable and part critique of the medical establishment, this short story, first written in 1892, is one of the earliest records of the cost of the division of labor on women’s health and sanity.

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  • Hossain, Rokeya Sakhawat. 1988. Sultana’s dream: A feminist utopia, and selections from The secluded ones. New York: Feminist Press.

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    A self-consciously feminist fable, published in India in 1905, in which the narrator travels to a land in which women are free to learn and govern and men are in seclusion.

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  • Mill, John Stewart. 1997. On the subjection of women. Mineola, NY: Dover.

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    Mill argued that denying women equal legal standing with men—particularly with respect to the right to vote—harms not only women but also society at large. An early proponent of liberal feminism, he stipulated that suffrage would encourage women to develop intellectually and, as a result, would roll back the socially constructed differences that hinder women’s development.

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  • Wollstonecraft, Mary. 2010. A vindication of the rights of woman: With strictures on political and other subjects. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    Wollstonecraft argues that women’s lack of access to education (among other social barriers) has stifled them as persons and companions to their husbands. Largely embracing traditional masculine values and cherishing reason and rationality as faculties accessible to men and women alike (with the proper training), Wollstonecraft was interested in seeing women become equal partners with men in existing social institutions.

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Universalist Theories

Early second-wave theorists struggle with essentialism and biology-based ideas about difference and argue that while inequalities between men and women are universal, they are socially created. This group of theories can be best understood as grand attempts to understand women’s systemic oppression. Feminists such as Gayle Rubin (see Rubin 1975) tried to isolate gender from other social forces and to analyze its specificity, as different from class and race, while marking gender as the core contradiction of society—indeed, of all societies. Mackinnon 1983a and Mackinnon 1983b famously argue that alienated sexuality is the root of gender oppression, while for Rich 1980, it lies more specifically in heterosexism, and for Wittig 1992 it is heterosexism and essentialism. Ortner 1974 suggests that the roots lie in a universal cultural devaluation of women. Hartmann 1983 traces gender oppression to the relationship between capitalism and patriarchy, and Pateman 1988 suggests that the sexual contract that subordinated women is the first social contract.

  • Hartmann, Heidi. 1983. Capitalism, patriarchy and job segregation by sex. Signs 1.3: 137–169.

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    Hartmann provides a historical examination of the sex-segregation of capitalist wage labor. She describes a transition from a precapitalist system of direct, personal control of individual men over individual women to a system in which men’s control over women takes an impersonal, indirect nature, arguing that patriarchal divisions in the labor force are facilitated through the mediation of capitalist institutions.

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  • MacKinnon, Catharine A. 1983a. Feminism, Marxism, method, and the state: An agenda for theory. Signs 7.3: 515–544.

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    Famously noting that “sexuality is to feminism what work is to Marxism,” MacKinnon turns Marxism on its head in this pair of articles by drawing out the ways in which objectification takes on a gendered form in the context of heterosexual relations, resulting in women’s alienation from their own bodies and sexualities.

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  • MacKinnon, Catharine A. 1983b. Feminism, Marxism, method and the state: Toward feminist jurisprudence. Signs 8.4: 635–658.

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    Using the legal status of rape to develop a feminist theory of the state, MacKinnon critiques liberalism and Marxism by arguing that “gender-neutral” approaches to the state mask its constitutive relationship to male power.

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  • Ortner, Sherry. 1974. Is female to male as nature is to culture? In Woman, culture and society. Edited by Michelle Rosaldo, Louise Lamphere, 67–88. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

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    Ortner theorizes that gender subordination gains currency through the valuation of culture (associated with men) and the devaluation of nature (associated with women). Attempting to explain the apparent universality of gender subordination, Ortner argues that women are viewed as representative of and dependent on nature; their role in socializing children into culture is also situated as fundamental to women’s subordination.

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  • Pateman, Carol. 1988. The sexual contract. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

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    Rereading Hobbes, Locke, and the Social Contract theorists, Pateman argues that underneath the social contract that held society together there lay a sexual contract through which women were already subordinated and without which the social contract would not hold.

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  • Rich, Adrienne. 1980. Compulsory heterosexuality and lesbian existence. Signs 5.4: 631–660.

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    This work critiques existing feminist works for their heterosexist bias, arguing that lesbianism is not a token lifestyle but rather distinguishes the affective relationships among women from those among men and between men and women. Rich calls for feminists to acknowledge this dimension and theorize why it has been systematically ignored in both mainstream and feminist texts.

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  • Rubin, Gayle. 1975. The traffic in women: Notes toward a political economy of sex. In Toward an anthropology of women. Edited by Rayna Reiter, 157–210. New York: Monthly Review.

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    This seminal work draws on Marxist, Levi-Straussian, and psychoanalytic concepts to explain the origins and maintenance of gender domination. Rubin argues that the traffic in women through marriage—a constitutive aspect of early human society according to Levi-Strauss—is today maintained through child-rearing practices that force girls to internalize inferiority, thereby producing gender difference rather than reflecting biological difference.

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  • Wittig, Monique. 1992. One is not born a woman. In The straight mind and other essays. By Monique Wittig, 9–20. Boston: Beacon.

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    Rallying against heterosexism and essentialism, Wittig critiques the Myth of Woman, which naturalizes women’s status as subordinate and valorizes aspects of that subordination. Rather than embrace motherhood as liberatory, Wittig insists on the political and economic constructedness of women. She presents lesbian society as the practical corollary to the materialist feminist analytic, both of which expose the Myth of Woman.

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Psychoanalytic and Interactionist Theories

Psychoanalytic and interactionist accounts of gender are united in their detailed attention to the social processes through which gender is practiced as well as to the profound meaning of one’s gender to one’s sense of (social, psychosocial or moral) self. Theorists focus on the social, symbolic, and moral registers in which gender is practiced, often drawing on Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis as well as generalized social interactions between men and women and between parents and children. For interactionists (e.g., West and Zimmerman 1987), gender is a social achievement actuated through interaction; Thorne 1993 extends that analysis to account for the construction of gender among children. Kimmel 2004 focuses on social interaction and boundary-making to understand masculinity. In Chodorow 1978, the analysis of gender dominance in interaction within the family is also rooted in the relationship between family structure and gender domination. Echoing Chodorow 1978 and the interactionists, Gilligan 1977 looks to relationality to articulate how gender marks one’s understanding of a moral self. Drawing on psychoanalysis among other theoretical perspectives, Benjamin 1988 argues that gender must be understood in terms of an attachment to dominance that emerges at a deep psychic level; Kristeva 1982 likewise elaborates a theory of abjection to explore how gender dominance emerges inter- and intrasubjectively. Irigaray 1985 problematizes Lacanian psychoanalysis by focusing on the (im)possibility of women’s sexualities.

  • Benjamin, Jessica. 1988. The bonds of love: Psychoanalysis, feminism, and the problem of domination. New York: Pantheon.

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    Using Freud’s Oedipal theory as well as the Hegelian master/slave dialectic as points of departure, Benjamin theorizes about ways in which domination becomes psychically internalized, in turn constitutively affecting emotional and sexual intimacy, gender dynamics, family life, and social institutions.

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  • Chodorow, Nancy. 1978. The reproduction of mothering: Psychoanalysis and the sociology of gender. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    Chodorow explores the intrapsychic and intersubjective relations through which gender difference is produced, particularly during early childhood. Acknowledging that mothers, not fathers, act as the primary parents in raising children, Chodorow shows how differences in relations within the family produce distinctions between masculinity and femininity that are often too easily understood as “natural” or “biological.”

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  • Gilligan, Carol. 1977. In a different voice: Women’s conceptions of self and morality. Harvard Educational Review 47.4: 481–517.

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    Critiquing the false universality of Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, Gilligan posits that women experience a different mode of development into adulthood. By emphasizing the “feminine perspective,” Gilligan exposes the concept of the separate self forwarded by developmental theorists as distinctly masculine and calls on them to acknowledge relations with others as vital to adulthood.

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  • Irigaray, Luce. 1985. This sex which is not one. In This sex which is not one. By Luce Irigaray, 23–33. Translated by Catherine Porter. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press.

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    Engaging Lacanian psychoanalysis, Irigaray notes that female sexuality has been mistakenly figured either as fundamental lack or in reference to the phallus. Both are inadequate expressions of female sexuality; in contrast to male sexuality, which centers on the phallus and requires external stimuli, female sexuality is characterized by plurality and autoeroticism.

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  • Kimmel, Michael. 2004. Masculinity as homophobia: Fear, shame and silence in the construction of gender identity. In Race, class, and gender in the United States: An integrated study. 6th ed. Edited by Paula S. Rothenberg, 80–91. New York: Worth.

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    Kimmel argues that homophobia is central to masculinity; men require the approval of other men to achieve manhood, even though this implies a fear of other men (i.e., Kimmel’s definition of homophobia) insofar as men are always at risk of being exposed by each other as un-masculine or even feminine.

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  • Kristeva, Julia. 1982. Powers of horror: An essay on abjection. European Perspectives. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

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    Pairing literary criticism with Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis, Kristeva develops a theory of abjection to explain gender difference and domination. Her theoretical insights have been widely used by subsequent feminists, most notably Judith Butler, Anne McClintock, and Elizabeth Grosz.

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  • Thorne, Barrie. 1993. Gender play: Girls and boys in school. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press.

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    Contesting the notion that children are merely “socialized” into appropriate gender roles, Thorne engages in an ethnography on elementary school children to understand how gender is actively constructed by children. She emphasizes how contradictory gender meanings are overlaid onto the dichotomous categories of “boy” and “girl” and how these meanings are produced through social relations and social organizations.

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  • West, Candace, and Don Zimmerman. 1987. Doing gender. Gender and Society 1.2: 125–151.

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    In this seminal piece, West and Zimmerman extend Goffman’s dramaturgical sociology to argue that gender is a routine practice that is achieved through social interaction. This microlevel analysis of gender is essential to understanding how gender is reproduced; since it is individuals themselves who do gender, gender must be understood as both institutional and interactional.

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Rejecting Universalism

The first theoretical move away from early theorizing was the rejection of middle class white womanhood as the normatively universal category and an acceptance that it was a particular category. The statement in the Combahee River Collective 2000 is the best-known early articulation of the different conditions of black women’s struggle from those of middle-class white women. In the 1980s, Lorde 1984a questioned white feminist anxiety around difference while hooks 1984 sought to explain why feminism was an unfulfilled project for black women. In an important intervention, Collins 1991 laid out the agenda for a specifically black feminist thought that, though inclusive, must be led by black feminists, and Anzaldúa 1995 articulated a specifically mestiza consciousness. Issues of inclusion are still central, as Alarcón 1991 takes white feminists to task for only marginally including women in their theorizing, and Springer 2002 differentiates the trajectory of black feminism from the dominant narrative of feminism.

  • Alarcón, Norma. 1991. The theoretical subject(s) of this bridge called my back and Anglo-American feminism. In Criticism in the borderlands: Studies in Chicano literature, culture and ideology. Edited by Héctor Calderón and Ramon David Salvidar, 28–42. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press.

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    Alarcón argues that feminist thought has resisted a fundamental problematization of the gendered subject. Because feminist thought consistently excludes women of color in its substantive theoretical claims but continues to nominally include them through footnotes and other forms of lip service, feminism can qualify itself as inclusive without fundamentally ridding itself of the assumption of a coherent, universal subject.

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  • Anzaldúa, Gloria. 1995. La conciencia de la mestiza: Towards a new consciousness. In Making face, making soul = haciendo caras: Creative and critical perspectives by feminists of color. Edited by Gloria Anzaldúa, 377–389. CIC Women’s Studies Preservation Project 119.2. San Francisco: Aunt Lute.

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    An account of subordinate consciousness that is marked by multiple, clashing voices to destabilize the assumption of a unitary subject. Anzaldúa suggests that understanding the subjective toleration of contradiction and ambiguity sheds insight on the ability of “borderland consciousness” to understand domination without excusing it and to acknowledge one’s vulnerability while maintaining a remarkable, uncanny capacity to survive.

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  • Collins, Patricia Hill. 1991. Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness and the politics of empowerment. Perspectives on Gender 2. New York: Routledge.

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    Aiming to legitimate black women’s intellectual production, Collins theorizes the links across oppression, knowledge, agency, and social change. Inhabiting a unique social position marked by the intersection of subordinate race, class, and gender positions, poor black women develop particular practices and knowledge that reveal insights about existing systems of domination.

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  • Combahee River Collective 2000. Black feminist statement. In Home girls: A black feminist anthology. Rev. ed. Edited by Barbara Smith, 264–274. New York: Kitchen Table—Women of Color.

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    Written by a black lesbian feminist group active in the 1970s, this piece argues for joint antisexist, antiracist and antihomophobic struggle. They reject separatism to argue that neither racial politics nor feminism alone can fully account for their experiences. First published in 1977.

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  • hooks, bell. 1984. Feminist theory from margin to center. Boston: South End.

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    hooks argues that while feminism may appear unproblematic to white middle-class women, it still holds unfulfilled promise with respect to women marginalized along the axes of race, class, and sexuality. Advocating gradual and protracted cultural transformation, hooks looks to marginalized women as key to feminist change while also emphasizing an inclusive, rather than separatist, program in which men also figure.

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  • Lorde, Audre. 1984a. Age, race, class, and sex: Women redefining difference. In Sister outsider: Essays and speeches. By Audre Lorde, 114–123. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press.

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    Lorde argues that feminists have accepted the master’s tools—namely, to treat difference with suspicion or, alternatively, to ignore it altogether. Due to the implicit racism and homophobia that follows from such attitudes toward difference, Lorde argues that feminists are increasingly unable to address the everyday concerns of women, especially lesbians and nonwhite women.

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  • Lorde, Audre. 1984b. The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. In Sister outsider: Essays and speeches. By Audre Lorde, 110–113. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press.

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    In this piece, Lorde interrogates assumptions regarding difference in American society. Specifically, she argues that feminists often collude with patriarchy by accepting the commonplace notion that difference is problematic and suspicious. Instead, Lorde calls for women in general and feminist scholars in particular to radically redefine difference in terms of mutual interdependence.

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  • Springer, Kimberly. 2002. Third wave black feminism? Signs 27.4: 1059–1082.

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    Arguing that black feminists are concerned with their relationships to history, the self, and men, Springer highlights black feminist perspectives as comprising an “applied feminism” distinct from third wave feminism, particularly insofar as black feminists situate their claims in terms of a long cultural trajectory of black women starting in the 19th century rather than vis-à-vis third wave feminism.

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Intersectionality

These theories shed light on the places where gender intersects with other social relations such as race, class, or nation to show that these social relations modify each other. The term “intersectionality” is attributed to legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw, who uses the examples of domestic violence (Crenshaw 1991) and the Anita Hill–Clarence Thomas Senate hearings (Crenshaw 1992) to powerfully illustrate the cost of the inability to understand intersectionality. Davis 1983 critiques the feminist movement for its failure to be intersectional, while King 1995 offers us the term “multiple jeopardy” to understand the intersection of race, class, and gender for black women in US society. In the area of the sociology of work, Nakano Glenn 1992 was one of the first to highlight how occupational sex segregation took different forms depending on the ethnic category of the women and men in question. Garland-Thomson 2002 introduces disability as another axis to be considered along with race and class in their intersection with gender. McCall 2005 tries to bring methodological and analytic systematicity to the concept.

  • Crenshaw, Kimberle W. 1991. Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics and violence against women of color. Stanford Law Review 43.6: 1241–1299.

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    This article focuses on how black women’s intersectional position along the lines of both racial and gender subordination situates them in an unintelligible position with respect to domestic violence and rape. Crenshaw’s ultimate objective is to interrogate the unitary identity presumed by identity politics by highlighting the multiple grounds on which identity is founded.

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  • Crenshaw, Kimberlé. 1992. Whose story is it, anyway? Feminist and anti-racist appropriations of Anita Hill. In Race-ing justice, en-gendering power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the construction of social reality. Edited by Toni Morrison, 402–440. New York: Pantheon.

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    An analysis of Anita Hill’s inability to be “heard” during her testimony to the US Senate that then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her years before. Crenshaw argues that as an African American woman, Hill lacked a discourse through which to make her claims intelligible.

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  • Davis, Angela Y. 1983. Women, race and class. New York: Vintage.

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    Tracing key moments in American history from slavery to suffrage to the civil rights movement, Davis critiques the feminist movement for its exclusions. She discusses the effects of race and class on contemporary conceptions of black men and women, showing how the “myth of the black rapist” justified lynching and hid the sexual oppression of black women under slavery. First published in 1961.

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  • Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. 2002. Integrating disability: Transforming feminist theory. NWSA Journal 14.3: 1–32.

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    In light of feminist concerns with issues of materiality and embodiment, Garland-Thomson calls for the integration of disability/ability as an analytical category into feminist theory, arguing that in addition to gender, race, and class, attention to the social construction of disability/ability provides insight into what it means to be “fully human.”

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  • King, Deborah K. 1995. Multiple jeopardy, multiple consciousness: The context of black feminist ideology. In Words of fire: An anthology of African American feminist thought. Edited by Beverly Guy-Sehftall, 294–317. New York: New Press.

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    Shedding historical light on the ways in which class, race, and gender difference situate black women’s experiences in terms of multiple jeopardy, King argues against additive understandings of difference, positing that multiple jeopardy encourages the development of multiple consciousness, which allows black women to understand themselves as empowered and independent (rather than victims) and, thus, is essential for liberation. First published in 1988.

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  • McCall, Leslie. 2005. The complexity of intersectionality. Signs 30.3: 1771–1800.

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    McCall provides three methodological approaches to study multiple and intersecting social relations empirically: anticategorical complexity, intercategorical complexity, and intracategorical complexity.

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  • Nakano Glenn, Evelyn. 1992. From servitude to service work: Historical continuities in the racial division of paid reproductive labor. Signs 18.1: 1–43.

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    Nakano Glenn emphasizes race and gender as interlocking relations rather than additive differences to document how the participation of African American, Mexican American, and Japanese American women in domestic service naturalizes the ideology of inferiority that justifies the degradation of these women’s reproductive labor in terms of differences in traits, skills, and education.

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Deconstructing Gender

Drawing heavily on Foucault and Lacanian psycholoanalysis, poststructuralist feminists are united by a number of theoretical proclivities. First, they take a deconstructionist approach that destabilizes normative gender categories. Butler 1990 develops a theory of gender performativity to explain the construction of gender, while Mouffe 1992 looks to the construction of women as a political strategy. Likewise, Young 1994 draws on Sartre to interrogate the construction of women as a (political) category, and Connell 2005 destabilizes masculinity. Scott 1986 questions the difference/equality binary as it relates to gender dominance. In addition, these feminists tend to look toward abject or marginalized, rather than normative, subject positions to inform their analyses of gender; for example, Halberstam 1998 focuses on female masculinity to understand masculinity more generally. Finally, poststructuralist feminists push for radical transformation by forefronting the politically potent role of the cultural. They emphasize the pernicious consolidation of gender difference through cultural practice and construction; for example, through disciplinary power, as in Bartky 1988, and power more generally, as in Scott 1988.

  • Bartky, Sandra. 1988. Foucault, femininity and the modernization of patriarchal power. In Feminism and Foucault: Reflections on resistance. Edited by Irene Diamond and Lee Quinby, 61–86. Boston: Northeastern Univ. Press.

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    Bartky posits that Foucault’s analysis of disciplinary power is incomplete if it is not situated in terms of patriarchal domination. Arguing that power is experienced in gendered ways, she details how women experience disciplinary power with respect to bodily attributes (i.e., weight and proportion), gestures and postures (e.g., appropriate stride and facial expressions), and ornamentation (e.g., makeup and shaving).

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  • Brown, Wendy. 1995. States of injury: Power and freedom in late modernity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

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    Brown argues that inequality is not overcome but deepened by identity politics through the affirmation of the very injuries that found these identities. To move beyond identity politics, Brown interrogates the notion of freedom by drawing on Foucault and Nietzsche; she also presents a feminist theory of the state as composed of juridical-legislative, capitalist, prerogative, and bureaucratic dimensions.

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  • Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. Thinking Gender. New York: Routledge.

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    In one of the most-cited feminist texts of the last twenty years, Butler details gender as a chain of performances that create the effect they purport to merely reflect. In doing so, Butler shows how certain gender norms and practices become intelligible and valued, while others are rendered illegible and abject.

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  • Connell, Raewyn. 2005. Masculinities. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    Connell destabilizes the monolithic category of masculinity by introducing the concepts of hegemonic, complicit, subordinate, and marginalized masculinities and noting that masculinities must be understood not only in terms of their dominant relation to femininities but also in terms of their (sometimes dominant, sometimes subordinate) relation to other masculinities.

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  • Halberstam, Judith. 1998. Female masculinity. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press.

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    Defining masculinity as a socially constructed link between male bodies and power, Halberstam demonstrates that female masculinity provides fresh and unique insight into the limits and excesses of masculinity by looking at various tropes of female masculinity since the 1800s, including the female husband, the stone butch, and the drag king.

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  • Mouffe, Chantal. 1992. Feminism, citizenship and radical democratic politics. In Feminists theorize the political. Edited by Judith Butler and Joan Scott, 368–384. New York: Routledge.

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    Mouffe claims that sexual difference has no a priori pertinence to politics. Rather, since women as a political category can only be provisionally articulated, feminists should eschew essentialist notions of womanhood and instead tentatively link the multiple forms of women’s oppression through democratic practice.

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  • Scott, Joan. 1986. Gender: A useful category of historical analysis. American Historical Review 91.5: 1053–1075.

    DOI: 10.2307/1864376Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Scott develops a twofold understanding of gender as both a fundamental element of social relations as well as a key means through which power is legitimated. By interrogating how gender subordination provides an organizing frame for power in general and how power in turn informs gender subordination, feminists can account for long-standing associations between masculinity and power.

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  • Scott, Joan. 1988. Deconstructing equality-versus-difference. Feminist Studies 14.1: 32–50.

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    Arguing that the equality/difference binary is structured as an impossible choice, Scott uses a poststructuralist approach to insist that feminist claims based on equality as well as those based on difference reveal compelling insights about women’s experiences, but the equality/difference binary obscures the structuring role of context.

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  • Young, Iris. 1994. Gender as seriality: Thinking about women as a social collective. Signs 19.3: 713–738.

    DOI: 10.1086/494918Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Young develops Sartre’s concept of “serial collectivity” to understand women as a social collective, arguing that they only form a passive unity insofar as they inhabit (as habit) common structures. When women do self-consciously unite, this should be read in context rather than as evidence of an essential “Womanhood.”

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Beyond Gender

Using poststructuralist feminist theory as an analytical tool, various scholars have extended feminist poststructuralist analysis by interrogating various gendered constructs beyond gender itself. For example, Brown 1997 forefronts the importance of considering subject formation in terms of race, class, gender, and other lines of difference as she interrogates the (im)possibility of women’s studies, while Weedon 1999 destabilizes the notion of a coherent, universal subject. Drawing on feminist insight, Fraser and Gordon 1994 looks at how class, race, and gender mark contemporary understandings of dependency, while Fraser 1989 interrogates, among other things, needs under capitalism. Integrating feminism with other political demands, poststructuralist feminists disagree on how to politically incorporate the “cultural turn” signified by poststructuralism; for example, Butler 1998, Fraser 1997a, and Fraser 1997b disagree regarding the extent to which cultural demands are autonomous from material concerns.

  • Brown, Wendy. 1997. The impossibility of women’s studies. differences: A journal of feminist cultural studies 9.3: 79–101.

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    This article evaluates the current state of women’s studies by noting the difficulties in developing adequate, and not arbitrary, gender studies curricula. Brown calls on feminists to theorize subject production as inextricably bound to multiple, though not additive, moments of difference, even if this means that gender loses its status as a privileged site of critical interrogation.

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  • Butler, Judith. 1998. Merely cultural. New Left Review 227:33–44.

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    Butler’s response to Fraser 1997a notes that material and cultural concerns are much more inextricable than implied by Fraser’s analysis. In addition, Butler argues that Fraser’s transformative politics assumes that coordination and unity lead to the most promising politics. Arguing for politically productive antagonisms, Butler maintains that the domestication of difference is a threat to leftist politics.

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  • Fraser, Nancy. 1989. Unruly practices: Power, discourse and gender in contemporary social theory. Oxford: Polity.

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    Situating herself as both philosopher and activist, Fraser interrogates the intersection of intellectual and political practice. In her chapters on gender, welfare politics, and needs under capitalism, she develops a critical approach to politics that draws on poststructuralism (particularly its focus on discourse and cultural construction) while deliberatively forefronting a political commitment to democracy and equality.

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  • Fraser, Nancy. 1997a. From redistribution to recognition: Dilemmas of justice in a “post-socialist” age. In Justice interruptus: Critical reflections on the “postsocialist” condition. By Nancy Fraser. New York: Routledge.

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    Fraser provides a framework for social change by distinguishing between demands for recognition and demands for redistribution. Fraser uses gender and race to illustrate that the antagonism between these two styles of contention can be best ameliorated through a transformative, rather than affirmative, politics that fully dismantles the cultural ideologies and material structures that justify and promote inequality.

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  • Fraser, Nancy. 1997b. Heterosexism, misrecognition, and capitalism: A response to Judith Butler. Social Text 52–53: 279–289.

    DOI: 10.2307/466745Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Fraser’s rebuttal to Butler 1998 insists on the analytical distinction between recognition and redistribution. While misrecognition can imply material harm, this does not imply that such harm is tethered to a society’s economic structure. Seeing redistribution and recognition as legitimate but independent claims, Fraser again emphasizes an integrative approach that harmonizes both.

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  • Fraser, Nancy, and Linda Gordon. 1994. A genealogy of “dependency”: Tracing a keyword of the US welfare state. Signs 19.2: 309–336.

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    In this piece, Fraser and Gordon interrogate the genealogy of dependency. Historically understood as a structural condition, dependency now indicates an internal, moral deficiency that in turn obscures the structural dependencies that shape industrial capitalism in racialized, gendered, and class-specific ways.

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  • Weedon, Chris. 1999. Feminism, theory, and the politics of difference. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999.

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    From liberal feminism to psychoanalysis to postcolonialism, Weedon draws on a number of feminist traditions to “think difference differently” and thus interrogate class, race, and sexuality, as well as gender. Noting difference as a social, political, cultural, and analytical rallying point, the author cautiously emphasizes poststructuralist approaches that destabilize the coherent subject by exploring hybrid, rather than binary, understandings of subjectivity.

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Postcolonialism and Transnationalism

Postcolonial and transnational feminist theories highlight the connections between gendered ideas and practices and asymmetrical power relations in the world, paying attention to the flows of power, ideas, and resources between rich and poor nations of the world and to how the actions of one nation affect gender relations in another. These theories includes a deeper understanding of the co-constitution of culture, colonialism, and nationalism, such as in McClintock 1995, and in Stoler 1997, which shows how colonial understandings of sexuality shored up colonial authority, to illustrate why women’s agency might look so different in various corners of the globe. In a landmark essay, Mohanty 1984 questions the representation of third world women as a homogeneous category, while Spivak 1988 argues that third world women are denied any free will in the way they are represented in the West. Ong 1988 suggests that a multivocal approach might help resolve this representational problem, while Mahmood 2004 suggests that we move beyond thinking of agency as synonymous with resistance. Grewal and Kaplan 1994 suggests that global differences be best understood through the concept of scattered hegemonies and advocate for a transnational feminism.

  • Grewal, Inderpal, and Caren Kaplan. 1994. Transnational feminist practices and questions of postmodernity. In Scattered hegemonies: Postmodernity and transnational feminist practices. Edited by Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan, 1–36. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press.

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    Grewal and Kaplan advocate that the assumption of a global hegemony be replaced with overlapping, contradictory “scattered hegemonies” that engender multiple subjectivities, rather than a unitary subject. By paying particular attention to multiple feminisms and associated feminist practices, feminist scholars should be better equipped to develop contextualized feminist critiques of modernity.

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  • Mahmood, Saba. 2004. Politics of piety: The Islamic revival and the feminist subject. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

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    Mahmood interrogates the constitutive relationship between resistance and agency often assumed in feminist scholarship. Focusing on Butler’s theorization of agency in terms of gender subversion, Mahmood presents a detailed ethnographic account of an alternative mode of subjectivation in which fulfilling norms—rather than breaking them—is the means through which subjecthood is achieved.

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  • McClintock, Anne. 1995. Imperial leather: Race, gender, and sexuality in the colonial contest. New York: Routledge.

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    Drawing on Lacanian psychoanalysis, Marxist analysis, and poststructuralism to interrogate the project of colonialism, McClintock historicizes gender, class, and race as co-articulated discourses that obscured the limits and contradictions of colonial representations and social relations.

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  • Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. 1984. Under Western eyes: Feminist scholarship and colonial discourses. boundary 2.12–13: 333–358.

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    Mohanty argues that despite attention to how differences such as race, class, and sexuality structure women’s oppression, Western feminists have universalized the experiences of Western women and thus homogenized and objectified non-Western women as passive, dependent victims. In doing so, Western feminists reproduce relations of colonization by positioning themselves as the universal subjects of a (feminist) history.

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  • Ong, Aihwa. 1988. Colonialism and modernity: Feminist re-presentations of women in non-Western societies. Inscriptions 3–4:79–93.

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    Ong highlights how Western feminists provide reductive accounts of the experiences of non-Western women by imposing Western standards as normative frameworks. By opening analysis up to multivocal, if partial, exchange, Western women can better account for the tensions in which non-Western women are embedded as well as the significance of these tensions to the women who actually experience them.

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  • Spivak, Gayatri. 1988. Can the subaltern speak? In Marxism and the interpretation of culture. Edited by Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, 271–313. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press.

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    Spivak highlights a pervasive slippage in Western thought by arguing that Western intellectuals can only represent subaltern subjects through ideological construction. Exposing the masquerade involved in recovering the “pure” consciousness of the subaltern subject, Spivak concludes that the subaltern cannot speak.

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  • Stoler, Ann. 1997. Carnal knowledge and imperial power: Gender, race, and morality in colonial Asia. In The Gender/sexuality reader: Culture, history, political economy. Edited by Roger N. Lancaster and Micaela di Leonardo, 13–36. New York: Routledge.

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    Stoler analyzes how gender became implicated in the construction of European colonial authority in French Indonesia and the Dutch East Indies. The political boundaries of race—Stoler argues—were achieved through external political controls and regulations as well as internal, personal policing, particularly with respect to European regulation of and sanctions on sexual activity, reproduction, domestic arrangements, and marriage.

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Methodology and Epistemology

Feminist theories have made key interventions in questions of epistemology and methodology in the social sciences. Harding 1987 is an excellent introduction to these questions, which include discussions about valid knowers, such as the standpoint theory of Smith 1987 and Hartsock 1987 or the outsider/within perspective of Collins 1999. Feminist theorists also critique objectivity, as Haraway 1991 does, while Stacey and Thorne 1985 queries the uncomfortable relationship of disciplines with positivist methodologies to feminist work. Oakley 1981 idealizes a feminist methodology as more inclusive and democratic, while a decade later Stacey 1991 wonders whether such a methodology is actually possible. Borland 1991 offers us an excellent example of democratic feminist work.

  • Borland, Katherine. 1991. “That’s not what I said”: Interpretive conflict in oral narrative research. In Women’s words: The feminist practice of oral history. Edited by Sherna Berger Gluck and Daphne Patai, 63–75. New York: Routledge.

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    This methodological reflection analyzes the conflicting status of the feminist researcher. Borland advocates that feminist scholars should include the women they study throughout the research process to destabilize the interpretive authority of feminist scholars and provide greater insight into how and why feminist scholars come to different interpretations than do the women they study.

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  • Collins, Patricia Hill. 1999. Learning from the outsider within: The sociological significance of black feminist thought. Social Problems 33.6: S14–S32.

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    Uniquely privy to white society through their roles as domestic servants and, more recently, black feminist scholars, black women are nevertheless marked by their race and gender as “outsiders” to the white world. Collins argues that this unique status of being both within and outside white society positions black feminists to provide rich critiques of sociology.

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  • Haraway, Donna. 1991. Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism as a site of discourse on the privilege of partial perspective. In Simians, cyborgs and women: The reinvention of nature. By Donna Haraway, 183–202. New York: Routledge.

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    Haraway acknowledges the problems both in a “view from nowhere” (i.e., the Enlightenment standpoint) and a “view from everywhere” (i.e., extreme postmodernism), as both are disembodied. Rather, knowledge should be grounded in specificity, because knowledge is necessarily predicated on being somewhere and seeing with some apparatus.

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  • Harding, Sandra. 1987. Introduction: Is there a feminist method? In Feminism and methodology: Social science issues. Edited by Sandra Harding, 1–14. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press.

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    Situating standpoint theory as an outgrowth of Marxist intellectual thought, Harding notes that it provides unsatisfactory guidance as to what qualifies as a standpoint, where it comes from, and why certain subaltern standpoints are more valued than others. Nevertheless, she argues that standpoint theory is compelling insofar as it productively breaks the notion of a coherent and universal subject.

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  • Hartsock, Nancy. 1987. The feminist standpoint: Developing the ground for a specifically feminist historical materialism. In Feminism and methodology. Edited by Sandra Harding, 157–180. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press.

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    Hartstock draws on historical materialism and feminist standpoint theory to understand the sexual division of labor from a feminist Marxist perspective. In this theoretical perspective, a standpoint must be an achieved, liberatory framework of understanding that confronts the dominant viewpoint, is based on material life, and addresses fundamental issues of survival.

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  • Oakley, Ann. 1981. Interviewing women: A contradiction in terms. In Doing feminist research. Edited by Helen Roberts, 30–61. New York: Routledge.

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    Arguing that interviewing implies a masculine approach to the social world, Oakley asserts that feminist interviewers should pursue intimate, nonhierarchical relationships with interviewees in which both sides collaborate, rather than the hierarchical relations usually implied by traditional interview methods.

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  • Smith, Dorothy. 1987. Women’s perspective as a radical critique of sociology. In Feminism and methodology. Edited by Sandra Harding, 84–96. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press.

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    Smith argues that sociology requires abstract thinking and denial of one’s particular embodiment; as such, women sociologists develop a bifurcated consciousness in which they must achieve a state of intellectual transcendence without ever overcoming their embodiment as women. Smith thus provides an alternative framework for doing sociology, one that takes as its point of departure everyday life and experience.

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  • Stacey, Judith. 1991. Can there be a feminist ethnography? In Women’s words: The feminist practice of oral history. Edited by Sherna Berger Gluck and Daphne Patai, 111–120. New York: Routledge.

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    Responding to the critique of interview methods in Oakley 1981, Stacey views the relationship between ethnography and feminism as intractably ambivalent and argues that research methods that encourage intimacy (particularly ethnography) also provide occasion to exploit and manipulate women and members of other subordinate groups.

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  • Stacey, Judith, and Barrie Thorne. 1985. The missing feminist revolution in sociology. Social Problems 32.4: 301–316.

    DOI: 10.1525/sp.1985.32.4.03a00010Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Stacey and Thorne explore why, despite much sociological work that foregrounds gender, feminist thought has not fundamentally altered sociology. They cite the discipline’s positivist bias as a key barrier to a feminist revolution in sociology, noting that while feminists have done well to critique this bias, the pertinent task is not only to critique but also to reconstruct social theory.

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Sexuality

Theorists of sexuality provide at least two key contributions to feminist theory. First, they provide theoretically rich accounts of how sexuality—particularly heteronormativity—is implicated not only in normative constructions of gender by Rich 1980, MacKinnon 1983a, and MacKinnon 1983b (all cited under Universalist Theories) but also Western knowledge, as Sedgwick 1990 posits, and broad notions of social order and threat, as Rubin 1992 argues. Second, they stress the radically learned and/or constructed nature of sexuality. For Plummer 2002, this translates into understanding sexuality not as a drive, as psychoanalysts might have it, but rather as a “script,” while for Foucault 1978, this means rejecting the “repressive hypothesis” and its Freudian baggage by envisioning new forms of pleasurable power that work directly on the body and bodily experience.

  • Foucault, Michel. 1978. The history of sexuality. Vol. 1. New York: Pantheon.

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    Foucault takes as his point of departure the Freudian “repressive hypothesis” that members of Western society have repressed their sexual desires. But he sees this supposed repression as an incitement to discourse through which sexuality as truth is constructed. Foucault highlights the attributes of modern Western sexuality, particularly the emphasis placed on the categorization and normalization of various sexual types.

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  • Plummer, Ken. 2002. Symbolic interactionism and sexual conduct: An emergent perspective. In Sexuality and gender. Edited by Christine L. Williams and Arlene Stein, 20–32. Blackwell Readers in Sociology 7. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

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    Plummer reviews research on sexuality from a symbolic interactionist perspective. Suggesting that sexuality should be understood in terms of a socially constructed “script” rather than an essential “drive,” Plummer emphasizes the conscious, learned dimension of sexuality as well as the multiple shapes that sexuality takes across various contexts.

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  • Rubin, Gayle. 1992. Thinking sex: Notes for a radical theory of the politics of sexuality. In Pleasure and danger: Exploring female sexuality. Edited by Carole S. Vance, 267–293. London: Pandora.

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    This text places sex in social context by positing that the regulation of sex is a key means of social domination. Linking sex panics with more general panics about the social order, Rubin argues that sex must be understood as deeply political insofar as it reinforces the status quo.

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  • Sedgwick, Eve. 1990. Introduction. In Epistemology of the closet. By Eve Sedgewick, 22–48. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    The heterosexual/homosexual binary—according to Sedgwick—has pervaded Western thought through its articulation in medical, legal, literary, psychological, and other institutional discourses. Interrogating Western ways of knowing, she highlights the notion of “closetedness” insofar as it indicates a speaking silence. As such, she throws into relief the binaries between speech and silence as well as ignorance and knowing.

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Embodiment

Insofar as feminist thought focuses on deconstructing presumedly “natural” gender difference, the body seems a particularly intractable point of analysis, one that early feminists (e.g., Beauvoir 1989, cited under Classic Texts) used to explain gender difference rather than overcome it. Feminist theorists of embodiment directly address the “unbearable weight”—to use Bordo’s terminology—of the body by exploring several provocative topics. Young 1990 looks at how bodily comportment negatively affects women and girls, Bordo 1993 interrogates the body as a text that is inscribed with social meaning, while Butler 1993 argues that the very materiality of a body is a product of social construction. Grosz 1994 explores how feminists might reimagine the body beyond theories that have been formulated by male theorists and for male experiences, while Stone 1992 focuses on the empirically rich example of transexuality to highlight the intertextuality of the body. Meanwhile, Fausto-Sterling 2000 suggests that biological explanations of sexed difference—always treated with much due caution by feminists—can be theorized as informing rather than undermining cultural conceptions of the body. Overall, these theorists share a common disposition to destabilize the body as a given object and treat embodiment as a subjectively lived experience.

  • Bordo, Susan. 1993. Unbearable weight: Feminism, Western culture and the body. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    Bordo explores the cultural construction of the body through analyses of eating disorders, motherhood, exercising and dieting, and popular representations of feminine bodies. Highlighting how the legacy of Plato’s mind/body dualism has placed women at odds with their own bodies, she theorizes the limits of and possibilities for resisting this dualism.

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  • Butler, Judith. 1993. Bodies that matter: On the discursive limits of “sex.” New York: Routledge.

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    This text revisits and extends Butler’s Gender Trouble (Butler 1990, cited under Deconstructing Gender) to theorize how bodies achieve intelligible materiality (i.e., they materialize) through the performative citation of gender norms.

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  • Fausto-Sterling, Ann. 2000. Sexing the body: Gender politics and the construction of sexuality. New York: Basic Books.

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    Fausto-Sterling sheds light on the contingency of biological sex by providing a detailed account of the various ways in which sex has been scientifically formulated over the past 150 years. Repudiating reductive accounts of sex couched in biological terms, she suggests that the relationship between nature and culture should be conceptualized as constitutively linked, much like a Mobius strip.

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  • Grosz, Elizabeth. 1994. Volatile bodies: Toward a corporeal feminism. Theories of Representation and Difference. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press.

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    Theorizing how subjectivity becomes linked to sexed corporeality, Grosz notes that while (male) theorists reject the biological notion of the body as “raw material,” they stipulate a corporeality that is decidedly male. Focusing on women’s experiences of corporeality, Grosz ultimately argues for an expanded theory of the body by highlighting the social construction of the sexed body and its limits.

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  • Stone, Sandy. 1992. The empire strikes back: A posttransexual manifesto. Camera Obscura 10: 150–176.

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    Echoing Spivak by asking “Can the transsexual speak?” Stone interrogates how medical professionals, feminists, and transsexuals become complicit with the gender binary. Moving beyond the discursive limits of the transsexual, she theorizes the possibility of a “posttranssexual” space in which transsexuality is explored as evidence of the intertextuality of the sexed body.

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  • Young, Iris Marion. 1990. Throwing like a girl and other essays in feminist philosophy and social theory. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press.

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    These essays examine the lived bodily experience through a feminist lens, exploring how rules of bodily comportment negatively affect girls and women, but also the feelings of fear, pleasure and shame, and ambivalence that manifest around bodies. The essays in the book draw on many theoretical traditions but most strongly from the existential phenomenology of de Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty.

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LAST MODIFIED: 07/27/2011

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780199756384-0020

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