Feminisms Are More Different Than They Are the Same

IMAGE: Title graphic for this essay. (Photo: The Women’s March in Washington, 21 January 2017. © Amanda Voisard / The Washington Post).

Feminism is a relatively new political term that has only gained popular usage since the 1960s (Heywood, 2003). At its core, it is a political ideology which is based on two fundamental beliefs: that being a woman is a disadvantage; and that this disadvantage needs to be removed. However, feminism has evolved over time in response to the theoretical and practical issues that women face (Bowden & Mummery, 2014) and this has resulted in feminism becoming radically diverse, where it is now difficult to find any common ground within differing feminist schools of thought (Heywood, 2003). In this essay, I will argue that there are more differences between these different feminist schools of thought than there are similarities. I will do this by giving a brief overview of how academics have categorised the differing feminisms. I will then briefly describe the three foundational feminisms and compare the ways that they differ on even the very themes that unite them. I will then briefly describe how feminism has significantly fragmented even further since these foundational feminisms, causing further disagreement between these differing schools of thought.

Feminist Categorisation

Feminism is such a diverse field that it is “easy to dismiss feminism as hopelessly fragmented, to argue that feminism is characterised more by disagreement than by agreement” (Heywood, 2003, p. 196). Nevertheless, numerous scholars have attempted to break feminism down into categories to make sense of it. Alison Jaggar (1983) divided feminist schools of thought into four categories. These are liberal feminism, socialist feminism, Marxist feminism, and radical feminism. Judith Lorber (1997) divides feminist schools of thought into three categories based on how their ideas and strategies relate to theories of gendered social order. The first, gender reform feminisms, includes liberal feminism, development feminism, socialist and Marxist feminism. She argues that these feminisms are based on ideas of individual rights and highly influenced by the political philosophy of liberalism. The second, gender resistant feminisms, includes radical feminism, lesbian feminism, psychoanalytical feminism, and standpoint feminism. She argues that these feminisms focus on group dynamics and behaviours which keep women in subordination. The third, gender revolution feminisms, includes multi-ethnic feminism, men’s feminism, social construction feminism, post-modern feminism, and queer theory. She argues that these feminisms are united in the way that they attempt to analyse how culture reproduces inequalities and then deconstruct the concepts and categories of the social order in the attempt to disrupt them. Andrew Heywood (2003) divided feminisms into four major categories. These are liberal feminism, socialist feminism, radical feminism, and new feminist traditions which have developed in the more recent past. Heywood argues that although feminists are united in the general goal of advancing women, there are disagreements about what this means exactly, and how it can happen. He mentions the deep disagreements that have long divided revolutionary and reformist feminists, along with socialist and radical feminists, but that these divisions have now increased further over time and been extended to many other issues. But, Heywood posits that even though there is division, it is still possible to find common themes within the different feminist schools of thought. The most salient of these themes are the public/private divide, patriarchy, sex/gender, and equality/difference. I now will discuss how the three different foundational feminisms differ from other feminisms on even these very themes that unite them.

IMAGE: Louise Weiss along with other Parisian suffragettes in 1935. The newspaper headline reads, in translation, “The Frenchwoman Must Vote.”

Early Feminism & First Wave Feminism

Early feminist thought and the first wave of feminism was highly influenced by the political ideas of liberalism, which gave rise to liberal feminism (Heywood, 2003). In 1792, Wollstonecraft (2002) wrote the first major feminist book, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, where she argued that women only appear to be inferior to men because they are uneducated, but that they are not naturally inferior, and if treated equally (such as given the equal right to education) then a social order that is founded on reason could be established. In 1869, John Stuart Mill (2009) wrote that one of the biggest barriers to human improvement is the legal power that men have over women. He argued that it is wrong, and that men and women should have equality in the eyes of the law. One way that liberal feminism departs from liberalism is in the significance it places on gender. This is because liberalism has traditionally been about individualism, where gender is irrelevant to politics, and only relevant to private matters (Heywood, 2003). Liberal feminists have conceptions of the public/private divide that are aligned with liberalism, where they believe that the private sphere should be unpoliticized because it is a space of individual choice and freedom. They critique the public sphere in the way that women have been delegated to the private sphere and denied access to things like politics, education, and work. This perspective is in conflict with more contemporary forms of feminism, which argue that political struggle is not something that only happens in the public sphere. The liberal feminist conception of patriarchy refers to the under-representation of women in positions of professional, political and organizational power. They use the term to highlight the fact that women have been denied the entitlements and rights that men have been granted in society. This puts them at odds with other feminists, some of whom reject the term patriarchy altogether and others that emphasise its importance in all domains. The liberal feminist conception of equality/difference is about establishing political and legal equality between men and women. They argue for equal rights in order to allow women access to the public realm, enabling them to compete with men on equal terms. This perspective is in conflict with other feminists who either have different conceptions of equality or reject the idea of equality altogether. Lorber (1997) states that the liberal feminist case is that women should be allowed access to and representation in the public spaces which have been traditionally controlled by men, because men and women are essentially similar and deserve equal representation. But she notes the contradiction in this perspective when she says, “if women and men are so interchangeable, what difference does it make if a woman or a man does a particular job?” (Lorber, 1997, p. 15).

IMAGE: Socialist feminist Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg in 1910.

Socialist Feminism

Socialist feminism only gained prominence in the latter half of the twentieth century, despite some earlier feminists adopting socialist ideas (Heywood, 2003). The central argument of socialist feminists was that economic and social factors are fundamental to understanding patriarchy. This argument was originally developed by Friedrich Engels (2010) in 1884. Engels said that “the first class antagonism which appears in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in monogamous marriage, and the first class oppression coincides with that of the female sex by the male.” Here, he was arguing that the development of capitalism and ownership of private property by men caused women to lose power in society. The concept of patriarchy is sometimes rejected altogether by socialist feminists, because capitalism is argued to be the root cause of inequality (Heywood, 2003). Other socialist feminists who do accept the term patriarchy define it as a gender inequality that is interlinked with class inequality and capitalism, where economics is the focus. This view puts them at odds with other feminists who prefer to focus on gender inequality in isolation, rather than critiquing the broader economic context that the gender inequality is occurring in. The socialist feminist conception of equality/difference is that equality of economic power is of most importance, where the unpaid or underpaid labour of women is critiqued, along with wealth ownership. This perspective is in conflict with other feminists, some of whom focus more on achieving equal rights, which socialist feminists argue will likely be pointless without economic equality. Other feminisms primarily focus on equality in a domestic setting, and others reject equality entirely, instead favouring and embracing difference. Lorber (1997) argues that economic dependence on a male spouse is the root source of women’s subjection in both socialist and Marxist feminism, and that their proposed solution is providing women with child-care and maternity leave so that they can go into full-time employment. She criticises this solution by saying that these policies are in the interest of the state, not in the interest of women, and that they could easily change on a whim. I would also criticise them on the basis that the solutions are somewhat forcing women to be more like men, where the unpaid labour would still need to be done, likely increasing their workload significantly if it is not shared with others.

IMAGE: American Association of University Women members with President John F. Kennedy as he signs the Equal Pay Act into law in 1963.

Second Wave Feminism

In the second wave of feminism, feminist thinking evolved beyond being an adaptation of political ideologies, where gender came to be considered the most important source of social division (Heywood, 2003). Radical feminism developed in groups of women who discussed women’s issues and worked to raise consciousness of them (Lorber, 1997). It was through these discussions that the idea that women are oppressed was formed. The radical feminist case of oppression was laid out by Marilyn Frye (2017) in 1983, where she uses the metaphor of a birdcage where limitations on women are the individual wires of that cage. She argued that if you focus on just one of the wires it could seem as though you could just step around that wire, but when you take a broader view of all of the wires surrounding you, you realise that it is not possible. An important influence for radical feminism was Simone de Beauvoir (1989) who, in 1949, wrote that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” (p. 273). By this she meant that gender is socially constructed and therefore able to be changed. A text by Carol Hanisch (2006), titled The Personal is Political, became widely distributed throughout the feminist movement. Ideas that were previously considered private matters became of political relevance, where ideas of body and sexuality became highly discussed, and traditional family values were challenged (Harutyunyan et al., 2009). This meant that the radical feminist conception of the public/private divide is that female oppression happens everywhere, and in many ways originates from the family, and therefore what happens in the home needs to be politically analysed (Heywood, 2003). This puts them in conflict with other feminists who want to maintain a private sphere and others who want to transfer private responsibilities to public institutions. The concept of patriarchy is of critical importance to radical feminists, where they see it as a dynamic of male power that is established in a domestic setting and then extended throughout society in a systematic and pervasive way. This puts them at odds with other feminists who either reject the term, or only apply it to a lack of entitlements and rights in more public settings, or to highlight economic inequality. The radical feminist conception of equality/difference is that they are focussed on gaining equality in domestic life. This puts them in conflict with other feminists who focus on legal or economic equality, and those that reject equality altogether in favour of embracing difference. Lorber (1997) argued that radical feminism valorised the idea of mothering and criticised heterosexuality, and this offended people who didn’t want children and/or people in heterosexual relationships, which caused a rift between feminists. She also notes that the emphasis that radical feminists place on the idea of gender oppression led to feminism being accused of neglecting other sources of oppression such as ethnic and class oppression, which alienated working-class women and women of colour.

IMAGE: The first Slutwalk, Toronto, 2011.

Third wave feminism

In third wave feminism, feminist schools of thought diversified even further into a plurality of strategies (McBride, 2010). Mary Dietz (2003) said that feminism had “differentiated and fragmented substantially” (p. 399) where there are intense debates and feminists can’t even agree on the meaning of the term feminism. It is argued that feminist theorists have created hybrids of feminism with an array of other theories where they are no longer able to be coherently categorised as feminism. Heywood (2003) states that analysing feminism has become difficult due these new forms of feminism, as well as due to the divisions between feminists having become blurred in some cases and deepened in others. He argues that feminism has become “increasingly fragmented and incoherent” (Heywood, 2003, p. 211).


In this essay I have discussed feminism, a political ideology that is based on the belief that women are disadvantaged, and that these disadvantages need to be removed (Heywood, 2003). I gave a brief overview of how academics have grouped different feminisms, and then described three foundational feminisms and compared the ways in which they differ with other feminist schools of thought on their unifying themes. These were the public/private divide, patriarchy, sex/gender, and equality/difference. I then briefly described how feminism has fragmented further since these foundational forms of feminism. Given that there was already disagreement among different feminist schools of thought on the very themes that unite them, it would stand to reason that their more substantial disagreements, along with the further disagreements that have been created by movement fragmentation, is a clear indication that different feminist schools of thought are more different than they are the same.


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🧠 Psychological Science Student, UQ ✏️ Designer, Design Good Design Studio 🌏 Climate Reality Leader 💁‍♂️ Pronouns: he/him 🔗 https://bio.site/jarrennylund

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Jarren Nylund

🧠 Psychological Science Student, UQ ✏️ Designer, Design Good Design Studio 🌏 Climate Reality Leader 💁‍♂️ Pronouns: he/him 🔗 https://bio.site/jarrennylund