• Milena Vergara

Feminism- a Brief Sociological Approach

There are many types of people involved in the feminist movement, and they all have different ways of contributing. As a Sociology student, I’ve written this article to shed some light on what feminism is in an academic sense. In Sociology, the study of the development, structure, and functioning of human society, feminism has been an influential theory, especially during the 70’s and 80’s. The feminist point of view is one of the many approaches used to discuss areas such as: socialisation, identity, inequality, social change, crime, media, and family. Feminists are critical social scientists as they believe that sociological research must result in theories that can lead to the development of society. 

There are common misconceptions of feminism being about the supremacy of women, however feminism’s aim is to achieve gender equality in all aspects, equal power, treatment, and opportunity between the sexes. Although extreme groups do exist, as in every movement, they are not representative of the whole.t

Although there are different types of feminists, they all see societies as dominated and exploited by the patriarchy. In a contemporary context, this is based on the fact that men have more power in most social institutions such as family, paid employment, and politics. Men still dominate the highest positions in economic, cultural, and political fields. Recently the World Economic Forum demonstrated that the world’s twenty-two richest men have more wealth than all the women in Africa, and that globally men own 50% more wealth than women. A large cause of this is unpaid care work. Women and girls carry out 12.5 billion hours of unpaid care work every-day world-wide, which would be worth $10.8 trillion every year, 3 times the size of the world’s tech industry, according to Oxfam. The economic system relies on the unpaid care work of women. They take care of children, the elderly, the sick, the disabled, water and fuel needs, household chores, cooking, and none of it is valued as work. 

Sociologist Misra (2000) highlighted how social policies relating to employment, poverty reduction, and child-birth in the USA, have been influenced by women’s activism. Misra also pointed out that these social policies are connected. For example, the development of ‘family- friendly’ employment policies can be linked to areas such as poverty, where single parents are often unable to take advantage of the new employment policies.  

Do all feminists think the same? No, in fact different feminists point out that within society, not all women deal with the same degree of oppression, some can even argue it varies cross-culturally. As sociology defines it, there are four Feminist perspectives. Liberal feminists advocate for gradual changes in political, economic and social systems. They promote gender equality, and they tend to have a positive outlook. Marxist feminism focuses on challenging capitalism as a route to freeing women from oppression and inequality. They argue that in a competitive capitalist society, men are encouraged to exploit any ‘weaknesses’ in women’s market position - such as women being out of the workforce during and after pregnancy - to their own advantage. Then there are radical feminists who focus on domestic abuse as a large issue, and argue that men dominate the social order in two spheres: public- such as the workplace, where women are paid less on average and tend to have a lower status - and private, where women carry out the majority of unpaid domestic work. In more extreme cases they see gender segregation as a solution. Last but not least, Black feminism sees oppression not only in terms of gender but also race, and developed out of the need to address the problems that were not yet covered by other feminist approaches.

Feminists also criticise male-stream sociology, that adopts a male perspective and marginalises and undervalues the role of women in society. The image of women within academic sociology is largely ignored or distorted by incomplete studies that focus on the role and activities of men and make assumptions on the roles of women. For example, most sociologists discussing the roles in family and whether we are born with gender roles are Functionalist or New Right male sociologists. For instance, GP Murdock argues that a nuclear family - one with a mother, father and two children - is a universal family type, and that women’s ‘natural’ traits of being emotional and empathetic make them suitable for care roles, while men’s ‘instinctive’ aggression make them optimum providers. Ann Oakley accuses Murdock, as well as other sociologists, of being biased in their research findings due to its convenience for men, as she found many societies in which the roles were reversed. She also provided studies indicating that gender roles were taught by parents early in childhood. Gender roles are the unwritten characteristics and behaviour that we associate with a gender.  not to be confused with gender identities. This includes verbal titles such as ‘good/pretty girl’ and ‘bad/strong boy’, and giving activities such as ballet and football a gender.

Ann Oakley is one of the best known feminists sociologists. She has conducted studies such as the Housework study in 1974; she wanted to show how housework in its own right was not a natural extension of women’s role as a wife and mother. Oakley found out that the number of housewives in her sample experiencing monotony, fragmentation of work tasks and pressure of speed comparable with that of assembly workers. There is a close match between the frustrations of assembly-line work and housework, which gives substance to the feminist claim that housework is alienating. Oakley is critical of work done by sociologists Willmott and Young who suggest that there is total equality in marital relationships. Her results show that a fundamental separation remains in the family unit, with home and children remaining the women’s primary responsibility.

Compared to the past, there are many ways in which women’s lives have improved in the past century, largely due to feminist movements challenging many gender-related stereotypes and norms; ie the 1970 Equal Pay Act and the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act in the UK. Yet, women remain disadvantaged in terms of the ‘glass ceiling’, the narrow career opportunities many women still experience, the double shift of balancing housework and work-life. Furthermore, in usually in non-western countries, where sexism is not as recognised, the feminist movement still has a large role to play.

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