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Foundationally, cultural feminism is a social movement that reclaims and redefines female identity and it seeks to understand women’s social locations by concentrating on men’s and women’s gender differences. It is believed that women can be liberated from their subordination in society through individual change, the redefinition of femininity and masculinity and the creation of ”women-centered” culture. Embedded within these efforts is a belief in essentialist gender differences.
Cultural feminists state that women are inherently nurturing, kind, gentle, non-violent and egalitarian. First wave feminists stressed the superiority of women’s values, believing these would conquer masculine traits of selfishness, lack of self-control and violence. They worked for creating social change via the suffrage movement, women’s right to free expression, a celebration and recognition of women’s culture and by helping poor and working-class women. Second wave cultural feminists emerged out of the radical feminist movement in the early 1970s. They also sought to create change via highlighting women’s uniqueness and feminine qualities, creating women-only spaces free from male dominance. Women are viewed as a ”sisterhood,” each sharing commonalities based on gender.
Women’s subordination is attributed to men’s nature; men are viewed as the ”enemy” due to their biological maleness. Cultural feminists see women’s qualities as powerful assets for women and argue women are treated secondary to men because western thought and society does not value women’s virtues. Cultural feminism challenges male values of hierarchy, domination and independence and work to change society through emphasizing women’s natural ability to solve conflict through cooperation, nonviolence and pacifism.
This form of feminism created a surge in scholarship, art, and literature focusing on issues specifically related to and about women. Some of the women-centered spaces and events include the establishment of domestic violence shelters, rape crisis centers, women’s centers, music festivals, businesses and organizations and helped support the emergence of women and gender studies classes and programs in higher education. In sociology, for example, it provides a foundation for feminist methods, feminist sociology and the sociology of sex and gender.
As gender became a central form of analysis, ”new” forms of scholarship emerged particularly within the areas of psychology, literature and rhetoric; embedded within this scholarship is the inherent belief that women have certain innate qualities that should be recognized and honored by society rather than remaining invisible or denigrated. Within this new scholarship was the development of feminist epistemology and standpoint theory; both recognize women’s unique perspectives based on their experiences as women. Standpoint theory posits that women’s understanding of the world is different from men’s, even if it is shaped by men’s definitions. This difference is based on women’s experiences and knowledge or ”ways of knowing,” both formal and informal.
Cultural feminism is one of the most successful and influential branches of feminism, but it does not exist without criticism. One of the most common critiques is that of its reliance on applying biological definitions of ”woman”; partially because this reifies the societal beliefs it seeks to redefine. By not challenging patriarchal systems that create and perpetuate the ideology that women are inferior to men, cultural feminism fails to address larger systemic issues and relies on meeting needs within the established social structures rather than challenging these structures. Additionally, by grouping all women as similar, the complexities of race, class, ethnicity and sexuality remain placed in subordinate positions or are completely ignored, thus confining the analysis.
- Alcoff, L. (1988) Cultural feminism versus post-structuralism: the identity crisis in feminist theory. Signs: A Journal of Women in Culture and Society 13: 405-36.
- Donovan, J. (1985) Feminist Theory: The Intellectual Traditions of American Feminism. F. Ungar Publishing, New York.