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Feminism is the system of ideas and political practices based on the principle that women are human beings equal to men. As a system of ideas, feminism includes several alternative discourses — liberal, cultural, materialist or socialist, radical, psychoanalytic, womanist, and postmodernist — of which liberal and materialist have been most important to sociology. Liberal feminism argues that women are equal to men and works to obtain equal rights through political and economic action while basically accepting the capitalist organization of society. Materialist feminism incorporates Marxist or socialist ideas and focuses on social production as the social process key to achieving equality.
As political practice, feminism is understood as a social movement with two periods of high mobilization — a ”first wave,” 1792—1920 and a ”second wave,” 1960—2008. Between first and second wave feminism, there is a period of relative quiet, a seeming ”hiatus.” ”Third wave feminism” refers to the ideas and actions of feminists who will spend the majority of their lives in the twenty-first century.
Three main understandings of gender have emerged from the engagement of feminism and sociology: gender as a role performance across institutions (and as an institution in its own right, as a product of ongoing individual activities in which social actors hold each other accountable for ”doing gender” (West and Zimmerman 1987), and as a stratificational category or an arrangement of gender classes. Central to all three approaches is the study of gender socialization, of how a person learns to conduct themselves and to configure their identities around the socially constructed categories of masculine and feminine.
The standpoint of women is the epistemological claim that a complete sociological knowledge requires an analysis of the world from the perspective of women. The idea of the standpoint of women has been refined by Patricia Hill Collins (1998) to reflect the fact of intersectionality, the lived experience in an individual biography of the daily workings of social power as multifaceted, involving, besides gender, inequalities of race, class, geosocial location, age, and sexuality.
Feminist sociology’s model of society builds on a view of social production from the standpoint of women. Social production includes all the labor necessary to maintain human life-paid work in the economy, unpaid work in the home, the production of material goods, emotional goods, order in time and space and the reproduction of the worker both biologically and daily in the activities of maintenance. Patriarchal ideology divides this work into public and private spheres and assigns to women of every class responsibility in the private sphere. The public sphere is organized around the unacknowledged assumption of ongoing, uncompensated private sphere labor by women. These spheres overlap so that an individual’s position in one sphere affects their position in the other. Feminist studies of the gendering of work have produced a vocabulary that has entered the everyday world: i.e., the second shift, sexual harassment, equal pay, pay equity, comparable worth, municipal housekeeping, the glass ceiling, the ideal worker norm, juggling work and family.
In The Everyday World as Problematic (1987), Dorothy E. Smith divides social production into the local actualities of lived experience, where the material work of production occurs and the extra-local relations of ruling, the interconnections of power which control and appropriate that production. All women are part of the local actualities of lived experience as are non-privileged men; the extra-local relations of ruling is a masculine domain, operating on what might be seen as the ethic of hegemonic masculinity (R. W. Connell 1987) control. For Smith, this control is exercised through impersonal, generalized texts — documents that prescribe who can legitimately do what.
Feminism’s successes in sociology have turned on women sociologists of each generation finding ways to form as a class for itself, as people who understand and act on their common interests. In the Classical generation of sociology (1830— 1930), this commonality was achieved through the social settlement movement, a practice of applied sociology in which educated young people lived in settlements located in the poorest urban areas, building a neighborly relation with the people there and working to alleviate social problems; women were a numerical majority of settlement residents and from this base women sociologists like Jane Addams rose to national and international prominence. In second wave feminism, women sociologists in the USA organized both within established professional associations and outside them as Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS); they demanded and achieved equity in the hiring of women and the support of women graduate students, a journal devoted to gender, Gender & Society, and power within the American Sociological Association, establishing the Section on Sex and Gender and promoting the election of eleven women as Association presidents since 1972.
- Collins, P. H. (1998) Fighting Words: Black Women and the Search for Justice. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN.
- Connell, R. W. (1987) Gender and Power. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA.
- Lengermann, P. & Niebrugge, G. (1998) The Women Founders: Sociology and Social Theory, 1830-1930. Waveland Press, Long Grove, IL.
- Smith, D. E. (1987) The Everyday World as Problematic: A Feminist Sociology. Northeastern University Press, Boston, MA.
- West, C. & Zimmerman, D. (1987) Doing gender. Gender and Society 2: 125—51.