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Critically discuss the theories of gender

This essay seeks to discuss the theories of gender with special focus on Marxism/Socialist feminism which is focused on investigating and explaining the traditions in which women are oppressed through systems of capitalism and private property; ecofeminism, feminism that sees a connection between the exploitation and degradation of the natural world and the subordination and oppression of women and radical feminism, a perspective within feminism that calls for a radical reordering of society in which male supremacy is eliminated in all social and economic contexts. This is not an exhaustive article and limitation on the number of theories is merely due to time constraints as the subject of feminism is deep and possess a wealth of information and perhaps this article will scratch the surface.

Gender, which is normally confused with sex, refers to the socially constructed roles, responsibilities, identities and expectations assigned to men and women while sex refers to fundamental biological and physiological differences between males and females. Of the two, gender is dynamic and can vary from culture to culture while sex remains static. Sex is binary, male and female. A society can decide gender roles to confer to its sexes and these can be indirectly be woven in people’s lives as a societal order in which new born babies are socially moulded into with little or no effort. A society thus prescribes how a girl child should behave, their role and position and behaviour is stereotypically laid down. There is then a mismatch between a gender and sex; a situation where a person behaves and conducts differently, out of sync, with their prescribed gender role – for instance a girl child born with desires to hunt, fight and perform masculine roles is therefore considered a transgender.

This essay will therefore interrogate the Marxist feminism theory which is based on Karl Marx’s writings on capitalism in his book, Capital. It is imperative to note that Karl Marx personally wrote little directly on feminism but his writings on capitalism set the stage for writers such as Friedrich Engels, his friend and co-author of The Communist Manifesto. Therefore, Marxist feminism is laid by Engels in his investigation of gender subjugation in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884). Engels argues that a woman’s subservience is not a result of her biological disposition but of social relations, and that men’s efforts to achieve their demands for control of women’s labour and sexual capabilities have increasingly hardened and become established in the nuclear family. Through a Marxist perspective, Engels analyses the widespread social occurrences associated with female sexual morality, such as obsession on virginity and sexual purity, incrimination and violent punishment of women who commit adultery such as Sharia law, and demands that women be submissive to their husbands. Eventually, Engels traces these phenomena to the recent development of exclusive control of private property by the patriarchs and the desire to ensure that their inheritance is passed only to their own offspring. This has been common in many societies in the marriage institution where everything that a family owns is the property of the man and can be distributed as inheritance upon death to members of the lineage with the wife having little or no say in the overall exchanges whatsoever. In some cultures, the woman is equally treated as property.

According to Hellen Gilbert writing on her Feministezine website, Marx showed how the working class is exploited for profit by capitalists, who gain wealth by paying workers a bare minimum of the value they produce. Marxist feminists view the capitalist drive for profits as responsible for women’s second-class status and other forms of oppression such as racism and homophobia. Prejudice and privilege also assists the ruling class by inhibiting workers from organizing together. Women workers are exploited at a higher level than males, with women of colour suffering the highest degree of exploitation because of gender and race discrimination. Women are also a source of unpaid domestic labour—an arrangement that allows the world’s capitalists to save trillions of dollars every year.

At face value Marxism appears to be a utopian economic system that fosters oneness and liberates individuals while at the core the system empowers the success and flourishing of the patriarchal system which leaves women vulnerable. Marxism feminism therefore seeks to highlight the injustices of the patriarchal system borrowed from capitalism in which the working class are the instruments and machinery of production yet they hardly enjoyed the benefits of their labour in peace. That is, man has become the slave driver or capitalist presiding over the sweat and blood of women who toil to provide for the family yet their efforts are embedded and realised in their counterparts, the males. No matter how much a woman works, society is wired that for as long as she is married she is the property of the husband and therefore all that she produces belongs to the husband. Thus socialist feminism cries for the liberation of women through exposing the gender imbalances embedded and codded into our societies.

On the other hand ecofeminism is rooted in the belief that environmental crisis is a feminist issue. Ecofeminist discourses draw from feminism and critical ecology to identify comparable strategies of exploitation that affect women and the environment and to challenge both the theoretical foundations and actual expressions of these mechanisms (Curry, 2013).

Ecofeminism is an activist and academic movement that sees critical connections between the domination of nature and the exploitation of women. Mellor wrote that “Ecofeminism is a movement that sees a connection between the exploitation and degradation of the natural world and the subordination and oppression of women. It emerged in the mid-1970s alongside second-wave feminism and the green movement. Ecofeminism brings together elements of the feminist and green movements, while at the same time offering a challenge to both. It takes from the green movement a concern about the impact of human activities on the non-human world and from feminism the view of humanity as gendered in ways that subordinate, exploit and oppress women.”(Mellor, 1997) It is imperative to note that, the growth of Ecofeminism, as stated above was a direct result of both women and nature suffrage that zealots took up the cause to fight against such onslaught for both women and the natural environment. Miles (2013) summarise that “ecofeminism adds both a commitment to the environment and an awareness of the associations made between women and nature. Specifically, this philosophy emphasizes the ways both nature and women are treated by patriarchal society.

Ecofeminist movement, bone out of ecological feminism, was born out of conferences held in the United States by associations of academic and professional women during the 1970s and early 1980s. They discussed ways in which feminism and environmentalism might be combined to promote respect for women and the natural world and were inspired by the notion that a long historical pattern of associating women with nature had led to the oppression of both. For example, referring the earth as mother earth. They noted that women and nature were often depicted as chaotic, irrational, and in need of control, while men were frequently characterized as rational, ordered, and thus capable of directing the use and development of women and nature. Ecofeminists contend that this arrangement results in a tiered structure that grants power to men and allows for the exploitation of women and nature, particularly in as far as the two are associated with one another. Thus, early ecofeminists determined that solving the predicament of nature and women would require undoing the social status of both. Ecofeminism insist that women must acknowledge and work to end the domination of nature if they are to work toward their own liberation. Theologian Rosemary Ruether urged women and environmentalists to work together to end patriarchal systems.

And lastly, radical feminist theory analyses the structures of power which oppress the female sex. Its central tenet is that women as a biological class are globally oppressed by men as a biological class. Thus radical feminism believes men subjugates women by virtue of their sex, a battle of sex. They believe that male power is constructed and maintained through institutional and cultural practices that aim to bolster male superiority through the reinforcement of female inferiority. One such manifestation of the patriarchy is gender, which is believed to be a socially constructed hierarchy which functions to repress female autonomy and has no basis in biology. Radical feminists also critique all religions and their institutions, and other practices that promote violence against women such as prostitution, pornography and female genital mutilation (FGM) practiced by some north African and Asian countries. The subjugation of women is a social process that has no basis in biology or any other pretext, and thus can and should be challenged and dismantled.

Radical feminists see that oppression of females as closely linked to and bound up in their gender roles as the bearers of new life and male hatred of the female reproductive power. Radical feminists take an unequivocal stance on the right to female reproductive justice. The manifestation of radical feminism has resulted in advocating for the recognisation of their reproductitive power as a national duty in Zimbabwe. Radical feminism increasingly recognises that females from different oppressed groups experience a combination of oppressions. Class, race and disability have systematic structural impacts on different women’s lives in different toxic combinations. Radical Feminists believe in an autonomous women’s movement as the path to women’s liberation. They believe in the importance of female only spaces where theory and action is developed from the lived reality of females who have been socialised into womanhood such as Lesbon Island in Greece where women resided during 5th century BC in the times of Sappho.

References

  1. Wikipedia contributors. Socialist feminism. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. March 5, 2018, 23:00 UTC. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Socialist_feminism&oldid=828983117. Accessed May 4, 2018.
  2. Curry A. (2013) Introduction: Ecofeminism and Environmental Crisis. In: Environmental Crisis in Young Adult Fiction. Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature. Palgrave Macmillan, London
  3. What is radical feminism? Accessed at http://www.radfemcollective.org/what-is-radical-feminism/ accessed on 4/5/2018
  4. Lois Ann Lorentzen,2012. University of San Francisco, and Heather Eaton, Saint Paul University
  5. Mary Mellor, 1997. Feminism & Ecology. New York Univerity Press
  6. Miles Kathlyn, 2013. Ecofeminism. Accessed from https://www.britannica.com/topic/ecofeminism Accessed on 4/5/2018
  7. Hellen Gilbert. Intro to Marxist Feminism. Accessed from http://www.feministezine.com/feminist/philosophy/Introduction-to-Marxist-Feminism.html Accessed at 5/5/2018

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