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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Theorizing Feminisms: A Reader by Elizabeth Hackett, Sally Haslanger (Oxford University Press) "What is sexist oppression?" "What should be done about it?" Organized around these questions, Theorizing Feminisms: A Reader provides an overview of theoretical feminist writing about the quest for gender justice. Incorporating both classic and cutting-edge material, the reader takes into account the full diversity of women, highlighting the effects of race, ethnicity, nationality, class, sexuality, and religion on women's experience.
Theorizing Feminisms is organized into four sections and includes fifty-four essays. The first section introduces several basic concepts commonly employed when thinking about sexism--oppression, social construction, essentialism, intersectionality, gender, race, and class--and also raises questions about the perspective and legitimacy of the theorist. The second section surveys three approaches that attempt to characterize in a general way the source of injustice toward women: humanist feminism ("the sameness approach"), gynocentric feminism ("the difference approach"), and dominance feminism. Offering an alternate perspective, the third section introduces two "localizing" approaches, grounded in postmodernism and identity politics, respectively. Skeptical of theories that attempt to analyze social phenomena across history and culture, authors in this section challenge, rather than answer, the text's organizing questions. The final section explores the relationship of feminist theory to three liberatory projects--postcolonialism, neo-materialism, and queer theory--that do not characterize themselves as feminist, yet take gender as a significant category of analysis. Each section opens with an introduction and each essay is followed by helpful study questions. The majority of the essays are presented in their entirety.
Theorizing Feminisms underscores the strong connection between feminist theory and practice by including essays that illustrate important political inspirations or applications of each theoretical approach. It also presents versions of the same approach from various points in history, revealing feminist theory to be dynamic and evolving, rather than static. Ideal for interdisciplinary courses in feminist theory, this volume will also serve as an invaluable reference for current and future generations of theorists.

Excerpt: Although most women's studies programs (and many philosophy, literature, and political science departments) include an upper-level course entitled Feminist Theory, little consensus exists about the appropriate content of such courses. Some of these courses simply expose students to feminists doing theory in different disciplines; others serve as "methods" courses, teaching students how to criticize traditional research methods and to design and carry out feminist research; and still others cover a narrower selection of feminist theoretical work in the instructor's home discipline. While undeniably these courses are valuable, we believe that another important model for an interdisciplinary feminist theory course is one that surveys approaches to the theoretical issues raised by the quest for gender justice. Such a course takes two questions as its central topic: What is sexist oppression? What ought to be done about it? The goal of the course is to provide an overview of feminist responses to—including a critique of—these questions. This book collects and organizes a set of essays that are ideally suited to a course framed in this way.

The book is divided into four main sections. In the first section we include essays that introduce students to some of the basic concepts used in thinking about sexism, e.g., oppres­sion, social construction, essentialism, intersectionality, gender, race, and class, and to issues that problematize the position of theorist, e.g., what is the task of feminist theory? What biases should we be alert to? Can we speak only from/about our own experience, or can we legitimately analyze the experience of others?

The second main section covers three approaches to sex oppression that attempt to characterize in a general way the source of injustice toward women. Humanist feminism, also sometimes referred to as "the sameness approach," and counted as a form of liberal feminism, maintains that a social system is unjust toward women insofar as women are viewed and treated as different from men. The humanist approach often favors a "gender-blind" strategy in assuring the fair treatment of men and women. Gynocentric feminists criticize humanists for failing to acknowledge that women are different from men and, more importantly, for failing to value women's distinctive capacities, contributions, and virtues. Gynocentric feminism, also known as "the difference approach," favors a more substantial integration of womanly values into the structure of society. Dominance feminists reject the sameness/ difference dichotomy as not adequately identifying the crux of the problem. Regardless of the similarities or dissimilarities between women and men, in order to achieve justice the dis­tribution of power between the sexes must be equal. According to the dominance feminists, to a large extent women's "difference," their "femininity," is intimately tied to their lack of power; but this is not to say that if powerful they would be like men, or should be like men. If women and men had equal power, gender as we know it would no longer exist.

The third section of the book rejects the project of offering a general analysis of sex oppression that supposedly targets the problem and provides the solution. "Localizing" approaches, as we have termed them, are wary of theories that attempt to analyze social phe­nomena across history and culture. They charge that such theories typically do no more than project the perspective of those in a particular social position (historically, the white middle-class feminist) onto everyone else. We consider two versions of this critique, one grounded in postmodernism, the other in the politics of identity, or what is also called "identity politics." As we understand the localizing critique, the point is not that we should throw out everything offered by the universalizing approaches, for there may be contexts in which the tools and strategies they developed are useful. But the very task of feminist theory must be rethought.

The fourth and final section considers the relationship of feminist theory to three other liberatory projects that do not characterize themselves as feminist, yet take gender as a significant category of analysis. Specifically, this section contains articles that raise questions about the relationship between feminist theory and postcolonialism, neo-materialism, and queer theory.

Based on our experience teaching courses in feminist theory over a number of years, we are convinced that a course of this kind is accessible and helpful to all women's studies students, regardless of their disciplinary focus. Feminist work depends on assumptions about how the current sex/gender system is problematic; the task in a given course is typically to expose what "the problem" is, to construct possible remedies, or to critique others' proposed remedies. But across disciplines and authors within disciplines, there are varying interpre­tations of "the problem" posed by the sex/gender system, e.g., feminist political theory, liter­ary theory, and psychology frame the central issues of feminism in quite different ways. Although this variation can lead to important insights in interdisciplinary dialogue, it is not always clear to students (or to their professors) what the presuppositions of their inquiry are or how their inquiry is related to other feminist work. A course of the kind we propose ex­plicitly refuses to privilege one framing of "the problem" of sex oppression and is instead designed to give students a structure for thinking about a variety of different and intercon­nected problems under this broad rubric. As a result, it helps students see both connections and tensions between the far-ranging material they have studied in other women's studies classes and provides an opportunity to clarify and organize their thinking. Once students are alert to a broad constellation of problems concerning sex/gender, they are in a good position to problematize the original guiding questions to ask whether there is a unified phenomenon of "sex oppression." If there is, how might it be differently reflected in different social and historical contexts? And how can it be addressed it in its full complexity? If not, what should the task of feminism and feminist theory be?

We acknowledge that some may charge that our choice to organize the course around the concept of "sex oppression" biases the discussion. First, one might object that the focus on "oppression" reveals a social-scientific emphasis that neglects the important work by human­ists on issues of representation and "culture." Although it is true that our text does not include some works that might be seen as central to, e.g., feminist literary theory, it is not our goal to provide an introduction to any particular disciplinary approach to feminist theory. That said, however, we also want to emphasize that the politics of representation is an important theme throughout the text, from consideration of metatheoretical issues of standpoint and epistemic position to political and legal debates over pornography. Moreover, it is our belief that the more abstract questions of representation taken up in literary theory (and related fields) are well motivated by considering, e.g., the challenges of doing cross-cultural comparisons, the symbols of patriarchal religion and pornography, and the political repercussions of cultural scripts.

A second concern might be that the focus on "oppression" leaves untouched many methodological questions about feminist research that students need to encounter in a theory course. Again, we agree that there is a place in a women's studies curriculum for a methods course; but ours is not attempting to be that course. Nonetheless, our text raises central methodological questions both explicitly and implicitly through the controversies generated between different approaches and different authors. For example, the question of essential-ism and the problem of intersectionality is an underlying thread throughout the essays, as is the related question of who can legitimately speak for (and about) whom. More importantly to our minds, however, the course does not shy away from discussion of values and the nor­mative dimension of feminist theorizing. The authors we have selected take a stand (actually, a variety of different stands) on what gender justice consists in, and how different forms of theorizing do or do not further the cause of justice. Because the course is explicitly political in its guiding questions, it engages different forms of academic feminism by revealing their political roots and normative implications.

Further, one might complain that this text does not provide an adequate representation of the history of feminism, and so suggests that feminist theory can pose and answer once and for all the organizing questions "What is sex oppression and what should we do about it?" In order to understand feminism, the objection continues, one must be attentive to the social and historical contexts of women's discontent. And when attempting to understand contemporary forms of feminism, we gain valuable insight by reflecting on past feminist movements.

We acknowledge the importance of historical perspective in understanding feminism, and agree that a study of historical texts and the work of feminist historians is essential to feminist theorizing. We have included a small number of historical texts in this volume, and urge instructors and students to pursue additional sources. Many historical texts are available on the Internet and can be easily accessed without charge; as a result, we felt it was more import-ant to include material here that was less easily available. In addition, we believe that some of the advantages of historical perspective can also be gained by cross-cultural, cross-race, and cross-class comparisons, and we urge readers to attend to the ways in which time, culture, and social position can affect how one frames feminist issues and what one finds satisfying in a solution. 

In addition to structuring the text around the central thematic questions, the following are further organizational features we'd like to emphasize: 

Given that the text is framed by questions concerning the nature of sex oppression, our text is organized by theoretical approach (e.g., humanist feminism, gynocentric feminism) rather than topic (e.g., work, families). We have also chosen not to organize approaches according to their non-feminist intellectual roots (e.g., Marxist feminism, socialist feminism, ecofeminism). We find our rubrics organize the material more effectively in response to the framing questions, presuppose less background knowledge about nonfeminist intellectual traditions, and also reveal that there are disagreements internal to feminism that cannot be traced to nonfeminist sources.

In an effort to highlight the tight connection between feminist theory and practice, our text includes for each theoretical approach several essays illustrating some important politi­cal inspirations or applications. We have found this approach extremely useful in making highly theoretical pieces more accessible, and in engaging students who are wary of "high" theory. Our intention is not to reinforce a theory/practice divide; rather, we seek to demon­strate how theory is inspired by, emerges out of, returns to inform, and then is corrected by political work.

Although early versions of many of the approaches we consider may be justifiably criti­cized for not taking women's diversity into account, we believe that in some cases the core commitments of the theory are compatible with a more complex understanding of gender and the phenomenon of intersectionality; moreover, in some cases defenders of an approach have responded to charges of exclusion. As a result, we have made an effort to include under each approach not only a "classical" statement of it, but further developments or extensions of it. This is important, we believe, in order to demonstrate that theories are not static entities, but grow and change as we engage and critique them. We have also incorporated writings by women of color within the "Theoretical Frames" section of each approach, making clear that women of color are contributing authors to the approaches, not only sources of critique.

One of the current controversies in women's studies is how to incorporate a "global" perspective in our teaching and research. In choosing strategies for thinking globally we want to avoid tokenism, or casting those outside the United States as "exotic" or "Other"; we also want to avoid making the United States the "superior site of feminisms." However, a course that incorporated international issues as a centrally organizing theme along with the others we have identified would stretch an already overloaded course (and text) too thin. Our compro­mise is to provide a text that focuses on the United States, but that also includes several arti­cles that invite students to broaden their perspective to consider international issues. Clearly, those who are concerned to place global issues more centrally in their course will find our compromise unsatisfying; though we also hope that this text could provide a springboard for further discussion of and readings on global feminism.

One of the central themes of our text is the challenge of doing theory that takes the full diversity of women into account. We have chosen, in particular, to highlight at different points in the text the effects of race, ethnicity, nationality, class, sexuality, and religion. We have not represented all sources of difference, e.g., we do not include essays specifically addressing age; and some dimensions of women's experience, e.g., disability, nationality/ and appearance, are represented to a very limited extent. Our goal in this text cannot be to cover everything. Instead our hope is to have provided an assortment of tools and strategies for thinking about the issue of sexist oppression and intersectionality that students can then be encouraged to extend more broadly to cases and complexities that are not explicitly covered.


Feminist theory provides a number of pedagogical challenges that we have considered in organizing the text:

One objective of a feminist theory course such as ours is to position students as theorists themselves, rather than only as witnesses to or passive receivers of theory. We have found that one way to achieve this is to present students with different and opposing viewpoints on a particular question, and to invite them into the broader conversation occurring between the authors. Our text provides several different sorts of opportunity to participate in the theoreti­cal conversation.

First, the text as a whole is structured so that each section responds to the one before it: in particular, essays beginning a section offer a critique of the strategies proposed in the previ­ous one. And yet, the organizing ideas of each approach are not treated as "refuted," but emerge at later points, sometimes transformed and recontextualized. For example, although the dominance approach begins with a critique of gynocentrism, gynocentric themes reemerge later (transformed) in later essays.

Second, the essays selected as "contextual studies" provide more than one example of how the approach in question might be worked out in practice. In some cases clear tensions between the different agendas develop. This provides an opportunity for students to think through for themselves how theories might be differently interpreted and implemented, and to make judgments about their successes and failures.

Finally, rather than simply providing a selection of canonical works and ending at the boundaries of the well-established positions, our text introduces cutting-edge material in the last section that points in many possible directions. As the debates represented in the text demonstrate, it is not clear that a single unified phenomenon of "sex oppression" exists, and at the very least "sex oppression" must be analyzed together with other forms of injustice. So, in particular, we are concerned in the last section to provide examples of ways in which wom­en's studies can be linked with other academic programs and political movements, encourag­ing students to participate in even broader conversations. Because the subsections under "Feminist Allies?" are areas of ongoing research, we are hoping to modify the text for further editions to keep it current.

A disadvantage of broad survey courses is that they do not enable students to study par­ticular authors in depth. Out of this concern, we provide full versions of almost all of the essays or book chapters, and excerpt only a few exceptionally long pieces. We also believe that there are benefits to including in several cases more than one essay by a single author, e.g.. Butler, hooks, Young. Having available (even if not assigned) more than one essay by an author enables students to see how an idea might evolve in response to different concerns.

Much of the work in recent feminist theory is written for an academic audience and is inaccessible to undergraduates; yet, more accessible single-authored surveys of the field pro-vide only one person's interpretation of the rich, multidisciplinary terrain. Although students usually come to the course without a background in (and often a resistance to) theory, they often have some background in thinking politically about sex oppression. We have discov­ered that as a result, an effective technique for giving the students the entree they need to the complex domain of theory is to have them engage different theoretical accounts of what sex oppression consists of that have emerged out of and inform feminist politics. By reaching out to students on topics that they already know something about (and also care about) and using these as a springboard for introducing more abstract theoretical issues and debates, we have found that students develop the ability and patience to read even very difficult material.

A related problem is motivation: students do not want to work through the details of a difficult text if they think the ideas do not matter, but if they can be shown how they matter, they will make the effort. For example, students often think that "humanism" is an abstract, obsolete theory that characterized a previous era of thinking about sex equality, and so are impatient with the suggestion that they should study it. To counter this, we include historical selections such as a chapter from J. S. Mill's Subjection of Women in combination with contemporary representatives of liberal feminism such as Martha Nussbaum; we include Susan Schechter's account of the battered women's movement in the United States, together with humanist critiques from the perspective of women of color, immigrant women, and global politics. By showing the potentially radical implications and current usefulness of humanist (or certain forms of liberal) theory, students are motivated to take the material seriously.

Normally, the students taking an upper-division feminist theory course are a broadly interdisciplinary group. They may have had some exposure to gender issues in previous coursework, but do not have a shared background in thinking about feminism or feminist approaches. Coming from different disciplines, they also lack a shared background in theo­ries or debates internal to particular fields.

Topically arranged courses provide one solution to this problem, and yet have two major drawbacks in this context: first, because feminist work on broad topics such as "work" or "families" is usually framed as responding to ongoing mainstream debates, students who are not familiar with the mainstream disciplinary research often find it difficult to appreciate the force of the arguments presented; but attempting to provide the disciplinary background to the debates is usually too big a task to take on in a course devoted to feminist theory. Second, topical anthologies usually represent several different feminist responses to a particular topic; but without some way to frame these responses as part of a broader approach, students tend to see feminism as highly fragmented and divisive.

We find that a course organized around feminist approaches is much more self-contained and more effective for an interdisciplinary audience. By including with the approaches essays that focus on particular topics, such as marriage, religion, sexuality, and pornography, we also achieve some of the benefits of a topical approach.

All courses that strive to provide students with an overview of a broad body of work struggle with balancing breadth and depth. Our goal is to introduce students to a representa­tive array of writing, while providing enough rigor that the students do not leave with only a caricature of the views considered. We believe that anthologies comprising extensively edited excerpts tend to encourage cartoonish understandings of feminist debates; however, collections that include only full-length, highly abstract though complete—works make for, insufficiently broad courses because so much time must be invested in each article. By providing introductions to each section, study questions, and a broad conception of what counts as "theory," our text hopes to strike a good balance between breadth and depth.

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