DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N022-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved October 03, 2022, from

6. Second- and third-wave feminism

Many of the critical and constructive themes discussed by Beauvoir were taken up again in the late 1960s and 1970s (though often without much reference to The Second Sex) by a generation of women who struggled, in the light of their personal experience, to revise the social and psychological theories around which academic debate revolved. On a critical plane, they enlarged Beauvoir’s objections to Marxism and psychoanalysis and added criticisms of other sociological approaches such as functionalism, sometimes engendering debates which remained lively throughout the next twenty or so years. For feminists concerned with Marxism, the key issues were whether women could be satisfactorily accommodated within the class structure of society, and whether women’s oppression could be adequately explained in terms of their place in the relations of production and the ideologies to which these gave rise. Studies of domestic labour and of women’s sexual subordination suggested that, while Marxist analyses of women in capitalist societies remained valuable, the answer to these questions was negative. Turning their attention to psychoanalysis, a number of writers launched an influential attack on what they saw as Freud’s construction of femininity as a passive, masochistic, narcissistic and intellectually limited condition. These readings of Freud and his successors gave feminists pause, and initiated a series of fruitful reinterpretations and modifications within psychoanalytic theory (see Feminism and psychoanalysis; Irigaray, L.; Kristeva, J.).

This critical work was also the vehicle for a number of important innovations in feminist thinking which raised fresh questions and consolidated novel approaches. Writers such as Kate Millett and Shulamith Firestone argued in the early 1970s that the forms of domination isolated by feminists are all relatively superficial in comparison with patriarchy – the sexual power that men exercise over women, primarily within the family, but also in social, economic and political institutions. In a wide range of societies, it was pointed out, men’s sexuality is the source and justification of their power, the purportedly natural characteristic that gives them the right to rule women. The workings of patriarchy are evident not just in erotic relations between the sexes, but in the manifold means by which men and women are socialized as to temperament, role and status, men being taught to regard themselves as potent and active, women to perceive themselves as subordinate and sexually impure.

Patriarchy, then, relies not so much on the biological differences between men and women as on deep-seated cultural interpretations that give them value and significance. In the early 1970s this distinction came to be regarded as crucial, and writers such as Millett and Ann Oakley took over the terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ to mark it: sex refers to the biological traits that make a person male or female, gender to culturally variable conceptions of masculinity and femininity. Taken together, the notions of patriarchy, sex and gender provided an Anglo-American articulation of many of the themes announced by Beauvoir, and gave rise to a series of theoretical debates, some of which are still going on. Is sex really separable from gender, or is our experience and theorizing so mediated by culture that the idea of the simply biological ceases to make sense? Is patriarchy a useful analytical category, or is it either unduly general, or unduly reductionist? How, in any case, is patriarchal power related to other forms of political and economic power? And is it really as strong and pervasive as its exponents claim?

Regardless of the fate of these questions, the belief that men’s domination of women may be sustained by all sorts of practices had a vast impact on the Academy, as feminists began to take a fresh look at the texts and theories they studied professionally. This approach proved fruitful when applied to literary texts – Simone de Beauvoir had included a study of ‘The Myth of Woman in Five Authors’ in The Second Sex, and Millett’s Sexual Politics opens with striking readings of Henry Miller, Norman Mailer and Jean Genet (see Feminist literary criticism). It was soon adopted by philosophers, who started to analyse the conceptions of gender embedded in the great works of the philosophical tradition. Genevieve Lloyd’s The Man of Reason (1984) and Carole Pateman’s articles on contractarian political theory are notable early examples of this kind of work, and were rapidly followed by critical scrutinies both of the various areas of philosophy and particular positions within them (see Feminist aesthetics; Feminist epistemology; Feminist ethics; Feminist jurisprudence; Feminist political philosophy; Feminism and social science; Feminist theology).

While the results of this academic flowering have been extremely diverse, two themes stand out. First, some of the most impressive contributions to this recent work have shown how philosophical standards and doctrines that have claimed for themselves an objective and universal status reflect particular interests, values and priorities attuned to broader conceptions of masculinity. In this way, philosophy contributes to the cultural constructions of gender that play a part in legitimating and maintaining men’s power over women. Second, the third-wave feminism of the 1980s and 1990s has turned its critical techniques back on feminism’s own long-standing habit of making claims on behalf of ‘women’. These purportedly universal pronouncements, it is now pointed out, fail to take account of the differences between women of diverse races, sexual orientations, nationalities or classes. Moreover, if gender is not a natural category, there is nothing to be said about women as such, and we must become more sensitive to the many conceptions of femininity found in different societies. This anti-essentialism has profound implications for feminism, both as an academic preoccupation and as a political movement, and marks an important shift away from its own origins towards new themes and questions.

Citing this article:
James, Susan. Second- and third-wave feminism. Feminism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N022-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2022 Routledge.

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