To understand the varieties of feminist sociology it is important to know something of the history of feminism as a social movement, because the feminist sociologies are a product of a particular phase of feminism. For the purposes of the book, feminism is divided into three broad phases. First Wave feminism, from about 1848 to 1918, focused on getting women rights in public spheres, especially the vote, educa­tion and entry to middle-class jobs such as medicine. The views of these feminists, at least as they expressed them in public, were puritan about sex, alcohol, dress, and behaviour. The Second Wave, from 1918 to 1968, was concerned with social reform (such as free school meals for poor children, and health care for poor women) and ‘revolution’ in the private sphere: the right to contraception, the end of the sexual double standard, and so on. Third Wave feminism, from 1968 to the present, has been concerned with public issues again (equal pay, an end to sex discrimination in employment, pensions, mortgages, etc.) and with making formerly private issues (such as rape and domestic violence) mat­ters of public concern and reform. The Third Wave has also produced a revolution in the scholarly knowledge bases of most disciplines, such as feminist sociology, which is of concern to women in education if to no
one else. In this Third Wave all the humanities and social sciences have developed feminist sub-specialisms: there are feminist geographies, his­tories, political science, psychology, and so on. In this chapter, some of the central ideas of feminist sociology are outlined.

Both First Wave and Third Wave feminism have been concerned with political action, with improving the economic status of women, with tackling violence against women, with the education of women, with raising the status of women’s and children’s health, and with ensuring that female voices and experiences are treated as seriously as male. One of the major differences between First Wave and Third Wave feminisms in the English-speaking world is particularly relevant to soci­ology: attitudes to knowledge. In general, the First Wave feminists were concerned to open up academic secondary education, higher education and professional training to girls and women. In the first wave of fem­inism from 1848 to 1918, there were few challenges to the contents of academic disciplines – women wanted access to schools and universities to study subjects. In an era where only males could study algebra, Greek, Hebrew, Latin and the physical sciences, the goal of feminists was to open them up to females, and prove that women could excel at them. There were a few feminists who queried the epistemological sta­tus of the male knowledge base, but this was not a major preoccupa­tion. When women were forbidden to learn male knowledge, it was necessary to gain access to it, and to show that women could engage successfully with it, before it could be challenged (Delamont, 1989b, 1992a). In the second phase of feminism, from 1918 to 1968, the emphasis on social reform and welfare rights also failed to generate fundamental challenges to the academic knowledge base of disciplines.

There are some ways in which sociology, and the universities in which it lives, have changed unrecognisably. Hess (1999) captures this in a book review where she comments on:

Evi Glenn’s memory of how angry she was in the 1960s that Harvard’s Lamont Library was not open to female students; yet when I and my Radcliffe classmates were denied entrance when it first opened in the late 1940s, it never occurred to us to protest – we had no paradigm or vocabulary for sex discrimination. (1999: 287)

By the late 1960s, when Third Wave feminism arose, women in Britain and the USA were allowed access to most spheres of male knowledge. The Third Wave feminist movement has focused on challenging the epistemological basis, the methods, and the content, of ‘mainstream’ or ‘malestream’ knowledge. This shows in the academic departments, degree courses and textbooks in women’s studies; in the feminist pub­lishing houses and feminist lists in the established houses; in the social science methods textbooks; and in arts and social science disciplines where there are feminist journals, women’s caucuses in the learned soci­eties, and books on many feminist topics. Sociology has been a fertile ground for feminist challenges to the knowledge base. When the third wave of feminism erupted in the aftermath of the upheavals of 1968, however, the re-making of knowledge came to be one of its central, and most enduring legacies. Every arts and social science discipline devel­oped a committee or pressure group of women scholars, many started new journals, conferences, courses and series of books. The whole ‘dis­cipline’ of women’s studies spread out across the Anglo-Saxon world, and ‘feminist perspectives’ on everything from medieval Italian to man­agement studies grew up.