There are three currents in feminist sociology which can be clearly distinguished from the early 1970s to the present day: liberal feminist sociology, Marxist feminist sociology and radical or separatist feminist sociology. In the past decade, there has also been a distinct postmodernist feminist sociology. There are other theoretical positions in feminism which could be the basis for a sociological theory, but which have not been developed into coherent sociological perspectives. The most important feminist position here is black feminism. There are distinguished and thought-provoking black feminists whose ideas could be developed into a coherent sociological position: bell hooks (1981), Audre Lorde (1984) and Patricia Hill Collins (2000). In Britain there is not a black feminist sociology: there is black feminism and there is feminist sociology but not a black feminist sociology. Heidi Mirza’s (1997) collection shows the vitality of Black British Feminism, but it is not a sociological book. I have therefore said little about black feminism in this volume.
Liberal feminist sociology, Marxist feminist sociology, and radical or separatist feminist sociology are all long-standing perspectives. They are, however, differentially grounded. Liberal feminist sociologists do not necessarily share any theory: their common ground is a political belief in using research data to effect social reform and a faith in empirical research which is essentially Fabian. A liberal feminist sociology can be grounded in the scholarship of a founding father or dead white male. There is no requirement that the theory is woman-centred or that the research methods are feminist. A liberal feminist sociology could be Weberian, Durkheimian, symbolic interactionist, or even Parsonian: the common ground is a faith in the possibility of social change; in evidence, and in rational decision-making on issues of sex and gender. Liberal feminists are the most likely to believe that there can be objective social science: to hold on to the Enlightenment project.
Marxist and radical feminists are unlikely to be positivists; unlikely to believe in objective social science; unlikely to hold to the Enlightenment project. For Marxists, ‘objectivity’ is a class-based myth: the ideas of the ruling class proclaimed as universal and objective. For radical feminists, the myth of objectivity is a male one: men invented science in the seventeenth century and invented objectivity specifically to exclude women, and to valorise their own thinking. Radical and Marxist feminists have little else in common, but they do share a profound scepticism about claims to objectivity. Marxist feminist sociologists, in contrast, are united by their theoretical commitment to Marxism. They may or may not do empirical work, but they share a philosophy. At its simplest, they believe that the economic system drives the other aspects of every society such as education, the family and the mass media, and that class inequalities are paramount. The theoretical founders are Marx and Engels, and other revered theorists are also male (Althusser, Gramsci, Habermas, Adorno or Mao). Methods are also shared with male sociologists. Radical or separatist feminists share a foundational belief that sex inequality predates class inequality in human prehistory, and that patriarchy is the fundamental system of oppression. It is among radical feminists that calls for feminist theory, and feminist methods are loudest. Audre Lorde’s famous dictum, that the master’s tools cannot be used to demolish the master’s house, is invoked.
The most important distinction between the three perspectives is best grasped by focusing on how social change takes place to improve women’s status and everyday lives. For Marxist feminists the subjection and oppression of women (and of ethnic minorities), and sexism as an ideology (like racism) are consequences of capitalism. It is in the interests of the ruling class that the majority of the population is divided into groups who despise, reject and exploit other groups. So racism and sexism keep the working class divided, and help blind them to the realities of class struggle. Thus, if women’s status is to improve, the capitalist social order has to be overthrown. In a socialist society it would be possible to have sexual (and racial) equality, in a capitalist one, it is not possible to have either. In this world-view, human societies can change, but the economic system determines most if not all facets of the society and most of the individual’s life chances and life choices. To produce social change, and individual change, therefore, the economic system must be altered. Men could behave and think differently, if their economic conditions and accompanying social institutions were different. Campaigns therefore need to be focused on class and economic issues, and sociological research on women must always keep class and economic issues foregrounded.
Liberal feminists have faith in the plasticity of the human species and the mutability of human organisations and societies. Just as the Roman Empire embraced Christianity, or nineteenth-century Britain took to the railways, so too societies could become less sexist, and individual men could grow up less violent and more comfortable with women and with female qualities. Changing child-rearing, changing socialisation, and changing social policy can reduce, or even eliminate sexism. Liberal feminists have faith, too, in rationality. If the facts are known, people will change. Small changes are worth making, and basing change on research is always sensible. Liberal feminists use a variety of sociological theories, and may conduct research on anything.
Radical feminists have the bleakest and most pessimistic view of the human species. Because patriarchy is the oldest oppression, dating back a million years or more, it is unlikely that men can change, even if they wished to. Consequently women’s best chance of safety and fulfilment lies in avoiding men, and male institutions. It is better to live in allfemale groups, and try to minimise all contact with patriarchal institutions. The sociological research is frequently focused on issues where men of all classes are equally complicit in sexist practices, such as pornography, rape and domestic violence. Radical feminist sociology overlaps with gay and lesbian sociology, and with queer theory. Issues of sexuality, sexual orientation and the emotions are often central. The large collection edited by Bell and Klein (1996) contains vigorous assertions of the current state of radical feminism.