Taxonomy of Feminist Intellectual Traditions

A Taxonomy of Feminist Intellectual Traditions

Warren Hedges, English Dept., Southern Oregon University, 9/96


Representative Thinkers

Characteristic Presuppositions & Ambitions


Liberal Feminism

Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, most feminists in office, NOW officials

Attempts to reform or use existing political structures to advance women's interests along a civil rights model. Argues that women deserve the same privileges, protections, pay, and opportunities that men do.

Even when reformed, existing political structures may not be adequate to address women's needs. How to achieve equality with men without erasing women's difference, making them in effect, "honorary men."

Cultural Feminism

A great variety of female artists, musicians, teachers, activists, etc. A very big tent.

Attempts to recover lost or marginalized women's works and traditions and create a culture that nurtures and supports women's experiences and values. Music, literature and other arts form a large part of this endeavor. Argues that existing institutions and the values they represent are male-dominated.

How to create a "gynocentric" culture without drawing on a notion of "universal" sisterhood that may exclude some women. How to avoid "policing identity" and setting up some women and their values as more "women-centered' than others.


Adrienne Rich, Mary Dally

Argues that at this historical moment women's primary responsibility is to care for each other and combat patriarchy, and that this is best achieved by creating female-only spaces and relationships. Especially during the late seventies lesbian separatists were sometimes taken (often by others) to be the most radical or pure form of feminism.

How to be a vanguard if you don't have a positive program for males, especially boys. How to account for non-traditional males such as gay men and transvestites.

"French" Feminism

Hélene Cixous, Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, Monique Wittig, Toril Moi

Draws on recent French intellectual traditions to examine the role that language plays in creating subjectivity and maintaining gender asymmetries. Explicitly critiques many of liberal feminism's presuppositions, although it supports its political advances.

How to critique linguistic formations that make change difficult without characterizing their influence as something so powerful and pervasive that any attempts at political change are deluded and hopeless.

Psychoanalytic Feminism

Nancy Chodorow, Julliet Mitchell, Jane Gallop, Kaja Silverman, Toril Moi

Argues that the Freudian tradition, especially in its most recent formations, provides the best framework for understanding how language shapes subjectivity and gender definitions. Draws on moments in Freud's work where he analyzes traditional heterosexuality and gender roles as arbitrary rather than "natural."

How to draw on Freud's more subversive moments without also perpetuating sexist premises. Question of how plausible a model based on a Oedipal triangle is in a society where dual parent households are becoming less common.

Materialist Feminism

Susan Willis, Donna Harraway

Attempts to relate women's subordination to historical and class factors like the division of labor between men and women. Tends to focus on collaboration rather than identity politics.

How to avoid treating gender issues as an offshoot of class issues.

Anti-pornography Movement

Catherine McKinnon, Andrea Dworkin

Argues that pornography is the most extreme instance of a culture that objectifies women as a means to oppress them, and uses rape as a form of terrorism. "Pornography is the theory and rape is the practice."

How to account for the difference between representations and acts. How to explain things like some women's rape fantasies or lesbian B&D without policing women's desires.

Pro-Porn Artists & Theorists

Gayle Rubin, Susie Bright, female performance artists

Argue that the anti-porn movement has a naive view of representation and has vitiated women's sense of sexual agency. Does not want to censor porn, but to create better porn that reflects women's desires, body types, and diversity.

How to best combat the continuity between some forms of straight male pornography and violence against women.

"Queer Theory"

Gayle Rubin, Judith Butler, Michael Moon, Eve Sedgwick Examines the ways that marginalized sexualities subvert, parody, and disrupt dominant gender and power relations. Especially interested in how drag, camp, etc. complicate or disrupt received oppositions like those between "male" and "female," "gay" and "straight," etc.
How to maintain a cohesive oppostional politics that does not depend on a notion of shared identity.

Grrrl Power

Christine Laffer quite rightly points out that, as a Gen-X academic, I am behind the curve with regard to what's going on with younger (Gen-Y?, echo-boomer--it's up to them to label themselves) women. But I'm also young enough to know that I should link to her essay, "Charred Edges:Grrrl Power and the Structures of Feminism." After being misrepresented by Boomers for most of my life, I'm willing to listen and learn! (Hedges, 3/9/99)

Radical Feminism

In my graduate program, especially among students, radical feminism was a controversial title and something of a turf war, so I have left it off this chart. Basically, there were three competing positions:

1> (Held by self-described Radical Feminists)

That Radical feminism is an revolutionary form of cultural feminism, overlapping with separatism, and arguing for nothing less than a complete revolution in terms of gendered oppression and resistance on all fronts, public and private.

2 > (Held by many Materialist Feminists)

That radical feminism was a term highjacked from feminists with Marxist leanings and appropriated by a more conservative essentialism that privileged personal style over political coalitions. For more on this, see Alice Echol's book, Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967-75. Minneapolis: U of Minn P, 1989.

3 > (Held by many queer theorists and Post-Structuralist feminists)

That radical feminism reifies men and women's gender roles and relies on 19th century notions of women's purity and men's corrosiveness, making it conservative, especially in its tendency to police women's identities by labeling butch women as "male-identified" and excluding femme-men from serious consideration. See, for example, points 5 & 6 of Pro-porn positions within feminism.