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May 29, 2013 / C H Thompson

Feminism continued – biology or social construction?

Feminist sociological theory examines women in the social world and addresses issues concerning women. Such an approach cuts across conventional academic disciplines (e.g. feminist history, geography, literature, science) and develops ideas and approaches that are useful in a wide variety of disciplines beyond sociology. Not only have feminists critiqued conventional methodological approaches, they have developed new methods – placing more emphasis on the experiences of women and new forms of knowledge. Both points are made clearer in this Presentation on Feminist Methods of Research

As noted earlier, feminism is closely engaged with the social world – feminist theorists tend to be women who theorise about their own experiences and interaction, it is concerned with the everyday lives and experiences of women and their social interactions, and it is often connected to women’s groups, social reform, and broad social and political movements, organisations, and institutions.  As a method of conducting social analysis, social research, and social theorising, feminist theoretical perspectives provide worthwhile models and examples for sociology and other academic endeavours.

Perhaps the first concern of feminist sociology is to recognise women as full-fledged social actors in the social world.  While women were always part of the social world, theoretical perspectives often did not recognise them as such.  In some cases, earlier theoretical perspectives can be modified or extended so that women are recognised as such, in other cases it may not be possible to do so, thus requiring that these perspectives be rebuilt or that their limitations be recognised.  For example, it would seem possible to introduce feminist theory into symbolic interaction perspectives in a way that would enrich these.  Theories such as Parsons’ model of the family or the instrumental and expressive appear to be much more limited and perhaps incapable of basic revision.

An overriding concern of feminist sociology is to recognise the difference between biology and the social – the difference usually associated with sex (as biologically ascribed) and gender (as socially constructed).  Lovell notes that “the distinction between sex and gender initially provided a firm plank for both Marxist and radical feminists … the social construction of femininity” (p. 308).  She also notes how “women’s biological functions have over and over again been used to rationalise and legitimate” (p. 308) the social status of women.

A large part of feminist theory and research has been devoted to explaining how the status, role, and position of women in the social world was socially constructed, and was not natural or unchangeable.  This involved studies of the different experiences of women in different times and places, showing the great variety of ways that societies dealt with male/female relationships, resulting in the view that gender differences were much more variable and malleable than biological differences.  For feminists, biological realities may be relatively unchangeable, but “what is constructed in social relations and in culture is more readily reconstructed” (p. 308).

But how are feminists to deal with biological realities?  Lovell (pp. 309-310) argues that radical feminists adopted a variety of responses to the tensions caused by biological realities. One approach was to argue for freeing women from childbirth through “a revolution in the technology and social relations of reproduction, in which the womb would be by-passed in favour of new technologies” (Lovell, p. 310).  While this may be in the realm of science fiction, it has been argued by feminists such as Shulamith Firestone.

A more conventional approach has been to argue that women should not be bound by biological realities, but participate fully in every aspect of society. Where such activities necessitate leave for childbirth, laws, policies, and organisational structure should be amended to accommodate a female labour force.  Though this has occurred to some extent career public life will require more change if this is to occur to achieve full equality with men.

While the distinctions between sex and gender has been extremely useful from a feminist and sociological perspective, the above arguments show that it is not without its own difficulties and contradictions.  The aim of the above arguments is not to abandon this conceptual distinction as to note how it may need to become more carefully used and modified in improving social theory.

In terms of several of these issues, there will be changes in the social construction of gender as women participate more fully in all aspects of life, as men change their forms of participation, and as social relationships change – Marxist feminist social theory seeks explain these.

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