Terms and definitions: part three


Terms and conditions: part one

Terms and conditions: part two

So far in our quest for a set of feminist terms and definitions, we’ve covered some basics and some not-so-basics. Now we’ll get onto the complicated stuff, e.g. various types of feminism. This gets complicated because different groups have their own interpretations on what each of these things mean, so may not agree exactly with the definitions we have here.

I’d also like to explicitly point out that being a feminist does not mean having to subscribe to any of the below groups, or any other feminist group. Feminism is more of a spectrum than a cluster of rigidly defined groups, and the sooner we reject the idea of clear cut labels, the sooner I believe we can work together towards our goals. With that in mind, it can be confusing not to know the basics of each group – hence why I’m attempting to define each approach. So, without further ado:

Radical Feminism

Prominent Radical Feminists: Germaine Greer, Julie Bindel, Andrea Dworkin

Finn Mackay defines radical feminism as being compromised of four main values:

1. The acceptance of the existence of patriarchy alongside a commitment to end it.

2. The use and promotion of women-only space as an organising method.

3. A focus on all forms of male violence against women and their role as a keystone of women’s oppression broadly.

4. An extension of the analysis of male violence against women to include the institutions of pornography and prostitution.

Radical feminism arose during the 1960s ‘second wave’ (see Terms and Definitions: part one). Radical feminists are often critical of liberal feminism for not going far enough – they believe that society must be changed more wholly than just within its laws, as patriarchy is inherent within its very structures.  They also believe that the oppression of women is the oldest and worst form of oppression in the world, and must be overthrown by any means. Rad fems, as they are sometimes known, reject traditional gender roles, oppose the objectification of women and strongly disagree with the idea of sex work and/or pornography as female empowerment.

Radical feminists have undergone criticism for being male-exclusive and for often being trans-exclusive (as such, some been accused of transphobia). They are the type most likely to attract negative media attention but can be thanked for bringing about ‘the personal as political’, speaking out against harmful sexual politics and encouraging sisterhood amongst women. Rather than focusing on ideology and theory, they prefer to take direct action.

Liberal Feminism

Prominent Liberal Feminists: Mary Wollstonecraft, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan

Liberal feminists have been traditionally focused on changing legislation to ensure gender equality in the law. While their approach was considered radical (they encouraged the destruction of property), the suffragettes’ fight to ensure women were given the same voting rights as men was an example of this. Liberal feminists tend to put the emphasis on women as individuals, and emphasise the importance of ‘choice’.

Liberal feminism took off in the 1950’s and 1960’s, a time for many civil rights movements. Liberal feminists believe that men and women are socialised into believing that men are superior, and the patriarchy is a result of this, and they believe that women have the same capabilities as men and as such should be awarded the same opportunities. They are concerned with things such as equal pay, abortion law, and equal access to all industries.  Their work has been responsible for huge achievements within areas such as welfare, education and health, but they have received criticism for focusing too narrowly on the law.

The movement has also received substantial criticism for ignoring issues of race and class. As such, some modern feminists choose not to label themselves as liberal.

Socialist Feminism

Prominent Socialist Feminists: Naomi Klein, bell hooks, Angela Carter

Socialist feminists believe in challenging ideologies of capitalism, as well as patriarchy. They believe that the two are intrinsically linked, as a capitalist society rewards men for producing tangible, tradable goods. Women have not been valued the same way as their work has been predominantly in the domestic sphere, where goods are not produced – even now, the majority of carers are women, and they tend to be the lowest earners. Men’s economic status gives them power and control over women, resulting in wide-scale oppression.

Socialist feminists believe that putting men into the public sphere and women into the domestic sphere is the result of socialisation rather than a biological difference. They believe that men and women’s roles and statuses should undergo considerable change.

Like the radical feminists, socialist feminists believe that although women are divided by class, race, ethnicity and religion, they all experience the same oppression simply for being a woman. Unlike liberal feminists, who tend to focus on women as individuals, socialist feminists focus on the broader context of society and believe the best way to end the oppression of women is for men and women to work together equally.


Prominent Womanists: Alice Walker, Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi, Clenora Hudson-Weems

Womanism as a term was coined by Alice Walker in 1979, who said, “Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.” She also defined a Womanist as, “A woman who loves another woman, sexually and/ or non sexually. She appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility…[she] is committed to the survival and wholeness of an entire people, male and female. Not a separatist, except periodically for health… loves the spirit…. loves struggle. Loves herself. Regardless.”

Womanists often feel that feminism is dominated by middle class, white women and insufficiently tackles the issue of race. They point to examples in the media, in academia, in trade publishing, etc. all as giving white feminists a platform over BME women. They also find it hard to relate to feminism as the experiences of being a women of colour can differ so strongly from being a white woman. Womanism, as an alternative, focuses on the racial and gender oppression of black women and those of other minority demographics.

The term ‘Womanist’ includes the word “man”, recognizing that black men are an integral part of black women’s lives as their partners, friends and relatives. Womanism accounts for the ways in which black women support and empower black men, and explores the ways that black women’s relationship to men as different from white women’s. It acknowledges and praises the history, traditions, values and power of black women while recognizing a history of sexual and non-sexual violence against them.

The University of Texas at Austin recently made headlines for announcing a new gender politics class titled “Beyoncé Feminism, Rihanna Womanism”. I cannot be the only person who desperately would like to attend this class.

–  Jade Slaughter is editor of The Jar Belles and has written for The F Word, Parallel and Litro magazines. Follow her on Twitter: @msjadeslaughter.