Narrowing the multiple definitions of feminism and feminist theory into one cohesive, understandable definition is a daunting task. Asking the question, “What is feminist theory,” produces the following answer: “In simple terms, feminist theory is a theory on women’s rights and gender equality. It involves the study of women’s roles in society which include their rights, privileges, interests, and concerns. It serves as an extension to feminism which evaluates the rightful place of women in the society.”[i] While this explanation seems simplistic, it is an adequate definition for the initial stages of feminist theory.
Beginning with independent actions and writings of forward-thinking women throughout history, feminism morphed into a collaborative movement in Europe and the United States towards female political equality in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The movement expanded beyond political equality into social, cultural and economic arenas worldwide, and feminists have worked feverishly to advance gender equality with an emphasis on improving the lives of women.[ii] The work of feminism is impacted by feminist theory in that feminist theory no longer focuses on righting the injustices of women alone, but it also now includes efforts to improve the lives of anyone existing outside of heteronormative-androcentric constructs.
Feminist theory continues evolving and expanding. Since the 1990’s, it has incorporated the construct of gender identity so that a more timely definition of feminist theory includes one that “explores both inequality in gender relations and the constitution of gender”. [iii] In the 1970’s gender is defined using a biological binary of female/male based upon the physical appearance of the genitalia. This definition ignores humans born without or with varyingly developed genitalia. In the 1980’s, gender is distinguished from biology and is instead credited to culture and experiences. The resulting nature v. nurture debate was a result of this intellectual development in feminist theory. Currently, many feminist theorists hold that gender is no longer grounded in a biological binary but should be understood as a construct, as people exist on a spectrum of physical, emotional, cultural, and behavioral characteristics.
Feminist theory cannot be credited to a single theorist, but instead finds its roots in the ideologies of a variety of people. Early feminists such as Marie Dentiere from Switzerland and Laura Cereta from Italy paved the way for others like, Modesto di Pozzo di Forzi, Sophia Elisabet Brenner and Anne Bradstreet. Eighteenth century feminists carried forth the message on the shoulders of Eleanor Butler, Lucretia Mott and Sojourner Truth. The 1800’s witnessed feminist greats like Elisabeth Altmann-Gottheiner fighting for women’s suffrage and Qasim Amin advocating for women’s rights in Egypt. The list of notable feminists from the 1800’s is as long as the list of injustices they fought against but includes publisher Amelia Bloomer, suffragists Susan B. Anthony, Nellie McClung, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Although many scholars contributed to feminism, Judith Butler’s work stands out. Her book, Gender Trouble (1990) and an essay titled, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory” (1988) illustrate her philosophical disputation. Butler also credits Simeon de Beauvoir’s work with greatly impacting feminism and feminist theory. Beauvoir’s statement, “If her functioning as a female is not enough to define woman, if we decline also to explain her through ‘the eternal feminine,’ and if nevertheless we admit, provisionally, that women do exist, then we must face the question: what is a woman?” This question is the basis for Judith Butler to develop her “gender troubling theories”.[iv]
In her essay, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution” Butler began troubling the idea of feminist theory. [v] She maintains that using a radical critique or the troubling of traditional interpretations, deconstructs existing frameworks prevalent in mainstream views. In Butler’s case, they eliminate the female/male and homo/heterosexual binary. Butler regards gender as “in no way a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts proceed”. For example, feminist theory’s focus on the plight of women no longer exists in Butler’s world of gender as a performance. She sates, “Gender reality is performative which means, quite simply, that it is real only to the extent to that it is performed”, therefore, gender “can neither be true nor false, neither real nor apparent,” and yet we live in a world in which “gender is stabilized, polarized, rendered discrete and intractable” and “made to comply.” Butler reiterates Simone de Beauvoir’s claim that “woman, and by extension, any gender, is an historical situation rather than a natural fact”. Any feminist theory, based strictly in the male/female hetero/homosexual gender binaries supports and agent (woman) no longer in existence.[vi] Butler asks, “Does being female constitute a ‘natural fact’ or a cultural performance, or is ‘naturalness’ constituted through discursively constrained performative acts that produce the body through and within the categories of sex?” In short, Butler’s troubling of gender overturns feminist concepts that essentialize “woman”.
Currently, feminist theories include analyses that consider all ‘Others’ living outside the hegemonic paradigms of power. Feminist theories are fluid, and inclusive. Without feminist theory, we would be nowhere and with feminist theory, we are everywhere. Thus, Butler asks: “What political possibilities are the consequence of a radical critique of the categories of identity?”[vii] The political ramifications of this radical critique of identity include having more time to engage in scholarly discourse regarding the injustices perpetrated against ‘Other’. Heteronormative constructs would topple being replaced with meaningful conversation and action to right the wrongs done in the name of identity.
[i] Erwin Z. What is Feminist Theory? May 20, 2011. www.qwhatis.com/what-is-feminist-theory (accessed April 26, 2016).
ii Sally Haslander, Nancy O’Connor and Peg Tuana. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Topics in Feminism. Edited by Edward N Zalta. November 28, 2012.
http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2015/entries/feminism-topics (accessed April 22, 2016). )
iii Jennifer Carlson and Raka Ray. Oxford Bibliographies. July 11, 2011. http://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780199756384/obo-9780199756384-0020.xml (accessed April 26, 2016).
iiii Simone de Beauvior. The Second Sex: Introduction Women as Other. 1949. https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/ethics/de-beauvoir/2nd-sex/index.htm (accessed April 29, 2016).
v “Troubled” is Butler’s word for reformulating a theory or idea through intense scrutiny and self-criticism, reworking it and presenting the theory as something more inclusive than before.
vi Judith Butler. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” (The Johns Hopkins Press) 40, no. 4 (December 1988): 519-531.
vii Judith Butler. Gender Trouble. (New York: Routledge, 1990), xxxii.