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Women'S Studies

Theories And Assumptions

Even though some practitioners of women's studies disavow any attempt to theorize universally about women or women's studies, most others will subscribe to a discussion of the following kinds of theories. Women's studies course material depends largely on various feminist theories, although these assumptions may not always be made explicit. Most feminist theories can be divided into two basic kinds, based on the answer to the question: How important is the physiological or biological difference between males and females? Put another way: What should one make of the sex-gender difference? Should this difference be noted and positively valued for its unique perspective? Or should it be downplayed in a system that recognizes the common humanity of men and women and attempts to unite women with institutions from which they have historically been excluded? These two basic strains of feminist theory have been variously called equality feminism and difference feminism, minimizer feminism and maximizer feminism, or individualist feminism and relational feminism. In each case, the first term includes those who seek to deemphasize difference and press for the integration of women into masculine institutions, usually emphasizing the individual; the second term includes those who seek to stress and value difference, to transform or abandon masculine systems, often emphasizing the relational qualities of women, especially in regard to children and extended families.

The term sex-gender is used here to refer to the biological and social difference between males and females. In the early days, the two words were used separately and distinctly. Sex meant the physiological difference between male and female, while gender meant the social overlay of education and socialization, constructed differently in different eras and societies. The two terms have become conflated in everyday speech, and many use gender where sex would have been used earlier. For many theorists, both terms are constructed—that is, the particular culture gives its own meaning to sex and gender. Additionally, we now have much more research and experience with transgendered individuals, such that the binary of male-female is problematic at best. Any particular "sex-gender system" is of course an artifact of a particular historical time and place. Still, the two major types continue to be a useful way of understanding the various forms of the theories that underlie women's studies.

Each one of the two major types of feminist theories includes several subtypes, from conservative to radical, from positions that imply few changes in the status quo to ones in which the whole society is altered by the shift in women's status and conceptualization. It is useful to envision the positions—minimizers and maximizers of difference—on two lines that move from the more conservative to the more radical, from right to left. The most conservative feminist position on both continua is that view of women that offers a rationale for the present structure of society. The most radical position offers a call for a future society totally transformed either by the extreme of making males and females no longer different physiologically (for example, by the abolition of female reproductive capacities) or, for the maximizers, the extreme of totally separating the two sexes—physically, geographically, and socially. Beyond the conservative feminist pole, one finds reactionary positions: for the maximizers, various sociobiologist positions; for the minimizers, the position that fails to recognize that human rights may be an issue. This latter view is based on an unstated assumption that might be expressed thus: "We are all alike; we all stand in the position of white privileged males; we all have equal rights."

The minimizers.

Along the "minimizers" continuum, one moves first from the "human rights" position to "women's rights," the stance of various reformist groups and theorists that advocate granting equal rights to women in all areas by working within existing political systems. This nineteenth-century egalitarian position of the first women's rights activists, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, is also known as liberal feminism. It is the point of view of John Stuart Mill in his important work The Subjection of Women (1869) and that of Mary Wollstonecraft in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). The stance is found most conspicuously in the early twenty-first century in views of the U.S. National Organization for Women (NOW).


Gerda Lerner could be called "the mother of us all," that phrase used by Gertrude Stein in her opera about Susan B. Anthony. An American historian by training, Gerda Lerner's biography exhibits the uniqueness of her life and work. Born and educated through secondary school in Austria, she came to the United States as a part of the Jewish exodus after the 1938 Anschluss that brought Nazi power to Austria, first as a part of a nearly phony marriage that enabled her to gain a visa. As a young wife and mother in Los Angeles and then in New York through the war years and the early days of the Cold War, Lerner organized for such groups as the Congress of American Women. Her (second) husband, Carl Lerner, was a screenwriter, editor, and filmmaker. Both were involved in various leftist activities for years. After the war she began writing fiction and taking courses at the New School for Social Research in New York in 1948. Gerda Lerner quickly earned first her B.A. at the New School and then her M.A. and Ph.D. at Columbia University, using her biography of the Grimké sisters of South Carolina as her Ph.D. dissertation. As a "returning student" in the years before that was a recognized category, Lerner had to persuade the authorities at Columbia to let her study women's history, not an acceptable field in the early 1960s. Beginning the women's studies program at Sarah Lawrence College (and one of the first graduate programs in women's history), Lerner proceeded to teach, write, and lecture around the country, penning several classic volumes in women's studies: Black Women in White America (1972), The Majority Finds Its Past (1979), and her two-volume magnum opus, The Creation of Patriarchy (1986) and The Creation of Feminist Consciousness (1993). In 1982, after the death of her husband, she moved to the University of Wisconsin to found the Ph.D. program in women's history. Her autobiography of her early years, Fireweed: A Political Autobiography, was published in 2002.

Next along the continuum are various types of socialist feminists: those who advocate the primacy of socialist revolution, those who advocate wages for housework and other solutions to equate being a housewife (or a househusband) with working outside the home, and others who attempt to make new syntheses of feminist questions and socialist or Marxist answers that begin with an economic analysis. Historically the socialist position on women is stated most dogmatically by Friedrich Engels in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884), but many other theorists have used economics and class as a starting point. This approach is illustrated by Sheila Rowbotham's influential Women, Resistance, and Revolution (1972); Juliet Mitchell's four interlocking female structures (production, the reproduction of children, sexuality, and the socialization of children) in Woman's Estate (1971); and Zillah Eisenstein's grid pattern for understanding sex and class in concert in Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism (1979). What has come to be called "state feminism" in Europe, especially in the Nordic countries, fits into this position. A women's or equality minister is a part of the government, and socialist solutions to women's traditional inequality are made a part of the law.

The next position on the minimizer continuum is one that advocates the sharing of traditional gender characteristics. In order to remedy the psychosocial tyranny that oppresses both men and women, exclusive female parenting that produced "momism" (as well as the fear and hatred of women) must be ended, these feminists argue. This gender difference is a cultural product, not an inherent biological distinction. The psychologists Nancy Chodorow, in The Reproduction of Mothering (1978), and Dorothy Dinnerstein, in The Mermaid and the Minotaur (1976), both weigh in with this view, although in different ways. Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Women and Economics (1898) is an early work with this perspective. Traditional masculine (and valued) characteristics had been mistakenly monopolized by one sex, she believed, while the "feminine" virtues also needed to be shared.

Those who want to abolish gender distinctions completely, creating a gender-free (but not sexless) society, are next on the continuum. Males and females are more similar to each other than either is to any other species, these theorists claim. The anthropologist Gayle Rubin proposed this view in her influential article "The Traffic in Women: Notes on the Political Economy of Sex" (1975). Simone de Beauvoir's renowned Le deuxième sexe (1949; The Second Sex, 1953) can be read as arguing this point as well. Her goal is for women to become the independent, "transcendent" human beings that men have always had the choice of becoming. Ursula Le Guin's fictional The Left Hand of Darkness (1977) posits an androgynous society in which people belong to a particular sex for only a few days a month; for most of the time they function androgynously in both physical and psychological ways.

The extreme pole of the minimizer position is represented by those intensely controversial thinkers who want to abolish not only gender and sex roles but also female reproduction (including conception, pregnancy, and birth) or at least their exclusive ownership by women. Gilman wrote one of the first explorations of such a society. Her fictional Herland (1915) envisioned a female-only culture where women conceive by parthenogenesis (without male sperm). In the more recent past, both theorists, such as Shulamith Firestone in The Dialectic of Sex (1970), and feminist science-fiction writers, such as Marge Piercy in Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), have advocated the abolition of exclusive female reproduction. Many believe that reproductive technology, with its artificial fertilization and implantation of a fertilized egg, is close to making this a reality. The film Junior (1994), in which Arnold Schwarzenegger's character becomes pregnant, explores this fantasy in a humorous manner.

Women have been left out of history not because of the evil conspiracies of men in general or male historians in particular, but because we have considered history only in male-centered terms. We have missed women and their activities, because we have asked questions of history which are inappropriate to women. To rectify this and to light up areas of historical darkness we must, for a time, focus on a woman-centered inquiry, considering the possibility of the existence of a female culture within the general culture shared by men and women. History must include an account of the female experience over time and should include the development of feminist consciousness as an essential aspect of women's past. This is the primary task of women's history. The central question it raises is: What would history be like if it were seen through the eyes of women and ordered by values they define?

What is needed is a new universal history, a holistic history which will be a synthesis of traditional history and women's history. It will be based on close comparative study of given periods in which the historical experiences of men are compared with those of women, their interactions being as much the subject of study as their differences and tensions. Only after a series of such detailed studies has been done and their concepts have entered into the general culture can we hope to find the parameters by which to define the new universal history. But this much can be said already: Only a history based on the recognition that women have always been essential to the making of history and that men and women are the measure of significance, will be truly a universal history.

SOURCE: Gerda Lerner, The Majority Finds Its Past, pp. 178, 180.

The maximizers.

All feminists on the maximizer continuum are interested in seeking out, recognizing, and valuing sex-gender difference, especially as it relates to women. Women's specific talents and unique ways of contributing plead for their having a larger role in society. A bumper sticker reading "A Woman's Place is in the House—and in the Senate" uses this maximizer or difference argument, as does one that says "Clean Up Politics—Elect Women."

One notes first the historical "separate spheres" position—that women and men inhabit different physical places in society (private and public) and have different roles, virtues, aptitudes, sensibilities, and "ways of knowing." The nineteenth century saw the first clear use of the separate-spheres philosophy to help ameliorate women's position, in such thinkers as Catharine Beecher and Frances Willard. Later Jane Addams, in Newer Ideals of Peace (1907), enunciated the "municipal housekeeping" argument for giving women the vote: women should manage the household, but if they were to do this well, they must be concerned with clean water, pure milk, garbage disposal, and safe streets and parks for their children. They must therefore participate in municipal government by voting and standing for office. People promoting separate spheres in the twenty-first century include conservative women on the New Right and fundamentalist Christians.

The next group on the continuum wants to glorify the "feminine," wherever it may be found, often in writings of male poets. Sometimes identified as postmodern feminists, many of these thinkers are French or influenced by Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and other French deconstructionists. Opposed to binary oppositions such as male-female, these feminists wish to assert multiple modes of being and gender. Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva are important writers here, as are Jane Gallop, Joan Scott, and Teresa de Lauretis in the United States and Toril Moi and Gayatri Spivak internationally. Additionally these thinkers would be opposed to the very idea of the two continua, since they often assert that neither "woman" nor "man" can be defined.

Cultural feminists and maternalists occupy a middle position on the maximizer continuum. Cultural feminists celebrate women's spirituality, art, music, and writing, especially in women's bookstores, cafés, theater groups, galleries, holiday centers, and support groups. Both the feminist art movement and the women's music movement, with its annual festivals, have been important in articulating these viewpoints. The maternalists cherish motherhood as the source of woman's difference and superiority. Both practical groups—lesbian parenting, natural and home-birth groups, and the women's health movement—and theorists such as Adrienne Rich in Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976) and Sara Ruddick in Maternal Thinking (1989) are connected to the maternalist position.


The National Women's Studies Association was formed in 1977 to further the social, political, and professional development of Women's Studies throughout the country and the world, at every educational level and in every educational setting. To this end, this organization is committed to being a forum conducive to dialogue and collective action among women dedicated to feminist education and change.

Women's Studies owes its existence to the movement for the liberation of women; the feminist movement exists because women are oppressed. Women's Studies, diverse as its components are, has at its best shared a vision of a world free from sexism and racism. Freedom from sexism by necessity must include a commitment to freedom from national chauvinism, class and ethnic bias, anti-Semitism, as directed against both Arabs and Jews; ageism; heterosexual bias—from all the ideologies and institutions that have consciously or unconsciously oppressed and exploited some for the advantage of others. The development of Women's Studies in the past decade, the remarkable proliferation of programs that necessitated this Association, is a history of creative struggle to evolve knowledge, theory, pedagogy, and organizational models appropriate to that vision.

Women's Studies is the educational strategy of a breakthrough in consciousness and knowledge. The uniqueness of Women's Studies has been and remains its refusal to accept sterile divisions between academy and community, between the growth of the mind and the health of the body, between intellect and passion, between the individual and society.

Women's Studies, then, is equipping women not only to enter society as whole, as productive human beings, but to transform the world to one that will be free of all oppression. This constitution reaffirms that commitment.

The "woman-as-force" position rejects "woman-as-victim" stances and argues that because of women's close connection to nature—historically, biologically, mythologically, and psychologically—women can save humanity from the destructive path that men have begun. The historian Mary Beard enunciated the woman-as-force position in 1946, while Carol Gilligan's argument that young women take different ethical stances than young men, articulated in her In a Different Voice (1982), has influenced psychological and learning theories on gender differences. Another important work in this vein is Mary Field Belenky and her colleagues' Women's Ways of Knowing (1986).

Ecofeminism is an important subcategory of the woman-as-force position; the views of various theorists, such as Ynestra King, Susan Griffin, and Karen Warren, have been influential. The Indian nuclear physicist Vandana Shiva's work, especially Staying Alive: Women, Ecology, and Development (1988), explores ecofeminism on the global stage and makes connections with postcolonial and development concerns.

The female supremacists occupy the most radical position on the maximizer continuum. Either lesbian or celibate, these most extreme of the separatists advocate a complete partition of the sexes, believing that only with their own institutions can women find freedom. How far separatism is taken depends on the individual, but some advocates call for separate geographical areas for women, attempting self-sufficiency in various communal living situations. Most influential in this argument are Mary Daly, in Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (1978) and Websters' First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language (1987); Sonia Johnson, in Wildfire: Igniting the She/Volution (1989); Marilyn Frye, in Some Reflections on Separatism and Power (1981); and various science-fiction proposals, such as Joanna Russ's The Female Man (1975). It should be noted, however, that lesbians are found in all categories of feminism.

Problems with the model; or, mediating the dichotomy.

The dichotomy of equality-difference or minimizers-maximizers is difficult to maintain and often false, asserts the German critic Gisela Bock, since dichotomies are often hierarchies in disguise. Arguing strongly on the side of difference can lead to the dangerous "difference dilemma" because it can confirm women's inferiority. Yet strong arguments from the equality stance produce the "equality dilemma," in which gender differences are completely erased and everyone is presumed to be the same.

The most fruitful way to deal with the two kinds of arguments is to mediate between them, as some contemporary thinkers have done. There is a suggestive link made by African-American and multicultural feminists who argue the need for forms of socialism (a minimizer strategy) while identifying and celebrating the unique assets supplied to the struggle by strong women of color (a maximizer strategy). "The Combahee River Collective Statement," in Home Girls (1983), edited by Barbara Smith, and This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1983), edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, are essential works in this vein. Likewise the historian Gerda Lerner's conceptualization of "woman as majority" in The Majority Finds Its Past (1979) connects maximizer arguments about women's different strengths and special institutions with the minimizer insistence on the necessity of abolishing the sex-gender system and sharing gender.

Other creative thinkers have written of "difference in unity" or "equality in difference." Virginia Woolf, in Three Guineas (1938), proposes that women need to belong to a society of outsiders who have the same goals as men but must work in their own way on the borders of the patriarchal system, both inside and outside. In a spoof on the religious vows of monks and nuns, she says that women who belong to this society must take vows of poverty, chastity (of the brain), derision of honors, and freedom from the "unreal loyalties" of nation, class, sex, family, or religion. Members of the Society of Outsiders would agree to earn their own livings "expertly," not engage in any profession that promotes war, and criticize the institutions of education and religion. Only in this way can women help prevent war. Contemporary thinkers, especially Latinas and other bicultural women, such as Gloria Anzaldúa in Borderlands: The New Mestiza La Frontera (1987), or African-American women, such as bell hooks in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (1984), also explore this "border" position. So-called Third or Developing World feminists (also known as postcolonial feminists) clearly mediate the two strands of theory, with their call for support for nationalist struggles ("all issues are women's issues" and "if it's appropriate technology, it's appropriate for women") and their recognition of women's continuing "double day" work (housework, child care, and productive or economic activities) at every level of society around the world.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Well-being to Jan Ɓukasiewicz BiographyWomen'S Studies - Definitions, Origins, Growth And Institutionalization, Research And Publication, Theories And Assumptions, Gerda Lerner