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Feminist theory and sociology: underutilized contributions for mainstream theory
Annual Review of Sociology. 23 (Annual 1997): p97.

Feminist theories in sociology reflect the rich diversity of general theoretical orientations in our discipline; there is no one form of feminist theory. The development of these theories over the last 25 years has only recently begun to influence the mainstream theory canon, which has much to learn from their insights. This chapter demonstrates why feminist versions of the following theory types should be more fully integrated into mainstream sociological theory: neo-Marxist, macro-structural, exchange, rational choice, network, status expectations, symbolic interactionist, ethnomethodological, neo-Freudian, and social role. Feminist standpoint theory, an epistemological critique of mainstream sociology, is discussed at the beginning, and the chapter concludes with a brief account of the newly developing effort to theorize the intersection of race, class, and gender.

KEY WORDS: varieties of feminist theories, feminist theory ghettoization, theory canon revision, ubiquity of gender, critiques of feminist theories

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The term "feminist theory" is used to refer to a myriad of kinds of works, produced by movement activists and scholars in a variety of disciplines; these are not mutually exclusive and include: (a) normative discussions of how societies and relationships ought to be structured, their current inequities, and strategies to achieve equity; (b) critiques of androcentric classical theories, concepts, epistemologies, and assumptions; (c) epistemological discussions of what constitute appropriate forms, subject matters, and techniques of theorizing from a feminist perspective; and (d) explanatory theories of the relationship between gender and various social, cultural, economic, psychological, and political structures and processes. Much of this work is explicitly interdisciplinary in inspiration and intended audience. To complicate matters further, there is no consensus on the exact meaning of the word "feminist," which makes it difficult to distinguish with precision between theoretical material that pertains to gender (e.g. Parsons 1949, 1955, which no one would label feminist) and gender-related theory that is specifically "feminist." Finally, there is little consensus among feminist sociologists about the basic theoretical questions that require an answer, resulting in the proliferation of theories at a low level of abstraction that explain specific phenomena (e.g. pay inequity), in addition to more abstract, general works.

To remain within the limits of one chapter, I confine this review in several ways, beginning by excluding feminist theory that has not been produced or used extensively by sociologists. While feminist theory is often defined as "women-centered" (e.g. Lengermann & Niebrugge 1996:436; Smith 1979, 1987; Alway 1995), I use a definition that focuses more broadly on gender, yet maintains the normative emphasis implied by all definitions of the term feminist, which thus enables one to distinguish feminist from other gender-relevant theory. Earlier (Chafetz 1988:5), I defined it in terms of four criteria, which guide my selection of theories to be reviewed in this chapter: (a) "gender comprises a central focus or subject matter of the theory"; (b) "gender relations are viewed as a problem . . . . [F]eminist theory seeks to understand how gender is related to social inequities, strains, and contradictions"; (c) "gender relations are not viewed as . . . immutable"; and (d) feminist theory "can be used . . . to challenge, counteract, or change a status quo that disadvantages or devalues women." I focus most of my attention on explanatory theories but eschew discussion of the numerous, more substantively narrow ones. Finally, I limit this review to writings produced since the broad-scale reemergence of feminist consciousness and activism in the late 1960s, which began to affect sociological discourse after about 1970. This limitation does not mean, however, that no works that could be considered feminist theory were produced by sociologists before this time (see Fitzpatrick 1990, Deegan 1988, Donovan 1985, Rosenberg 1982).

A decade ago, Stacey & Thorne (1985; also Laslett et al 1992, Alway 1995) bemoaned the failure of sociology in general, and sociological theory in particular, to incorporate feminist insights as central components of its work. During the last two decades, a significant amount of feminist sociological theory and epistemology has been produced, as reflected in two books that provide broad overviews (my undergraduate text, Chafetz 1988; a more sophisticated book edited by England 1993a), and one less comprehensive collection of theoretical papers (Wallace 1989). Several interdisciplinary feminist theory books, which incorporate some sociological theory, have also appeared (e.g. Tong 1989, Gergen 1988, Rhode 1990). Recent theory textbooks in sociology (e.g. Ritzer 1996, Etzkowitz & Glassman 1991, Waters 1994, Wallace & Wolf 1995) have begun to include some discussion of feminist theory, but they vary widely in the extent and nature of their coverage of the topic. These texts typically confine discussion of feminist theory to its own chapter or chapter section. This practice is problematic both because it allows scholars and students to easily skip the topic and because it makes the contributions of feminist theorists appear more narrow and homogeneous than they are. In addition, many texts still omit feminist theory altogether, and a number of important contemporary theorists (e.g., James Coleman, Jeffrey Alexander, Peter Berger, Anthony Giddens) have ignored both feminist theoretical insights and the very topic of gender in their "general" theories (Seidman 1994:304).

Some feminists focus on those contemporary theories and texts that ignore the contributions of feminist theories and the topic of gender and conclude that feminist contributions remain largely ghettoized within our discipline (e.g. Ward & Grant 1991, Alway 1995). My view is that, while progress has been made in integrating feminist concerns and insights into the discipline's theoretical discourse, much work remains to be done. This chapter demonstrates the abundance and variety of feminist theoretical insights that can and already have to some extent contributed to a more robust theoretical understanding of social life, one which reflects the centrality of gender in virtually all sociocultural contexts. It also demonstrates that feminist theories emanate from, critique, and revise the rich array of theoretical traditions that define our discipline. Space limitations preclude much discussion of precisely how feminist theories can be better integrated with mainstream ones. Rather, I focus attention primarily on reviewing the central insights of feminist theories in order to better inform those sociologists who may be unfamiliar with much of this body of work about the rich array of theoretical ideas that are at their disposal.


Much of the literature that is labeled "feminist theory" consists of epistemology and epistemological critiques of "malestream" sociology. Its foundations reflect several nonfeminist traditions, especially Marx's and Mannheim's discussions of ideology, Foucault's work on knowledge and power, and phenomenological and ethnomethodological approaches, the exact mix of influences varying by author. While this work makes important contributions to these traditions, for two reasons I believe that it is a misnomer to call this work feminist epistemology (or theory). First, the issues raised are not in any fundamental way different from those raised by many scholars who have worked in these traditions but have not been interested specifically in women or committed to feminism. Feminists extend their insights in important ways, but this does not constitute a uniquely feminist approach to sociology. Second, many women in sociology, whose scholarship they and others consider as well within the feminist tradition, do not agree with this perspective.

Feminist scholars in a number of disciplines critique what they define as mainstream, "masculinist," "objectivist," and "positivist" social science, and develop a "feminist" alternative called standpoint theory. In sociology, the two most widely cited are Dorothy Smith (especially 1987, 1990, also 1979, 1989) and Patricia Hill Collins (especially 1990, also 1986, 1989), whose basic ideas constitute the focus of this section (see also Harding 1986, 1991). Where Smith focuses on developing a "woman's standpoint," Collins' work is directed at an Afrocentric feminist standpoint epistemology. Smith explicitly locates the origins of her ideas in Marx, Foucault, and ethnomethodology, Collins primarily in Mannheim, several well-known contemporary feminist theorists in diverse disciplines (Chodorow 1974, 1978, Gilligan 1982, Harding 1986, Jagger 1983, hooks 1981, Smith 1987, Harstock 1983, 1985), and a myriad of mostly female, African-American thinkers. The ideas expressed by these two scholars incorporate those of a large number of others (see Sprague & Zimmerman 1993 for a sympathetic yet critical discussion of standpoint theory, and Laslett et al 1992 for a review of Smith's work).

The Critique of Mainstream Sociology

Smith and Collins (also Cook & Fonow 1986, Farganis 1986, Haraway 1988, in addition to those cited above) begin with the idea that all knowledge about the social world reflects the social position(s) of the knower and, therefore, at best can result in no more than a partial understanding of that world; there is no Archimedian perspective outside of one's socially constituted standpoint. Unlike some feminists who argue for the superiority of a woman's standpoint as disempowered "outsider," Smith and Collins explicitly recognize that a woman's or a feminist standpoint is no less situated and partial than those they critique. For Marx and Mannheim, the "standpoint" of a knower is defined in terms of social class. Smith adds gender and Collins adds race and gender to class in defining the chief dimensions of those standpoints. They begin their critique of accepted sociological knowledge on the basis that, until recently, the knowers had one common standpoint - that of white, middle class male; other standpoints have been effectively silenced as contributors of "credible" social scientific knowledge. Virtually all feminist scholars (and many others) agree that by diversifying the kinds of knowers in sociology, new questions are raised about social life, new data sought to answer them, and new interpretations of received wisdom are proffered. In short, different standpoints lead to differences in what scholars think about. However, for Collins and Smith this is merely the starting point in their critique of mainstream sociology.

Collins and Smith recognize the diversity of experiences, hence standpoints, among women. Nonetheless, their logics assume that each gender has a standpoint and that it results in profound differences between the ways women and men think, in addition to what they think about. Smith (1990) refers to "male-created discourse" and talks about male thinking as "objectifying" experience, thereby creating "lines of fault" between women's subjective experiences and the way women sociologists write about them (if they conform to the standards of the discipline), resulting in a "bifurcated consciousness." Women's everyday world is alienated and objectified by the very categories of analysis that, as sociologists, they are taught and expected to bring to their work, categories that reflect and support the "social relations of ruling" that oppress them. Collins (see also Dill 1979, 1983, King 1988) speaks of a "distinctive Afrocentric women's culture" of resistance (p. 11) which represents "the simultaneity of race, class and gender oppression" in a "matrix of domination." This leads them to reject white male "either/or" thinking, rather opting for a "both/and" orientation to intellectual (as well as practical) life. Collins describes "positivism" as "a Eurocentric masculinist epistemology" that is highly problematic for understanding African-American women's lives. She defines positivism as attempts to produce "objective generalizations" (p. 205): "[Scientists] aim to distance themselves from the values, vested interests, and emotions . . . [and thus] decontextualize themselves [in order to become] detached observers and manipulators of nature." She criticizes this epistemology not only because it treats the subjects of research as objects (as does Smith), but also because of the absence of emotion, ethics, and values, and because of the preferred style of "adversarial debate" in establishing knowledge claims. Like Smith, Collins concludes that this mode of thinking by sociologists fosters a system that oppresses Black women.

To Smith and Collins, the taken-for-granted concepts, language and style of writing and of making truth claims in sociology are male-created, alien to women, and function to support patriarchy, specifically, "relations of ruling" (Smith) or "the matrix of domination" (Collins) more generally. It is here that other feminist sociologists (including this author) part company with standpoint theory, unconvinced that men's and women's ways of thinking categorically differ or that the dominant ways of doing sociology are inherently masculine and necessarily antithetical to feminists' concerns (see especially Coser 1989).

The Proposed Alternative

Smith and Collins share a radical empiricism; feminist sociologists should eschew the standard, "masculinist" conceptual tools of the field and begin with immersion in women's experiences of everyday life. For Collins, an Afrocentric feminist epistemology uses the scholar's "own concrete experiences as situated knowers in order to express a Black women's standpoint" (p. 16). Smith recommends that we explore the world as "insiders" by making "the everyday world problematic" (1990, p. 26). In a tour-de-force examination of textual material, Smith (1990) demonstrates how the data used by sociologists are prepackaged by agencies and other professionals (e.g. physicians, police and courts, social workers) in ways that express and reinforce the relations of ruling and therefore must be eschewed in favor of examination of the direct experiences of the people whose lives we seek to understand.

Smith appears to assume that the process of thoroughly critiquing and deconstructing textual material created by sociologists and other agents of the ruling system, based on the female sociologist's own lived experience, will suffice to lead to new concepts and general (theoretical) understandings that reflect woman's standpoint. While she explicitly rejects a completely "subjectivist" sociology that avoids all abstraction, she does not explicate any method for moving from the realm of personal experience to a more abstract, systemic level of understanding, a level she presupposes by talking about patriarchy and capitalism.

Collins gives somewhat more concrete advice by outlining three specific components of an Afrocentric feminist epistemology, in addition to the emphasis on beginning with experience. First, knowledge claims should arise from dialogue and stress connectedness between and active participation of researchers and their subjects, not from adversarial relations between knowers and the objectification of research subjects. Second, "personal experience, emotions, and empathy are central to the knowledge validation process" (p. 215); emotion is not separate from intellect (a point seconded by Smith). Third, Collins calls for an ethic of personal accountability among sociologists; knowledge claims should be evaluated in terms of what one knows about the "character" (values and ethics) of the knower (p. 218). Nonetheless, it remains unclear in Collins' work exactly how the Afrocentric feminist sociologist should move from the descriptive level of women's everyday experience to the more abstract, theoretical level she presupposes by talking about African-American women's oppression within a system that is patriarchal, racist, and classist.

Ultimately, their rejection of abstraction as a masculine activity prevents Collins, and especially Smith, from proposing an epistemology that can inform feminist conceptual and theoretical development, beyond the prescription that it must be thoroughly inductive. This shortcoming they share with nonfeminist sociologists who share their critique of "positivism" in sociology and opt for thorough immersion in the world of everyday experience (e.g. most ethnomethodologists and some symbolic interactionists). However, wherever these "male" approaches are discussed in the sociological canon, Smith's and Collins's work deserve serious consideration as well. They add rich discussions of the importance of the previously silenced standpoints of (African-American) women for understanding the taken-for-granted aspects of everyday life. In addition, theoretical discussions of ideology and the sociology of knowledge need to include their works, inasmuch as they clearly demonstrate the necessity of broadening concern from focusing on class to including gender and race/ethnicity in understanding the social-rootedness of thought systems and the intellectual roots of social power.

The Issue of Essentialism

Feminist standpoint theory, which is highly attuned to reification committed by mainstream sociologists, cannot avoid reifying the genders. While Smith and Collins explicitly recognize considerable variation among women (and presumably men) in their experiences and consciousness, their own logics, and many times wording, make it clear that they assume that there are overarching, gender-specific standpoints; they could not otherwise talk about a "masculine" form of discourse. In addition, Collins explicitly cites such feminist theorists as Gilligan (1982) and Chodorow (1978, also 1974), who argue that the genders are fundamentally different in their moral reasoning and capacities for/commitments to interpersonal relationships.

Positing dichotomous gender differences that are treated as transcultural and transhistorical is termed "essentialism," a view that has substantial currency among feminists in a variety of disciplines but is hotly contested in our own (e.g. Lorber et al 1981, Coser 1989, Epstein 1988). The empirical evidence for it is flawed, often based on small, nonrandom, American samples, and typically finds only modest differences, along with extensive overlap, between the sexes. Essentialist thinking converts differences of degree into differences of kind. The presumed but often unstated origin of essential differences includes psychodynamics rooted in the parental division of labor (Chodorow 1978) and biological sex (Rossi 1977, 1984). It has become common for feminist scholars to recognize within-gender categorical differences (e.g. race, class), but this awareness of difference has often failed to preclude essentialist thinking about basic personality and value orientations (e.g. the assumption that, regardless of other differences, women are nurturant and oriented toward personal relationships, while men are individuating and oriented toward abstract moral principles). Given that the evidence suggests modest between-sex and considerable within-sex differences on virtually all individual-level traits, a dichotomous gender variable is theoretically useless when speaking of individual-level phenomena. Explanations that begin by categorically attributing different characteristics to women and men - cognitive, emotional, relational, and/or behavioral - not only exaggerate differences in the distribution of such traits by gender, they also implicitly treat these variables as dichotomous rather than continuous. They reflect the "either/or" thinking explicitly rejected by Collins, yet implicit in her logic. One can legitimately talk about average differences between females and males on individual-level variables, but care must be taken to avoid reification by delineating the average differences in experiences/opportunities/constraints that account for them and by explicitly recognizing the range of within-gender variation and between-gender overlap. Moreover, a dichotomous conceptualization of gender can be a theoretically meaningful aspect of social structure, such as when one talks about the degree of male-female occupational segregation or the extent to which an ideology devalues females relative to males.

Conceptual Problems

Treating differences of degree as differences of kind is also manifest in macro-level concepts employed by many feminist theorists, especially "patriarchy," "exploitation," and "oppression." One rarely reads statements that contain varying levels of these phenomena (e.g. society A is less patriarchal/oppressive/ exploitative than B). They are usually treated as constants, and the emphasis is placed on understanding the particular form of patriarchy/oppression/exploitation in a given time, place, and/or within a specific socioeconomic structure (usually capitalism). Yet the empirical literature clearly demonstrates considerable cross-societal variation on those dimensions that can be taken as indicators of the level (not simply form) of gender inequality (e.g. Martin & Voorhies 1975, Sanday 1974, 1981, Blumberg 1978, 1984, Chafetz 1984).

These terms are infrequently defined, and when they are, their definitions are often too broad, thereby obscuring the dynamics of gender stratification systems. Patriarchy, for example, has been used to refer to some combination of the following: a type of family structure, an ideology (religious and/or secular), and one or more properties of the economy and/or polity. This kind of truth-asserting definition obscures questions of the extent to which and how these various phenomena are related to one another by assuming their empirical isomorphism. "Patriarchy" is often reified by the use of an active verb, as in "patriarchy causes/creates/requires . . . ." When this happens, the explanatory content evaporates completely. Regardless of conceptual problems, in the remainder of this chapter I use the vocabularies employed by the theorists whose works are being reviewed.


Marxist-inspired feminist theory, most of which today is called socialist-feminist, differs from orthodox Marxism (and orthodox Marxist feminism) by insisting that the nonwaged labor that maintains and reproduces workers, and is done overwhelmingly by women, is equally as important as waged labor, and that oppression for women results equally from patriarchy and from class structure, not simply as a by-product of class relationships. It differs from other feminist theories by insisting that, while not sufficient to bring about the demise of patriarchy, the abolition of capitalism is a necessary condition, inasmuch as capitalism derives numerous advantages, hence support from patriarchal institutions, ideology, and practices. While recognizing that patriarchy predated capitalism, and scarcely disappeared in twentieth century socialist nations, Marxist-inspired feminists argue that within capitalist systems, patriarchy assumes unique forms that are interwoven with capitalism in mutually supportive ways.

Within capitalist systems, the division of labor by gender makes women responsible for the unwaged maintenance and reproduction of the current and future labor force, variously termed domestic work, production of use value, or necessary labor. Women may also be involved in what is variously termed production of exchange value, social labor, or surplus value through waged work, as are men. The nonwaged work done by women is crucial and profitable for capitalists, who get its benefits for free, and, therefore, such labor is exploitative and oppressive for women. Although earlier in the history of capitalism most women were denied the opportunity to become "social adults" through waged labor (Sacks 1974), more recently they have been sought by capitalists as a source of cheap labor in a highly gender-segregated labor market (Eisenstein 1979). The gender inequities women experience in the labor market are linked both practically and ideologically to their responsibility for nonwaged domestic work (Eisenstein 1979, Vogel 1983, Shelton & Agger 1993). The dual exploitation of women within the household and in the labor market means that women produce far greater surplus value for capitalists than do men (Shelton & Agger 1993).

An ideology of patriarchy, or male supremacy, fostered by capitalists, undergirds and sustains both forms of female oppression. This ideology justifies women's nonwaged domestic responsibilities with reference to biologically rooted reproductive differences between men and women and justifies gender-based labor market inequities with reference to women's domestic obligations (Eisenstein 1979). In turn, working class men derive advantages both within the household (free domestic services and subservience from their wives, resulting from their economic dependence) and in the labor force (better paying jobs are reserved for men). No or low wages tie women to their better paid husbands in a subordinate position, and therefore to domestic labor, which in turn suppresses their wages (Hartmann 1984, Sacks 1974). Sacks (1974) argues that in this manner capitalists "compensate" men for their subordination to capitalist domination, which impedes the development of class consciousness among workers, reinforcing capitalist domination (also Shelton & Agger 1993, Sokoloff 1980). Wives' economic dependence also ties men more securely to wage-earning jobs, further serving the interests of capitalists by undermining potential rebellion against the system (Eisenstein 1979, Vogel 1983, Hartmann 1984).

Feminist scholars have extended Marxist-based world systems theory (and its cousin, dependency theory) by demonstrating how capitalist penetration by core nations of peripheral ones usually reduces the status of women, thereby exacerbating many problems (e.g. high fertility rates, poverty, and income inequality) in the peripheral nations (Ward 1984, 1990, 1993, Blumberg 1989). Ward (1993:48) criticizes world systems theory for assuming that women participate in the modern world economy only as members of households in which the male "head" is incorporated, thereby ignoring women's direct role in the global economy and their economic contributions in the informal labor market as well as in the household. A massive research literature on women and development demonstrates the usually widely disparate effects of socioeconomic development for men and women, to the detriment of women. These findings are largely ignored by world systems theorists, who assume that household members have unitary interests (see also Blumberg 1988, 1989). As a corrective, Ward (1993) emphasizes the need to fully incorporate the crucial contributions women make to the food supplies and general economies of poor nations (see also Mies 1986). Earlier, Ward (1984) proposed that the specific, local effects on women's work and status of Western capital penetration must be understood in terms of preexisting patterns of"patriarchal relations," including ideology and institutionalized patterns of male dominance. In addition, the gender-based presuppositions of Western (male) capitalists affect the distribution of new resources and opportunities between men and women in peripheral nations. Ward concluded that the level of foreign investment in peripheral nations and their trade dependency on core nations are positively related to the level of gender inequality.

By extending Marxist analysis to include nonwaged maintenance and reproductive labor, and broadening the Marxian concept of ideology to encompass patriarchal thought, Marxist-inspired feminists demonstrate that gender is as central a component as class in understanding exploitation/oppression within capitalist systems and in understanding how capitalist systems are maintained and strengthened. These contributions merit serious attention in any scholarly discussion of neo-Marxist thought.


The macrostructural feminist theories that are not explicitly neo-Marxist divide mostly into two categories: those that emphasize the causal primacy of culture and ideology, and those that emphasize the centrality of socioeconomic factors (for a review of both see Dunn et al 1993). Recently, Collins et al (1993) attempted a grand synthesis of extant gender theories that emphasizes social structural constructs but includes elements from most other types of gender theory (see also Chafetz 1990, for a slightly less ambitious effort to do likewise). The social structural theories are sufficiently complex as to defy brief explication, beyond a listing of central constructs. What macrostructural theories have in common is their goal: to explain variation in the level of gender stratification across time/space, and/or to explain how a given level is maintained and changed (see Chafetz 1984:4-7 for a conceptual definition of "gender stratification").

Virtually all feminist scholars agree that ideologies and related symbols and rituals that devalue women and explain and justify different and unequal treatment by gender constitute an important component of gender stratification systems. A few anthropologists make a cultural construct central in their explanations (e.g. Rosaldo 1974, Ortner 1974, and especially Sanday 1981, also 1974). Ofther's (1974) and Rosaldo's (1974) arguments are relatively simple: Because of women's reproductive functions in birth and lactation, and the gendered division of labor within the household and broader society that are typically constructed based on them, women become more identified with "nature" and domesticity, men with "culture" and the public sphere. In turn, culture and the public sphere are more highly valued socially and, therefore, the more strongly differentiated and segregated the two spheres, the greater the level of gender inequality. In a more nuanced and fully developed theory, Sanday (1981) argues that each society has its own "sex-role plan" that delineates how relationships between men and women ought to be structured. These plans arise out of one of two overarching cultural orientations: an "inner," in which nature is sacred and the "female creative principle" is emphasized, and an "outer," in which nature is seen as dangerous, humans are seen as superior to nature, and men's activities (as hunters and warriors) are revered. These orientations are grounded in the level of environmental threat and embodied in creation myths, which emphasize male, female, or both sources of power in the universe. Enhanced threat leads to an outer orientation, the primacy of male deities, and male dominance. The degree of gender inequality is thus a direct function of the type of sex-role plan as it reflects the general cultural orientation.

Macrostructural social theories of gender stratification are typically systemic in nature, often include feedback loops, and emphasize as primary causal mechanisms one or more of the following: environmental, demographic, technological, economic, and political variables. Intervening constructs include the gender division of labor, ideology, and family structure. Lenski's (1966) societal typology, based on dominant technology and the resulting level of economic surplus, constitutes the starting point for several theories (e.g. Huber 1988, R Collins 1975, Chafetz 1984, Blumberg 1978). The extent to which the environment - physical and social - is dangerous or threatening constitutes another independent construct in some (e.g. Chafetz 1984, Sanday 1981, as discussed above, and especially Harris 1978, who emphasizes the role of warfare). Demographic variables that are considered important include sex ratio (especially by Guttentag & Secord 1983, also Chafetz 1984, 1990), population density (Harris 1978, Chafetz 1984, 1990), and fertility rates (Huber 1991). The size of the economic surplus, contingent upon technological base, is related to the level of gender stratification in a curvilinear fashion that peaks in agrarian/pastoral societies in the highest levels of inequality. The levels of fertility, population density, environmental harshness, warfare, and sex ratios are generally positively related to the level of gender inequality. One final independent construct concerns political structure, specifically, Collin's (1975, also 1972) thesis concerning the extent to which the political organization of the society (nation-state), rather than the household, monopolizes the legitimate use of force. He argues that (along with women's level of economic opportunity) the extent to which the political structure grants individual men the right to physically coerce wives constitutes the most important independent variable explaining the level of gender stratification. While many feminist scholars have explored the role of male violence against women in producing or maintaining gender inequality, Collins is alone in making male coercive power central to such a theory by linking it to a typology of political structure.

These independent constructs are typically linked to the level of gender inequality primarily through their impact on three intervening constructs. Like the Marxist-inspired feminists, virtually all macrostructural feminist theories focus on the key role of the gender division of labor - within the economy and between the economic and domestic realms. The more equal the access of women to economic roles in the nondomestic sphere (especially where they control the products of, and/or income derived from their work), the lower the level of gender inequality, and the more responsibility women have for the domestic sphere, the less equal their opportunities in the economic realm (especially Blumberg 1978, 1984, 1988, Collins et al 1993, Chafetz 1984, 1990). Besides the domestic division of labor, family structural variables of lineality and locality are also important intervening constructs (Martin & Voorhies 1975, Blumberg 1979, Chafetz 1984). Women fare worst where these two aspects of family structure favor the male side (patrilineage and patrilocality). Finally, like the Marxist-inspired feminists, but with less emphasis than that given by the cultural theorists, macrostructural social theories recognize the importance of religious and secular gender ideologies in buttressing systems of gender stratification (Blumberg 1978, 1984, 1988, Chafetz 1984, 1990).

Macrostructural feminist theories rarely attempt to demonstrate the impact of gender stratification on other aspects of social structure (except as feedback loops). However, they do demonstrate that virtually all aspects of sociocultural structure in all types of societies are implicated in the gender system. Theories concerning technology, work, ideology, family structure, political economy, demography, not to mention social inequality, that ignore the ubiquitous phenomenon of gender are radically incomplete, as are theories that attempt to explain social change and/or stability without reference to gender. Macrostructural feminist theories provide important insights concerning the linkages between gender stratification and other macrolevel structures and processes that should be incorporated into general structural theories.


Rational choice theory has been a target of criticism by several feminist scholars, most notably England (1989, 1993b, England & Kilbourne 1990, also Zelizer 1994). Feminist critiques of it are rooted substantially in an essentialist logic, inasmuch as they accuse rational choice theory of assuming a selfish, separative, and non-emotional actor who is masculine, thereby ignoring the connective, altruistic, and emotional motivations, claimed to be characteristically feminine. This and related feminist criticisms of rational choice theory are discussed and rebutted by Friedman & Diem (1993). They also demonstrate the utility of this perspective for understanding gender inequality by examining the implicit rational choice analyses involved in several feminist studies. Their general point is that the studies they examine utilize "three mechanisms relied upon by rational-choice theorists to explain variation - institutional constraints, opportunity costs, and preferences . . ." (Friedman & Diem 1993:101). Rational choice thinking is also used in some recent discussions of family change in industrial nations, which focus on changes in women's roles and decision-making processes concerning number of children, age of first marriage and birth, divorce, and labor force participation (e.g. Chafetz & Hagan 1996). Not only is rational choice theory useful to analyses of gender issues, feminist critiques of it focus attention on weaknesses and gaps that require further attention. Specifically, the further development of this theory should include selfishness/altruism as a variable, consider the role of emotion, and explicitly include interpersonal preferences (Friedman & Diem 1993).

Social exchange theory, which reflects the same utilitarian tradition as rational choice theory, has not been the target of explicit feminist criticism (for an exception, see Hatstock 1985), although the same criticisms apply to both. It has been employed by a few feminist theorists (e.g. Parker & Parker 1979, Bell & Newby 1976, Chafetz 1980, Curtis 1986) and is implicit in many feminist empirical studies of husband-wife relationships. The general theme of this perspective is that, given the traditionally greater resources available to men from sources outside the family, wives balance exchanges with their husbands by providing compliance and deference in return for financial support and access to other externally generated resources. Husbands also garner a considerable, self-reinforcing power advantage over their wives because of what Curtis (1986) defines as a contractual inequality based on the husband's provision of gifts and favors. These incur a debt for the wife which is unspecified, diffuse, and "can be infinite in effect" (p. 179.) However, as Parker & Parker (1979; also Chafetz 1980) note, as the gender division of labor outside the family changes, men's resource advantage and therefore the nature of spousal exchanges do as well. Unlike some uses of exchange theory, in the hands of feminist scholars the macro level environment, which shapes the distribution of resources and therefore the opportunities/constraints of exchange partners, is taken as the explicit starting point in understanding the nature of microlevel exchanges, which, in turn, are often analyzed in terms of their feedback impact on macrolevel phenomena. The use of exchange theory by feminists therefore exemplifies what Risman & Schwartz (1989) refer to as a microstructural approach to understanding gender inequality.


Although representing very different theoretical traditions, feminist versions of status expectations and network theories both focus on how interactive relationships are shaped along structured gender lines and result in gender differentiation and inequality. Their logics are therefore similar to those discussed in the last section in that they also represent microstructural approaches to the study of gender inequality.

The feminist theory most carefully developed in tandem with a systematic research program deals with the relationship between gender, status expectations, and power/influence in goal-oriented groups (see review chapter by Ridgeway 1993, Ridgeway & Berger 1986, Meeker & Weitzel-O'Neill 1977, Lockheed 1985, Foschi 1989). The theory has implications for same-sex groups but is most fully developed and tested on mixed-sex groups (Ridgeway 1993). The central thesis is that, given the higher social status that accrues to males, both women and men typically enter mixed-sex groups with gender-based expectations that male members will be more competent than females in moving the group toward task achievement, i.e. "performance expectations" are higher for men. However, the salience of gender status is situationally induced and therefore context-specific (e.g. performance expectations may advantage women if the task is traditionally considered feminine). In the absence of a set of specified factors that reduce the salience of gender-based performance expectations, they become self-fulfilling prophecies that function to reduce women's self-confidence, prestige, power, and influence in group interactions. Moreover, because gender-based expectations are defined by group members as legitimate, individual women's attempts to counteract them will be rejected by other group members as inappropriate (Meeker & Weitzel-O'Neill 1977). The outcomes of mixed-sex groups will therefore usually reflect the preferences of its male members. Moreover, the process of group interaction will typically enhance the status and power of the male members, which is often "the basis on which many of the society's rewards of power, position, and respect are distributed" (Ridgeway 1993:193), that is, the basis of gender stratification.

Smith-Lovin & McPherson (1993:223) assert: "In one sense, it is impossible to have a network theory of gender" because the theory is concerned with the nature of relationships between actors, not actor characteristics. Nonetheless, in the only explicit theoretical discussion of gender differences and inequality from a network theory perspective, these authors convincingly argue that gender-related characteristics, usually viewed as essential differences developed through socialization, in fact result from the long-term impact of seemingly inconsequentially small differences in the network positions and structures in which boys and girls are typically located. Beginning with an analysis of single-sex childhood networks, they call upon a wealth of empirical literature to demonstrate how gender homophilous networks cumulate over the life course to create even greater gender differences in adult networks, which foster gender differences in aspirations, opportunities, and behaviors. Because they reflect ongoing network phenomena, these outcomes are amenable to change in response to changes in the nature of, and locations within, network structures for women and men, and therefore to public policy intervention. The authors also review some of the current inadequacies of the network literature for understanding gender segregation and inequality, weaknesses that, if addressed, would strengthen the general theory. These include: a focus on "small, unrepresentative populations" that are almost entirely single-sex; a focus on "elites" that are almost always male; a focus on "ego nets" that loses sight of the organizational context within which networks evolve; and a focus on one network in isolation from others in which actors are simultaneously involved (pp. 243-44).

Together, feminist versions of rational choice, exchange, status expectations, and network theories emphasize the importance of sociocultural structure for understanding the gendered nature of interaction and individual choice, and the patterned gender differences and inequalities that result from such interactions and choices. They thereby contribute important insights into the general theoretical issue of the nature of macro-micro linkages.


Feminist versions of symbolic interaction theory and ethnomethodology focus on gender as an ongoing accomplishment that emerges during interaction processes, both between and within the sexes. This perspective is succinctly captured in West & Zimmerman's term (1987) "doing gender," which refers to the work done during interactions in order to constantly recreate the partners' sense of their own and the other's gender (also West & Fenstermaker 1993, Fenstermaker et al 1991, Fenstermaker Berk 1985, Goffman 1977). Gender is an "emergent feature of social situations" (West & Fenstermaker 1993:151), not a static feature of structure or set of individual-level traits.

Gender is "omnirelevant" in that any action can be interpreted as exemplifying it (West & Fenstermaker 1993). Given the taken-for-granted view that there are two and only two sexes, and everyone belongs in (only) one of them, people characterize self and others by sex ("gender attribution") and then interpret and respond to virtually any kind of behavior according to its normative gender "appropriateness." The nature of masculinity and femininity varies, but the notion that men and women are fundamentally different does not. People are constantly creating the sense of gender difference and defining self and others through that lens (Kessler & McKenna 1978, Goffman 1977). West & Fenstermaker (1993: 157) assert: "persons engaged in virtually any activity can hold themselves accountable and be held accountable for their performance . . . as women or as men . . ." and will be legitimated or discredited accordingly. A major corollary is that, while the specific relevance of gender is always contingent upon the interaction context in which behavior occurs (Fenstermaker et al 1991), it is no less relevant to single-sex than to cross-sex interactions (Gerson 1985).

"Doing gender" not only (re)produces gender difference, it (re)produces gender inequality. One very important medium through which gender-construction work occurs is conversation. Numerous analyses of male-female conservation and language usage have been conducted (e.g. Fishman 1982, Mayo & Henley 1981, McConnell-Ginet 1978, West & Zimmerman 1977, Lakoff 1975). They conclude that conversation between men and women reinforces gender inequality, primarily because "the definition of what is appropriate conversation becomes men's choice. What part of the world [they] . . . maintain the reality of, is his choice . . ." (Fishman 1982:178). Men dominate conversations; women work hard to keep them going; women use verbal and body language in ways that weaken their ability to assert themselves and, therefore, reduce their power (McConnell-Ginet 1978, West & Zimmerman 1978, Lakoff 1975, Mayo & Henley 1981).

Another major mechanism by which gender inequality is reproduced through interaction is scripting (West & Fenstermaker 1993). The social scripts for many tasks are specifically associated with gender, and people "do gender" as part and parcel of doing them. Fenstermaker Berk (1985, also DeVault 1991) shows how the division of household labor, which numerous studies demonstrate is highly inequitable, provides the opportunity for both spouses to "do gender" and reinforce their own and their partner's gendered identities. Hochschild (1983) develops the concept of "emotional labor," which refers to the need to hide or fake one's feelings in order to please others, in discussing the gendered scripts associated with many traditionally female jobs. Kasper (1986) expands upon this concept, seeing it as integral to the scripts for female behavior in a variety of interaction contexts and as functioning to deny women an "integrated autonomous identity of their own" (p. 40). In turn, this impedes women's ability to achieve in the public sphere.

Schur (1984) uses an offshoot of symbolic interactionism, labeling theory, to demonstrate that femaleness constitutes a devalued and stigmatized master status that results in women being selectively perceived and reacted to primarily in terms of stereotypes about femaleness (p. 25). This leads to objectification of women, or their treatment as things rather than as persons, which allows others to treat them in degrading and exploitative ways. The result is a self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby women come to see themselves as inferior and to suffer from low self-esteem, passivity, in-group hostility, and identification with their (male) oppressors.

In an application of George Herbert Mead's concepts, Ferguson (1980) argues that men possess the power to define both specific situations and the generalized other. Women, therefore, "are defining themselves by reference to standards that brand them as inferior" (p. 155), thereby undermining their self-identity and producing self-blame for their problems. In addition, powerlessness forces women to become highly adept at taking the role of the (male) other, anticipating male wants in order to avoid negative sanctions; it prompts women to please, flatter, and acquiesce to men for the same reason (pp. 161-62). The result is that male power is buttressed.

Feminist versions of ethnomethodology and symbolic interactionism focus on the microlevel processes by which gender differences and inequality are constantly (re)created in everyday life. By demonstrating that both cross- and same-sex interactions normally entail "doing gender," they suggest that gender is a fundamental feature and outcome of all interaction, one that should comprise a central component of general interaction theories.


No thinkers were more thoroughly criticized by feminists during the 1960s and 1970s than Parsons and Freud. Nonetheless, the new specialty developed by feminist sociologists called itself by the Parsonian term, the sociology of sex roles; by the late 1970s, one of the most influential feminist theories in sociology was Chodorow's (1978, also 1974) neo-Freudian account of gender differentiation and inequality. The term "sex (gender) role" has since been abandoned by feminist scholars because it obscures power inequities, thereby depoliticizing gender (Stacey & Thorne 1985), and because it fails to articulate situational variation in role enactment (Lopata & Thorne 1978, West & Fenstermaker 1993:154-55). However, role analysis remains an important part of feminist theorizing because many specific social roles are entirely (e.g. wife/husband) or largely (e.g. numerous occupations) played by members of only one sex. Feminist Freudian theory continues to be developed (see reviews by Kurzweil 1989 and by Williams 1993; also Chodorow 1989).

The earlier sex/gender role perspective focused primarily on delineating the processes of childhood socialization (especially modeling, positive and negative sanctions) through which, beginning at birth, boys and girls are taught by parents, and later peers, schools, media, etc, "sex appropriate" gender identities (said to be all but immutable by about age 3) and gender normative behaviors (which are presumably trans-situational and therefore applicable in all interactions) (e.g. Cahill 1983, Lever 1976, Constantinople 1979, Lewis & Weinraub 1979, Coser 1986, 1975, Sattel 1976). This perspective is primarily rooted in cognitive development and symbolic interaction theories. Besides the problems mentioned above, the sex/gender role perspective also makes it all but impossible to explain gender-related changes at the individual or collective level. To the extent that childhood engenderment strongly shapes all subsequent behavior, it is difficult to explain how adults could change, and therefore, how new generations of children could be taught different gender conceptions. Katz (1979) introduces a life-cycle perspective to issues of gender socialization, an approach that can better accommodate change. This approach is elaborated by Lopata (1994), who examines specific social roles associated with women, rather than general sex/gender roles. She focuses on how the major social roles played by women (especially wife, mother, relative, homemaker, and employee) change over the life course and how and why they have changed with societal modernization, thereby reducing the hypothesized impact of early childhood learning. Likewise, Johnson (1989, 1993) revisits Parsons to show how one can revise his evolutionary theory and analysis of family roles usefully to account for recent changes in women's roles.

Like most socialization theories of engenderment, feminist neo-Freudian theory argues that, at a very early age, the two sexes develop gender identities and gender differentiated personalities that are highly stable over the life course. The two theory types differ in the processes by which this presumably occurs. The best known neo-Freudian feminist scholars are French, but the one who has most influenced feminist sociologists in the United States is Nancy Chodorow (especially 1978). Incorporating object relations theory into her revisions of Freudian thought, Chodorow argues that, because early childrearing is overwhelmingly a female task, children of both sexes have a woman as their primary love object. However, boys' and girls' Oedipal stage experiences and outcomes are vastly different because only girls share the sex of their primary love object. Because girls need not separate form their mothers to attain a gendered identity, they grow into women whose primary concern is with connection to other people. Given a different-sex primary love object, boys develop a gendered identity through separation, resulting in men who focus on individuation and a denial of affect. The gender-specific psychological orientations that result from the fact that women mother children of both sexes underpin male misogyny and dominance. Gilligan (1982) uses Chodorow's theory to refute Kohlberg's levels of moral reasoning. She argues that women's morality is different from (not at a lower level than) men's because it is based on personal relationships and obligations rather than abstract principles (which Kohlberg privileges). These two works are widely cited by feminist sociologists, despite extensive critique of their essentialist logic, psychological reductionism, and other problems (see Williams 1993 for a review of those critiques, and see Lorber et al 1981). Like socialization explanations, feminist neo-Freudian theory makes gender-related changes all but impossible to explain. A different kind of criticism of Chodorow's theory is developed by Johnson (1988), who concludes that it is fathers, not mothers, who reproduce gender differentiation in children and gender inequality among adults. Children of both sexes become "human" through interactions with their primary love object, a mother figure, who tends to minimize gender difference. Fathers differentiate their children much more on the basis of gender. In addition, children observe their mothers playing the wife role, which models gender inequality in relationship to their husbands.


The Newest Trend in Feminist Theorizing

The "hot topic" in the 1990s among feminist scholars is "the intersection of race, class and gender." Edited books (e.g. Anderson & Collins 1995a, Rothenberg 1992), special journal issues, program sessions, and a new section of ASA have been devoted to it. The central contention of this emerging focus is that the three forms of oppression are not separate and additive, but interactive and multiplicative in their effects. However, to date, very little theory has been produced on the topic; the growing literature remains overwhelmingly descriptive, and too often descriptive of a sample of women of only one race and class (or even specific occupation).

One exception is Collins (1990), who suggests several interesting ideas about how to theorize "one overarching structure of domination" that includes age, religion, and sexual orientation in addition to race, class, and gender (p. 222). She argues that people can simultaneously be oppressed and oppressor, privileged and penalized; that no one form of oppression is primary, although individuals and groups often define one as more fundamental and others as lesser; and that the matrix of domination has several layers (e.g. persons, group or community culture, social institutions), all of which are sites of potential resistance to domination. Moreover, different systems of oppression may rely on varying degrees of systemic versus interpersonal mechanisms of domination (pp. 226-27).

West & Fenstermaker (1995) reject the mathematical metaphor involved in Collins's (also Almquist 1989, Glenn 1985, Anderson & Collins 1995b) idea of intersecting systems of inequality. They point out that no one can experience gender without simultaneously experiencing their other statuses, so all outcomes are simultaneously "gendered," "raced," and "classed." Using an ethnomethodological approach, they argue that these are all ongoing accomplishments whose relevance cannot be determined apart from the context in which they are accomplished. Collins et al (1995) respond that West & Fenstermaker reduce oppression to difference and lose sight of the structural inequities that are fundamental to these statuses.

These efforts constitute the barest beginnings of theorizing about how various forms of inequality relate to one another. The recently developing queer theory (e.g. see Seidman et al 1994), which deals with the social construction of sexual identity and preference labels, especially those that are "marginal," is also interwoven with feminist theories. It is, however, beyond the scope of this chapter to discuss the theory. Both of these new issues reflect the perception by many feminists that prior theoretical efforts have been too middle class, white, and heterosexist, and that feminist theory must recognize diversity among women and therefore account for the multiplicity of forms of oppression, not just that experienced by otherwise privileged white women. Theoretical progress on the topic of how various systems of inequality interact could revolutionize the sociological understanding of social stratification, which, for too long, has theorized narrowly about inequality in terms of social class/status.

Feminist Theory and Mainstream Sociology

Sociologists have always assumed that, as Lorber states (1994:36), "For humans, the social is the natural." However, until recently sociologists exempted gender from this assumption and largely ignored the topic. The most fundamental contributions of feminist theories have been to demonstrate the thoroughly sociocultural nature of all aspects of the gender system and the omnirelevance of gender to social life. This corpus of work demonstrates the daily "hard work," conducted at the micro- and macrolevels by individuals and social collectivities, that goes into (re)producing gender as a fundamental feature of social life, indeed, a more ubiquitous feature than social class.

Feminist theorists have used virtually all theoretical traditions in sociology as springboards to understand the gendered nature of social life. In the process, they have offered rich and important critiques of the inadequacies of traditional theories that have resulted from the masculine blinders their authors have worn. They have developed revisions of those traditions that broaden and deepen the discipline's understanding of social life. Gradually, albeit too slowly, these perspectives are becoming incorporated into the mainstream theory canon. It is my hope that this review may hasten that process.


I am grateful to the following people for feedback on a draft of this chapter: my departmental colleagues Helen Rose Ebaugh, Joseph Kotarba, and David Klinger; also Dana Dunn, Paula England, Randall Collins, Ruth Wallace and an anonymous reviewer.

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Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
Chafetz, Janet Saltzman. "Feminist theory and sociology: underutilized contributions for mainstream theory." Annual Review of Sociology, vol. 23, 1997, p. 97+. General OneFile, Accessed 23 Sept. 2017.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A19956526