As a social and political movement with a long, intermittent history, feminism has repeatedly come into being, generated change, and subsided into oblivion. As an eclectic body of theory, feminism entered the academy in the early 1970s as a part of the women's studies movement, where its contribution to scholarship in the arts, social sciences, and humanities has perhaps been particularly significant. Despite the variety of its political positions, social commitments, and theoretical vantage points, feminism's common concern is with the social pattern, widespread across cultures and history, whereby power and entitlements are distributed asymmetrically to favor men over women. This asymmetry has been given many names, including the subjugation of women, sexism, male dominance, patriarchy, systemic misogyny, phallocracy, and the oppression of women. A number of feminist theorists simply call it gender, and that usage will be adopted here.

The concept of gender rests on the assumption that there are two sexes, male and female. The cultural meanings assigned to those sexes through complex social processes establish a power relation in which masculinity predominates over femininity, and the things associated with masculinity predominate over their feminine counterparts. The term gender refers to this power relation, which operates through society's institutions and practices by conferring the control of resources and the right to social goods on men while relegating women to subordinate positions in service of men's interests and concerns. But because gender always works in a complicated interconnection with other abusive power systems such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, age, and disability, some women enjoy more power than some men. By the same token, these other power systems produce greater amounts of privilege for some women than for others.

One of the characteristic features of gendered power relations is androcentrism: the (usually unstated) view that man is the point of reference for what is normal for humans. According to the logic of androcentrism, if man is the yardstick or measure for being human, then women, not being men, must be defective humans. Furthermore, because androcentrism presumes that men are the point around which everything else revolves, the feminist insistence that women too are full-fledged human beings is just as much about men as everything else is—it is a threat to masculinity, or an attempt to usurp men's rightful place in the natural order of things.

Racism and discrimination against gays and lesbians employ the same sort of logic: the white race and heterosexuality are the norm for human beings, so anything other than the norm must be defective—not just statistically but morally abnormal. From this it follows that the demand to de-center the dominant group (or, to use another spatial metaphor, to dismantle the hierarchy that puts the dominant group on top) must be seen as a threat to the group—a threat to "the Southern way of life" or to "the family as we know it." Looking at the demand in this way keeps the focus on the dominant group, so that it, rather than unjust treatment of the subgroup, remains the center of attention.

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