Feminist political theory

Feminist political theory is a diverse subfield of feminist theory working towards three main goals:

  1. To understand and critique the role of gender in how political theory is conventionally construed.
  2. To re-frame and re-articulate conventional political theory in light of feminist issues (especially gender equality).
  3. To support political science presuming and pursuing gender equality.

Feminist political theory encompasses a broad scope of approaches. It overlaps with related areas including feminist jurisprudence/feminist legal theory; feminist political philosophy; female-centered empirical research in political science; and feminist research methods (feminist method) for use in political science the social sciences. Indeed, one scholar notes that, insofar as almost all versions of feminism involve "demonstrating the ways in which politics, understood as power relations, is present in our everyday lives," one could reasonably "describe feminist theory as a whole as a kind of political philosophy."[1] What frequently distinguishes feminist political theory from feminism broadly is the specific examination of the state and its role in the reproduction or redressing of gender inequality.[1] In addition to being broad and multidisciplinary, the field is relatively new, inherently innovative, and still expanding; the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains that "feminist political philosophy serves as a field for developing new ideals, practices, and justifications for how political institutions and practices should be organized and reconstructed."[2]


For summary of feminist history more broadly, see feminism. Feminist political theory as a term only consolidated in the West during Women's Liberation movements of the 1960s and 70s. Previously, very few works of political theory explicitly considered women's political situation. John Stuart Mill’s 1861 call for women's suffrage in The Subjection of Women is a notable exception.[3] In the early 20th Century, Simone de Beauvoir’s 1949 work The Second Sex exposed the power dynamics surrounding womanhood and laid the foundation for subsequent feminist theories exposing women's social subjugation. In the 1980s and 1990s, feminist theory expanded into the legal realm led by Catharine MacKinnon’s and Andrea Dworkin’s campaigns against pornography.[4] Several distinct stages are sketched out below.

Liberal feminism

Liberal feminism marks an important approach to feminist politics which was especially pervasive during the first half of the twentieth century. Some of the most well known examples of liberal feminist writing were published far earlier, including Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) and John Stuart Mill's The Subjection of Women (1869). A common theme of liberal feminism is an emphasis on equal opportunity via fair opportunity and equal political rights. In addition, according to The International Encyclopedia of Ethics, "[L]iberal feminisms of both the past and the present retain some commitment to the distinction between the public and private realms – a distinction [which is the] focus of much critique within feminist political theory."[1]

Marxist, socialist and radical feminism

Marxist feminism and socialist feminism considered classism as the primary source of women's oppression[5][6]. "... Marxist theory does not allow women any more than other classes of oppressed people to constitute themselves as historical subjects, because Marxism does not take into account the fact that a class also consists of individuals one by one. Class consciousness is not enough. We must try to understand philosophically (politically) these concepts of 'subject' and 'class consciousness' and how they work in relation to our history.[7]" Early radical feminism was grounded in the rejection of the nuclear family and femininity as constructed within heterosexuality[8]. and Radical feminism abdicated any previous forms of political theory to develop entirely new theories rooted primarily on the direct experiences of women. Radical Feminism[9]has experienced many transitions over time, including facing an anti feminist backlash[10](humanism[11][12]) but the theoretical history and survival[13]remains important to understand[14].

Topics of inquiry

Feminist epistemology

A key aspect of feminist political theory/philosophy is feminist epistemology. Feminist epistemologists question the objectivity of social and philosophical sciences by contending that standards of authority and credibility are socially constructed and thus reflect and re-entrench the sociopolitical status quo.[15] Thus, one common feminist methodological solution is to include many diverse voices reflecting all parts of society in the process of knowledge-making.

Gendered political institutions

Political theory on the gendering of institutions explores questions such what does it mean for an institution to be “gendered," how can one evaluate whether an institution is gendered, and what are the consequences of gendered institutions for the people who work within them (of all genders). An example of such related scholarship is Eileen McDonagh's book The Motherless State which explores how socially feminized "motherly" attributes have been stripped from modern governance models.[16]

Group identity/identity politics

Theorist studying this aspect of feminist political theory question the construction of women as an identity group. On a basic level, they consider whether it is even possible to come to some sort of conclusion about a "women" group’s relation to politics. One facet of the debate involves intersectionality and whether women from different racial and cultural backgrounds have enough in common to form a political group.[17] Another facet questions whether transgender women should be included in the group "women" insofar as they lack many of the experiences of girlhood and womanhood which bind "women" together as a distinct group.[18]

Yet another approach to this topic includes redefining "groupness;" for example, Iris Marion Young has suggested women are more of a "seriality" rather than a group insofar as they undergo similar experiences but in isolation of each other, lacking a sense of group identity.[19]

Political leadership and gender

This field addresses how women lead differently than their male counterparts as legislators, executives, and judges. Some scholars in this field study how political leadership is itself masculinized to exclude the kinds of political leadership women most frequently provide, often outside of formal offices. For example, Hardy-Fanta looks at grassroots political work in Latino communities in the U.S. to identify feminized political leadership roles, ultimately concluding that Latina women provide the most critical leadership and work in those communities—despite the fact that most studies overlook their leadership because it does not occur within formal officeholding roles.[20]

See also

Related journals

  • Politics & Gender[21]
  • Signs[22]
  • Feminist Theory[23]
  • International Feminist Journal of Politics[24]


  1. ^ a b c Watson, Lori (2013-01-01). "Feminist Political Theory". International Encyclopedia of Ethics. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. doi:10.1002/9781444367072.wbiee757. ISBN 9781444367072.
  2. ^ McAfee, Noëlle (2014-01-01). Zalta, Edward N. (ed.). Feminist Political Philosophy (Summer 2014 ed.).
  3. ^ "John Stuart Mill: The Subjection of Women". www.constitution.org. Retrieved 2015-10-13.
  4. ^ "philosophical feminism". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 2015-10-13.
  5. ^ Hartmann, Heidi (2003). The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism: Towards a More Progressive Union. Feminist Theory Reader (Eds: McCann & Kim): Routledge. pp. 206–21. ISBN 978-0-415-93152-6.
  6. ^ Kaplan, Cora (1985). Pandora's Box: Subjectivity, class, and sexuality in socialist feminist criticism. Feminisms (1997) (Eds: Warhol & Herndl): Rutgers University Press. pp. 956–975. ISBN 978-0-8135-2388-0.
  7. ^ Wittig, Monique (2003). One is Not Born a Woman. Feminist Theory Reader, Eds: McCann & Kim): Routledge. p. 253. ISBN 978-0-415-93152-6.
  8. ^ Echols, Alice (1989). Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967-1975. University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 978-0816617876.
  9. ^ Bryson, Valerie (2016). Feminist Political Theory. Palgrave. ISBN 9781137439048.
  10. ^ Tolentino, Jia (2/8/2017). "The Case Against Contemporary Feminism". https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-case-against-contemporary-feminism. Retrieved 7/11/2018. Check date values in: |access-date=, |date= (help); External link in |website= (help)
  11. ^ Johnson, Pauline (1994). Feminism as Radical Humanism. Routledge. ISBN 9780429969065.
  12. ^ Johnson, Pauline (2015). Feminism and Humanism. In The Wiley Blackwell Handbook of Humanism (Eds: Copson & Grayling: Wiley. pp. Chapter 16. ISBN 9781118793305.
  13. ^ Sullivan, Mairead (Spring–Summer 2016). "Kill Daddy: Reproduction, Futurity, and the Survival of the Radical Feminist". Women's Studies Quarterly. 44 (1–2): 268–282. doi:10.1353/wsq.2016.0012.
  14. ^ Dow & Wood (2014). "Repeating History and Learning From It: What Can SlutWalks Teach Us About Feminism?". Women's Studies in Communication. 37: 22–43. doi:10.1080/07491409.2013.867918.
  15. ^ "philosophical feminism". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 2015-11-04.
  16. ^ McDonagh, Eileen (2009). The Motherless State. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  17. ^ Mansbridge, Jane (1999). "Should Blacks Represent Blacks and Women Represent Women? A Contingent Yes". Journal of Politics.
  18. ^ "The Dispute Between Radical Feminism and Transgenderism". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2015-11-04.
  19. ^ Young, Iris Marion (1994). "Gender as Seriality: Thinking About Women as a Social Collective". Signs. 19 (3): 713–738. doi:10.1086/494918.
  20. ^ Hardy-Fanta, Carol (1995). "Latina Women and Political Leadership". New England Journal of Public Policy.
  21. ^ "Politics & Gender". Retrieved 2015-12-11.
  22. ^ "Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society". Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. Retrieved 2015-12-11.
  23. ^ "Feminist Theory | SAGE Publications Inc". us.sagepub.com. Retrieved 2015-12-11.
  24. ^ "International Feminist Journal of Politics - Volume 17, Issue 4". www.tandfonline.com. Retrieved 2015-12-11.

External links


Ambedkarism is a body of ideas inspired by Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar. His philosophy has been used in India as a basis for political campaigning. His philosophy was using socio-politics as a tool to achieve the end result that is social justice and social equality. Someone who practices Ambedkarism is an Ambedkarite.

Analytical feminism

Analytical feminism is a line of philosophy that applies analytic concepts and methods to feminist issues and applies feminist concepts and insights to issues that have traditionally been of interest to analytic philosophers. Like all feminists, analytical feminists insist on recognizing and contesting sexism and androcentrism.

Consensus theory

Consensus theory is a social theory that holds a particular political or economic system is a fair system, and that social change should take place within the social institutions provided by it. Consensus theory contrasts sharply with conflict theory, which holds that social change is only achieved through conflict.

Under consensus theory the absence of conflict is seen as the equilibrium state of society and that there is a general or widespread agreement among all members of a particular society about norms, values, rules and regulations. Consensus theory is concerned with the maintenance or continuation of social order in society.

Consensus theory serves as a sociological argument for the furtherance and preservation of the status quo. It is antagonistic to conflict theory, which serves as a sociological argument for modifying the status quo or for its total reversal. In consensus theory, the rules are seen as integrative, and whoever doesn't respect them is a deviant person. Under conflict theory, the rules are seen as coercive, and who transgresses them is considered an agent of change.


Contractualism is a term in philosophy which refers either to a family of political theories in the social contract tradition (when used in this sense, the term is synonymous with contractarianism), or to the ethical theory developed in recent years by T. M. Scanlon, especially in his book What We Owe to Each Other (published 1998).Social contract theorists from the history of political thought include Hugo Grotius (1625), Thomas Hobbes (1651), Samuel Pufendorf (1673), John Locke (1689), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762), and Immanuel Kant (1797); more recently, John Rawls (1971), David Gauthier (1986) and Philip Pettit (1997).


In philosophy and sociology, culturalism (new humanism or Znaniecki's humanism) is the central importance of culture as an organizing force in human affairs. It was originally coined by the Polish-American philosopher and sociologist Florian Znaniecki in his book Cultural Reality (1919) in English and later translated into Polish as kulturalizm. Znaniecki had introduced a similar concept in earlier Polish language publications which he described as humanism (humanizm).

Feminist Studies Department (University of California, Santa Cruz)

The Feminist Studies Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz constitutes one of the oldest departments of gender and sexuality studies in the world. It was founded as a women's studies department in 1974. It is considered among the most influential departments in feminist studies, post-structuralism, and feminist political theory. In addition to its age and reputation, the department is significant for its numerous notable faculty, graduates, and students.

Feminist political ecology

Feminist political ecology is a feminist perspective on political ecology, drawing on theories from post-structuralism, feminist geography, and cultural ecology. Feminist political ecology examines the place of gender in the political ecological landscape, exploring gender as a factor in ecological and political relations. Specific areas in which feminist political ecology is focused are development, landscape, resource use, agrarian reconstruction and rural-urban transformation (Hovorka 2006: 209). Feminist political ecologists suggest gender is a crucial variable – in relation to class, race and other relevant dimensions of political ecological life – in constituting access to, control over, and knowledge of natural resources.

Index of sociopolitical thinkers

The following is an index of sociopolitical thinkers listed by the first name.

Kathy Ferguson

Kathy E. Ferguson is an American author, political theorist, educator, and Fulbright Grant recipient. She is professor of political science and women's studies at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa.

In 2009, the American Political Science Association recognized Ferguson for her research in the field of feminist political theory. Her more notable books include Emma Goldman: Political Thinking in the Streets (2011), The Man Question: Visions of Subjectivity in Feminist Theory (1993), and Kibbutz Journal: Reflections on Gender, Race and Militarism in Israel, a work of political theory written in the personal essay form while living with her husband and two young sons on a kibbutz in Israel.

Ferguson's writing often brings activist strategies and tactics, feminist cultural artifacts, and practices of domestic or everyday life into the canon of political theory.

Mary O'Brien (philosopher)

Mary Maime O'Brien (July 8, 1926 – October 17, 1998) was a feminist political philosopher. She taught sociology and feminist social theory in Canada until her death. She was a founding member of the Feminist Party of Canada.

Nathan Widder

Nathan Widder is an American-born political philosopher whose work engages with the history of Western political thought and philosophy, contemporary Continental philosophy, and feminist political theory.

He has done research and published widely on questions of difference, pluralism, power, identity, and knowledge, and he has drawn on ideas in contemporary thought in order to stage a re-engagement with both central and marginal figures in ancient, early Christian, and medieval philosophy. He received his Ph.D. from Essex University under the supervision of celebrated political theorists Ernesto Laclau and Sue Golding. He also has an MSc (Econ) Political Theory from The London School of Economics, and a BA Political Science from Johns Hopkins University, where he was a student of William E. Connolly.

Widder is Professor of Political Theory at Royal Holloway, University of London, where he was Head of the Politics and International Relations department (2009-2013).

Widder has published articles in prominent journals, including Angelaki, Continental Philosophy Review, Contemporary Political Theory, European Journal of Political Theory, History of Political Thought, Parallax, Philosophy and Social Criticism, Philosophy Today, Political Theory, and Theory & Event. His article 'Foucault and Power Revisited' is consistently one of the most widely-read on the topic.

He has also produced three major studies, Genealogies of Difference (University of Illinois Press, 2002), Reflections on Time and Politics (Penn State University Press, 2008), and Political Theory after Deleuze (Continuum Press, 2012).

Political ethics

Political ethics (also known as political morality or public ethics) is the practice of making moral judgements about political action and political agents. It covers two areas. The first is the ethics of process (or the ethics of office), which deals with public officials and the methods they use. The second area, the ethics of policy (or ethics and public policy) concerns judgments about policies and laws.

Raia Prokhovnik

Raia Prokhovnik (born 7 May 1951), is Reader in Politics at the Open University's Faculty of Social Sciences, for their Department of Politics and International Studies, and founding editor of the journal Contemporary Political Theory. She is the chair of the OU's interdisciplinary politics module, Living political ideas, and contributed to other modules including Power, dissent, equality: understanding contemporary politics.

Seyla Benhabib

Seyla Benhabib (; born September 9, 1950) is a Turkish-born American philosopher of Sephardic ancestry. She is Eugene Mayer Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Yale University and was director of the program in Ethics, Politics, and Economics from 2002-2008. Benhabib is well known for her work in political philosophy, which draws on critical theory and feminist political theory. She has written extensively on the philosophers Hannah Arendt and Jürgen Habermas, as well as on the topic of human migration. She is the author of numerous books, and she has received several prestigious awards and lectureships in recognition of her work.

Social philosophy

Social philosophy is the study of questions about social behavior and interpretations of society and social institutions in terms of ethical values rather than empirical relations. Social philosophers place new emphasis on understanding the social contexts for political, legal, moral, and cultural questions, and to the development of novel theoretical frameworks, from social ontology to care ethics to cosmopolitan theories of democracy, human rights, gender equity and global justice.

Suing for peace

Suing for peace is an act by a warring party to initiate a peace process.

Toward a Feminist Theory of the State

Toward a Feminist Theory of the State is a 1989 book about feminist political theory by the legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon.

Valerie Bryson

Valerie Bryson is a British political scientist, who has published extensively on feminist theory and politics. She was appointed professor of politics at the University of Huddersfield in 2002, and is founder of the Centre for Democracy and Governance in 2006, serving as its director until 2008. Since 2010, she has been professor emerita.

Her books include Feminist Debates, which has also been translated into Japanese, and Feminist Political Theory, which has also been translated into Greek and Russian. She has been a visiting professor at the Centre of Gender Excellence in Örebro since 2007.

Xu Xing (philosopher)

Xu Xing (Chinese: 許行; Wade–Giles: Hsü Hsing) (c. 372 BC - c. 289 BC) was a Chinese philosopher and one of the most notable advocates of Agriculturalism, a political philosophy that advocated peasant utopian communalism and egalitarianism. With a group of followers he settled in the state of Teng in about 315 BC. A disciple of his visited the Confucian philosopher Mencius, and a short report of their conversation discussing Xu Xing's philosophy survives.

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