Fragmented Feminism: the Tension Between Equality and Difference

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Fragmented Feminism:
The tension between equality and difference

The concept of feminism invites many points of contention. In modern usage, it is defined as the ideology that constitutes the belief that women require liberation from the disadvantages their sex imposes. Although there have been significant advances for women in the three waves of the feminist movement, tensions have developed within the ideology. In this essay I will explore the tension that feminism attempts to reconcile between equality and difference.

Feminist beliefs can be dated back to the ancient civilisations of Greece and China. However, the concept only truly developed in the twentieth century. The first wave of feminism in the mid-1800s was solely concerned with the pursuit of sexual equality legally and politically, with particular emphasis on suffrage rights. It was believed that when these rights were gained, full emancipation of women would be inevitable. The women’s movement regenerated in the 1960s when it was apparent that wider liberation was needed for sexual equality to exist. The second-wave of feminism was characterised by more radical concerns, seeking equality to extend to the private sphere. This allowed feminism to be established as a distinctive ideology, opposed to being attached to others, and gender perspectives were recognised as important in general public life. The third-wave of feminism, apparent today, shows a greater engagement with women being different from men through emphasising the differences between the sexes. Although there have been significant developments for feminism over time, the ideology has become increasingly easy to dismiss because it is often difficult to locate common ground and tension and disagreement are preeminent.

There are two core themes of feminism that establish some common ground. The first of which is the desire to redefine the political. Traditionally, politics has been confined to the public sphere. This includes governmental institutions, political parties, pressure groups and public debate. This is problematic through a feminist lens because of the socially constructed roles of the ‘public man’ and the ‘private woman’. Essentially, this definition of politics excluded women that were restricted to the private sphere of the home and gave the issue of gender equality very little political importance. Feminism has sought to overturn these roles and broaden the definition of politics to include both public and private spheres. The second core theme of feminism is the opposition to a patriarchy. Literally defined as ‘rule by the father’, a patriarchy is often used to describe male dominance and female subordination in society at large. Feminists believe the family to be the ‘chief institution’ of a patriarchy, which aids the systematic process of reproducing male dominance in other elements of life. Feminists are united in wanting to remove the notions of women as the second sex and men as the dominant.

The essence of the feminist argument, in which agreement can be found, is that women are made subordinate by men and there is a need for liberation. However, there is a strong tension between equality and difference feminisms that contemplate the means by which this liberation should come. The late 80s and 90s saw a regeneration of Social Darwinism that attempted to explain the differences between women and men as biological rather than social. This justification for the secondary role of women called into question these ‘natural’ differences. Most feminists sought to overcome them through denying the relevance of biological differences while others sought to celebrate the differences, giving feminine and masculine qualities the same value. This fragmentation within the ideology has resulted in a core debate of how women should be liberated.

Equality feminism aspires to the goal of sexual equality in a gender-blind society. Central to this argument is the distinction...
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