Introduction, part I
As with general sociological theory, one of the persistent issues in gender theory is a focus on the tension between human agency and social structure. While most theories of gender—including radical feminism, intersectionality approaches, postmodernism, and queer theory—address both agency and social structure, implicit in their theoretical assumptions are the sources of social praxis. Because of their differing analyses on the source of social praxis, they analyze structure and agency differently. For example, radical feminism and intersectionality approaches to gender emphasize systematic oppressors like capitalism and patriarchy, while postmodern and queer theories emphasize the structural oppression—and liberation potential—of discourse. Radical feminism and intersectionality approaches tend to emphasize the material realities of women (as a universal category) and examine the juxtaposition of the global economy and individual places within production. Postmodern and queer theories examine the structure of language and discourse and operationalize identity as fragmented rather than as particular universals. In the following sections, I outline the theoretical assumptions of all four theories, how each operationalize agency and social structure, and the implications of these operationalizations for the study of gender and sexuality. As Alcoff (1988) does, I argue that the most effective way to create social change is by restructuring social structures at the material and discursive level rather than emphasizing one over the other. All the theories I address analyze agency and structure, though as stated, materialist perspectives emphasize the structures of capitalism and patriarchy while postmodern and queer theories emphasize the structure of discourse. These operationalizations have implications for the theories’ conceptualizations of agency. I define agency as the ability to move within social structures with the proper tools and resources to fight oppression. As opposed to false consciousness, which is the inability to recognize oneself as an oppressed piece of an overarching structure, agency for theories of gender is class consciousness for orthodox Marxists. Agency also implies choice. I define structure as any institution that organizes human activity, including institutions like the global economy, discourse, or language. In this paper, I explore how radical feminism, intersectionality, postmodern and queer theories understand agency and structure and how those understandings translate into theories of social change. For clarification purposes, I will use sex work and the sex worker’s rights movement as an example of social change in order to demonstrate the impact of the four theories on social praxis. Radical Feminism
Radical feminism was engendered from liberal feminism’s neglect of the private sphere, including the failure of liberal feminism to properly address mothering and sexuality in their fight for social change. Radical feminism looks at unified systems like patriarchy to critique power and knowledge from a fundamentally woman-centered perspective. Intersectionality approaches to gender, as well as postmodern and queer theories, criticize radical feminists, for example Catherine MacKinnon (1982) and Andrea Dworkin (1974), for ignoring women’s agency. The theses of much radical feminist work centers on the idea that patriarchy as a social structure devalues female biology so that men have agency and women do not. Furthermore, much radical feminist analyses emphasize the material basis for the sexual/political ideology of female submission and male domination. For example, Firestone (1970) and Millet (1970) argue that sexuality as a source of power comes from the sexual division of labor, which allows men to control women’s bodies and, therefore, control what constitutes knowledge. Male and female relations, then, are a series of dominations and submissions stemming...
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