The origins and definitions of "gender feminism" and "equity feminism"

(This is the first of three posts on “equity feminism” and “gender feminism.” Part two is here; part three is here).

As folks have been discussing a bit in this “Alas” thread, conservatives tend to divide feminists into two categories: “gender feminists” and “equity feminists.”

These terms were coined by Christina Hoff Sommers, in her anti-feminist classic Who Stole Feminism?. Here’s how Hoff Sommers introduced the term “gender feminists”:

The gender feminists (as I shall call them) believe that all our institutions, from the state to the family to the grade schools, perpetuate male dominance. … Gender feminists are constantly on the lookout for the smoking gun, the telling fact that will drive home to the public how profoundly the system is rigged against women. To rally women to their cause, it is not enough to remind us that many brutal and selfish men harm women. They must persuade us that the system itself sanctions male brutality. They must convince us that the oppression of women, sustained from generation to generation, is a structural feature of our society.

In contrast, equity feminists are those who (in Hoff Sommer’s view) derive their feminism from the suffragettes. Here’s Hoff Sommers’ first mention of “equity” feminism:

The traditional, classically liberal, humanistic feminism that was initiated more than 150 years ago was very different. It has a specific agenda, demanding for women the same rights before the law that men enjoyed. The suffrage had to be won, and the laws regarding property, marriage, divorce, and child custody had to be made equitable. More recently, abortion rights had to be protected. The old mainstream feminism concentrated on legal reforms. …

Most American women subscribe philosophically to that older “First Wave” kind of feminism whose main goal is equity, especially in politics and education. A First Wave, “mainstream,” or “equity” feminist wants for women what she wants for everyone: fair treatment, without discrimination.

Note that the definitions are already a bit incoherent; although Hoff Sommers is trying to create two opposed categories, her definitions leave a lot of room for overlap. There is no contradiction, for example, between believing that “system is profoundly rigged against women” (gender feminists) and wanting “fair treatment, without discrimination, for everyone” (equity feminists).

Ignoring the incoherence for a while, the two key differences in Hoff Sommers formulation seem to be that “gender feminists” believe that sexism against women is a widespread problem, found in virtually all our society’s institutions. In contrast, “equity feminists” apparently think that feminism’s only proper concern is legal equality – a goal that has been, to a significant extent, achieved in the USA – and there is absolutely no cultural or systemic bias against women.

(Note, by the way, that the dictionary definition of feminism - which I’d phrase as “the movement organized around belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes” – is closer to “gender” than “equity” feminism, since its conception of equality is far broader than simple legal equality.)

(This is the first of three posts on “equity feminism” and “gender feminism.” Part two is here; part three is here).

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18 Responses to The origins and definitions of "gender feminism" and "equity feminism"

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  3. 3
    Sally says:

    Honestly, I’m not sure where she’s getting her ideas about the first wave. For instance, she’s not taking into account the widespread concern about religion. Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote a “Woman’s Bible” and Sarah Grimke showed how the Bible had been used to oppress women: was that gender or equity feminism? (Sommers really should read Grimke’s Letters on the Equality of the Sexes. I think it would be an eye-opener for her.) And there were substantial divisions within the ranks of first-wave feminists over, for instance, whether women ought to have equal rights with men or whether they needed special protection because of their vulnerabilities under the current system.

    It’d be nice if people actually learned something about the history of feminism before they started pontificating about how feminists used to be.

  4. 4
    Jason Kuznicki says:

    The overlap you mention is certainly present, but I’m not sure it fully undermines the gender/equity distinction, just as “masculine” and “feminine” are two concepts that sometimes overlap, but that can in many cases be helpful tools for thinking. Indeed, few concepts of political thought are perfectly consistent in all cases.

    Personally, I tend to think that the most useful distinction between the two camps is whether the legal reforms of equity feminism are “enough” to change the system–and if they aren’t, then what the best remedy might be for the remaining inequalities.

  5. 5
    Amanda says:

    Blegh. That stuff makes me want to laugh and barf. There’s no such thing as “equity” feminists, never has been, never will be. The laws that discriminate against women don’t exist in a vaccum, but as part of a larger system of social prejudice against women. Seriously, sometimes I have to wonder why, if the problem isn’t society’s sexism, laws banning women from voting were there in the first place.

  6. 6
    La Lubu says:

    Brava, Amanda.

    So sure, we have these laws now. So what? Women are still discriminated against. There are still gross violations of the law, but not all can be remedied by lawsuits. For one thing, you have to have money to get a lawyer. For another thing, even then, if it’s not a big money case…if it’s small potatoes….you’re still going to have a hard time getting a lawyer with the kind of expertise you need to take your case. That, and if you win a lawsuit, you can pretty much kiss your career bye-bye. Your present employer will make your work life hell, and possible future employers won’t hire a troublemaker like you. Don’t get me wrong; laws help. But they are just a tool, any every tool has its inherent limitations.

    When I was my daughter’s age, the help wanted ads were segregated by sex. They aren’t now. When I was my daughter’s age, it was common for colleges (especially at the graduate level) to deny qualified women admittance. Now, I say that, mentioning that it was within my lifetime, and the youngsters still gape like it’s ancient history. I’m 37. I saw things get better, but we’re not there yet. My journey through school consisted of far more than my share of teachers who had low expectations for women. And I was barred from taking Industrial Ed (in the early eighties).

    I’m lucky. I work under a union contract that insures I get paid the same as the men. Most women I know are not that lucky. They are paid less, even though they have a superior education and much more experience. These are not women who “took time off” from their careers, as the anit-feminists are quick to accuse. Rare is the woman who can afford that luxury. The woman who used to live next door to me is a college professor in business administration. A PhD. with over twenty years teaching experience and scads of publications, she was angry when the college where she taught offered some young man with a Master’s, no previous teaching experience, and no publication at that time thousands of dollars more starting pay than what she, the veteran, was receiving! Could she have sued? Yeah, she had many times before when they pulled similar crap, and always won. This time she had heard of a position at a different school, so she pulled the plug. Shit like this happens all the time. It would happen even more often, if there was transparency in the paycheck department. Why do you think (nonunion) employers don’t want employees to know how much their compatriots are being paid?

    Gender feminists, my culiddu. Laws by themselves have yet to rid the world of racism, and they have yet to rid the world of sexism too. It goes deeper. There’s still plenty of consciousness raising to do. Prejudice and bigotry are not logical. I used to think that if I worked harder, faster, smarter….I could “prove” myself to bigots and thus be accepted. Nope, didn’t work out that way.

  7. 7
    NancyP says:

    I think the Sommers “gender vs equity” feminist trope is her way of saying “the only good feminist is a dead feminist”.

    Remember, she gets big bucks from the Scaifes, Olins, and other conservative funders for doing all she can to weaken uppity women who might try to bring class action suits against their employers. She is no supporter of the Wal-Mart women employees bringing the suit, she works for the owners of big business, who benefit from cheap labor of women.

  8. 8
    Mikko says:

    The problem with all discussion about feminism is that the term is rather vaguely defined.

    For example, person A can understand feminism as a pro-female movement, whereas person B can understand feminism as a anti-male movement.

    And thus, discussion becomes pointless as people speak about drastically different subjects!

    The only way to correct this is to introduce more accurate terminology to cover different kinds of movements (e.g. anti-male, pro-female, gender, equity etc.) rather than trying to put it all under the convenient umbrella of “feminism”.

    >>(The dictionary definition) is closer to “gender”? than “equity”? feminism, since its
    >>conception of equality is far broader than simple legal equality.)

    Well, IMHO, no.

    The definition of gender feminism (as put in the article) seemed to be about… paranoia (sorry for the harsh word, but “patriarchaic, fallocratic male dominance infrastructure everywhere!” doesn’t give much choice).

    Whereas the definition of equity feminisim seemed to be about equal chances/opportunities.

    Equality in front of law implicates equality in opportunities, naturally (or, I can’t come up with counter-examples). Furthermore, it should be made sure that groups aren’t subject to “brainwashing”, e.g. “you girls just neeeeeeed to become waitresses and secretaries, that’s how it’s always been, it’s in your nature!”.

    Personally, I’d further categorize two different kinds of equality-movements (I’d rather call them equality-movements instead of feminism to lower the gender-bias):

    1) “equal opportunities” movement. This endorses the liberal view that everyone should have the same rights to choose whatever he/she wants to be. Whatever comes after that (e.g. if more women occupy secretary positions than men) is irrelevant (of course, the irrelevance is a question of research, for example, there could still be “brainwashing” going on.)
    2) “statistic equality” movement. This wants to instantiate strict quotas for different groups. Well, I wouldn’t call this liberal by any means. It might work as a tool to fight “brainwashing”, but again, “in the fight against monsters, seek out not to become a monster yourself”.

    It seems that the agenda of “gender feminism” is to endorse “statistic equality” by the argument that “patriarchaic infrastructures” make “equal opportunities” impossible.

  9. 9
    Jason Kuznicki says:

    I mostly agree with what Mikko is saying here; perhaps this formulation of the difference is better than Sommers’. (And I admit that I haven’t read her book.) The Grimké sisters aside, I would be very surprised to find that the liberal/radical distinction in feminism had become completley useles. It wasn’t and it isn’t, far as I’m concerned.

    My real question, then, is how much can one be a feminist, if one is skeptical about the power of government to change much of anything in principle? For example, I personally think a whole lot of things need to change culturally before women will in practice be equal to men in dignity and moral worth (in theory they are equal right now, but they certainly aren’t treated that way).

    Yet I’m hesitant about the ability of government to do much more than it already has. Does this mean I’m not a feminist? I’m willing to accept the possibility, but I’d like some solid grounds before concluding it.

  10. 10
    Amanda says:

    “For example, person A can understand feminism as a pro-female movement, whereas person B can understand feminism as a anti-male movement.”

    The problem is that when you say things like this, you are implying that there is a massive anti-male movement under the guise of “feminism”. This isn’t true. We can create a term to name it, much like we name unicorns and fairies, but that is a waste of time, don’t you think?

    There are lots and lots and lots and lots of men and even women who don’t think men should have to lose their privileged position and they resent feminists for demanding it. This no more makes feminists anti-male than the kids who pushed for intergrated schools were doing it because they hated white people.

  11. 11
    Ampersand says:

    My real question, then, is how much can one be a feminist, if one is skeptical about the power of government to change much of anything in principle?

    My suggestion is that you read this essay on libertarian feminism for an answer to that question.

  12. 12
    Jason Kuznicki says:

    Bean, I seem to have misread Sommers. I had taken her distinction to be more or less the same as the liberal/radical one, but that now seems mistaken.

  13. 13
    Apurva says:

    There is no contradiction, for example, between believing that “system is profoundly rigged against women” (gender feminists) and wanting “fair treatment, without discrimination, for everyone” (equity feminists).

    Yes, there is overlap between the two but they are not the same! She is really saying (or could be interpreted as saying) that gender feminists believe that the patriarchal society is inherently biased against women (and hence, cannot be rectified just by law) but equity feminists demand that equality be granted by law to everyone.
    There is bound to be overlap because, after all, she is making a distinction between two different types of feminism.

    PS. I have not read the book you mention and my comments are purely based on the quotes you have provided above.

  14. 14
    Mary Daly says:

    #7 TO MIKKO

    First things first. PHALLOCENTRIC,… not fallocentric.

    Second, feminism is NEVER an “anti-male” movement. It’s simply advocation for women’s rights and education/recognition of the patriarchal themes of the world. (Mary Daly does hate men… I’ll give you that, but I assure you that not all feminists do. In fact, some feminists ARE MEN.) The basis of all forms of feminism deals with oppression by the patriarchy and believe it or not, men are affected by the patriachy as well. The reason why it’s called feminism and not “gender equality” is because they are two seperate things and because it is female focused.

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