For scholars in the field of Women’s and Gender Studies, feminism is a vital theoretical tool. Like all theories, feminist theory provides researchers, scholars, and students tools and strategies for analyzing complex issues. As we will see in this lesson, there are many different kinds of feminist theory. These theories place emphasis on different kinds of questions and they emphasize different assumptions about how the world is structured. They all, however, share a commitment to understanding the world in order to make it a better, more just, place.

In an excellent short introduction to feminist theory and education, the American feminist Charlotte Bunch describes the four parts of a theory:

First, a theory has to describe the world as it exists. Once we have an understanding of the world around us, our next step is to analyse why the world exists as it does. Why, we might ask, are some people rich and others poor? Why are there so many women in the grocery store during the day? How come elementary schools employ women as teachers and men as principals? Once we have looked carefully at the world around us and offered some explanation of why the world is the way it is, we’re still only halfway done. The next step for any feminist theory is to develop a vision, which is to say that we must articulate the goals and values we have for a different world. The final step – and this is what makes feminist theory political – is to offer a strategy for transforming the world as it exists and bringing to light the world that we envision.

For Bunch, it is vitally important that we think systematically about the world. It’s of particular importance, she suggests, for women – and we can expand this to include any group that has traditionally been excluded from knowledge production – to offer systematic analyses of the world so that we can develop strategies that can transform the injustices we find in the world.

In this module’s assigned reading and viewing, you’ll be exposed to a variety of different feminist theories. Each of the works that you’ll read, watch, or listen to, are historically and culturally grounded, which is to say that the description, analyses, visions, and strategies are all shaped by the context in which each theorist lives (or lived). Note also that we are not simply reading scholarly essays; feminist theory can exist in scholarly articles and textbooks, but it is also very much at home in manifestoes, speeches, literature, and film.

BIG IDEA: Feminisms in the plural

If you were to take a course, or do some reading, on the history of feminism, you might be surprised to find yourself learning about writers from the very distant past. Feminism as a term and a movement is young, but resistance against the tyranny of gendered inequality has a much longer history. Given the complicated, historically varied, and culturally specific nature of women’s efforts to describe, analyse, and transform their environment, it’s extremely difficult, and probably not particularly helpful, to offer a singular definition of feminism.

One solution to this definitional complexity has been to imagine a landscape of feminist theories, each of which is characterized by a distinct approach to understanding gender.

Another solution to the definitional complexity of feminism has been to represent distinct feminist projects through a metaphor of the wave.

Whatever story we might tell about feminisms, or about the history of feminism, or the categories of feminisms, is bound to be incomplete. The wave metaphor, for instance, provides a tidy narrative for thinking about women’s activism in North America, but it tells us nothing about the history of feminist struggle in other parts of the world. Moreover, there are many extremely influential writers and activists whose contributions were produced in between the waves—prime examples would be Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir, whose major scholarly and literary contributions to Western feminism were produced after 1920 and before the 1960s. It is certainly important for students in WGS courses to be familiar with the logic of the waves; it is, after all, an extremely persistent story about feminism. Like all stories, though, it needs to be examined for who it leaves out and who it includes.