Feminism focuses on the oppression of women by men. The structure of families is a good example of patriarchy – the traditional role of a woman in a family is to carry out expressive roles (housewife and mother) whereas the role of the man is to carry out instrumental roles (breadwinner). One could argue that legislation plays a major part in reinforcing traditional gender roles. Although legislation such as the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 has been implemented to try and reduce patriarchy, there are still many state policies that suggest that women and men have different roles.
For example, statutory maternity pay for women far outweighs the 10 days of statutory paternity pay given to men. This therefore suggests, that it is the role of the woman to be the main carer for the child, which reinforces the gender stereotypes. However, this view can be criticised by liberal feminists. They argue that in today’s society, there is a ‘rise of the new man’ who is in touch with his feminine side, and will often bring up children and carry out household chores while the woman goes out to work.
Firestone (1972), a radical feminist, also provides a convincing analysis which helps in our understanding of the position of women in society today. She argues that women’s biology is the basis for their inequality and domination by men in all societies. Because women menstruate, give birth and breastfeed, they are sometimes physically dependent on others. This dependency allows men to develop both physical and psychological power and control, and thus men dominate the social world. When giving birth, wives are often accompanied by their husbands who provide support for their wives through the emotional time of child birth.
This helps to alleviate to a certain extent tensions and stress. By men just being there and providing support, it makes the woman physically dependent on the man. The mere fact also that a woman relies upon a man’s sperm to have a child gives that aspect of dependency upon men. Firestone argues that equality between the sexes can only occur when this psychological dominance is destroyed and the physical dependency of women is ended. Therefore, until human babies can be conceived outside of the womb (now already possible), and brought to full gestation outside the mother’s body, the inequality between the sexes will remain.
However, Firestone’s theory has been criticised as it ignores other forms of inequality such as class and ethnicity, and it fails to acknowledge that the dependency is both time and society dependent. An example to support the latter is that third world countries simply do not have the technology or equipment to allow human babies to be conceived outside of the womb, whereas MEDCs such as the UK and USA do. Consequently, Firestone’s theory is applicable to the third world countries, but maybe not so much to MEDCs. Liberal Feminism recognises the increased equality achieved between men and women.
Oakley’s (1974/1981) study in particular is useful to our understanding of why there is male dominance in society today. She says that the position of women varies greatly between societies and over time. Women have always worked, but during the industrial revolution, married women and mothers were taken out of the paid workforce. Before this time, both men and women worked inside and outside the home producing agricultural goods or cloth. During the 1800s, children started to work in factories along with men after moving from the countryside to towns.
However, the Factory Act 1819 banned children under 9 from being employed. Because married women and mothers were already taken out of the workforce previously, it meant that the women were more likely to stay at home to care for the children, leading to their primary role becoming a ‘housewife’, while the family became reliant on the wages of the husband alone. Although historically, the reliance on men for finances was only short lived, it had a long lasting psychological effect, as today’s women are still socialised into the role of housewives. This helps us to explain the gender differences between roles.
Liberal Feminists, argue that although legislation such as The Equal Pay Act 1970 and the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 have been introduced, they are nearly 40 years old and critics have pointed out that women are still paid less than men and treated as of lesser value by men. The glass ceiling prevents women from reaching top jobs. Both of the above points can be criticised. Firstly, BBC Radio 4 carried out an experiment, which consisted of them putting a made-up job advert in a national newspaper, outlining the qualifications required and the salary.
It was inundated with female applicants. This goes to show that in society it is not necessarily men treating women as of lesser value, hence the reasons for the differences in pay, but because women have low expectations of themselves, and don’t apply for jobs with high salaries.. Therefore, it can be argued that the position of women is gradually improving and it is possible for them to reach top jobs.
Secondly there is a plethora of women in high paid and well respected positions and this is not a new phenomenon there are cases of albeit rare cases of women in the highest statuses throughout history such as Cleopatra, Boudica, Queen Elizabeth the First, Margaret Thatcher, etc, etc. Despite all the different branches of feminism, they have widened our understanding of patriarchy in society and have provided further reasons rather than just the standard social reasons for the oppression of women.