Have you heard of “difference feminism”? As I continue to research and learn about feminism, it is a concept that I have noted and wanted to share here. While some people assume feminism encompasses a single idea or movement, there are actually a range of types within it. Here is more about difference feminism.
Definition of Difference Feminism
According to difference feminism, which is also referred to as essentialist feminism, there are biological differences between men and women. If you read Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice, for example, you will note that she theorizes men and women speak in different ways, as well thinking differently. A supporter of difference feminism would note that the differences between men and women create inequality between them and that they are not to be treated as equals.
According to this perspective, an example of a difference that is grounded in scientific evidence is that women are instinctively more nurturing than men. Difference feminism is very different than the separate but equal perspective that men and women have innate differences but are to be treated equally. An equality feminist would argue that men and women should be treated the same way in all facets of life, from work to home and social.
Two Subtypes of Difference Feminism
Yes, there are two types of difference feminism. The first group is social difference feminism. It is composed of people who analyze how differences between women and men are socially created. Meanwhile, the second group, called symbolic difference feminism, looks at the symbolic and psychological influences on those same differences.
History of Difference Feminism
Difference feminism began in the 1980s, some people say, while others claim it was earlier than that in the 1970s. Regardless of which of these decades holds its true origins, the perspective is much newer than the equality approach (liberal feminism) that one could argue dates back to England’s Mary Wollstonecraft‘s urging for equal rights for women in 1792. Personally, I think difference feminism gained its most attention when Carol Gilligan published In A Different Voice in 1982.
Difference feminism grew significantly in the 1980s and 1990s, which is why it may sound familiar to you. As well, you may have heard it mentioned as being part of “second-wave feminism.” It gained attention as people questioned what characteristics were traditionally viewed as being “feminine,” such as caring and empathy. Also under question was the phrase “a woman’s intuition.”
Criticisms of the Approach
What are criticisms of difference feminism? A big one is that difference feminism doesn’t acknowledge that women and men are unique within their sex and gender. No two women are exactly the same, just as no two men are the same. Therefore, critics of the approach explain that assuming men all have the same viewpoints and that women all have the same viewpoints is not reality. They argue that different classes and cultures influence different viewpoints for men and women.
As for Gilligan’s book In A Different Voice, it is both embraced by some people and rejected by others. Ah, such is the way with everything! There are always both sides. For critics, the main fault in Gilligan’s views is that she asserts women have their own morality that they feel, which is different than men, and that women articulate that morality differently than men. Yes, you’re right on cue if you’re now deducing that it’s patriarchal thinking that sends us back to the 1800s where women are too dainty to fare well with men. Stereotypes, much? Critics would say yes.
As for supporters of Carol Gilligan’s work, they view her as wise in understanding gender differences as a key component of how you experience day to day life in your culture. Interesting to note is that Gilligan was featured on the cover of The New York Times in the 1990s with a glowing article in the magazine.
This is what I hope to be a useful overview of what is difference feminism. There are many other types of feminism, including liberal, radical (including anarcho-feminism) and socialist feminism. Thanks, as always, for taking time here.
©2015 Christy Birmingham