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 various types within it. Here is more about difference feminism and the influence of Carol Gilligan.
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Definition of Difference Feminism
Also referred to as essentialist feminism, it assumes there are biological differences between men and women. If you read Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice, for example, note how she discusses how men and women speak differently, as well as think differently.
A supporter of this mindset would posit that the differences between men and women create inequality between them. As a result, it doesn’t make sense to treat the genders as equals.
According to this perspective, one difference with scientific evidence is that women are instinctively more nurturing than men. It varies from the separate but equal perspective that men and women have innate differences but are to receive equal treatment. An equality feminist would argue that men and women should get the same treatment in all areas of life: work, home, and socially.
There are two types or trains of thought for difference feminism. The first kind is social difference feminism.
A feminist in this particular category analyzes how social constructs create differences between women and men. Meanwhile, the second group has the title of “symbolic difference.” They focus on the symbolic and psychological influences on those same distinctions.
The History of Difference Feminism
These is debate as to when this feminist approach originated. Some people say it began in the 1980’s, while others claim it was before that and dates back to the 1970’s.
Regardless of which decade holds its true origins, the perspective is much newer than the equality approach (liberal feminism) that 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.
American psychologist Gilligan did significant research on moral development of boys and girls, putting forth the theory that there were gender differences in patterns. Specifically, she explained that girls develop morally based on relationships, as well as on the basis of responsibility for others and
Gilligan argued that girls exhibit distinct patterns of moral development based on close relationships and responsibility for others. In other words, interpersonal morality was quite different between the genders, according to her theory.
She was critical of Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of children’s development. Specifically, she pointed out that Kohlberg did not take into account the special patterns of moral development in girls, as opposed to boys.
Growth of the Movement
Difference feminism grew significantly in the 1980’s and 1990’s, 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.”
While striving for the same goal of equality between genders as do equality feminists, this new movement argued that different attributes rather than the same ones were what was a necessity for genders to receive equal treatment. One particular strain, including that of Mary Daly, posits that there are not only differences between gender in ways of thinking but that women are superior to men in their values.
Criticisms of Difference Feminism
What are criticisms of the approach? 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. As critics of this approach explain, assuming men all have the same viewpoints and that women all have the same viewpoints is not realistic. They argue that different classes and cultures influence different viewpoints for men and women.
As for Gilligan’s book In A Different Voice, some people embrace the text while others reject it. 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.
Furthermore, women articulate that morality differently than men. At this point you might be thinking this sounds a lot like patriarchal thinking.
Are women too dainty to be equal with men? Stereotypes much? Critics would say yes.
Furthermore, it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly where they stand on the left-right political spectrum. And a big question remains of whether to focus on the political similarities or the distinctions instead.
As for supporters of Carol Gilligan’s work, they view her as wise in understanding gender differences as a key component of how we experience day-to-day life in the culture that surrounds us. Interesting to note is that Gilligan was featured on the cover of The New York Times in the 1990’s with a glowing article in the pages inside the magazine.
I hope this is a useful overview of what is difference feminism. While the overarching concept of feminism is that men and women deserve equality in all areas of life, there are many other types.
Other types include liberal, radical (including anarcho-feminism), cultural, and socialist feminism. And, no, not all feminists are man-haters!