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What exactly is difference feminism?

Carol Gilligan was a major influence in difference feminism

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 are the main points of difference feminism, including a complete definition, 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 of 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. Meanwhile, 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. I think the main points of difference feminism gained more attention when Carol Gilligan published In A Different Voice in 1982.

American psychologist Gilligan did significant research on moral development of youth, 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 criticized Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of children’s development. For example, she pointed out Kohlberg did not consider 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 like equality feminists, this new movement argued something unique. The view was that different attributes, rather than the same ones, were necessary for genders to receive equal treatment. One strain explains there not only differences in how genders think but that women have superior values to men.

Criticisms of difference feminism

What are criticisms of the main points of difference feminism? A big one is what some say is a glaring omission. It is the lack of acknowledgement that individuals are unique within their sex and gender.

No two women are exactly the same, just as no two men are the same. As critics explain, it’s not realistic to assume men all have the same viewpoints. The same holds true for women not all having the same perspective. They argue that different classes and cultures influence different viewpoints by gender.

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.

Final words

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. Interestingly, Gilligan was featured on the cover of The New York Times in the 1990’s. A glowing article was in the pages inside the magazine.

I hope this is a useful overview of the main points of difference feminism. There are many other types of feminism too.

Other types include liberal, radical (including anarcho-feminism), cultural, and socialist feminism. And, no, not all feminists are man-haters!

70 thoughts on “What exactly is difference feminism?”

  1. On another note … Hey!! Thanks for stopping by “It Is What It Is” … and the follow. Hope you enjoy your visits there!! Hugs … Peace!!’ __/l\__

    1. Thank YOU for these words!! I really needed them now … met with a ‘hater’, called my stuff ‘garbage’… the little she saw. So … thx again!! 🙏🏽

    2. I get those comments too. I think though that to make a difference we will be met with resistance – only by doing so can we make positive changes! Keep going!! ☮

  2. Equity feminism good, Difference feminism somewhat good, especially if it objectively recognizes the biological differences in women and men. Radical or gender feminism bad.

  3. Hi Christy, Loved your post!! Learned something new today – difference feminism! I am up against a deadline away from the computer so I will have to come back and reread your post and all the comments!

    I will have to check this topic out further. I have noticed, like most interest groups, that be it men or women if they have a position that is granted preference they don’t want it removed! Will have to see how this is handled?

    You may be interested in a book I love that you may also find interesting “The Psychology Of Romantic Love”. Check out the the reviews on this.


  4. I’ve never heard of Difference feminism, so thanks for sharing it here. It sounds like a lack of feminism to me, but perhaps I’m misinterpreting?

  5. Fascinating Christy; juts loved this explanation. I knew of the concept and theorising but not the label. Not sure if you can get this BBC programme in Canada but it was a fascinating insight into gender differences at a physiological level and if the monkey experiment Mosey undertook plays for you you’ll enjoy I’m sure.
    PS thank you for the follow too

    1. Hi Geoff, your blog was recommended to me recently and I liked what I saw so I hit the “follow” button. Thanks for checking out this post and YES I found that link you provided me to be fascinating. I recently shared a post here about learning differences between boys and girls; it came to mind as I read your article. We’re wired differently, I do think so. And that experiment, wow. I didn’t know about that one so appreciate your sending me that way. BBC is awesome, isn’t it? I watched a documentary from Simon Reeve through BBC about the Indian Ocean and it blew me away.

    2. We are so lucky to have Auntie Beeb still, making such thoughtful and thought provoking programmes. And I’m glad you came across and brought your blog to me too. May we enjoy each other’s thoughts!

  6. Thanks for the enlightenment about Difference Feminism, Christy. I’m pretty sure that we’ve barely scratched the surface in finding out the scientific and psychological ways that men and women differ. In my mind, equality doesn’t mean the exact same treatment. Men as a group and women as a group are different in some ways. I also believe that women differ from each other as do men. But I believe that all are worthy of respect and equitable treatment. I often told my students that the awful social problems that have bedevilled the world will not be solved until women and men work together, each with their own perspectives and gifts, to find the answers that elude us. Male superiority is ludicrous. Female superiority is ludicrous. But what do I know?

    1. Hi John, your comment certainly makes sense, particularly about how women and men need to be treated equally. I’ve shared a few posts here about the gender wage gap and hope to see that issue resolved within my lifetime. Your contribution to the discussion here is wonderful to see!

    2. Thanks, Christy, I’m happy to contribute to this important issue. In my blog last week, I quoted Trump’s slogan “Let’s make America great again” and then suggested we change that to “Let’s make humanity great again”. I don’t see that happening until both genders begin working together instead of at cross-purposes.

    3. You are so intriguing, John! Your thoughts, writing on your blog, all of it. So glad to have met you. I have a feeling we’ll learn a lot from one another :)

    4. Thank you for your kind words, Christy. I’m glad I met you too and I look forward to more opportunities to learn and discuss in this forum. 😊

  7. OK, here’s where I will probably get bashed but here goes. I am 73, raised three children along with my husband (key word) worked a full time job most of the time as did my husband. I probably did most of the cooking, cleaning and laundry. Shopping was done together as was the carting of the children to there activities. If you young women today don’t think there is a difference or shouldn’t be a difference between men and women you need to stand in front of a mirror naked and look at yourself and your husband or partner, big difference and their mind works differently as well. If you’re smart enough you can out think them and make them feel good about it. As far as same job same pay I do agree on that poiint, then again there are physical jobs that women can not do as well as men and wouldn’t want those jobs any way. Women have come a long way and I think that’s wonderful but they have also done some pretty dumb things too. Women are still being abused physically why? Because they let it happen. The nonsense of staying for the childrens sake is exactly that, nonsense. To me it all depends on how your parents raised you, if you are raised to believe in yourself and you can make it through life on your own and love yourself then you will never be abused in any situation and if you are you will have the strength to walk away.
    It was a interesting post and I did enjoy reading it. ☺☺

    1. Thanks for sharing your views! You’ll never be bashed here, only respected and thanked for adding to the conversation. No name calling here or putting one another down for a difference in opinion. It sounds like you have been a woman who has worked hard for her family and for that I commend you. <3

  8. Hi Christy… love the way you have brought this together and opened my eyes to a new view on the subject. Well done.
    I still come from the old school of thinking where a man opens the door for a lady. I hope that is something which never gets lost.

    Hugs as always

    1. I think it’s always good to have a sense of balance when it comes to these things.. Thanks for sharing your thoughts here, Rolly ((hugs))

  9. The eternal question are men and woman different?
    Obviously biology tell us so, but the problem it’s not the difference, but the equality issue it is. And that’s not a sex issue but a social, cultural, educational, etc. Problem it is period! Women shouldn’t be excluded, get less pay, or suffer prejudice for being who she is, a fact of existence, just like any other being sentient, or not.
    In any case I subscribe to an old French anecdote, true or not don’t really know, but here it is: At a lecture a scientist was trying to explain the difference between men and women saying that the difference in reality was very small, and someone in the audience yelled :Vive la difference! :-)

    1. Aha, the eternal question indeed.. and an anecdote that speaks to the heart of the issue… And there is a lot of heart here, from both men and women xx

  10. I not saying that I disagree with with Difference Feminism — Men and women are different by design.

    But that has no bearing on the idea that they must be treated as equal before the law and judged by the content of their character.

    The one question I have about Difference Feminism is whether it is an accommodation to the bullying dogma of the politically correct right wing that began it’s rise to power with the election of Ronald Reagan. I recall that one of the first things the right did in the 1980’s was dominate the way we discussed social issues by re-defining the language of the debate.

    Hence the word ‘liberal’ redefined as a decadent form of satanism.

    1. Christy Birmingham

      Hi, R, and thank you for the insight here. I am not sure as to whether the origins of the term link with the PC right wing you speak of… But I do know that sometimes the origins of terms and movements can be surprising – and they can morph into very different phenomena!

    2. I think that I gained clarity between my last comment and this one.

      It is this: Feminism never claimed that males and females weren’t different biologically or even psychologically.

      Feminism claimed that the extreme differences in the way the two genders perceive their choices in our social environment is largely the result of acculturation.

      There is also the fact that the majority of the differences between men and women are not so great that women must be excluded from full participation in our political system.

      Feminist hypothesized that given the opportunity men may choose to ‘mother’ their children and women may choose to go to work to provide economic support to the family.

      This doesn’t mean that men and women are the same but it does imply that they have the same menu of options from which thy can choose to create the best possible lives for themselves.

      I guess my problem with the idea of a ‘difference’ feminism is that it brings us back to what I consider a starting point in which ‘differences’ are once more the focus of the discussion.

      That said, perhaps that’s where it needs to be.

  11. The women’s rights movement didn’t seem to get as much attention as other equal rights movements, but I was young and it was many years ago. I’m not saying it’s completely solved either, but a lot better than it once was. White men still have most of the top job’s and I’m writing this as a white man.

    1. Christy Birmingham

      I appreciate your sharing your personal experiences here, Joshua. The more we share, the more we can begin to understand the complexities and keep moving forward.

  12. Women and Men can be different, but ones not better than the other. I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s and my Mother was a single working while finishing college. She was very much into equality in the work force. I remember being very pissed about a job she had where she made less that men doing exactly the same job. She went to the boss more than a little upset and confronted him about the difference in pay. He said that the reason was that the man had a family to support,well so did she.So she decided to take a closer look and found out hat the man had no family to support, while she had me. So she went back to the boss with this information and eventually they raised her salary to equal the man doing the same job..I was growing up during this women’s movement and it seemed like common sense, how could this have been going on for so long. Maybe the increase in the divorce rate, but that’s still no reason. I have never heard of someone making more money because of someone had kids Ect…I remember hearing a guy with the assinine reason that women very often get free drinks in bars. Just because that maybe true in many cases, but drinks don’t pay the bills and just because of equal pay doesn’t mean we change the way we treat women! The whole thing seems like common sense to me.

  13. Hi Christy,

    Thanks for sharing the concept of “difference feminism”. Although there are hormonal and physical differences between men and women, stereotyping have been used to justify treating women unequally in society and passing different laws for them. The passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1980’s was blocked, in part, by placing too much emphasis on these sexual differences to perform roles, i.e. women in combat.

    As with anything in life, there needs to be a balance of these “so-called” sexual differences (compassion vs. strength) in everyone so he or she can live a more rich and fulfilling life. One shoe does not fit all. Every person is unique and should not be stymied by sexual prejudice for both males and females.

    Thank you for a thought-provoking post. Have a great weekend.

    Best wishes,

    1. Christy Birmingham

      Hi Linnea,
      I always enjoy your thoughtful comments. You make many great point here and I agree that each person is different and so we cannot move forward in change if we group men into one category with specific characteristics while women are in another group. It is a complex topic but I’m really glad to take part in it as an advocate for change. Every discussion can be helpful, particularly when it includes meaningful words such as the ones you have shared here. Thank you and I wish you a wonderful weekend too!

  14. Yes, I have heard this and other adjectives before the word feminism, although feminism (without adjectives) & second-wave feminism are the broad brushstrokes painted in my mind.
    Christy, I had to sleep on this after I read it!
    You know, I dreamed about, & I still can’t get over “A Bunny’s Tale” by Gloria Steinem. I read that article (& other of Steinem’s work) in 1982, the same year as Carol Gilligan’s “In A Different Voice” came out.
    I suppose I am a late bloomer.
    More importantly because of the intellectual ideas and actions of both these women, and many other people, I am enjoying a great life as a woman, and a person.

    1. Christy Birmingham

      Resa, my blog posts are penetrating your dreams now, ahhhhh! I am glad you are thankful for the freedoms in your life, as so many people I find take them for granted. Big hugs <3

  15. Thanks for bringing this to our attention. I don’t believe I’ve heard of these different types of feminist ideologies before. From your description, it sounds like “difference feminism” is bit flawed on some points but I think the debate and discussion that emerges from this re-examination is worthy of attention. I found this fascinating so thank you for posting this.

    1. Christy Birmingham

      And thank you for taking time to read the information; I like to raise awareness about a broad range of women’s issues and motivational info too. Wonderful to see you here!

  16. Back in the day, I’m sure I read about difference feminism when doing literary criticism in graduate school. Two of my favorite professors (one male and one female) taught from a feminist perspective. These theories don’t account for individual differences, but it’s necessary to come up with such groups to help explain ways of being in the world. Each one is like a lens that shapes how we view the world. It can be very helpful for outsiders to try to look through life though a feminist, Marxist, or various lenses.

    1. Christy Birmingham

      Yes, those ‘lenses’ are helpful for looking critically at issues, for sure. I am hoping your perspective on your day today is a happy one, Jeri xx

  17. An excellent discussion! One that will continue in one form or other as we progress and draw from past experience. I am a baby boomer who lived through the many changes the 60’s and 70’s. Those changes came about because of the valiant contributions of those who lived in previous centuries. We stand on the shoulders of giants. Looking back, I envision my grandparents working side by side on a family farm. The hours were gruelling, yet their love and faith in each other was strong. There was an equality, mutual respect and generosity towards each other. My grandmother had the higher education (nurse) and my grandfather attained grade 8. I learned about feminism from their example. It continues to hold me in good stead. Thank you again for being the catalyst that creates the environment that nurtures meaningful and respectful dialogue.

    1. Christy Birmingham

      Rebecca, your words, “we stand on the shoulders of giants” is beautiful – and true! I think there is so much being taken for granted today, freedoms we have that previous generations fought for us to have now. Your grandparents sound like a wonderful example and I am so thankful for the open, beautiful spirit that you share with us. I appreciate your comment and willingness to be a part of the conversation for growth!

  18. Thanks for your informative post. I’m wondering what political demands the Difference Feminism movement is persuing. What does it mean to say men and women are not created equal? That women should stay at home with their kids because they are more nurturing by nature?
    Most of those gender difference theories seem rather reactionary to me. Just create equal rights and opportunities for both sexes, and then everyone can do as she/he pleases without the restrictions of culturally imposed differences.

    1. Christy Birmingham

      Thank you for sharing your views here. I like that you are asking questions as doing so is absolutely a way to move the discussion toward resolutions, as well as encouraging more people to step forward with suggestions.

  19. I think that Difference feminism is a very useful definition when it comes to define gender issues …. Aim to very highlight an equal perspective when it comes to access to opportunities and same treatment, despite of the biological (thus innate differences, which are mainly brought to the spotlight by essentialist feminists)
    Keeping in mind the two Subtypes of Difference Feminism (i.e social difference feminism and symbolic difference feminism), I’d conclude that symbolic feminism is vital as it seems to be related with female cosmogony…. And by that we assume that Gender defines femininity, whilst sex (essentialist feminism)
    is just related to the “mere” physical features, the biological differences…
    A transcending concept summarizes the differences and goes beyond them… Difference Feminism (in its two facets) is a key concept as it might unimpeachably lead to the conjunction of different “female vissions”…

    Great post Christy <3 … Have a wonderful week ahead!… All the best to you. Aquileana :D

    1. Christy Birmingham

      Hi Aquileana, thank you for taking time here. I know it’s a fairly involved read so it means a lot to me. I understand what you mean and it’s difficult to provide overarching ways of describing genders; we’re all unique and that is to be celebrated. I hope your week is off to a wonderful start! All the best to you :D

  20. Thanks, Christy, for the input on second wave or difference feminism. I am not in favour of pigeon-holing feminism into such narrow terminologies. There is masculinism and there is feminism as two sides of the energy coin. There is no question of which is superior, as one cannot exist without the other. The perceived weakness of woman, arising from biological factors, is also her strength, as these endow her with capabilities unique to her gender. Societies have to evolve in due recognition of the above truth and create conditions for both genders to contribute to a fulfilling life, becoming winners all in the process, or, destructive losers all, in the event of failing to pull together.

    1. Christy Birmingham

      Wonderful reflections here, Raj. It is a complex subject and I enjoy learning from others’ views. Always wonderful to see you!

  21. It appears to be an interesting time w/r/t feminism, with more and more young people becoming interested in a movement that not all that long ago seemed out-dated and somewhat out of step with the times (at least that’s how it felt as an undergrad student interested in, but constantly being shepherded away from feminist critical theory (perhaps the advent of queer theory, which of course owes a lot to feminism, was the cause of that as it was new and fresh)) – the interesting thing about feminism at the moment is the diversity of voices, and the challenges that they pose to traditional feminist thinking. And long may it continue…

    Good post, Christy!

    1. Christy Birmingham

      Matthew, thank you for taking time here and sharing your views on the advancements in feminism as of late. True about more voices chiming in (I’m not as young as I may look) and how we are questioning traditional views. I like that blogging provides power for the voices! Having your support means a lot to me.

  22. Wonderful share Christy.. and enjoyed reading..I guess if we look back throughout our recent history we can see the ‘Waves’ of Feminism, and how its various influences have.. And we do not have to be a woman to offer the feminine essence.. And I am not just speaking of being gay, I am referring to the Laws of Gender which are within us all…We all hold both masculine and feminine energy and how we channel that energy and project it out to share with others,

    Thank you for introducing me to Carol’s work..
    Love and Blessings Christy..
    Sue xx

    1. Christy Birmingham

      Sue, you are right that men have traditionally ‘feminine’ traits and women have traditionally ‘male’ ones… there is fault that I see in difference feminism too but I didn’t want to cloud the picture with my own judgements in this post. I appreciate you sharing your views here and joining in the conversation! I always enjoy hearing from you xx

    1. Christy Birmingham

      I think of it like parts of a puzzle; they are interconnected and some overlap, but together they create an overall picture of feminism. Thanks Michelle <3

  23. My mother gave me a copy of A Different Voice. I didn’t get to read her yet. I didn’t know that Second Wave Feminism was also known as Difference Feminism. To me, Feminist means equality between men and women (which means inclusion of all LGBTQA+ individuals), freedom to be who we want and certainly not women superiority (that’d be misandry). Thanks for this post!

    1. Christy Birmingham

      Hi Natacha, once you read A Different Voice I hope you will let us know your thoughts on it. I would be interested! I enjoyed reading your thoughts on what is feminism; I am so glad more people are realizing it’s not saying women are better than men. As for second-wave feminism, difference feminism is one type that was popular in that wave, and there are three waves in total… so far :)

  24. Never knew second wave feminism was known as difference feminism. I am so glad you brought this topic up, and that feminism is not just one idea or about women being the better sex. Rather, it has more to do with the right and freedom we have to express ourselves…whether we are the kind of women who wants a career or one who wants to stay at home with the kids.

    1. Christy Birmingham

      Hi Mabel, yes, there are many misconceptions about feminism and I hope over time that they will lessen. Thank you for explaining your reflections here! Regarding second-wave feminism, difference feminism is one type in it, rather than being a synonym for the entire wave; there are three waves so far :)

  25. I find myself reading a lot about feminism, arming my rational mind for the struggle against my naturally prurient core.

    I’ve got to digest this difference business–but on the surface I’m not buying what she’s selling. That second wave stuff was what I got hit with as an undergrad back in the day, and while I never dared articulate it (and risk being THAT GUY in a feminism-centered sociology class) I found the “differences” to be just a little bit constraining, in light of my experiences with people in the real world. I suppose it’s possible that my life is filled with an uncommonly dense concentration of outliers, but I don’t think so. A lot of NA belief systems recognize two sexes, but a broad spectrum of gender roles, all of which fit in to the community in one capacity or another. It’s often occurred to me that, adjusted for cultural expectations (Barbie dolls v. plastic dump trucks), our “differences” are pretty much the same, in terms of infinite diversity.

    1. Christy Birmingham

      It’s a lot to digest when it comes to these topics and for this one I wasn’t sure how much to write or what level of detail. But I included links within the post in case readers want to research on their own too. I understand what you are saying about the differences making for a kind of equality – thank you for sharing your thoughts here!

    2. I agree. Most biologists say that males and females have only small differences and we humans are not considered to have sexual dimorphism. Sociologists say that the gender roles have come about since agriculture when seizing property and having heirs became more important. I am chemist so neither a biologist or sociologist so not an expert but it’s worth reading about what the sciences have to say.

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