Postmodern feminism is a prominent feminist theory that espouses the belief that there is no single way of being a woman. It strongly criticizes and opposes the male-dominated setup of the society which places women into the role of—in the words of Simone de Beauvoir—the Other (Agge, 1993, p. 84). Like other postmodern beliefs, postmodern feminism generally accepts diversity in many things, from truths to roles of individuals. As a result, postmodern feminism does not limit the definition of a woman to a few or some perceptions. On the contrary, postmodern feminism supports the idea that there are many ways to become a woman, not only in the ways which were previously taught into the minds of the people in earlier times.
On the other hand, liberal feminism seeks to uphold the perceived equality between men and women either through legal or political ways. This feminist theory generally asserts the importance of the actions and choices of the people, especially the choices and actions of women in order to create equality between men and women. Liberal feminism believes that there is no need to restructure the society primarily because women by themselves can pursue the changes needed in the society, particularly the change towards the attainment of equality. The attainment of equality can be met through the participation of women into legal and political resolutions which support social equality among the genders (Tong, 1998, p.10).
Meanwhile, radical feminism shares the same regard for the importance of realizing the worth of women in the society. However, radical feminism demands for the overthrow of the patriarchal setting of the society, and even changing it into a society dominated by women. The supremacy of the male gender is seen by radical feminists as the biggest reason for radically reorganizing the structure of the society. The mere concept of “radical” in radical feminism obviously gives the impression that radical feminism pushes for a big change in the setting of the society given that the society is largely dominated by men (Whittier, 1995, p. 55).
Postmodern feminism challenges both the liberal and radical feminist theories in the sense that postmodern feminism rejects the idea of a single way of identifying the essence of a woman. It rejects a singular view of what women should do and how they can establish a society without gender bias. One thing about postmodern feminism is that it challenges liberal feminism by attacking the very core of liberal feminism—the presumption that legal and political actions are the ultimate ways towards the liberation of women from the oppression they experience in the society. Postmodern feminists would argue that the way to attaining the equality between men and women is not to limit their actions in terms of what is legal or what is political. The same holds true for realizing the needs of women. Legal and political actions should not be the only ways for attaining social recognition of women’s needs. Rather, postmodern feminism argues that even the options beyond legal and political ways can also result to meeting that goal.
Postmodern feminism also criticizes radical feminism for its focus on its goal of radically changing the structure of the society. As far as radical feminism is concerned, the effect of putting women above men thereby is that it creates another form of inequality among the genders. Since radical feminism aims at shifting the advantage towards women and placing men below women, postmodern feminism would counter such claim by arguing that there is no single, widely accepted and unifying view about what is needed to be done. Radically changing the structure of the society from patriarchal to matriarchal is one way to liberate women; however, it is not the only way. In effect, other steps can also be considered. The goal to give various women the opportunity to participate in social affairs, and the goal to achieve gender equality can also coexist with the views of radical feminists. As a result, the liberal and radical approaches to feminism tend to create many approaches in realizing the essence of a woman and her needs with respect to her status in the society.
Mary Wollstonecraft, one of the most prominent feminists during her time, argued that women are not inherently lesser than men. The lack of education of women was the main reason why women were seen as lesser than men, most especially in Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women. However, the observations of Wollstonecraft were made during the time when women were not given the right to education. It was a time when the roles of most women, if not all, were confined within the house, roles such as caring for children and doing the rest of the household chores. It was a time when women were seen as individuals whose primary gender roles were like that of a mothering individual to her children at home (Johnson, 2002, p. 4). Postmodern feminism would criticize the argument of Wollstonecraft about what she sees as the need to educate women in order to free them from their bondage from limited gender roles. Since postmodern feminism maintains that education is not the only way to free women, the theory would suggest that there can be other ways to meet that end. Apparently, it can also be said that education is still one of the ways to free women and give them an equal standing with men. The fact that Wollstonecraft’s generation was a generation that still had to become aware of the rights of women regarding education suggests that, perhaps, the need to educate women was the most immediate need during their time.
Harriet Taylor is also one of the prominent feminists during the nineteenth century. She has radical views about the status of women in the society they live in. Taylor suggests that the economic dependence of women on men degrades women in the process. Moreover, Taylor was also fully supportive of women’s right to vote and of their right to actively participate in the local government. Her feminist views are more concerned with giving women their political, legal and other social capacities rather than addressing their educational needs, which was what Wollstonecraft primarily advocated. Obviously, Harriet Taylor and Mary Wollstonecraft advocated different ideas although it can also be said that both of them share the same goal of giving women the attention and rights that they deserve. Moreover, the difference between the ideas of the two feminists supports the position of postmodern feminism that there is no single way to truly define the essence of women. In order for a woman to truly become a woman, does she only need education, or does she only need political and legal rights? Apparently, one may argue that women need both, which all the more strengthens the claim of postmodern feminism that there can be many ways to realize the essence of a woman, including the attainment of their political and legal rights and their right to education.
Liberal and radical feminism are in conflict with one another. Liberal feminism seeks to establish the equality between men and women. That idea of equality of the genders is based on the assumption that women are socially subordinated to men. On the other hand, radical feminism aims at putting women above men in the society. By removing the bias against women in legal and political aspects, liberal feminists would then obtain the equality long sought among the male and female genders. On the other hand, by removing the nature and causes of the very structure of the society itself—the patriarchal origins of the society—radical feminists would then obtain the supremacy of women since standard gender roles are eradicated. Yet postmodern feminist thought will suggest that the deepest concern should be about how the concepts of “sex” and “gender” are defined.
Mary Joe Frug, another prominent figure in the postmodern feminism movement, suggests that “sex” is not something that is naturally given. On the contrary, the very concept of “sex” depends on how we use language because language shapes our perception of concepts including “sex.” Language can change our present understanding of many different concepts. Since human experience according to postmodern thought is always within the limits of language, the concepts of “sex” and “gender” can be explained through human experiences; these concepts can be analyzed in the context of language. Liberal feminism’s view that women are oppressed and should be given legal and political rights to attain an equal position with men in the society must be missing the point. Feminists should first concern themselves with how we reached our understanding of what “gender” is. The same criticism can also apply to radical feminism. Basically, postmodern feminism suggests that before we take actions on what to do about the inequalities between the genders and how to engage them, there should first be an understanding of the origins of the concepts. There also should first be an understanding of human experiences in the context of language.
Postmodern feminism nevertheless has also been criticized for being unable to suggest a way to address the gender inequalities, especially the perceived bias against women in favor of men in the society. What postmodern feminism does is to criticize the other forms of feminism for being too focused on their own individual ways to address the inequalities. Nonetheless, postmodern feminism provides a critical insight into the previous feminist movements in history, giving us a different perspective that offers new ways to understand the long-standing problems that beset the genders.
Agge, B. (1993). Producing Reproduction: the Logic of Feminist Postmodern Critical Theory. In Gender, Culture, and Power: Toward a Feminist Postmodern Critical Theory (p. 84). Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.
Johnson, C. L. (2002). Introduction. In The Cambridge Companion to Mary Wollstonecraft (p. 4). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Tong, R. P. (1998). Liberal Feminism. In Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction (p. 10). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Whittier, N. (1995). The Evolution of Radical Feminist Identity. In Feminist Generations: The Persistence of the Radical Women’s Movement (p. 55). Philadelphia: Temple University Press.