Study Notes

Cultural Feminism

AQA, Edexcel, IB

Last updated 26 May 2019

Cultural feminism is an offshoot of feminist thought that developed from ideas put forward by radical feminists.

Originally a pejorative term, cultural feminism has since become more acceptable and widespread – although there is no agreed definition.

At heart, cultural feminism seeks to validate feminine attributes that have been systematically undervalued within a patriarchal society. As the name implies, the emphasis amongst cultural feminists is upon the superior cultural values of women rather than purely biological differences. These include intuitive awareness, nurturing, a collaborative approach to work and relatively higher levels of emotional literacy. In part, this explains why cultural feminism has been described as an attempt to depoliticise radical feminism.

Cultural feminism also seeks to highlight the differences between the genders. As such, it is clearly an illustration of the essentialist argument with its claim that feminine values provide the basis for a more humane and harmonious world. However, as with all essentialists they have been criticised for advocating a retreat from the public sphere towards a preoccupation with purely lifestyle issues. This overtly narrow focus may have little practical application towards the lives of heterosexual women, most of whom seek a meaningful intimate relationship with a man.

As with other feminists, it is highly critical of a patriarchal society. For instance, Linda Alcoff points out that women are commonly defined in a negative sense via a complex web of cultural oppression. She claims that “man has said that woman can be defined, delineated, captured, understood, explained and diagnosed to a level of determination never accorded to man himself.”

To support her argument, it is worth reflecting upon the particularly revealing contrast in terms of gender stereotypes. Men are often presented as rational and capable of free will; whereas women are labelled irrational and even hysterical. Based on a historical analysis, Arati Rao concludes that “no social group has suffered greater violation of its human rights in the name of culture than women.”

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