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Study notes

Feminism: Public and Private Sphere

  • Levels: A Level
  • Exam boards: AQA, Edexcel

Central to the feminist perspective is that men dominate the public sphere whereas women are essentially relegated to the private sphere.

This dichotomy has served to entrench the patriarchal system and ensure the oppression of women. For instance, women find it difficult to raise issues that impact upon them. Reproductive rights, the glass ceiling, the domestic division of labour and equal pay have rarely gained the same degree of seriousness as those issues which dominate the public sphere. The political process is biased towards the public sphere whilst largely ignoring the private realm.

By marginalising the private sphere, men have maintained their dominance of the political process from one generation to the next. Feminists thereby seek to address this problem by redefining our understanding of what is ‘political.’ In doing so, feminism has undoubtedly expanded the remit of political discourse.

For example, the second-wave feminist Kate Millett views politics as “power-structured relationships [and] arrangements whereby one group of persons is controlled by another.”

From a similar angle, Simone de Beauvoir argued that the masculine is routinely portrayed as the positive (or the norm) whereas the feminine is depicted as inferior.

Feminism is a unique ideology because it has fundamentally altered the boundaries of politics itself, having politicised what was previously outside the political realm. It has successfully moved the debate beyond the traditional ‘public’ man / ‘private’ woman dichotomy. By the force of their argument, feminists have shown that the division between ‘private’ woman and ‘public’ man is designed to prevent feminine values and women’s issues entering the political process. Having said this, the conventional division between ‘public’ man and ‘private’ women is viewed very differently by those on the right of the political spectrum. Conservatives argue that gender divisions reflect the wider needs of society. Men and women must perform their respective roles to socialise children in the proper manner.

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