Jo Ann Arinder
Feminist theory falls under the umbrella of critical theory, which in general have the purpose of destabilizing systems of power and oppression. Feminist theory will be discussed here as a theory with a lower case ‘t’, however this is not meant to imply that it is not a Theory or cannot be used as one, only to acknowledge that for some it may be a sub-genre of Critical Theory, while for others it stands alone. According to Egbert and Sanden (2020), some scholars see critical paradigms as extensions of the interpretivist, but there is also an emphasis on oppression and lived experience grounded in subjectivist epistemology.
The purpose of using a feminist lens is to enable the discovery of how people interact within systems and possibly offer solutions to confront and eradicate oppressive systems and structures. Feminist theory considers the lived experience of any person/people, not just women, with an emphasis on oppression. While there may not be a consensus on where feminist theory fits as a theory or paradigm, disruption of oppression is a core tenant of feminist work. As hooks (2000) states, “Simply put, feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression. I liked this definition because it does not imply that men were the enemy” (p. viii).
Marxism and socialism are key components in the heritage.of feminist theory. The origins of feminist theory can be found in the 18th century with growth in the 1970s’ and 1980s’ equality movements. According to Burton (2014), feminist theory has its roots in Marxism but specifically looks to Engles’ (1884) work as one possible starting point. Burton (2014) notes that, “Origin of the Family and commentaries on it were central texts to the feminist movement in its early years because of the felt need to understand the origins and subsequent development of the subordination of the female sex” (p. 2). Work in feminist theory, including research regarding gender equality, is ongoing.
Gender equality continues to be an issue today, and research into gender equality in education is still moving feminist theory forward. For example, Pincock’s (2017) study discusses the impact of repressive norms on the education of girls in Tanzania. The author states that, “…considerations of what empowerment looks like in relation to one’s sexuality are particularly important in relation to schooling for teenage girls as a route to expanding their agency” (p. 909). This consideration can be extended to any oppressed group within an educational setting and is not an area of inquiry relegated to the oppression of only female students. For example, non-binary students face oppression within educational systems and even male students can face barriers, and students are often still led towards what are considered “gender appropriate” studies. This creates a system of oppression that requires active work to disrupt.
Looking at representation in the literature used in education is another area of inquiry in feminist research. For example, Earles (2017) focused on physical educational settings to explore relationships “between gendered literary characters and stories and the normative and marginal responses produced by children” (p. 369). In this research, Earles found evidence to support that a contradiction between the literature and children’s lived experiences exists. The author suggests that educators can help to continue the reduction of oppressive gender norms through careful selection of literature and spaces to allow learners opportunities for appropriate discussions about these inconsistencies.
In another study, Mackie (1999) explored incorporating feminist theory into evaluation research. Mackie was evaluating curriculum created for English language learners that recognized the dual realities of some students, also known as the intersectionality of identity, and concluded that this recognition empowered students. Mackie noted that valuing experience and identity created a potential for change on an individual and community level and “Feminist and other types of critical teaching and research provide needed balance to TESL and applied linguistics” (p. 571).Further, Bierema and Cseh (2003) used a feminist research framework to examine previously ignored structural inequalities that affect the lives of women working in the field of human resources.
Model of Feminist Theory
Figure 1 presents a model of feminist theory that begins with the belief that systems exist that oppress and work against individuals. The model then shows that oppression is based on intersecting identities that can create discrimination and exclusion. The model indicates the idea that, through knowledge and action, oppressive systems can be disrupted to support change and understanding.
The core concepts in feminist theory are sex, gender, race, discrimination, equality, difference, and choice. There are systems and structures in place that work against individuals based on these qualities and against equality and equity. Research in critical paradigms requires the belief that, through the exploration of these existing conditions in the current social order, truths can be revealed. More important, however, this exploration can simultaneously build awareness of oppressive systems and create spaces for diverse voices to speak for themselves (Egbert & Sanden, 2019).
Feminism is concerned with the constructs of intersectionality, dimensions of social life, social inequality, and social transformation. Through feminist research, lasting contributions have been made to understanding the complexities and changes in the gendered division of labor. Men and women should be politically, economically, and socially equal and this theory does not subscribe to differences or similarities between men, nor does it refer to excluding men or only furthering women’s causes. Feminist theory works to support change and understanding through acknowledging and disrupting power and oppression.
Feminist theory proposes that when power and oppression are acknowledged and disrupted, understanding, advocacy, and change can occur.
Using the Model
There are many potential ways to utilize this model in research and practice. First, teachers and students can consider what systems of power exist in their classroom, school, or district. They can question how these systems are working to create discrimination and exclusion. By considering existing social structures, they can acknowledge barriers and issues inherit to the system. Once these issues are acknowledged, they can be disrupted so that change and understanding can begin. This may manifest, for example, as considering how past colonialism has oppressed learners of English as a second or foreign language.
The use of feminist theory in the classroom can ensure that the classroom is created, in advance, to consider barriers to learning faced by learners due to sex, gender, difference, race, or ability. This can help to reduce oppression created by systemic issues. In the case of the English language classroom, learners may be facing oppression based on their native language or country of origin. Facing these barriers in and out of the classroom can affect learners’ access to education. Considering these barriers in planning and including efforts to mitigate the issues and barriers faced by learners is a use of feminist theory.
Feminist research is interested in disrupting systems of oppression or barriers created from these systems with a goal of creating change. All research can include feminist theory when the research adds to efforts to work against and advocate to eliminate the power and oppression that exists within systems or structures that, in particular, oppress women. An examination of education in general could be useful since education is a field typically dominated by women; however, women are not often in leadership roles in the field. In the same way, using feminist theory for an examination into the lack of people of color and male teachers represented in education might also be useful. Action research is another area that can use feminist theory. Action research is often conducted in the pursuit of establishing changes that are discovered during a project. Feminism and action research are both concerned with creating change, which makes them a natural pairing.
Pre-existing beliefs about what feminism means can make including it in classroom practice or research challenging. Understanding that feminism is about reducing oppression for everyone and sharing that definition can reduce this challenge. hooks (2000) said that, “A male who has divested of male privilege, who has embraced feminist politics, is a worthy comrade in struggle, in no way a threat to feminism, whereas a female who remains wedded to sexist thinking and behavior infiltrating feminist movement is a dangerous threat”(p. 12). As Angela Davis noted during a speech at Western Washington University in 2017, “Everything is a feminist issue.” Feminist theory is about questioning existing structures and whether they are creating barriers for anyone. An interest in the reduction of barriers is feminist. Anyone can believe in the need to eliminate oppression and work as teachers or researchers to actively to disrupt systems of oppression.
Bierema, L. L., & Cseh, M. (2003). Evaluating AHRD research using a feminist research framework. Human Resource Development Quarterly, 14(1), 5–26.
Burton, C. (2014). Subordination: Feminism and social theory. Routledge.
Earles, J. (2017). Reading gender: A feminist, queer approach to children’s literature and children’s discursive agency. Gender and Education, 29(3), 369–388.
Egbert, J., & Sanden, S. (2019). Foundations of education research: Understanding theoretical components. Taylor & Francis.
Hooks, B. (2000). Feminism is for everybody: Passionate politics. South End Press.
Mackie, A. (1999). Possibilities for feminism in ESL education and research. TESOL Quarterly, 33(3), 566-573.
Pincock, K. (2018). School, sexuality and problematic girlhoods: Reframing ‘empowerment’ discourse. Third World Quarterly, 39(5), 906-919.