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Social feminism

Social feminism is a term used to describe feminist movements that advocate for social rights and special accommodations for women. It was first used to describe members of the women's suffrage movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who were concerned with social problems that affected women and children. They saw obtaining the vote mainly as a means to achieve their reform goals rather than a primary goal in itself. After women gained the right to vote, social feminism continued in the form of labor feminists who advocated for protectionist legislation and special benefits for women. They helped pass state laws regulating working conditions for women, expanded women's participation in unions, and organized to oppose the Equal Rights Amendment. The term is widely used, although some historians have questioned its validity.

Origin of term

File:Elizabeth Stanton.jpg
Elizabeth Cady Stanton supported various reform causes before focusing exclusively on women's rights.

William L. O'Neill introduced the term "social feminism" in his 1969 history of the feminist movement Everyone Was Brave: The Rise and Fall of Feminism in America. He used the term to cover women involved in municipal civic reform, settlement houses and improving labor conditions for women and children. For them, O'Neill said, "women's rights was not an end in itself, as it was to the most ardent feminists."[1] O'Neill contrasted social feminism with the "hard-core" feminism of women such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony who saw obtaining women's rights or women's suffrage as the main objective. Social feminists typically accepted stereotypes of women as compassionate, nurturing and child-centered, while O'Neill's hard-core feminists were often alienated from these conventions.[2]

Naomi Black in Social Feminism (1989) distinguishes social feminism from "equity feminism". Equity feminism may be liberal, Marxist or socialist, but it demands equal rights for women within the male-defined framework. Social feminism, either maternal, cultural or radical, is based on female values. It aims to expand the role of women beyond the private sphere, and to fundamentally transform society.[3] Social feminist organizations should therefore exclude men to maintain their distinctive female characteristics. They should not attempt to be like men, since their distinctive nature may be a strength in politics. There is inevitably a risk that social feminists will align with conservative causes.[4] In the short term social feminism is separatist, but in the longer term it is transformative, since men have lost the exclusive power of decision-making.[5]

Social feminism is sometimes identified with maternal feminism. This philosophy considers that mothering should be used as a model for politics, and women's maternal instincts uniquely qualify them to participate in a "female" sphere. However, women are not all necessarily maternalist, and maternal thinking does not necessarily promote the goals of social feminism.[6]



File:Eugénie Potonié-Pierre.jpg
Eugénie Potonié-Pierre was a French leader of social feminism.

In France in the 1890s feminism was mainly confined to bourgeois women. Women such as Eugénie Potonié-Pierre try to broaden the movement by combining their social concerns with their feminism, and to bring working-class women into the feminist movement.[7] The Fédération Française des Sociétés Féministes was founded at the start of 1892 and held a well-attended congress in 13–15 May 1892, with both social feminists, mainstream feminists and socialists. The congress did not succeed in developing practical proposals or a coherent policy.[8] Their cautious attempts at social feminism were not successful. Instead, a working women's movement developed within the socialist movement.[7]

A final attempt to create a social feminist movement in France was made by Marguerite Durand, founder of the social feminist paper La Fronde, who arranged the 1900 international women's rights congress.[9] Durand saw social feminism as more than an expression of concern about social issues, but as a means to expand the base of the feminist movement. She felt that working women would create the feminist revolution, although bourgeois women would remain in control. She included moderate socialists on the organizing committee.[10]

Most of the 500 attendees at the congress were wealthy women. They were willing to vote for an eight-hour day for factory workers, but baulked at giving the same terms to their maids. There were two socialist women, Elizabeth Renaud and Louise Saumoneau, who were not willing to simply accept Durand's lead. In the end, the congress finalized the split between feminists and working women.[11] Saumoneau became hostile to feminism, seeing the class struggle as more important.[12] She denounced "bourgeois" feminism and took little interest in problems unique to women.[13]


1880s to 1920

Social feminists in the US around the turn of the century were more interested in broad social issues than narrow political struggles, and saw early feminists like Anthony and Stanton as selfish in their demand for the vote for its own sake. They saw the vote as a means by which they could improve society.[14] The social feminist and conservative Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) led by Frances Willard (1839–98) was not interested in women's suffrage, and perhaps actively opposed, until around 1880. At that time it came round to the idea that suffrage was the only way to gain the changes in legislation needed to advance temperance. The goal was still temperance, and suffrage was an expedient means to achieve that goal. In the long term the WCTU brought more women into the suffrage movement, but in the short term it was a competitor to suffrage organizations.[15]

File:Jane Addams profile.jpg
Jane Addams was a social feminist who supported women's suffrage.

In America the mainstream of the women's rights movement were social feminists. Often they saw women as inherently different in their point of view from men. They campaigned for social improvements and protection of the interests of women. Issues included education, property rights, job opportunities, labor laws, consumer protection, public health, child protection and the vote.[16] Florence Kelley (1859–1932) and Jane Addams (1860–1935) exemplified social feminists. They believed that gaining the vote was essential for them to achieve their social objectives.[16]

In the early 20th century social feminist leaders of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) such as Maud Wood Park (1871–1955) and Helen H. Gardener (1853–1925) worked for women's suffrage. Their approach involved quiet lobbying of leading male politicians, while the more radical National Woman's Party took a more aggressive approach with demonstrations and picketing.[16] Social feminism endorsed many traditional views of gender roles, did not threaten patriarchal power and may even have reinforced traditional arrangements, but the strategy was successful in 1920 in the campaign for the vote.[17]

1920s to 1970s

After gaining the right to vote, the National Woman's Party proposed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The ERA was bitterly opposed by the social feminists who saw it as undermining many of the gains they had made in the treatment of women workers.[16] The charge was led by labor feminists, who were the successors to Progressive Era social feminists.[18] Labor feminists did not want to end all distinctions based on sex, only those that hurt women. For example, they felt that state laws that put in place wage floors and hour ceilings benefited women.[18] Thus, they continued to advocate for protectionist legislation and special benefits for women. In addition to state wage laws, they sought to expand maternity leave, health coverage during childbirth, and disability and unemployment coverage for mothers. Their view was that women had different needs than men and should not be penalized for performing the function of motherhood.[19]

By the 1940s, labor feminists began to broaden their advocacy efforts at the national level. Led by prominent labor figures such as Esther Peterson, an AFL-CIO lobbyist, and Myra Wolfgang, a trade union leader, labor feminists came together at the Women's Bureau at the U.S. Department of Labor to advance their social reform agenda. This included equal pay for comparable work, shorter workdays for women and men, and social welfare support for childbearing and childrearing.[18] In 1945, they introduced the Equal Pay Act in Congress, which sought to abolish wage disparity based on sex. Their version of the bill, which was different than what passed in 1963, advocated for equal pay for comparable work in addition to same work because employers often undervalued the contributions of women in roles that women tended to occupy.[20] Labor feminists re-introduced the bill every year until 1963.[20]

During this time, labor feminists also expanded women's participation in unions. They viewed union organization as an effective way to pressure employers to close the gender wage gap.[20] In 1947, they helped orchestrate the largest walkout of women in U.S. history when 230,000 telephone operators nationwide went on strike against AT&T, cutting off telephone service at the White House.[21] The merger of the AFL and CIO in 1955 created a unified labor movement with greater political and economic power. The AFL-CIO adopted the CIO position on equal pay, and by the late 1950s, federal equal pay legislation became a priority of the merged organization.[22]

In 1960, President Kennedy appointed Peterson the Director of the Women's Bureau, and she became the highest-ranking woman in President Kennedy's administration.[23] In her new position, Peterson helped draft a report for the President's Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW). The PCSW had been established by President Kennedy in 1961 to examine the gains of women and role of government in addressing the changing needs of women and their families. Their report American Women published in 1963 expressed a desire for the elimination of gender difference, but not where it would remove protections for working-class women.[24]

Legal debate over the ERA

Labor feminists supported the Hayden Rider to the ERA, which said that the ERA could not impair any existing benefits conferred to women. Many labor feminists, including Peterson, believed that legislation could promote equality and special benefits for women and did not see these as incompatible. These feminists located women's rights within a framework of women's service as workers and homemakers, rather than the framework of liberal individualism used by equal rights feminists.[25] Legal scholars challenged the idea of a legally viable model of promoting equal rights that did not erode those protections already in place for women. First, they argued that this would be problematic from an application standpoint. Legislation that afforded privileges to women that were not available to men would be valid, but disabilities imposed on women because of their sex would be invalidated.[26] Deciding when a statute conferred a benefit rather than a disability would be difficult.[26] Second, they argued it was problematic from a sociological standpoint. Legal constructions of difference reinforced cultural stereotypes and limited the definition of the role of women.[27] While there were valid biological differences between men and women, it was thought that these definitions invoked generalities and ignored the capabilities of the individual.[27]

Decline in labor feminism

The labor movement remained a powerful presence throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. The passage of the Equal Pay Act in 1963 without the desired comparable pay language represented a significant defeat for labor feminists and shifted the terms of the debate with equal rights feminists. ERA supporters had opposed the language out of a desire for true equality.[28] Labor feminists remained united in their opposition that the ERA would erase protectionist legislation, but split in their approach as it became apparent that they would not be able to achieve expansions of equality without sacrificing some protections.[29] The passage of Title VII in 1963 further undermined their position. Protectionist legislation violated Title VII's prohibitions against discrimination based on sex.

The rapidly changing economic and cultural landscape of the 1960s contributed to the successes of equal rights feminists over labor feminists. One of the biggest opponents of comparable pay language had been American businesses. In the aftermath of World War II, American businesses flourished, and the power of the American business lobby grew. US business leaders opposed government support for people not in the labor force and government intervention in the labor force.[30] As the federal government retreated from the private sector, it left the task of caring for workers to employers. In the backdrop of the Cold War, American politicians and the public interpreted this economic success as validation of American ideals of individualism and free enterprise, which provided further justification for the emerging corporate welfare state and opposition toward socialist measures.[30]

By the 1970s, there was a decline in labor feminism. Some labor feminists hoped that the movement could regroup around an agenda of equal rights and equal opportunity. A group of labor women helped secure support for the ERA from the United Auto Workers, the American Federation of Teachers, the Newspaper Guild, and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.[31] The Women's Bureau switched its position on the ERA in 1970. In 1971, Peterson also changed her mind, reasoning that history was moving in this direction.[31] However, some labor feminists, including Wolfgang, remained staunchly opposed and testified against the ERA in Congress. The passage of the ERA in 1972 enabled equal rights feminism to solidify its place as the dominant women's movement in the US.


The concept of social feminism is useful in defining a range of activities, but the idea that it is incompatible with radical feminism may be misleading.[32] In The Ideas of the Woman's Suffrage Movement, 1890-1920 (1965) Aileen S. Kraditor contrasted belief in the natural justice of women having the right to vote, common among suffragists up to the end of the 19th century, with belief in the "expediency" of women having the vote so they could address social issues, more common in the early 20th century.[33] However, Kraditor saw a gradual shift in emphasis from "justice" to "expediency" in the rationales for women's suffrage rather than a conflict between the two positions.[34] Organizations such as the Woman's Christian Temperance Union were primarily social feminist, while the National American Woman Suffrage Association was primarily "hard-core" in O'Neill's sense, but there was considerable overlap in their membership.[32] Activists such as Mary Ritter Beard, Florence Kelley and Maud Younger fall into both categories.[35]


  1. ^ Cott 1989, p. 810.
  2. ^ Cott 1989, p. 811.
  3. ^ Buechler 1990, p. 118.
  4. ^ Buechler 1990, p. 119.
  5. ^ Calás, Smitcich & Bourne 2007, p. 88.
  6. ^ Dietz 2002, p. 44.
  7. ^ a b Sowerwine 1982, p. 67.
  8. ^ Sowerwine 1982, p. 68.
  9. ^ Sowerwine 1982, p. 74.
  10. ^ Sowerwine 1982, p. 75.
  11. ^ Sowerwine 1982, p. 76.
  12. ^ French 2008, p. 43.
  13. ^ Geary 1989, p. 86.
  14. ^ Zerilli 2005, p. 7.
  15. ^ Buechler 1990, p. 52.
  16. ^ a b c d Social Feminism, Oxford 2008.
  17. ^ Buechler 1990, p. 128.
  18. ^ a b c Cobble 2005, pg. 5.
  19. ^ Cobble 2005, pg. 6.
  20. ^ a b c Cobble 2005, pg. 7.
  21. ^ Cobble 2005, pg. 4.
  22. ^ Cobble 2004, pg. 147.
  23. ^ Kessler-Harris 2001, pg. 213.
  24. ^ Mead & Kaplan 1965.
  25. ^ Kessler-Harris 2001, pg. 223.
  26. ^ a b Kurland 1971, pg. 247.
  27. ^ a b Cavanagh 1971, pg. 286.
  28. ^ Cobble 2004, pg. 164.
  29. ^ Cobble 2004, pg. 172.
  30. ^ a b Klein 2003, pg. 7.
  31. ^ a b Cobble 2004, pg. 190.
  32. ^ a b Cott 1989, p. 815.
  33. ^ Cott 1989, p. 811-812.
  34. ^ Cott 1989, p. 812.
  35. ^ Cott 1989, p. 816.