Sample: Women and Politics

Sampled below is the Preface and Chapter One from Women and Politics, Fourth Edition, by Lynne E. Ford.

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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations

Chapter 1 – Two Paths to Equality
➤ Box 1.1. Encountering the Controversies of Equality: How Should Female Veterans Be Memorialized
Politics and Women’s Pursuit of Equality
Defining Women’s Politics
Distinguishing Sex from Gender
The First Path: The Legal Equality Doctrine
The Second Path: The Fairness Doctrine
Feminism’s Direct Challenge to Gender Relations
Approaches to Feminism
Using Politics to Bring About Change

Chapter 2 – All Rights Are Not Equal: Suffrage Versus the Equal Rights Amendment
From Seneca Falls to Suffrage: Three Generations of Women Work for the Vote
➤ Box 2.1. Declaration of Sentiments
➤ Box 2.2. Encountering the Controversies of Equality: Two Means to the Same End: Alice Paul and Carrie Chapman Catt
Opposition to Women’s Suffrage
➤ Box 2.3: Point of Comparison: Women’s Voting Rights Around the World
Postsuffrage Divisions: The Equal Rights Amendment or Special Protections for Women?
Three Political Lessons About Gender Equality

Chapter 3 – Suffrage Accomplished: Women as Political Participants
Women Enter the Electorate as Voters
The Gender Gap
➤ Box 3.1. Spotlight on the 2016 Election – The Glass Ceiling Remains: Are Women Voters Responsible?
Gender Differences in Political Participation Beyond the Ballot
Explaining the Patterns of Participation
➤ Box 3.2. Encountering the Controversies of Equality: Female, Activist, Conservative, Republican . . . and Feminist?
Mobilizing Women’s Political Participation
➤ Box 3.3. Point of Comparison – “‘Hey Baby!’ Is Not My Name”: Global Activism Against Street Harassment

Chapter 4 – Women Seeking Office: The Next Phase of Political Integration
Women Candidates Are as Likely to Win Elections as Men . . . but Context Matters
The Key to More Women in Office: More Women Candidates
➤ Box 4.1. Point of Comparison – The Power of Positive Discrimination:
Electoral Quotas to Advance Women in Office
Gender and the Campaign Experience
➤ Box 4.2. Encountering the Controversies of Equality – Impossible Expectations: Hillary Clinton’s Candidacy for the Presidency
Initiatives Designed to Increase the Number of Women Candidates
➤ Box 4.3. Spotlight on the 2016 Election – Future Women Candidates: Will 2016 Mobilize or Paralyze Women’s Political Ambition?

Chapter 5 – Women as Political Actors: Representation and Advocacy
Political Representation: Why Numbers Matter
Qualities of Political Leadership: How Do Men and Women Differ?
➤ Box 5.1. Encountering the Controversies of Equality
Would More Women in Government
Reduce Corruption? It Depends
Women in Political Roles
➤ Box 5.2. Point of Comparison – Women World Leaders, 2016
Women in the Military
➤ Box 5.3. Spotlight on the 2016 Election – A Change Election? No Increase for Women in Congress but Gains in Diversity

Chapter 6 – Education and the Pursuit of Equality
A Brief History of the Education of Women
Title IX: Legislating Gender Equity in Education
➤ Box 6.1. Encountering the Controversies of Equality – A Mattress as Alleged Crime Scene, Performance Art, Political Statement, and Maybe a Violation of Title IX
Women’s Educational Equity Act
Equity in Action: How Girls and Boys Experience School
Education’s Long-Term Impact on Women’s Pursuit of Equality
The Unique Nature of Education as a Public Good
➤ Box 6.2. Point of Comparison: Global Gender Gap Ranking and Educational Attainment

Chapter 7 – Women and Work: In Pursuit of Economic Equality
Women Enter the Workforce: A Brief History
Gender Socialization and Attitudes About Work
Legal Paths to Equality: Federal Antidiscrimination Policies
The Impact of Federal Policies on Women’s Work Experiences
The Wage Gap: The Legal Equality Doctrine’s Ultimate Test
➤ Box 7.1. Point of Comparison: The Global Gender Wage Gap
The Consequences of a Gendered Economy
➤ Box 7.2. Encountering the Controversies of Equality – The Underside of Globalization: Are Immigrant Women Becoming the New “Wife” at Home?

Chapter 8 – The Politics of Family and Fertility: The Last Battleground in the Pursuit of Equality?
Demographics of Modern American Families
Forming Families Through Marriage
Supporting Families with Working Parents
➤ Box 8.1. Encountering the Controversies of Equality: Need a Baby Boom? Come to Terms with Gender Equality
Safety Net for Poor Families
Fertility and Reproduction
➤ Box 8.2. Point of Comparison: Regulating Access to Legal Abortion
Women’s Rights Versus Fetal Rights
Threats to Women’s Autonomy

Chapter 9 – Setting the Agenda and Taking Action: New Challenges in the Pursuit of Equality
Elective Franchise and Political Representation
➤ Box 9.1. Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention Resolutions
Marriage and Family Rights
➤ Box 9.2. Encountering the Controversies of Equality: Burkinis and Bikinis: Who Decides How Women Must Dress?
Education, Employment, and Economic Opportunities
➤ Box 9.3. Point of Comparison: The Best and Worst States for Gender Equality in the United States
Where Do We Go from Here?




The fourth edition of Women and Politics: The Pursuit of Equality is intended to serve as a core text for undergraduate and graduate courses on women and politics. When I first developed the course in my own department more than twenty-five years ago, a male colleague joked, “What will you cover in the second week?” On the contrary, I have found that the biggest challenge in teaching a course on women and politics is to introduce students to the vast history of women’s movements, acquaint them with the scholarship on women as candidates, political leaders, and political participants, and still leave time to address contemporary policy concerns. This is particularly true given the explosion of high-quality scholarship on gender and politics. Never satisfied with a single book, I usually ended up using parts of five or six books at a significant cost to my students. In Women and Politics: The Pursuit of Equality, I integrate the major topics related to women’s political engagement into a single text. Although there are now several core texts for a course on women and politics, very few provide thorough coverage of women’s political participation and public policy issues in a single volume, as this one does. The history of women’s entrance into the public sphere builds a strong foundation upon which contemporary progress in politics and policy areas is considered.

To provide coherence, I have created a strong central organizing theme that links topics across chapters but remains flexible enough to permit individual instructors to structure their course in a variety of ways. The book is organized around what I’ve termed the paradox of gender equality: the need to reconcile demands for equality with biological differences between women and men. I argue that, in trying to resolve the paradox, women have primarily followed two paths. One path advocates a legal equality doctrine, based on the belief that women and men must be treated the same in order to achieve equality. Therefore, differences must be erased by laws and public policies before equality can be achieved. Just as viable, another path focuses on women’s differences from men. Advocates of this approach believe that treating men and women the same when they are in fact different is unfair. The fairness doctrine requires that law and policy account for the consequences of biological difference by treating men and women differently but fairly.

Resolving the paradox is complicated by the persistent and pervasive influence of the separate spheres ideology. Although this ideology impacts all women, it has affected different groups of women in different ways. Separate spheres ideology specifically excluded upper-class white women from employment and limited the type of employment opportunities and pay for low-income women and women of color in the workforce. Defining a contemporary role for women in the public sphere has been difficult because women’s biological role in bearing children makes their traditional assignment to the home still seem “natural” to many people. Just as women’s opportunities were once limited by the sharp demarcation between the private and public spheres, women today face conflicts created by a blurred line. Men and women alike are trying to sort out new gender roles even as the social construct of gender becomes more fluid.

Presenting the paradox of gender equality within the context of separate spheres ideology enables students to examine their own preconceived notions of the “appropriate” roles for men and women and to connect events in their own lives with the theories and scholarship presented in the book. This approach also helps students understand why issues of gender equality seem to reappear for successive generations of political activists to tackle. In each chapter, a special effort is made to focus on the diversity of experiences among women of different races, economic classes, sexual orientations, and political persuasions. The most compelling controversies of gender equality are often played out exclusively among women. Understanding how women differ from each other is as important as understanding how women are different from men. I’ve attempted to include as much scholarship as possible on the experiences of women of color, poor women, and women in other traditionally marginalized groups, including women who are opposed to equality altogether. Where such information is not available, I’ve challenged students to think carefully about why the gap in the research literature exists.


There are several important changes to this edition, beginning with a new publisher. I am pleased to be working with Westview Press for the first time. The fourth edition of Women and Politics maintains its solid framework, but material within chapters has been reorganized and streamlined to better present the book’s content and arguments, and to avoid repetition across chapters. I have also added boldface key terms and a corresponding glossary.

The fourth edition includes significant updates to the scholarship, figures and tables, feature boxes, and current issues throughout the text. The 2016 primary and general election campaigns are covered extensively throughout. Women’s candidacies, including Hillary Clinton’s historic presidential campaign, are explored in depth. In addition, progress toward gender equality under eight years of the Obama administration is assessed. As feminists raising daughters, Michelle and Barack Obama brought new attention to gender equality from the White House. Upon taking office in 2009, Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Equal Pay Act, and he remained a strong advocate for wage equality. He acted by executive order to extend family leave and sick days for federal workers. The White House convened several summits on work and family, campus sexual assault, and the status of women’s rights. Yet during the same period, many states acted to limit women’s access to reproductive health care and shrink the social safety net that disproportionately supports women and their children. Federalism means that the pursuit of women’s equality is multifaceted and takes place across the several levels of government. There is extensive coverage of state policies affecting gender equity in education, employment, health, marriage and families, and fertility in the fourth edition. In response to several reviewers, this edition also includes more extensive coverage of issues relevant to conservative women and scholarship on conservative women’s political behavior through Tea Party organizations, as Republican Party activists, and through conservative campus organizations.

The fourth edition includes international comparative content in a number of ways. Scholarship drawing on international data, case studies, and comparative analysis has been integrated wherever possible throughout the book. Finally, the policy chapters have been substantially updated to reflect changes in the domains of education, work, and family and fertility politics.


The two dominant paths women have taken in resolving the paradox—the pursuit of legal equality and the pursuit of fairness—offer a way to organize women’s politics historically as well as to present students with the live controversies of gender equality.

  • Chapter 1 lays out the origins of the separate spheres ideology, distinguishes between sex as a biological designation and gender as a social construction, and details the roots of the legal equality and fairness doctrines. Both paths are presented as reasonable ways to resolve the paradox of gender equality on many issues. This chapter also acknowledges that women disagree as to which approach is the better way to proceed, and presents an overview of the major strands of feminism and their critiques. This section has been updated to reflect the new platforms for feminist voices and opportunities for organizing provided by social media. In reviewing the major strands of feminism, new emphasis on intersectionality has been added.
  • Chapter 2 evaluates two major women’s movements in the United States: suffrage and the Equal Rights Amendment. In both cases, the mechanism for change was a constitutional amendment. The contrast between the success of the suffrage movement and the failure to ratify the ERA illuminates the differences between a legal approach to equality and women’s interest in fair accommodations for biological differences. The histories of both movements present students with examples of women’s political activism and highlight the contributions of young women and women of color in both movements. In the fourth edition, efforts to resurrect the Equal Rights Amendment are evaluated in light of the Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision, the end of women’s combat exclusion and their full integration into the armed forces, and the prevalence of gender-neutral restrooms—each offered by anti-ERA forces as an example of the dire consequence of ratification during the decade it was under consideration by the states (1972–1982).
  • Chapter 3 examines women as voters and political participants. Although initially slow to enter electoral politics, women are now registered to vote at higher rates than men and have the power to dramatically shape elections. Social media has provided women with new ways to access political information and find allies, and it has increased their likelihood of donating money to political candidates. Young activists with Black Lives Matter and campus activism are featured. Chapter 3 addresses a variety of questions: How do women evaluate candidates? Which issues mobilize women’s participation? Can female candidates mobilize women voters? In particular, how did Hillary Clinton’s historic candidacy for president impact women’s engagement with politics? What role do millennial women play as candidates and activists? Under what circumstances will women vote for other women? The fourth edition includes a substantial update on the impact and sources of the gender gap in presidential elections historically, in the battleground contests during the 2016 Democratic primaries, and in the 2016 general election.
  • Chapter 4 covers women as candidates for political office, evaluating the differences between male and female candidates as well as differences among women in their approaches to running for elective office. Research demonstrates that when women run for office they are as likely as men to win, but they are substantially less likely to run in the first place—why? The barriers women faced in the 1990s have given way to a new, more gender-neutral campaign environment, but does this benefit women candidates or make winning more difficult? This edition includes the latest statistics on women office­holders at the local, state, and national levels, as well as the latest research on candidate emergence. The ways in which popular culture and socialization inform gender stereotypes is explored and then applied to evaluate the candidacies of women running for Congress and Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid. New research on the political geography of women’s electability is included in this chapter, particularly the ways in which Republican women face unique challenges as candidates. Initiatives to recruit and train women candidates have been updated. The questions Chapter 4 explores include: Why so few women in political office in the United States? Why has it taken so long for women to reach such a modest level of representation? Why has progress plateaued? The prospects for speeding up women’s election to office through electoral gender quotas and gender gerrymandering are examined in this chapter.
  • Chapter 5 evaluates women in public office—their behavior, their priorities, their style of governing, and their many accomplishments and challenges. The fourth edition includes updates on women officeholders and appointments throughout the executive branch and the judiciary. A new section on women in local government has been added. Women in the military has been included in this chapter, and coverage has been considerably expanded. Gender parity in officeholding is explored as a motivator of vote choice. Trends in the election of young people, women of color, and LGBTQ candidates are featured. The efficacy of policy organizations and “watchdogs” for gender equality is assessed.
  • Chapters 6 through 8 focus on women and public policy. Chapter 6 examines education. Although Title IX is best known for opening athletic opportunities for women, it also opened doors to professional programs and eliminated quotas for women in “nontraditional” subjects such as math, science, and engineering. This chapter examines the link between education and income for women and men and explores the changing demographics of college admissions. New to this edition is an assessment of Title IX and the change in focus from a tool for access/equity to a tool to combat campus sexual assault. Student activism around campus sexual assault is featured in a new “Encountering the Controversies of Equality.”
  • Chapter 7 is focused on work, wages, and women’s broad participation in the economy. The efficacy of federal antidiscrimination policies in eliminating second-generation discrimination is extensively considered. The limits to the legal equality approach are assessed relative to the persistence of the pay gap and occupational segregation. New to this edition is a section on low-wage workers and the impact of antipoverty initiatives for women. While there is no question that women are paid less than men, there is no single explanation or easy fix.
  • Chapter 8 is dedicated to family and fertility issues. The fourth edition includes new material on marriage equality following Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) and the families created through same-sex marriages. New to this chapter is a section on the federal safety net for families. This chapter examines the complex ways in which biology and gender intersect, shaping the roles men and women play in families. What sort of help can individuals expect from government in balancing the demands of work and family life? Why is the United States one of only four nations in the world not to provide government support for paid family leave? The fourth edition includes updated information on abortion politics, including extensive coverage of the labyrinth of restrictions adopted by state legislatures. Also comprehensively addressed is the “war on women” executed by limiting information on and access to contraceptives and reproductive health care. Efforts to defund Planned Parenthood by Republicans in Congress and in state legislatures are discussed. Under “Threats to Women’s Autonomy,” coverage of domestic violence has been expanded and threats of violence to women online has been added. Technology and gender ideologies, plus the spread of conscience clauses, are covered here as well.
  • In conclusion, Chapter 9 evaluates women’s progress in achieving equality and challenges students to think about issues relating to women and politics that they will face in their own lives. Material from throughout the book is drawn into the analysis of women’s progress, and students are invited to develop an equality agenda for the future. A “Taking Action” feature links specific resources to the book’s summative conclusions and points students to direct action strategies to promote gender equality.


The fourth edition of Women and Politics: The Pursuit of Equality provides a number of features designed to encourage critical thinking. In each chapter, “Encountering the Controversies of Equality” presents students with a controversy or conflict generated by the paradox of gender equality and prompts them to consider how it could be resolved. For example, Chapter 6 explores men’s and women’s competing Title IX claims in cases of sexual assault by looking at Emma Sulkowicz’s Mattress Performance. These boxes are intended to clarify the concept of the paradox and to encourage students to appreciate the complexity of women’s demands for gender equality. By having students grapple with contemporary issues related to the core themes of the text, the parallels between central issues facing women centuries ago and issues facing students today become quite clear. These are also intended to provoke discussion in class, and each feature includes critical-thinking questions.

In Chapters 2 through 9, “Point of Comparison” features specifically draw attention to the ways in which countries vary on political norms, processes, and/or empirical outcomes in issue areas related to the chapter’s content. For example, the “Point of Comparison” in Chapter 4 focuses on a form of positive discrimination, electoral gender quotas, as a way to rapidly increase the proportion of women in elective office. When viewed alongside Table 4.1, listing the ten countries with the highest proportion of women serving in the lower house of the national legislature, students are able to think more critically about quotas and discrimination—which in the context of American politics have negative connotations—as worthy of consideration in advancing women’s political representation.

In Chapter 9, the “Taking Action: What Can You Do?” section points female and male students to relevant resources that will enable them to get involved and take action to promote gender equality. The benefit to including this material in the final chapter is that it is more immediately tied to the summative information drawn from the previous eight chapters. As students are encouraged to develop a future agenda for women’s equality and to find their unique role within that agenda, “Taking Action” gives them concrete steps to take. Finally, a “Spotlight on the 2016 Election” feature has been added to Chapters 3, 4, and 5 to incorporate the latest information from the election.

Each chapter also relies on contemporary scholarship from a number of disciplines, including political science, history, sociology, psychology, anthropology, philosophy, and the natural sciences. The interdisciplinary approach enriches the analysis and makes the text appropriate for women’s studies courses as well as courses in political science. Although politics changes daily, I have presented the most current data available, including preliminary figures for women’s participation as candidates and voters in the 2016 national election.


The fourth edition of Women and Politics is accompanied by an instructor’s manual, test bank, and PowerPoint lecture slides for instructors using the book. The test bank includes approximately thirty test questions for each chapter in a mix of formats (multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, short answer, and essay). The instructor’s manual contains sample syllabi, sample classroom activities and discussion questions, and additional resource suggestions (readings, online resources, and films). The PowerPoint slides include basic lecture outlines that can be expanded to fit individual courses and the tables, figures, and photos from the book. Access to these resources can be requested at

In addition, there is an open and free companion site for students with study questions for each chapter and links to online resources at


I could not have completed this book without tremendous support from a variety of sources. Ada Fung at Westview Press has provided invaluable guidance throughout the revision process. The fourth edition was completed while working full-time as an academic administrator, and I thank my Academic Experience colleagues at the College of Charleston for their interest, support, and encouragement. Since my day job is now outside my discipline, I am even more grateful for my enduring friendship with Kathy Dolan—a source of political wisdom and an ear for political venting. I owe my family—my husband, Frank Dirks, and my two children, Grace and Samuel Ford-Dirks—an enormous debt of gratitude for their love, encouragement, and patience.

When I wrote the first edition of this book, my daughter, Grace, was a newborn. As I finish the fourth edition, she has just been accepted to college. Only seventeen years old in November 2016, Grace accompanied me to the polls and held my hand as we voted for Hillary Clinton. We believed that later that night we would celebrate the election of the first woman president. Our disappointment is profound. When Hillary Clinton ended her primary campaign in 2008, young Grace and Samuel were confident that a woman would surely win the presidency “next time.” That time has come and gone, and I am left to wonder whether “next time” will be within my lifetime. I hope so—and perhaps a student using this book will break that barrier.

As this is now the fourth edition of the book, I have benefited greatly from the feedback generously offered by the students, faculty colleagues, and reviewers who have taken the time to carefully read and consider previous editions of the book. Many of the important new directions in this edition come directly from their input.

I would also like to extend special thanks to those scholars who provided their insights and useful suggestions for the development of this text, including Benjamin Arah (Bowie State University), Mary Layton Atkinson (University of North Carolina, Charlotte), Leslie Baker (Mississippi State University), Michelle Brophy-Baermann (Rhode Island College), Michele DeMary (Susquehanna University), Sarah Gershon (Georgia State University), Lori Johnson (Mercer University), Mary-Kate Lizotte (Augusta University), Jennifer Sacco (Quinnipiac University), Julie Webber (Illinois State University), and others who wish to remain anonymous.


Chapter 1

Chapter 1
Two Paths to Equality

This is a book about women’s use of politics and the political system in pursuit of gender equality. At its core, this book explores the complexity, tension, and controversy created by an overarching paradox in the unique nature of women’s claims to equality. A paradox occurs when two apparently contradictory positions coexist. In this case, the paradox is this: How can demands for gender equality be reconciled with sex differences? Because “equal” often means “the same,” how can men and women be the same if they are different?

The story of women’s relationship to politics is therefore complex because the most direct path to gender equality is not clearly marked. In fact, this book argues that there are two well-worn paths women have traveled in pursuit of equality. On one hand, women have argued that equality is possible only when the differences between men and women are erased by laws that require men and women to be treated equally. We will refer to this path as the legal equality doctrine. The other path, what we will call the fairness doctrine, consciously recognizes the differences between men and women and argues that women will always be disadvantaged if they are not somehow compensated for the social, economic, and political consequences of those differences. What matters most to advocates of this second approach is that women are treated fairly—and fairness may require laws, policies, and practices that treat women differently from men.

Box 1.1: Encountering the Controversies of Equality: How Should Female Veterans Be Memorialized?

Visit any town in America and you are likely to find a war memorial honoring those who fought for our nation. While there are more than two million living female veterans in the United States, there are very few memorials honor­ing women’s military service. As new memorials are built, how should female veterans be represented?

The West Virginia Division of Veterans Affairs commissioned a statue honor­ing female veterans in 1999. When sculptor P. Joseph Mullins unveiled the de­sign three years later, critics complained that it was not “feminine enough.” The statue depicts a muscular woman wearing a casual uniform of pants and a T-shirt. “It would have been nice if we could have had a statue that looked more like a woman,” said State Senator Anita Caldwell, vice chairwoman of the Senate Military Committee. State Senator Jon Blair Hunter, the committee’s chairman, said the statue should “depict a woman in a skirt.” The sculptor, himself a Vietnam veteran, said that depicting a woman in a skirt would have been inappropriate. The statue is “not a runway model and not a Playboy bunny,” but rather a “nice, big, strong girl who’s been through military training.” After more than a decade of debate, the statue was finally installed at the state capitol in 2011.[1]

Meanwhile in New York, a statue erected in honor of female veterans located next to the State Museum generated the opposite reaction. The statue, intended by its creator to invoke “Lady Liberty,” appears in a clingy, flowing gown.[2] A sash is draped over her left arm and a crown lies at her sandaled feet. State Senator Nancy Larraine Hoffman asked the governor to move the statue to another location and to replace it with “something more representative of the sacrifices women veterans have made.” Margaret Bandy, one of the first women from New York to enlist in the Marines, said, “I think the statue misrepresents women in the military, especially today. I think the veterans deserve something less ethereal.” Bandy enlisted in 1942 and served for three years as a drill instructor and company commander. “When you go to look at statues honoring men, they look like warriors. That’s what we were too. I was fully willing to give up my life to defend my country.”[3]

Source: “West Virginia’s Female Veteran Memorial Statue Unveiling” by Governor Earl Ray Tomblin, ( is licensed copyright © 2011 under CC BY-ND 2.0.

In Del City, Oklahoma, city officials erected a monument that includes five women in dress uniform—one from each branch of the service—holding hands while surrounding the American flag.4 Nearby, another statue depicts a female National Guard soldier talking to her daughter, who is wearing her mom’s uniform cap.[5] The Women in Military Service for America Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery does not include a depiction of a soldier.[6]

What do you think?

How is this controversy related to women’s pursuit of equality and the paradox of gender? In deciding how military women should be represented, communities encounter the collision of women’s real roles with the idealized image of women grounded firmly in the private sphere. What is the appropriate visual representation of women in today’s military? What does each memorial representation tell us about women and men and the paradox of gender equality? Should future memorials be built to honor women in particular, or should we assume that any military memorial built today honors women as well as men?


The tension is evident in the disagreement among women themselves over which is the right path to take to improve women’s status. Just because women share sex-linked biological characteristics with one another does not mean that they embrace a single understanding of gender equality, nor does it mean that they possess a group identity or group consciousness as women in a way that easily translates into political action. In this regard, feminism only adds to the tension. As an ideology, feminism has been ineffective as an organizing philosophy for women’s movements because feminism itself incorporates the equality paradox. Feminism promotes unity among women while recognizing diversity, and it pursues equality even while recognizing differences.

Controversy is inevitable anytime one group makes demands that require another group to relinquish power, resources, control, or the privileges they currently enjoy. Patriarchy literally means “rule of” (arch) “fathers” (patri). More generally, patriarchy characterizes the pervasive control men exercise over social, economic, and political power and resources. Feminism and women’s movements directly challenge the privileged position of men and demand that women be viewed as individuals rather than simply as derivatives of their relationships to men. The long-standing and persistent belief that men and women naturally occupy separate spheres strengthens the power of patriarchy. The separate spheres ideology promotes the belief that because of women’s role in reproduction, they are best suited to occupy the private sphere of home and family, whereas men are designed to occupy the public sphere of work and politics. Throughout the book, controversies about gender equality are most evident when women demand autonomy and work toward acquiring the rights and privileges that flow from eliminating the distinction between the public and private spheres.

This text employs the equality-difference paradox to examine women’s historic and contemporary participation in politics. In doing so, it is important to state two caveats. First, accepting the equality-difference paradox as a framework for examining women’s political integration in the United States does not mean that the legal equality doctrine and the fairness doctrine are the only two positions one might adopt. Dichotomies can sometimes be limiting in that they accentuate, or exaggerate, the positions at either end of a spectrum, while giving little attention to the space in between. History suggests that neither polar position provides an entirely satisfactory approach to the pursuit of gender equality. Similarly, neither position will provide a full explanation of women’s successes and failures in working toward gender equality. Rather, it is the tension produced by the coexistence of the legal equality doctrine and the fairness doctrine that provides the most fertile ground on which to examine gendered society, women and politics, and the continuing controversies of equality. Second, equality is not the only goal of women’s movements, nor is the equality-difference framework the only way to understand women’s pursuit of gender equality. This framework, however, does provide a very effective way to explore the multitude of controversies associated with the pursuit of gender equality and to examine the diverse perspectives among women, as well as differences between women and men. Many of the most interesting debates explored in this text find women working in opposition to other women in defining and pursuing social, economic, and political goals. Finally, this is a book about women’s engagement with politics in the United States, although insights drawn from women’s experience in other political systems around the world can be found throughout the chapters.


Why has it taken women so long to be recognized as important political actors? Why, in 2016, do women earn, on average, seventy-nine cents to a man’s dollar, despite passage of the Equal Pay Act in 1963 and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009? Why do many women, young and old alike, shy away from identifying as feminists yet express support for feminist positions? Why was allowing women to vote seen as the most radical demand expressed in the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, adopted in 1848 at the first organized women’s rights convention, in Seneca Falls, New York? Is the gender gap in contemporary electoral politics real, and if so, what does it mean? Why are women still petitioning government to address issues such as child care, work, and family leave; pay equity; control over reproduction; funding for women’s health concerns; and rape and domestic violence when these very same issues were on the agenda at the Seneca Falls Convention? Answers to these questions lie in the controversies of gender equality created by the equality-difference paradox. Although women have been citizens of the United States since its founding, they have never shared equally with men in the rights or obligations of democratic citizenship.[1] Instead, women have struggled for admission to full and equal citizenship even while many argued that their particular brand of citizenship would be distinctively different from that of men.

The paradox of women’s equality suggests that two paths toward the same end can coexist. Advocates of both legal equality and fairness have seen politics and the political system as a means to their preferred ends. The result has been a long history of disagreement among women about the surest path to full integration into public life and even about whether full public participation itself is desirable. Because women themselves hold different attitudes and opinions about their appropriate roles, their ability to effectively practice interest-group politics has been greatly diminished. If women could present a united front, their numbers alone would demand considerable respect and attention within the economy and from politicians at all levels of government. Women make up more than 53 percent of eligible voters in the United States. Unable to agree on unique sex and gender interests as women, or to disentangle gender interests from the powerful cross-pressures of race, ethnicity, class, motherhood, and sexuality, women’s interests are allied with multiple groups and a reliable voting bloc has not materialized. Women’s ability to speak with a single voice or act as a unified force on a single agenda is severely limited as a result. Thus women’s relationship to politics and, more broadly, the development of women’s movements have largely proceeded down two paths toward equality: one group advocating the legal equality doctrine and the other the fairness doctrine.

Feminists and nonfeminists alike find this division frustrating when a unified women’s bloc would suit their needs. In 1920, both political parties worked feverishly to attract the female vote, and activists in the suffrage and women’s rights movements worked diligently to turn out the women’s vote in an effort to place their issues on the national policy agenda. When a coherent women’s voice and vote failed to materialize, the parties eventually turned elsewhere, and activists were forced once again into an “outsider” strategy. Contemporary journalists, trying to discover pivotal voting groups in the national electorate, have variously labeled female voters as “soccer moms,” “waitress moms,” and “security moms.” Obviously, these characterizations do not describe even the barest majority of women in the electorate, but the desire to understand women’s political behavior and contribution to the nation by reducing their entire identity to a variation on motherhood is nothing new. Motherhood and women’s unique role in nurturing future generations of citizens have exercised a powerful defining (and limiting) influence on women’s relationship to politics.[2] In 1914, Congress passed a unanimous resolution establishing Mother’s Day. The resolution’s language emphasized mothers’ contribution to the nation:

Whereas the service rendered the United States by the American mother is the greatest source of the country’s strength and inspiration . . . Whereas the American mother is doing so much for the home, for moral spirits and religion, hence so much for good government and humanity . . . Therefore, be it resolved that the second Sunday in May will be celebrated as Mother’s Day.[3]

Women’s role in good government in 1914, expressed by Congress in this resolution, was not one of direct action or participation but rather was limited to their functions in the private sphere of the home and in their socially defined roles as mothers and nurturers. While the constitutional right to vote in 1920 gave women a powerful form of direct participation, they were not newcomers to politics even then.


Defining politics beyond the traditional scope of electoral, party, or institutional behavior allows a more complete examination of women’s political behavior. Until at least 1920, women had been legally excluded from many conventional forms of participation. As a result, an insider’s definition of politics, focusing exclusively on political party activity, voting, campaigning, seeking office, or making direct contact with public officials, does not prove very useful in examining women’s activism prior to suffrage or in understanding the complexity of women’s politics today. Defining “politics” is in itself a political exercise, since any definition necessarily expresses some judgment about which participants, actions, and issues are legitimate. The pervasiveness of the separate spheres ideology and the power of patriarchy limited women’s opportunities to engage in politics as it has been traditionally defined. Even though women were seen as outsiders prior to suffrage, the range of activities they undertook, the tactics they employed, and the issues they cared about were indeed political.

In pre-Revolutionary America, women organized public demonstrations to protest the high cost of food and household goods, and boycotted English tea to protest high taxes. To promote these activities, they formed organizations such as the Daughters of Liberty and the Anti-Tea Leagues. During the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, women participated both on the battlefield and in more traditional tasks consistent with their gender role, such as nursing, cooking, and sewing clothes for soldiers. Although not yet seated in power, women nonetheless lobbied those closest to them for early political recognition. Abigail Adams issued the now famous plea to her husband, John Adams, to “remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. . . . If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”[4] Rejected (or at best ignored) in the constitutional framework, women organized through voluntary associations and social movements.

Progressive women’s organizations founded in the early twentieth century provided a model for the development of the welfare state in the 1930s, and women were integral in the abolition, temperance, and Progressive movements. When modern political campaigns began, women participated by performing duties “consistent with their temperament” (gender roles), by providing food, acting as hostesses and social organizers, and cleaning up afterward. Observers commented that in performing these duties women exhibited a partisan fervor equal to that of men.[5] Alexis de Tocqueville, noting in his essays that Americans were particularly preoccupied with politics, wrote that “even the women often go to public meetings and forget household cares while they listen to political speeches.”[6] Although women were often relegated to support roles, they nonetheless participated in politics and acted politically long before they were awarded the franchise.


It is important at this juncture to distinguish between sex and gender. Individuals are assigned a sex at birth—male or female—typically based on physical characteristics and genitalia, but further defined by biological function and chemical hormones. Males and females differ most obviously in their unique contribution to human reproduction. Females alone can give birth and breast-feed. However, assigning women the job of raising children after birth is a socially defined gender role. Gender incorporates society’s interpretation of sex-based characteristics and attaches a culturally constructed value to the differences and unique contributions of each sex. In a patriarchal culture, male characteristics are valued more highly than female qualities, and femininity is marginalized. This has significant implications for the ordering of society, the distribution of rights and power, and the creation of public policy. Although most contemporary scholars, scientists, politicians, and jurists no longer view biology as the sole determinant of human potential, our culture is not entirely free of the view that sex carries an immutable quality linked to social, political, and economic competence.

We now prefer to think of human behavior as a combination of nature (biology) and nurture (environment). The relative weight of biology and environment in producing an outcome is complex and subject to robust debate and research in a variety of disciplines. For our purposes, however, it is sufficient to state that simple sex differences do not create the greatest barriers to women’s equality. Rather, it is how society interprets differences and values one quality over another that has the greatest impact on women’s lives. Gender roles rather than sex differences will therefore be the focus of our inquiry in this book.

Gender, too, is an important and evolving issue, and is understood beyond the male-female binary today. Some people do not identify as either male or female; others identify as a blend of both, while still others identify with a gender but express their gender in ways that differ from stereotypical presentations. Gender “is the complex interrelationship between an individual’s sex (gender biology), one’s internal sense of self as male, female, both or neither (gender identity) as well as one’s outward presentations and behaviors (gender expression) related to that perception, including their gender role.”[7] Most often, when the term gender is used in this book it will be in reference to gender roles—the set of roles, activities, expectations and behaviors assigned to females and males by society.


For as long as women and men have inhabited organized society, three assumptions have governed their relations: men and women have fundamentally different psychological and sexual natures; men are inherently the dominant or superior sex; and male-female difference and male dominance are both natural.[8] Whether understood as a deity’s grand plan or as biology’s destiny, the presumption that men and women naturally occupy different spheres has dominated political, economic, and cultural thinking for centuries. Aristotle, writing in The Politics, ascribed society’s rule and command function to men since “women are naturally subordinate to men” and “the male is naturally fitter to command than the female, except when there is some departure from nature.”[9] In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, psychiatrists and philosophers claimed that education might actually be dangerous to a woman’s reproductive system. Social Darwinists argued against women’s suffrage, warning that because women are by nature the “nurturant and protective class,” female voters might interfere with nature’s progression by aiding the state in giving help to those who might otherwise not survive on their own (e.g., the poor, the sick, and the disabled).[10] While these theories may sound ludicrous, at their core lies a belief in a natural inevitability of sex and gender differences that enjoys support even today. This belief in the essential differences between women and men, more than any other perspective, distinguishes between the two paths to equality. Gender equality accomplished through legal doctrine cannot coexist with gender differences if these differences are grounded in essential human nature. Yet equality of rights for women is exactly what many feminists argue is the most basic human right of all.

Although the concept of equality lies at the very heart of a liberal democracy, even politics and constitutions cannot make men and women equal when people believe they are essentially and immutably different. How else could the US founders so eloquently write, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights . . .” in the Declaration of Independence while they ignored the interests of women and slaves? The answer lies in the presumption that a patriarchal society is natural and therefore unalterable through social, economic, or political means. Thus a gendered system—one in which gender is inextricably linked to power, prestige, and fundamental rights—has been a force in American politics since the nation’s founding. It is embedded in the very documents that define our institutions and governing practices, if not in the precise language then in the founders’ assumptions about human nature. The path toward gender equality pursued by advocates of the legal equality doctrine proposes to alter the assumption of natural differences between men and women by changing the laws that govern human behavior. The presumption is that once behavior is altered, a change in attitude is sure to follow.

Roots of Women’s Claims to Legal Equality

Those who argued for women’s political equality in the late eighteenth century most often based their claims on the liberal challenge to aristocratic rule and the Enlightenment’s legacy of reason and human improvement. Political liberalism, or individualism, stresses the importance of rational thought, autonomous action, and choice on the part of each individual. An individual’s status is therefore determined by that person’s actions rather than by his or her station at birth. Gradually individualism gained influence to the point that restrictions on the voting rights of free males imposed by property requirements fell by the wayside with the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828. As individuals, free from the barriers to political agency imposed by the requirements of inherited wealth or title, native-born, middle-class white men were able to exercise greater economic and political power.

With this emphasis on individualism, education gained a prominent focus. Human beings were not purely subject to the whims of nature, liberals presumed, but open to developing their character through education and training. Individuals on equal footing would enter a social contract with one another to form a society of citizens. Unfortunately for women, early liberal theorists such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau excluded women from full citizenship. Hobbes and Locke were willing to grant women a somewhat ambiguous state of equality in nature, but not in politics. Rousseau assumed from the start that women lacked the natural capacities for full citizenship. All three believed that natural and biological differences between men and women precluded women’s full participation in a social contract.[11] In this sense, contemporary political theorist Carole Pateman argues that a sexual contract predated a social contract.[12] A sexual contract required women to transfer their natural rights to men in exchange for protection, thereby leaving women without any independent rights to exchange with others in forming a social contract. Within this patriarchal arrangement, women could never be men’s political equals.

Mary Wollstonecraft, philosopher and author of A Vindication of the Rights of Men and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, denied any fundamental difference in character or nature between men and women. She argued that any weaknesses exhibited by women resulted from their faulty education and isolated social position. Wollstonecraft asserted that women would gladly trade their lofty yet isolated social position in return for their rights. Decades later, another liberal theorist, John Stuart Mill, published The Subjection of Women (1869). He too argued that a woman’s “disability” in public life stemmed not from her sex alone but rather from her subjugation in marriage:

The principle which regulates the existing social relations between the two sexes—the legal subordination of one sex to the other—is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement; and that it ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality, admitting no power or privilege on the one side, nor disability on the other.[13]

Mill unfavorably compared women’s fate in marriage to the institution of slavery, universally discredited among liberals. While slaves were coerced into service, Mill wrote, every aspect of society leads women to willingly enter a state of subjugation, and men’s dominion over all and the intimacy men and women share make it impossible for women to cast off their bonds. Suggesting that at one time both slavery and monarchy seemed natural in America, Mill wrote: “So true it is that unnatural generally means only uncustomary, and that everything which is usual appears natural. The subjection of women to men being a universal custom, any departure from it quite naturally appears unnatural.” [14]Mill did not propose any solutions to the problem of women’s subjection in marriage, but like Wollstonecraft, he believed that the vote could emancipate women’s minds and admit them to the public dialogue. As a member of the British parliament, he introduced and supported women’s suffrage.

Patriarchy and Limits to Legal Equality

Patriarchal systems are ancient in origin and ubiquitous. Mill captured the pervasiveness of patriarchy’s reach in this passage from The Subjection of Women:

Whatever gratification or pride there is in the possession of power, and whatever personal interest in its exercise, is in this case not confined to a limited class, but common to the whole male sex. Instead of being, to most of its supporters, a thing desirable chiefly in the abstract, or, like the political ends usually contended for by factions, of little private importance to any but the leaders; it comes home to the person and hearth of every male head of a family, and everyone who looks forward to being so. The clodhopper exercises, or is to exercise, his share of the power equally with the highest nobleman.[15]

Mill rightly recognized that all men were empowered by patriarchy, regardless of their individual ability to exercise their power and privilege wisely. Likewise, all women were disempowered by patriarchy, regardless of their innate abilities for leadership and for the wise exercise of power. Patriarchy assumed that all women, by nature, were incapable of equality, and therefore it limited women’s claims to the natural and political rights flowing from individualism as described by liberal theorists.

Contemporary feminist scholar Adrienne Rich describes the patriarchal tradition’s limits on women’s opportunities this way:

Patriarchy . . . does not necessarily imply that no woman has power, or that all women in a given culture may not have certain powers. . . . Under patriarchy, I may live in purdah or drive a truck; . . . I may become a hereditary or elected head of state or wash the underwear of a millionaire’s wife; I may serve my husband his early morning coffee within the clay walls of a Berber village or march in an academic procession; whatever my status or situation, my derived economic class, or my sexual preference, I live under the power of the fathers, and I have access only to so much of privilege or influence as the patriarchy is willing to accede to me, and only for so long as I will pay the price for male approval.[16]

Patriarchy, as Rich describes it, leaves room for women to exercise considerable discretion and choice, but only within a framework in which men control power, resources, and access to both. In other words, even when women believe they are making independent choices and aspiring to and achieving great professional success, they do so within the realm of choices that males allow. So what sorts of choices really exist for women within a patriarchal world? Patriarchy in this context poses serious problems for those who believe gender equality can best be accomplished by the legal equality doctrine. Can truly gender-neutral laws and policies exist when patriarchy is so pervasive?

Posing a slightly different but equally serious challenge for advocates of the legal equality doctrine, sociologist Sandra Bem contrasts patriarchy with the concept of androcentrism. Androcentrism is the practice of overvaluing the male experience and undervaluing the female experience. In an androcentric world, “males and the male experience are treated as a neutral standard or norm for the culture or the species as a whole, and females and female experience are treated as a sex-specific deviation from that allegedly universal standard.”[17] Thus, feminists who aspire to equality as defined by the legal equality doctrine are faced with a fundamental dilemma: equality measured by whose standard? Can a standard be established apart from the dominance of the male experience? In a patriarchal system, the standard would appear to be whatever constitutes the male norm. Is the male norm an appropriate aspiration for women? Is it the appropriate standard for equality? Do we recognize the gendered character of standards of equality? More specifically, can laws based on the male experience adequately cover circumstances in the female experience? For many, particularly those who advocate the fairness doctrine, the answer is a resounding no. The male standard can improve women’s situation only when women and men are similarly situated. In cases where men and women are differently situated, either because of biology or because of social norms, the male standard could actually mean additional burdens for women.

So while the legal equality doctrine as a path to gender equality has a solid basis in liberal democratic theory, making it an appropriate solution to the problems women face in gaining access to the public sphere, it is not without its theoretical or practical problems. The fairness doctrine addresses some of the problems inherent in the legal equality path but presents a different set of challenges for men and women seeking gender equality.


Life in pre-Revolutionary America was largely agrarian and home-based. Women worked alongside men, and gender distinctions did not limit women’s contribution or workday. However, as the means of production moved from the land to the factory, and as society was reorganized accordingly, specialization divided human laborers. At the time of the American Revolution, very few women were educated, and literacy rates among women were half those of men.[18] As childbearers, women were assigned to the private sphere of home and hearth. Although women had been integral to the maintenance and survival of the agrarian economy, the duties of the home were now defined as distinct from those of the productive economy and paid labor force outside the home. Opportunities for women to earn money or to control property were severely limited by law and practice. Women constituted the reproductive, unpaid labor force and men the productive, paid labor force. In this sense, they complemented each other and were said to occupy separate spheres.[19]

Separate Spheres Ideology

Women’s role in the private sphere was, by definition, incompatible with full participation in society. Separate spheres ideology, although not originally defined by law, clearly identified the activities available for women as consistent with their primary role as childbearers and nurturers. Women’s role within the home was raised to new heights of glorification for middle- and upper-class white women. The home was a woman’s exclusive domain, giving her a certain degree of autonomy. Unpaid charitable and welfare activities, particularly those directed at women and children, were encouraged for all white women as appropriate extensions of the private sphere. For working- and lower-class white women and for women of color, the separate sphere limited their access to the productive labor pool and depressed the wages paid for their work.

Opportunities for work outside the home closely paralleled women’s duties within the home. Immigrant women in the 1840s and 1850s, for example, worked in sex-segregated industries such as textile, clothing, and shoe manufacturing. Teaching, sewing, and later nursing were also seen as consistent with women’s domestic responsibilities, although the pay was almost negligible. Enslaved women in the South were at the bottom of the hierarchy in every respect. They were subject entirely to the white male patriarchal ruling class and did not enjoy any of the privileges of autonomy that accompanied the separate station enjoyed by white women in the middle and upper classes.

Although the separate spheres ideology was ultimately quite constraining for all women, it did provide limited opportunities for middle- and upper-class women to gain experience in forming welfare associations. It afforded them growing access to education and made it possible for women to interact with other women in quasi-public settings. These interactions enabled women to view their condition in a critical light and eventually to organize for a greater role as women and to advocate for more rights in the public sphere. In this sense, the separate sphere was empowering for white middle-class women. However, because power in a capitalist economy flows from those who control valued resources (namely, money or goods), men continued to exercise decision-making power both within and outside the home. As separate spheres ideology found its way into court decisions and into the public’s understanding of normal daily life, men used the ideology to solidify their control over women’s lives and livelihoods.

Separate and Unequal Becomes the Law

Separate spheres ideology was reinforced and given the weight of law through Bradwell v. Illinois (1873). Myra Bradwell, a feminist active in women’s suffrage organizations, passed the Illinois bar exam in 1869, but under Illinois law, females were not permitted to practice law, and the state’s supreme court refused to allow her a license. Bradwell appealed to the US Supreme Court, claiming that the state of Illinois had violated her rights under the Fourteenth Amendment in denying her one of the “privileges of citizenship” (the privilege of practicing law). The US Supreme Court denied her claims and reaffirmed Illinois’s power to determine distinct privileges for men and women under state law. In a concurring opinion, Justice Joseph P. Bradley specifically noted the separate spheres ideology as justification for limiting women’s role in the public sphere:

Civil law, as well as nature herself, has always recognized a wide difference in the respective spheres and destinies of man and woman. Man is, or should be, woman’s protector and defender. The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life. The constitution of the family organization, which is founded in the Divine ordinance, as well as in the nature of things, indicates the domestic sphere as that which properly belongs to the domain and functions of womanhood. The harmony, not to say identity, of interests and views which belong, or should belong, to the family institution is repugnant to the idea of a woman adopting a distinct and independent career from that of her husband. So firmly fixed was this sentiment in the founders of common law that it became a maxim of that system of jurisprudence that a woman had no legal existence apart from her husband, who was regarded as her head and representative in the social state. (83 U.S. 130, 21 L.Ed. 442)

Note that Justice Bradley relied on a series of assumptions in denying Bradwell’s Fourteenth Amendment claim. First, he clearly delineated separate spheres and destinies for men and women, grounded not only in civil and common law but also in nature. Second, Justice Bradley said that the patriarchal family was not only natural but founded in “the Divine ordinance.” Finally, he stated that the “law of the Creator” relegated women to the “offices of wife and mother.” In other words, what is natural, ordained by the Creator, and made real through civil practice, the US Supreme Court cannot change. Furthermore, all women were captives of nature, the Creator, and common law, since the Court refused to address the privileges and immunities of adult women apart from their marital status:

It is true that many women are unmarried and not affected by any of the duties, complications, and incapacities arising out of the married state, but these are exceptions to the general rule. The paramount destiny and mission of woman are to fulfil the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator. And the rules of civil society must be adapted to the general constitution of things, and cannot be based upon exceptional cases. (83 U.S. 130, 21 L.Ed. 442)

Like Aristotle in an earlier time, the US Supreme Court treated all women as a group and ruled that even though there may be women whose exceptional abilities fit them for public life, society must be governed by the assumption that a woman’s proper role is that of wife and mother. As such, women are dependent on men and cannot be treated as individuals in their own right. Although some women may have abilities that (but for their sex) would entitle them to practice law, society cannot be governed by such exceptions.

Later Court rulings would use the separate spheres ideology as a justification to protect women in the labor force and to accommodate their “special burden” by limiting their civic obligations (e.g., the vote, jury duty, military service). The Court rejected separate spheres ideology only during the last two decades of the twentieth century and then only piecemeal, not entirely. Although most would argue that both sex and race are immutable characteristics not subject to an individual’s control, the Supreme Court still assumes that sex bears some relation to one’s abilities; it does not, however, make similar assumptions about race. These distinctions and assumptions, embedded in the philosophy of law in the United States, will arise again in later chapters examining education, work, and family issues.

The Basis of Restricted Citizenship for Married Women

Bradwell’s status as a feme covert (a woman “covered” entirely by her husband’s legal identity) also contributed to her being denied the ability to practice law. Until the mid-1800s, coverture, imported to the colonies from the English legal tradition, defined married couples as one entity represented in civil society by the husband, thus complicating women’s claims to equality and their challenges to the constraints of separate spheres ideology. English jurist William Blackstone wrote:

By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband; under whose wing, protection and cover, she performs every thing. . . . [She] is said to be covert-baron, or under the protection and influence of her husband, her baron, or lord; and her condition upon marriage is called her coverture.[20]

A married woman could not execute contracts independently of her husband, nor could she buy or sell property, dispose of personal assets such as jewelry and household items, control the destiny of her children, or serve as their guardian apart from her husband’s consent. Marital rape was inconceivable because husband and wife were one person. It was not until 1978, when New York included a spouse along with a stranger and an acquaintance in the list of perpetrators of rape, that marital rape was outlawed anywhere in the United States.

In 1805, the US Supreme Court articulated the nation’s implicit understanding of a married woman’s obligations to the state and her status as a citizen apart from her husband in the case of Martin v. Massachusetts. Anna Gordon Martin received approximately 844 acres of land from her father upon his death. As was the custom, her husband, William Martin, controlled the land during his lifetime, but the “right of remainder” meant that the land would pass to Anna’s son James following her husband’s death. However, the Massachusetts Confiscation Act of 1779 allowed the state to confiscate properties of individuals who fled with the British during the war, and Anna had fled with her husband.[21] At the close of the war, Anna’s son petitioned for the return of the property, arguing that his mother, as a married woman, had had no choice but to follow her husband, and so could not have exercised the choice to stay in Massachusetts and retain her property. For that reason, the seizure of the property was illegal.

As inhabitants of the state (citizens), all women were subject to its laws, and single women were subject to taxation. The question before the Supreme Court was whether a married woman could have a relationship with the state distinct from that of her husband. Attorneys for the Martins argued that Anna, as a feme covert, was incapable of defying her husband by remaining in Massachusetts while he fled. They further argued that the state did not expect married women to act independently and could expect no assistance from them in defending the country: “So far are women from being of service in the defence of a country against the attacks of an enemy that it is frequently thought expedient to send them out of the way, lest they impede the operations of their own party.”[22] Attorneys for the state crafted their argument based on the principles of natural law, reasoning that a precondition of citizenship was autonomous competence, and because women were considered citizens, they should also be responsible for their own actions even when their actions defied the theory of coverture marriage. They argued that “if patriarchy in politics is rejected, so too must patriarchy in marriage.”[23] The Court ruled unanimously in favor of the Martins and returned the land to Anna’s son. Although women might be citizens in a conceptual sense, marriage took away the privileges of citizenship in a real sense.

This line of reasoning was not merely a post-Revolutionary mind-set clouded by a tradition of coverture. In 1907, Congress passed a law stating that women who married aliens lost their citizenship even if they remained in the United States. The Supreme Court upheld the law as late as 1915, ruling in Mackenzie v. Hare that if a woman voluntarily married an alien, she must give up her citizenship and adopt the nationality of her husband. This law remained in effect until passage of the Cable Act of 1922, which stated, “The right of a person to become a naturalized citizen shall not be denied to a person on account of sex or because she is a married woman.” This meant that American-born women who married aliens were treated as naturalized citizens, who could lose their citizenship if they lived abroad for two or more years. Even then, however, the law covered only marriages to men who were eligible to become naturalized citizens (excluding men from China or Japan, among others).[24] Thus, well into the twentieth century, a woman’s marital status governed her relationship to the state, in terms of both rights and obligations.

This gendered construction of citizenship for women differed from male citizenship in important ways. The same line of reasoning that denied married women property, guardianship of their children, and independent thought and action found its way into debates over suffrage and subsequent Supreme Court rulings that rendered married women both sentimental and legal dependents of their husbands. The American Revolution challenged and abolished political patriarchy, yet even at the height of revolutionary spirit, familial patriarchy was continually reinforced through law, custom, and economic realities. Women remained in the same class as slaves and children when it came to extending the political rights of citizenship. Any attempt to challenge the natural order that kept women entirely in the private sphere was quashed.

The separate spheres ideology presents the most serious challenge to those who advocate the fairness doctrine as the most appropriate path to gender equality. The logic that believes the essential differences between men and women suit them for different roles in society cannot be overcome by law alone. Advocates of the fairness doctrine argue that trying to make men and women alike when they are in fact different is an unproductive approach to improving women’s lives. Instead, they urge that women be treated fairly. However, the pervasiveness of a separate spheres ideology makes it difficult to argue that women should participate fully in the public sphere, while believing that women need protection from and accommodation for the burdens of their sex, which they bring with them to the public sphere. Like the legal equality doctrine discussed earlier, the fairness doctrine of gender equality is not without its theoretical and practical problems.


Challenging long-entrenched gender roles and relationships is difficult even for the most committed individuals or groups. Gender exerts a powerful grip on each individual and on our social, political, and economic systems. Without some sensitivity to the power of gendered life, it is easy to miss the workings of this organizing system, since gendered life seems so “normal.” The result is a system in which economic, political, social, and cultural forces interact with and reinforce one another in ways that continue to benefit one group and disadvantage the others. As participants in these interlocking systems, humans constantly reproduce the world we know through socialization, education, and role modeling as if we have no other choice. The effect is that the system continues as normal, becoming increasingly difficult to challenge as we each take our place within it. Those who suggest the system is corrupt or wrong threaten to upset centuries of tradition and custom that make life predictable and comfortable for the majority.

Feminism provides the most direct challenge to the gendered world, as well as to patriarchy, capitalism, and the sexist assumptions that women’s difference from men renders them inherently inferior. Feminism is a complex and somewhat paradoxical ideology that defies a single definition. In fact, feminists are rarely in agreement with one another over the ultimate aims of feminism or the means to achieve them. Although many feminists exhibit a commitment to absolute legal and practical equality, some feminists have argued for separate spheres of influence and an emphasis on difference and complementarity rather than equality.[25] In an oft-quoted passage, Rebecca West wrote in 1913, “I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is. I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute.”[26] The lack of a single, well-articulated definition can lead to confusion, but the rich variety of perspectives accurately reflects the paradox of gender. Feminists of all descriptions wrestle with the same question: How can demands for equality and fairness be reconciled with sex differences?

As a word and concept, feminism is a relatively recent addition to the lexicon, emerging only in the 1910s to express a set of goals broader than those the suffrage movement embraced.[27] According to historian Nancy Cott, people in the nineteenth century talked about the “advancement of woman,” the “cause of woman,” or “woman’s rights” and “woman suffrage.” To our modern ears, the use of the singular “woman” sounds awkward, but “nineteenth-century women’s consistent usage of the singular woman symbolized, in a word, the unity of the female sex. It proposed that all women have one cause, one movement.”[28] Now in the twenty-first century, individualism is valued so highly that it would be rare to encounter anyone who believed that all women share a single cause. Modern feminism reflects these sentiments and, in doing so, embraces the paradox of gender equality that provides the foundation for the two paths to equality:

Feminism asks for sexual equality that includes sexual difference. It posits that women recognize their unity while it stands for diversity among women. It requires gender consciousness for its basis yet calls for the elimination of prescribed gender roles. These are paradoxes rooted in the actual situation of women, who are the same as men in a species sense, but different from men in reproductive biology and the construction of gender. Men and women are alike as human beings, and yet categorically different from each other; their sameness and differences derive from nature and culture, how inextricably entwined we can hardly know.[29]

So, given this set of paradoxes, how might feminism be defined? Nancy Cott offers a very good three-part working definition of feminism:

  • A belief in equality, defined not as “sameness” but rather as opposition to ranking one sex superior or inferior to the other, or as opposition to one sex’s categorical control of the rights and opportunities of the other
  • A belief that women’s condition is socially constructed and historically shaped, rather than preordained by God or nature
  • A belief that women’s socially constructed position situates them on shared ground enabling a group identity or gender consciousness sufficient to mobilize women for change[30]


As an ideology, feminism has spawned a number of different “brands,” among them liberal feminism, radical feminism, Marxist-socialist feminism, global feminism, black feminism, gender feminism, third wave feminism, and intersectional feminism. Scholars differ on how to label and divide the complex terrain of feminist theory, but the preceding list is fairly representative of the major strands of feminist thought today. Philosopher Rosemarie Tong distinguishes among these theories based on the locus of women’s oppression in each. For example, liberal, radical, Marxist-socialist, and global feminists (as well as ecofeminists to some extent) attribute women’s subordination to macrolevel institutions, such as patriarchy, capitalism, or colonialism. Gender feminists, sometimes also called cultural feminists or maternal feminists, focus on the microcosm of the individual, claiming that the roots of women’s oppression are embedded deep within a woman’s psyche.[31] Third wave feminism developed in the early 1990s among young feminists interested in reclaiming the power of feminism and extending its reach and deepening its impact for women described as the daughters and granddaughters of second wave feminists. Intersectionality, a term coined by law professor Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, draws attention to multiple sources of discrimination and oppression.[32] Although first used to describe how race and gender interacted in ways that marginalized rather than empowered black women, intersectional feminism now includes social identities beyond race.

Distinguishing between the strands of feminism and understanding the variety of feminist perspectives can sometimes seem overwhelming, but to simplify our discussion by examining only one or two feminist perspectives would perilously ignore the diversity among women themselves. Part of understanding why women do not always agree on the best way to advance their individual and collective status in society is grounded in the differing perspectives on what feminism means and how it should operate as an organizing philosophy for the women’s movement. This section begins with a brief critical review of each approach to feminism.[33] It concludes by exploring the claim that feminism is dead and has been replaced by a postfeminist reality in the twenty-first century.

Liberal Feminism

Liberal feminism is perhaps the oldest strand of feminism, rooted in the same ferment that promoted individual autonomy over aristocratic privilege in the French Revolution and the American Revolution. Liberalism stresses the importance of rational thought, autonomous action, and choice on the part of each person. Reason is what most clearly distinguishes humans from other forms of animal life. Autonomy empowers an individual to make choices in her or his own best interests, thereby elevating individual rights above the common good. Liberal theorists believe that the political and legal systems can be used to promote a liberal agenda for all people.

Early liberal feminists such as Mary Wollstonecraft, John Stuart Mill, and Harriet Taylor Mill stressed the importance of educating women, enfranchising women, and providing women equal access to both opportunities and resources in society. Liberal feminists tend to work within the existing political system and structures to eradicate all forms of sexual discrimination. Contemporary liberal feminists believe that by reforming the legal and political system to allow women equal access to opportunities and resources, men and women can achieve a state of equality. Liberal feminists target laws that distinguish between men and women based on sex. The Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, issued by women at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, was a liberal feminist document. It called for the reform of laws restricting women’s right to hold property, to control resources, and to vote. The US suffrage movement and suffrage organizations, such as the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), extended across three generations women’s liberal feminist claims that suffrage was an integral step in achieving political and social equality. The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the United States and the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) are examples of contemporary legal reforms in this tradition.

During the early 1960s, President John F. Kennedy responded to feminists’ concerns about equality for women by forming the Commission on the Status of Women. The commission studied various forms of discrimination against women, collected and made public new data on the condition of women, and spawned a number of state-based commissions that had similar missions. As a result of the data presented, the Equal Pay Act, promising equal pay for equal work, regardless of sex, was passed in 1963. Political action groups—the National Organization for Women (NOW), the National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC), and the Women’s Equity Action League (WEAL), for example—were formed in the late 1960s to pursue the liberal feminist agenda. This agenda was based largely on a plan to demand enforcement of civil rights laws protecting women from discrimination. NOW and NWPC are still active today.

A contemporary example of liberal feminism is found in Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.[34] Sandberg is the chief operating officer of Facebook and founder of the Lean In Foundation. In the book Sandberg combines personal anecdotes with social science to encourage women to “lean in” to their ambition—to stay in the workplace and to aim for the top positions. She argues that the presence of more women in top corporate positions will transform the workplace in ways that benefit all women. Sandberg explores several issues on the liberal feminist agenda: the ambition double standard, the importance of a supportive life partner, the inverse relationship between a woman’s success and likability, and the challenge of “having it all.” Sandberg’s message has been well received by the public and the media, and her network of “lean in circles” is reminiscent of consciousness-raising groups from the women’s liberation movement decades earlier. Critics, however, charge that Sandberg’s focus on individual achievement ignores the systemic barriers faced by many women.[35] The editors of The Feminist Wire write that Sandberg’s form of corporate feminism works to “recreate the same old white heteropatriarchy that defines the American Empire.” Feminist bell hooks expresses the fundamental critique of liberal feminism in labeling Sandberg’s work “faux feminism”: “There was never and is no simple homogenous gendered identity that we could call women’ struggling to be equal with men. In fact, the reality was and is that privileged white women often experience a greater sense of solidarity with men of their same class than with poor white women or women of color.”[36] A variety of criticisms have been leveled against liberal feminism. Early and contemporary liberal feminists alike concentrate almost exclusively on the public sphere. Women’s unpaid labor in the home, domestic abuse, marital rape, and traditional practices that discriminate against women in many cultures are not addressed within the liberal approach because they occur in the private sphere. These issues are labeled “personal” and therefore are not subject to public scrutiny or redress in the public policy arena. Radical feminists charge that liberal feminism has been co-opted by the male establishment since its goals are to reform the existing system rather than to replace it. Global feminists equate liberal feminists’ embrace of individualism with Western values that do not fit well in other cultures where community is favored over the individual. Additionally, individualism makes sex solidarity and the development of a movement difficult, as liberal feminists have discovered repeatedly throughout history.

Politically conservative critics charge that liberal feminists, with their concentration on ending legal sex discrimination in society, are out of touch with mainstream women who still value marriage, motherhood, and family—all traditionally private sphere concerns. Finally, liberal feminism has been labeled racist, classist, and heterosexist. This last charge suggests that liberal feminism speaks only to concerns of white, middle- and upper-class, heterosexual women and ignores the realities of intersectionality. The history of the women’s movement to date has offered ample evidence that the concerns of women of color, the working poor, and lesbians have been on the periphery of the agenda.

Radical Feminism

Whether you describe yourself as a liberal feminist dedicated to legal reforms in pursuit of equality or as a radical feminist dedicated to revolutionary change most likely depends on whether you see sexism as a form of oppression or as discrimination. Viewing sexism as a form of oppression emphasizes change affecting women collectively—a level of change possible only through a radical reordering of patriarchal society. Women’s oppression refers to patriarchy’s grip on all women, regardless of class, race, or sexual orientation. Ending oppression requires ending patriarchy, capitalism, and Western dominance. Viewing sexism as a form of discrimination emphasizes the individual. Discrimination refers to “the act of singling out a person for special treatment, not on the basis of individual merit, but on the basis of prejudices about the group to which the person belongs.”[37]

Unlike liberal feminists, who believe that it is possible to produce systemic reforms that would yield women more rights (ultimately leading to equality of rights and the end of discrimination), radical feminists believe it is the “sex-gender system” itself that is the source of women’s oppression.[38] Radical feminism is interested in women’s liberation from the bounds of this system and therefore advocates for a total revolution. For this reason, scholars often classify women’s organizations as either “reform-minded” or “revolutionary” and link them to liberal or radical feminist theory accordingly.[39] Radical feminist theory spawned a variety of activist groups in the 1960s. Many, although not all, were associated with the political left. Such radical organizations as the Redstockings, Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (WITCH), the Feminists, and the New York Radical Feminists were among some of the largest groups formed.

Sexism, as the first form of human oppression, must take precedence over other forms of oppression and must be eradicated first. Beyond agreement on this basic issue, radical feminists differ on the best way to eliminate sexism. Radical-libertarian feminists believe that femininity, women’s sex, and reproductive roles limit women’s development. They often promote androgyny (eliminating masculine-feminine distinctions) as a way to overcome the limits of femininity and to break the socially constructed link between sex and gender. Radical-cultural feminists, on the other hand, believe that female-feminine qualities are vastly superior to male-masculine characteristics. Women should not try to be like men; rather, they should try to embrace women’s essential nature. Therefore, culturally associated feminine traits—interdependence, community, sharing, emotion, nature, peace, and life—should be celebrated over hierarchy, power, war, domination, and death. Androgyny simply clouds the female nature with undesirable male qualities. For these reasons, radical-cultural feminists are often associated with lesbian separatism, a school of thought that rejects participation in male- and heterosexual-dominated institutions.

Critics of radical feminism often target the stark choices this approach asks women to make. Issues of separatism, lesbianism, and the promotion of reproductive technology over traditional means of conception and biological motherhood draw fire from politically conservative critics who charge that radical feminists are out to eradicate the family. Others criticize radical-cultural feminists’ belief in the essential nature of women, charging that it unnecessarily polarizes men and women.

Marxist-Socialist Feminism

In contrast to liberal theory’s emphasis on the individual, Marxist-socialist theory stresses the collective aspect of human development. Men and women, through production and reproduction, have collectively created society, which in turn shapes them. Capitalism and patriarchy work hand in hand, although Marxist-socialists believe that capitalism, more than sexism, is at the root of women’s oppression. Women’s economic dependence on men gives them little leverage in other aspects of society. However, rather than singling out women as the oppressed class, Marxist-socialist theories focus on the worker. A woman’s situation can only be understood in terms of her productive work and its relationship to her life. In a capitalist system, women are exploited both in the marketplace (lowest-paying and most menial jobs) and at home (no wages for her domestic labor).

Marxist-socialist feminism advocates public policy that aims to redistribute wealth and opportunity. For example, some have argued that women should be paid a wage for their housework; others have concentrated their actions on issues of the workplace outside the home and the disparities in pay and position between men and women. The concept of “equal pay for equal work” does not cover women working in traditional occupations that are undervalued. Advocates of equal pay for jobs of comparable worth argue that wage inequities will persist as long as jobs are segregated on the basis of gender.

Critics of Marxist-socialist feminism most often point to the sizable gap between the ideal and the reality in contemporary Marxist-socialist regimes (those remaining and those recently dissolved). Within those regimes, women have filled the majority of low-status and low-paying occupations and, contrary to theory, are still taking primary responsibility for home and child care.

Global Feminism

The forces of colonialism and nationalism have conspired to divide the world into the “haves,” known as the First World, and the “have-nots,” known as the Third World. Global feminism seeks to expand feminist thought to include issues vital to women in the Third World. They argue that economic and political forms of oppression are every bit as severe as sexual oppression: “For global feminists, the personal and political are one.”[40] The ways in which various forms of oppression interconnect and affect women has been the focus of many global feminists. Some charge that First World women are blinded by sexual oppression. As a result, they overlook their own complicity in the oppression of women that multinational corporations and exploitative labor practices cause. Others suggest that color, class, and nationality cannot be separated from sex when addressing the forms of oppression people face. Western feminists, they argue, have been too narrow in their agendas, particularly liberal feminists, who were guided by legal reforms in the public sphere. Political participation is a hollow victory for those who cannot feed their families, earn a living wage, control their reproduction, and live free of violence.

Cultural practices that Western feminists and others deem exploitative or damaging to women have presented the most vexing problems for global feminists. Dowry, bride price, female circumcision, and many religious customs are examples of practices that when taken out of a cultural context are indefensible in any feminist theory. However, the importance and power of culture, tradition, and religion make passing judgment on these and other issues problematic. Differences among women of various cultures present many challenges to global feminists who attempt to create a feminist theory and set of practices that unite rather than divide women.

Black Feminism

Most feminist anthologies use the term multicultural feminism to encompass the diversity of feminist thought among diverse populations. African American feminists in the United States, however, have been among the most vocal critics of the mainstream liberal feminist tradition, and so black feminism is included here as a unique category of feminist thought.

One of the thorniest questions arising in black feminist thought, according to Patricia Hill Collins, is who can be a black feminist.[41] Does authentic voice flow from one’s race, one’s experiences with the dual oppressions of race and gender, or one’s ideas and ideologies regardless of race and gender? The core of the black feminist tradition encompasses several themes: the legacy of struggle, the experience born of multiple oppressions, and the interdependence of thought and action. Black feminists often express frustration that white women seem incapable of understanding the “multiple jeopardy” that black women face on a daily basis. Sexism cannot be separated from racism, classism, or any of the other “isms” women must deal with. To pursue a single-minded gender equality strategy is to ignore profound forms of oppression and to exclude women of color from the women’s movement. Black women have experienced discrimination in the women’s movement (discussed in greater detail in Chapter 2) and continue to press feminists to expand the definition of feminism. Alice Walker has offered the term womanist as an alternative to feminist, saying “womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.”[42] A womanist is at heart a humanist pursuing political action as a means to human empowerment—including both men and women of all races, ethnicities, and abilities.

Critics of black feminism are most often African American women themselves. Some critics argue that black feminists have failed to confront sexism strongly enough as it occurs within the black community. Some black women have been reticent to press for stronger laws protecting women’s interests, believing that black males are under siege by the dominant white community and would be disproportionately harmed in the process. In 1991, when lawyer Anita Hill charged Clarence Thomas, her former boss at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), with sexual harassment, the nation was introduced to the divisions within the African American community and among black feminists. Hill’s charges became public during Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Criticism of Hill and her decision to make her charges public came from a variety of quarters, but it was especially strong among blacks. They considered her “disloyal” and criticized her for potentially derailing a black man’s chances for a seat on the Supreme Court. Public opinion polls revealed support for Hill among feminists, although 49 percent of American women (including both blacks and whites) either sided with Thomas or declared the dispute a “draw.”[43] Further probing by pollsters found that Hill’s Yale law degree and successful law career made her identity as a “black woman” problematic because it did not fit the stereotype many held.

Gender Feminism

Gender feminism, unlike any of the theories previously described, argues that the root of women’s oppression lies somewhere at the intersection of biology, psychology, and culture. Gender feminists believe that the traits culture associates with women and femininity are superior in many respects to masculine traits, and therefore both men and women should strive to develop relational webs. The issues most closely associated with gender feminism include the superiority of women’s moral development, women’s ways of knowing and thinking, and women’s mothering abilities. Because gender feminists argue that men and women are developmentally different, they are sometimes also known as difference feminists. However, difference in this case works in favor of women. Among the best-known gender feminists is Carol Gilligan, who challenged psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development in her book In a Different Voice.[44] She argued that Kohlberg’s widely accepted model did not account for differences between male and female moral development. While males resolve moral dilemmas using an ethic of justice, females use an ethic of care. While Gilligan did not at first argue that one was superior to the other, her work has been widely used to promote gender feminism’s claim to women’s moral superiority.

Maternalism, a subset of gender feminism, celebrates the power of women’s reproductive capacity. Mothers in many Latin American nations, for example, have politicized motherhood in opposing dictatorships, raising sensitive political questions, and serving as visible reminders of the repression of immoral regimes. In the United States, mothers’ movements are enjoying a contemporary resurgence. On Mother’s Day 2000, tens of thousands of mothers marched on Washington, D.C., in the Million Moms’ March to protest gun violence against children and to petition the government to take action in the form of tougher gun control legislation. The Mothers of the Movement is a group of African American women, each the mother of a son or daughter who died due to gun violence, while in police custody, or as a result of police actions. Their deaths attracted national media attention and helped to inspire the Black Lives Matter movement. At the 2016 Democratic National Convention, the Mothers of the Movement endorsed Hillary Clinton for president, saying she was the best candidate to make progress on police reform and gun violence prevention. After the convention they traveled together across the country, campaigning for Clinton and encouraging people to vote and to speak out for racial justice in African American communities.

Critics of gender feminism argue that associating women with caring reinforces the traditional view of women as nurturers, rather than the view of women as autonomous and strong. Particularly in relation to electoral politics, a nurturant posture of care has proven to be a somewhat limited virtue, depending on the domestic political climate in any one election. Others charge that labeling women as the only sex responsible for caring releases men from important social and familial obligations and unnecessarily polarizes men’s and women’s gender roles. Some also object to the nomenclature of maternal feminism, arguing that not all women are or aspire to be mothers.

Third Wave Feminism

In 1992, in the wake of the William Kennedy Smith rape trial and Anita Hill’s testimony in the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, more than a hundred young feminists gathered in New York City and organized a network they called the Third Wave. Rebecca Walker is credited with coining the term in “Becoming the Third Wave,” an essay published in Ms. magazine in 1992. The vision articulated by organizers was “to become the national network for young feminists, to politicize and organize young women from diverse cultural and economic backgrounds, to strengthen the relationships between young women and older feminists, and to consolidate a strong base of membership that can mobilize for specific issues, political candidates, and events.”[45] Third wave feminism has a broad focus and integrates women’s concerns with larger issues related to justice, including racism, poverty, and environmental issues. Betty Friedan, a founder of the second wave of feminism, said of the third wavers, “Young women are the true daughters of feminism; they take nothing for granted and are advancing the cause with marvelous verve. If they keep doing what they are doing, thirty years from today we may not need a feminist movement. We may have achieved real equality.”[46]

In addition to newly formed organizations for young feminists’ interests, several second wave organizations (such as NOW, the Feminist Majority Foundation, and the National Council of Women’s Organizations) started new campus programs and outreach initiatives targeted at female millennials, the generation born roughly between 1977 and 1996. Feminist blogs such as Feministe and Feministing, among others, reach out to women beyond campus and organizational limits. “You cannot overestimate the impact of the Internet on feminism’s outreach potential. We reach women who never had a class in women’s studies, women in towns with no NOW chapter or any other explicit feminist organization,” said Jessica Valenti, founder of Feministing.[47] Blogging has been called the new vehicle for feminist consciousness raising.[48] E-zines have acted as another form of women-only cyberspace.

More recently, third wave feminists have been at the forefront in challenging binary understandings of “male” and “female.” Influenced by queer theory, young feminists argue that gender and sexuality are fluid categories. Gender identity, far from established at birth, is evolving and subject to individual expression. Sometimes associated with grrrl-feminism, third wave feminism celebrates individualism over artificial categories of identity, gender, and sexuality. Scholar Martha Rampton wrote that “grrrls of the third wave stepped onto the stage as strong and empowered, eschewing victimization and defining feminine beauty for themselves as subjects, not as objects of sexist patriarchy . . . the very notion of gender has been unbalanced in a way that encourages experimentation and creative thought.”[49] Rampton described third wave feminism as conceiving reality “not so much in terms of fixed structures and power relations, but in terms of performance within contingencies. Third wave feminism breaks boundaries.”

Some veteran feminists of the second wave express concern that third wave feminists are oriented around individual or personal expression rather than sharing the collectivist orientation necessary to agitate for political change. Kalpana Krishnamurthy, codirector of the Third Wave Foundation, says of the conflict, “I think that the impact of the feminist movement was in helping women to achieve a voice. Now we are articulating that voice in a multiplicity of ways.”[50] Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, authors of Manifesta, say that young women today do take second wave feminism’s gains for granted, that the liberation gained by the second wave infuses their lives like fluoride in water, giving them a certain degree of confidence. They caution, however, that young women also need to develop a political consciousness sufficient to confront today’s challenges to equality. This strain of third wave feminism is echoed in the book Catching a Wave.[51] With essays grouped in a way that is designed to mirror the consciousness-raising process developed by second wave feminists to highlight social inequities and then to politicize readers to take action, this book argues that only by continually confronting the persistent structural inequalities in society can feminism retain its transformational power.

Intersectional Feminism

Emerging out of the shared space between second and third wave feminists, intersectional feminism is a critique of both in some respects. Intersectionality, according to Washington Post writer Christine Emba, has become a way to pose the question “Is feminism for everyone, or just the middle class?”[52] In many ways the question harkens back to a common critique of liberal feminism—that it largely left out women of color, immigrant women, and the poor. As “intersectionality” has emerged in the dialogue of popular culture and academia, its use has broadened beyond race and gender to include other overlapping social identities—sexual orientation, nationality, class, and disability, for example.

Intersectionality, according to Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, was intended to reflect the ways in which existing antidiscrimination laws did not capture the intersection of race and gender that rendered black women invisible. She describes a 1976 discrimination suit against General Motors to highlight the problem. The company segregated its workforce by race and gender—there were black jobs and white jobs, jobs for women and jobs for men. “Neither the black jobs nor the women’s jobs were appropriate for black women, since they were neither male nor white. Wasn’t this clearly discrimination, even if some blacks and some women were hired?”[53] Her point is that antidiscrimination laws, arguably the greatest success of the legal equality approach, did not cover situations where the source of discrimination fell in the “intersection” of recognized or protected categories and therefore became invisible. “Intersectional erasures are not exclusive to black women,” writes Crenshaw. “People of color within LGBTQ movements; girls of color in the fight against the school-to-prison pipeline; women within immigration movements; trans women within feminist movements; and people with disabilities fighting police abuse—all face vulnerabilities that reflect the intersections of racism, sexism, class oppression, transphobia, able-ism and more.”[54] In this sense, intersectionality becomes about inclusion.

Critics of intersectional feminism argue that a focus on intersectionality is a new form of “identity politics,” wherein each group advocates for inclusion without recognizing the ways their source of oppression is shared. The fight for equality becomes one of “us against them,” where the phrase “check your privilege”—an expression most often used by social justice advocates and bloggers to encourage self-reflection on the many forms of invisible privilege (advantages) afforded to whites, males, heterosexual, and the able-bodied, to name only a few—becomes a form of bullying. Finally, some posit that without the law as an effective tool, intersectionality is a purely academic exercise that will not result in meaningful change.


Rather than embrace a third or even fourth wave of feminism, some (largely in the popular media) have argued that feminism has outlived its usefulness—or, to put it more bluntly, that “feminism is dead.” Professor Mary Hawkesworth addresses the contradiction between the unprecedented growth of feminist activism around the globe and the recurrent pronouncement of feminism’s death: “These textual accounts of death serve as allegorical signs for something else, a means of identifying a perceived danger in need of elimination, a way for a community to define itself through those it symbolically chooses to kill.”[55]

The pronouncement of feminism’s demise or failure has been a persistent media theme since the early 1970s, but what would it mean to be in a postfeminist era? Janelle Reinelt describes postfeminism as “a time when the residue of feminism is still with us in terms of its history and some of its commitments, but without the overarching umbrella of an organized social or political movement at either grass roots or national levels.”[56] As Deborah Siegel, author of Sisterhood Interrupted, puts it, “The dilemma of my generation and those behind me is that we’re caught between the hope for a world that no longer degrades women and the reality of a culture that is degrading. We see a few women breaking into the upper echelons of power, and we think things are great. It’s confusing to be a daughter of feminism in a culture only half transformed.”[57] Those who claim a fourth wave of feminism is under way point to the ways that issues central to the women’s movement for decades are currently receiving attention in the mainstream press and politicians, including rape, violence against women, unequal pay, underrepresentation in positions of political and economic power, and workplace benefits such as sick leave and child care. Social media allows sexism to be called out and challenged in real time.

For many women, the reawakening came when the 2008 presidential primaries and general election campaign opened a new examination of gender matters. Media coverage of the two prominent women candidates in the field, Democratic senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and Republican governor Sarah Palin, focused new light on sex stereotypes largely thought extinct. When two men at a Clinton rally in New Hampshire yelled out “Iron my shirts!” the media reacted with amusement, not outrage. Sexism and sexist remarks by journalists and on-air pundits were pervasive throughout the primaries. Mike Barnicle on MSNBC described Clinton as “looking like everyone’s first wife standing outside a probate court”; Jack Cafferty on CNN described her as “a scolding mother, talking down to a child.” Glenn Beck of CNNobserved, “There’s something about her vocal range…. She’s the stereotypical bitch, you know what I mean?”[58] On the Republican side, journalists were obsessed with Sarah Palin’s appearance, and in September 2008, a company called Hero Builders released a highly sexualized Sarah Palin action figure dressed in a red push-up bra and a short schoolgirl tartan plaid skirt. As Kate Zernike observed in the New York Times, “A year ago, it all seemed so different. If the nation wasn’t quite gender-blind, still, a woman stood poised to become president, didn’t she?”[59] Nation columnist Katha Pollitt wrote that the “‘sulfurous emanations’ about Mrs. Clinton made [her] want to write a check to her campaign, knock on doors, vote for her twice—even though [I’d] probably choose another candidate on policy grounds.”[60]

By the 2016 presidential contest, the media was more self-censoring, but sexism persisted in both political parties. As a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, Donald J. Trump mocked fellow candidate Carly Fiorina’s appearance (“Look at that face, would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?”).[61] Democrat Bernie Sanders’s campaign manager chided the Clinton campaign for criticizing Sanders’s campaign too aggressively: “Don’t destroy the Democratic Party to satisfy the Secretary’s ambitions to become President of the United States.”[62] Bernie Sanders himself later claimed that Clinton was not qualified to be president. Countless news stories explored Hillary Clinton’s “likability problem.” Columnist David Brooks wrote that Clinton was disliked because she is a “workaholic” who “presents herself as a resume and policy brief.” In other words, she wasn’t fun.[63] Once the general election got under way, Republican Donald Trump questioned Hillary Clinton’s stamina and claimed that she didn’t “look presidential.” After the first presidential debate, in which a majority of Americans believed that Hillary Clinton won by demonstrating a command of the issues and a presidential temperament, Fox News correspondent Brit Hume described her appearance as “composed, smug sometimes, not necessarily attractive.”[64] Each of these examples calls attention to the prominent role gender plays in American elections and serves as a cautionary tale for any woman who might be considering a run for public office.

Do we live in a postfeminist world? Can women advance toward equality without an organized political movement sustained and energized by a feminist ideology? As you will see in the chapters ahead, women’s pursuit of equality has been slow and progress has come incrementally. The catalyst for major progress has always been the tension created by women’s political organizing for and against change.


How will we know if and when women realize equality? Most likely the answer to this question depends in part on which path to gender equality you favor. If you favor the legal equality doctrine, you most likely believe that women’s equality will resemble a gender-neutral state in which men and women exist as equals. If you favor the fairness doctrine, you probably believe that women are different from men and should remain so, but should not be disadvantaged by those differences. The central question of gender equality is this: Do differences between men and women require a sensitivity to sexual difference resulting in special provisions that compensate women for their biological role in childbearing, or does gender neutrality require that no distinctions of any kind be made on the basis of sex? In effect, an affirmative answer to one question or the other delineates the two paths traveled by activists in women’s movements—both of which have been traveled in the name of improving women’s status. While the two approaches may not be entirely mutually exclusive, their dual existence and favor among women have confounded the ability of women to exhibit sex solidarity around the issues of discrimination and gender inequality. Those who believe men and women are the same except for their sex-linked contributions to human reproduction are confident that gender-neutral laws can remedy the discrimination women face by eliminating sex-based barriers to opportunities in the public sphere. However, those who believe that men and women are essentially different are convinced that special legislation is the remedy for the social, economic, and political disadvantages women endure as a result of motherhood and traditional gender roles. Thus women are often most at odds with other women over their common interests.

Where does this leave women and the women’s movement? Is feminism still relevant to women today? If so, what kind of feminism should guide women’s political and social actions? A national survey in 2015 found that six in ten women and one-third of men identify as a feminist or strong feminist. Nearly 70 percent of those surveyed defined the feminist movement as “empowering.”[65] The issues that rank as top priorities for women today include equal pay; domestic violence, sexual assault, and sexual harassment; child care; women’s health care; family leave; drug and alcohol addiction; electing more women to political office; women in other parts of the world; and encouraging more women to pursue careers in math, science, and technology. Younger, unmarried, and minority women continue to experience economic stress following the recession that began in 2008, from which recovery has been slow. A higher minimum wage, paid sick days, paid family and medical leave, affordable child care, and ways to alleviate student debt are top issues on their agenda.[66] These issues will be addressed in the chapters that follow. Taken together, these issues make up a robust agenda for the next generation of feminists, both men and women.

Regardless of their chosen path and strategy, women have worked for nearly two centuries to gain access to the public sphere and to improve the quality of their lives. To effect this change, women have used such conventional forms of political participation as lobbying for constitutional changes, fighting for the right to vote, and pursuing elective office, as well as less conventional methods, including working in organizations outside government and protesting public and private sector inequities. In addition, women have lobbied for policy changes before state legislatures and the US Congress. At various times, the courts have facilitated or hampered their efforts. To quote the National Women’s Equality Act (1998), women have “lobbied, litigated, picketed, marched, petitioned, engaged in civil disobedience, and boycotted to win women’s rights.”[67] However, women have still not gained full political, legal, social, economic, and educational equality. This book examines and analyzes women’s political experiences, attitudes, and behaviors, and evaluates their successes as well as their failures to understand more clearly where women stand today in their pursuit of gender equality.


Boxed feature notes appear at the end of the Notes section.
[1] Linda Kerber, “The Paradox of Women’s Citizenship in the Early Republic: The Case of Martin v. Massachusetts, 1805,” American Historical Review, April 1992.
[2] Maxine Margolis, Mothers and Such: Views of American Women and Why They Changed (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).
[3] Ibid., 47.
[4] Abigail Adams to John Adams, March 31, 1776.
[5] Virginia Sapiro, The Political Integration of Women: Roles, Socialization, and Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 19.
[6] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835; reprint, New York: Doubleday, 1969), 243.
[7] “Understanding Gender,” Gender Spectrum,
gender, accessed July 4, 2016.
[8] Sandra Lipsitz Bem, The Lenses of Gender: Transforming the Debate on Sexual Inequality (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993), 1.
[9] Aristotle, The Politics of Aristotle, trans. Ernest Barker (London: Oxford University Press, 1947), 43-45.
[10] Bem, The Lenses of Gender, 11.
[11] Suzanne M. Marilley, Woman Suffrage and the Origins of Liberal Feminism in the United States, 1820-1920 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996).
[12] Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1988).
[13] J. S. Mill, “The Subjection of Women,” in The Feminist Papers, ed. Alice S. Rossi (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1972).
[14] Ibid., 201.
[15] Ibid., 199.
[16] Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (New York: Norton, 1976), 40-41.
[17] Bem, The Lenses of Gender, 41.
[18] It has been estimated that 70 percent of men in northern cities could read, compared to only 35 percent of women. See Linda K. Kerber and Jane Sherron De Hart, Women’s America: Refocusing the Past, 4th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).
[19] Nadine Taub and Elizabeth M. Schneider, “Perspectives on Women’s Subordination and the Law,” in The Politics of Law, ed. D. Kairys (New York: Pantheon, 1982), 125-126.
[20] William Blackstone, Chapter 15, in Commentaries on the Laws of England, book 1, vol. 4 (1765-1769).
[21] Massachusetts Confiscation Act of April 20, 1779.
[22] Linda Kerber, “The Paradox of Women’s Citizenship in the Early Republic: The Case of Martin v. Massachusetts, 1805,” 370.
[23] Ibid., 375.
[24] Ibid.
[25] Imelda Whelan, Modern Feminist Thought: From the Second Wave to “Post Feminism” (New York: New York University Press, 1995).
[26] Nancy Gibbs, “The War Against Feminism,” Time, March 9, 1992, 51.
[27] Nancy F. Cott, The Grounding of Modern Feminism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987).
[28] Ibid., 3.
[29] Ibid., 5.
[30] Ibid., 4-5.
[31] Rosemarie Putnam Tong, Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998), 5.
[32] Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum, vol. 1989, issue 1, article 8, 139-167.
[33] For a more complete description and historical account of each approach to feminism, see Tong, Feminist Thought; Whelan, Modern Feminist Thought; Allison M. Jagger, Feminist Politics and Human Nature (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Allanheld, 1983); Susan Moller Okin, Women in Western Political Thought (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979); Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex (New York: Bantam Books, 1970); Mary Daly, Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978); Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978); Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982); Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1990); Robin Morgan, Sisterhood Is Global (Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1984).
[34] Sheryl Sandberg and Nell Scovell, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (New York: Knopf, 2013).
[35] For example, see the critique by Susan Faludi, “Facebook Feminism, Like It or Not,” The Baffler 23 (2013); bell hooks, “Dig Deep: Lean In,” Feminist Wire, October 28, 2013.
[36] hooks, “Dig Deep: Lean In.”
[37] Virginia Sapiro, Women in American Society, 4th ed. (Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing, 1999), 109.
[38] Tong, Feminist Thought, 46.
[39] There are, however, notable exceptions. Jo Freeman, for example, believes that it was a mistake to label some women’s organizations as merely reformist since all groups were breaking away from established gender norms, an act “revolutionary” in itself. She’d prefer to divide branches of the movement into a “younger branch” and an “older branch.” Barbara Ryan groups organizations within the movement into “mass movement” and “small groups.”
[40] Tong, Feminist Thought, 227.
[41] Collins, Black Feminist Thought, 19.
[42] Ibid., 37.
[43] Tong, Feminist Thought, 222.
[44] Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice.
[45] Beth Dulin, “Founding Project Challenges Young Feminists,” New Directions for Women 21, no. 1 (1993): 33.
[46] Joannie M. Schrof, “Feminism’s Daughters,” U.S. News and World Report, September 27, 1993.
[47] Linda Hirshman, “Looking to the Future, Feminism Has to Focus,” Washington Post, June 8, 2008.
[48] Courtney E. Martin, “Why Feminists Fight with Each Other,” Alternet, June 12, 2007.
[49] Martha Rampton, “Four Waves of Feminism,” Pacific Magazine, Fall 2008.
[50] Jennifer Friedlin, “Second and Third Wave Feminists Clash over the Future,” Women’s eNews, May 26, 2002.
[51] Rory Dicker and Alison Piepmeier, eds., Catching a Wave: Reclaiming Feminism for the 21st Century (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2003).
[52] Christine Emba, “Intersectionality,” In Theory blog, Washington Post, September 21, 2015.
[53] Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, “Why Intersectionality Can’t Wait,” In Theory blog, Washington Post, September 24, 2015.
[54] Ibid.
[55] Mary Hawkesworth, “The Semiotics of Premature Burial: Feminism in a Postfeminist Age,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 29, no. 4 (2004): 961-985.
[56] Janelle Reinelt, “States of Play: Feminism, Gender Studies, and Performance,” Scholar and Feminist Online, Summer 2003, Barnard Center for Research on Women.
[57] Martin, “Why Feminists Fight with Each Other.”
[58] Susan J. Carroll, “Reflections on Gender and Hillary Clinton’s Presidential Campaign: The Good, the Bad, and the Misogynic,” Politics and Gender 5 (2009): 1-20.
[59] Kate Zernike, “Postfeminism and Other Fairy Tales,” New York Times, March 16, 2008.
[60] Ibid.
[61] Bryce Logan, “Donald Trump Mocks Rival Carly Fiorina’s Face: ‘Look at That Face, Would Anyone Vote for That?'” Business Insider, September 9, 2015.
[62] Margaret Talbot, “Hillary Clinton Should be Allowed to Boast,” New Yorker, April 22, 2016.
[63] David Brooks, “Why Is Clinton Disliked?” New York Times, May 24, 2016.
[64] Callum Borchers, “Fox News’s Brit Hume Says Hillary Clinton Was ‘Not Necessarily Attractive’ During the Debate,” Washington Post, September 26, 2016.
[65] Seiyi Cai and Scott Clement, “What Americans Think About Feminism Today,” Washington Post, January 27, 2016.
[66] Greenberg Quinlan Roster Research, “Winning Women in 2016: Findings from a Web Survey of American Adults,” February 17, 2016,
[67] National Council of Women’s Organizations, “National Women’s Equality Act for the 21st Century,” Proclamation in Seneca Falls, New York on July 17, 1998.

Box 1.1: How Should Female Veterans Be Memorialized?

[1] Ashley B. Craig, “State Set to Commemorate Women’s Veteran Memorial,” Charleston Gazette Mail, November 9, 2011.

[2] New York statue:

[3] Associated Press, “Women Veterans Criticize Statue Honoring Them,” June 8, 2004.

[4] Monument in Del City, Oklahoma:

[5] Statue of National Guard soldier with daughter, Del City, Oklahoma:

[6] Arlington National Cemetery:

We hope you have enjoyed this sample of:

Women and Politics

Fourth Edition

by Lynne E. Ford


Copyright © 2017 by WESTVIEW PRESS

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