By Karen HyunBee Cho, South Korea.
Feminist legal scholars have been instrumental in shaping the progression of societies away from the patriarchal, conservative sociopolitical norms that have governed the past. These groundbreaking theories each prioritize differing values for the feminist movement, but share a few core commonalities. The first is that they acknowledge that men have historically dictated the development of civilizations, and this is largely the reason why they often have greater access to status, wealth, and privilege than women in the modern era. Second, all the theories share the same end goal: a world in which men and women are treated equally within the social, political, and economic branches of society.
Given this, it is necessary to dig deeper into the subtle nuances that distinguish some of these theories from one another and discuss potential areas where these theories fall short in supporting the message of the feminist movement.
The first which is titled the “equal treatment theory” states that women should be guaranteed the same rights as men because women and men do not share legally notable differences. Women should be offered equal social and political opportunities and should not be restricted by protective legislation such as those that restrict working hours specifically for women. But a question rises: doesn’t this theory necessarily compel women to satisfactorily fit a male standard in order to gain ground? After all, the legal consequences of this theory are predicated on the basis that women can prove they are “similarly situated” to men and therefore entitled to the same freedoms that men experience. In other words, women will always have to take the higher burden of proving how and why they are equal to men, even in areas that may be more disadvantageous for women such as physically inducing labor. The benefits of upholding a principle such as this may only be marginal at best.
The second theory on “cultural feminism” believes that laws should reflect the differences between men and women, rather than imposing gender-neutral regulations that are unable to cater to women’s specific needs. However, the logic behind this theory seems to be a bit tenuous. The theory advances women are biologically and culturally different from men in that they think in terms of “an ethic of care” emphasizing human interconnection whereas men choose to abide by “an ethic of justice” upholding concepts of autonomy and liberty. However, it is unclear exactly how laws should materialize at the conclusion of this theory. At the point in which cultural feminists argue for female-centric legal measures, is this not defeating the very purpose of the feminist movement to urge for equality between the sexes? Doesn’t this theory concede that women’s and men’s rights are fundamentally distinct and irreconcilable, that there can be no common ground? And do the arbitrary, ambiguous characteristics labeled onto women under this theory truly apply to the entire women demographic? Cultural feminism poses a large risk of generating laws that are not only blanket testaments to an unnuanced women’s struggle but may only serve to further entrench gender stereotypes in society.
Last but not least, the “dominance theory” argues that both the equal treatment theory and cultural feminism inherently fail to deviate from the male metric. Law has been a perpetrator, in many instances, of the subjugation of women by condoning societal institutions that normalize forms of patriarchy. This is demonstrated in the lack of legal address to sexual harassment incidents or insufficient legal protection against violence inflicted onto women. Crucially though, dominance theorists fail to grasp the full scope of impact that patriarchy entails onto society. By labeling patriarchy as the problem but simultaneously focusing on the power imbalance between the sexes, this theory critically silences the male perspective and leaves them out of the discussion that has to be had. The fact of the matter is, patriarchal norms place a burden onto men as well; it is emotionally distressing for a boy to be told that he must be manly, that he cannot be sentimental, or that he must gain stature in society. But these are the voices that are often the first to be ignored or disregarded under the premise that women have suffered more throughout history.
While this may be true, so long as we continue to neglect the stories of male victims, we will never be able to gain the societal traction necessary to propel the movement forward. We must draw a line between labeling a phenomenon as a common social struggle versus guilt-shaming a particular group as the sole perpetrators of that phenomenon. Because perhaps the blame isn’t just on the men. The more we refuse to self-reflect, the more we internalize patriarchal thought and prolong stereotypes that divide and segregate the sexes. Whether the victim is male or female, it is important to recognize that misogyny, male supremacy, and heteronormativity, among many others, all stem from the same societal issues that we collectively face and therefore must collectively fight against.
What all three theories essentially lack is this: an appropriate response to the fact that not all women share the same victim stories. Attempting to universalize the experience of white women without respect for the nuances of race, class, or culture is a backwards step for the movement. It foments internal division and erodes our strength. This is what leads to the politicization of white feminism and detracts from the original values that this movement was founded on. We must become more sensitive and aware along sociocultural lines and tailor our feminist activism to set appropriate goals for each respective context. The same goes for men. Instead of endorsing additional paid maternity leave, perhaps we may strive to equalize the playing field for both men and women by supporting policies like family leave that incentivize fathers to share the responsibility of being caretakers of the family.
At the heart of the feminist movement lie inclusivity and encompassment. Both men and women as well as women across the world need this movement equally. This is not a movement to threaten the power and place of men. This is not a movement to expunge the male perspective from the conversation. This is a movement that recognizes that while some of us may have been hurt more than others, it is on all of us to raise each other up together. The engines of society were meant to be turned by the wheels of justice, not the wheels of hate—and in realizing this more promising future for humanity, empowerment and unity across genders and cultures have never been more fundamental than they are today.
Authors explore the development and application of various feminist theories on our modern society.