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About this book

Feminist theory is a challenging and often deeply divided body of thought that raises issues which affect us all. In this, her third edition of the highly successful Feminist Political Theory, Valerie Bryson provides both a wide-ranging history of Western feminist thought, from medieval times to the present day, and a lucid analysis of contemporary feminist politics and debates. Fully updated to cover the latest feminist scholarship throughout, this timely new edition provides an accessible and thought-provoking exploration of complex theories related to 'real-life' issues such as sexual violence, political representation, transgender rights, cyberfeminism and globalisation.

With unrivalled scope, depth and accessibility, this new edition of Valerie Bryson's Feminist Political Theory is set to be the go-to text on feminism for students and researchers – or indeed anyone interested in gender justice.

Table of Contents


Since its origins over two thousand years ago, western political theory has been almost entirely written by men. For the most part, these men simply ignored women. When they deigned to notice us, it was usually to justify our exclusion from public affairs and our confinement to the home; only a few saw us as political beings worthy of serious consideration. Even today, many male political theorists seem to see the interests and concerns of half the human race as politically unimportant and theoretically uninteresting, and many either ignore the existence of ongoing gender-based inequalities and injustices, or treat these as marginal issues, irrelevant to mainstream political theory. In contrast, most feminist political theory sees women and their situation as central to political analysis; it asks why it is that in virtually all known societies men appear to have more power and privilege than women, and how this can be changed. It is therefore engaged theory, which seeks to understand society in order to challenge and change it; its goal is not abstract knowledge, but knowledge that can be used to guide and inform feminist political practice.
Valerie Bryson

1. Early Feminist Thought

We have little direct access to what women may have thought in the early years of recorded history, as they were excluded from education and public debate; indeed, the classical scholar Mary Beard (2014) has found the first example of women being told that they should ‘shut up’ in public in Homer’s Odyssey, probably composed in the eighth century BC. Nevertheless, it seems likely that wherever women have been subordinated some have resisted, and it is possible to trace elements of feminist consciousness in Europe back to written expressions of women’s thought in the seventh century AD. At this early period, any woman who claimed the ability to benefit from education, or who tried to contribute to theological, philosophical and political debate, or who simply put pen to paper, was challenging her society’s teaching about women’s God-given intellectual inferiority and their propensity for sin. It is therefore unsurprising that an identifiable theme in early writing by women is the attempt to re-interpret the scriptures to challenge such beliefs (Lerner, 1993).
Valerie Bryson

2. Liberalism and Beyond: Mainstream Feminism in the Mid-Nineteenth Century

The writers and activists considered in this chapter were essentially ‘reformist’ in that they did not challenge the rule of law or provide a systematic attack on the socio-economic system, or on marriage and the family. However, their approaches and origins were more diverse than the ‘liberal feminist’ label which is frequently attached to them suggests. Many were initially drawn into politics via evangelical Christianity rather than by liberal ideas of equal rights. As their activities developed into political campaigns for women’s rights, some also developed analyses of women’s collective interests and their oppression in private as well as public life that were remarkably similar to late twentieth-century radical feminist ideas on sisterhood and patriarchy. In addition, some African American women anticipated later black feminist analyses of the limitations of white feminism and of the interconnections of gender, race and class. To label the approach of the nineteenth-century writers and reformers simply as ‘equal rights’ or ‘liberal’ feminist is, therefore, to impose an inappropriate classification based on conventional politics, and to obscure its nature and diversity.
Valerie Bryson

3. The Contribution of Marx and Engels

It is at first sight odd to include a chapter on classic Marxism in a work on feminist political theory, because Karl Marx was not a feminist. This does not mean that he was deliberately hostile to female liberation but simply that, unlike Mill or Thompson, he did not see issues of sexual oppression as interesting or important in their own right, and he never made them the subject of detailed empirical or theoretical investigation. Marx’s theory did, however, claim to enable a comprehensive analysis of human history and society, and he provided a radically new way of seeing the world that inspired many later feminists, influencing both theoretical understanding and ‘real world’ feminist politics. His close friend Friedrich Engels applied Marx’s ideas to feminist issues, and from the late nineteenth century other writers and activists in the United States, Germany and Russia attempted to develop a Marxist analysis of ‘the woman question’ (see Chapters 5 and 6). Marxist feminism was also a key strand of ‘second wave’ feminism from the 1960s that remains important today. This means that to understand much feminist history and recent feminist debate, it is necessary to have some knowledge of Marx’s original theory; it is to a brief account of this that we therefore now turn.
Valerie Bryson

4. The Vote and After: Mainstream Feminism in the United States and Britain from the Late Nineteenth Century to the Second World War

This chapter explores the feminist ideas that dominated the women’s suffrage campaign in Britain and the United States, and the implications of these for feminist politics after the vote was won. Although the chapter focuses on ‘mainstream’ feminism, this often interacted in complex ways with the more left-wing feminisms discussed in Chapter 5. It is also important to realise that campaigns for women’s suffrage in other parts of the world had an independent dynamic, often linked with nationalist struggles for independence (see Fletcher, Mayhall and Levine, 2000).
Valerie Bryson

5. Left-Wing Feminism in Britain and the United States from the Late Nineteenth Century to the Second World War

As we shall see in Chapter 6, by the late nineteenth century some European countries saw a sharp split between ‘mainstream feminists’ with their demands for equal political and legal rights, and Marxist socialists with their talk of class war and revolution. In both Britain and the United States, however, there was much more of a continuum, as the social concerns that had long characterised sections of the women’s movement merged with a more radical critique of existing society which led some to socialism as well as feminism. For most, this socialism was based on humanitarian ideals or a pragmatic response to poverty and the conditions of working-class life. Such socialism owed little to Marxist ideology, it favoured gradual and piecemeal reform rather than revolution, and it could seem readily compatible with a feminism based on ideas of social justice rather than on an analysis of patriarchy. In this context, socialism and feminism could be seen as complementary, promising equality and an end to exploitation for all. At the same time, other women activists developed their feminism in the context of anarchist or communist politics, insisting both that society must be radically transformed and that women must play a key role in this transformation, while some black women communists developed analyses of the intersections of race, class and gender that anticipate later thinking.
Valerie Bryson

6. Marxist Feminism in Germany and Russia

The international socialist movement in the years preceding and following the First World War was dominated by Germany and Russia (later the Soviet Union), and developments in these two countries did much to set the terms of later Marxist feminist debate. In Germany, August Bebel established the official party line on the so-called Woman Question, while Clara Zetkin wrestled with the theoretical and practical problems involved in recruiting women to the socialist cause and did battle with those whom she dismissed as ‘bourgeois feminists’. In Russia, the Bolshevik party was committed in theory to sex equality and, although all kinds of problems arose in putting theory into practice and women suffered with men during the years of Stalinist repression, there were some important early gains for women. It was also here that the first serious attempt to extend Marxist analysis to questions of sex, morality and family life was made, by Alexandra Kollontai.
Valerie Bryson

7. Feminism after the Second World War

By 1945, women in most western democracies had won a high degree of political and legal equality with men. No longer were they excluded from political participation, education and employment and no longer did they lose all autonomy upon marriage; even in France, where the earlier feminist movement had been particularly unsuccessful, women were finally enfranchised in 1944, and the Code Napoleon, which explicitly subordinated women to their husbands, was gradually modified.
Valerie Bryson

8. Liberalism and Beyond: Feminism and Equal Rights from the 1960s to the 1990s

This chapter discusses the emergence of equal right feminism as a mass political movement in the United States in the 1960s and its subsequent development there and elsewhere, before addressing more strictly theoretical work around the nature of a feminist theory of justice. It then examines a range of criticisms and debates around key liberal concepts such as equality and reason, and the implications of these for feminist politics and thought. It finds a tendency for feminist ideas to evolve away from a strictly liberal conception of equal rights, although this continues to play a key role in framing contemporary debates.
Valerie Bryson

9. Radical Feminism and the Concept of Patriarchy

The equal rights feminism discussed in the previous chapter took the ‘common sense’ values of liberal democracy as its starting point. In contrast, the radical feminist ideas thrown up by the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) from the late 1960s produced a challenge to accepted values and lifestyles that often seemed both extreme and shocking.
Valerie Bryson

10. Radical Feminism: Patriarchy in Private and Public Life

In the years immediately following the publication of Millett’s Sexual Politics, the feminist analysis of patriarchy developed in a very wide range of ways. Different writers focussed upon very different aspects and sources of male power, and there were fierce disputes amongst feminists convinced that they alone held the key to unlocking patriarchy. However, if we remember that the concept of patriarchy stresses the interconnections between different areas of life, apparently competing approaches can also be seen as complementary; this means that theorists working in one area can learn from those working in another, and that different forms of political activity can have a cumulative effect.
Valerie Bryson

11. Marxist and Socialist Feminism from the 1960s to the 1990s

The starting point of the radical feminist approaches discussed in the last two chapters was the claim that women should develop their own theories, based on their own experiences, rather than relying on ideas that had been developed by men. Some feminists were also particularly hostile to Marxist and socialist theories because of their experience of sexism in left-wing organisations. Nevertheless, many writers continued to find these a source of inspiration and/or aid to feminist understanding, and from the 1970s there were intense theoretical debates, particularly over the use of Marxist concepts. Although by the end of the century philosophical and political developments had combined to make all forms of socialist thought much less fashionable, socialist and Marxist analysis continued to play a significant role in feminist theory and practice.
Valerie Bryson

12. Theoretical Developments: Postmodern Feminisms and Beyond

Despite important disagreements, most of the feminist ideas discussed so far in this book drew on ‘modernist’ ideas around justice, rights, reason and the possibility of making the world a better place. Some approaches stressed the variability of women’s experiences and the ways in which women could be divided by class or race, and many distinguished between biological sex (female or male) and socially constructed gender (feminine or masculine). However, few feminists contested the ‘common sense’ assumption that it is meaningful to talk about ‘women’ and ‘men’ as identifiable social groups.
Valerie Bryson

13. Theoretical Developments: Postcolonial Feminism, Black Feminism and Intersectionality

Black women in America had contributed to feminist thought and activism since at least the early nineteenth century (see Chapters 2, 4, 5 and 7). However, the indifference or hostility of white feminists meant that their insights often became scattered or lost, and they are only now being rediscovered. By the closing decades of the twentieth century a much more sustained and systematic black feminist analysis was developing that, along with postcolonial feminist theory, radically challenged the assumptions of mainstream white feminism.
Valerie Bryson

14. Western Feminist Theory in the Twenty-First Century: Developments in Liberal and Socialist Thought

Many of the key assumptions of earlier feminist thought were profoundly challenged by the theoretical developments discussed in the preceding two chapters. While some feminists have embraced these new ideas with enthusiasm, others have been more cautious. This chapter returns to earlier approaches to discuss recent feminist attempts to extend liberal principles and socialist analysis to both ‘private’ life and global issues.
Valerie Bryson

15. Western Feminism in the Twenty-First Century: Continuities, Challenges and Change

When the second (2003) edition of this book was published, feminism was widely perceived as old-fashioned and irrelevant to the lives of western women. Since then, however, there has been a significant resurgence of visible feminist activism, accompanied by public declarations of support from some high-profile individuals in politics and popular culture. After a brief overview of the changing context of western feminism in the twenty-first century, this chapter investigates what many describe as the third and fourth waves of feminism, and the opportunities and problems encountered by feminists in the brave new world of cyberspace. The final section examines feminist debates around the contentious and increasingly visible campaign for transgender/trans-sexual rights.
Valerie Bryson

Conclusions: Feminist Political Theory Today

As I said in the ‘Introduction’ to this book, any history of feminist political theory is inevitably partial and incomplete. The same is true of the following tentative conclusions, which make no claim to summarise all aspects of contemporary thought but aim merely to pull out some themes and make some suggestions.
Valerie Bryson
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