Back to top

Feminism: all is not what it seems…

16 January 17

Contrary to some claims, feminism still has a role to play in society, but it needs to reinvigorate itself by taking a more nuanced approach in a multicultural society

by Jordan Gray

Is feminism dead? An article in the Daily Mail claimed that feminism is outdated, since women believe they have achieved equality with men and, accordingly, most view feminism as an “old-fashioned” movement that has no place in contemporary society. However, as outlined by Nina Power,(1) what looks like emancipation is “nothing but a tightening of the shackles”, and in this respect the article is simply a product of “media propaganda” that can be refuted by clarification.(2)

This essay will refute claims like those in the Daily Mail by demonstrating, amongst other things, that there are still inequalities in contemporary society. Accordingly, the claim that we ought to “take a break” from feminism(3) will be countered by showing that equality remains an elusive force for too many women.(4) It is accepted, however, that feminism should modify its methodology to fit contemporary society. Appropriately, various suggestions will be made that mirror Power's 10 Things That Feminism Could Do Better, an encompassing overview of contemporary feminism and its role within society.

Equality and work

Feminist legal theorists have highlighted the way in which different roles are allocated between men and women within the public and private spheres of society.(5) In this sense, gender roles in the private sphere can often filter into the public sphere. In the private sphere, for instance, the division of gendered roles tends to restrict women’s access to the labour market, which means they are financially poorer than men and – in accordance with the capitalist model – have less influence in both the family home and broader society.(6)

Kabeer, for instance, highlights that women are predominantly responsible for caregiving and subsistence work(7), which, as suggested by Cook and Cusack, has resulted in women being negatively stereotyped and thus segregated from the public sphere.(8) This, at least ostensibly, they say, has had an adverse impact on certain women’s ability to gain economic stability, which supports Power's claim in 10 Things that the “fight has not been won”, whilst also highlighting that getting women into positions of power is not enough since it does not improve the lives of women generally.(9)

Feminism, therefore, should not be deceived by the successes of individual women who are at the top of their professions.(10) Informal employment, for instance, is still a larger source of employment for women than for men, which leads to countless women having to work in precarious occupations.(11)

One must bear in mind, however, that there is a complex relationship between law and social norms, which justifies a more nuanced approach to determining equality. For instance, as Halley touches upon, it is not necessarily about protecting women but providing them with the same opportunities as men,(12) which can be achieved without categorising women as a special vulnerable group. Fredman looks to the European Court of Human Rights to illustrate that it is possible to develop an approach to equality that brings men into the framework by appreciating their contribution to parenting.(13)

This allows more women time to work – thus “emancipating” them rather than “protecting” them – and also encourages fatherhood which should benefit children and hence families generally. As Power argues in 10 Things, by focusing on fatherhood, attention is also diverted from female gender roles, which allows feminism to focus on other significant issues such as unequal pay and the promotion of job security.

This argument mirrors the Foulcauldian position. This is the general appreciation that "power" is not a vertical, and patriarchal, concept but rather can be wielded in a number of fashions and hence is a complex notion with innumerable variables. Appreciating this, as complex as it may be, allows feminist theorists to examine fully the idea that power is interwoven throughout society and, much like a piece of silk cloth, has many hidden layers. Understanding this allows feminism to appreciate the multiple ways in which women can wield power.

In Australia, for instance, sex workers are using social media to tell the world about themselves and educate people that they are making reasoned choices. (Prostitution is legal in Sydney.) This movement provides sex workers with a platform to convey their own experiences, which should avoid “mudslinging” arguments whilst also limiting ghettoised debates, as Power puts it, on whether sex work is good or bad. This position unites with her suggestion that feminism should not take a moral stance that denounces the economic reality of sex workers’ lives, which is tangled with Radin’s double bind argument. This argument, put simply, would advocate that if feminism cannot help sex workers escape poverty, it should not obstruct them in financially mitigating it.(15) In other words, briefly adopting Halley’s reasoning, if the feminist movement stopped sex workers from earning money, it would eliminate their autonomy, their money etc, and thus do more harm than good by forcing them into more hardship.(16) Of course, there are problems with sex-working, but what this example is being used for is to show that feminists must appreciate the arguments on the ground before they hypothesise in their theoretical vacuum.

A comparable approach is occurring in relation to conventional employment. Goldblatt acknowledges that feminism should operate beyond employment law if there is to be any chance of achieving equality.(17) Again, this approach steers clear of a top down view of society by acknowledging that power occurs at a micro-level. This avoids deterministic arguments (like assuming sex work is bad) whilst also appreciating that multiple different things shape each woman, and many of these intersect and hence cannot be understood in the abstract.(18) The same logic applies to domestic violence; 1.2 million women were domestically assaulted in 2012-13 in the UK.(19) This, it is suggested, fully validates the claim that we should not “take a break” from feminism. Rather, we should “reinvigorate” it.

The Duluth model: theory in practice

The UK Government has acknowledged that legal safeguards to protect women from domestic abuse are only half the battle.(20) Instead, it appreciates that support structures are necessary so that, amongst other things, women are not frightened to report the crime and are made aware of the multiple different forms of abuse. This approach is more effective than highlighting male dominance and then advocating structural change.(21) Indeed, although each woman’s situation will vary, having a suitable support structure is a good starting point to helping women evade violent relationships.

This approach reflects the Duluth model – founded in Minnesota – where government wanted to address domestic violence through a treatment approach that involved police services, courts and human services.(22) This method acknowledges the multiple power dynamics that are inherent in a relationship and, appropriately, aims to educate men about gender roles by highlighting that certain behaviours that they think are “masculine” have, in actuality, been shaped by patriarchal social structures.(23) This approach will not fit every case, but it demonstrates that policymakers are mindful that criminalising domestic violence is not enough since it overlooks, for example, precautionary measures.

This view mirrors not only poststructuralist/postmodern sentiments but also liberal feminism, which seeks equality through social reform and, rather than asking for “revolutionary” change, aims to restructure contemporary norms in society.(24) The Duluth model also hints toward radical feminism by recognising the patriarchal nature of society and how this influences behaviour,(25) which correlates with feminists like Gilligan who argue that the way one thinks about oneself is socially constructed.(26)

The Duluth model is an interesting concept for a number of reasons, but particularly because it hints towards various different strands of feminism, thus illustrating the innumerable synergies between them and how they can work together. Indeed, this point contextualises Power’s suggestion in 10 Things that “waves” of feminism can hide more similarities than they reveal. It should also be highlighted, however, that 700,000 males were victims of domestic abuse in the UK in 2012-13.(27) However, as Halley outlines, feminism is driven by three main parts: a distinction between “m” and “f”; a theory about the subordination of “f” to “m”; and, finally, an obligation to work against such subordination on behalf of “f”.(28) By this logic, feminism (in theory) is unqualified with working alongside those victimised males. That said, theories are there to be broken and do not occur in a vacuum; many feminists, if not most, fight injustices in all walks of life and helping victimised males is very much within their ambit.

Feminism is also inadequate when trying to explain violence in same sex relationships and transgender groups. However, this does not need to be the case if feminism avoids “essentialist” arguments (I briefly touched on this earlier), which would, Power maintains, allow feminism to realign itself with other social justice movements such as gay rights. Certainly, by moving away from essentialist arguments, feminism can support all victims of violence regardless of their gender, race, sexual orientation and so forth. Nevertheless, the Duluth model is just one example of where feminism has impacted law and policy, which illustrates the real power that feminism has. Feminism “walks the halls of power” by shaping the law and thus societal norms;(29) this is a good thing since it validates the claim that feminism can have a solid impact in making society a better place, but it also allows feminism to be critiqued on the basis that it does not recognise its power and instead spends much of its time needlessly complaining.

Taking a postmodern view, and combining it with a Foulcauldian perspective, allows me to critique feminism on the basis that it does not take its power into account and, instead, has a paranoid mentality that suspects that if it is not constantly moving forward, it will sink.(30) However, as I have demonstrated, feminism still has an active role in society and therefore has a “duty” to keep moving forward. This is especially evident in relation to the face veil, where Vakulenko criticises the European Court of Human Rights in a series of cases on the basis that it ignores the intersection between gender and religion.(31)

Universal feminism: possible?

The Council of Europe on Gender and Religion claimed that religion is rarely non-threatening and, therefore, countries of Europe have a duty to “protect” women against religious objectification.(32) This, in their view, promotes gender equality whilst protecting women from abuse, and subsequent subordination, that is administered in the name of religious ideology. Therefore, the Council of Europe, and the European Court of Human Rights, is taking the stance that gender and religion antagonise one another – rather than intersect – which, as well as excluding religious women from its scope, allows the language of feminism to be used in the name of imperialism.(33)

It may seem, for instance, that wearing a face veil is oppressive, but the European case law highlights that many women want to wear them and have various reasons for doing so. Such reasons might have nothing to do with oppression but everything to do with choice.(34) Recognising this prevents the language of feminism from being used to ethically justify wars in the Middle East. For instance, Laura Bush declared: “only terrorists and the Taliban threaten to pull out women’s fingernails for wearing nail polish”.(35) Such sentiments suggest that the feminist movement is being used to justify bomb dropping, which makes the work of Muslim feminists extremely difficult.(36)

This approach is also ignoring the notion that gender is a social construct, which can only be given meaning in a particular institutional and political context.(37) Accordingly, Power in 10 Things argues that the word “feminism” ought to be reclaimed by the left and given a clear meaning and agenda, which should stop it being used to ethically justify hawkish policies. In this sense, feminism should recognise that female emancipation – in the eyes of western feminists – is not a universally agreed belief; instead, it is something that is culturally relative and hence cannot be understood in the abstract.

It could be contended that women are simply being forced into wearing veils and should be emancipated from such hardship. However, forbidding face veiling can force women back into the private sphere and cause more harm.(38) Additionally, some might feel so attached to their face veil that it qualifies as personal property and forms part of their personhood.(39) Feminism should recognise the intersection between different forces – gender, religion, culture and so on – that allows it to understand the needs of each woman better.(40) This could partly be achieved by working with grassroots movements in the Middle East, allowing feminists to place their views within the correct context, rather than discussing things in the non-figurative form of “west is best”.(41) This approach prevents feminists from ethnocentrically judging other cultures, and broadens the scope of feminism to include women who may feel alienated, and therefore excluded, from the feminist movement.


Feminism still has a place in society. However, in order to operate effectively, it should take a more nuanced approach by recognising that structural change is not always the solution. Feminism should also recognise the different forces at work in assessing women’s needs – the intersectionality approach – and work from the ground up, which is necessary due to the multicultural society that feminism operates within.

In conclusion, we should not “take a break” from feminism but should “reinvigorate” it so that it meets the needs of all victims.

Jordan Gray, LLB (Hons) (Strathclyde), Dip PLP (Glasgow) is a trainee solicitor with DWF LLP, Edinburgh. All opinions are the author's own and not those of DWF LLP. 


(1) Nina Power, One Dimensional Woman (2009: Zero Books), 2.
(2) Quoting V Paolo, “Post-Fordist Semblance”, SubStance, Issue 112 (Vol 36 (2007), no 1), 42.
(3) J Halley, Split Decisions: How and Why to Take a Break From Feminism? (2008: Princeton University Press).
(4) A Catherine et al, “Introduction: elusive equalities – sex, gender and women”, International Journal of the Law in Context (2014).
(5) S Boyd, Challenging the Public/Private Divide: Feminism, Law, and Public Policy (1997: Toronto: University of Toronto Press).
(6) Fineman, The Autonomy Myth: A Theory of Dependency (2004: New York: New Press), cited in “Gender, Poverty and the development of the right to social security” (2014) International Journal of the Law in Context.
(7) N Kabeer, Mainstreaming Gender in Social Protection for the Informal Economy (2008: London: Commonwealth Secretariat).
(8) R Cook and S Cusack, Gender Stereotyping: Transnational Legal Perspective (2010: Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press).
(9) Power, fn 1 above, at 6.
(10) Power, fn 1 above.
(11) International Labour Organisation, The Informal Economy and Decent Work: A Policy Resource Guide Supporting Transitions to Formality: Promoting Equality and Addressing Discrimination (2013: Geneva: Employment Policy Department), 4.
(12) Halley, fn 3 above.
(13) Work cited at fn 4 above, at 2.
(14) M Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1977), trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage).
(15) M Radin, Contested Commodities (1996: Harvard University Press).
(16) Halley, fn 3 above, at 346.
(17) Work cited at fn 4 above, at 3.
(18) M Deckha, “Is Culture Taboo? Feminism, Intersectionality, and Culture Talk in Law”, Canadian Journal of Women and the Law 16 (2004), 14-53.
(19) G Oonagh (2015), Domestic ViolenceHome Affairs Section SN/HA/6337 (2015).
(20) Ibid, 6-7.
(21) C MacKinnon, Feminism Unmodified (1987: Harvard University Press).
(22) E Pence and M Paymar, Education groups for men who batter (1993: London: Springer).
(23) Ibid, xiii.
(24) B Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (1974: New York: Dell).
(25) Catharine A.M, "Feminism, Marxism, Method, and the State: An Agenda for Theory", Feminist Theory 7(3) (1982), 515-544.
(26) C Gilligan, Meeting at the crossroads (1993: Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).
(27) Oonagh, fn 19 above.
(28) Halley, fn 3 above, at 4-5.
(29) M Franks (2007) Book Review: Split Decisions, in Harvard Journal of Law and Gender 30 (2007), 259.
(30) Ibid.
(31) A Vakulenko, “'Islamic Headscarves' and the European Convention on Human Rights: An Intersectional Perspective”, Social & Legal Studies 16(2) (2007), 183-199.
(32) Ibid.
(33) Power, fn 1 above, at 11.
(34) For example, see Karaduman v Turkey (1993), Dahlab v Switzerland (2001) and Sahin v Turkey (2005).
(35) Power, fn 1 above, at 11.
(36) P Katha, “After Iraq and Afghanistan, Muslim Feminists Are Leery of Seeming Close to the West”, The Nation, 23 June 2007, cited in Power, fn 1 above.
(37) J Rubery, From “Women and Recession” to “Women and Austerity”: A Framework for Analysis (2014), cited in Maria K and Jill R (eds), Women and Austerity: The Economic Crisis and the Future for Gender Equality (London and New York: Routledge), 17.
(38) L Wade, “The Politics of Acculturation: Female Genital Cutting and the Challenge of Building Multicultural Democracies”, Social Problems 58(4) (2011), 518-537.
(39) Margaret J Radin, “Persons and Property”, Stanford Law Review 34 (1982), 959.
(40) W Brown, “The Impossibility of Women’s Studies”, Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 9(3) (1997), 79-101.
(41) Power, fn 1 above.


Have your say