Study Guide

Feminist Theory Buzzwords

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Patriarchy is to feminism as Mayor Wilkins was to Buffy Summers. It's powerful, it's pervasive, it has institutional clout, and it's devising a master plan to become a giant immortal snake monster. No wonder Buffy blew it up.

Literally, a patriarchy is any social system where family names and property pass from father to son.

More broadly, it's any social system where men hold more power and value than women. Which usually means pretty much most places in the world. Feeling mopey yet? Just wait, we see an empowerment at the end of the tunnel!

Liberal Feminism

Liberal feminism has been one of the most visible and popular kinds of feminism, particularly in the USA. Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead is a really awesome, up-to-date, easily mockable example of this school.

For liberal feminists, winning equality between women and men is the end goal. Women in patriarchal societies (which is basically all of them) have limited access to financial resources and political influence, and liberal feminists work hard to bust down doors and break through the glass ceiling. In general, they're not interested in changing the basic ways society functions: what they want is for everyone to acknowledge that women are just as capable of getting the job done.

Basically, they want the freedom to grab a better slice of the pie. And sure, that's hard to argue with. But there are some other branches that ask whether we're even in the right bakery.

Radical Feminism

Unlike liberal feminists, radical feminists don't just want a better slice of the pie. Instead, they want to dump the pie into the compost bin and serve up a whole new dish. Preferably one that they don't have to be in the kitchen to make.

So radical feminists say that the patriarchy underlies the whole way society is structured. Forms of male supremacy are so ingrained that most people don't question how they function and oppress women—and this ranges from obvious forms like men who think they have the right to a bigger paycheck than the ladies, to things like students being more likely to trust a male professor than a female one lecturing about the same thing.

Where the radical comes in is the way this group of feminists suggests we go about dealing with the patriarchal system. Is it by lobbying to change laws, politely reminding people that women are just as good as the menfolk, and writing books about bending your body in certain ways? (No, not a sex joke—we're just making fun of Lean In again.)

You best believe it ain't. Radical feminism is about how the system is flawed, so no change is about to happen within the system. Protest, revolution, full-on cultural change—now we're talkin'.

Don't get us wrong: radical feminists don't indiscriminately hate all men (well, some of them might), they just hate the way society has been structured over millennia to usually favor men. Their goal is to undermine patriarchy and change the hierarchical structures that maintain it—whether that's by saying that all men should be destroyed or joking about drinking male tears to be stronger. Hey, either one's gonna make you think about sexism a tad differently.

Separatist Feminists

This is one important group that gets associated with the radical school who said their piece during the 1970s and '80s. That was a time when lots of mainstream feminists thought of feminism as a "ladies only" kind of deal. Separatists thought that social relationships between women and men were always gonna be unhealthy: history showed that men were just naturally given to violent and oppressive behavior.

Since women and children are the ones who pay the price, separatists argued that they should overthrow the patriarchy by swearing off men altogether. That meant choosing to be "woman-identified" rather than "male-identified"—in other words, choosing deep friendships and even romantic relationships with other women instead of men. Yup, that's where jokes about all feminists being lesbians come from. Which hopefully you can tell by now isn't quite the case.


This term was coined by the African-American poet, novelist, and critic Alice Walker, who used it to name black women's unique brand of feminism. In her famous essay collection In Search of Our Mother's Gardens: Womanist Prose (1983), Walker says that womanism refers to "serious," confident, and "grown-up" behavior.

Doesn't sound like fun? Don't let all the "grown-up" stuff throw you off. She wasn't a separatist, but she presents womanism as a way of celebrating women who love other women. This is something that's at the heart of all feminism, in Walker's view. As she puts it: "[w]omanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender."

Écriture Féminine

In English, this phrase could be translated as "women's writing" or "feminine writing." But it's not around to refer to just anything that's been written by a lady-identified lady. The phrase comes to us from the work of the French feminist Hélène Cixous, who encouraged women to take pleasure (like, full-on naughty pleasure) in their bodies and their writing, and to let that pleasure come out loud and clear in their work.

For her, écriture féminine is writing that revels in "woman-ness." It doesn't shy away from exploring women's needs, desires, and life experiences: it's writing that welcomes radical experimentation in language and self-expression.


This is one of the dirty words for feminists, and not in a nice sexy consensual way. Essentialism is a way of understanding a group of people based on their similarities rather than their differences. So for feminist theory, essentialism is the view that women have certain basic qualities that make them different from men by their very essence, or basis, or nature. All ugly words to a feminist.

Although essentialist perspectives are occasionally productive (think the Suffragette Movement), they can only be taken so far. Imagine a farmer and mother of seven in Uganda. An executive who says to lean in. A Chinese lesbian vs. a Chinese-American one. A student in India, or a student in Texas. All women in the biological sense, but totally different in terms of their experiences and ways of viewing the world.

So there's kind of a big resounding "duh" when someone says that not all women experience what it means to be a woman in the same way. Factors like race, nationality, class, sexuality, and gender expression all have huge bearing on how individual women experience their "woman-ness." And erasing those differences can have really bad results.

Compulsory Heterosexuality

Yikes, that sounds a lot rougher than the sort of compulsory climb-the-rope sort of thing in elementary school gym class. This term comes to us from the work of the American poet and scholar Adrienne Rich. A lot of Rich's writings emerged in a time of civil war in feminist politics. Opposing groups of activists and thinkers were heatedly debating the ins and outs of human sexuality, and issues like pornography, kink, butch/femme roles, and sadomasochism were hot hot hot topics of the day.

Rich was a lesbian feminist who analyzed the power dynamics of intimate relationships and argued for greater compassion among women, whatever their sexuality. She argued that patriarchy enforces cultural norms that make heterosexuality seem like the only plausible choice, when really it isn't "natural" at all: it's enforced by powerful social institutions that make it hard for women to imagine any alternative.

For example, little girls are taught from early on that falling in love with a man/handsome prince is the most natural, wonderful thing any girl could want, which is why ladies learn to compete with each other for men's attention instead of working together to overthrow oppression. According to Rich, that's a big reason ladies sometimes find it so hard to get along. Why wait for a knight in shining armor when you can ride the horse yourself?

Social Constructionism

Social constructionists are people who argue that our personal identity develops because we're conditioned by society, instead of being something that's fixed at birth. So, while some feminists argue that women are "essentially" different from men, social constructionists disagree.

These folks argue that sex and gender aren't hard-and-fast categories: what it means to be a "woman" and what it means to be a "man" have everything do with how social factors like science, religion, law, and popular culture have talked about masculinity and femininity over hundreds of years. In the words of Judith Butler, gender identity isn't a given: it's performed. And the things we perform? The product of being constructed.


When you see this term crop up in feminist theory, it usually means that your author's got Judith Butler on the brain. Butler is famous for arguing that there's no such thing as "true" sex or gender: according to her, social forces subtly push us to make our bodies and identities conform to norms that have been built up over centuries.

In Butler's view, sex and gender aren't "essential" parts of our identities: we "perform" them daily, and our repeated acts are what add up to be viewed as "identity." Basically if you put enough words in quotation marks you'll see how nothing's "natural" "in" "the" "first" "place." If you ain't questioning everything by now, feminism isn't doing its job.

Materialist Feminism

Like social constructionists, materialist feminists don't buy the idea of essential "woman-ness." As the French feminist thinker Monique Wittig tells us in her 1981 essay "One Is Not Born A Woman," materialist feminists want to track how the "myth of woman" gets played out in real life.

One of the coolest things about this branch is that they think of women as a social class. Drawing from a long history of feminist responses to Marxist thought, materialist feminists want to talk about how women's oppression is shaped by capitalism. Like liberal feminists, they're interested in women's access to resources. But, unlike the liberals, they don't think that winning equal power should be feminism's end goal.

Instead, they want to expose how capitalist societies depend on oppression in order to function, and, like their radical feminist friends, they'd like to shut the system down. Now there's some material for action!


T-1000 alert! Just kidding: this term isn't nearly so scary as seeing Robert Patrick come at you in a dead sprint.

Whenever you encounter the word "cyborg" in feminist theory, it's bound to have something to do with Donna Haraway's notion of the term. In her famous "Manifesto for Cyborgs" (1985), Haraway uses the sci-fi figure as a metaphor for radical political thinking.

What's so great about thinking like a cyborg? Well, for one thing, cyborgs represent broken-down boundaries between humans, animals, and machines, and they don't rank human life above other forms of it. Questioning hierarchies and power structures, and using kooky metaphors to do it? Sounds pretty feminist to us.

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