‘Femininity’ within ‘Feminism’: the Cultural Feminist vs. the Radical Feminist debate and who wins it?

Like many other paradigm-shifting movements in the world (such as the American Civil Rights Movement and the Communist Movement), having solid foundation in the legal theory and scholarship as it may have, the Feminism Movement (‘FM’) or the Feminist Legal Theory (‘FLT’) has also been met with severe opposition, sometimes backlash and also legal consequences of the unjust laws (that Martin Luther King Jr. warned us against). 

Within these very real struggles for redefining ‘work’, ‘beauty’, ‘marriage’ and what not, there has emerged a new debate concerning ‘Cultural Feminism ‘CF’ (or ‘soft feminism’) and Radical Feminism ‘RF’ (or ‘hard feminism’). In a nutshell, CF’s would say you have to appear welcoming and ‘soft’ to really make a change, while forgetting (as RF’s would argue) that this essentially is not ‘soft feminism’ but reinforced internalized-misogyny that has adapted itself to the modern feministic attack, much like a virus that adapts to appear friendly but is highly dangerous internally.
In academic scholarship terms, let us preliminarily explore Robin West (and by default Carol Gilligan) as the CF and Catherine MacKinnon (with integrated elements from Ann Scales) as the RF:-
1.    The jurist Robin West[1], relying on the work of psychologist Carol Gilligan[2] with male and female children on the Heinz Dilemma (‘whether or not to steal an expensive drug that offers the only hope of saving a dying spouse’[3]), states that whole presupposition of western jurisprudence is misfounded, as it stands on the ‘Separation Thesis’ (as termed by Hobbes), or the ‘male standard’ i.e. human beings are threatened by association and enliven by isolation. However, for women it is the exact opposite. As they bear children and breastfeed them, they are ‘connected’ with other human beings and thrive on this connection. Unless, we take into account this specific women’s experience and equally value parental care (meaning ‘equally divide the responsibility for’), intimacy etc. we cannot expect jurisprudence to effectively accommodate women. She further supports this by examples such as the lack of conviction for a ‘non-violent rape’ (or as Susan Estrich[4] calls it the ‘real rape’) and gendered definition of work (the famous ‘what do you do all day except dolling up’), which results in economic impoverishment of women. Charlesworth, Chinkin and Wright[5] support it by absence of female specific issues (such as female gentile mutilation) in international law until recently, and Gross[6] by arguing for humanization of bankruptcy laws (focused on mediation, and not court proceedings) so that more woman, with no previous exposure to such, can effectively participate in financial matters.

2.    On the other hand, Catherine MacKinnon[7] argues that the best way to look at these historically recurrent problems is not to view women as special angelic creatures (enriched by  motherly love and self-sacrifice) but rather by focusing on the fundamental ‘Power Dichotomy’ that this ‘male standard’ creates. She says that this has parallels to ‘White supremacy’ in the Critical Race Theory, and just like there was no logically-conceivable way of justifying White Supremacy, there can be none for justifying male supremacy. Therefore, it is no longer a question of whether patriarchy is right or wrong, but how to counter it. MacKinnon says this can be done by ‘asking the women question’, Ann Scales[8] by ‘conscious-raising’ (telling the women stories and reconstructing the abstract universality) and Littleton[9] by ‘centralization of women in normative debates’.

Moving forward to the debate at hand, who among them is right? Analyzing the jurisprudence cited above in detail tells us that the MacKinnon’s argument (and by default RF’s argument) undeniably has more merit, strength of reasoning and backing of history/recurrent pattern of social vices to support it.
It becomes pertinent to mention at this point the consequences of this division (and many other divisions with the FLT, that are beyond the scope of this blog, such as the TERF-Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist and the Queer FLT debate) such that while everyone or, for the purpose of the affectees, every woman, is entitled to her own opinion, this has the essential effect of diluting the force of the movement as it must exist in the 21st century. Therefore, before agreeing to disagree, women must reevaluate and reorganize, or else the FM could potentially fall victim to the same vice that the American Civil Rights Movements so narrowly avoided, the ‘us vs. them’ approach (or more specifically, the Malcom X vs. Martin Luther King Jr. approach).


[1] R. West, “Jurisprudence and Gender” (1988), 55 Uni. Of Chicago Law Review 1.
[2] See generally, Chap. 14 of M. Freeman, “Lloyd’s Introduction to Jurisprudence”, Ninth Edition (2014), Sweet & Maxwell.
[3] Ibid.
[4] S. Estrich, “Real Rape” (1987).
[5] Charlesworth, Chinkin and Wright, “Feminist Approaches to International Law” (1991), 85 American Journal of International Law 615.
[6] K. Gross, “Re-Vision of the Bankruptcy System: New Images of Individual Debtors” (1990), 88 Michigan Law Review 1506.
[7] C.A. MacKinnon, “Difference and Dominance: On Sex Discrimination” (1987), Feminism Unmodified; Discourses on Life and Law.
[8] A. Scales, “The Emergence of Feminist Jurisprudence: An Essay” (1986), 95 Yale Law Journal 1373.
[9] C. Littleton, “Restructuring Sexual Equality” (1987), 75 California Law Review 1274.

The writer, Sana, is a lawyer and legal academic based in Lahore, with a keen interest in Jurisprudence and Islamic Law. Previously, she has studied the University of London's International LLB Honours degree at University College Lahore, securing First Class Honours. 

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