Secular Reconstructionist Feminism

The OCR Developments in Christian Theology specification states that you need to know about various forms of reconstructionist feminism, specifically existentialist, marxist and freudian.  

In addition to this you need to know how feminist theologians have responded to the challenge posed by reconstructionist feminism.

Liberal Feminism is not enough:

Liberal feminism optimistically assumed that if women were given the vote, the opportunity to get jobs and equal access to education then they would be able to gain equality with men.  Patriarchy could be defeated by empowering women and offering them choice.

Reconstructionist feminism suggests that this is not enough.  Even if women are given equal opportunities in the jobs market they tend to end up working in traditionally female careers. Women still end up being defined by the idea of motherhood. Women still end up playing the traditional female role within marriage. Men and women still have one set of expectations for women and a different set for men.

Reconstructionists suggest that this is because the structures of society compel women to play a certain role within the world.  Thus a woman is never really free to choose for herself.  She is constrained by other factors.  Consequently, liberal feminism does not do enough to truly liberate women because although it opposes examples of inequality it does not address the causes of discrimination. Reconstructionists (as the name suggests) believe that society needs to be reconstructed to enable women to have choice. 

Existentialist feminism:

One form of reconstructionist feminism is existentialist feminism.

Existentialism is the name of a philosophical movement that began in France during the mid twentieth century.  At the core of existentialism is the idea that people should aim to live free, authentic lives in which they choose for themselves how to behave.

The phrase 'existence precedes essence' summarises the central principle of existentialism.  'Existence' (i.e. your life and being) comes before your 'essence' (i.e. your nature).  People do not have any intrinsic 'human nature' that they must fulfil. We can only say what a person's essence was once they have died as up until that point they are still forming themselves.

Jean-Paul Sartre contrasted humans with inanimate objects. Humans are unique in that they possess consciousness which means that they can make decisions about the type of person that they want to be.  This enables them to take control of their own lives and live for themselves (pour soi) rather than purely in themselves (en soi).  However, although we can live freely and autonomously, many people do not.  All too often people live their lives according to how other people think that they should.  This means that their decisions are not truly free and they are trying to fulfil an 'essence' rather than create their essence.  Sartre described this type of life as living in 'mauvoise foi' (bad faith) rather then 'bon foi' (good faith).

Simone de Beauvoir was Sartre's long term partner.  They were not married (they both had very negative views about marriage) and theirs was a relationship founded on equality and freedom.

Woman as 'other':

'Man seeks to dominate the ‘Other’'

De Beauvoir's book was called The Second Sex.  The title refers to her suggestion that throughout history women have been seen as 'the other'.  Men are normative (normal), women are 'other' (different, adapted, perverted, corrupted, lesser).  She argues that this view developed because biological difference gave men the initial upper hand. Men are physically stronger, women are hindered by menstration, pregnancy, birth and breast-feeding which made them less able to take the lead role in early societies. Once men had the upper hand they created customs, laws and structures which reflected their way of seeing things i.e. men as normal, women as different.

'From humanities beginnings, then biological advantage has enabled the males to affirm their status as sole and sovereign subjects; they have never abdicated this position…[woman is] condemned to play the part of the Other'

For example, peasants began to take control of their lives and see themselves as fully human when they began to challenge the aristocracy and reject the ways of thinking that the aristocracy had tried to force onto them.

De Beauvoir borrowed from Hegel the idea that history progresses through struggle as the dominant group in society are challenged by the exploited. She thought that this process was essential in contributing the self-awareness.  People only realise that they are autonomous beings when they rise up and challenge those who have dominated them. 

Unfortunately for women, this dialectical struggle has historically taken place between men.  Serfs rose up and overthrew their lords, peasants challenged the aristocracy.  Men have thus confirmed themselves as persons and gained the ability to make free choices unfettered by expectation.  Women have remained on the sidelines (at home) and have not taken part in the historical struggle. Therefore, they have never had the chance to go through this person making process. She says that 'Women have never set up female values in opposition to male values…men have presumed to create a feminine domain … only in order to lock up women there.' They have never been able to overthrow the label of 'the other' and the world has continued to be seen through male eyes.

The myth of the eternal feminine:

De Beauvoir applied the existentialist principles to women and argued that women are prevented from living in bon foi (good faith) because they are constantly taught to aspire towards the 'myth of the eternal feminine'.  This myth is created by men but perpetuated by both men and women.  Women are taught from early childhood that men and women are essentially different (different in essence), that there are female characteristics which should be developed. To not live up to this stereotype is to fail at being a woman.

This means that women always live according to how others expect them to be. They always live in mauvoise foi (bad faith) and can never lead authentic lives. Even if a woman is given a choice about how she wants to live - a career choice for example - she will choose according to the values that have been instilled in her.  

'Women are still, for the most part, in a state of subjugation.  It follows that woman sees herself and makes her choices not in accordance with her true nature in itself, but as man defines it.'

'Even when her rights are legally recognised in the abstract, long standing customs prevent their full expression.'

Therefore, she cannot choose freely, she has been socially conditioned to be a certain way. This explains why the liberal agenda cannot succeed. Changing laws and giving women opportunities will not bring about change unless women are brought up able to make genuinely free choices. De Beauvoir pointed out that women are judged on how well they live up to the myth of the eternal feminine. A 'feminine' woman will behave in a certain way. The myth implies that all women are somehow the same, that there is some type of 'female nature'. De Beauvoir said that although the evidence often points against this (i.e. all women are different) the myth is so powerful that it continues in spite of the evidence. Women who are not like the myth says women should be are regarded as failures rather than seen as individuals with different interests and priorities.

'Thus against the dispersed, contingent, and multiple existences of actual woman, mythical though opposes the Eternal Feminine unique and changeless.  If the definition provided for this concept is contradicted by the behaviour of flesh and blood women, it is the latter who are wrong; we are not told that Femininity is a false entity, but that the women concerned are not feminine.  The contrary facts of experience are impotent against the myth.'


'Marriage is the destiny traditionally offered to woman by society.'

De Beauvoir believed that girls were brought up to aspire to being wives of rich husbands. She said that 'Her youth is consumed in waiting, more or less disguised, she is waiting for Man.' whereas 'No young man considers marriage as his fundamental project'. Men are brought up to aim towards careers and achievement. Men may expect marriage to be part of their life, but it is not their primary goal. The reason for the difference is - according to de Beauvoir - down to upbringing. Girls have been taught from early childhood to look forward to marriage and trained to behave in a way that would help them to achieve this end. For example, they were taught to prioritise looks and to behave in ways that were appealing to men. 

'…since childhood…she has looked to the male for fulfilment…she has always been convinced of male superiority; this male prestige is not a childish mirage; it has economic and social foundations; men are surely masters of the world.  Everything tells the young girl that it is in her best interests to become their vassal; her parents urge it…Marriage is not only a honourable career and one less tiring than others’ it alone permits a woman to keep her social dignity intact and at the same time find sexual fulfilment as a loved one and mother…She will free herself from the paternal home, from her mother’s hold, she will open up her future, not by active conquest but by delivering herself up, passive and docile , into the hands of a new master.'

'She is naturally tempted by this relatively easy way [i.e. marriage], the more so because occupations open to women are often disagreeable and poorly paid.'

This relates back to the issue of choice. De Beauvoir believed that it made no sense to say that a girl chooses to prioritise marriage if she has been trained by society to think that way and when the other options available to her were so poor. Therefore, a women cannot live in good faith (bon foi) because their choices are caused by others. In order to enable women to live in good faith society has to be reconstructed to get rid of all the things that create the myth of the eternal feminine.

'Individuals are not to be blamed for the failure of marriage; it is…the institution itself.'

    De Beauvoir believed that the institution of marriage was flawed and bound to fail. In her view, marriage killed desire and left both men and women frustrated.

I.e. marriage kills romance by institutionalising the relationship.

  • 'Man has succeeded in enslaving women, but by the same degree he has deprived her of what made her possession desirable…she is no longer that unconquered prey…since the rise of chivalric love it is commonplace that marriage kills love…The marriage rites were originally intended to protect man against woman; she became his property…[but] marriage is a form of servitude for man alas…because he desired a fresh young girl, he has to support a heavy matron of desiccated hag for life…there is hoax in marriage since, while being supposed to socialise eroticism, it succeed only in killing it.'

Thus whilst girls are taught that marriage will be their salvation this is a false hope. Women are trapped and limited by marriage and will not be made happy by it.

  • 'Woman’s work within the home gives her no autonomy; it is not directly useful to society, it does not open out on the future, it produces nothing.'

De Beauvoir said that 'Marriages, then, are not generally founded upon love.' 

What do you think she would say that they were founded upon instead?

De Beauvoir did recognise that the nature of marriage was changing and she says 'Many young households give the impression of being on a basis of perfect equality.' However, when she was writing men were generally still the primary breadwinner. De Beauvoir (like Taylor) believed that equality was impossible if the man had the money and thus the power. She wrote:

'But as long as the man retains economic responsibility for the couple this is only an illusion.  It is he who decides where they live….their standard of living is set according to his income… he will guide the couple in intellectual, political and moral matters.  Divorce is only a theoretical possibility for a woman who cannot earn her own living.'

For de Beauvoir, the problem with marriage is that it originated as a way of controlling and owning women. It was, she thought, an outdated concept. 'On the whole marriage is today a surviving relic of dead ways of live' and she thought that it was much better for couples to cohabit. The ideal couple should be independently successful first so that they can then meet as equals.


'No maternal ‘instinct’ exists…a mother’s attitude depends on her total situation.'

De Beauvoir also challenged prevailing views about motherhood. She rejected the idea that women have an instinctive urge to be mothers or an innate maternal instinct. She said that how a mother feels towards her child depends entirely on the circumstances under which she finds herself pregnant. The idea that all women want to be mothers or that they are naturally good at it is part of the myth of the eternal feminine, but as it is a MYTH it is not true.  It is a lie that has been taught to women and influences the way that they think. Consequently, de Beauvoir thought that it was essential for women to be able to choose whether or not to become mothers.  She supported both contraception and abortion for this reason and regarded the arguments against them as 'ancient patriarchal restraints'.

'...the relationship between parent and offspring, like between husband and wife, ought to be freely willed.'

'Enforced maternity brings into the world wretched infants.'

'Contraception and legal abortion would permit women to undertake her maternities in freedom.'

It is important to note that de Beauvoir was not anti-motherhood. In fact she said that 'that unless the circumstances are positively unfavourable the mother will find her life enriched by her child'. She opposes the things that deprive a woman of the ability to live in bon foi.These include:

'It is outrageously paradoxical to deny women all activity in public affairs, to shut her out of masculine careers, to assert the incapacity in all fields of effect, and then to entrust to her the most delicate and serious undertaking of all, the moulding of a human being'.

  • The lack of contraception/abortion that remove the element of choice from motherhood.
  • The lack of other options for women.
  • The belief that women are naturally predisposed towards motherhood (part of the myth of the eternal feminine).
  • The belief that children will automatically do best with their mother (also part of the myth of the eternal feminine).
  • The stigmatisation of unmarried mothers.

To allow women choice and opportunities the state should provide adequate childcare.

'In properly organised society, where children would be largely taken in charge by the community and the mother cared for and helped, maternity would not be entirely incompatible with a career.'

'The domestic labours that fell to her lot because they were reconcilable with the cares of maternity imprisoned her in repetition…they produced nothing new.'

De Beauvoir also thought that women's role in reproduction has contributed to women's oppression in the past (men feared women's creative powers and tried to control them whilst women were physically disadvantaged by pregnancy and breastfeeding). However, unlike Shulamith Firestone, de Beauvoir recognises the value of motherhood provided it was undertaken through genuine choice.


'Christianity ideologically has contributed no little to the oppression of women'.

According to de Beauvoir, Christianity was one of the things that has contributed to the myth of the eternal feminine and it has been used to keep women in their place. She argued that Christianity has been created by men and thus reflects their own interests. She recognises that there are some things within Christianity which are less misogynistic ('Doubtless there is in the Gospels a breath of charity that extends to women as to lepers'), but on the whole it has been used as a tool of control.

'The church expresses and serves the patriarchal civilization in which it is meet and proper for woman to remain appended to a man.  It is through being his docile servant that she will be also a blessed saint.'

Note: Daly was influenced by De Beauvoir - not the other way around.

Like Mary Daly, de Beauvoir rejected the idea that the Virgin Mary demonstrates a positive role model for women.  She says that in the story of the annunciation Mary 'is glorified only by accepting the subordinate role assigned her ‘I am the servant of the Lord’…this is the supreme masculine victory.'

Christianity, says de Beauvoir, has emphasised the 'dangerous character' of women. Within Christianity woman's otherness becomes associated with sin. Reason (man) is good, Body/flesh (woman) is other and bad. Women tempt men to sin, the flesh must be conquered by the mind:

  • '..the flesh that is for the Christian the hostile Other is precisely woman.  In her the Christian finds incarnate the temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil.  In her the Christian finds incarnated the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil.  All the Fathers of the Church insist on the idea that she led Adam into Sin.'

Social structures:

An interesting question that de Beauvoir addressed is the question of why the myth of the eternal feminine gets passed on.  Why do women continue to bring up their daughters to aspire to be a certain way?

Her answer is basically that men want to keep it that way and women have been so socially conditioned to accept the myth of the eternal feminine that they believe it and pass it on unthinkingly to the next generation.

Consequently, the first stage of female liberation involves some form of conscientisation. Then women need to enter into the dialectical struggles by which they challenge the way the world is viewed by their oppressors (i.e. challenge the male dominated view and reject the idea that man is normative and woman other). By doing this women can discover themselves and gain the ability to make free choices. Until this is done women will never be able to make the most of the opportunities that are open to them.

'Parents still bring up their daughters with a view to marriage rather than to furthering her personal development;…the result is that she is often less specially trained, less solidly grounded than her brothers.  She is less deeply involved in her profession.  In this way she dooms herself to remain at its lower levels, to be professionally inferior; and the vicious circle is formed; this professional inferiority reinforces her desire to find a husband.'


The first and most important question to ask is whether or not de Beauvoir is correct. Are women will be unable to make the most of opportunities offered to them unless we first change the way they think? To answer this question you need to look at the evidence:

  • Most people would argue that women in Britain live in an essentially equal society. Equal rights are protected by law, discrimination is illegal and women have equal access to things like schooling, jobs and so forth. Arguably, the liberal feminist agenda has been achieved and thus reconstruction is unnecessary.
  • However, if we look more closely we can perhaps see that women are still - on average - more likely to fulfill traditionally female roles. (80% of science, research, engineering and technology professionals are male, 82% of workers in industries involving caring, leisure and similar services are female). The question is, do they choose these roles freely, or because they have been beguiled by some version of the myth of the eternal feminine? Do women feel that they have to fulfil a certain role?

BBC article on the possible link between children's toys and their career choices.

  • There has been a lot of debate recently about gender segregation in toy shops, ruthless colour coding in children's clothing and gender based marketing. Do fewer girls choose to do maths and engineering because they were given fewer construction toys when they were young? Or because they perceive maths and science as 'boys subjects'? Or because they feel that they will be outnumbered in the classroom?  It is because they lack female role models to set them an example? In 2013 the UK education minister Elizabeth Truss warned that toys should not be marketed in a gender specific way.
  • Of course, gender stereotyping works both ways.  We could equally well ask why boys don't generally go in for cake decorating or sewing.  The film Billy Elliot illustrates the pressures that a child may face if they try to go against the norm. 

Men are less good at empathy here and here.

Male and female brains wired differently here.

Secondly, you could challenge this idea that there is no such thing as male nature or female nature. There are studies that have supported the idea that men and women's brains work in different ways. Women might genuinely be better at things requiring empathy. If it is true that there is a separate male/female nature then perhaps the best way to achieve fulfilment for women is to encourage them to work with nature rather than against it. From a traditional Christian perspective, God makes men and women with a specific end (telos) in mind and they will be fulfilled by achieving it.

Rosemarie Tong's book Feminist Thought lists some of the more in depth criticisms that have been levelled against De Beauvoir.

'As Elshtain saw it, de Beauvoir's diagnosis of woman's condition and her prescription for its cure were both severely flawed. to ask women to give up their female identities, without considering the ramifications of trading in sisterhood for the universal brotherhood of mankind, is irresponsible.'

Rosemarie Tong. 

  • Jean Bethke Elshtain has criticised De Beauvoir's work for:
  1. being too technical and philosophical to be accessible to most women. Thus it is hard to see how it will help them in practice.
  2. being too negative towards the body and implicitly accepting the body bad/reason good patriarchal view of things.
  3. for requiring women to reject the institutions of marriage and (to a lesser extent) motherhood.
  4. for accepting male values (transcendence over nature) at the expence of female ones.

Rosemarie Tong then evaluates these criticisms and says that whilst they need to be taken seriously they do not undermine de Beauvoir's overall contribution to feminism. The Second Sex sold 22,000 copies - proof that woman did find it accessible. Tong argues that de Beauvoir does not have an entirely negative view towards the body, de Beauvoir said that people could be proud of their bodies but should not be defined by them and thus women should not see reproduction as the one sole purpose of women.

Marxist feminism:

Many of the notes on Marxist feminism are a summarised version of chapter 3 Rosemary Tong's book Feminist Thought.

Marxist feminists argued that economic factors were at the root of female oppression.  Many Marxist feminists believed that capitalism and patriarchy went hand in hand.  

Marxist feminists and socialist feminists drew on ideas from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.  As you may remember from your AS work, Marx believed that capitalism intrinsically involved exploitation (i.e. exploitation is an essential and unavoidable part of capitalism). All worker are exploited, but in Das Kapital Marx explained that women - especially women who were mothers - were easy for capitalists to exploit.

'The manufacturer Mr E, informed me that he gave preference to married women and among them to those who had families at home to support, because these were more attentive and docile than the unmarried and had to work to the very end of their strength in order to obtain the necessities of life for their families...Thus it is that woman’s true qualities are warped to her disadvantage, and all the moral and delicate element in her nature become the means for enslaving her and making her suffer.’

Engels set out his thoughts in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1845).

  • In primitive, pre-agricultural societies men and women had different roles and the woman's role was primarily in the domestic sphere but the roles were both recognised as being essential to survival.  Neither was seen as 'better' than the other.
  • As agriculture began to replace hunter-gather societies people gradually began to claim private property.
  • The idea of private ownership changed the way men thought about women.  They came to see women as something to be owned (partly so that they could be sure that the children she had were his so that he could pass on his wealth to his own descendents).
  • With the introduction of wage labour came the idea that jobs that earned more money were more valuable than jobs that earned less money.  Value was measured in monetary terms.
  • Women continued to do the same thing (the domestic role) but their contribution was no longer respected as what they did had no financial value.
  • For women to be free, they need to be economically independent (for this reason he thought that proletariat women who worked and contributed to the household funds enjoyed more equality than bourgeoisie women who sold their fidelity in return for being 'kept' by their husbands).

In other words, the arrival of capitalism caused women to be viewed as second class citizens.

In addition to the ideas above, there are other ideas that can be drawn from Marx and Engels.

  • Determinism: Marx said that people are driven to make the choices they make by the society that they live in.
  • In a capitalist society people are driven to sell whatever has most value.  For a poor, uneducated woman this is likely to be her body.  Thus capitalism forces women into prostitution. Engels compared bourgeoisie marriages to prostitution.  The woman sells her body to her husband in return for being provided for.
  • False consciousness: Marx suggested that those who are exploited often do not realise it because they have been conditioned to think that the exploitation is normal, justified or 'just how things are'.  The first stage of changing anything is to make people realise what needs changing.

Whilst many feminists agreed that economic factors needed addressing, they often disagreed about the solution to the problem. Evelyn Reed (Women: Caste, Class or Oppressed Sex?) essentially agreed that the problems for working class women were caused by capitalism.  Thus, for her, the solution was to first solve the problem of capitalism by rebelling against it.  She was hopeful that in a communist world, founded on egalitarian principles, men and women would enjoy greater equality.

Other feminists took up the challenge presented by Engels.  Magaret Benston wanted it to be easier for women to do jobs that had economic value.  To make this possible women needed not only education and equal opportunities (as the liberals wanted) but also effective (and affordable) childcare so that they could enter the jobs market.

Not everyone agreed that this was the best method forward.  Selma James and Maria Dallas Costa felt that a more effective way of getting around the issue of lack of respect for women was to pay them for what they already do.  Rather than encourage them to take jobs outside the home society should recognise the importance of child-rearing and homemaking and pay them a wage in recognition of this.  However, this idea was rejected by Carol Lobate who thought that doing so would further trap women in the domestic realm as there would be no reason to leave it.

Many feminists who have been influenced by Marxist thought suggest that women are seen as a separate class within society.  Just as in classical Marxism the proletariat are exploited by the bourgoeisie and require a class war to end this exploitation Marxist feminists believe that the class of women are exploited by the class of men.  Women therefore, need to engage in class (gender) warfare and challenge the authority of men.  According to the Marxist dialectical view of history, this challenge to the status quo should lead to a period of struggle followed by a new society based on a synthesis of ideas.

Thus many socialist feminists believe that women are doubly exploited, once economically because of the way they are sidelined and/or used in capitalist systems and one as a gender class who are expected to fulfil a specific role (the domestic role) and serve the men in society by performing most of the housework/childcare in addition to any economic job that they may have.

Juliet Mitchell was interested in why women tend to end up in low paid jobs even when they are qualified for better paid ones.  She suggested that Marx alone could not account for that.  Thus feminists need a two-system approach that considers both capitalism and patriarchy.

Alison Jaggar also agreed that women were oppressed by both capitalism and patriarchy.  She used the Marxist idea of alienation to analyse the problems women faced in their relationship with their children.  

  • According to Jaggar, society encourages women to see their children as their 'product' (i.e. the thing they produce).  
  • Therefore, they dehumanise their own child because they see them as a product rather than a person.  
  • However, just as Marx said that the workers were alienated from their product, so women become alienated from their children.  This is because women are both taught that they should be mothers, but also dismissed because they are 'just' mothers.  Thus they feel ambivilent about their own role.  
  • They heap their hopes and expectations on their child who may not be able to live up to these expectations.  

In a similar way women also become alienated from their own bodies which become commodities to be beautified and shaped to please men.


Many feminists would say that economic issues should still be at the heart of feminism. Despite all the progress made, there are still economic inequalities between men and women.

  • Women are still likely to earn less than men on average during their lifetime.
  • They are still more likely to be employed in low paid jobs or in part time work
  • They are more likely to be exploited as docile sweat-shop workers.
  • Whatever job they do, women generally do more of the unpaid domestic work in the home 

There are related questions concerning whether the economic value of some jobs is low because they are seen as women's work. Nursing, for example, is relatively poorly paid given that it requires significant training and involves a lot of responsibility.

'Society needs to ask itself why in the United States, registered nurses, 91.9 percent female, earned an average of $971 weekly in 2006, whereas airplane pilots and flight engineers, 71 percent male, earned $1,419 weekly.'

'Do such pay differentials exist because, for example, flying planes is so much more physically, psychologically, and intellectually demanding then, for example, nursing?  Or do they exist because most airline pilots are men and most nurses are women?'

Rosemarie Tong, Feminist Thought

Rosemarie Tong herself is of the opinion that feminism should be focusing on economic rather than psychological factors and concluded it was 'probably a mistake' to turn away from the Marxist insights.

'Given women's distinctly underprivileged position in the workplace, it is somewhat difficult to understand why, beginning in the 1970s many feminists, including Marxist feminists, abandoned material explanations of women's oppression.  They turned instead to psychological explanations...'

Rosemarie Tong Feminist Thought

Tong quotes Stevi Jackson in support of Marxist feminism:

'A materialist analysis now is as relevant as it ever was.  Whilst accepting that traditional Marxists had little to say about gender divisions... the method of analysis Marx left us remains useful.'

'We live our lives now within a global system characterised by extremely stark material inequalities.'

Freudian feminism:

Freud's key ideas:

Freud dismissed the assumption that children have no sexual feelings.  He argued that they progress through distinct sexual stages.

  • Oral stage: Babies and small children gain sensual pleasure through feeding and thumb sucking.
  • Anal stage: Toddlers gain pleasure from controlling their bowel movements
  • Phallic stage: 3-4 year old children discover their genitals and discover that they are a source of pleasure.

Both boys and girls initially form their strongest attachment to their mother (as she is the one to nurture and feed them). To progress from this state to one of sexual maturity children have to 'resolve the Oedipus Complex'.

  • As boys enter the phallic stage of development he desires to possess his mother and to kill his father so that he can have his mother all to himself.  However, he feels ambivalent as he also loves his father and wants his approval.  When he realises that his mother does not have a penis he assumes that she has been castrated by his father and he is fearful lest his father should castrate him too.  It is this fear that prevents him from acting upon his desire for his mother.  He submits to his father's authority and restrains his desire for his mother, gaining self-control in the process.
  • Girls go through a different process.  For girls, the realisation that she lacks a penis is a source of disappointment (she develops 'penis envy'.  When she realises that her mother also lacks a penis she becomes disappointed in her mother.  This causes her to transfer her affection from her mother (her first love) to her father and in doing so comes to see her mother as a rival.

Freud thought that what where then regarded as sexual perversions resulted from a failure to move through these normal stages of sexual development.

Feminist criticisms of Freud:

Many feminists find Freud's theories problematic.  Betty Friedan objected to Freud's claim that 'anatomy is destiny'.  She rejected this deterministic account of human nature which suggests that women are doomed by biology to a certain type of existence.  Kate Millet has accused Freud of being androcentric because the concept of penis envy presents women as the deficient ones; those lacking something. Millet was also critical of Freud's reduction of motherhood to being a second best penis substitute rather than something to be cherished and celebrated.  In essence, Millet accused Freud of having his own subconscious bias which led him to see men as normative and woman as the deficient copy.

However, whilst Freud's ideas were not accepted wholeheartedly by feminists, there were many who felt that the root of sexism was psychological.  Feminists who write from this perspective can be termed 'psycho-analytical feminists'.

Dorothy Dinnerstein:

Dorothy Dinnerstein was born in 1923 to a Jewish family living in New York (her parents had come from Poland and Russia).  She gained a PhD in Psychology and 

'The universal exploitation of women is rooted in our attitudes toward very early parental figures and will go on until these figures are male as well as female.'

Dorothy Dinnerstein, The Mermaid and the Minotaur (1976)

As the quotation above shows, Dinnerstein believed that sexism is embedded deep within the subconscious.  Consequently, to solution to sexism needs to address the root cause.

Dinnerstein argued that both men and women grow up with an ambivalence towards women which is due to the way in which very young pre-rational babies experience their mother as both a source of pleasure and of pain.  Pleasure (in cuddles, breast-feeding, nurturing lullabies etc) and pain (cross words, withdrawal of milk etc) both come from the mother but the very young baby cannot tell why the mother sometimes provides one and sometimes the other.  Consequently the mother is both adored and mistrusted by the infant because she is the origin of unbridled joy and crushing disappointment!  

'Like nature she is both nourishing and disappointing, both alluring and threatening, both comforting and unreliable.  The infant loves her touch, warmth, shape, taste, sound, movement... and hates her because she does not perfectly protect and provide for it....The mother is perceived as capricious...sometimes actively malevolent.'

Dinnerstein, The Mermaid and the Minotaur (1976)

The result of this is that men grow up fearing the woman's power to hurt them and seek to control women. Women grow up fearing the 'beast within' (dreading becoming like their mothers) and allow themselves to be controlled to avoid this fate.  Both genders fear returning to the helplessness of infancy. The reason why people feel ambivalent about women but not about men is because men tend not to be as involved in the very early stages of a baby's development. Thus it is only the mother who is unpredictable.  By the time the father enters the picture the child is more rational and more able to understand the reasons behind the different behaviours.

The delayed involvement of the father also causes another problem.  In the very early stages of development the baby does not recognise that the mother is another independent identity (they cannot as they do not yet have a sense of 'self' with which to contrast another self).  The baby does not realise that its mother has an independent identity and sees her as an 'it' rather than an 'I'.  From the baby's perspective the mother is omnipresent and focused around providing for its needs.  The father exists more in the background.  He comes and goes.  The child only really becomes aware of him once the child has grasped the concept of self. Thus the idea of man as 'I' and woman as 'it' is founded upon a child's different experiences of their parents.

Eventually of course children realise that the mother is an 'I' but the subconscious difference in attitude is already woven into the psyche.  In addition, once the child does realise that the mother is another 'I' they realise that her will may be different from theirs.  In childhood the battle between child and mother is usually won by the mother.  In adulthood men subconsciously try to conquer women to make up for this.

'[Man] vents against her the infant's boundless rage at the early parent.'

Finally, Dinnerstein agreed with Freud's suggestion that the mother is the child's first love and that in order to grow up they need to pass through the Oedipal stage and renounce this relationship and turn their attention elsewhere.  Dinnerstein argued that men renounce this relationship more fully than girls. Girls remain more tied to their mothers (because they identify their own nature as similar to hers) and therefore any other relationships come with a great sense of betrayal.  This, according to Dinnerstein, is why for women sex is more intrinsically linked with love.  A relationship just based on sex would not be worth enough to compensate for the guilt of abandoning the mother.  However, boys separate more fully from their mothers and identify themselves in opposition to her. In their relationships boys subconsciously seek to control and punish the mother.  For men, relationships with others still involve betrayal of the mother, but as they are less firmly attached to the mother the betrayal is less great - which is why men are better able to separate sex and love.

In her book 'The Mermaid and the Minotaur' (1976) Dinnerstein recommended co-parenting as a way of avoiding the development of subconscious prejudice. She thought that anything less would treat the symptoms of sexism but not the cause. That said, she did get involved in activism and fought (successfully) for the female staff at Rutgers University to be paid the same as the men.


Freud's specific theories (oedipus complex, penis envy etc) have fallen rather out of favour in recent years. However, most people would accept the thesis that what happens to a child in its formative years has a life long effect on its behaviour and attitudes. To a certain extent society is already increasingly embracing the idea of dual parenting and men are expected to take a hands on attitude to childcare. That said, women still tend to do more baby-care than men.

Consider the following:

  • Are women inately better at caring for small children? 
  • How would co-parenting work in practice?

Responses of feminist theologians:

Obviously different feminists theologians respond in different ways. However, the general trends are as follows.

Example: Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza and Phyllis Trible both make named use of the hermeneutic of suspicion.

Many feminist theologians have been influenced by de Beauvoir's idea central idea that the world has always been seen through male eyes and that women have been made the 'other'.  They use a hermeneutic of suspicion to try to reclaim female traditions that men have overlooked, deliberately ignored or re-written. For example,

  • They believe that Mary Magdalene was been marginalised and defamed by the male gospel writers. They try to reclaim her story.

Example: Rosemary Radford Reuther and Phyllis Trible both develop re-readings of Genesis.

  • They question the motives of the writer of Genesis. They regard the narrative as a myth used to justify subjegation of women. They consider the ways in which Adam is normative (and fully in God's image) and Eve is 'other' and in the image of man. They may respond to this challenge by reinterpreting the Genesis story.
  • Example: Rosemary Radford Reuther regards Jesus' maleness as accidental.  Janet Soskice wrote about re-imaginging the language of the Trinity. Mary Daly goes significantly further and rejects the idea of a male God replacing it with a female goddess or even with the idea of Being.

  • They challenge the doctrine of the incarnation which reinforces the idea that man is God. Aquinas and Augustine both thought that Jesus was essentially male. Most feminists disagree and either reject the idea that Jesus was God or they see his maleness as a historical accident.
  • By and large they accept the idea that Christian teachings have contributed to the myth of the eternal feminine in that Christianity has had (and, in some instances, continues to have) very specific ideas about women's roles and relationships. They respond to this as follows:

    • Conservative Christians argue that it is not a myth, there is genuine biological basis for difference and that difference is God willed. Men and women are equal but different.
    • Liberal feminist theologians might try to show that Christianity also has a more egalitarian even androgynous theme e.g. Galatians 3:28. They might argue Jesus was actually quite radical.

    Note: Daly in particular was initially very influenced by de Beauvoir - so much so that she mimiced de Beauvoir's title in her book The Church and the Second Sex.

    • Revisionist/reform/reconstructionist theologians want to reform or reconstruct Christianity to get rid of male bias.
    • Radicals post-Christian theologians like Daly and Hampson respond by rejecting Christianity.

    Feminist theologians have not been so obviously influenced by either Marxist or Freudian feminism and by and large feminist theologians have not thought that it is necessary to substantially reconstruct society.

    Consider whether you think that feminist theology has made enough use of secular reconstructionist feminism. Should it go further? Why? 


    The reconstructionist feminists all believe that society has to be reconstructed as the structures of society cause women to be oppressed. For Existentialists these structures are the customs and laws that make woman the 'other'. For Marxists it is the structures of capitalism which devalue women's work and which commodify her body. For the Freudians it is the structures of family life that shape a child during its formative years.

    • You might argue that it is not necessary to restructure society. The liberal agenda might be sufficient. Provided women are given equal opportunities and equal rights by law nothing more is needed to enable women to be liberated. Your evidence for this could include the ways in which women have been able to make the most of the rights and opportunities that they have in Britain.
    • Alternatively, you could challenge reconstructionism from the other side. Radicals like Daly or Firestone might argue that the reconstructionists do not go far enough. They are right to argue that society needs reconstructing, but they are too moderate in their own aims. Only separation (Daly) or androgyny (Firestone) will do.

    You should obviously consider for yourself what you think the root cause of sexism, misogyny and oppression is. Is it economic? Is it psychological? Is it encoded within the patriarchal expectations that are passed on from generation to generation. Or is it none of the above.

    Finally, consider how theologians responded to the challenge presented by reconstructionists and decide whether you think they should make more or less use of them.

    Further Reading:

    Article in the Times Educational Suppliment Mummy I want to be a housewife here.