I recently became aware of two distinct branches in feminism called gender feminism and liberal (or equality) feminism. I find the distinction useful because gender feminism contains the bulk of the feminist dogma that I find intellectually offensive.
The terms were first coined by Christina Hoff Sommers in her 1992 book Who Stole Feminism?. Sommers described equity feminism as :
an ideology rooted in classical liberalism, and that aims for full civil and legal equality for women. Experimental psychologist Steven Pinker expands on Sommers to write, "Equity feminism is a moral doctrine about equal treatment that makes no commitments regarding open empirical issues in psychology or biology."
Sommers contends that "Most American women subscribe philosophically to the older 'First Wave' kind of feminism whose main goal is equity, especially in politics and education". However, Sommers also argues that equity feminism is a minority position in academia, formalized feminist theory, and the organized feminist movement as a whole, who tend to embrace gender feminism. [link]
Equality feminism claims it's lineage from the liberalism of the European enlightenment and from early suffrage leaders like Elizabeth Cady Stanton who in 1854 famously proclaimed to the New York State Legislature: "We ask for no better laws than those you have made for yourselves. We need no other protection than that which your present laws secure to you."
Gender feminism on the other hand draws upon the work of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engel filtered through the youth fueled intellectual fashions of the 60s with an unhealthy sprinkling of psychoanalysis.
Engels argued the oppression of women sprang from capitalism because industrialization destroyed the prestige of women within families :-
"That woman was the slave of man at the commencement of society is one of the most absurd notions...Women were not only free, but they held a highly respected position in the early stages of civilization and were the great power among the clans."
The nuclear family did not evolve as a matter of biology or as a natural state of human society, but rather as the result of industrialization. Industrialization forced men to trade their labor in factories outside the farm and home, while women remained to care for the family, thereby becoming subordinate to the male wage earner. Thus according to Marx and Engels, women would naturally become equals to men once they entered the workforce.
But gender feminists like Kate Millett (who quoted Engels extensively) went further by asserting women had gender interests distinct from and antagonistic to those of men :
To explain that women have gender interests distinct from and antagonist to those of men, gender feminists had to reach beyond Marxism. They evolved a theory of patriarchy, of male capitalism, in which women were oppressed as much by male culture as they were by the economic system. These twin evils supported each other on the collective back of women. [link]
So while Marx and Engels created a brilliant theory of historical class struggle based upon the exploitation of workers by capitalists, gender feminists insisted women formed an additional oppressed class with it's own history and it's own needs separate from male capitalists and male workers. Thus gender studies was born.
What was this new theory built from? Three key elements :-
In 1968 Soviet tanks rolled into Prague crushing all hope of reform within the Soviet Union and forcing the ever shrinking Western supporters to distance themselves from the Soviet project. This led to a renewed interest in the co-called "young Marx". This young Marx, the philosopher of spiritual alienation, provided a whole new set of grammar which was a serviceable substitute for revolutionary categories. As a result, the Marxist narrative was extended to include women, gays, students etc. I wrote a little more on the young Marx [here].
Privilege or 'white privilege developed during the late 60s American Civil Rights movements. By June 15, 1969, the New York Times was reporting that the National Office of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was calling “for an all-out fight against ‘white skin privileges.' [link].
Privilege "is a concept used in anti-racist, anti-sexist, and similar anti-oppression movements. Anti-oppressionists use "privilege" to describe a set of perceived advantages (or lack of disadvantages) enjoyed by a majority group, who are usually unaware of the privilege they possess. It is a term of art that may not align particularly well with the general-use word "privilege" or the programming term "privilege".
A privileged person is not necessarily prejudiced (sexist, racist, etc) as an individual, but may be part of a broader pattern of *-ism even though unaware of it." (via Geek Feminism Wiki)
As the above definition makes clear, an important element of privilege is that people are unaware of it's existence because it's so ingrained into society and our norms. Men, then, become hostile and angry and refuse to acknowledge the existence of privilege when feminists 'call them out'. This hostility is viewed as denial and an attempt to defend the current privilege men have over women through dismissal or aggression. My opinions on privilege are noted [here] and [here], but are summarized by this anecdote :
During my freshman year, one of my friends was upset over a low grade she received on a paper in her intro women's studies class. Normally an "A" student, she got the first "C+" of her life. Her mistake was not in quality, but in challenging the underlying premise of patriarchal oppression in American life. Her assignment was to discuss the ways in which she had been oppressed by men. She was unable to come up with any examples and wrote her essay about why she felt she hadn't been oppressed. The teacher responded with a low grade and the comment that my friend has been "subconsciously oppressed" throughout her lifetime and "didn't know it." I'm not one to judge other's feelings. It is your prerogative to feel oppressed if you want to. But don't tell someone else that she is oppressed and doesn't know it. It is a perfectly acceptable position to reject the victimology of gender feminism. We need not all agree. [link]
Postmodernism is an example of a few good ideas pushed too far and collapsing into self-contradictory pseudo-intellectual babbling on a par with theology and mysticism. At it's core is a belief that truth and social norms are socially constructed and that language is therefore a weapon. Knowledge such as history and science are mere self-serving narratives propagated by the ruling classes. Postmodernism allowed gender feminists to claim gender itself is a mere social construction and can therefore be changed if the our culture is reformed.
Conclusion: The personal is political
Gender feminists view women as a distinct class engaged in it's own class struggles against male capitalism which has become internalized in social relationships. The first essential stage of female liberation is class consciousness-raising: raising awareness in women of their repression as a class. This led to overemphasizing certain areas like women pay, rape statistics, etc :
First, gender feminists consider wife assault to be a socio-economic crime that must be confronted in the political arena. Since domestic violence is viewed as the clash of two antagonistic 'classes' -- men and women -- individual solutions are dismissed or downplayed as ineffective. (These dismissed solutions include, for example, teaching women the art of self-defense and the use of fire arms.)
But in considering men as a class to be guilty of domestic violence, gender feminists ignores the fact that most men do not beat their wives. Whatever statistics are accepted, all of them agree that fewer than 50% of husbands beat their wives. Thus, statistics show that men, as a class, are non-wife beaters. Domestic violence actually is the aberration that conservatives claim it to be.
But such a conclusion would not further the cause of socio-economic revolution. Instead, gender feminists attempt to fuel a gender war that feeds the fears of women. [link]
The second stage is action. Gender feminists view their struggle as a class struggle so control of the state is essential for the reform of unfavorable gender social constructions. Gender quotas, positive role models, targeted advertising etc are all viewed as tools to address the gender imbalance in critical areas like politics, boardrooms and scientific research. These attitudes rest upon a dubious 'trickle down' theory - that more women in power will result in an improvement in the conditions for all women. So although they speak of pluralism, gender feminists do not view the state as being neutral in this class conflict; although they speak of personal choice, gender feminists accept individual autonomy must be scarified for the greater cause. Susan Moller Okin for example went so far as to argue personal space must be opened to political change, even against the wishes of individual women because the family is too important to leave to the arbitrary wishes of the individuals involved.
In conclusion, the gender feminist maintains a positive liberty political stance justified by a confusing mess of Marxism, deconstructionism, psychoanalysis and positivism. Equality feminists support negative liberty - equality of opportunity.