Scholarly article on topic 'Beyond Women's Issues: Feminism and Social Work'

Beyond Women's Issues: Feminism and Social Work Academic research paper on "Sociology"

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Academic research paper on topic "Beyond Women's Issues: Feminism and Social Work"

Beyond Women's Issues: Feminism and Social Work

Miriam L. Freeman

This article reports on an investigation of the nature and extent of the interaction of feminism with social work education. The study tested two hypotheses: that social work educators' views of problems that affect women vary by the degree and by the type of their feminist identification. Although the findings supported both hypotheses, differences were not evident for all problems. Therefore, the findings provide a basis for a discussion of the problems that differentiate feminists from nonfeminists and liberal, socialist, and radical feminists from each other. Implications for social work education and issues for further research are identified.

The reemergence of the feminist movement in the United States during the past 25 years has had major influences on this society. The extensive individual and social changes that have resulted from these new views of the roles of women and men are evidence of the feminist influence on private lives and public structures. Feminist theory has also affected the ways in

Author's Note: This article is a revised version of a paper that was presented at the Annual Program Meeting, Council on Social Work Education, Miami, Florida, March 1986.

AFFILIA, Vol. 5 No. 2, Summer 1990 72-89 © 1990 Women and Social Work, Inc.

which knowledge about individuals and society is developed and used. Thus, feminism is transforming both social thought and social action.

Social work educators are also being influenced by and influencing feminist thought and action. The literature of the 1970s and 1980s called for a reexamination of social work learning and practice on the basis of new knowledge about women, as well as new interpretations of previous theories and beliefs about women's roles in society (see, for example, Abramovitz, Hopkins, Olds, & Waring, 1982; Berkun, 1984; Brandwein & Wheelock, 1978; Hopkins, 1980; Kravetz, 1982; Lowenstein, 1976; Meisel & Friedman, 1974; Price, Foster, Curtis, & Behling, 1979; Rathbone-McCuan, 1984; Rosenman & Ruckdeschel, 1981; Rubenstein, 1981; Schwartz, 1973). This reexamination was most typically advocated within the context of incorporating content on women's issues into the curriculum. More recently, there has been a shift from this "women's issues" approach to the integration of feminist content into the curriculum. Some social work educators and practitioners have proposed that feminism is an appropriate theoretical framework for the study of women's experiences in society and for the development of intervention strategies to alter those experiences positively (see, for example, Bricker-Jenkins & Hooyman, 1986; Van Den Bergh & Cooper, 1986).

This article describes a study of the nature and extent of the interaction of feminism with social work education. The following research questions were addressed:

1. To what degree do social work educators identify themselves as feminists?

2. With what type of feminism do social work educators identify?

3. How do social work educators' views of problems that affect women vary, depending on the degree and type of their feminist identification?

CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK Feminist Theory

As a theoretical framework for viewing the world, feminist theory provides a lens for the study of women's experiences in society, on the premise that women's experiences emerge from the social, political, and economic structures of society. For the purposes of this study, feminism was defined as a mode of analysis involving certain ways of thinking and of acting that are designed to achieve women's liberation by eliminating the oppression of women in society (Andersen, 1983; Hartsock, 1981; Jaggar, 1983). Feminist thought assumes that women's interests and perspectives are valid in and of themselves, are not inferior or secondary to those of men, and should not be defined only in relation to or as a deviation from men's experiences. The absence of these assumptions in traditional sociological, psychological, and philosophical scholarship is one of the deficits that feminist scholarship has uncovered.

Feminism also proposes that there is consistent evidence that women are treated as inferior citizens (Andersen, 1983). Feminism as a mode of analysis is grounded in the connectedness between the social institutions that shape the daily lives of individuals and in an orientation to social change (Hartsock, 1981). Feminist theory is

simultaneously political and scientific.... Feminist scholars are distinguished from non-feminist scholars precisely by their common political interest in ending women's oppression, and they see their scholarly work as contributing to a comprehensive understanding of how women's liberation should be achieved. (Jaggar, 1983, p. 354)

Although feminism is grounded in these fundamental premises, there is no single or universally accepted version of it. A major theme that emerges from an analysis of feminist theory is the diversity of definitions, including those that cover the components of the present reality of women, explanations regarding its roots, analyses of the positive and negative elements

of this reality, and proposals and strategies to effect social change in pursuit of stated values and goals. In analyzing the status of women in society, feminists have different insights, depending on the feminist framework they employ. Each framework yields a different interpretation of the social world and influences the assumptions, observations, and conclusions that are made regarding women's experiences in society (Andersen, 1983) as well as the strategies that are used to change that status and those experiences.

Major Feminist Theoretical Perspectives

Three major feminist frameworks, or theoretical perspectives, that are identifiable are liberal feminism, socialist feminism, and radical feminism.

Liberal feminism locates the origins of women's oppression in women's lack of equal civil rights and opportunities, as well as in tradition and learned psychology associated with sex-role socialization. Therefore, liberal feminists believe that women's liberation will be achieved when sexist discrimination is eliminated and women thus have the opportunity to pursue their potential for individual development just as fully as do men. This feminist perspective emphasizes social and legal reform through policies that are designed to create equal opportunities for women and to establish individual civil rights so that no one is denied access to the social-economic system because of sex, race, or class. It further assumes that the reeducation of the public concerning sex-role socialization is a means to achieve more liberated and egalitarian gender relations (Andersen, 1983; Carroll, 1984; Fulenwider, 1980; Jaggar, 1983; Jaggar & Rothenberg, 1984).

Socialist feminism locates the origins of women's oppression in the interaction of the capitalist system, which is based on class inequities, with the patriarchal system, which is based on gender inequities. As a result of this interaction, women are subordinated and exploited through the misuse of their labor in the marketplace, for which they are persistently underpaid,

and of their labor in the home, for which they are not paid. Current reality is viewed in terms of an economically based class system that is reinforced by sexist attitudes and practices. The goal of socialist feminism is to abolish both capitalism and male dominance to end women's oppression. In contrast to the reform-oriented liberal feminism, socialist feminism emphasizes the need for revolutionary societal changes to eliminate the unequal distribution of power. Equality is viewed not only in terms of opportunity but, more crucially, in terms of rewards. According to this perspective, an understanding of the experiences of women of all classes and races is necessary to understand oppression. An essential socialist feminist strategy for achieving the liberation of women is the alignment with other oppressed groups to find a common ground of oppression and to resist women's subordination in the marketplace and in the home (Anderson, 1983; Fulenwider, 1980; Jaggar, 1983).

Radical feminism locates the origins of women's oppression in the patriarchal control of female sexuality and female fertility. This perspective identifies men's power and privilege in patriarchal relations as the essential determinant of women's subordination. Radical feminism emphasizes that women are oppressed and exploited primarily in sexual and procreative relations in the home, which is the sphere of life that the male culture defines as personal, rather than political. Like socialist feminism, radical feminism challenges society's basic structure and identifies the need to overturn its existing organization. An essential strategy for eliminating women's oppression is the establishment of a womanculture that is separate from the lives of men, in which social relations are redefined and through which the dominant patriarchy is undermined or overthrown (Andersen, 1983; Jaggar, 1983).

In summary, this conceptual framework provides an explication of feminism as a theoretical framework for the study of women's experiences in society, that is, as a way of viewing the world. However, since both the theory and the movement of feminism are diverse and complex, there is no single definition of feminism. Therefore, a working definition of feminism for

purposes of this research has been presented, and three major feminist frameworks have been described. This conceptual framework undergirds the present research, which was designed to investigate the influences of feminist identification on social work educators' views of women's issues.

RESEARCH DESIGN

Hypotheses. Two propositions emerge from the foregoing theoretical framework: (1) Feminists view the world differently from nonfeminists, and (2) feminists' views of the world are shaped by the particular theoretical perspective they use. These propositions were applied to a random sample of 733 faculty members, both male and female, in all accredited graduate schools of social work through the dissemination of a Women's Issues Survey. Two hypotheses were tested: that feminist educators would rate problems affecting women as more severe than would nonfeminist educators and that differences in the liberal, socialist, and radical feminists' ratings of the severity of problems would be evident.

Independent Variable. Feminist identification, the independent variable, was measured according to type and degree, as follows. Three definitions of feminism, representing the liberal, socialist, and radical perspectives, were presented. Each respondent was asked to choose the definition that she or he most preferred. The respondent was then asked, on the basis of this definition, "To what degree do you consider yourself to be a feminist?"

Responses were recorded on a 7-point Likert-type scale, ranging from "I do not consider myself to be feminist" to "I absolutely consider myself to be a feminist." This approach yielded three categories of feminist identification: nonfeminist (1-3), neutral (4), and feminist (5-7). The feminist subcategories included weak feminist identification (5), moderate feminist identification (6), and strong feminist identification (7). The

types of feminism (definitional perspectives) were combined with the feminist identification scores 5-7 to form the categories liberal feminist, socialist feminist, and radical feminist.

Dependent variables. Social work educators' views of women's issues were the dependent variables. "Women's issues" were defined as "problems that place a heavy burden on women because of the structural features of society or because of the traditional definitions of the social roles and responsibilities of women vis-à-vis men" (Williams & Green, 1985, p. 2). The respondents' views of these issues were measured by their perceptions of the severity of 79 problems that affect women. The respondents were asked to rate each problem on a 7-point Likert-type scale ranging from "extremely serious" to "not at all serious."

Data collection. Data were collected by mail from March to May 1985. The respondents were guaranteed anonymity through the data-collection procedure that was used.

FINDINGS

An initial mailing and two follow-up mailings resulted in a response rate of 60 percent (N = 427). There was no significant difference between the percentage of female (45 percent) and male (54.3 percent) respondents. (Percentages do not total 100 because three respondents did not identify themselves by sex.)

Degree of feminist identification. The mean score on the degree of feminist identification was 5.53, indicating weak-to-moderate identification with feminism. The results by category were as follows: nonfeminists, 9.3 percent; neutral, 9 percent; weak feminist identification, 21.6 percent; moderate feminist identification, 27.6 percent; and strong feminist identification, 32.5 percent. The female respondents rated themselves significantly higher than did the male respondents on the degree of

their feminist identification (means: 5.87 and 5.26, respectively; p < .001).

Type of feminist identification. The majority of respondents, 72.5 percent, most preferred the liberal feminist perspective as a definition of feminism. The socialist feminist perspective was most preferred by 14.9 percent, and the radical feminist perspective, 5.4 percent. An open-ended item was included to allow respondents to present a preferred definition of feminism in lieu of these three perspectives, if they so desired. Two categories, presented by 7.2 percent of the respondents, emerged from the alternative definitions: (1) a preference for a broadened definition to include other oppressed groups, such as men, the poor, working-class people, people of color, and the elderly, and (2) a preference for a definition that would combine elements of the liberal, socialist, and radical perspectives.

Degree and Type of Feminist Identification

Categories of the degree of feminist identification and type of feminist identification variables were cross-tabulated to yield joint frequency distributions. Of the nonfeminists, 82.8 percent most preferred the liberal feminist perspective as a definition of feminism; 3.4 percent, the socialist feminist perspective; and 13.8 percent, the radical feminist perspective. Among the feminists, 77 percent most preferred the liberal feminist perspective; 18 percent, the socialist feminist perspective; and 4 percent, the radical feminist perspective. The cell sizes were insufficient to test for significance using chi-square.

Hypothesis 1. The first hypothesis predicted that feminist social work educators would view problems affecting women as more severe than would nonfeminist social work educators. It was found that the feminists viewed 71 of the 79 problems affecting women as more serious than did the nonfeminists. Through the use of f-tests, significant differences between groups were identified for 25 problems. The feminists viewed

TABLE 1. Problems Affecting Women that Are Viewed as More Severe by Feminist than by Nonfeminist Social Work Educators9

Inflexible work schedules set by employers Unwanted pregnancy Spouse abuse Lack of equal educational opportunities Conflicts between work and family life Violence against women in the media Interpersonal conflicts with men in the work environment Lack of role models for women Not enough women elected to political office Pay inequities for work of comparable value (worth) Not enough women being promoted to higher management jobs Lack of support networks Poor self-esteem Problems related to health and health care Not enough job training Lack of information about legal rights Prejudice against women in general Lack of unions supportive of women Low wages Inadequate legal representation

Poverty Domineering attitudes of men Lack of passage of the Equal Rights Amendment Inability to break into "old-boy" networks

ap s.05.

only one of these problems—"inadequate spiritual and religious training"—as less severe than did the nonfeminists. With this one exception, when there were significant differences between the feminists' and nonfeminists' problem-severity ratings, the feminists viewed problems that affect women as more severe than did the nonfeminists, which confirmed Hypothesis 1 (see Table 1).

Hypothesis 2. The second hypothesis predicted that the type of feminist identification influences feminist social work educators' views of the severity of problems that affect women. The mean differences in the problem-severity ratings among the liberal, socialist, and radical feminists were tested through a

one-way analysis of variance. Significant differences among the groups were found for 24 of the 79 problems.

The Student-Newman-Keuls post-hoc test was used to determine which issues differentiated the three groups (see Table 2). The socialist feminists rated 19 of the 24 issues as more severe than did the liberal feminists and 2 issues as more severe than did the radical feminists. The radical feminists rated 2 of the issues as more severe than did the socialist feminists and 6 as more severe than did the liberal feminists. The liberal feminists rated 1 problem as more severe than did the socialist feminists and no problem as more severe than did the radical feminists. In view of these findings, Hypothesis 2 is supported in that differences were found among the problem-severity ratings of the liberal, socialist, and radical feminists.

DISCUSSION

The research was guided by the propositions emerging from its conceptual framework that feminists view the world differently from nonfeminists and that feminists' views are shaped by their particular theoretical perspectives. The findings support these propositions when applied to social work educators. The differences noted in social work educators' views of women's issues suggest that feminist theory provides a way of viewing the world and a lens through which women's positions in society can be analyzed. In this regard, the import of this research is the successful testing of the theoretical construct of feminism, specifically among social work educators. A discussion of these findings follows.

Degree of Feminist Identification

An examination of the issues that differentiate feminists from nonfeminists indicates that although feminist and nonfeminist social work educators have similar views of the problems in the microsystem, feminist educators perceive that problems in the

TABLE 2. Differences in Problem-Severity Ratings, by Type of Feminist Orientation3

Problems Viewed as More Severe by

Socialist Feminists Socialist Feminists Radical Feminists Radical Feminists Liberal Feminists

than by than by than by than by than by

Liberal Feminists Radical Feminists Socialist Feminists Liberal Feminists Socialist Feminists

Inadequate housing

Ethnic minority discrimination

Inadequate income or support

Lack of equal job opportunities

Nonpayment of child support

Poor job market

Lack of equal educational

opportunities Violence against women

in the media Unemployment

Poor job market Unemployment

Sexual harassment Displaced home-makers

Interpersonal conflicts Inadequate spiritual with men in the work and religious environment training

Sexual harassment Pay inequities for work of comparable value (worth) Displaced homemakers Prejudice against

women in general Inability to obtain credit

Pay inequities for work of

comparable value (worth) Hunger and malnutrition Insurance inequities Prejudice against women

in general Low wages

Inadequate legal representation Lack of access to nontraditional jobs

Domineering attitudes of men Underemployment Lack of passage of the Equal Rights Amendment

ap s .05.

macrosystem have a more severe impact on women than do nonfeminist educators. These findings are consistent with and can be explained by the theoretical foundations of feminism. Feminist theory, as previously explained, stems from the premise that women's experiences emerge from society's social, political, and economic structures—the macrosystem. Feminism as a mode of analysis provides the basis for the study of the status and position of women within those institutional structures of society.

Type of Feminist Identification

The liberal feminist perspective was overwhelmingly preferred by the respondents, regardless of the degree of their feminist identification. This preference is understandable in that liberal feminism is an outgrowth of the liberal reformist tradition from which social work developed. Furthermore, liberal feminism is the most mainstream feminist perspective, as well as the least controversial.

The issues that differentiated the liberal, socialist, and radical feminists in this research were analyzed to determine their consistency with the theoretical frameworks on which these perspectives build. It was hypothesized, on the basis of these frameworks, that liberal feminists would identify problems related to the political-legal dimensions as more severe than would other feminists, that socialist feminists would view economically oriented problems with greater severity, and that radical feminists would consider problems related to the sexual-reproductive dimensions as more severe.

Of the 19 problems viewed as more severe by the socialist feminists than by the liberal or the radical feminists, 10 were directly oriented to economic concerns, either in the workplace or in the home: "inadequate income or support," "lack of equal job opportunities," "nonpayment of child support," "poor job market," "unemployment," "pay inequities for work of comparable value," "insurance inequities," "low wages," "lack of access to nontraditional jobs," and "underemployment." Three

problems could be viewed as the consequences of economic inequities: "inadequate housing," "hunger and malnutrition," and "inadequate legal representation." One problem related to the oppression of ethnic minorities ("ethnic minority discrimination," and 3 referred to sexist attitudes and practices inherent in the patriarchal system: "prejudice against women in general," "violence against women in the media," and "domineering attitudes of men." These 17 issues are consistent with the theoretical framework on which socialist feminism builds. Only 2 of the issues that the socialist feminists viewed as more severe than did the liberal feminists seemed to be more consistent with the perspective from which liberal feminism stems. These 2 issues—"lack of equal educational opportunities" and "lack of passage of the Equal Rights Amendment"—appear to relate to political-legal problems that thwart the civil rights of and equal opportunities for individuals.

The 2 problems viewed as more severe by the radical than by the socialist feminist—"sexual harassment" and "displaced homemakers"—are consistent with the radical perspective, which locates the origins of women's oppression in the patriarchal control of female sexuality and fertility. The radical feminists also viewed these problems as more severe than did the liberal feminists. Three of the remaining problems on which the radical and liberal feminists differed, "interpersonal conflicts with men in the work environment," "pay inequities for work of comparable value," and "inability to obtain credit," are not clearly identifiable with the radical perspective. The final problem on which these two feminist types differed, "prejudice against women in general," seem to be consistent with the radical perspective in that radical feminism identifies male power and privilege in patriarchal relations in the private sphere as the essential determinant of women's subordination. This problem is, however, also consistent with the socialist perspective and distinguished the socialist feminists from the liberal feminists as indicated earlier.

The liberal feminists viewed the problem of "inadequate spiritual and religious training" as more severe than did the

socialist feminists. This problem does not appear to be related to the liberal feminist perspective, which focuses on equal opportunities and access and political-legal dimensions.

In summary, the problems that distinguish socialist feminists from radical and liberal feminists appear to be most consistent with the hypothesis that socialist feminists would view economically oriented problems as more severe than would other feminists, although the ratings were not completely consistent. There is no evidence to support the hypothesis that liberal feminists identify problems related to political-legal dimensions as more severe. The hypothesis that radical feminists view problems related to sexual-reproductive functions as more severe is supported in relation to the differences between the radical and socialist feminists, but is supported only in part in terms of the differences between the radical and liberal feminists.

These findings indicate that liberal, socialist, and radical feminist social work educators demonstrate greater similarities than differences in their views of women's issues. A theme in feminist theory is the recognition that in spite of the diversity of definitions, which is valued, feminists are more alike than different in their views. The unifying bond of feminists is the agreement that women's oppression and subordination in this society must be eliminated. The current research provides empirical evidence of this bond.

CONCLUSION

Implications for Social Work Education

The research indicates that a "women's issues" component in the social work curriculum cannot be assumed to be equivalent to a component on feminist theory, since differences in the feminists' and nonfeminists' views of these issues were apparent. A prevalent approach in social work education to meeting the Council on Social Work Education's Evaluative Standard 13: Women is the inclusion of "content on women" or "women's

issues" courses. This approach, in itself, provides no particular theoretical framework through which women in society can be studied and too frequently takes the form of the "add-women-and-stir" philosophy (Bunch & Pollack, 1983). An alternative approach is to handle women's content in the curriculum within the context of "special issues" or "special groups." This alternative hardly seems justified, since over two-thirds of social work clients and practitioners are female. Treatment as a "special group" represents little progression from the traditional "woman as other" or "second-sex" orientation.

Social work educators should advocate the validity and utility of feminist analyses and the infusion of feminist theories in social work education, rather than the currently predominant and neutral "women's issues" approach. Other social work educators have written of the inadequacies of this limited "women's issues" approach, as well as of the value of feminist perspectives for education and practice (see, for example, Bricker-Jenkins & Hooyman, 1986; Van Den Bergh & Cooper, 1986; Wetzel & the Feminist World View Educators, 1983). The present research provides empirical data to support their theoretical analyses. Feminism goes beyond a women's issues approach through the application of a particular theoretical framework that is designed to eliminate the oppression of women in society to achieve women's liberation.

Feminism, as a female-centered mode of analysis, is suggested as a particularly appropriate theoretical framework for teaching social work practice, especially since social work is and has always been a predominantly female profession serving a predominantly female clientele. Feminist theory offers a relevant framework for the assessment of social functioning and the design and implementation of interventions to improve, enhance, or restore the functioning of individuals, families, groups, organizations, communities, and society. These tasks are the core of social work practice. The combined emphasis of feminist thought and action is fundamental to social change and thus is consistent with one of the basic goals of social work: social action to improve societal conditions.

Need for Further Research

The research raised several issues for further speculation about social work education. Since the findings indicated that feminist identification influences women's views, then the next logical research issue concerns the influences of such feminist thought on the social work curriculum. Some questions that could be studied are these: Since feminist educators view certain problems that affect women as more severe than do nonfeminist educators, is it possible that they are more likely to include content on these issues in their courses? Do feminist educators more readily foster students' awareness of and interest in problems that affect women and encourage social action as solutions?

Furthermore, feminist approaches to education involve much more than issues related to the content of the curriculum (see, for example, Bunch & Pollack, 1983). Rather, a model of feminist education includes attention to process and structure as well. Feminist social work educators must continue their dialogue on the interaction of feminism and social work and through this process further a better understanding of the application of feminist theory within social work education and practice (see, for example, Bricker-Jenkins & Hooyman, 1986; Van Den Bergh & Cooper, 1986).

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Lowenstein, S. F. (1976). Integrating content on feminism and racism into the social work curriculum. Journal of Education for Social Work, 12(1), 91-96.

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Price, R. P., Foster, S. A., Curtis, C., & Behling, J. (1979). Student and faculty perceptions of women's content in the curriculum. Journal of Education for Social Work, 15(3), 51-57.

Rathbone-McCuan, E. (1984). Older women, mental health, and social work education. Journal of Education for Social Work, 20(1), 33-41.

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Wetzel, J. W., & the Feminist World View Educators. (1983, March). Toward a feminist world view curriculum. Paper presented at the Annual Program Meeting, Council on Social Work Education, Fort Worth, TX.

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Miriam L. Freeman is Assistant Professor, College of Social Work, University of South Carolina, Columbia.