Feminism is a sociological approach that can be applied to social work theory and practice. Within social work, feminism is something to be aware of, and may link to domestic violence. However, it is important to understand the pitfalls of using feminist models. In this article, I present a critical approach to feminist social work theory.
With reference to social work practice, feminist approaches involve working with women in non-oppressive ways and linking the life experiences of individual women to their social situations. There must be an integration of theory and practice by having each contribute to the other’s development. This involves challenging men’s experiences as the yardstick for measuring women’s and critiquing dualist thinking and the concepts that formulate knowledge as binary categories operating in opposition to each other (Dominelli. 1997; 2002).
Feminist understandings of the public-private divide have been central in encouraging women to see private troubles as public issues (Dominelli. 2002) e.g. domestic abuse. Women are largely seen in private domain in their role as wives/mothers, where they have less social status and political power (Oak, E. 2009)
Feminist Theory in Social Work
Ramazanoglu states feminism treats women as uniform category which ignores the impact of race, disability, age etc (Ramazanoglu, C., 1989). However, I would argue against this, as developments in feminism prove that considerations have been made to women’s oppression across the boundaries of other categories, avoiding the uniform category of gender. For example, Black liberal feminism, adds an understanding of racism as a social force shaping black women’s life chances. Johnson argues that feminist practice can be applied in diverse settings; as feminist practice goes beyond non-sexist women’s issues orientation (Johnson, 1992). Thus, feminist theory, applied to social work is an attempt to link the personal and the political dimensions of human experience.
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Problems with Radical Feminism
Radical feminism may be extremely problematic as a sole approach to social work. Some Radical feminist theorists believe that feminists should not work with men under any circumstances (Dominelli, L. 2002 citing Solarius, V. 1971 and Jo, B. 1981 and Frye, M. 1983). This would seriously hinder social work practice, as it is important to work with clients regardless of gender. Some feminists find it difficult to reconcile women’s needs for liberation with those of children for the same and have continued to struggle with reconciling the contradictions in which women live (Dominelli. 2002. Citing Wise, S. 1985.) Proponents of feminist theory acknowledge that women can also be violent in their relationships with men; however, they simply do not see the issue of women abusing men as a serious social problem, and therefore, does not deserve the same amount of attention or support as violence against women (Kurz, 1997).
A Critique of 'The Role of the Housewife'
Anne Oakley suggests that the housewife role ensures that women stay subordinate to men, making it difficult for them to pursue careers and this role which is exclusively allocated to women, has no status, is unpaid and alienating, and yet it takes precedence over all other roles. Her conclusion is that the only way women will gain freedom and be able to develop fully as individuals in society is for the abolition of the role of housewife, the sexual division of labour, and the family itself as it is presently understood and structured.
However, it can be argued that the creation of housewife role is a social construction and is not inevitably linked to the female role (socialpc.co.uk). In fact, stay at home dads are on the increase in the UK (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/8605824.stm).
Feminism in Social Work Practice
When practising social work, it is important to be aware of the restrictions of the feminist model with regards to identity. MacKinnon states that,
“Heterosexuality is its social structure, desire its internal dynamic, gender and family its congealed forms, sex roles its qualities generalised to social persona, reproduction a consequence, and control its issue.” (MacKinnon, Towards a feminist theory of the state, p3-4).
With a heterosexual social structure that focuses on reproduction, we must consider the impact that this view could have on homosexual clients.
The sex/gender binary of feminism identifies male and female as two distinct biological and cultural categories. Richardson argues that this makes it impossible to imagine that a person could feel themselves to be trapped in the ‘wrong’ sex, for example, a person who felt to be a woman in gender identity, but who had a male body as their sex. (Richardson, Diane, 1993, Conceptualising gender in Feminist Theories in Introducing gender and Women’s studies, Richardson, D., and Robinsons, V. [eds.], Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan) Hines argued this was difficult to account for without allowing for a separation of body (sex) and gender (identity). (Hines, Sally 1993, Feminist Theories in Introducing gender and Women’s studies, Richardson, D., and Robinsons, V. [eds.], Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, p. 28-32).
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Feminist Practice - A Changed World View
Feminist practice provides a different world view. Instead of looking at the social worker as the changer, and the client as the changed, a feminist perspective views the changer and the changed as one. This different world view forms the basis for such characteristics of feminist practice as mutuality, reciprocity, consensual decision making, the valuing of process, and paying attention to all dimensions of the human experience, particularly the physical and the spiritual (Bricker-Jenkins, 1991, p. 273).
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Feminism and Power
Feminism acknowledges the issues of power in relationships, promotes self-determination and equality, and recognizes how gender roles affect the person within their social environment. Bricker-Jenkins and Hooyman (1986) assert, feminist ideology offers the hopes of human liberation and of enabling people (in all their diversity) to become what they are capable of becoming; free of fear and exploitation. Thus, the notion of the equality of relationships, and central social work values of self-determination, and the uniqueness of the individual are compatible with feminist practice.