(An edited version of an early post).
I recently became aware of two distinct branches in feminism called gender feminism and liberal (or equality) feminism. The distinction is 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?. Sommer contends that most American women subscribe philosophically to a form feminism whose main goal is equity especially in politics and education. However the formalized feminist theory found throughout academia and the organized feminist movement as a whole embrace what is called gender feminism.
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 however draws upon the work of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engel filtered through the youth fueled intellectual fashions of the 60s sprinkled with an unhealthy helping of psychoanalysis.
Friedrich Engel, who tended to romanticize pre-industrial societies, argued the oppression of women sprang from capitalism because industrialization destroyed the prestige of women who were once a great power among 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 which forced men to trade their labor to factories outside the home farm. 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 beyond Marxism by asserting women had gender interests distinct from and antagonistic to those of men. They evolved a theory of patriarchy and male capitalism in which women were oppressed both by male culture and by the economic system. 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.
This new theory contains three key foundation blocks, all taken out of context and pressed into the service of gender feminism. The first foundation block was laid in 1968 when Soviet tanks rolled into Prague crushing all hope of reform within the Soviet Union and forcing the ever shrinking Western supporters of Communism to distance themselves from the Soviet project. This led to a renewed interest in the writing of the 'Young Marx', the philosopher of spiritual alienation, whose manuscripts were only published in 1932. These manuscripts provided a whole new set of grammar which was a serviceable substitute for increasingly discredited revolutionary categories the Left had previous adapted. As a result, the Marxist narrative of social and political developments being largely determined by economic conditions was extended to include women, homosexuals, students etc and the focus shifted away from pure economic theory toward the deterministic affects of popular culture.
The second foundation was adapted from the concept of white privilege popularized by the late 1960's American civil rights movements and fused with theories of psychoanalysis which became popular during the 70's. Privilege in gender feminism is conceived as a set of advantages enjoyed by a powerful group who are usually unconscious of the privilege they possess because it's so ingrained into society and our norms. Men, especially white men, become hostile and angry and refuse to acknowledge the existence of privilege when feminists 'call them out'. This hostility is viewed as a Freudian defense mechanism and as an attempt to defend the current privilege men have over women. Denial of male privilege therefore becomes a circular proof of the very existence of privilege.
The final foundation was forged during the birth of the postmodern movement. Postmodernism is an example of a few good ideas pushed too far and collapsing into self-contradictory pseudo-intellectual babbling. 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 class. Postmodernism allowed gender feminists to claim gender itself is a mere social construction and can therefore be changed if our culture is reformed.
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 an overemphasizing of certain areas like womens' pay, rape statistics, domestic violence; all of which becomes a tool to fuel a gender war that feeds the fear of women.
The purpose of class consciousness-raising is to create political lobbyists to gain control of the State and key areas of the mass media 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: 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 private family is too important to leave to the arbitrary wishes of the individuals involved.
In conclusion, the gender feminist maintains a political stance justified by a confusing mess of Marxism, deconstructionism, psychoanalysis, scientific positivism and cultural theory. Equality feminists on the other hand support equality of opportunity. This split is important because it allows men and women to attack the objectionable aspects of feminism while maintaining the positive.