Cultural Feminism

What Is the Essence of Being a Woman?

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Cultural feminism is a variety of feminism which emphasizes essential differences between men and women, based on biological differences in reproductive capacity. Cultural feminism attributes to those differences distinctive and superior virtues in women. What women share, in this perspective, provides a basis for "sisterhood," or unity, solidarity and shared identity. Thus, cultural feminism also encourages building a shared women's culture.

The phrase "essential differences" refers to the belief that gender differences are part of the essence of females or males, that the differences are not chosen but are part of the nature of woman or man.  Cultural feminists differ as to whether these differences are based on biology or enculturation. Those who believe differences are not genetic or biological, but are cultural, conclude that women's "essential" qualities are so ingrained by culture that they are persistent.

Cultural feminists also tend to value qualities identified with women as superior or and preferable to qualities identified with men, whether the qualities are products of nature or culture.

The emphasis, in the words of critic Sheila Rowbotham, is on "living a liberated life."  

Some cultural feminists as individuals are active in social and political change.


Many of the early cultural feminists were first radical feminists, and some continue to use that name though moving beyond the model of transforming society. A kind of separatism or vanguard orientation, building alternative communities and institutions, grew in reaction to the 1960s movements for social change, with some concluding that social change was not possible. 

Cultural feminism has been linked with a growing consciousness of lesbian identity, borrowing from lesbian feminism ideas including the valuing of female connectedness, women-centered relationships, and a woman-centered culture.

The term "cultural feminism" dates back at least to the use of it in 1975 by Brooke Williams of Redstockings, who used it to denounce it and distinguish it from its roots in radical feminism. Other feminists denounced cultural feminism as betraying feminist central ideas. Alice Echols describes this as the “depoliticization” of radical feminism.

The work of Mary Daly, especially her Gyn/Ecology (1979), has been identified as a movement from radical feminism into cultural feminism.

Key Ideas

Cultural feminists argue that what they define as traditional male behaviors, including aggressiveness, competitiveness, and domination, are harmful to society and to particular fields within society, including business and politics. Instead, the cultural feminist argues, emphasizing caring, cooperation, and egalitarianism would make a better world. Those who argue that women are biologically or inherently more kind, caring, nurturing, and cooperative, also argue then for more inclusion of women in decision-making processes in society and in particular fields within society.

Cultural feminists advocate for

  • equal valuing of "female" occupations including parenting
  • respecting child care in the home
  • paying wages/salaries so that staying home is economically viable;
  • respecting "female" values of care and nurturing
  • working to balance a culture that overvalues "male" values of aggression and undervalues “female” values of kindness and gentleness
  • creating rape crisis centers and women’s shelters, often in cooperation with other kinds of feminists
  • emphasis on the shared values of women from white, African American, and other cultures, more than on the differences of women in different groups
  • a female sexuality that is based on an equality of power, based on mutuality rather than control, based on nonpolarized roles, and refuses to recreate sexual hierarchies

Differences With Other Kinds of Feminism

The three main aspects of cultural feminism that are critiqued by other kinds of feminism have been essentialism (the idea that male and female differences are part of the essence of male and female), separatism, and the idea of a feminist vanguard, building the new culture rather than transforming the existing one through political and other challenges.

While a radical feminist might critique the traditional family as being an institution of patriarchy, a cultural feminist might work to transform the family by focusing on the nurturing and caring that a woman-centered family can provide in life. Echols wrote in 1989, “[R]adical feminism was a political movement dedicated to eliminating the sex-class system, whereas cultural feminism was a countercultural movement aimed at reversing the cultural valuation of the male and the devaluation of the female.”

Liberal feminists critique radical feminism for essentialism, often believing instead that male/female differences in behaviors or values are a product of current society.  Liberal feminists oppose the depoliticization of feminism which is embodied in cultural feminism.  Liberal feminists also critique the separatism of cultural feminism, preferring to work “within the system.” Cultural feminists critique liberal feminism, claiming that liberal feminists accept male values and behavior as the “norm” to work for inclusion into.

Socialist feminists emphasize the economic basis of inequality, while cultural feminists root social problems in the devaluing of women's "natural" tendencies. Cultural feminists reject the idea that oppression of women is based on the class power exercised by men.

Intersectional feminists and Black feminists critique cultural feminists for devaluing the different ways that women in different racial or class groups experience their womanhood, and for de-emphasizing the ways in which race and class are also important factors in these women's lives.

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Your Citation
Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Cultural Feminism." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2021, February 16). Cultural Feminism. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Cultural Feminism." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 20, 2023).