Cultural feminism is a term used to criticize the view that there is a "female nature" or "female essence" or related attempts to revalidate attributes ascribed to femaleness. It is also used to describe theories that commend innate differences between women and men.
Origins of the term
Unlike radical feminism or socialist feminism, cultural feminism was not an ideology widely claimed by proponents, but was more commonly a pejorative label ascribed by its opponents. Alice Echols, a feminist historian and cultural theorist, credits Brooke Williams with applying the term "cultural feminism" in 1975 to describe the depoliticisation of radical feminism, which led to the term being picked during the 1990s by academic feminists to describe various individuals. However, the term surfaced as early as 1971, when Tor Bay, in a letter printed in Off Our Backs, condemned the literary magazine Aphra as having "served the cause of cultural feminism." Socialist feminist Elizabeth Diggs, in 1972, used the label "cultural feminism" to apply to all of radical feminism. In 1974, editors of The Lesbian Tide asked: "[I]s dyke-separatism a logical extension of cultural feminism?" As these varied uses reveal, no single definition of the term existed even among participants in the women's movement.
Cultural feminist ideas
Although the term "cultural feminist" is generally applied to individuals in the 1970s, similar lines of thought have been traced to earlier periods. Jane Addams and Charlotte Perkins Gilman argued that in governing the state, cooperation, caring, and nonviolence in the settlement of conflicts society seem to be what was needed from women’s virtues. Josephine Donovan argues that the nineteenth century journalist, critic and women's rights activist, Margaret Fuller, initiated cultural feminism in Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845). She stressed the emotional, intuitive side of knowledge and expressed an organic worldview that is quite different from the mechanistic view of Enlightenment rationalists.
However, it was Linda Alcoff's argument in "Cultural Feminism Versus Post-Structuralism: the Identity Crisis in Feminist Theory" that led to the widespread adoption of the term to describe contemporary feminists, not their historical antecedents. Alcoff claims cultural feminism places women in an overly determined position overdetermined by what she sees as patriarchal systems. She contends that:
Man has said that woman can be defined, delineated, captured, understood, explained, and diagnosed to a level of determination never accorded to man himself, who is conceived as a rational animal with free will.
Alcoff makes the point that "the cultural feminist reappraisal construes woman's passivity as her peacefulness, her sentimentality as her proclivity to nurture, her subjectiveness as her advanced self-awareness".
Taylor and Rupp have argued that critiques of cultural feminism are often an attack on lesbian feminists. Suzanne Staggenbourg's case study of Bloomington, Indiana led her to conclude that engagement in activities labeled as cultural feminist "provides little evidence ... a decline in political activity in the women's movement."