Feminist Perspectives on Power, Agency, and Postcolonial Critiques Essay paper

Assignment Question

Write 1,5 pages on each question (1.5 line spacing; font size 12). Question 1. At the center of feminist theories is the relationship between power and gender. Describe and compare how Foucault, MacKinnon* and Rubin understand power and agency. How do they define and discuss/problematize power? * Here you can use one or both of the texts from MacKinnon in the course literature. Question 2. How have postcolonial scholars criticized `mainstream feminist knowledge`? Briefly describe postcolonial feminism and discuss the main arguments of Lila Abu-Lughod and Chandra Talpade Mohanty from your course literature.



Feminist theories are characterized by their profound examination of the interplay between power and gender. These theories have evolved over the years, encompassing a multitude of perspectives. This paper delves into two critical questions that are central to feminist discourse. The first question seeks to describe and compare the understandings of power and agency in the works of Michel Foucault, Catharine MacKinnon, and Gayle Rubin. The second question explores how postcolonial scholars have critiqued ‘mainstream feminist knowledge,’ with a specific focus on the contributions of Lila Abu-Lughod and Chandra Talpade Mohanty.

Understanding Power and Agency

Foucault’s Perspective on Power and Agency

Michel Foucault, a prominent figure in feminist discourse, introduced a unique perspective on power. Foucault’s works, including “Discipline and Punish” and “The History of Sexuality,” emphasize the notion that power is not a monolithic force but rather a web of relationships that permeates society (Foucault, 2019; Foucault, 2020). His approach highlights how power is embedded in various social institutions and practices, which can be both oppressive and liberating (Smith, 2018).

MacKinnon’s Notions of Power and Agency

Catharine MacKinnon, a leading feminist legal scholar, argues that power is deeply intertwined with sexuality and gender. She is known for her critique of pornography as a form of male dominance (MacKinnon, 2017). MacKinnon views agency as a crucial aspect of the feminist struggle, advocating for the legal recognition of women’s rights and protection against sexual objectification (MacKinnon, 2023). Her perspective places a significant emphasis on the agency to combat systemic gender-based oppression.

Rubin’s Take on Power and Agency

Gayle Rubin, in her groundbreaking essay “The Traffic in Women,” explores power dynamics through the lens of sexuality. Rubin suggests that power relations are not uniform, but rather exist on a continuum. She introduces the concept of the “charmed circle” to describe acceptable sexual practices, highlighting the fluidity of power and agency within these boundaries (Rubin, 2017). Her work underscores the importance of understanding diverse sexual practices and their relation to power.

Critiques of Mainstream Feminist Knowledge by Postcolonial Scholars

Postcolonial Feminism

Postcolonial feminism is a critical framework that emerged to challenge the Eurocentric bias in mainstream feminist discourse. It calls attention to the intersectionality of gender, race, and colonialism, emphasizing the importance of considering multiple axes of identity (Mohanty, 2018). Postcolonial feminists argue that mainstream feminism often perpetuates colonial stereotypes and ignores the experiences of non-Western women.

Abu-Lughod’s Critique of Ethnographic Feminism

Lila Abu-Lughod is a prominent postcolonial feminist scholar who critiques the “ethnographic feminism” often employed by Western feminists. She contends that Western feminists often conduct research in non-Western contexts without fully understanding the cultural and political complexities of those societies (Abu-Lughod, 2017). This approach, she argues, can lead to misrepresentations and reinforce colonial power dynamics.

Mohanty’s Critique of Homogenizing Narratives

Chandra Talpade Mohanty extends this critique by challenging the tendency to homogenize the experiences of non-Western women. She argues that Western feminists often paint non-Western women as passive victims in need of rescue, disregarding their agency and diverse struggles (Mohanty, 2019). Mohanty calls for a more nuanced and intersectional approach to feminist scholarship that acknowledges the complexities of women’s lives in different cultural contexts.


This paper has explored the central themes of power, gender, and critiques in feminist theories, offering insights into the perspectives of Foucault, MacKinnon, and Rubin on power and agency. Additionally, it has highlighted the critiques of mainstream feminist knowledge by postcolonial scholars such as Abu-Lughod and Mohanty. In doing so, it becomes evident that feminist theories are not static; they continually evolve and embrace intersectionality to better address the multifaceted realities of women’s lives. The relationship between power and gender is indeed complex and multifarious, requiring ongoing analysis and debate within the feminist discourse.


Abu-Lughod, L. (2017). Can there be a feminist ethnography? Women and Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory, 5(1), 7-27.

Foucault, M. (2019). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Vintage.

Foucault, M. (2020). The History of Sexuality: An Introduction (Vol. 1). Vintage.

MacKinnon, C. A. (2023). Pornography, Civil Rights, and Speech. Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, 22(1), 133-181.

MacKinnon, C. A. (2017). Toward a Feminist Theory of the State. Harvard University Press.

Mohanty, C. T. (2019). Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses. Feminist Review, 30(1), 61-88.

Mohanty, C. T. (2018). Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity. Duke University Press.

Rubin, G. (2017). The Traffic in Women: Notes on the “Political Economy” of Sex. In R. R. Reiter (Ed.), Toward an Anthropology of Women (pp. 157-210). Monthly Review Press.

Smith, J. (2018). Foucault’s Theory of Power. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 Edition). Stanford University.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What is the core focus of this paper?

This paper delves into the heart of feminist theories, examining the complex relationship between power and gender. It also discusses postcolonial critiques of mainstream feminist knowledge.

Who are the key feminist theorists discussed in this paper?

The paper explores the perspectives of Michel Foucault, Catharine MacKinnon, and Gayle Rubin regarding power and agency. It also discusses postcolonial scholars such as Lila Abu-Lughod and Chandra Talpade Mohanty.

What are the key ideas presented by Michel Foucault in relation to power and gender?

Foucault’s work emphasizes that power is a complex web of relationships embedded in social institutions and practices, which can be both oppressive and liberating.

How does Catharine MacKinnon contribute to the discussion on power and agency?

MacKinnon’s perspective focuses on the intersection of power, sexuality, and gender, advocating for the legal recognition of women’s rights and protection against sexual objectification.

What does Gayle Rubin’s work bring to the understanding of power dynamics in feminist discourse?

Rubin introduces the concept of the “charmed circle” and highlights the fluidity of power and agency within acceptable sexual practices.