"Feminists" redirects here. For other uses, see Feminists (disambiguation).
Feminism is a range of political movements, ideologies, and social movements that share a common goal: to define, establish, and achieve political, economic, personal, and social equality of sexes. This includes seeking to establish educational and professional opportunities for women that are equal to those for men.
Feminist movements have campaigned and continue to campaign for women's rights, including the right to vote, to hold public office, to work, to earn fair wages or equal pay, to own property, to receive education, to enter contracts, to have equal rights within marriage, and to have maternity leave. Feminists have also worked to ensure access to legal abortions and social integration, and to protect women and girls from rape, sexual harassment, and domestic violence. Changes in dress and acceptable physical activity have often been part of feminist movements.
Feminist campaigns are generally considered to be a main force behind major historical societal changes for women's rights, particularly in the West, where they are near-universally credited with achieving women's suffrage, gender neutrality in English, reproductive rights for women (including access to contraceptives and abortion), and the right to enter into contracts and own property. Although feminist advocacy is, and has been, mainly focused on women's rights, some feminists, including bell hooks, argue for the inclusion of men's liberation within its aims because they believe that men are also harmed by traditional gender roles.Feminist theory, which emerged from feminist movements, aims to understand the nature of gender inequality by examining women's social roles and lived experience; it has developed theories in a variety of disciplines in order to respond to issues concerning gender.
Numerous feminist movements and ideologies have developed over the years and represent different viewpoints and aims. Some forms of feminism have been criticized for taking into account only white, middle class, and college-educated perspectives. This criticism led to the creation of ethnically specific or multicultural forms of feminism, including black feminism and intersectional feminism.
Main article: History of feminism
See also: Protofeminism
Charles Fourier, a Utopian Socialist and French philosopher, is credited with having coined the word "féminisme" in 1837. The words "féminisme" ("feminism") and "féminist" ("feminist") first appeared in France and the Netherlands in 1872,Great Britain in the 1890s, and the United States in 1910, and the Oxford English Dictionary lists 1852 as the year of the first appearance of "feminist" and 1895 for "feminism". Depending on the historical moment, culture and country, feminists around the world have had different causes and goals. Most western feminist historians contend that all movements working to obtain women's rights should be considered feminist movements, even when they did not (or do not) apply the term to themselves. Other historians assert that the term should be limited to the modern feminist movement and its descendants. Those historians use the label "protofeminist" to describe earlier movements.
The history of the modern western feminist movements is divided into three "waves". Each wave dealt with different aspects of the same feminist issues. The first wave comprised women's suffrage movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, promoting women's right to vote. The second wave was associated with the ideas and actions of the women's liberation movement beginning in the 1960s. The second wave campaigned for legal and social equality for women. The third wave is a continuation of, and a reaction to, the perceived failures of second-wave feminism, which began in the 1990s.
Nineteenth and early twentieth centuries
Main article: First-wave feminism
First-wave feminism was a period of activity during the 19th century and early twentieth century. In the UK and eventually the US, it focused on the promotion of equal contract, marriage, parenting, and property rights for women. By the end of the 19th century, a number of important steps had been made with the passing of legislation such as the UK Custody of Infants Act 1839 which introduced the Tender years doctrine for child custody arrangement and gave woman the right of custody of their children for the first time. Other legislation such as the Married Women's Property Act 1870 in the UK and extended in the 1882 Act, these became models for similar legislation in other British territories. For example, Victoria passed legislation in 1884, New South Wales in 1889, and the remaining Australian colonies passed similar legislation between 1890 and 1897. Therefore, with the turn of the 19th century activism had focused primarily on gaining political power, particularly the right of women's suffrage, though some feminists were active in campaigning for women's sexual, reproductive, and economic rights as well.
Women's suffrage began in Britain's Australasian colonies at the close of the 19th century, with the self-governing colonies of New Zealand granting women the right to vote in 1893 and South Australia granting female suffrage (the right to vote and stand for parliamentary office) in 1895. This was followed by Australia granting female suffrage in 1902.
In Britain the Suffragettes and the Suffragists campaigned for the women's vote, and in 1918 the Representation of the People Act was passed granting the vote to women over the age of 30 who owned property. In 1928 this was extended to all women over 21.Emmeline Pankhurst was the most notable activist in England, with Time naming her one of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century stating: "she shaped an idea of women for our time; she shook society into a new pattern from which there could be no going back." In the U.S., notable leaders of this movement included Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony, who each campaigned for the abolition of slavery prior to championing women's right to vote. These women were influenced by the Quaker theology of spiritual equality, which asserts that men and women are equal under God. In the United States, first-wave feminism is considered to have ended with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution (1919), granting women the right to vote in all states. The term first wave was coined retroactively to categorize these western movements after the term second-wave feminism began to be used to describe a newer feminist movement that focused on fighting social and cultural inequalities, as well political inequalities.
During the late Qing period and reform movements such as the Hundred Days' Reform, Chinese feminists called for women's liberation from traditional roles and Neo-Confuciangender segregation. Later, the Chinese Communist Party created projects aimed at integrating women into the workforce, and claimed that the revolution had successfully achieved women's liberation.
According to Nawar al-Hassan Golley, Arab feminism was closely connected with Arab nationalism. In 1899, Qasim Amin, considered the "father" of Arab feminism, wrote The Liberation of Women, which argued for legal and social reforms for women. He drew links between women's position in Egyptian society and nationalism, leading to the development of Cairo University and the National Movement. In 1923 Hoda Shaarawi founded the Egyptian Feminist Union, became its president and a symbol of the Arab women's rights movement.
The Iranian Constitutional Revolution in 1905 triggered the Iranian women's movement, which aimed to achieve women's equality in education, marriage, careers, and legal rights. However, during the Iranian revolution of 1979, many of the rights that women had gained from the women's movement were systematically abolished, such as the Family Protection Law.
In France, women obtained the right to vote only with the Provisional Government of the French Republic of 21 April 1944. The Consultative Assembly of Algiers of 1944 proposed on 24 March 1944 to grant eligibility to women but following an amendment by Fernand Grenier, they were given full citizenship, including the right to vote. Grenier's proposition was adopted 51 to 16. In May 1947, following the November 1946 elections, the sociologist Robert Verdier minimized the "gender gap", stating in Le Populaire that women had not voted in a consistent way, dividing themselves, as men, according to social classes. During the baby boom period, feminism waned in importance. Wars (both World War I and World War II) had seen the provisional emancipation of some women, but post-war periods signalled the return to conservative roles.
By the mid 20th century, in some European countries, women still lacked some significant rights. Feminists in these countries continued to fight for voting rights. In Switzerland, women gained the right to vote in federal elections in 1971; but in the canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden women obtained the right to vote on local issues only in 1991, when the canton was forced to do so by the Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland. In Liechtenstein, women were given the right to vote by the women's suffrage referendum of 1984. Three prior referendums held in 1968, 1971 and 1973 had failed to secure women's right to vote.
Feminists continued to campaign for the reform of family laws which gave husbands control over their wives. Although by the 20th century coverture had been abolished in the UK and the US, in many continental European countries married women still had very few rights. For instance, in France married women did not receive the right to work without their husband's permission until 1965. Feminists have also worked to abolish the "marital exemption" in rape laws which precluded the prosecution of husbands for the rape of their wives. Earlier efforts by first-wave feminists such as Voltairine de Cleyre, Victoria Woodhull and Elizabeth Clarke Wolstenholme Elmy to criminalize marital rape in the late 19th century had failed; this was only achieved a century later in most Western countries, but is still not achieved in many other parts of the world.
French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir provided a Marxist solution and an existentialist view on many of the questions of feminism with the publication of Le Deuxième Sexe (The Second Sex) in 1949. The book expressed feminists' sense of injustice. Second-wave feminism is a feminist movement beginning in the early 1960s and continuing to the present; as such, it coexists with third-wave feminism. Second-wave feminism is largely concerned with issues of equality beyond suffrage, such as ending gender discrimination.
Second-wave feminists see women's cultural and political inequalities as inextricably linked and encourage women to understand aspects of their personal lives as deeply politicized and as reflecting sexist power structures. The feminist activist and author Carol Hanisch coined the slogan "The Personal is Political", which became synonymous with the second wave.
Second- and third-wave feminism in China has been characterized by a reexamination of women's roles during the communist revolution and other reform movements, and new discussions about whether women's equality has actually been fully achieved.
In 1956, President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt initiated "state feminism", which outlawed discrimination based on gender and granted women's suffrage, but also blocked political activism by feminist leaders. During Sadat's presidency, his wife, Jehan Sadat, publicly advocated further women's rights, though Egyptian policy and society began to move away from women's equality with the new Islamist movement and growing conservatism. However, some activists proposed a new feminist movement, Islamic feminism, which argues for women's equality within an Islamic framework.
In Latin America, revolutions brought changes in women's status in countries such as Nicaragua, where feminist ideology during the Sandinista Revolution aided women's quality of life but fell short of achieving a social and ideological change.
In 1963, Betty Friedan's book The Feminine Mystique was published and helped voice the discontent that American women felt. The book is widely credited with sparking the beginning of second-wave feminism in the United States. The book's success also meant that Friedan could lecture her views while she was on tour in 1970. Within ten years, after Friedan's successful publishing, women made up more than half of the total percentage in the First World workforce.
Late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries
Main article: Third-wave feminism
Third-wave feminism is traced to the emergence of the Riot grrrl feminist punk subculture in Olympia, Washington, in the early 1990s, and to Anita Hill's televised testimony in 1991—to an all-male, all-white Senate Judiciary Committee—that Clarence Thomas, nominated for the Supreme Court of the United States, had sexually harassed her. The term third wave is credited to Rebecca Walker, who responded to Thomas's appointment to the Supreme Court with an article in Ms. magazine, "Becoming the Third Wave" (1992). She wrote:
So I write this as a plea to all women, especially women of my generation: Let Thomas’ confirmation serve to remind you, as it did me, that the fight is far from over. Let this dismissal of a woman's experience move you to anger. Turn that outrage into political power. Do not vote for them unless they work for us. Do not have sex with them, do not break bread with them, do not nurture them if they don't prioritize our freedom to control our bodies and our lives. I am not a post-feminism feminist. I am the Third Wave.
Third-wave feminism also sought to challenge or avoid what it deemed the second wave's essentialist definitions of femininity, which, third-wave feminists argued, over-emphasized the experiences of upper middle-class white women. Third-wave feminists often focused on "micro-politics" and challenged the second wave's paradigm as to what was, or was not, good for women, and tended to use a post-structuralist interpretation of gender and sexuality. Feminist leaders rooted in the second wave, such as Gloria Anzaldúa, bell hooks, Chela Sandoval, Cherríe Moraga, Audre Lorde, Maxine Hong Kingston, and many other non-white feminists, sought to negotiate a space within feminist thought for consideration of race-related subjectivities. Third-wave feminism also contained internal debates between difference feminists, who believe that there are important psychological differences between the sexes, and those who believe that there are no inherent psychological differences between the sexes and contend that gender roles are due to social conditioning.
Standpoint theory is a feminist theoretical point of view that believes a persons' social position influences their knowledge. This perspective argues that research and theory treats women and the feminist movement as insignificant and refuses to see traditional science as unbiased. Since the 1980s, standpoint feminists have argued that the feminist movement should address global issues (such as rape, incest, and prostitution) and culturally specific issues (such as female genital mutilation in some parts of Africa and the Middle East, as well as glass ceiling practices that impede women's advancement in developed economies) in order to understand how gender inequality interacts with racism, homophobia, classism and colonization in a "matrix of domination".
Main article: Fourth-wave feminism
Fourth-wave feminism refers to a resurgence of interest in feminism that began around 2012 and is associated with the use of social media. According to feminist scholar Prudence Chamberlain, the focus of the fourth wave is justice for women and opposition to sexual harassment and violence against women. Its essence, she writes, is "incredulity that certain attitudes can still exist".
Fourth-wave feminism is "defined by technology", according to Kira Cochrane, and is characterized particularly by the use of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Tumblr, and blogs such as Feministing to challenge misogyny and further gender equality.
Issues that fourth-wave feminists focus on include street and workplace harassment, campus sexual assault and rape culture. Scandals involving the harassment, abuse, and murder of women and girls have galvanized the movement. These have included the 2012 Delhi gang rape, 2012 Jimmy Savile allegations, the Bill Cosby allegations, 2014 Isla Vista killings, 2016 trial of Jian Ghomeshi, 2017 Harvey Weinstein allegations and subsequent Weinstein effect, and the 2017 Westminster sexual scandals.
Recently, Merriam-Webster announced that its “Word of the Year” — the most looked-up word in 2017 — was feminism. Use of the word spiked nearly 70% this year, especially in the wake of the Women’s March. Look-ups of the word also spiked after Kellyanne Conway claimed that she was not a feminist “in the classic sense” because “it seems to be very anti-male and it certainly is very pro-abortion.” [i] Though the surge in interest around the definition of feminism certainly signals what has been a watershed moment for twenty-first century feminists, it doesn’t tell us how this definition was put to use, why it was searched, or for whose benefit it was elaborated.
One might imagine that a large number of searches were conducted in order to prove something that the searcher already believed — sitting around the dinner table with recalcitrant relatives, reminding them that feminism is not a man-hating baby-killing conspiracy, but simply “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.” Certainly, there were some who sought this definition out of a sense of genuine curiosity, as well as those who sardonically showed it to their colleagues and co-conspirators as a springboard for anti-feminist vitriol. Whatever the reasons, American’s interest in the definition of feminism speaks to both the successes and challenges of a movement that — far from being a new phenomenon — has existed since well before its earliest known English usage (dated by Merriam-Webster at 1895). In the past year, “the” movement has seen vast mobilizations of bodies, the raising (and silencing) of “women’s” voices, and the ousting of male sexual predators from positions of power. And as in centuries past, its successes have only served to complicate its definition.
As an historian of feminism, I have come across my fair share of definitions of feminism. Disagreements over the term abound. Can we center a definition of feminism on the category of “women” in a contemporary moment where the social construction of gender has become increasingly orthodox? Can the term feminism be applied to historical actors or movements that did not self-identify as such? Should it encompass individuals who subvert gendered expectations, or be reserved for social movements with explicitly political goals and activist methods? What about the status of subaltern, indigenous, or otherwise marginalized women’s movements who do not use the term? And what to do with conservative women’s movements fighting for specific, though narrow, roles for women in society? For those outside of the academy, many of these debates may seem obtuse or simply useless. But when historians ask what feminism means to their historical actors they are also, necessarily, asking us to reconsider what it means to us.
Take, for example, Marguerite Durand. For historians of France, Durand is one of the most well-known figures of early twentieth-century feminism. The archives in Paris where feminist scholars spend much of their time is named in her honor, and it is one of the longest-running feminist archives in the world.[ii] Durand was in some ways a classic example of feminists of her time: white, upper-class, weary of any overtly radical strains of feminist activism. She began her career as an actress — a profession that, at the time, tended to bring along with it a reputation for sexual promiscuity. She then moved on to the world of the press, following her husband to the reactionary Boulangist publication La Presse. After their divorce and her “conversion” to feminism in 1896 (only one year after the term “feminism” began appearing in English usage), Durand founded La Fronde, one of the first newspapers in France written by and for women. [iii] Though refusing to identify La Fronde as a “feminine” publication merely catering to “women’s” tastes, Durand also refused to identify the paper as “feminist.” “Feminist,” at the time, did not necessarily connote someone who was devoted to the “theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.” Rather, feminism served as a symbol, for many commentators, of France’s “degeneration”– evoking the specter of mannish women abandoning hearth and home to take part in the vulgar mechanics of the masculine public sphere, and thus, threaten the healthy reproduction of the French race. Durand, aware of these connotations, sought instead to create what Mary Louise Roberts has deemed a “feminist aesthetic” with her newspaper. She insisted that the newspaper office retain the trappings of the feminine private sphere, and that her writers continue to dress in traditionally feminine apparel. Feminism, Durand was famous for claiming, owed “a great deal” to her blond hair.[iv]
On the other end of the spectrum, we might consider Madeleine Pelletier. Pelletier represented exactly the kind of feminist with whom Durand did not wish to be associated: she dressed in men’s clothing, eschewed all things “feminine,” and called for the subject of politics to be “unsexed.” Pelletier was also a professional psychiatrist, abortion practitioner, and neo-Malthusian advocate of population control. Though affiliated with the socialist party, she was at heart a classical liberal, advocating an end to privileges of birth and the erasure of class distinctions in society. Intelligence and work, Pelletier believed, were to be the sole arbiters of success in a truly just society. [v] Whereas Durand stressed — both in her life and her work — that women’s increased participation in the public sphere would neither irrevocably alter that public sphere for the worse, nor irrevocably alter the women who entered it, Pelletier contended that women could and should be changed by politics. It was their very exclusion from the public sphere, she argued, that had artificially made them into “women” in the first place. Once fully granted “political, economic, and social equality,” women would cease to perform femininity, and thus return to the unsexed (read masculine) individuals they were always meant to be. “Give to a woman,” Pelletier claimed, “even an inferior one, the right to vote, and she will cease to think of herself exclusively as a female and feel herself instead to be an individual.” [vi]Pelletier’s feminism, then, was far from the feminine/ist aesthetic of Durand. For her, being feminist meant abandoning the category of “women” altogether.
Somewhere in the middle of these two extremes was Nelly Roussel, another contemporary of Durand’s and Pelletier’s. Like Durand, Roussel was at various points in her life involved in the theater as both an actress and a playwright. Unlike Durand, she came to feminism by way of freemasonry and socialism, which led her to the small but growing group of neo-Malthusian thinkers of which Pelletier was a part. It was in 1899, with the birth of her first child, that Roussel first began to formulate her own brand of feminism, one that emphasized the undue toll of childbirth on women’s physical and mental health. Childbirth, Roussel contended, should be both avoidable (through free access to birth control techniques and devices) and medicalized (through the use of chloroform and other techniques for pain management that were restricted for women at the time). Unlike either Durand or Pelletier, Roussel took her feminism on the road, travelling for months at a time on speaking tours throughout France, targeting communities of working-class women in particular. “To be only a feminist,” Roussel argued, “without linking feminism to some grand ideal of social transformation and human regeneration, is obviously an error, prejudicial to feminism itself…. Not to be a feminist is another error, no less serious.”[vii] Her feminism was ambivalently maternal, and tied to a civilizational approach to human progress that would end up being foundational to the eugenicist politics of the interwar period.
Taken together, these roughly drawn sketches of three contemporaneous French feminists give some preliminary sense of the difficulties inherent in any historian’s attempt to “define” feminism. Some scholars might lump these three women under the category of “first-wave feminism,” claiming that either their direct or aleatory support for women’s suffrage made them part of a coherent and identifiable historical movement. Even a cursory description of their politics, however, has shown that their own definitions of feminism differed on a profound and fundamental level, and that the tactical productivity of their engagement with feminist discourse differed wildly as well.
The story of three long-dead French feminists does not, in and of itself, tell us much of anything about the politics of the Women’s March, or the strategies of the #MeToo campaign, or the best way to contest Kellyanne Conway’s misguided portrait of feminism. It does, however, demonstrate that we — as feminists — have long been fighting a losing battle with the word that defines us. One in which a lifestyle, set of beliefs, and ethical system that guides many of our lives is constantly diminished by our detractors to the status of a “dogma,” an ideology, even a conspiracy to end the human race.
At its most expansive, feminism is not simply a set of theories or practices — as the suffix–ism may seem to imply — but a way of being in the world, a way of “orientating bodies in particular ways, so they are facing a certain way, heading toward a future that is given a face.” [viii] The way to win the battle over this word is not to perfect our definition of it, but to refuse to do so in the first place. Rather than arguing about what feminism is or is not, we should spend more time asking ourselves how the meanings contained in this word operate, how they circulate, how they effect truths, how they act on and through bodies, how they free us or lead us astray. [ix] The task should not be to define feminism but to ask what a feminist definition of feminism would look like.
Would it look something like Sarah Ahmed’s definition of a “sweaty concept”: an embodied, worldly, and unstable formulation that helps us orient ourselves in the world but never tricks us with the delusion that a concept is external to the world (or body) that defines it? Would it look something like “gender,” a term that not only describes a set of beliefs about sexual difference but encompasses its contestations? Or would it look something like “queer,” a word that elides definition precisely because it is, in its nature, anti-definitional?
Maybe the time has come for us to finally differentiate between the narrow linguistic structure in which feminism has been trapped, and the sweaty world in which it lives. Maybe the time has come to accept that the very formulation of feminism — as something that can be defined — is in itself an anti-feminist endeavor. My hope for 2018 is that we stop attempting to define ourselves in such narrow terms as have been offered to us, and continue to use our feminist lifestyles, ethics, practices, and orientations to show, rather than tell the world what feminism means to us.
Hannah Leffingwell is Ph.D Candidate at the Institute of French Studies at New York University, and a student assistant at the Office of Global Spiritual Life.
[iii] Some consider it “the” first, but other, less successful examples of women-run newspapers did exist throughout the nineteenth century, including the Saint-Simonian newspaper Tribune des Femmes. Moses, Claire G. “Saint-Simonian Men/Saint-Simonian Women: The Transformation of Feminist Thought in 1830s’ France.”The Journal of Modern History 54, no. 2 (1982): 240–67.
[iv] Roberts, Mary Louise. Disruptive Acts: The New Woman in Fin-de-Siècle France. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2002. 49.
[v] Scott, Joan. Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man . Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996. 127.
[vii] Accampo, Elinor Ann. Blessed Motherhood, Bitter Fruit : Nelly Roussel and the Politics of Female Pain in Third Republic France. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006. 205.
[viii] Ahmed, Sara. Living a Feminist Life. Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2017. Kindle Locations 880-881.
[ix] I am drawing here on Foucault’s definition of discourses as “tactical elements or blocks operating in the field of force relations; there can exist different and even contradictory discourses within the same strategy, they can, on the contrary, circulate without changing their form from one strategy to another, opposing strategy. […] we must question them on the two levels of their tactical productivity (what reciprocal effects of power and knowledge they ensure) and their strategical integration (what conjunction and what force relationship make their utilization necessary in a given episode of the various confrontations that occur.” Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction: 1. Translated by Robert Hurley. Reissue edition. Vintage, 1990. Kindle location 1323.
Image 1: Bain News Service. Marguerite Durand (1864 – 1936), French Stage Actress, Journalist, and a Leading Suffragette. June 28, 1910. This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID ggbain.04884.
Image 2: Agence Rol. Agence photographique. Mlle Madeleine Pelletier : [photographie de presse] / [Agence Rol]. 1912. Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie, EI-13 (158)
Image 3: Ruedi, Fr. Français : Nelly Roussel, Née Le 5 Janvier 1878 et Morte Le 18 Décembre 1922, Est Une Libre Penseuse Féministe, Antinataliste, Néomalthusianiste et Anarchiste Française. impression carte postale 1911.