Happy Women’s History Month!
Ask 10 people what feminism means and you may get 10 different answers. Feminism can be loaded subject and sometimes it pushes people further into their respective corners. When I think of my work within purity culture, the concept of feminism is easily intertwined. It made sense to bring light to it here. My hope is to dispel a few misconceptions and bridge a few gaps for my audience.
Think of it this way, feminism is a garden with a variety of theories, perspectives, and methodologies. It’s ok to not understand or agree with everything you see; simply enter the garden with curiosity.
(By no means is this an exhaustive explanation or resource on feminism. This is simply a launching pad for better dialogue and exploration.)
Defining the Terms
It’s hard to learn if there is not a shared language. Here are some definitions that might be old news to you, but I’ll include just in case. Some are more contested than others. I’ve also included a few extra resources that I found interesting.
“the belief in social, economic, and political equality of the sexes”— Britanica
“Feminism is a gamut of socio political movements and ideologies that share a common goal to delineate, establish, and achieve political, economic, personal, and social equality of sexes. Feminist movements over decades have campaigned for rights of women, 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 promote bodily autonomy and integrity and to protect women and girls from brutal crimes such as rape, sexual harassment, and domestic violence.”— Misogyny, feminism, and sexual harassment by Srivastava, Chaundhury, Bhat, and Sahu
“The one historical strategy of feminism that is also a philosophical imperative is the cultivation of an independent mind. Independent thinking, acquired through rigorous education, is the bastion of liberalism and specifically underscores the tenet of freedom.”— Marcie Bianco, Nothing says misogyny like defining feminism as equality for all
“Patriarchy is a social structure, not a conspiracy among men. It is not always intentional; men need not intend to oppress women. Men too are subject to the enormous pressures of a social system that creates paths of least resistance consistent with patriarchy, such as going along with the locker room chatter about babes. Men as well as women are damaged by patriarchy. For example, masculine men are hurt when they learn to repress emotions and to deny their needs for connection and intimacy in order to avoid being punished as sissies and to maintain the control necessary to protect themselves from other men.”— Patriarchy and Inequality: Towards a Substantive Feminism
“Gender refers to the roles, behaviours, activities, attributes and opportunities that any society considers appropriate for girls and boys, and women and men. Gender interacts with, but is different from, the binary categories of biological sex.”— World Health Organization
“Sex refers to the biological distinctions between males and females, most often in connection with reproductive functions.”— Sex, Gender, Genetics, and Health by Short, Yang, Jenkins
Brief History of Feminism in the West
Feminism, as a movement, is a relatively recent one. But the hope (ache) for equality is not new.
“…women have always found ways to resist the oppressions of patriarchal forms, systems, and values. These currents in feminist theory are important for reminding us that women, though oppressed, need not be rendered essentially as victims; indeed, that many have found ways to make vital contributions in, around, and in spite of myriad forms of sexist oppression.”—Bettina Tate Pedersen
I don’t intend to be the spokesperson for the history of feminism, so I’ll summarize the Western movements here with different voices and hope it inspires you to learn more about global movements.
- The First Wave of Feminism (Late nineteenth to early twentieth century) advocated for women, not as their father’s or husband’s property, but as equal members of society.
- The Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 was a formal (imperfect) spark that motivated over 200 (mostly white) women to demand equal rights, including the right to vote. Remember Fredrick Douglas, Elizabeth Cady Staton, and Lucreia Mott? They, along with other suffragists and abolitionists fought for the rights of women during this time.
- Sojourner Truth delivered the speech “Ain’t I Woman?” in 1883 during the Women’s Rights Convention in Ohio.
- In 1919-1920, the 19th Amendment of the US Constitution was passed allowing women the right to vote. (Chances are your grandmother or great-grandmother lived to see this happen.)
- The Second Wave of Feminism (1960s-1990s), one of the more radical waves, “unfolded in the context of the anti-war and civil rights movements and the growing self-consciousness of a variety of minority groups around the world.”
- The work of Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan were published and popular as they questioned systemic gender roles and patriarchal norms.
- “The Personal is Political” was a popular phrase and describes the fight to address systemic sexism. (Marital rape and domestic violence were not illegal.)
- Equal Pay Act of 1963, Title IX, and Roe v. Wade, among other cases supporting women’s access to birth control were passed during this time as women sought equal access to finances, education, and healthcare.
- The Third Wave of Feminism (1990s–), a response to the Second Wave, seeks to be more inclusive of non-white, middle class, heterosexual women. Its timeline is challenging to pin point and contested by many.
- New theories emerged in the 1980s-1990s. Intersectionality, a term coined by scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, describes the different forms of oppression and how they often overlap; Judith Butler brought awareness to the differences between “sex” and “gender”
- In 1991, Anita Hill, a law professor, brought case of sexual harassment to the Supreme Court. It was one of the first public testimonies of workplace harassment, although not the first case of workplace harassment.
- During the Year of the Woman in 1992 “American voters elected more new women to Congress than in any previous decade, which began a period of unparalleled advances for women in Congress.”
- Many disagree on the existence of Fourth Wave of Feminism. When did it start? What sparked a new movement? What makes this one different?
- The #MeToo movement is a significant event in history. Originally created by Tarana Burke, this hashtag brought awareness to the survivors (of all genders) of sexual harassment, assault, and rape.
- The term “feminism” has been challenged. “Feminism no longer just refers to the struggles of women; it is a clarion call for gender equity.“
- Some suggest the Fourth Wave is online.
- This (5 minute!!) podcast highlights figures in women’s history.
- The waves of feminism, and why people keep fighting over them, explained by Constance Grady (This is an excellent historical summary with additional sources and suggestions for further reading.)
- Four Waves of Feminism by Martha Rampton
- Feminism and Intersectionality from Georgetown Law Library
Flavors of Feminism
Feminism, like other systems of belief or thought, is a spectrum. There are all different combinations of motivations, fears, and convictions under the larger umbrella. Many feminists disagree with other feminists.
Feminism cannot be defined by a single wave or a single figure. It is a living and breathing body of work and people who have general commonalities and specific differences.
The Relationship Between Feminism & Racial Justice
When women won the right to vote in 1920, it was only white women who benefited from this new law. Women of color continued to be discriminated against at the polls until 1965, 45 years later, when the Voting Rights Act became law by President Johnson.
This is just one example. Too easily, feminism can bypass the unique obstacles women of color face. Racial justice/reconciliation is too often seen as a secondary issue; it should be prioritized if feminism means what it says. White supremacy and white privilege are still active systems in today’s world. How many of these privileges do you benefit from?
True feminism must recognize and support not only white women, but all women.
- How White Feminists Oppress Black Women: When Feminism Functions as White Supremacy
- The Trouble with White Feminism: Whiteness, Digital Feminism and the Intersectional Internet
- When Feminism Is White Supremacy in Heels
- White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo
- Waking Up White: and Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving
Read or watch more:
- Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay; find her funny and relatable TedTalk here.
- We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; find her delightful and powerful TedTalk here.
- Feminism is for Everyone by bell hooks (You may be able to find a PDF version for free on the internet.)
- Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
- My daughter, Malala (TedTalk)
- Radical women, embracing tradition (TedTalk)