What Is Feminism?

Feminists desire better positions for women, and to reverse the historical injustices of male-dominated societies.
Feminists desire better positions for women, and to reverse the historical injustices of male-dominated societies.

Feminism is an ideological and political movement that seeks equality and equity for women in all aspects, including social, political, personal, and economic realms. This movement recognizes that inequalities occur based on class, gender, physical and mental ability, sex, race, and sexuality. Feminists, people who believe in feminism, campaign for equal pay and opportunity in the workplace, paid maternity leave, and reproductive rights (to name a few issues). Additionally, feminists campaign against domestic violence, discrimination, sexual harassment, and rape

History of Feminism

The term “feminism” dates back to 1837 when it was first used by French philosopher Charles Fourier. By 1872, the word had spread to the Netherlands and to Great Britain by the 1890’s and the United States by 1910. Academics have not yet reached an agreement as to which movements should be attributed to feminism. Some argue that any movement for women’s rights should be credited as feminism, even if the word was not used to describe the movement. Others argue that only modern feminist movements should be considered feminism. It is generally accepted, however, that feminism can be divided into 3 historic movements.

First-Wave Feminism

First-wave feminism occurred during the 19th and early 20th Centuries. The main focus during this era was on property rights, marriage, parenting, and equal contracts. By the end of the 19th Century, the feminist movement centered on women’s right to vote. The first countries to enact women’s suffrage were New Zealand in 1893, South Australia in 1895, and Australia in 1902. This took a little longer in the United States, which first provisioned for the right of women to vote nationally in 1920, and Great Britain, which followed shortly thereafter in 1921.

Second-Wave Feminism

Second-wave feminism occurred during the Mid-Twentieth Century. In many countries around the world, women continued fighting for the right to vote and for equal rights in marriage. At this time, men were still given control over their wives. This wave of feminism continues today and is interested in achieving gender and political equality, as well as ending gender discrimination. Additionally, the second-wave of feminism has introduced the idea that the personal lives of women are a reflection of deeply rooted political and sexist power struggles. An example of this is the idea that women should be responsible for childcare.

Third-Wave Feminism

Third-Wave Feminism began in the Late Twentieth Century and continues into the present day. In some ways, it coexists with Second-Wave Feminism, although it is rooted in the premise that Second-Wave Feminism was largely unsuccessful. Proponents of third-wave feminism believe that second-wave feminism is only concerned with the issues facing upper middle-class white women. Additionally, this movement brought sexuality to the forefront, suggesting that female empowerment could be achieved via sexuality. Within this wave are varying opinion. Most notably, some individuals believe that men and women are inherently different. Others believe that men and women have no differences and that the idea of gender is socially created.

Ideologies of Feminism

Over the years, various ideologies of feminism have evolved. These include social constructionist feminism, materialist feminism, and black and postcolonial feminism.

Social Constructionist Ideology

Followers of social constructionist feminism believe that gender is a social construct. They believe that what defines “male” or “female” is a person’s culture and that women’s experiences cannot be generalized. Post-structural feminism and postmodern feminism fall under this ideology.

Materialist Ideology

Supporters of the materialist ideology critique the patriarchal approach to capitalism. Within this ideology is Marxist feminism, Socialist feminism, and Anarchist-feminism. Marxist feminists believe that capitalism is the root of women’s inequality, including domestically and professionally. Socialist feminists believe that women must work in order to abolish economic and cultural oppression. Anarchist-feminists believe that social class is created by patriarchy.

Black and Postcolonial Ideology

Followers of this ideology believe that feminism has historically focused on the struggles and oppression of white women, particularly from the middle class. Black and postcolonial ideology was promoted by women in developing and postcolonial countries. The idea behind this viewpoint is that colonialism is responsible for women’s oppression. Under this ideology lies womanism, third-world feminism, and indigenous feminism.

The Impact of Feminism

The argument that women are equal to men, and as such should have equal and equitable opportunities, has resulted in significant changes across a broad spectrum of social issues. The feminist movement has helped establish a woman’s right to choose early pregnancy termination, improved access to birth control, the right to own property, the right to work and receive equal pay (although in many countries women still receive less salary for the same work), and increased access to education. With these rights, more women began to enter the workforce, which brought about many changes in societal norms regarding their accepted household responsibilities. However, many sociologists argue that women now work the same number of hours as men and still continue to do the majority of housework.

Language has also been affected by the feminist movement. In several countries, gender-neutral language has been adopted. This language has attempted to counter the existence of gender-specific language which often denotes a higher level of importance for men. Use of gender-specific language further perpetuates unequal social statuses. This is particularly true of career-type words which ignore women’s participation in the profession. Examples of gender-specific professions (and their gender-neutral counterpart) include policeman (police officer), fireman (fire fighter), chairman (chairperson), and stewardess or steward (flight attendant).

Feminism has even influenced traditional religious practices in what is referred to as feminist theology. This theology has promoted the increased participation of women as clergy members and religious authorities. Additionally, it has contributed to analysis of the representation of women in religious text. On an international level, the United Nations General Assembly created a bill of rights for women, known as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

Criticisms of Feminism

Criticism of feminism is sometimes referred to as anti-feminism. Historically, criticism of feminism has been grounded in standing in opposition of the demands of the feminist movement. For example, many people were against women’s right to vote during the suffrage movement. Other opponents disagree with access to birth control and reproductive rights, women’s involvement in the labor force, and women’s attainment of higher education. Most of these stances are rooted in the idea that feminism is contrary to traditional and religious beliefs. Opponents suggest that feminism is the demoralization of society. Other critics of feminism contend that feminism promotes a dislike of men, boys, and the male gender. They suggest that feminism brings women’s issues to a higher level of importance and disregards the needs of men. This attitude, they believe, is harmful to both men and women.


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