For several centuries women have been analyzing, observing, and speaking out about the inequalities they face as a result of their sex. These many voices would contribute to a social movement that many refer to as feminism.
However, feminism as a concept did not emerge until 1837 when the frenchman Charles Fourier first used the term “feminisme,” after which it would soon find its way into the US and Britain. There it formed into a movement with the ultimate goal of achieving economic and social equality between the sexes, as well as to end sexism and the oppression of women by men. However, because of the diversity within early feminism due to the often different aims and goals across the world, different strands of what constitutes feminism have developed and now exist today. Few would deny, however, that feminist ideas have since had a significant influence on society, thus making it stand as one of the most important movements of our time.
Feminism is premised on the idea of male dominance that is rooted in the system of patriarchy, a system which has underpinned most human societies for centuries. In these societies, men created institutions that reinforced their power and resulted in the oppression of women. As such, male rule was imposed and thus found in nearly every avenue of society, from the government, law, and religion, to marriage, and the home. Beneath such a system, women were viewed as powerless and subordinate to male rule. They were also viewed as inferior in terms of their intellectual, social, and cultural status. Although they existed, women who actively challenged these enforced rules and regulations were fairly few, perhaps because mostly men controlled the historical record. However, a greater emphasis on individual liberty grew during the enlightenment period within European history. It was during this era that women really begun drawing attention to the injustices they experienced in society. These many concerns would find a place within the revolutions in the US (1775-1783) and in France (1787-1799), during which women campaigned for freedoms, although their efforts were largely unsuccessful at the time.
Sociologists have identified three main waves or time periods of feminism, although some feminists in the 21st century have included a fourth wave. Each wave has been triggered by specific events. However, some find the waves metaphor problematic for it reduces each wave to a single goal when feminism is actually a constantly evolving movement with a wide spectrum of aims.
Disagreements aside, first wave feminism took place within the mid 19th century US and Europe, and gained traction by applying the same libertarian principles which eventually led to the abolishment of slavery. The first wave feminists demanded the equal right to vote and equal rights within marriage, as well as equal access to education. This movement lasted until around 1920, by which time most western countries had granted women the right to vote.
The second wave, presented under the slogan “the personal is political,” begun in the 1960s and was influenced by writings that had emerged during the war period. These feminists argued that the legal rights gained during the first wave had not led to any real improvement in their everyday lives. They thus shifted attention to concerns of inequality in areas of the workplace and the family. The second wave has also been identified with the Women’s Liberation Movement which itself attempted to identify and put to end female oppression. During this period, new courses on feminist theory were found in universities, which led to further analyses of ideas of gender. As a result, organizations sprung up to tackle injustices. For example, women took back command of birth control from a male dominated medical profession, and they fought for the rights to legal abortion, and stood up to physical assault. The second wave ultimately lost power during the 1980s because of an increase of factionalism and a conservative political climate. However, the 1980s also saw an emergence of black feminism and the idea of intersectionality. These feminists recognized that there were multiple barriers facing women of colour which feminism, having been dominated by white women, had failed to address. The idea of black feminism was first proposed by Kimberle Crenshaw and it attracted the hearts and minds with many in the US and UK, as well as across many former colonial countries
There was also a third wave of feminism as spearheaded by the influential Rebecca Walker who once claimed: “I am the Third Wave,” a statement she made in an 1992 magazine article. Walker, a feminist and activist, responded to the acquittal of an alleged rapist in the early 1990s, and argued that women were still yet in need of liberation. However, the third wave possesses much in the way of diversity and thus has many conflicting strands. A major division concerns views of “raunch culture” (overtly sexual behaviour) as an expression of sexual freedom. Other divisions can been seen in debates over the inclusion of transwomen in the movement, and whether or not feminist goals are achievable within a capitalist society.
Feminism, its ideas, discussions, and debates have found their way into the 21st century partly due to the rise in technology which has resulted in a flourishing of feminist blogs and social media. Today the movement addresses sexual harassment within the workplace, and many other issues which, to many, makes it yet relevant for today’s world.
McCann, H. et al. 2019. The Feminism Book. p. 14-15.