Feminism is a social and political movement that is, most generally, concerned with the relationship between sex, gender, and power. Feminists are especially concerned with patriarchy (rule by men, or a gender hierarchy in which men dominate or exploit women). Radical Feminists consider this problem to be the root cause of most social problems; many question not only the relationship between "men" and "women," but the social construction of gender and sexuality and the very meaning of "man" and "woman" as well. For such feminists, feminism is the primary means to human liberation (i.e. the liberation of men as well as women, and men and women from other social problems). Other feminists acknowledge that other problems (e.g. racism or class divisions) may be separate from or prior to patriarchy, see feminism as one movement of liberation that is different from, but may and often must, work alongside other movements. Many such feminists are more narrowly concerned with achieving equal rights for women. Although the leaders of feminism have been, for obvious reasons, women, not all women are feminists; moreover, many men are feminists. Some feminists argue that men should not take positions of leadership in the movement, but most accept or seek the support of men. Compare pro-feminist, humanism, masculism.
Feminism began in the 19th century as a response to the perception that women are oppressed by a society in which most of the advantages fall upon males (see patriarchy), and the feminist movement is rooted in the West and especially the reform movement of the 19th century. The organised movement is dated from the first woman's rights convention at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. Over a century and a half the movement has grown to cover different perspectives on what constitutes discrimination against women, and to what extent men are to blame. Early feminists are often called the first wave and feminists after about 1960 the second wave.
Attitude towards men and women
The earliest works on 'the woman question' criticised the restrictive role of women without necessarily claiming that women were disadvantaged or that men were to blame. Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is one of the few works that can be called feminist, written before the 19th century. By modern standards her metaphor of women as nobility, the elite of society, coddled, fragile and in danger of intellectual and moral sloth, sounds like a masculist argument. Wollstonecraft believed that both sexes contributed to this situation and took it for granted that women had considerable power over men.
In the United States, this view had begun to evolve by the 1830s. Early feminists active in the abolition movement began to increasingly compare women's situation with the plight of African American slaves. This new polemic squarely blamed men for all the restrictions of women's role, and claimed that the relationship between the sexes was one sided, controlling and oppressive.
Most of the early women's advocates were Christians, especially Quakers. It started with Lucretia Mott's involvement as one of the first women, allowed by the Quaker abolitionist men, to help out with the abolitionist movement. The result was that Quaker women like Lucretia Mott learned how to organize and pull the levers of representative government. Starting in the mid 1830's, they then decided to use those skills for women's advocacy. It was those early Quaker women who taught other women their advocacy skills, and for the first time used for exclusive women's advocacy. As these new women's advocates began to expand on ideas about men and women, religious beliefs were also used to justify them. Sarah Grimké suggested in her Letters on the Equality of the Sexes (1837) that the curse placed upon Eve in the Garden of Eden, was God's prophecy of a period of universal oppression of women by men. Early feminists set about compiling lists of examples of women's plight, in foreign countries and in ancient times.
At the Seneca Falls convention in 1848 Elizabeth Cady Stanton modeled her declaration of sentiments on the United_States_Declaration_of_Independence. Men were said to be in the position of a tyrannical government over women. This simplistic separation of the sexes into two warring camps was to become increasingly popular in feminist thought, despite the large number of reform minded men such as William Lloyd Garrison and Wendel Phillips who supported the early women's movement.
As the movement broadened to include many women like Susan B. Anthony from the temperance movement the slavery metaphor was joined by the stereotype of the drunkard husband who batters his wife. Feminist prejudice that women were morally superior to men reflected the social attitudes of the day. It also led to the to focus on women's suffrage over more practical issues in the latter half of the 19th century. Feminists assumed that once women had the vote they would have the political will to deal with any other issues.
Victoria Woodhull argued in the 1870's that the 14th amendment to the United_States_Constitution already guaranteed equality of voting rights to women. She anticipated the arguments of the United_States_Supreme_Court a century later. But there was a strong movement of women opposed to suffrage, and it was delayed another 50 years, during which time most of the practical issues feminists campaigned for, including the 18th amendment's prohibition on alcohol, had already been won.
Feminists of the second wave focused more on lifestyle and economic issues; "The personal is the political" became a catchphrase. As the reality of women's status increased the feminist rhetoric against men became more vitriolic. The dominant metaphor describing the relationship of men to women became rape; men raped women physically, economically and spiritually. Radical feminists argued that rape was the defining characteristic of men, and introduced a new phase of total hostility to maleness. Lesbian separatists even went so far as to condemn normal sexual relations with men.
Radical feminists, particularly Catharine MacKinnon, began to dominate feminist jurisprudence. Whereas first wave feminism had concerned itself with challenging laws restricting women, the second wave tended to campaign for laws that curtailed men's legal rights, or introduced explicit discrimination on the basis of sex. The sentiment was that somehow men had it coming. The feminist concept that men had universally oppressed women began to take on a legal status as judicial decisions echoed it, even in the United_States_Supreme_Court.
One of the largest, earliest and most influential feminist organizations in the U.S., the National Organization for Women (NOW) illustrates the strong influence of radical feminism. Created in 1967 with Betty Friedan as president, the organization's name was deliberately chosen to say for women, and not of women. By 1968 the New York chapter lost many members who saw NOW as too mainstream. There was constant friction, most notably over the defence of Valerie Solanas. Solanas had shot Andy Warhol after authoring the SCUM manifesto, a hate filled anti-male propaganda manifesto, calling for the extermination of men. Ti-Grace Atkinson, the New York chapter president of NOW described her as, "the first outstanding champion of women's rights". Another member, Florynce Kennedy represented Solanas at her trial. Within a year of the split the new group limited the number of women members who live with men to 1/3 of the groups membership. By 1971, all married women were excluded from the breakaway group and Atkinson had also defected.
Friedan denounced the lesbian radicals as the lavender menace and tried to distance NOW from lesbian activities and issues. The radicals accused her of homophobia. There was a constant fight for control of NOW which eventually Friedan lost. By 1992 Olga Vives, chair of the NOW's national lesbian rights taskforce estimated that 40 percent of NOW members were lesbians. However NOW remains open to male members in contrast to some groups.
Feminists disagree over the role of men as participants within the movement. Some female feminists on college campuses feel that it is inappropriate to call feminist men 'feminist' and instead prefer the title pro-feminist man; however, in most of American society this terminology has not caught on.
Feminists are sometimes wary of the transgendered movement because they blur the distinction between men and women. Transgendered women are rejected by some feminists who say that no one born male can truly understand the oppression women face.
Relation to other movements
Feminists in general take a holistic approach to politics, believing the saying of Martin Luther King Jr., "A threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere". In that belief, feminists usually support other movements such as the civil rights movement and the gay rights movement. At the same time many black feminists such as bell hooks criticise the movement as dominated by white women. Feminist claims about the disadvantages women face are often less relevant to the lives of black women. Many black feminist women prefer the term womanism for their views. This, however, is not strictly feminism; rather this is an intersection between feminism and other social movements.
Feminism has effected many changes on society, including womens' suffrage, broad employment for women at more equitable wages ("equal pay for equal work"); the right to initiate divorce proceedings and "no fault" divorce; the right to control their own bodies and medical decisions, including obtaining birth control devices if unmarried, abortion, and many others. Most feminists would argue, however, that there is still much to be done on these fronts. As society has become increasingly accepting of feminist principles, some of these are no longer seen as specifically feminist, because they have been adopted by all or most people. Some beliefs that were radical for their time are now mainstream political thought. Almost no one in Western societies today questions the right of women to vote or own land, a concept that seemed quite strange 200 years ago.
In some cases (notably equal pay for equal work) major advances have been made but feminists still struggle to achieve their complete goals.
Feminists are often proponents of using non-sexist language, using "Ms." to refer to both married and unmarried women, for example, or the ironic use of the term herstory instead of history. They are also often proponents of using gender-inclusive language, such as "humanity" instead of "mankind", or "he or she" in place of "he" where the gender is unknown. Feminists in most cases advance their desired use of language either to promote a respectful treatment of women or to affect the tone of political discourse, rather than in the belief that language directly affects perception of reality (compare Sapir-Whorf hypothesis).
Perspective: the nature of the modern movement
Some modern feminists believe that much discrimination against women still exists in the USA and European nations.
There is a great variety of ideas within the movement as to how much of a problem exists, and how to confront it. Extremes on the one hand include some radical feminists such as Mary Daly who advocate the genocide of men. There are also dissidents, such as Christina Hoff Sommers or Camille Paglia, who identify themselves as feminist but who accuse the movement of anti-male prejudices. Many feminists question the use of the "feminist" label as applying to these individuals.
There are also debates between Difference Feminists such as Carol Gilligan on the one hand, who believe that there are important differences between the sexes (which may or may not be inherent, but which cannot be ignored), and those who believe that there are no essential differences between the sexes.
- Mary Wollstonecraft
- The Grimké sisters
- Lucretia Mott
- Elizabeth Cady Stanton
- Susan B. Anthony
- Lucy Stone
- Victoria Woodhull
- Virginia Woolf
- Betty Friedan
- Simone de Beauvoir
- Germaine Greer
- Gloria Steinem
- Robin Morgan
- Marilyn French
- Mary Daly
- bell hooks
- Andrea Dworkin
- Catharine MacKinnon
- Susan Faludi
- Naomi Wolf
- Carol Gilligan