The short history of feminism
There is no strict definition for the word â€œfeminismâ€ â€“ try to search the Internet and you will come up with pages of definitions, many of subtle difference. The Oxford Concise Dictionary of Politics determines this as â€œa way of looking at the world, which women occupy from the perspective of women. It has as its central focus the concept of patriarchy, which can be described as a system male authority, which oppresses women through its social, political and economic institutionsâ€ and goes on like that for several paragraphs. Chambers Dictionary puts it more simply as the â€œadvocacy of womenâ€™s rights, or of the movement for the advancement and emancipation of womenâ€. Quite a number of professors of sociology still have debates about this point; however it is possible to figure out the four basic principles of feminism:
â€¢ According to the first one, feminism is an integrated theory concerning character of the global oppression of women and their submission towards men.
â€¢ From the second point of view, it is a social-political theory and practice aimed to set women free from the superiority and of men.
â€¢ The third principle considers feminism to e a social movement strategically fighting the so called gender-class system.
â€¢ And finally, feminism can be understood as any ideology which confronts the misogyny ones.
When and how did it all begin? The short history of feminism.
The origins of the womenâ€™s movement in the Western world can be traced back to the French Revolution which began in 1789. Of course, that doesnâ€™t mean that there were no women to stand up for themselves or women of any note before that. There are great examples like Elizabeth Boadicea I, Empress Catherine the Great, Joan of Arc â€“ they all spring to mind but are only noticeable exceptions. There were quieter examples of women who not only made their own way in the world but also protested against the inequalities between the sexes. Christine de Pizan (1364 – 1430) – a Venetian writer, who wrote the book â€œTreasures of the City of Ladiesâ€, a collection of snippets of advice to women, which is still quoted today. Pizan refused to accept the male certainties that women were both inherently weaker than men and more likely to fall into evil ways. Three centuries later, Mary Astell (1666 – 1731) wrote â€œReflections on Marriageâ€, perhaps the earliest English feminist text. Astell wrote not only about the inequality between men and women in marriage but also about the lack of educational opportunities for women. Meanwhile, Aphra Behn (1640 – 1689) managed to establish herself as the first English woman playwright, exploring themes such as the consequences of arranged and ill-matched marriages. However, these women were few and far between and the situation remained largely unchallenged. There was little choice for women in how they led their lives. Although Aphra Behn was the first in a long and honourable tradition of women writers, few women were able to earn their living on that. For the less well off, before industrialisation, men and women worked together on the farm or in the workshop. Both the work women did and the amount they were paid differed from men. With the spread of industrialization came a more formalised separation between â€œmenâ€™s workâ€ and â€œwomenâ€™s workâ€. Whatever their economic and social background, there was no active role for women in public life and by the late eighteenth century, some women were beginning to loose their temper against such restriction.
The basics of modern feminism derive from the demand for womenâ€™s rights, which began to be voiced in the late XVIII century. Womenâ€™s voices were first raised in unison during the French Revolution in which many of them took an active part. Revolutionary Republican Women Citizens â€“ as they were called – demanded for the right for women to vote and to hold senior civilian and military posts in the new Republic. Having fought alongside men, women were bitterly disappointed when the revolutionariesâ€™ â€œDeclaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizenâ€ (1789) explicitly denied equality with men. Olympe de Gouge replied with her â€œDeclaration of the Rights of Womenâ€ (1791) calling for equal rights with men. De Gouges, a member of the royalist Girondin faction, persisted in her demands, thus she was sent to the guillotine in 1793. Meanwhile across the Channel, Mary Wollstonecraft enthusiastically debated the events in France with her radical friends. A keen supporter of the French revolutionaries, Wollstonecraft wrote â€œA Vindication of the Rights of Manâ€ in 1790, which was her passionate reply to Edmund Burkeâ€™s attack on the Revolution in his â€œReflections on the Revolution in Franceâ€. Just like de Gouges, Wollstonecraft found herself deeply frustrated by the revolutionariesâ€™ neglect of womenâ€™s rights. Her most famous work, â€œA Vindication of the Rights of Womenâ€, was written in 1792, the year after De Gougesâ€™ Declaration. Although nineteenth century feminists distanced themselves from Wollstonecraft, unwilling to be associated with her outspoken opinions on sexuality and the scandal of her illegitimate daughter, the â€œVindicationâ€ is now seen as the foundation stone upon which modern feminism was built. Claiming that the financial dependence of women on their husbands amounted to little more than â€˜legalised prostitutionâ€™, Wollstonecraft demanded that women be recognised as citizens in their own right with equal education and employment.
As society became more industrialised, the distance between men and women became more pronounced. In the newly expanding middle classes material conditions improved, but women still found themselves imprisoned in the domestic sphere and expected to find fulfillment in their role as moral educators of the next generation. Mary Wollstonecraft, as a writer, was part of a growing number of women in the eighteenth century who saw literature as a viable profession. Apart from giving women opportunity to earn some money and thus gain some financial independence, it also provided a way of drawing attention to the difficulties faced by women. Novelists such as Mary Hays, Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth and, later, Jane Austen debated what became known as the â€œWoman Questionâ€ in their novels. They addressed concerns about marriage, motherhood and family life, sometimes extending the debate to include such difficult issues as rape and prostitution.
In the bloody aftermath of the French Revolution, Britain was in no mood for anything but conservatism, which means that the ideas of womenâ€™s freedom were not discussed openly for some time. But here comes the sad story of Caroline Norton. Trapped in a violent marriage, Norton found herself barred from her own house after a short absence. At this time, women had virtually no legal standing once they were married. Any property that they owned, including income from that property, passed into the hands of their husband on marriage. They were unable to enter into legal contracts of any kind and had no rights over their children. Even rape was legal within marriage. For many years Norton was denied access to her three young sons. Desperate, she set about trying to change the law, writing and distributing pamphlets about her situation. Although she failed, her book â€œEnglish Laws for Womenâ€, brought the question of legal reform for women into the public discussion. Some progress in marital law was made with the Divorce Act of 1857 which made it easier for women to quit from cruel marriages, but they still had to prove their husbandsâ€™ brutality.
While women had been assigned the role of â€œmoral educatorsâ€ in the home, destined to keep the next generation on the straight and narrow, opportunities for their own education were minimal. In the eighteenth century women were likely to be educated at home. Hannah Moreâ€™s â€œStrictures on the Modern System of Female Educationâ€ (1799) had been influential in raising the subject of education for women and by the middle of the nineteenth century there was a good deal of debate on the issue. Feminists mounted campaigns for improvements in opportunities in higher education. They worked alongside to persuade Cambridge University to offer more opportunities for women students resulting in the provision of lectures for women and the eventual establishment of Newnham College. Emily Daviesâ€™s campaign for equal educational opportunities ultimately succeeded in the establishment of Girton College, Cambridge in 1873. Although many activists felt that educational opportunities should be improved for women, Davies was one of the few who insisted that they should be equal and it was thanks to her that women were admitted to the University of London in 1878.
From the mid-nineteenth century the battle for the vote occupied the womenâ€™s movement on both sides of the Atlantic. For both American and British women it was a long, hard and often bitter fight. The American Congress pipped Parliament to the post by awarding women the vote in 1920. Whilst British women over thirty were naturalised in 1917, it was not until 1928 that equal voting rights with men were achieved.
The American womenâ€™s movement had been established in 1848 with the Seneca Falls womenâ€™s rights convention organised by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. After their exclusion from the debates that took place at the 1840 Anti-Slavery Convention in London because of their gender, the American suffragists turned their attention to womenâ€™s rights. The Seneca Falls convention issued a â€œDeclaration of Sentimentsâ€ echoing the language of the â€œDeclaration of Independenceâ€, in its statement that â€œall men and women are created equal…â€, which attracted a good deal of press attention. Mott, Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and many others lectured throughout America, campaigning on such issues as married womenâ€™s right to own property, equal rights to education, employment and the vote. After spending five months gathering signatures for a petition, Stanton appealed to the New York Legislature against a law compelling employers to pay womenâ€™s wages to their husbands. She succeeded – by the mid-1850s many State legislatures were sympathetic to her appeals and by 1860 fourteen states had passed reforms. Anthony and Stantonâ€™s â€œNational Woman Suffrage Associationâ€ continued their more martial campaign for a full constitutional alteration on womenâ€™s suffrage whilst Stoneâ€™s â€œAmerican Woman Suffrage Associationâ€ campaigned for the vote on a state by state basis. The two factions were reconciled in l890. American women finally won the right to vote when Congress adopted the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.
It took 61 years for the British womenâ€™s suffrage campaign to get the voting right – from 1867, when the first National Societies for Womenâ€™s Suffrage were set up in Manchester and London, to 1928 when full voting rights for women were finally secured by the Equal Franchise Act. The influential philosopher, John Stuart Mill was a founding member of the London branch of National Societies for Womenâ€™s Suffrage. He had become a champion of womenâ€™s suffrage and in his book â€œThe Subjection of Womenâ€ (1869) argued that enfranchisement was the key to freedom for women. In 1865 Mill had been elected to Parliament and had attempted to add an amendment on womenâ€™s suffrage to the 1867 Reform Act. It was not until the 1882 Married Womenâ€™s Property Act that married womenâ€™s property was finally secured for their own use. By the 1890s the question of womenâ€™s rights had finally come to the fore. As a new generation became involved in the campaign there was a good deal of debate on the â€œnew womanâ€. Mary Wollstonecraft was rehabilitated and even members of the old guard embraced her.
Now we come to an important issue of the between-wars years. Although many women had become involved in war work, much of it had been voluntary and did little to advance employment opportunities after the war. Those women who had found jobs in areas of work previously done by men found themselves out of a job once the war was over. There was still much to be done in the battle for equal rights. In 1919 the â€œNational Union of Womenâ€™s Suffrage Societiesâ€ became the â€œNational Union of Societies for Equal Citizenshipâ€ (NUSEC) under the leadership of Eleanor Rathbone. Its declared aim was â€˜to obtain all such reforms as are necessary to secure real equality of liberties, status and opportunities between men and womenâ€™. The NUSEC set out a six-point programme which consisted of equal voting rights with men; an equal moral standard; equal pay for equal work and equal employment opportunities; widowsâ€™ pensions and equal guardianship, and support of the League of Nations, which had been set up after the First World War. Under Eleanor Rathboneâ€™s leadership the organisation turned its attentions towards educating women for citizenship. The first woman MP to be elected to the House of Commons took her seat in Parliament in 1919. As an American millionairess, Nancy Astor could hardly be described as a feminist pioneer but she was responsible for acting as a spokeswoman on feminist issues in the House. Other areas of debate were opening up. Womenâ€™s sexuality and the issue of birth control began to be debated more openly by feminists such as Dora Russell. The magazine â€œTime and Tideâ€, set up in 1920 by Lady Margaret Rhondda, published many articles on these and other feminist issues. Although the twenties may have seemed quiet after the militant campaigns before the War, significant advances were achieved. In 1920 Oxford University admitted women to degrees. The 1923 Matrimonial Causes Act allowed women to sue for divorce on the basis of adultery and in the same year, the Guardianship of Infants Act gave divorced women the right to custody of their children. In 1924 Ellen Wilkinson was elected the first woman Labour MP, giving working class women a voice in Parliament. The crowning glory was, of course, the granting of full enfranchisement to women through the Equal Enfranchisement Act of 1928. As the Depression began to loom in the late twenties, opportunities for advances in womenâ€™s rights began to close down. Little more would be achieved until after the Second World War.
Just as they had in the war of 1914 – 1918, women stepped into menâ€™s jobs during the Second World War. On both sides of the Atlantic women took on engineering work, earning the tender nickname of Rosie the Riveter in the United States. In Britain, the marriage bar enforced in teaching and the civil service in 1920 was suspended. It would be abolished in 1944 but women civil servants would have to wait until 1946 before they could continue in their jobs after marriage. As in the First World War, pay and conditions did not match what had been on offer to men. Concern was such that an â€œEqual Pay Campaign Committeeâ€ was set up in 1943 headed by the MPs Edith Summerskill and Mavis Tate. Small advances were made in the years immediately after the War such as the admittance of women to the police force in 1945 but equal pay remained an issue. Although it was introduced for teachers in 1952 and for civil servants in 1954, it would be many years before more general legislation would be brought in. In the fifties, the emphasis was very firmly on the joys of marriage and motherhood. Although some women continued to work, the comfortable image of the stay-at-home wife and mother as the symbol of a stable household was encouraged as the ideal. It was not until the late 50s and early 60s that the â€œwoman questionâ€™ bounced back on to the public discussion. Womenâ€™s pages began to appear in respectable broadsheets such as â€œThe Timesâ€ and â€œThe Guardianâ€. They focused on childcare, problems facing women at work and debated the meaning of equality between the sexes. â€œWomanâ€™s Hourâ€, a new BBC radio programme, discussed similar questions. With the publication of Simone de Beauvoirâ€™s â€œThe Second Sexâ€, which appeared in translation in 1954, and Betty Friedanâ€™s â€œThe Feminine Mystiqueâ€, published in 1963, the debate became intense.
Often called the â€œsecond waveâ€, the first wave being the suffragists, womenâ€™s liberation grew into an energetic, sprawling movement that eventually seemed to accomplish as many factions as there were women in it. Just as the militant suffragists had found themselves in the spotlight, the second wave of feminists attracted a good deal of media attention.
â€œThe Feminine Mystiqueâ€ with its analysis of discontent amongst middle class, educated American women, stripped away the myth of the happy housewife content with her role as creator of a domestic haven for her husband and children, and exposed the misery and frustration which lay beneath. On both sides of the Atlantic, women read the book with grateful recognition. In 1966 Friedan helped set up NOW, the â€œNational Organisation of Womenâ€, to debate issues of sex discrimination. They had their own issues to protest and in the following year the womenâ€™s liberation movement erupted into life. At the Miss America contest in 1968 a group of protesters known as the Redstockings put on non-stop street theatre outside the contest hall to show how women were degraded by the competition. The performance culminated in the crowning of a sheep. Protestors threw objects that they felt symbolized their oppression into the Freedom Trash Can, including wire-cupped bras. Although the Freedom Trash Can was never burnt, the media were quick to construct the myth of bra-burning that was forever linked with womenâ€™s liberation. In 1970 NOW called for a Womenâ€™s Strike to mark the fiftieth anniversary of female suffrage. The level of support and media attention took the organisers by surprise. Womenâ€™s liberation had become a major issue.
Meanwhile in 1966 â€œThe New Left Reviewâ€ published an essay by Juliet Mitchell called â€œWomen: The Longest Revolutionâ€ in which she shifted the feminist debate away from emancipation towards â€œliberationâ€ from the many constraints that oppressed women. A quiet beginning for British womenâ€™s liberation but two years later legislation was passed which enabled women to obtain an abortion, providing two doctors agreed that pregnancy would be detrimental to mental or physical health. In 1968, the fiftieth anniversary of the first step towards female suffrage was taken seriously enough for the BBC to devote a day to programmes and debates on womenâ€™s issues. In 1970, this quiet debate exploded in a burst of energy with a theatrical demonstration against the Miss World beauty competition which was televised from London. Women protestors ran onto the stage, mooing like cows and wearing placards bearing titles such as Miss-conception, Miss-treated, Miss-placed and Miss-judged. The demonstrations at both the 1968 Miss America and the 1970 Miss World contests indicated a concern for the way in which women were portrayed as objects which feminists found both degrading and oppressive. The debate was to be taken further by writers such as Susie Orbach in â€œFat is a Feminist Issueâ€, published in 1978, and, many years later, Naomi Wolf in â€œThe Beauty Mythâ€. The first national Womenâ€™s Conference was held at Ruskin College, Oxford in 1970. The following demands were put forward – equal pay, equal education and employment opportunities, twenty-four hour nurseries, free contraception and abortion on demand. To make their point, feminists paraded their demands on banners through the streets, shouting them out as they marched. The emphasis was on choice for women. Later three more demands were added – legal and financial independence, freedom for women to express their sexuality and an end to the oppression of lesbians. History became very important in British feminism. The magazine â€œSpare Ribâ€ also played a part in placing the movement within its context, publishing articles on the suffragists but also interviewing feminists.
In contrast to nineteenth century feminism which was largely united around the cause of suffrage, the womenâ€™s liberation movement was extraordinarily diverse. In the US a womenâ€™s liberation directory was set up which listed everything from womenâ€™s karate classes to followers of the Goddess. Separate groups addressing particular issues sprang up – Black Womenâ€™s Liberation activists protested against racial oppression and stereotypes which applied to black women whilst Lesbian Liberation emphasised lesbian oppression. Factions within the movement are far too numerous to mention but broadly it split in to three major ideologies:
â€¢ Radical feminists defined the problem as one of patriarchy in which male domination in all areas of life had resulted in wholesale oppression of women. This faction mounted women-only campaigns which focused on the effects of male violence, rape and pornography.
â€¢ Marxist Feminists linked male domination with class exploitation, arguing that equal rights for men and women wouldnâ€™t improve the lot of poor women.
â€¢ Liberal feminists placed the emphasis on change from within society rather than revolution by putting forward positive role models for girls, establishing equality in their own relationships and lobbying parliament for legislation on equal rights.
There were, however, two issues on which the majority of feminists could agree – abortion and equal pay.
The legalisation of abortion was a major issue for the feminist movement. Many on both sides of the Atlantic campaigned for abortion on demand both as a means of getting rid of the often tragic results of back street abortions and to give women the right to choose what happened to their bodies. Whilst in Britain, legalised abortion passed comparatively quietly onto the statute book in 1968, the famous Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision of 1973 which in effect gave women the right to choose to have an abortion, provoked outrage in the United States. Abortion remains a hugely controversial issue in the States. Militant anti-abortion campaigners routinely harass doctors who practise abortion – some have been murdered at the hands of extremists. In Britain, abortion on demand remained an issue, although, over time, the required assessment by two doctors as to the effect of pregnancy on a womanâ€™s health became something of a formality.
In 1963 the Equal Pay Act had been passed in the United States backed up by legislation in the following year on equal opportunity. In the second wave of feminism, NOW put a good deal of effort in to trying to get this through so that equal pay and equal opportunity would be implemented in the American Constitution. It was not until 1975 that sex discrimination on both pay and employment opportunities was outlawed in Britain. In 1976, the Equal Opportunities Commission was set up to work. Both the American Equal Employment Opportunities Commission and the British Equal Opportunities Commission are still kept very busy.
Post-feminism or the Third Wave? A wave of conservatism swept through the Western world in the eighties, spearheaded by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Feminism calmed down although the Greenham Women set up camp around the perimeter fence of the US Air Force base at Greenham Common in 1981 to protest against the siting of Cruise missiles on British soil. There was much talk of a post-feminist world in which women had achieved equal rights and therefore no longer needed a movement to campaign for change. Feminists had been derided and caricatured to such an extent by the media that many women disassociated themselves from the movement by prefacing their criticism of a society still dominated by men with the phrase â€œIâ€™m not a feminist butâ€¦â€. In the early nineties young feminist writers, such as Naomi Wolf, Katie Roiphe, and Susan Faludi began to be recognised in the States as representatives of a new generation of feminists. A new movement began to emerge in the States calling themselves the Third Wave. A Third Wave Foundation was set up in 1996 to promote such issues as social security reform, particularly important to women who are in and out of the work force, voter registration and womenâ€™s health. The Foundation offered scholarships and fees to help young women campaign against inequalities faced by women either because of their gender or because of other forms of oppression based on race, creed, sexual orientation or poverty.
Many modern feminists, whilst acknowledging the debt they owe to the womenâ€™s liberation movement, feel that things have moved on. There are better employment opportunities, legislation in place to enforce equal pay in most Western countries and childcare is on the agenda of most governments. The areas of debate in modern feminism are many and varied but several issues stand out above the others.
â€¢ The backlash debate. In 1991 Susan Faludi published her influential book â€œBacklashâ€ in which she explored ways in which the advances made as a result of the second wave of feminism were being undermined in the media. Faludi sparked off a debate that is still running. Naomi Wolf gave the debate a different point of view by suggesting that it was time for women to cast aside their fears and stand up for what they wanted. In 1999 Germaine Greer, the redoubtable second wave feminist, called for women to â€œget angry againâ€ in her book â€œThe Whole Womanâ€, taking young women to task for assuming that the battle had been won.
â€¢ Political representation. Women are still under-represented in politics. In 1985, twenty-five women got together in America to set up a fundraising organisation to raise money to help prochoice Democratic women candidates. They called their organisation â€œEmilyâ€™s Listâ€ and it now boasts more than 65,000 donors. A British â€œEmilyâ€™s listâ€ followed in 1993. The 1997 general election saw a something of a readjustment of the gender balance in the British Parliament with an inflow of Labour women MPs as a result of the partyâ€™s landslide victory. However, out of a total of 659 seats in the House of Commons, only 120 were held by women in November 2000 and many of them were unhappy with the family unfriendly way that Parliament operates.
â€¢ Sexual Harassment. Sexual harassment remains an important issue on the feminist discussion despite the use of sex discrimination legislation aimed at eliminating it from the workplace. Away from work the debate encompasses such issues as womenâ€™s right to dress how they wish whether men consider that to be provocative or not. Feminists argue that itâ€™s menâ€™s responsibility to keep their libidos under control.
â€¢ Body Image. The emphasis upon the way women look and the way that they are portrayed in magazines, film and television has been on the feminist agenda since the beginning of the second wave. Whilst beauty contests may now be seen as a thing of the past, body image is still a major issue for feminists. Many commentators argue that the idealised images of youthful, slender beauty that dominate film, television and advertising hoardings damage many womenâ€™s self-esteem resulting in eating disorders, depression and poor self-image.
â€¢ Inclusivity. The third wave aims to move away from the domination of feminism by white middle class women to a more inclusive movement which addresses inequalities aggravated by attitudes toward racial minorities, sexual orientation and physical disablement. Attitudes towards men have softened providing they play their part in aiming for a more egalitarian society.
So, what has been achieved over the last two hundred years?
The early feminists would surely be delighted with many of the advances made since the publication of â€œA Vindication of Womanâ€™s Rightsâ€ in 1792. Women throughout the world have been enfranchised. They have equal access to education and equal employment, with legislation in place to protect these rights in many countries. In the Western world womenâ€™s sexuality is openly recognized. Many women are financially independent and in charge of their own lives.
However there is still much to do. Women are far from equally represented in political organisations. Although there have been several women premiers such as Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher, they are still comparatively rare. Young women often excel in education, but there are few women in senior management or executive positions. Equal pay for equal work is implemented in the law but women are still often to be found in the lowest paid jobs. Women still put in more hours working in the home than their male partners even if they are working full time themselves and sometimes earning more. We may have come a long way but it is not over yet.