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Bronze-level articleFeminism

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Feminism is the radical idea that women are people.
—Cheris Kramarae & Paula Treichler[1]
I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute.
—Rebecca West, 1913[2]

Feminism is a philosophy rooted in ending men's historical hegemony over women, particularly by focusing on issues of female rights, such as wage gaps (a difference in pay for people working the same job, same hours) between men and women, and female suffrage (as women were previously not able to vote not long ago). It also promotes reassessing the value of that which is conventionally perceived as "female." For example, women are often associated with emotion, men with logic and rationality. In Western cultures, emotion is often dismissed, or even held in disdain, and had never been considered an important part of morality and ethics. Feminism questions both sides of that equation: that women are more emotionally driven, and that (therefore) emotion is somehow "less than." Serious scientific support of both problems has developed in such questioning from discoveries in neuroscience in the 20th century, which has revealed that rationality often depends upon emotionality.[3]

While modern feminist thought is largely rooted in the Western intellectual tradition, the ideology is gaining currency throughout the whole world. In many cases, the feminist goal of equality for women has helped push movements around the world to change the entire way private society is viewed, and in some cases even helped topple authoritarian governments.[4] One of the greatest vindications of feminism is the power women in Liberia showed when, with some assistance from the international community, they ended the civil war[wp] and subsequently replaced the chaotic, unabashedly corrupt, and genocidal dictatorship with a reasonably functional democracy.

Feminism can be studied from the perspectives of the actual movements for equality or from the writings of both observer, commentator and participant addressing the underlying issues of why women have not been and are not seen as equal.



Precursors to feminism

It is not women's inferiority that has determined their historical insignificance: it is their historical insignificance that has doomed them to inferiority.
—Simone de Beauvoir[5]

Women's roles in society have long been debated. Plato's Republic suggests that in a true utopia women would be educated and would work beside men equally. Jesus, especially in extra biblical writings, appears to demand that women be allowed to study with him beside the men. Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, defends limited women's rights, encouraging them to participate in the religion and making exceeding a certain amount of abuse against them a crime.

However, most of this discussion was carried out by men. Feminism has the distinction of being a movement "of, by, and for women," though somewhat ironically, the term was coined by French philosopher Charles Fourier.


In the United States and Great Britain, feminism began with the demand for legal autonomy, such as the right to be seen as more than a man's wife or daughter, the right to hold property, or the right to have one's choice of husband. Later, women demanded to be allowed access to political systems, e.g. by being given the vote. Once women saw what that agency brought, they began to demand further measures of equality. Finally, once these measures of equality had been accepted (in theory, at least), some feminists broadened the scope of their challenges to systems on a civilizational scale.

The history of feminism is conventionally divided into three waves, each echoing a broader political movement of its era: the first wave reflecting the rise of liberalism, progressivism, and (towards the end) communism; the second, the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left; the third, identity politics in general.

The first wave: legal agency (19th–early 20th c.)

Ain't I a woman?
—Sojourner Truth
At the beginning of the 19th century in the UK and US, the agency of women was restricted on two different fronts: legal autonomy and the right to vote. In most countries women were considered property of their fathers or husbands. They were generally unable to enter into contracts or own land, and were legally seen in much the same way children are today.

Also, at the time, voting was largely by household, with only householders able to cast a vote. Hence, although there were comparatively few direct prohibitions on women voting, the restrictions on women owning property kept most of them disenfranchised. Later in the 19th century, when property qualifications for voting were eliminated, women became explicitly excluded from the franchise.

Hence, the feminists of the first wave set out to extend to women the assertion of Thomas Rainsborough during the Putney Debates: "I think it's clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government."[6]

First-wave feminists often joined other social movements, including abolitionism, the temperance movement (the Women's Christian Temperance Union, for example, was headed for many years by a feminist, Frances Willard), and the labor movement.

Some famous feminists from this era are Mary Wollstonecraft, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Alice Paul, Emmeline Pankhurst, Margaret Sanger, and Emma Goldman.

The second wave: The Feminist Movement (1950s–1990s)

One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.
—Simone de Beauvoir[7]
Rosie the Riveter

During the two World Wars, with so many men leaving nations' workforces to fight, it became necessary to put women in jobs previously reserved for men only.[8][9]Women quickly proved that they were more than capable of doing virtually all "men's work"; but when the wars ended, women were pressured to leave their new jobs to make room for the returning veterans.[10]

However, many women had found that they greatly preferred employment to the traditional female role of rattling pots and pans, changing diapers, and having to beg their husbands for pin-money; thus was born what was called the "feminist movement," or second-wave feminism.

While first-wave feminism had focused on removing the most overt legal disabilities for women and making them equal to men before the law, second-wave feminism tackled a wider range of social restrictions, advocating for women's full and equal participation in the larger social world.

Issues tackled by the second-wave feminists included:

  • Access to birth control. In the U.S., contraception was legalized by the Supreme Court in 1965 in Griswold v. Connecticut; eight years later, in 1973, abortion was legalized in Roe v. Wade.
  • Workplace discrimination, whether this meant excluding women from certain jobs altogether, or paying them less than a man doing the same work. In the U.S., Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned sex discrimination in employment.
  • Spousal abuse. Second-wave feminists engaged in a good deal of legal advocacy on behalf of battered wives and started many women's shelters as safe refuges.
  • Marital rape, which was legal throughout the U.S. until a law against it was passed in Nebraska in 1973, and was not criminalized in all states until the 1990s.

Second-wave feminism is also distinguished by the first distinctly feminist academic studies and philosophical writings. Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex (published in 1953) is often listed as the beginning of second-wave feminism.

Like the first-wave feminists before them, second-wave feminists participated extensively in contemporary political movements, most notably the anti-war movement of the 1960s.

Some famous second-wave feminists were Helen Brown, Susan Brownmiller, Andrea Dworkin, Betty Friedan (National Organization for Women), Germaine Greer, and Gloria Steinem.

The third wave: clashes of values (1980s–present)

I’m glad she didn’t want me to take her name.
Nelson Mandela on why he didn't care when his wife, Graça Machel, kept her surname[11]

Like the first- and second-wave feminists before them, third-wave feminists are taking on numerous core concepts of the society they live in; and for this, like the first- and second-wave feminists before them, have been labeled "radical." However, third-wave feminism is sometimes considered more radical than the waves preceding it: for example, where in the first wave Sojourner Truth asked "Ain't I a woman?" as a rhetorical question, one major question in third-wave feminism is, "What is a 'woman'?"

To wit: Third-wave feminism is intellectually informed by postmodernism and post-structuralism, both of which challenge feminism to re-evaluate (and sometimes redefine) societal concepts including the notion of gender itself. They de-emphasize attacking women's second-class status directly in favor of attacking systems of religion, government, education, media, and even the family, all of which they believe are partly responsible for reinforcing women's second-class status.

Third-wave feminism challenges not only the status quo of women's roles within these systems, but the systems themselves, making it largely overlap with and feed into the social justice movement.[12][13] This sometimes makes people who fully support the goals of second-wave feminism uncomfortable with the third-wave variety. Sex-negative feminism has also diminished in prominence within third-wave feminism, while there is a much stronger sex-positive element, as seen through works like The Vagina Monologues. However, accusations of "sex-negative feminism" are routinely used as a snarl word to dismiss points of view which are not necessarily sex-negative, such as criticism of the porn industry, of the objectification of women in the media and popular culture.

In many ways third-wave feminism, a far more intellectual and academic form of feminism, is less relevant to the average woman on the street than its predecessors — far more women are receptive to the idea of getting an honest day's pay for an honest day's work than are receptive to the idea of overthrowing capitalism or other huge systems designated as tools of patriarchy — but in other ways it is actually more relevant to many women. In its specifics, it contains numerous legacies of the struggles that gave it birth: third-wave feminists explicitly attempt to treat women's issues as larger than those of upper-class white women, highlighting the similar but distinct experiences of minorities in the First World, as well as women in other countries where different traditional roles have led to different kinds of discrimination that Western-style feminism may not adequately tackle. For example, female genital mutilation, a hot-button issue in Western feminism, is seen as a less pressing issue by a number of African feminists, especially considering the history of colonial opposition to the practice (seriously).

Feminism is ultimately about women's empowerment, and their right to make the choices that work for them, even when those choices may seem to conflict with basic ideals of equality. Thus, at least one modern feminist source has argued that Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann are feminists, although the pair rail against things most sane people feminists hold dear, specifically the right to abortion.[14]

Second-wavers are very grateful to third-wavers for having provided feminism with a framework for thinking about intersectionality. The term was coined in 1989 by black third-wave feminist Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw.[15]


There is something sexy about women in power. I like when you can see that a person believes in him/herself that much.
Borgen's Mikael Birkkjær

As with most movements against discrimination and inequality, feminism is still a long way from achieving its goals, with many prejudices and much bias persisting. Women in the workplace find it difficult to earn the equivalent pay of their male counterparts, and many find that a "glass ceiling" exists in business and politics, preventing them from getting the promotions they might earn otherwise.[16][17]

But, on the bright side, the situation of women in general has been consistently improving, at least in the First World. The proportion of wealth held by women has risen significantly enough to prompt speculation as to the effect that the continuation of this trend would have on the economy,[18] and although large wage gaps remain in specific professions, in the general case the income gap is now almost nonexistent among the younger generation of women, especially in urban areas. These developments led Hanna Rosin of The Atlantic to remark: "Yes, the U.S. still has a wage gap, one that can be convincingly explained — at least in part — by discrimination. Yes, women still do most of the child care. And yes, the upper reaches of society are still dominated by men. But given the power of the forces pushing at the economy, this setup feels like the last gasp of a dying age rather than the permanent establishment."[19][20]


Feminism is the idea that women should have equal rights. Anyone claiming otherwise is explaining what's wrong with themselves instead.

In recent years, the feminist movement has faced a degree of backlash; it's evident by many pro-equality female public figures refusing to use the term, with reasons ranging from a feeling that the term has taken on a negative connotation to an outright misunderstanding of core feminist beliefs and aims.[22] According to a 2014 speech to the United Nations by actress Emma Watson, it's the idea that feminism is "dogmatic" or "man-hating."[23]

Others feel that truly empowering women means that women should be able to choose to take on "traditional" feminine roles if that suits them personally. Some advocates for this broader approach to feminism argue that Western women are under pressure to do too much.[24]

Feminism, just like any other philosophy, has its vocal fanatics too.[25]

Political leaders

Social conservatives are the most visible and influential opponents of feminism, often using a straw man depiction of feminists' support for abortion rights as an excuse not to take any of their other opinions seriously, turning complex arguments into one-liners like "They don't want to take responsibility for their (sexual) actions" or "They want to have their cake and eat it too."[26]

A great example is Rick Santorum, who has a goldmine of hilariously sexist views against feminism.[27] He wrote a whole chapter of his book It Takes a Family[28] about women and feminism. Its memorable moments include:

The radical feminists succeeded in undermining the traditional family and convincing women that professional accomplishments are the key to happiness. [...] Radical feminists have been making the pitch that justice demands that men and women be given an equal opportunity to make it to the top in the workplace.
One of the things I will talk about that no president has talked about before is the dangers of contraception in this country, the whole sexual libertine idea. Many in the Christian faith have said, ‘Well, that's okay. Contraception's okay.’ It's not okay because it's a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be... I'm not running for preacher, I'm not running for pastor, but these are important public policy issues.

Religious response

Due to the social conservatism inherent in many religions, many churches are behind the times in gender equality, or even actively opposing it. This has made many religious communities a cornerstone of anti-feminist sentiment.


The "men's rights movement," largely opposed to the increased influence of women in the world, argue that women have used feminism to exploit men, and have often framed their evidence in favour of pseudo-evolutionary psychology woo.[citation needed] The talking points which some MRAs address include domestic violence against men, female-on-male rape not being widely recognised, women being favored in child custody hearings. It is worth noting that these are issues that notable, prominent feminists have taken on. For instance, some feminists criticize the bias against men during custody hearings because such cases assume that women are the traditional caregivers, and argue that the idea that women cannot rape men is premised on the mistaken notions that men, as such, are always receptive to sex and able to fight off a woman.[29]

Media loons

Rush Limbaugh even invented his own pet derogatory term, "feminazis,"[30] He then tried to retract that with the "I was just kidding" defense.

Women against women

Concerned Women for America and Phyllis Schlafly have separately decreed that a woman's only place is in the home, and feminism destroys women. Some female wingnuts have stated a wish to abolish female suffrage due to feminism's attempts to free women from their traditional roles as servants to their husbands.

There are also many women who self-identify as feminists but have been highly critical of either the practices of modern and postmodern feminism or their underpinning ideologies — Marxism is a common target for this. These include Christina Hoff Sommers, Wendy McElroy, Camille Paglia, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Kate Fillion, Daphne Patai, and others. (Ironically, some of the aforementioned have said very loopy things as well.)

However, even in these academic cases, it is a simple case of women who are upset with a particular sub-theory of feminism, rather than the notion of feminism as a whole.[31]

Academic criticism

First world, middle-class white, privileged point of view

Perhaps the most common and most significant criticism laid against modern feminism had been the privileged gaze of largely white, middle-class writers working on the issues of, and focusing on the experiences of the white middle-class, for a white middle-class audience. Much of this criticism has come from within the feminist movement, as women of color and women who are from or work in areas of poverty have emphasized that what matters to a white college-aged female doesn't necessarily resonate with women fitting other demographics across the socio-economic spectrum.

Like atheist, humanist and skeptical movements, change is afoot, though slowly. More articles[32] appear in mainstream feminist sites about poverty, more discussions of Third World needs (Third World feminism), and writers from various backgrounds[33][34][35] are both included in the mainstream dialogue, and are writing about their experiences and needs,[36][37] targeting others with similar experiences and needs.

Views on rape culture

Feminists both of yesteryear and today emphasise the importance of addressing modern rape culture (essentially, the manner in which society justifies, normalises or in other ways encourages sexual assault). This goal is something that pretty much no one except the most aggressive anti-feminist types think is a bad goal. However, some academic feminists have made unprecedented observations of rape culture, finding "rape" in places that largely have nothing to do with sexuality or sex at all. For example, what later became known as the "Beethoven rape controversy" was ignited by this statement by feminist musicologist Susan McClary:

The point of recapitulation in the first movement of the Ninth is one of the most horrifying moments in music, as the carefully prepared cadence is frustrated, damming up energy which finally explodes in the throttling murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release.[38]

Andrea Dworkin, the noted anti-pornography feminist, believed the cesarean section surgical procedure intended to save a woman and fetus' life in the case a vaginal birth was not possible was rape, stating "the uterus of the whore [is] entered directly by the new rapist, the surgeon."[39]

These… unique viewpoints certainly do exist, and it is worth taking the time to refute some of the more widespread and egregious ones, but they are unfortunately used in attempts to stereotype the entire feminist movement. In some cases, similar quotes are either fabricated or mined. One of the most common is "all men are rapists" or "all sex is rape," usually misattributed to Catharine MacKinnon, Marilyn French, or some other feminist figure of your choice.[40] According to MacKinnon, the quote misattributed to her was "made up by the pornography industry in an attempt to undermine her credibility,"[41] and although Marilyn French did actually write the phrase attributed to her, what is usually not mentioned is that it was said in the person of a fictional character (based on Valerie Solanas) in French's novel The Women's Room.[42] Most feminists agree that all of these viewpoints are excessive, to say the least.

From both inside and out, there has also been some legitimate criticism about reactions to people who question accusers and the chilling effect it has on candid discussion. Many will point to the very real problem with victims being silenced and stigmatized, which has yet to be fully dealt with. On the other hand, this has lead to people uncovering simple factual problems with an allegation being accused of rape apology. One of the more disturbing cases of this occurred when Rolling Stone first published A Rape on Campus[wp], when writers who pointed out that some basic fact-checking would have demonstrated a huge array of glaring inconsistencies and gross journalistic misconduct received shrill accusations of blaming the victim. When it became clear beyond any doubt that the allegation was a fabrication (chief among the blindingly obvious falsifications was that the person accused of orchestrating the rape literally didn't exist) many of these people later apologized for their condemnations, although some have refused to admit wrongdoing.[43][44][45] Writers who have questioned the account or methods of Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz (see Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight)[wp]) and her Congressional buddy, senator Kirsten Gillibrand, or presented the side of the man she accused in anything even resembling a positive light have faced similar criticisms (never mind that the DA declined to pursue charges and the campus proceedings, which used a much lower threshold of proof and forbade him attorney representation during the hearings, found him not culpable).[43][46]

While there are indeed some quite vocal feminists who actually advocate that women never lie about rape, or that inaccuracies pointing to an accused person's innocence be actively overlooked, they do not represent the mainstream views within the movement.[47][48] The overwhelming majority of feminists are in no way seeking to suspend due process, and vociferously speak out against doing so. When Wendy Murphy, who later became notorious during the Duke lacrosse case[wp] as the Faux News and cable news "legal expert" who made reams upon reams of speculative, wildly inaccurate, and outright defamatory statements about the falsely accused players, attempted in the mid-1980s to railroad an innocent man to jail on a preposterous rape charge, no less a feminist than Nancy Gertner assisted his ultimately successful appeal.[49][50] Catharine MacKinnon also went out of her way to say that wrongfully convicting people of rape serves no one's best interests, as this can and frequently does destroy innocent peoples' lives while simultaneously detracting from efforts to fight real offenders.[51] Indeed, feminists founded one of the more prominent organizations advocating for fairness and due process during the adjudication of rape allegations.[52][53]

Feminism and neopaganism

See the main article on this topic: Goddess religion

There has been some cross-pollination between neopaganism and radical feminism, leading to various works of pseudohistory. This commonly involves goddess myths and portrayals of Wicca as the direct descendant of a vast, unified, and ancient goddess cult. It also tends to accompany pseudohistories of the European witch-hunts that inflate the number of deaths by witch-hunt and ignore the fact that, while women were the victims in the vast majority of cases, men were often accused of witchcraft as well. Use of the phrases "Burning Times" or "patriarchal genocide" are usually a good sign you're reading one of these pseudohistories.

Feminism as a conduit for cultural relativism

Some have accused feminism, or at least some feminist schools of thought as dressing up cultural relativism in the garb of women's rights. Krishna Mallick has encouraged working closely with cultural relativists, where the similarities where noted.[54]

Marxist criticism of feminism

Marxist feminists have criticized liberal feminism, not because they oppose feminism, but because they believe many feminists define progress in female equality with men by their access to capitalist and imperialist systems. (For example, they take issue with the common view of women being allowed in combat or having places in the Forbes 500 cited as signs of progress.) Rather than criticizing feminism in general, they'd rather have the bourgeoisie privileged, middle-class feminists care more about working class and poor women.

See also

External links


  1. Memorable Quotes is one of many sources.
  2. Some definitions of feminism, Stanford 101
  3. Antonio Damasio. The Feeling of What Happens. Orlando, Fl: Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt, 1999.
  4. Three differnet articles on women's roles in the Arab Spring
  5. Simone de Beauvoir, Sonoma State University
  6. The Putney Debates, 1647, British Civil War Project (Similarly, in Romer v. Edwards, the majority opinion found that there can be no claim to equality and liberty if you cannot be part of the system that is controlling you.)
  7. Simone de Beauvoir (1908—1986), Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy
  8. What did World War One really do for women?, BBC
  9. World War II: Women at War, The Atlantic
  10. Women in World War II at a Glance, National World War II Museum
  11. Mandela, My Countryman, The New Yorker
  12. Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies Established, Columbia Law School
  13. Gita Mehrotra. Toward a Continuum of Intersectionality Theorizing for Feminist Social Work Scholarship.. Affilia. November 2010 25: 417-430.
  14. Palin, Bachmann, and the political feminism of the right, The Feminist Wire
  15. 'Intersectional feminism'. What the hell is it? (And why you should care), The Daily Telegraph
  16. It's amazing how much more you can earn, when you have a penis, Felix Salmon
  17. Ahem, Reuters.
  18. How Women's Wealth is Changing Society, Time
  19. The End of Men?, The Atlantic
  20. "The Wage Gap And Women’s Choices"
  21. 8 Things Some A$$#ole Says in Every Debate About Sexism, Cracked.com
  22. Why women say they are feminists, The Guardian
  23. Emma Watson recruits men to make the world safer for women with HeForShe campaign, Washington Post
  24. How Dutch women got to be the happiest in the world, Maclean's
  25. E.g. Cathy Brennan, or this charming blogger
  26. And so what if we do, men have the remote and the TV too!
  27. Rick Santorum's Beliefs About Women Should Terrify You, CafeMom
  28. Santorum. It Takes a Family (2005) ISBN 1-932-23629-5
  29. The Truth About Father Bias in Family Courts, Everyday Feminism
  30. Considering he is saying it in the context of "militant feminists" allowing a 'Holocaust' of abortions, and the fact that Nazis were just as rabidly pro-life as him, it may be one of the most contradictory statements in American politics.
  31. Internal critics, incidentally, are a vital feature of any movement. When internal dissenters are ejected, censored, demonised as traitors, or otherwise silenced, the result is very likely to be groupthink and impaired reality testing, to say nothing of the consequences to loyal supporters who lodge criticisms in good faith, as part of an effort to strengthen the movement.
  32. Everyday Feminism discussing poverty
  33. Muslim Women Redefine Feminism, Al-Monitor
  34. Ending oppression in the Middle East: A Muslim feminist call to arms, Australian Broadcasting Corporation
  35. Summer at the archives with the Visibility Project, Feministing (and Feministing's Sesali Brown, for example)
  36. The Queer Black Feminist blog
  37. The Angry Black Woman blog
  38. She later danced around the comment. See the Wikipedia page for more info.
  39. Dworkin, Andrea. Pornography: Men Possessing Women. 1989. [1]
  40. Andrea Dworkin did say something very similar, that men view all sex as rape, but the detractors do not really care about that.
  41. Rape seeded, Snopes
  42. Marylin French: Obituary, The Daily Telegraph
  43. 43.0 43.1 http://www.iwf.org/blog/2796184/Columbia,-the-New-UVA
  44. http://jezebel.com/rolling-stone-partially-retracts-uva-story-over-discrep-1667329573
  45. http://jezebel.com/rush-after-a-rape-on-campus-a-uva-alum-goes-back-to-ru-1682251600
  46. http://www.iwf.org/blog/2796190/Columbia-U-Journos:-Okay,-Maybe-It-Was-a-Little-Unfair-to-Pillory-a-Male-Student-Who-Already-Had-Been-Found-Not-Guilty-in-Rape-Accusations-
  47. http://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/12/06/no-matter-what-jackie-said-we-should-automatically-believe-rape-claims/
  48. http://title9.us/an-open-letter-to-nancy-gertner/
  49. http://durhamwonderland.blogspot.com/2006/12/wendy-murphy-file.html
  50. http://prospect.org/article/sex-lies-and-justice
  51. http://scholarship.law.wm.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1021&context=wmjowl
  52. http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2014/12/college_rape_campus_sexual_assault_is_a_serious_problem_but_the_efforts.html
  53. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Families_Advocating_for_Campus_Equality
  54. "Common Ground of Feminism and Cultural Relativism in Human Rights Discourse: The Case of Sex-determination Test in India", Salem State University
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