Top 5 Feminist Movements

Feminism has evolved to encompass many social causes and philosophies.
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­The 1968 Miss America pageant was the backdrop for one of the most iconic events of modern feminism in the United States. Members from the New York Radical Women organization demonstrated along the Atlantic City boardwalk against the pageant's perceived misogyny. Protesters threw household items that they believed fostered the collective image of submissive females into a large trashcan. In went pots, pans, Playboy magazines and bras. They planned to set the contents ablaze, but the police weren't keen on that idea. Nevertheless, the next day's news stories heralded participants' bra burnings [source: Greenfieldboyce].

That image of angry, bell-bottom-wearing women torching their lingerie endures in our collective memories of feminism -- and is completely inaccurate. True, the feminist movements of that era were characterized by conspicuous public demonstrations. But Western feminism encompasses far more than eradicating the use of supportive undergarments.


­Ironically, American feminism didn't begin as an outright quest for gender equality. It evolved from activism for broad social causes to today's spectrum of female-focused theories and philosophies that span topics from education and pornography to race. The following five feminist movements (arranged chronologically) should shed some light on the history of feminism as well as the ideas and pioneers behind it.

1: Suffrage Movement

An American suffragette in 1916.
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­Anti-slavery and temperance movements sowed the first seeds of feminism in the mid-1800s. In 1840, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott were denied seats at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London due to their gender. Rallying other socially minded people together to discuss the status of women, Stanton and Mott organized the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. The Declaration of Sentiments, penned by Stanton, outlined the need for equality among men and women, including voting rights. From there, the suffrage movement progressed, with women including Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth leading the way.

­Yet, the first women's rights advocates in the United States might not describe themselves as feminists. The use of the word "femi­nism" to describe the support for women's rights migrated from France to the United States by 1910 [source: Kelly]. While Suffragettes fought for women's right to vote, feminism includes legal rights, financial independence and the transformation of the relationship between sexes [source: Woloch]. Following the 1920 ratification of the 19th Amendment, which granted women voting rights, feminism splintered from purely suffrage-oriented groups.


2: Women's Liberation Movement

Second-wave feminism leader Gloria Steinem.
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­After World War II, a growing number of women pursued higher education and entered the workforce, but they weren't scampering to the tops of career ladders or bursting through glass ceilings. The Women's Liberation Movement of the late 1960s and 1970s therefore emerged from women's desires to revolutionize the fundamental aspects of female life at that time: domesticity, employment, education and sexuality.

In 1966, Betty Friedan and other prominent feminists formed the National Organization for Women (NOW). NOW became the umbrella organization for many feminist causes, uniting older, college-educated, predominantly white women. These second-wave feminists, such as Ms. magazine founder Gloria Steinem, pushed for access to the pill, abortion, equal employment opportunity, reduction of violence against women and more. Two years later, in 1968, the first national feminist conference took place in Chicago.


­A younger, more radical set of feminists was organizing simultaneously, energized by the activity of the Civil Rights Movement and anti-Vietnam War movements. One of the better-known groups to form from this set was the Redstockings. More loosely organized than NOW, the Redstockings took a more militant, public approach to their demonstrations [source: Echols and Willis]. They also used consciousness-raising sessions to share personal experiences and incite discussion about pertinent women's issues and sexuality.

3: Black Feminism

A 1969 women's liberation march in support of the Black Panthers.
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­The Women's Liberation Movement was criticized by some feminists -- both black and white -- for its exclusion of nonwhite, working class women. Although the omission wasn't intentional, this fracture spurred the rise of black feminism. Since Women's Lib platforms focused solely on gender without the context of race and class, they weren't entirely relevant to all black women. The struggle of black feminist Bell Hooks (Gloria Watkins' pseudonym) between choosing to affiliate with the male-led Black Power Movement or the white female-led Women's Liberation Movement exemplifies the philosophies behind black feminism [source: Tandon]. In response, some black feminists formed their own groups, such as the National Black Feminist Organization and the National Alliance of Black Feminists.

­Womanism is one offshoot of black feminism that also developed in the 1970s, coined by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker. In the gap between white feminism and black feminism, womanism sought to provide a theoretical bridge by examining society as a universal whole rather than the problems and issues unique to its separate parts.


4: The Feminist Sex Wars

Hugh Hefner is shown here surrounded by Playboy bunnies. Anti-porn feminism in the late 1970s advocated for the banning of pornography.
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­Anti-porn feminism arose in the late 1970s, pioneered by Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin. At that time, pornography had become more readily accessible, and to some feminists, the overtly sexual portrayal of women violated their civil rights and promoted sexual violence. Anti-porn feminist Robin Morgan put it bluntly: "Pornography is the theory, rape is the practice" [source: D'Emilio and Freedman]. According to anti-porn theory, heterosexual intercourse is a form of male domination and must be totally altered in a way that it isn't harmful to women.

­That notion didn't sit too well with other feminists who believed that a woman's total liberation included sexual freedom [source: Tandon]. Consequently, sex-positive feminism, also known as pro-sex feminism, surfaced the early 1980s. These feminists, including Betty Dodson and Gayle Rubin, sought to reclaim heterosexual intercourse as a mutually pleasurable experience for women and men. Sex-positive feminism has evolved to cover not only intimate physical relationships, but also the sex industry, including pornography and prostitution. On the opposite end of the spectrum from anti-porn feminism, some strands of sex-positive feminism consider sex industry work a means of empowerment, not degradation.


5: Riot Grrls

Riot Grrrl Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill performs in 1990.
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­Punk rockers in Olympia, Wash., and Washington, D.C., blended together music, art and consciousness-raising into a reformulated brand of feminism in the early 1990s.

Riot Grrrls responded to male-dominated music scenes by forming their own bands and making homemade magazines called 'zines that communicated their do-it-yourself, punk rock values and feminist ideas.


The name "riot grrrl" came from the title of a 'zine created by Allison Wolfe and Molly Neuma, who were also in the Olympia-based band Bratmobile. Their friend Kathleen Hanna, who fronted the band Bikini Kill, became the lead figure in the Riot Grrrl movement. With a motto of, "Revolution Girl Style Now!" (the title of a 'zine Hanna started) Riot Grrrls took feminism on a deeply grassroots and relatively gritty path of empowerment. They facilitated weekly meetings to discuss relevant issues, such as rape, racism and body image. Riot Grrls also addressed their sexuality in frank terms that attempted to reclaim negative cultural stereotypes as ownership over one's body.

National news outlets picked up on the trend, and in 1992, Riot Grrrls declared a media blackout. In true punk fashion, Riot Grrrls sought to keep things independent and counterculture. Grrrl 'zines, groups and web sites still exist and circulate in communities around the world today.

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More Great Links

  • Chideya, Farai. "Revolution, Girl Style." Newsweek. Nov. 23, 1992. (Jan. 13, 2009)
  • D'Emilio, John and Freedman, Estelle D. "Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America." University of Chicago Press. 1997. (Jan. 13, 2009)
  • Greenfieldboyce, Nell. "Pageant Protest Sparked Bra-Burning Myth." NPR.
  • Feifer, Megan and Maher, Jennifer. "The History of Black Feminism and Womanism: Their Emergence from the Modern Women's Movement." University of Utah. March 8, 2005. (Jan. 13, 2009)
  • Kearney, Mary Celeste. "Girls Make Media." CRC Press. 2006. (Jan. 13, 2009)
  • Kelly, Joan. "Women, History, and Theory." University of Chicago Press. 1986. (Jan. 13, 2009)
  • Steinem, Gloria. "After Black Power, Women's Liberation." New York Magazine. April 4, 1969. (Jan. 13, 2009)
  • Tandon, Neeru. "Feminism." Atlantic Publishers & Distributors. 2008. (Jan. 13, 2009)
  • "The Seneca Falls Convention." Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. (Jan. 13, 2009)