How Feminism Works

Feminism is far more complex than Rosie the Riveter.

­Ms. magazine hit stands for the first time in 1972 with the headline, "Wonder Woman For President," stretched above an image of the comic book heroine. Thirty-seven years later, a cover depicting Barack Obama in a Superman-like pose and wearing a T-shirt that proclaimed, "This is What a Feminist Looks Like," struck a chord among Ms. readers. Some applauded the clever twist, hailing Obama's progressive political platforms. Others derided the magazine for defining a feminist as a man.

That reaction among the magazine's feminist readers demonstrated the inherent challenge of defining what feminism is precisely. Depending on the context, you can spin the term as a philosophy, social movement, history, badge of honor or an insult. While feminists have made radical strides toward gender equality and flung open many new doors for women, the movement and philosophy behind it have become culturally and politically polarizing. For instance, when conservative Alaska governor Sarah Palin told Katie Couric that she considers herself a feminist, shock waves rippled throughout the feminist community. As an outright opponent of abortion and sex education in schools, how could Gov. Palin possibly fit the feminist mold, some asked. But politics aside, a working mother of five running for vice president hardly seems antifeminist.


­At its core, feminism is the belief in equ­ality. It seeks to eliminate the social, cultural and legal barriers between men and women. Its goal is to create a truly egalitarian society. Beyond that, the waters grow murkier. Feminist factions disagree sometimes on what constitutes equality -- whether it's sexual freedom, career advancement or something else. Some people who label themselves feminists perceive that battle for equality as over and done with; others still view society as rife with patriarchal restrictions. Recently, a debate has stirred over whether feminism has become outdated as term and should even be used at all.

­So is feminism today a potent force for change? Or is it the "f-word," spit out like a bitter seed? By examining its unifying philosophies and causes, as well as the schisms within the movement, we can properly evaluate and answer those questions.


Origins of Feminism

Suffragists marching for the women's vote.
Topical Press Agency/­Getty Images

­The modern feminist movem­ent began as a result of sweeping social, political and industrial changes in Europe and the United States. Many women from disparate backgrounds and social causes contributed to its development, but the movement has ideological roots in France.

In 1610, a French noblewoman started the first salon (a gathering for intellectual discussion or exchange of ideas) outside of the royal court. Although salon participation was reserved for members of the upper class, the cultural institution offered the first secular outlet for educated women to engage in such conversation with men [source: LeGates].


­At that time, women's value and role in society was framed as the querelle des femmes, or "question of women." The querelle addressed education, marriage and social mobility as it related to women, and scholars have referenced it as an example of the earliest feminist thought. Yet it wouldn't be until the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason in the 18th century that social progress began. With those new intellectual currents came the realization that social and cultural institutions are the product of human -- not divine -- efforts [source: LeGates]. This way of thinking meant that changes within those institutions, such as eliminating class and gender limitations, wouldn't be an affront to God.

The Revolutionary War in 1774 and the French Revolution in 1789 also advanced the concept of women's freedom. Both revolutionary themes focused on mankind's equality, although women's equality wasn't highlighted. Nevertheless, by mobilizing more women politically and establishing a consensus of freedom as a human right, those events laid the groundwork for early feminism.

­Amid that turbulence, in 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft published one of the seminal works of modern feminism. The "Vindication of the Rights of Women" argued for the equal education of women, allowing them to become whole, independent people. She reasoned that the current educational systems restricted women's potential to contribute to the betterment of society, as well as the family and home. Her book was one of the first to clearly and forcefully outline a need for change, and early feminists would look to it as an enduring guide.


First-wave Feminism -- The Suffrage Movement

Second-wave feminists march during the Women's Liberation parade in 1970.
Keystone/Getty Images


In 1800, women had little control over their lot in life. The average married female gave birth to seven children [source: Dicker]. Higher education was off-limits. Wealthier women could exercise limited authority in the domestic sphere but possessed no property rights or economic autonomy. Lower-class women toiled alongside men, but the same social and legal restrictions applied to this stratum of society as well.


Somewhat ironically, religion fueled some of the initial social advancements women made at the beginning of the 19th century. The Second Great Awakening, which started in 1790, emphasized emotional experience over dogma, allowing women more leadership opportunities outside of the home [source: Dicker]. Abolition and temperance movements that shared Protestant undercurrents activated women as well. Angelina and Sarah Grimke became well-known abolitionists who defied social custom by publicly addressing the American Anti-Slavery Society. In response to the fierce criticism of their speech, Sarah Grimke penned "Letters on the Equality of the Sexes" in 1838. A year before, Oberlin College became the first higher-learning institution in the United States to admit women.

­Around that time, the exclusion of women in many abolitionist organizations prompted Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott to rally together women -- and some men -- to denounce gender inequalities and demand women's right to vote. In 1848, they organized the Seneca Falls Convention, where they outlined women's grievances and their desire for suffrage. The press responded disdainfully to the convention, but the event laid the groundwork for the suffrage movement. Other prominent leaders, including Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth and Lucy Stone, joined the suffrage ranks as well.

Suffragists began to make headway in 1860 when New York passed the Married Women's Property Act. The bill legalized property ownership, joint child custody and wage retention for women. 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]. But not all suffragists would refer to themselves as such; many advocated solely for voting rights and not complete equality.

Forty years later, in 1920, Congress ratified the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote.


Between Feminist Waves

­After the passage of the 19th Amendment, the National American Woman Suffrage Association, spearheaded by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, was disbanded. The League of Women Voters and National Women's Party took its place. But three years after women won the vote, suffragist and feminist factions split over Alice Paul's introduction of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to Congress. The proposed amendment, which read, "equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex," alienated some women who feared that its passage would undermine legal protection granted to women and children.

­From that point in the early 1920s until the 1960s, feminism seemed to stall. But that didn't mean that subtle changes had stopped taking place. For instance, during World War II, more women than ever joined the workforce, assuming industrial and military jobs previously reserved for men. Higher education had become a more viable option as well, and the number of female college graduates was rising. Then, when the troops came home, American women's culture experienced a return to domesticity. Many women continued to work outside the home, but career options were restrictive with gender-specific job postings. Women had won the vote but not cultural independence.


That growing discontent surfaced in mainstream middle-class society with the publication of two influential books. As Mary Wollstonecraft's "Vindication of the Rights of Women" fueled activism by voicing her generation's sexual discrimination, so did Simone de Beauvoir's "Second Sex," published in 1949. De Beauvoir's book decried women's inferior status in society, reasoning that cultural distinctions between genders only served to reinforce patriarchy and the submission of women. In 1963, Betty Friedan published "The Feminine Mystique," which described the new generation of overly educated, under-employed women who gave up promising careers for the service of hearth and home.

­The government took notice of women's discontent, as well. The Kennedy administration passed the Equal Pay Act in 1963 and established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission the following year, benefitting women and blacks. Yet women earned barely half of men's salaries, and childcare institutions remained scarce. With the simmering Civil Rights movement gaining energy at the time, the cultural atmosphere in the United States was ripe for revolution.


Second-wave Feminism

Some black feminists felt marginalized by the Women's Liberation Movement.
David Felton/­Getty Images

­By the late 1960s, a new age of activism was ushered in by student activity surrounding the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement as well as older women's dissatisfaction with domestic restrictions and workplace discrimination. In contrast to first-wave feminism, the movement during the 1970s benefitted from the involvement of far more organizations, encompassing a broad spectrum of political beliefs and ideologies.

The National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966 represented one of largest coalitions that sprang from the second wave. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) had failed to root out sexism in the workplace, instead focusing on racial discrimination. When the EEOC refused to ban gender-specific job advertisements, Betty Friedan and other leading feminist formed NOW. The organization, comprised of mostly older, white, middle-class women, focused on issues including reproductive freedom, gender equality in the workplace and the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. More than any feminist group before, NOW looked to the law to institute gender reforms.


Groups such as the New York Radical Women (NYRW), Redstockings and Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (WITCH), aimed to eradicate sexism by revolutionizing the relationships between men and women in the boardroom and the bedroom. They practiced zap actions, or dramatic public demonstrations that attracted media attention [source: Keetley and Pettegrew]. One such zap action, the 1968 Miss America pageant protest by NYRW, propelled the feminist movement into mainstream media. Within communities across the United States, women started organizing on a smaller scale. The Redstockings first encouraged groups of women to gather for consciousness-raising discussions, which involved sharing their personal experiences in the feminist struggle [source: Buechler].

Issues of rape, domestic violence, abortion and access to childcare came to the forefront of the feminist platforms. Through consciousness-raising, women could identify common struggles and receive support while feminism grew into a mass movement. From this form of engagement, the slogan "the personal is political" aptly summed up the goals of second-wave feminism. What were once private issues were now in the public realm.

­In 1968, the first national women's liberation conference took place in Chicago, and in the 1970s, feminist activists began to witness the fruits of their labors in earnest. In 1972, Washington, D.C., established the first rape crisis hotline, and the Supreme Court legalized abortion via Roe v. Wade in 1973. Two years later, the United States facilitated the first global forum on women's issues. But as the movement spread, it also exposed fractures within feminist ideologies.


Schisms Within Feminism

The goals of civil rights and women's rights share many of the same overarching them­es of freedom, equality and social justice. During first-wave feminism, freed slave Sojourner Truth spoke out for emancipation as well as universal suffrage. Second-wave feminists also borrowed consciousness-raising tactics from the Civil Rights movement.

But the two movements didn't always take advantage of their commonalities. The reactions of some prominent first-wave feminists, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, to legislation allowing black men to vote reveals dark undercurrents of racism in early feminist movements. Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique" has been criticized since its publication for its failure to address the plight of minority and working-class women who didn't have ready access to higher education or the choice to stay at home.


Unlike white feminists, black women fought a twofold battle against racism and sexism. Black feminism grew out of second-wave feminism's failure to address that unique struggle. Black feminist writer Bell Hooks dismissed the idea of a common oppression among women that united them across races and classes. Rather, Hooks wrote, leading white feminists in the 1970s only reinstated classist white supremacy by not acknowledging the experience of being a black woman.

Indeed, some feminist organizations at that time came across barriers to integrating white and black members. Gloria Steinem and other white feminists strived unsuccessfully to coordinate a racially diverse board of the Women's Action Alliance in 1971 [source: Harrison]. Some black feminists felt marginalized in certain groups and banded together. In 1973, as a result, the National Black Feminist Organization was founded.

Lesbian feminists encountered prejudice within the movement as well. Homosexuality remained a cultural taboo, and even some liberal-leaning feminists sought to distance themselves from it. The National Organization of Women (NOW) refused to include homosexuality as part of its platforms, and Betty Friedan allegedly referred to it as the "lavender menace." In response to that alienation, some lesbian feminists formed separatist organizations that aimed to create an entirely new culture, devoid of male influence.

­Could the movement recover from all of these fractures and produce a third wave of feminism? The third wave's existence remains up for debate, as well as the overall relevance of feminism in today's society.


Feminism's Identity Crisis

Third-wave feminists attend the March for Women's Lives in 2004.
David S. Holloway/­Getty Images

If second-wave feminism started with the 1968 Miss America pageant protest, the third wave began with the 1991 Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings. The proceedings attracted widespread national attention when Anita Hill alleged sexual harassment by Thomas and witnesses corroborated her claims. Thomas' eventual confirmation enraged and re-energized feminists across the country; in 1992, a record number of women won national political office. Rebecca Walker's essay, "Becoming the Third Wave," published in the January 1992 edition of Ms. magazine, voiced this feminist revival.

While second-wave feminism operated through coalition building and mass activism, third-wave feminism emphasized individualism. The early '90s concept of power feminism urged women to embrace their sexuality and reclaim femininity in a positive light. Developed from works including Camille Paglia's "Sexual Personae," which posited that men's obsession with female sexuality rendered them the weaker sex, power feminism contrasted the second-wave perspective of women as victims of patriarchy.


In addition, third-wave feminism tackled body image, transgender sexuality and sweatshop labor along with reproductive freedom and workplace equality. Meanwhile, due in part to a conservative backlash, the stereotype of feminism as militant man-hatred had solidified in the cultural mindset. The label became burdened with a litany of political and social agendas that alienated more conservative females who otherwise believe in gender equality. Furthermore, polls have shown that younger generations of women shy away from labels in general -- especially feminist ones [source: Traister].

In 2005, Lisa Jervis, editor of Bitch magazine, wrote that third-wave feminism had reached the end of its usefulness because it conjures cultural associations rather than core values that many people share, whether self-described feminists or not [source: Jervis]. That same year, The New York Times reported that more Ivy League females planned to become at-home mothers after graduation [source: Story]. Then, in 2008, the National Center for Health Statistics announced the first decline in the age of women having children in nearly 40 years [source: Shellenbarger].

­By the same token, today's generation of women obviously hasn't rejected the benefits won by past feminists -- they attend college and enter the workforce in larger numbers than their predecessors. Whatever women choose, the most salient aspect is having the freedom to decide. After all, the core of feminism is equality, not proscription. Sure, all the road blocks haven't disappeared, but thanks to countless women's -- and men's -- efforts, the path is far easier to tread.


Feminism FAQ

What exactly is feminism?
Feminism is the belief in equ­ality. It seeks to eliminate the social, cultural and legal barriers between men and women
When was the first wave of feminism?
The first wave of feminism occurred in the 19th and early 20th century and was mainly focused on women's right to vote.
What is the main idea of feminism?
At its core, feminism is the belief in full social, economic and political equality for women.
How do you define feminism?
Feminism has many definitions but it can ultimately be defined as a belief in social, economic, and political equality for both men and women. Its goal is to create a truly egalitarian society.
When did feminism start in the U.S.?
Feminism began in the United States in 1848 when Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott rallied people together to denounce gender inequalities and demand women's right to vote. In 1848, they organized the Seneca Falls Convention, where they outlined women's grievances and their desire for suffrage.

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More Great Links

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