Feminism: Genesis and its Four Stages
It is a misfortune that the Feminism Movement which aims to achieve political, economic, personal, and social rights for women, has gotten such a negative image. Of course, like any movement, the feminist movement has been hijacked by some vested interests but it does not mean we should condemn it simply because some segments of society are misusing its name.
Essentially, feminism which initially started as a movement for granting women the right to vote, and hold public office in the USA, means equal opportunities for women in education and employment, to own property, to have equal rights within marriage etc. It now includes protecting women and girls from rape, sexual harassment, and domestic violence.
Four Stages/Waves of Feminism
Contrary to popular perception, feminism is not a new movement. Coined by a French philosopher Charles Fourier in 1837, the history of the feminist movements is divided into four periods, each dealing with different aspects of the same feminist issues. Each wave shares similar goals but different characteristics of action. The waves of feminism are not a linear progression and consensus of progress, even though they roughly follow a linear timeline. Instead, they are intense changes of perspective among different generations of women.
A. The First Phase (Suffergate Movement)
- The first wave in the late 19th-century was not the first appearance of feminist ideals, but it was the first real political movement in the Western world.
- In 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft published the revolutionary Vindication of the Rights of Woman. The first organized movement aimed at gaining rights for American women effectively began in July 1848 convention organized at Seneca Falls, New York.
- Attendees signed the Declaration of Sentiments affirmed women’s equality with men, and passed a dozen resolutions calling for various specific rights, including the right to vote. Reproductive rights also became an important issue for early feminists.
- First-wave feminism had a fairly simple goal: have society recognize that women are humans, not property.
- However, the women’s suffrage movement largely excluded and discriminated against women of colour. This exclusion would haunt feminism for years to come.
- Although the early women’s rights movement was linked to abolitionism, the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870 angered some women’s rights leaders who resented Black men being granted suffrage before white women.
- Though ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920 fulfilled the principal goal of feminism’s first wave — guaranteeing white women the right to vote — Black women and other women of colour faced continued obstacles until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This was almost 30 years after New Zealand became the first country where women could vote.
B. Second Wave: 1963–the 1980s (Women’s Liberation)
- Second-wave feminism, from roughly the 1960s to the 1990s, encompassed far more issues such as pay equality, reproductive rights, female sexuality, and domestic violence.
- In 1963, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, which argued that women were chafing against the confines of their roles as wives and mothers. The book was a massive success, selling 3 million copies in three years and launching what became known as the second wave of feminism.
- Inspired by the civil rights movement and protests against the Vietnam War, second-wave feminists called for a re-evaluation of traditional gender roles in society and an end to sexist discrimination.
- Feminism — or “women’s liberation” — gained strength as a political force in the 1970s, as Friedan, Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug founded the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971.
- Three main types of feminism emerged:
a. Mainstream/liberal: Mainstream feminism focused on institutional reforms, which meant reducing gender discrimination, giving women access to male-dominated spaces, and promoting equality.
b. Radical: Radical feminism wanted to reshape society entirely, saying that the system was inherently patriarchal and only an overhaul would bring liberation. It resisted the belief that men and women were the same.
c. Cultural: Cultural feminism had a similar view and taught that there’s a “female essence” that’s distinct from men.
7. There were major victories in this era including the Equal Pay Act of 1963, Roe v. Wade in 1973, and other Supreme Court cases.
8. Like the first wave of feminism, many of these goals were achieved through legislation and important court decisions.
9. High points of the second wave included the passage of the Equal Pay Act and the landmark Supreme Court decisions in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) and Roe v. Wade (1973) related to reproductive freedom.
9. But while Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972, a conservative backlash ensured it fell short of the number of states needed for ratification.
10. Like the suffrage movement, second-wave feminism drew criticism for centring on privileged white women, and some Black women formed feminist organizations, including the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO).
11. Despite its achievements, the women’s liberation movement had begun to lose momentum by 1980 when conservative forces swept Ronald Reagan to the White House.
12. While the second wave movement made some attempts to encompass racial justice, it remained a lesser priority than gender. Class and race were viewed as secondary issues if they were considered at all.
13. The disparities between white women and white men narrowed, but the inequity between women of colour and white men or even between women of colour and white women largely remained the same.
C. Third Wave: 1990s -(Equality & Inclusion)
- The third phase of the movement that began in the early 1990s focused on tackling problems that still existed, including sexual harassment in the workplace and a shortage of women in positions of power.
- Rebecca Walker, the mixed-race daughter of second-wave leader Alice Walker, announced the arrival of feminism’s “third wave” in 1992 while watching Anita Hill testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee about her accusations of sexual harassment against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
- That same year dubbed the “Year of the Woman,” saw an unprecedented number of women elected to Congress.
- Embracing the spirit of rebellion instead of reform, third-wave feminists encouraged women to express their sexuality and individuality.
- Many embraced a more traditionally feminine style of dress and grooming and even rejected the term “feminist” as a way of distancing themselves from their second-wave predecessors.
- “Riot grrl” groups like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile and Heavens to Betsy brought their brand of feminism into pop music, including songs that addressed issues of sexism, patriarchy, abuse, racism and rape.
- Third-wave feminism also sought to be more inclusive when it came to race and gender.
- The work of scholar and theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw on the concept of “intersectionality,” or how types of oppression (based on race, class, gender, etc.) can overlap, was particularly influential in this area.
- Third-wave feminists also drew on the work of gender theorist Judith Butler, including support for trans rights in this type of intersectional feminism.
- Third wavers sought to redefine femininity and sought to celebrate differences across race, class, and sexual orientations.
- While third-wave feminists support feminism, they reject many stereotypes of the feminine ideal, sometimes even rejecting the word “feminism” itself.
- This movement was a stark departure from the second wave and the development of intersectionality began to take form.
- Thanks to the institutional victories of second-wave feminism, women enjoyed more rights and power going into the 1990s.
- They were able to think about other aspects of their identity, welcoming individuality and rebellion. This was an era of reclaiming.
- Many women more freely expressed their sexuality in how they spoke, dressed, and acted. These sometimes bewildered 2nd-wave feminists, many of whom had resisted traditional femininity.
- While many ideas and mini-movements swirled around in this time, the one “rule” was that there weren’t rules. A woman should choose how she lived her life.
- While mainstream first and second-wave feminism had largely ignored or neglected racial disparities within gender, the Third wave paid more attention.
- When the internet became more commonplace, it was even easier to hear perspectives and ideas from feminists around the world. Feminism was expanding.
D. Fourth Wave: Present Day (Me Too Movement)
- Though fourth-wave feminism is relatively difficult to define — as some people argue it’s simply a continuation of the third wave — the emergence of the Internet has certainly led to a new brand of social media-fueled activism.
- Launched by Tarana Burke in 2007, the #MeToo movement took off in 2017 in the wake of revelations about the sexual misconduct of influential film producer Harvey Weinstein.
- In addition to holding powerful men accountable for their actions, fourth-wave feminists are turning their attention to the systems that allow such misconduct to occur.
- Like their predecessors in the feminist cause, they also continue to grapple with the concept of intersectionality, and how the movement can be inclusive and representative regardless of sexuality, race, class and gender.
- The fourth wave of feminism is seen as characterized by action-based viral campaigns, protests, and movements like #MeToo advancing from the fringes of society into the headlines of our everyday news.
- The fourth wave has also been characterized as “queer, sex-positive, trans-inclusive, body-positive, and digitally driven.” It seeks to further deconstruct gender norms.
- Some people think we’re still in the third wave of feminism since the fourth wave isn’t so much of a shift as the continued growth of the movement. However, with the MeToo movement and a resurgence of attacks on women’s rights, many believe we’re living in a new wave.
- Social media activism has propelled the movement firmly into the technological age.
- It builds on the third wave’s emphasis on inclusivity and asks hard questions about what empowerment, equality, and freedom mean.
- Fourth-wave feminism continues to reckon with intersectionality.
- Critics of “white feminism,” which ignores the unique struggles of women of colour, expose how non-white feminists and ideas have been — and continue to be — suppressed.
- Trans rights are a big part of the conversation, too. Feminism has often been an unwelcoming and hostile place for trans women and others who reject the gender binary. Many fourth-wave feminists are working to combat this exclusion.
- As with every wave before it (and any wave that comes after it), the fourth wave is complex. It encompasses many movements that both complement and clash with each other. This tension is unavoidable. While some types of feminism can have harmful impacts, having a variety of voices makes feminism more inclusive and successful.
Features of the Feminist Movement
Like any other movement, there were certain distinct features of this movement such as
1. From Elite agenda to Street Demand: Feminist movement started as a campaign launched by a section of the elite families in the USA in the 1860s for their equal rights, particularly for the right to vote. However, over time, it has now become a mass movement throughout the world. In every country, women are struggling to get equal rights. It was because of the feminist activists, males and females, that now even Pakistani women enjoy the right to vote, work outside, do paid jobs, and express their views on social media.
2. Racial Agenda: The movement, in its initial phase at least, was a purely white race agenda, demanding equality of rights for white women only. And rightly so; even black men did not have equal rights, how could their women have those either
3. European Women’s Contribution: No doubt, it was the American women who played a pioneering and dominating role in launching the movement and spearheading it to success, the literature on feminism has not given the importance to the contributions made by European women
4. Non-violent Movement: Throughout its duration, the feminist movement in every country has remained non-violent. Women have fought for their rights by using constitutional means.
5. Inter-sectional Movement: The term “intersectionality” was coined by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, a renowned legal scholar and civil rights advocate to describe the overlapping systems of bias and discrimination oppressing Black women. However, this term has been used to describe the notion that all injustice and oppression (including racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, ableism, transphobia, and speciesism, among others) are interconnected. In the spirit of that interconnection, Feminist Movement built successful alliances with different kinds of other activities such as environmental protection groups, labour unions, Indigenous Americans, Asian Americans, and Latino Americans organisations etc. Its alliance building with civil rights movements after the 2nd WW gave it a big push in terms of acceptance and public participation.
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