In the era of ‘progress’ and ‘equality’, any woman pointing out the mundane facts of life which still put women at a disadvantage is immediately labeled a ‘feminist’. Why this accusation or label? And why in fact has the word ‘feminist’ become the new ‘F’ word? Why do men steer clear of ‘feminists’? Why are some women proud and others ashamed to be ‘feminists’? To understand, we must look at the way the word has gained its present meaning.
Quite simply, feminism is the belief in the social, economic and political equality of the sexes. It describes a political, cultural or economic movement aimed at establishing equal rights and legal protection for women.
Although the terms ‘feminist’ and ‘feminism’ did not gain widespread use until the 1970s, they were already being used in the public parlance much earlier for instance; Katherine Hepburn speaks of ‘feminist movement’ in the 1942 film ‘Woman of the Year’. According to most experts and sociologists, the history of feminism can be divided into three waves.
During the 19th and early 20th century in the UK and U.S.A, there was an extended period of feminist activity; this was referred to as the First Wave. Originally it focused on promoting equal contract and property rights for women and standing against chattel marriage and ownership of married woman along with their children by their husbands that was very prevalent during that time. But by the end of the 19th century the activism shifted focus to gaining more political power, particularly the right of women suffrage. In 1854, Florence Nightingale established female nurses as adjuncts to the military.
The period of ‘feminist’ activity in the early 1960’s that lasted through the late 1980s was referred to as the Second wave. It has been suggested by scholars that is was a continuation of the earlier wave involving the suffragettes in the UK and the USA. Second wave feminism existed on its own during that time and then coexisted with what was later termed as Third wave feminism. This wave of feminism was mostly concerned with other issues of gender equality, a major point being ending discrimination. Famed feminist and author Carol Hanisch coined the slogan “The Personal is Political” in 1969. This slogan became synonymous with the second wave. Second wave feminists saw that women’s cultural and political inequalities were inextricably linked and they encouraged women to understand aspects of their personal lives as deeply politicized and reflecting sexist power structures.
French author, activist and social theorist Simone de Beauvoir wrote novels, monographs on philosophy, politics and social issues, essays, biographies and an autobiography. She is known for her 1949 treatise “The Second Sex” which was translated into English in 1953. It was a detailed analysis of women’s oppression and a foundational tract of contemporary feminism. It set out a feminist existentialism which advised a moral revolution. He analysis focused on the social construction of women as the other sex. She identified this as fundamental to women’s oppression. She argued that throughout history, women have always been considered deviant and or abnormal. De Beauvoir argued that for feminism to move forward this attitude must be abolished.
The critically acclaimed book ‘The Feminine Mystique’ published in 1963 by Betty Friedan criticized the long standing idea that women could only find fulfillment through childrearing and homemaking. In her book Friedan says that women are victims of a false belief system that requires them to find identity and find meaning in their lives only through their husbands and children. Such a flawed and destructive system causes women to completely lose their identity in that of their family. Friedan also specifically located this system among post-World War II middle-class suburban communities. It was during this time, America’s post-war economic boom had led to the development of new technologies that made household work less difficult, but at the same time resulted in making women’s work less meaningful and valuable.
Taken from Friedan’s obituary in The New York Times, The Feminine Mystique “ignited the contemporary women’s movement in 1963 and as a result permanently transformed the social fabric of the United States and countries around the world” and “is widely regarded as one of the most influential nonfiction books of the 20th century.”
Betty Friedan was also one of the 30 women who organized The National Organization for Women (NOW) and helped draft the founding statement. The statement called for “The true equality for all women”.
It began in the early 1990s, the movement arose partially as a response to the perceived failures of and backlash against initiatives and movements created by the second wave. Third wave feminists believed there needed to be further changes in stereotypes and media portrayals to define women. The idea was to celebrate the diverse identities of women and abandon the “victim feminism” ideology. Third wave feminism also wanted to challenge what it deemed the second wave’s essentialist definitions of femininity which according to them over-emphasized the experience of upper middle class white women.
Third wave feminism focuses more on post-structuralist interpretation of gender and equality. Third wave feminist often focus on “micro-politics” and challenges the second wave’s paradigm as to what is, or is not, good for females. Third wave feminism has its origins in the mid 1980s. Many of the leaders, sought to negotiate a space within feminist thought for consideration of race-related subjectivities. It attempts to expand the topic of feminism to include a diverse group of women with a diverse set of identities.
Third-wave feminism contains major internal debates between different feminists such as the psychologist and ethicist Carol Gilligan best known for her work on ethical community (who believes that there are important differences between the sexes) and those who believe that there are no inherent differences between the sexes and also believe that gender roles are only due to social conditioning.
Describes a range of viewpoints reacting to feminism. While not being “anti-feminist,” post-feminists believe that women have achieved second wave goals while being critical of third wave feminist goals. The term was first used in the 1980s to describe a backlash against second-wave feminism. Some post-feminists actually believe that feminism is irrelevant in today’s society.
One of the central points of tension confronting feminism in the modern age, and one that may define it going forward is the growing tendency of younger generations of women to untether feminism from its political and activist foundations.
Young women (and increasingly, men) are still coming to the movement in strong numbers, but this feminism looks different, in many ways, than that of earlier generations. This New Wave feminism is shaped less by a shared struggle against oppression than by a collective embrace of individual freedoms, concerned less with targeting narrowly defined enemies than with broadening feminism reach through inclusiveness, and held together not by a handful of national organizations and charismatic leaders but by the invisible bonds of the Internet and social media. This feminism stresses personal freedom as much as it does equality and, when infused with the younger generation’s bend toward inclusion, has the capacity to make room for feminists like Beyonce – even though older generations might not have permitted it.
The word itself- ‘feminist’ still is a sticking point for many, loaded with negative connotations, thanks at least in part to the efforts of influential right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh, who popularized the pejorative term feminazi with his listeners. The word “feminist” is increasingly associated with “feminazi” which is derogatory in ways and is giving the movement a bad reputation. Polls conducted in the U.S show that men and women strongly support feminist ideas – just not feminist labels. Most women refuse to identify with the term feminist due to the concept of an extreme and radical feminist. Most women believe in feminism, but do not obsess over it.
Some women see feminism as the ideology which allows them to do what they want within legal boundaries and about people not being defined by their biological differences. They prefer to keep it personal instead of participating in meetings, protests or rallies.
If feminism is more personal than collective now, then each woman’s experience has its own meaning. The belief of young generations the “feminism is not political” actually turns out to be “feminism is not only political”.
The leaders of 21st century feminism are rather out of touch with how most ordinary women live their lives. Some critics have rightly pointed out that a lot of key feminist issues are not actually “women’s issues”. Children, for instance, is a parents’ issue and rape and domestic violence are not crimes against women. They are simply crimes.
Like most other political or social movements, the feminist stretched it too far, with some extremists claiming that the existence of men is not required by women, which is rather radical. The backlash against such unnecessary issues is justifiable. However, conservative men and women, claiming feminism is utter rubbish is wrong too. Feminism is still required as there is a long way to go still with regards to equality of sexes and equal rights for women. As women, whether we choose to be ashamed of being called a feminist or we proclaim ourselves to be feminist, is inconsequential. What really matters is, if at heart we believe in equality and work for it. If we know our stand or the issue, labels do not really matter.
The author, Srishti Negal is presently a student of Political Science at St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata.