What began as a social theory or rather, a political movement arguing that legal and social restrictions on females must be removed in order to bring about equality of both sexes in all aspects of public and private life, is now quite a celebrated topic for numerous debates and discussions which marks the rise of a different form of nouveau, enlightenment in the development of human understanding and widening of human thoughts and actions.
There have been numerous claims and counter-claims of what is “true feminism” and what should be the scope of its matter. I will, however, present my own interpretation of feminism and try to distinguish between the different parts of this topic.
In order to attain a “true” understanding of feminism, we have to delve deep into its matter and observe its beginning, in the 18th and the 19th century, marked as the “First wave” of Feminism.
The growth of logical thinking, scientific ideas and the enlightenment period, fall of the Church, the Industrial Revolution, the French Revolution and the rise of the Nation State and democracy in the Western European countries signalled a new development in the socio-political aspect of human history and modern civilization. Men were given the right to vote their leaders, who will lead their country. Leaders, who were elected by the people, of the people and for the people and hence, represented the ‘public’ opinion.
The irony lies in the fact that, the word “public” which was coined in the 14th and the 15th century, necessarily referred to the views of the ‘general masses’ and that of ‘everyone’ and stood opposite to the word “private” and at the same time, women, who formed half of the population, were deprived of the membership of this “public” sphere. Women were denied the right to vote, voice their opinions, or the opportunity to understand the working of this nouveau enlightened, democratic era, which ironically stood for “everyone”, “public” and the “people”. It was the MEN who formed the rights, laws and rules which would not only guide their welfare, but also that of the “lesser humans”, the “other sex”, the women, whose welfare was thought to be “naturally” placed at a position lower to that of men. It was as if women were different creatures or sub-humans. This struck many enigmatic women like Mary Wollstonecraft.
This led to the successful first wave of Feminism or the Suffragette movement, which took up the issue of Democracy, for ALL, and protested against the male domination, leading to the granting of voting rights to women.
The second wave of Feminism was simultaneously carried out along with the Civil Rights Movement. Betty Friedan, in her book, ‘The Feminine Mystique’ has elucidated how educated women were growing sick of their daily chores. It was as if their destiny to give birth to children, take them to school, take care of her husband, and stay in the kitchen for the rest of the day, even after a sufficient education, which made them elligible for jobs. Friedan also mentions how the working ladies were made fun of being “unable to produce babies” in the workplace and were hardly given any promotion. The movement led to the passage of ‘The Equal Pay for Equal Work Act’ and many such other Laws, throughout the globe, which called for women’s empowerment. Mention must also be made of the women in music, who were encouraged by the movement, such as Laura Nyro.
The third wave had a wider scope and aimed to recognise the various identities that is inherent among humans and accommodate all these in the society. Third-wave feminists had a more broad goal, focusing on ideas like queer theory, and abolishing gender role expectations and stereotypes, that is supported by the patriarchal society and hetero-normativity.
The thing is, ‘modernity’ is thought to be a harbinger of equality among the sexes. It is thought that modernity has brought about women’s empowerment and it is sufficient to bring about an upliftment of women’s position in the society. However, the present situation is not as heavenly or romantic as socialism or capitalism thought modernity would be.
There is inherent a sense of oppression, which deprives women of several opportunities and the whole sex is socially tagged as something very weak, dependent and lacking confidence. It is a fact that the modern society is a patriarchal society where families still prefer a male child and though property seems to be equally divided among the male and the female child, it is the former who gets the most of it.
There is a reason why even after the three waves of feminism, there is necessary a fourth wave, which aims to charge at the present oppression that hinders not only the opportunities of the female sex, but also that of the minorities, the LGBTQIA+ groups and several oppressed classes and castes.
It is a fact that till date, doing something “like a woman” is considered to be negative. It is as if someone is making fun of the individual if he/she is doing something “like a woman”. This is quite a sad occuring and I believe, that the presence of this fact itself is a proof that oppression of women is inherently present and women’s empowerment needs to be emphasized upon.
The complexity of inter-sectionalism lies in the fact that, where some feminists argue that the ‘Burkha’ and the ‘Hijaab’ is disgraceful for women and imposes male dominance on them, some Muslim Feminists argue that it is quite empowering as they can look at a man’s skin, or gaze at their faces but the man cannot do so. However, not going into such complexities, it can be said that Feminism is a necessity in bringing about a humanitarian development of the society as a whole. It is a necessity to recognise and give place to the various identities and diverse human beings that are present in the society who need to be given equal rights irrespective of any of their identities.
Moreover, many men just assume that the maintenance of a household is a woman’s job. This is an extremely selfish claim which arises due to them, being born in a society which programs them to think in that way. There are men who say things like, “I am busy babysitting my kid tonight”, when actually he is caring for his own child, because it is his offspring too! It’s not his wife’s job and he isn’t babysitting when he is doing it… it’s both their jobs!
Then, is feminism a completely feminine theory? Is it different for different people? What is the role of men in Feminism?
In order to answer these questions we need to delve deep into the liberal understanding of Feminism and observe how intersectional feminism talks about equality of all the sexes and genders and looks at them as an inevitable part of humanity and societal reality.
Feminism transgresses its feminine boundaries and steadily creeps into the realm of gender, sexuality and asserts their multiplicity. It points out to the quiet mass of people who do not identify them either as male or female, or pose a behaviour, different to the normative behaviour assigned to the sex they are born into.
Feminism also stands strong while questioning the official notions of masculinity which vehemently rejects and denies the identity of a ‘Man’ to any male individual who does not adhear to the official notions of hetero-normativity.
Feminism also questions, with the help of social evidences, ‘logic’ and ‘scientific claims’ which have historically brought about women’s oppression and has given women a weak and dependent position.
There is a preconceived notion that feminism is essentially a feminine ideology, that women use to empower themselves in various walks of their lives. However, it should be stressed, how feminism has transgressed it’s feminine boundaries, into that of masculinity and a transition area between the two conditions. A movement that had begun for the granting of certain civil rights and legal rights for women for their opportunitues, has now evolved to question the official notions of what is masculinity and has given a strong voice to many men, who have been discriminated, socially disregared and rejected by the larger group of not only, the “masculine” men but also women, who have been socialised into believing the patriarchal norms and it’s dominance.
Feminism gives a voice to those men who do not fall into the celebrated category of “masculine” men who project a certain behaviour, not similar to that of a woman, who possesses neither emotions or sensitivity. Feminism claims that there is present not one, but various forms of masculinity. Only one form of typical male behaviour is thought to be masculine, male-like, in the patriarchal society Coincidentally, the word ‘masculine’ was itself coined around the 15th-16th Century, and it related to only a typical form of behaviour professed by the heterosexual, white, English educated, European men, who set the limits and standards for men to be identified as behaviourally masculine. Hence, the word masculine is actually quite restricting and does not have a space for all those men who do not toe the lines of the “normal, masculine, men” and are tagged as “queers”, or even “homosexuals”. Mention should be made of the oppression that this form of masculinity caused all around the world. The Britishers tagged the Bengali, young men or the ‘Babu’ as effeminate and undeserving of the ‘masculine’ tag since they were earned their income through the Zamindari system and were generally, pot-bellied. Even among various African and North American tribes, the men were tagged as effeminate since they lived in a matriarchal society, or had a queen as their tribal leader. Even in the modern era, men who don’t behave in certain ways, or don’t watch sports or are not into sports, who don’t educate themselves in the scientific subjects are treated as effeminate and are socially disregarded during socialization. This had led many men to grow to be un-social individuals and some have grown to hate their own sex.
As a concluding note, it can be stressed that the various parameters that are set in the society should not affect an individual’s life if she/he fails to meet them. Differences and uniqueness should be accepted and regarded in the society and I believe, feminism strives to achieve such a society where humans will be accepted for who they are, what they believe and their liberty should be regarded as a norm. It should also be said that one’s liberty should not hinder another’s opportunity or the right to yield her/his liberty. True feminism believes in inter-sectionality, humanism, liberalism, egalitarianism and has been a product of a several decades of struggle and I believe, it is necessary to facilitate the process of reaching that stage where human nature will be more accepting, open minded and will not disregard uniqueness or difference of the human race.
The author, Meghjit Sengupta, is a student of Sociology at St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata.