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The term feminism was coined in the late nineteenth century, nearly a hundred years after Mary Wollstonecraft’s pioneering advocacy of education for girls in Europe. It has come to encompass a broad range of political, cultural, and intellectual movements. An underlying vision of a more just society, where males and females have equal or equivalent opportunities for work, service, and personal development, connects feminist individuals and organizations worldwide.
In 1913, Rebecca West (1892–1983) famously wrote: “people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute.” Even today, it is sometimes easier to determine who the feminists are by watching their opponents than it is to describe a version of feminism that would fit all the common kinds of feminist activities. In part this is because the word feminism was first used in the late nineteenth century, and thus postdates many of the earliest activities and thinkers it is used to describe. As used today, feminism is a broad term encompassing political, cultural, and intellectual movements as well as the worldviews of individuals.
Since the early nineteenth century feminist activists in many parts of the world have sought to provide women with legal recognition, human rights, protection within the family, suffrage, maternity leave, day care, sexual freedom, equal opportunity to employment, access to health care, and dress reform, among many other issues. Some feminists turn their commitment to women’s rights into full-time employment; some work as volunteers; some support political parties, charities, nonprofits, and/or nongovernmental organizations they perceive as having a pro-woman agenda; and some simply try to act out of feminist principles in their daily lives. Individuals and organizations that self-identify as feminist have a wide variety of outlooks, histories, and agendas, with the result that there is often considerable disagreement among them. Sex work and religious obligations are among the most contentious issues of the current day, for example, while universal male suffrage was the hot-button topic of nineteenth and early twentieth century First-Wave feminism.
What connects feminists is an underlying vision of a more just society, where males and females have equal or equivalent opportunities for work, service, and personal development, and where the government provides men and women with equal or equivalent protection and responsibility. Contemporary organizations that self-identify as feminist almost universally voice and may provide support for movements seeking ethnic, racial, and class equality. Many also support the legal equality of lesbians and homosexuals, including the right to form legally recognized families. Individuals who self-identify as feminist are more divided. In any case, assigning women legal rights, access to education, sexual and financial independence, and responsibilities equal to those of men required and continues to require vast changes in the structure of families, production, government, and social interaction.
History of Feminism
“First Wave” feminism began as a self-conscious organized political movement in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York, where Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815– 1902), Lucretia Mott (1793–1880), and Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906) held the world’s first Women’s Rights Convention. The leaders of what would become the Women’s Rights movement published a Declaration of Sentiments modeled on the United States’ Declaration of Independence, saying that men and women were created equal under the laws of nature and of God, and that women should “have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of the United States.” Using the political language of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Thomas Jefferson, they demanded legal and political rights equal to male citizens. Thus, although the first feminist body called itself the National Women Suffrage Organization, members actually campaigned for a variety of legal remedies. For instance, their first political victories increased married and widowed women’s ability to own property and make contracts.
Although U.S. women probably had more experience as political activists than women in other countries, women in the European and Latin American world had also been voicing feminist sentiments and supporting political movements prior to 1848. U.S. activists corresponded and worked with individuals and organizations in many other areas of the world, and newspapers around the world wrote stories and editorials about the Women’s Rights Convention and the NWSA. The first college (Oberlin College graduated its first women students in 1841) and many of the earliest colleges to grant degrees to women students were in the United States, and the arrival of women from all parts of the globe helped disperse the political language and strategies of the women’s rights movement. Within a very few years there were organized feminists in western and eastern Europe, Brazil, and Mexico, and by the end of the nineteenth century there were feminist movements and organizations in India, China, North Africa, and much of the rest of Latin America.
Feminists were particularly influenced by Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797), whose Vindication of the Rights of Women had asserted that women deserved to have educations on par with men, as well as greater legal equality. It was Wollstonecraft’s realization that social inequalities were not simply natural, but instead at least partly created by cultural norms. Women in European society, she said, were indeed less capable than men of acting wisely and effectively to support themselves, their families, and potential responsibilities as citizens. She perceived this as being the inevitable result of weak education, however, rather than of any mental or biological incapacity of girls and women. A girl educated to support herself and to actively engage in public life would grow into a woman capable of doing so, and so the education of girls lay at the heart of Wollstonecraft’s vision for achieving women’s rights. Early feminists the world over considered Wollstonecraft’s ideas indispensable; the NWSA sponsored its widespread distribution, and a translation of the Vindication was the first book actually published by a Brazilian woman.
The campaign for women’s suffrage was considered the most radical branch of the women’s rights movement, and opponents described suffragists as anti-male and irrational. On the other hand, campaigns for girls’ education met with less resistance. There were several reasons for this. First, as industrial economies progressed, more and more women had to undertake wage labor outside the home, making some form of childcare a necessity. Schools provided a partial solution to that problem. Second, nineteenth-century gender ideology depicted mothers and wives as housewives whose most important task was building their children’s characters and educating them for citizenship in the modern world. To do this, women required an education.
Third, the image of the appropriately educated and independent modern woman was an important piece of imperialist and anticolonial ideology. The leaders of colonizing powers, of independent states resisting colonialism, and colonized elites all believed that women’s dress, activities, and public presence were critical indicators of modernity and national health. Therefore, in some countries elite men made the earliest attempts at feminist social change and created the first institutions that supported it. Muhammad Ali (1769–1849), a pasha of Egypt, supported education for girls and midwives in Egypt; affluent men organized the first Chinese movements opposing foot binding and female slavery, and tried to persuade their families to educate daughters and find educated wives for their sons. Finally, women’s organizations and individual women all over the world worked hard to promote the idea that women’s education was an indispensable part of modernity; in many places, the first professional jobs women held were as schoolteachers. Whether they were in India or Indonesia, these small numbers of educated unmarried women started a surprisingly large number of publications and organizations devoted to various aspects of women’s interests. They made up the backbone of women’s organizations in general, not just the women’s rights movement. Less radical feminists organized for goals like child welfare, protection of minor girls from prostitution, support for widows, and the cure and prevention of alcoholism (so that men would not spend all of a family’s income on drink or beat family members while drunk).
Not all women’s organizations and movements involved themselves in overt political activism on behalf of women’s legal rights, in part because there were relatively few countries where open political protest was legal, and even fewer where most adult men had the right to political participation as voting citizens. Radical women in more repressive societies like Russia and India tended to align themselves with revolutionary or independence movements as much as with women’s movements. European activist women often became socialists, and in the various colonies they frequently joined women’s auxiliaries of nationalist independence movements. Feminists in these movements saw women’s rights as being dependent on (and naturally flowing from) political freedom for their countries as a whole.
In the 1950s, feminist movements accelerated as international independence and civil rights movements began to bear fruits in the form of decolonization and greater recognition of the human rights of minorities. Originating in countries where women already held the franchise, this Second Wave of feminism continued the work toward equal rights and the protection of women and girls so important to the First Wave. Also often called the Women’s Liberation movement, the Second Wave has emphasized the importance of changing gender ideology and gender expectations feminists perceived as limiting and coercive for both sexes. Some feminists refer to the current period as a “Third Wave” of feminism, but aside from the changing generation of leadership there seems to be no clear agreement as to how the Third Wave differs from the first.
Opposition to Feminism
Feminist movements typically encounter considerable opposition, in part because even small feminist changes create large-scale social and political change. It is not possible, for instance, to simply grant women the vote and go on doing business as usual. In countries with large Roman Catholic populations, for instance, Liberal parties typically feared granting women the franchise because women supported the church more than men. When widows retain a greater share of their husbands’ properties they were able to use those funds to do things like endow public buildings and charities, support political candidates, build private women’s colleges, live alone, support a (male or female) lover, or any other legal activity they pleased. Laws raising the age of sexual consent or of legal marriage cause girls to marry later, have fewer children, and generally be more capable of opposing the wishes of their husbands or in-laws if they so choose. Women with access to contraception—and there continue to be many women who do not have such access—are able to choose for or against childbearing and control the number of children they have. Implementing feminist reform inevitably transforms the lives of boys and men and forces reexamination of their roles in society. Moreover, it is not only husbands but also parents, including mothers and mothers-in-law, who experience a loss of authority. Grandmothers, mothers, and mothers-in-law often hold great authority in highly male-dominated societies, so that basic feminist reforms providing greater freedom for girls and women can have the impact of removing younger women from the authority of older women. Feminism is therefore criticized as being incompatible with traditional family values.
Another current critique of feminism has been that it is a movement of middle class and Western women. For much of the history of feminism, middle class and/or educated women have made up the backbone of the movement, while the financial and social backing of wealthy women has often been critical to the survival of particular organizations. This is, however, also true of most organizations dedicated to political and/or charitable activity. Perceptions of feminism as a Western, imperialist project derive from the connections so often drawn between modernization, civilization, and women’s status during the colonial period. It therefore is still the case that many organizations and individuals working on agendas that feminists would support nevertheless refuse to self-identify as feminist. This is similar to the way some women’s organizations of the nineteenth century worked for “women’s issues” such as education, sanitation, and other forms of social welfare while avoiding official support for suffrage.
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