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What is Feminism? (Western/1st world)

April 3, 2011

(first posted on Facebook at the request of members of a discussion group – edited (c) 14.5.10)

As most dictionaries list it, feminism is simply defined as a belief in the equality of the genders.  Simple.  However, it is when the concept of equality and how that is to applied to the various societies in which we live, and the historical and cultural development of the ideology of feminism, that things start to get complicated.

I am born and raised in England, and have travelled to many different countries including Saudi Arabia, Germany, Czech Republic, the US (California, Nevada and Arizona only), New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, Trinidad, Tobago, France, Italy, Austria, Cyprus, Holland, Wales, Scotland and Ireland – although not in that order!

I have a degree in Sociology specialising in Gender, Sexuality and Race issues, and have a keen interest in discussion, debate and social progress.

Politically I identify with the more left of left of centre ideologies, and tend towards scepticism in general.  Personally I identify/am identified as cisgender, disabled, heterosexual, Caucasian, and come from a lower-middle class background although am now economically working class.  All these are important to know because they inform my perspective and interpretation of information I receive, and also my access to the same.  I strive to be balanced and objective, and to encompass all the facts available before reaching an opinion, but recognise my restrictions and am open to new information.  I believe it is important you should know these facts about me, to know where this essay is written from.

SUFFRAGISM – (early 18th century – late 19th century.  The term continued to be used alongside First Wave Feminism)

The term Suffragism is specifically linked to the right to vote, and suffrage literally means that.  The term ‘Suffragette’ was originally coined by the Daily Mail (a right-wing British newspaper) in the late 19th century as a derogatory put-down, but was reclaimed by the activists, and is now no longer seen as negative.

Suffragism was the first widely recognised political movement and ‘Suffragist’ was the name given to the first publicly acknowledged campaigners for gender equality.   The first book which was widely read and propagated to deal with this topic was “A Vindication of the Rights Of Women” by Mary Wollestonecraft (first published 1792), and arose from the debate within British politics and society, related to the abolitionist movement (anti-slavery).  This has led her to be known as the ‘founder of feminism’, a subjective accolade which is culturally-based.  At this time the campaign focussed on the role women played within society and revision in institutions such as family, home, educational theory and religion.

The French Revolution caused a wave of political upheaval and movement in intellectual circles, and other writers such as Olympe de Gouges with “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Citizen” (first published 1791) in France, and Judith Sargent Murray with “On the Equality of the Sexes” (first published 1790) all addressed similar issues.

John Stuart Mill (20.5.1806-8.5.1873) was a British parliamentarian who in his work as a political and in his book “The Subjection of Women” (first published 1869) he advocated the right of women to own property and participate in political life.

Campaigners were as shocking in their actions as campaigners in modern times can be seen to be, according to the media which was then, as now, inclined to sensationalise.  Predominantly a peaceful movement, hunger strikes, window-breaking and riots were rare organised events in the fight for the right to vote, with violence directed towards the campaigners being more prevalent.  The Pankhurst family, mother Emmeline 915.7.1858-14.6.1928), and daughters Christabel (22.9.1880-13.2.1958), Sylvia (5.5.1882-27.9.1950) and Adela (1885-1961) all participated in and organised widespread campaigns of window breaking and arson in the fight to gain votes, and this was widely criticised both within and without the movement.  Adela later moved to Australia and took the movement on in that country.

The movement was frequently linked with Abolitionism in the US and Temperance movements in New Zealand and Australia.

Some other names to look up:

Emily Gowan Murphy – Canada (1868-1938)

Sojourner Truth – USA – (1797-26.11.1883)

Elizabeth Cady Stanton – USA – (12.11.1815-26.10.1902)

Millicent Fawcett – UK – (11.6.1847-5.8.1929)

Kate Sheppard – New Zealand – (10.3.1847-13.7.1934)

FIRST WAVE FEMINISM – (late 19th century – mid-20th century):

First wave feminism is synonymous with and analogous to Suffragism.  Many of those listed as Suffragists will also be listed as First Wave Feminists and vice versa on most search engines and in many textbooks.

The first use of term ‘Feminist’ when applied to an activist in gender equality is thought to be for Hubertine Auclert (10.4.1848 – 4.8.1914) , a French activist.  In 1876, she formed the Société le droit des femmes (The Rights of Women) and in 1883, the organization formally changed its name to the Société le suffrage des femmes (Women’s Suffrage Society).  This concentrated on the establishment legal rights of women in politics, economics and law.  It is believed the term ‘Feminism’ was coined during the 1880s.

The Oxford English Dictionary (2nd Ed. 1989 Clarendon Press) cites 1894 for the first appearance of “feminist”, and 1895 for “feminism”.

Many of the aims, and people identified with First Wave Feminism are the same as those linked with Suffragism, however the movement also began to address the ‘Family’ within the terms of child-bearing and a woman’s right not to bear children.   As women gained the right to vote (at first on an unequal basis with regard to age and class both within the same gender and in comparison to men in many countries, meaning the campaign still continued) other inequalities took precedence in campaigning.

First Wave Feminists campaigned within the systems which existed to gain the freedoms and equalities desired.  However, within this campaign in the US, the focus was on a woman’s right to refuse to have sex, and other more controversial issues such as abortion and birth control were obfuscated as the controversy over these issues was deemed to be contrary to obtaining the goals desired. Susan B. Anthony (15.2.1820-13.3.1906) believed and campaigned for equal treatment of the genders in economy and politics, and was also predominant in the Abolitionist movement.

In the UK Marie Stopes (15.10.1880-2.10.1958) campaigned for birth control and pioneered the Family Planning clinics which gave advice to women of all classes.  She was controversial as a pioneer and believer in Eugenics and was frequently accused of holding anti-Semitic views.  She was known to be a supporter of child labour for the lower classes.

Nellie McClung, a Canadian feminist (20.10.1873-1.9.1951) was a founder member of the Political Equality League and campaigned vigorously and successfully for political reform and for reformation of the divorce laws.  However, like Stopes, she also supported Eugenics.

The First Wave Feminist movement became increasingly controversial for its focus on the experiences of white, middle- and upper-class Western women and for the views which many of the proponents of equality within that movement had exhibited such as support for Eugenics, and this led to the rise of Second Wave Feminism.

SECOND WAVE FEMINISM – (mid 20th century-1980s/present):

Second-Wave Feminism arose as a backlash to the post WW2 propaganda intending to place women back into their traditional roles after the soldiers had returned from fighting.  There was a concentration on how the traditional roles had affected women both physically and mentally, and how society tended to depict women as a ‘lesser’ gender.  Positive images and icons of womanhood were popularised, and there were many battles within the legal realms which helped create legal statues of equality within Western Societies, such as Equal Pay acts, Anti-Discrimination Acts and Access to Education Acts (the titles and dates vary from country to country).

Successes also include the setting up of safe houses for domestic violence survivors and childcare facilities, which all impacted on the lives of women who were primarily the home-makers at this time.

One of the most famous quotes of the second-wave feminist era was to see “the personal as political”, and this was the main focus of second-wave feminist thought and theory.

Sexuality and the woman’s right to equality of free expression became a focus of second-wave feminism, along with the valuation of women according to their perceived ‘beauty’, and many protests at beauty contests were staged.  Although known for ‘burning their bras’ this was not actually a huge part of the movement and was originally staged by the press to belittle the feminist argument.  Much research has been undertaken but it is now widely accepted ‘bra burning’ as a protest movement was a myth.  The advent of the Pill and rights of access to abortion were also focuses of second-wave feminism.  Second wave feminism was strongly anti-pornography and sex work, viewing it as derogatory and exploitative of women.

Second wave feminism was and continues to be criticised for being intellectually-based and ignoring the experiences of non-white, working class women.   It is still a part of current feminist thought and action, although many believe it has evolved beyond the title and the name of second wave feminism died out in the late 1980s.

Names to look up (with their most well-known publication):

Betty Friedan – The Feminine Mystique (1963)

Simon De Beauvoir – The Second Sex (1953-English Translation – not popularised until 1960s)

Germaine Greer – The Female Eunuch (1970)

Kate Millett – Sexual Politics (1970)

THIRD WAVE FEMINISM (early 1990s – present day):

Third-Wave Feminism arose in response to focus on upper- and middle- class experiences and activism within 2nd wave feminism and was more inclusive of intersecting oppressions such as racism and homophobia and in particular lesbian political activism is defined under third wave feminism.  Indeed, the central focus is on race, class and sexuality.

This wave tends to be a Feminist ideology of inclusion, and focuses on individual issues within sub-genres rather than being easily definable as one homogeneous ideology.  Eco-Feminism, Socialist Feminism, Libertarian Feminism, Transgender Feminism, Womanism (sometimes defined separately to any ‘Feminist’ terminology), Queer Theory, Global Feminism and so on, all are separate ideologies but intermingled which can be banded under Third Wave Feminism depending upon the particular argument being put forward.

Third wave feminism looks at the advances made by earlier feminisms and addresses the problems within the initiatives created by the ignoring of intersecting oppressed groups.  It also addressed the issue of Feminism defining what is and isn’t ‘good for women’ and in particular empowerment and oppression as defined by second wave feminists.  For example, many third wave feminists address the issue of pornography as problematic when made by the oppressor male, but as a medium in itself, pornography may be empowering to women if controlled by them.

Rather than censor, the third wave feminist movement challenges and reclaims words, ideals and sexist definitions, and challenges the assumption that institutions are sexist, asserting that it is the systems which carry the sexism and the institutions can be remade and redefined to remove the inherent sexism.

The fact Third Wave Feminism is disjointed and issue-focused has been one of the main criticisms directed toward it.  There is a lack of cohesive goal and set definition of the third wave, which critics claim makes it less powerful and effective as a movement.

Names (with examples of books)/Groups to look up:

Bell Hooks –  Ain’t I a Woman?  Black Women and Feminism (1981)

Rebecca Walker – To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism (1996, Editor)

Naomi Wolf – The Beauty Myth (1990)

Jessica Valenti – Founder of ‘Feministing’ 2004

Kate Bornstein – Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and The Rest of Us (1994)

Eve Ensler – The Vagina Monologues (2001)

Riot Grrrl Punk movement – 1990s onwards

Guerrilla Girl art movement


All of the above terms define different epochs of feminist thought and activism.  Feminism is a mix of ideologies and experiences, in which feminists fight for equality both locally within their own immediate experiences, and by lending support to women of different cultures who are fighting different battles.

Feminist movements are active and vital in the third-world, and whilst identified as feminist face a distinct set of problems separate to that faced by women in the comparatively privileged first world society.  There will be, I am sure, new terms for new Feminist ideas, goals and movements yet to be created.

I have not written about the experiences of non-first world/western feminism as I do not possess the knowledge or feel I have the right to impose my perception onto the same.  I am learning though, and hope to develop a more global viewpoint and activism.  After all, if the world keeps shrinking as we are told it is, global is the only way to be.  As far as I am concerned, equality is not something which can be negotiated or compromised about.  It is a fundamental part of Human Rights, and Human Rights are inextricably linked to the same.


As with any political ideology, many viewpoints co-exist either peacefully or in opposition under the basic tenet of gender equality.  When studying the history of the movement, it is important to remember the historical context in which the activists were working and living.  What is no longer seen as acceptable to our 21st century eyes (by many, although not by all) was acceptable and normal at the time.

Even those most controversial of figures such as Marie Stopes helped win vital freedoms for women, freedoms which can be applied across the board regardless of whether the original intent had been for the same to be accessed that way or not.  Thanks to Marie Stopes, women all across the UK have access to unbiased, free and clear reproductive advice.

Most feminists would identify with more than one of the above categorisations, depending upon experience and ideology.  Those who identify as Second Wave Feminists for example, may also hold Third Wave Feminist beliefs but due to age, environment and many other personal reasons feel they personally are best represented by that categorisation.

Some people who identify with categories not using the term ‘Feminism’ within them would deny being feminist, yet still hold views concurrent with those who do identify themselves as feminists.  However, in my opinion it is the beliefs and actions which are important, not the label one puts on them.  It is a useful tool to have these categories, as it enables us to identify our political and activist intentions and goals, but within these categories there is always and will always be much discussion, debate and disagreement as well as agreement.  That is the nature of politics, society and humanity.


From → Ideology

  1. Alex Brown permalink

    A decent summary, but it leaves a lot of details and complexities out. You have to look at the diffrent feminist discourse. You have to look into the females perception of the world, and into female privilege in society. Feminism basicly belongs into the dustbin of history.

    Empower and show concern for all human beings, or I will net take the movement seriously. Also you have to show me it’s claims for concern are not just plattiudes like I think they are.

    • What details and complexities do you feel were left out, given that it is clearly stated to be an overview and plenty of information is given as to how you may yourself further your study of feminism and feminist theory? Given your lack of response to my myriad points in the debate on Facebook, your clear lack of understanding of feminism, and your continued belief that ‘feminism’ is an amorphous whole (which directly contradicts your comment with regard to details and complexities) I don’t believe you have any understanding with regard to feminism or intersectional oppression. Equality is inclusive of all of humanity – your opinion is from the antifeminist perspective. You have also not cited any examples of what you consider to be platitudes as opposed to concerns.

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