History Of Feminism

History Of Feminism (Also read the other articles: First Wave Feminism, Second Wave Feminism, and Third Wave Feminism and Types Of Feminism)

Depending on time, culture, and country, feminists around the world have sometimes had different causes and goals. Most western feminist historians assert that all movements that work to obtain women’s rights should be considered feminist movements, even when they did not (or do not) apply the term to themselves. Other historians assert that the term should be limited to the modern feminist movement and its descendants. Those historians us the label “protofeminist” to describe earlier movements. The history of the modern western feminist movements is divided into three “waves”. Each is described as dealing with different aspects of the same feminist issues. The first wave refers mainly to women’s suffrage movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries (mainly concerned with women’s right to vote). The second wave refers to the ideas and actions associated with the women’s liberation movement beginning in the 1960’s (which campaigned for legal and social equality for women). The third wave refers to a continuation of, and a reaction to, the perceived failures of second-wave feminism, beginning in the 1990’s.

From the 1960’s on, the campaign for women’s rights was met with mixed results in the U.S. and the U.K. Other countries of the EEC agreed to ensure that discriminatory laws would be phased out across the European Community. In the U.S., the National Organization for Women (NOW) began in 1966 to seek women’s equality, including through the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which did not pass, although some states enacted their own. Reproductive rights in the U.S. centered on the court decision in Roe v. Wade enunciating a woman’s right to choose whether to carry a pregnancy to term. Western women gained more reliable birth control, allowing family planning and careers. The movement started in the 1910’s in the U.S. under Margaret Sanger and elsewhere under Marie Stopes and grew in the late 20th century. The division of labor within households was affected by the increased entry of women into workplaces in the 20th century. Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild found that, in two-career couples, men and women, on average, spend about equal amounts of time working, but women still spend more time on housework, although Cathy Young responded by arguing that women may prevent equal participation by men in housework and parenting. In international law, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is an international convention adopted by the United Naions General Assembly and described as an international bill of rights for women. It came into force in those nations ratifying it.

By 1970 in the U.S.A., four out of five adults had read or heard of women’s liberation, although not all agreed with it. The feminist movement has effected change in Western society, including women’s suffrage; in education; in gender neutrality in English; job pay more nearly equal to men’s; the right to initiate divorce proceedings; the reproductive rights of women to make individual decisions on pregnancy (including access to contraceptives and abortion); and the right to enter into contracts and own property. Feminists have struggled to protect women and girls from domestic violence, sexual harassment, and sexual assault, emphasizing the grounds as weomn’s rights, rather than men’s traditional interests in families’ safety for reproductive purposes. On economic matters, feminists have advocated for workplace rights, including maternity leave, and against other forms of gender-specific discrimination against women. They have achieved some protections and societal changes through sharing experiences, developing theory, and campaigning for rights.

In the final three decades of the 20th century, Western women knew a new freedom through birth control, which enabled women to plan their adult lives, often making way for both career and family. The movement had been started in the 1910’s by US pioneering social reformer Margaret Sanger and in the UK and internationally by Marie Stopes.

Lesbianism and bisexuality were accepted as part of feminism by a significant proportion of feminists, while others considered sexuality irrelevant to the attainment of other goals. Sexuality, sexual representation, sadomasochism, the role of transwomen in the lesbian community, and other sexual issues arose within acrimonious feminist debates known as the feminist sex wars. Opinions on the sex industry are diverse. They are generally either critical of it (seeing it as exploitative, a result of patriarchal social structures and reinforcing sexual and cultural attitudes that are complicit in rape and sexual harassment) or supportive of at least parts of it (arguing that some forms of it can be a medium of feminist expression and a means of women taking control of their sexuality).

Gender is social or cultural (e.g., how societies structure relationships) and sex is biological (e.g., chromosomal or morphological). The “Feminist Sex Wars” is a term for the acrimonious debates within the feminist movement in the late 1970’s through the 1980’s around the issues of feminism, sexuality, sexual representation, pornography, sadomasochism, the role of transwomen in the lesbian community, and other sexual issues. The debate pitted anti-pornography feminism against sex-positive feminism, and parts of the feminist movement were deeply divided by these debates. Feminists’ views on prostitution vary, but many of these perspectives can be loosely arranged into an overarching standpoint that is generally either critical or supportive of prostitution and sex work.

In the U.S., feminism, when politically active, formerly aligned largely with the political right, e.g., through the National Women’s Party, from the 1910’s to the 1960’s, and presently aligns largely with the left, e.g., through the National Organization for Women, of the 1960’s to the present, although in neither case has the alignment been consistent.

Since the early 20th century some feminists have aligned with socialism. In 1907, there was an International Conference of Socialist Women in Stuttgart where suffrage was described as a tool of class struggle. Clara Zetkin of the Social Democratic Party of Germany called for women’s suffrage to build a “socialist order, the only one that allows for a radical solution to the women’s question”.

In Britain, the women’s movement was allied with the Labour party. In the U.S., Betty Friedan emerged from a radical background to take leadership. Radical Women is the oldest socialist feminist organization in the U.S. and is still active. During the Spanish Civil War, Dolores Ibarruri (La Pasionaria) led the Communist Party of Spain. Although she supported equal rights for women, she opposed women fighting on the front and clashed with the anarcha-feminist Mujeres Libres.

In Latin America, revolutions brought changes in women’s status in countries such as Nicaragua, where feminist ideology during the Sandinista Revolution aided women’s quality of life but fell short of achieving a social and ideological change.

The civil rights movement has influenced and informed the feminist movement and vice versa. Many Western feminists adapted the language and theories of black equality activism and drew parallels between women’s rights and the rights of non-white people. Despite the connections between the women’s and civil rights movements, some tension arose during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, as non-white women argued that feminism was predominantly white and middle class, and did not understand and was not concerned with race issues. Similarly, some women argued that the civil rights movement had sexist elements and did not adequately address minority women’s concerns. These criticisms created new feminist social theories about the intersections of racism, classism, and sexism, and new feminisms, such as black feminism and Chicana feminism.

Currently, many feminist organizations worldwide participate in anti-racism activism, in diverse areas such as immigration law in Europe, caste discrimination in India, and the discrimination of formerly enslaved African ethnic groups in Africa and the Middle East.

Many feminist scholars rely on qualitative scientific research methods that emphasize women’s subjective and individual experiences, including treating research participants as authorities equal to the researcher. Objectivity is eschewed in favor of open self-reflexivity and the agenda of helping women. Also, part of the feminist research agenda is the uncovering of ways in which power inequities are created and/or reinforced in society and in scientific and academic institutions. A feminist approach to research often involves nontraditional forms of presentation.

Feminism has led to increased participation by women in the health care they receive, deliver, and seek.


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