Feminism is a global movement with different currents that have emerged throughout history to defend and advocate for women's rights and equality in society. Broadly speaking, the feminist movement refers to a series of social, economical and political movements and campaigns that relate to women's social conditions and rights.
How did women start protesting and acquiring their social, economic and political rights? In Western history, women were confined to the domestic sphere while men could enjoy public life. The history of feminism is as long as humankind's history.
Feminism and its beginnings until the 19th century
In the ancient world, in the 3rd century BCE, there is evidence of one of the first organized protests against the limiting status of women. Roman women filled the Capitoline Hill and blocked every entrance to the Forum, where consul Marcus Porcius Cato was strongly against the repeal of laws limiting women’s use of expensive goods. The rebellion proved to be exceptional. Unfortunately, for most recorded history, only a few isolated voices spoke out against the inferior status of women.
In the Middle Age in Europe, women did not have the right to own property, study, or participate in public life in any kind of social, economic or political way. Women needed a male representative, be it a father, husband, brother, legal agent or even a son to conduct any business. In addition, women had little or no access to education and were barred from most professions. Reproduction was considered their only purpose.
It is in the 14th and early 15th century France, that the first feminist philosopher, Christine de Pisan, known for her works about women’s heroism and virtue, challenged the status and condition of women and made a bold call for female education.
Despite the many feminist voices during the Renaissance, this was not enough to form a coherent philosophy or movement.
During the Enlightenment, philosophers focused on and debated the inequities of social class, freedom, and caste. However, philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and French revolutionaries that wrote the Declaration of the Right of Man and the Citizen failed to address the legal status of women or even to qualify them as 'silly and frivolous'.
However, some male philosophers did defend the rights of women, such as Jeremy Bentham and Marquis de Condorcet. Both were fierce defenders of human rights, the equality of women and their right to vote and participate in government; including their participation in political life and debates and advocacy for women's suffrage.
This period was characterized by secular intellectual reasoning and philosophical writing, even female intellectuals began to demand new reforms of rhetoric about liberty, equality and natural rights be applied to both sexes.
Olympe de Gouges even published the Declaration of the Right of Woman and of the [Female] Citizen in 1791, as a response to the lack of equality for half of the population and of consideration for the women's status in the Declaration of the Right of Men and of the Citizen from 1789. In her text, Olympe declares women to not only be the men's equal, but their partner.
In 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Right of Woman, where she challenges the notion that women only exist to please men. She identified the education and upbringing of women, dictated by the male perspective, to be one of the main reasons for their limitations. She wrote that women and men be given equal opportunities regarding education, work, and politics would contribute to stopping the inequality of both genders.
The 19th century was the beginning of the suffrage movement through the very lively activism of women on different fronts in Europe and the United States.
What is First Wave Feminism?
First-wave feminism occurred during the 19th and early 20th centuries in Western countries. This period is characterized by legal issues, primarily on securing women's right to vote.
This inherent exclusion of women in society's public and political life was addressed by authors such as Mary Wollstonecraft and her contemporaries. The main idea of Wollstonecraft was to expand Rousseau's democratic description of society, where gender equality was key. Her first feminist treaty, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), advocated for the social and moral equality of sexes. She was known for speaking up her mind and being bold about the inclusion of women in public life, specifically of female education. She also took the term 'liberal feminism' to describe her devotion to breaking through the traditional gender roles.
Wollstonecraft is considered to be the groundbreaker of the British feminist movement and set the legacy for the suffragettes to establish their campaign for women's vote.
In the United States, first-wave feminism was considered to have ended with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution (1920), which granted women the right to vote in the United States. The women's right to vote movement in America was initiated in 1869 by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were the founders of the women's suffrage movement and had spent over 30 years encouraging women to protest in the streets and achieve the women's right to vote.
In the United Kingdom, The Langham Place ladies set up a suffrage committee in 1866, which later would be renamed as the London Society for Women's Suffrage in 1867. The group became very active and spread across the country, they started raising petitions, writing feminist journal articles but despite the women's accrued political experience, there was slow progress at the local government level and no evolution on women's rights.
In Western countries, women achieved suffrage, but this still did not address many other issues on how women could participate in public life.
What is Second Wave Feminism?
The women's movement kept on going after the first wave of feminism and took place from the early 1960s to the 1990s. This second wave began by showing how political and cultural inequalities are inseparably linked with one another. The wave unfolded in the context of the anti-Vietnam war and civil rights movement and the growing but not always enough self-growing consciousness of minority groups around the world.
Although suffrage for women was achieved in most of the Western countries, being the start of historical change for women, other rights were still not part of their lives. This new wave of feminism encouraged women to reflect on the sexist power structure, also called patriarchy. The main goal of the second wave in the United States was on passing the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, guaranteeing social equality regardless of sex.
Despite the progress made for white women, the progress still did not translate for black, indigenous or working-class and poor women. These groups were still being alienated on several fronts that were fought for in the second wave of feminism.
What is Third-Wave Feminism?
This wave began in the early 1990s, right after the criticism and failures that were considered to have been part of second-wave feminism. Third-wave feminism was informed by post-colonial and post-modern thinking, also by the construction of a new or broader definition of feminity and a post-structuralist understanding of gender and sexuality outside the binary heterosexual scheme.
The biggest challenge of the third wave was to not repeat the mistakes of the second wave, where exclusion and intersectional social problems were very much present in the feminist debate. The third wave was also a great reminder that women's rights should not be taken for granted. Because many people and women thought or argued that gender equality had already been achieved after the two first waves and that further debate and fight was unnecessary, or that it pushed women's rights too much in their favour.
Third-wave feminism was all about creating and spreading awareness and consciousness, so much that third-wave feminism encouraged women to define feminism for themselves. This suggestion started thinking that feminism could change with every generation and individual.
What is feminism today?
Fourth wave feminism began around 2012 and is still ongoing today, its main focus is women's empowerment through technology such as the internet and addressing intersectionality.
The internet plays a central role and a universal platform for women of all backgrounds to speak up about sexual abuse, harassment, violence, sexism, and the objectification of women's bodies. The recent examples of this are the #MeToo movement, which allows women to speak freely and on their own terms about sensitive topics. This has also allowed models and body activists to address intersectionality for women's bodies, colour, or other marginalized groups such ad trans women.
However, as former waves, the current criticism is that the fourth wave depends on technology, and, having access to the internet or owning a digital device is not fully democratized. This means that only women that can afford the technology are able to express themselves.
Women and the feminist movement still have gendered issues related to race, sexuality, class, technology. Nevertheless, the movement is still alive and aims at addressing its main critics and challenges.
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