Feminism: A Brief Overview
Updated: Sep 8, 2021
Feminism is a term that encompasses such a broad range of history, theory, politics, and thought that it has been rendered nearly useless in accurately representing a succinct viewpoint.
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In its most simple form, Feminism is merely the idea that women (or persons presenting as feminine) should have equal rights and opportunities as men (or persons who present as masculine).
In its most simple form, Feminism is merely the idea that women (or persons presenting as feminine) should have equal rights and opportunities as men (or persons who present as masculine). At face value, feminism is a branch of the larger movement for gender equality that seems innocuous and something most people take for granted as an underlying assumption. Yet the term, due to historical context, has come to mean wildly different things to different people. As such, we felt a brief overview of terms, historicity, and theory could prove useful in understanding the movement and why people may mean very different things when they use the term “feminism.”
Living in our world today it’s easy to forget that it wasn’t that long ago that women couldn’t open their own bank accounts, or own land, or vote. Just a century ago a woman trying to own their own bank account, own land, or vote was considered radical, let alone pursue a profession outside of teaching or domestic labor.
The term “first wave feminism" refers to the movement of women’s suffrage, led by trailblazing heroes such as Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony. In 2019 for the centennial celebration of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution, the National Parks Service created a podcast entitled, “And Nothing Less,” that presents an intersectional history of first-wave feminism and the fight for women’s suffrage. They also have multimedia supplemental resources that are excellent as well. You can find all this on the park service website here.
Forty years later, in 1963 Betty Friedan published a bestselling book that epitomized to a great extent the zeitgeist of what would later be termed "second-wave feminism”. The Feminine Mystique deconstructs the idea that women are by nature domestic creatures that should be discouraged from any pursuit outside of being a housewife and mother. The “cult of domesticity” as theorists describe it recommended marriage and children as the end-pursuit and the greatest fulfillment of every woman, without regard to personal aptitude, desire, talents, or circumstance.
Women with whom this work (and the works of other important feminists of this time frame including Bell Hooks, Gloria Steinem, and Angela Davis) resonated, began lobbying for the Equal Rights Amendment, access to birth control, equal pay in the workplace, and often intersecting social causes such as civil rights and anti-war movements. The backlash to the counterculture movement of the sixties and seventies resulted in broad stroke labels of feminists as “man-haters” or “bra-burning radicals,” when in fact these characterizations were rarely, if ever accurate. Phyllis Schlafly singlehandedly turned broad, bi-partisan support of the ERA into a culture-war against feminism, that successfully stopped the amendment from passing, leaving the United States as one of the only developed countries in the world without such an amendment in their governing law to this day.
The backlash and unflattering labels of feminism successfully turned public opinion against the movement well into the nineties, when a new wave of feminism emerged. Third-wave feminists loudly embraced femininity as a rejection of second-wave stereotypes, some even rejecting the label feminist for other terms such as “femininist” or “grrrl.” Feminists from this wave loudly embraced their sexuality, femininity, and began welcoming transfeminists into the fold. Intersectionality emerged as part of this movement, with many Black, Brown, and Queer voices critiquing earlier feminist theorists who ignored the unique struggles of non-white or cisgender feminists.
What many people may find confusing about contemporary feminism is that it isn’t one cohesive group working toward a unified goal. Feminists and Feminist theorists espouse a wide range of ideals and have very different solutions to societal problems. Feminists are not a monolith, and treating them as such is dangerously reductive. Yet emerging from the “me-too” era is an upswell of voices looking for change, and many have found unity in a shared experience of misogyny, abuse, and systemic harm.
Feminism may not be one single idea or one single cause, but it is clear that the world still has a long way to go before we reach any semblance of gender equality.
We hope you will join us in seeking out ways to make the world a safer and more equitable place for all--men, women, and non-binary. We all deserve a seat at the table and to be treated with dignity, equality, and love.