"Gross oversimplification time! What did we get from first-wave feminism? The right to vote, among other things. What did we get from second-wave feminism? The right to have sex indiscriminately, among other things."Feminism tends to take one of two forms when depicted in the media: Angry, scary bra-burners and vague declarations of Girl Power. Of course, in reality, feminism is a much more complicated movement. A good comparison to feminism is a major religion like Christianity. They've both got one essential message, but there are many divisions and subgroups with different views on how to interpret/act on on that message, and some of them don't get along so well. There are literally dozens of different factions within the feminist movement, which split off of each other due to disagreements over everything from abortion rights to the pairing of feminism with racial/gay/whathaveyou rights movements to how big of a problem gender discrimination really is in the first place. There are pretty much only three concepts you can count on any mixed group of feminists agreeing on:
— The Nostalgia Chick
— The Nostalgia Chick
- That women should have legal and economic rights equal to those of men, such as the right to vote and to manage their own finances.
- That women should be able to pursue any career they choose, and should get paid the same amount as a man doing the same job with the same level of competence.
- That mutual consent is a must for all sexual activities.
A History of FeminismIn one sense, feminism is truly ancient. You can find women asserting themselves as independent and equal as far back as the sixth century BC (the poet Sappho), which might make feminism Older Than Feudalism. You can also find works that are unmistakably feminist in many times and places, such as the Arthurian Romance Silence, from 14th century France, which features a female protagonist with a distinctly subversive name (as a girl she was given the name Eufemie by her mother, which not only means "Alas! Woman!" but also "euphemism", or a way of speaking around a subject rather than directly to it), which might make feminism Older Than Print. You also find notable feminists involved in the American Revolution, such as the iconoclast Thomas Paine and Abigail Adams (who was quite upset that her husband, future president John Adams, didn't follow her advice and make sure women were given decent representation in the Constitution), although they, of course, didn't call themselves feminists. There were also writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Olympe de Gouges who wrote early feminist essays and criticized the Enlightenment thinkers and radicals of the day for usually ignoring women's rights; de Gouges even proposed giving all women the right to vote, possibly the first prominent call for women's suffrage. In the end, feminism is agreed to have begun as an organized and self-aware movement in the second half of the 19th century. In the United States, it grew out of, among other things, the tradition of women's open involvement in politics (as moral leaders and teachers) and drew on the long tradition not only of women political activists, but also women writers, poets, and philosophers. Historians generally agree that feminism per se began with the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 in upstate New York. There was still some progress prior to Seneca Falls, though - equal education for women had already been a major issue for a few decades, and property rights for women had been pushed a number of times. As one should expect of a philosophical, political, and social movement with more than 150 years of history, feminism has evolved since its beginnings. It has grown, developed, and responded to changes in politics and culture. Feminism has also simply learned as some of the brightest lights in the world have studied gender and its relationship with the rest of the human experience, exploring ideas and building a vocabulary to better understand them. As such, feminism is usually divided into three waves.
- First Wave Feminism: The Seneca Falls Convention included a Declaration of grievances modeled on the 1776 Declaration of Independence, which outlined a number of ways in which the laws and society of the United States were unjust toward women. Feminism arose in part from the growing urbanization and industrialization of the US at the time. Not only that, but feminism was tightly bound up with religious revivalism sweeping the United States (New York's upstate was known as the 'Burned Over' district due to the waves of religious fervor that regularly swept through the area) and the moral issues of the day such as temperance and especially abolition. As such, the first wave was largely focused on women's rights in the workplace, on equal treatment under the law, and especially on suffrage. Whereas in the early days of the United States women were expected to form a key part of the household and form a model of virtuous womanhood as part of the moral underpinning of America and the rearing of its youth, the women of the first wave were particularly vocal and active, engaging in dangerous jobs (Nellie Bly had herself committed in order to expose the atrocious conditions of insane asylums) and political activism, even being imprisoned for their "unladylike" behavior.
- Second Wave Feminism: Beginning in the 60s, the second wave developed in the midst of the anti-war movement and the civil rights movement. Believing that women had achieved political equality but nothing else, feminism became more "radical", and indeed called themselves "radical feminists", although that term has a very different meaning today. As part of a culture bursting with ideas about social, political, and economic structures, feminism too began to look into different issues, often through a Marxist lens. This wave gave us such things as "patriarchy", "oppression", and "normative heterosexuality". Women's role in the home, in the workplace, in sexual relationships were all put under the microscope, as was the culture that took these things for granted. Second wave feminists focused on the more subtle forms of discrimination, such as the wage-gap, discriminatory hiring and promotion practices, spousal abuse, barriers to the access of contraception and abortion, and demonization of divorce and single-parenthood (especially for women). These were the feminists who allegedly burned their bras and stopped shaving, the feminists who aggressively moved into male-dominated professions, the feminists that Fox News can't seem to forget. The first wave was dominated by white women of means (albeit with significant black voices here and there), but the second wave drew increasingly from the other movements that were also powerful at the time, drawing not just ideas, but actual voices from the gay rights movement and the civil rights movement.
- Third Wave Feminism: The third wave began in the mid-90s, with what are known as post-modern and post-colonial strains of thought. Drawing on the growth and development in ideas throughout the prior three decades, feminist thinkers recognized many flaws at the core of the second wave. Although the second wave was born in the cultural ferment of the 60s/70s and sought to include the voices of gay women and women of color, the fact was that second wave feminism was heavily dominated by straight, white women. Further, there had been a strong "us vs. them" mentality in the second wave that tended to alienate potential allies and feminists alike, as well as foster division within feminism itself. For example: the refusal of some feminist thinkers to accept any alternative forms of sexuality as anything other than objectification, particularly bondage and submission; refusing to believe men could ever be allies, but only patriarchal oppressors; refusing to believe that other women could have had different experiences, and that those experiences could form part of a larger, more nuanced picture of oppression. The third wave encompasses both "girly feminism" and "grrl power", in that the third wave seeks to empower women by acknowledging that, when you're free to choose your own path, your choice is a valid expression of your values and desires as a woman. Third wave feminism derides objectification while promoting self-expression; it actively opposes the danger and injury of sexual assault while promoting sex-positivism and "enthusiastic consent"; it fights patriarchal oppression and in so doing notes that that same patriarchy harms men, too. Finally, the third wave intentionally strives for inclusion and intersectionality, recognizing that oppression can take many forms and will affect different people in different ways (race, disability, sexuality, transgenderism, class, religion, etc).
Different Schools of FeminismIn addition to the three waves, which are divided by time periods, feminism is also divided internally over which issues are of most importance and what is really at the root of gender inequality.
- Radical feminism: A term encompassing the more militant forms of feminism and also the most misunderstood. Conflating the more activist forms of radical feminism with fanatical "abolish men" and quasi-religious 'anti-sex' movements has resulted in this being the source of many of the negative stereotypes surrounding feminism as a whole. Radical feminist movements see the problems women face as resulting from patriarchy (social power relations being slanted to favor males over females) and most of them see all other social struggles as a facet of or as a subordinate of it (where as most other feminists tend to see the patriarchy as a component of a larger system of inequality); and thus, equality can only be achieved via the complete dismantling of the patriarchy and its attendant gender-constructs. Most radical feminists oppose pornography, which they see as inherently oppressive towards women, and other forms of sex work such as prostitution, with most radical feminists today supporting the ‘Scandinavian model’ of criminalizing the buyer of sex but not the seller. While once very popular, the anti-pornography movement has gotten a lot of flak in recent years for being ‘anti-sex’, while that is not the point of many of its campaigners. Other radical feminists have been caught seemingly ignoring issues of class, race, and sexual orientation, and because others have expressed opinions viewed as transphobic (anti-transgender).
- Marxist feminism: Sees the source of women’s oppression not being due to the concept of patriarchy as such, but due to the unequal structure of a capitalist economy. For this reason it sees struggles for gender justice and economic justice as inseparable. They hold that only by getting rid of capitalism can gender equality be achieved.
- Socialist feminism: A fusion of radical feminism with Marxist feminism. It sees capitalism and patriarchy as mutually reinforcing systems with one making possible the other.
- Liberal feminism: Agrees with Marxist feminism that the source of women’s oppression is economic, but isn’t anti-capitalist. Instead it focuses on breaking through what they call the ‘glass ceiling’ in economic institutions that concentrates men at the top of corporate and political professions while keeping women in subordinate positions in companies. This is probably the most popular and mainstream form of feminism in the present day since it focuses on the individual choice of the women belonging to it, though radical feminism still tends to dominate in academic and activist contexts.
- Womanism: Shifts attention towards the experiences of women and girls of African descent. Argues that feminists need to take account of racial problems in addition to gender problems. The writer bell hooks is a prominent voice in this tendency.
- Lesbian feminism: Shifts attention towards LGBT women and incorporates elements of queer theory into feminist discourse. It’s also tends to be heavily inspired by postmodernist philosophy and tries to deconstruct ideas of what it means to be a woman. Judith Butler’s 1990 book "Gender Trouble" is a pretty good summation of lesbian feminist ideas and queer theory as a whole, although the high levels of academic jargon have made it notoriously difficult to read. There's also a minority of lesbian feminists who despise queer theory and embrace "political lesbianism"; that is, separating themselves from males for political reasons. This section has more overlap with radical feminism than with queer politics.
- Ecofeminism: Emphasises the woman’s relationship to nature and champions the supposedly feminine values of ecology while attacking the androcentric worldview that allegedly treats the earth as something to be used and dominated in the same way patriarchal men treat women. Other environmental philosophies — especially Social Ecology — have criticised ecofeminism for claiming that women have an essentially deeper connection to nature than men, given that many of the ‘feminine’ traits of nature are merely coded as such rather than innately gendered. Plus the fact that many ecofeminists are close to New Age thinking with many even worshiping a Mother Earth Goddess.
- Anarcha-feminism: Sees the domination of women as one form of power-based social hierarchy among many along with racism, homophobia, transphobia, capitalism, and statism. It opposes all of the above and argues that a fight against any one of them is incomplete without seeing them as part of a mutually reinforcing network of different oppressions. This idea is called intersectionality and also has applications outside of gender issues. The Russian-American writer Emma Goldman is considered the grandmother of this school of thought.
Common Myths and Misconceptions About Feminism
All feminists are women.By and large, the answer is no; basically every feminist will agree that men should forward the cause of feminism, or at least not obstruct it. However, the extent to which they should forward it will differ, depending on who you ask. Some female feminists claim that, just as it's possible for straight people to be in favor of same-sex marriage, or for non-Jews to be against anti-Semitism, it is very much possible for men to identify as feminist. Some well-known men who identify as feminists or have expressed feminist ideals include Alan Alda, Joss Whedon, Kurt Cobain, Hayao Miyazaki, Henrik Ibsen, John Stuart Mill, Linkara and most of his male colleagues, Frederick Douglass, and L. Frank Baum. Even Dr. Eggman has been described as a feminist in the Sonic Heroes instruction manual. Having said that, there is a competing school of thought that says while men can (and should) support feminism, they shouldn't be feminists, because feminism is (or should be) fundamentally about women solving their own problems, without looking to men to do it for them. According to this school, being a feminist is a little like having N-Word Privileges: unless you have been oppressed the way women are, you don't have the background to be a feminist. Men in this school tend to describe themselves as "pro-feminist" instead, and are called "male allies" by the viewpoint's women. (Like N-Word Privileges, this is acknowledged to be a Double Standard in and of itself.)
All feminists are lesbians.Lesbians have been an important part of the feminist movement pretty much from day one — prominent lesbian or bisexual feminists include Andrea Dworkin, Valerie Solanas, Simone de Beauvoir, Judith Butler, Julia Serano, Camille Paglia and Mary Daly. However, many feminists are straight women—in fact, it's likely that most are, if for no other reason that homosexuals are believed to make up only 10% of the population. There are also male feminists and/or feminist allies (straight, bisexual, gay and asexual), asexual feminists, transgender feminists, and feminists of any other sexuality and gender identity you can think of. There have been a few feminist writers — especially during the 1970's, before the movement had made as many gains as it had today — who suggested that it might not be possible to have a truly egalitarian heterosexual relationship as long as sexism remained pervasive in society. This was fiercely debated even at the time, though, and it was certainly never mainstream feminist dogma that feminism carried a moral obligation to swear off sex with men.
All feminists are hairy-legged, makeup-shunnin', boot-wearin' brutes.As much as feminists dislike the "women must be dainty and pretty" messages that society/media blast at them, for most, it's the must part that they object to. Some feminists choose to avoid or reject mainstream beauty ideals as a statement of protest, and there are some who adhere to a Real Women Don't Wear Dresses philosophy. There are others who argue that valuing traditionally masculine behavior (like being unconcerned about looks) over traditionally feminine behavior (like wearing dresses and makeup) is ultimately pretty anti-feminist in itself. Most modern mainstream feminists just think men and women should be equally free to decide for themselves how much effort they care to put into their appearance.
Feminism was invented in the 1970s.The movement first gained coherence in The '70s, yes... But go back to any place and time where there has been widespread discrimination against women (namely, All of Them), and you will find feminism—or, at least, something that looks like feminism if you squint hard enough. The word "feminism" dates back to 1895; the entire "suffragette" movement, in which American women campaigned for the right to vote, took place in 1905; and Christine de Pizan was writing feminist works as far back as the early 15th century. If you believe that men can be feminists and that one does not need to describe oneself as a feminist to be one, then the very first might well be Euripides, which would make feminism Older Than Feudalism. (On the other hand, some of his contemporaries called him misogynistic even by Ancient Greek standards.)
Feminists think men and women are 100% identical.Most feminists would agree that there are overall differences between sexes. While sentiments like "men on average have two thirds (or 60 to 100%) greater muscular strength in the upper body" can lead to arguments if stated/interpreted wrongly, the majority of feminists would concede that, yes, most men have most women beat in raw physical strength. What really grinds a feminist's gears are suggestions that:
- Something that applies to one gender is universal and cannot apply to the other gender. ("Any man is physically stronger than any woman, ever, period.")
- Differences between the genders are an excuse for discrimination. ("Women are not as physically strong as men, and thus no women should ever be allowed to have jobs that require lifting heavy objects.") (Or, even worse, "Women are not as physically strong as men, and thus no woman should ever be allowed to have jobs.")
- Failure to adhere to expectations about one's gender is an excuse for ridicule. ("Any man weaker than a woman is a loser; any woman stronger than a man is a freak.")
Feminists are frigid, hate sex, and want to stop anyone from enjoying porn or fanservice.Feminists have a problem with porn tropes that promote a degrading or hateful view of women ("Not If They Enjoyed It" Rationalization, Sex Slave, the "Rape Is Love" trope that ran afoul of 5P, etc), and with the ways the porn industry exploits a lot of the women who work for it. Some (again, this was a more popular position in the 1970's than it is today) do think porn inherently objectifies women and is therefore always misogynisticnote . Other feminists, though, think what the world actually needs is better porn — porn that presents sex as something where both partners' desires are equally important; Gloria Steinem uses the terms "pornography" and "erotica" to differentiate between the two. There's more of a consensus on fanservice: feminists generally claim not to be against seeing sexy ladies in media, but don't like how often this leads to objectification, with Character Development deferred in favor of Male Gaze. (Whether this actually holds up in practice varies from feminist to feminist.) In any case, most feminists enjoy sex just fine, and those who don't are typically at least okay with the idea of it. There's even a whole faction of the movement, called Sex-Positive Feminism, that focuses on working to promote positive and empowering views of sexuality, and feminists who work in the sex industry who consider the work that they do to be empowering and advocate for feminism and the world at large to be more open-minded about sex work.
Feminists hate men, think women are better than men, and think women should have more power than men.Since feminism sets itself up as the opposite of patriarchy, and since patriarchy holds as its central tenet the idea that Men Are Better Than Women, it is easy to assume, through transitive relation, that all feminism must espouse the gender-flipped opposite. But not all do. Women who seriously blame men for everything are known to academics as "misandrists", to readers of this wiki as Straw Feminists, and to mainstream modern feminists, if there is such a thing, as "wrong". Most feminists don't think sexism is primarily something all individual men do to all individual women; the problem as most see it is patriarchy, which is a more nebulous, widespread and intangible thing. Culture is insidious: women can, and frequently do, act in ways that support patriarchy; and men can and do fight it. The point of feminism (as much as such a vast and highly fragmented movement can be said to have a point) is to raise women to the level of rights/respect that men have had for centuries. Its goal is to render men and women equal, not to drag men down to subhuman levels as some cosmic act of revenge. Note that this has not always been the case: feminism goes in waves, and there have been times in which open hatred for men has been common among feminists as opposed to a radical fringe position. Even today, it is all-too-easy to fall into the trap of assuming that because women have traditionally had less power in many situations, it is therefore always appropriate to divest men of power and invest it in women instead. But in modern feminism, at least on paper, this is less a core tenet of the movement and more an excess that some feminists are guilty of.
Feminists burn bras.Back in The '60s, there were some public demonstrations in which feminists threw bras, high heels, and other fashion-related items into trash cans to protest unrealistic standards of beauty. A newspaper headline compared these actions to men burning draft cards during The Vietnam War. The two ideas got jumbled together in the public consciousness, and the myth of bra-burning continues to this day. Some individual feminists almost certainly did this on a smaller, local scale, but there are no records of mass, well-publicized instances of bra-burning (as there are with men burning their draft cards), and it does not seem to have been a common demonstration tactic.
Feminists are angry, bitter harpies.In a Venn diagram, the circle of angry, bitter harpies and the circle of feminists overlap but are not identical, and the one doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the other.
Feminists think women are the only ones who are hurt by sexism, and don't care about men's problems.It's pretty uncontroversial in feminist circles to point out that sexism hurts men in plenty of ways. The controversy tends to actually lie in what exactly should be done about this; whether men's issues resulting from sexism will sort themselves out as the patriarchy fades, or whether a concerted pro-men effort is required. There are feminists who specifically focus on the ways men's oppression and women's oppression are linked; for instance, many argue that companies need to start granting paternity leave both so that fathers can have the chance to bond with their kids, and so that women aren't automatically assumed to be responsible for child care. On the other hand, there are also plenty of feminists who, on the assumption that women are more harmed by sexism than men, can be ambivalent, obstructionist, or worse toward efforts to address men's issues. One area of particular controversy is when feminist blogs and websites have mocking rules against "what about teh menz?" discussions. See, when feminism became a thing in the 70s, a pro-feminist counterpart movement sprung up called the "Men's liberation movement," which argued that sexism hurts men in plenty of ways. However, this movement eventually dissipated and became a mostly academic discourse, while a breakaway group formed called the "Men's Rights Movement", arguing that feminism has gone too far and left women more privileged than men (yes controversial; please do not discuss it here). "Men's Rights Activists" tend to find plenty to disagree with in feminism-centered websites, which has resulted in Flame Wars, trolling and worse. This is partially why feminists tend to be cautious about how much of that viewpoint they allow into their discussions. Some also like to distinguish between the terms masculist (pro-feminist men who focus on male issues) and masculinist (anti-feminist men who see the movement as dangerous to gender relations). And even when feminist-ascribing men are involved in the discussion, there is also an ideological point to be made. Though it is not controversial to point out that sexism hurts men, it changes the tone of a discussion when a man makes that point. It is all-too-easy to fallaciously infer that he doesn't really care about women's problems unless he is personally affected by them... which, in addition to being a pretty lousy attitude, would go squarely against the whole point of feminism.
Frequent Complaints Against FeminismWhen discussing the topic of gender on the Internet today, the mere mention of the F-word can create catastrophic flame wars that can go on for (literally, not figuratively) weeks and leave newcomers to comment threads wondering why on Earth it has so many rape and death threats directed at people. For the purpose of navigating this rhetorical minefield, some common complaints frequently voiced today are as follows:
- ‘If it’s about equality between the genders, why is it called feminism and only focuses on one gender?’
- ‘Okay, so classical feminism may have been about genuine equality, but modern feminism is full of misandrists who hate all men and privileged women who only care about superficial problems.’
- ‘This thing feminists claim to oppose, “patriarchy,” doesn't exist. Surely most men have lives just as hard as most women.’
- “If it’s about equality, shouldn’t it be called “equalism”?’
- ‘If it’s about equality and liberation for all people, shouldn’t it be called “humanism”?’
- One of the more legitimate complaints is that while there is an entire movement and theory dedicated to addressing the needs of women, men also have gender-specific problems that deserve attention but don't seem like they'll be addressed by a philosophy that defines itself in relation to women. Again, this is why the Men's Liberation Movement sprung up in the 70s.
Glossary of Feminist Terms
- Agency: The ability to act for oneself. If someone is trying to control you, or speaking for you, or not letting you make your own decisions, they're denying you agency.
- Gender Binary: The dichotomy that splits everything (even things that have no basis in sex or gender) into "male" and "female", as opposed existing on a continuum with many people grouped toward the ends.
- Intersectionality: Taking into account anything and everything that can marginalize people - not just sex and gender, but also race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, physical ability, class, etc. For example, being a woman of color means you could be subject to both misogyny and racism. Further, a woman of color experiences misogyny differently from a white woman and racism differently from a man of color.
- Objectification: Ignoring or taking away everything about a person that makes them a person, and seeing/portraying them as just an object. In feminism, this often involves discussions of sexual objectification, where women are denied agency and intention in order to make them into objects for the sexual desires of heterosexual men.
- Privilege: All the things about you that might make your life a little easier than the lives of other people in your (usually majority) group. When somebody tells you to "check your privilege", they're reminding you to recognize where you're coming from. For example, if you're straight and white, your experience differs from that of queer women of color.