The term feminism can be used to describe a political, cultural or economic movement aimed at establishing more rights and legal protection for women. Feminism involves political and sociological theories and philosophies concerned with issues of gender difference, as well as a movement that advocates more gender-specific rights for women and campaigns for women’s rights and interests. Although the terms “feminism” and “feminist” did not gain widespread use until the 1970s, they were already being used in the public parlance much earlier; for instance, Katherine Hepburn speaks of the “feminist movement” in the 1942 film Woman of the Year.
According to Maggie Humm and Rebecca Walker, the history of feminism can be divided into three waves. The first feminist wave was in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the second was in the 1960s and 1970s, and the third extends from the 1990s to the present. Feminist theory emerged from these feminist movements. It is manifest in a variety of disciplines such as feminist geography, feminist history and feminist literary criticism.
Feminism has altered predominant perspectives in a wide range of areas within Western society, ranging from culture to law. Feminist activists have campaigned for women’s legal rights (rights of contract, property rights, voting rights); for women’s right to bodily integrity and autonomy, for abortion rights, and for reproductive rights (including access to contraception and quality prenatal care); for protection of women and girls from domestic violence, sexual harassment and rape; for workplace rights, including maternity leave and equal pay; against misogyny; and against other forms of gender-specific discrimination against women.
During much of its history, most feminist movements and theories had leaders who were predominantly middle-class white women from Western Europe and North America. However, at least since Sojourner Truth’s 1851 speech to American feminists, women of other races have proposed alternative feminisms. This trend accelerated in the 1960s with the Civil Rights movement in the United States and the collapse of European colonialism in Africa, the Caribbean, parts of Latin America and Southeast Asia. Since that time, women in former European colonies and the Third World have proposed “Post-colonial” and “Third World” feminisms. Some Postcolonial Feminists, such as Chandra Talpade Mohanty, are critical of Western feminism for being ethnocentric. Black feminists, such as Angela Davis and Alice Walker, share this view.
Simone de Beauvoir wrote that “the first time we see a woman take up her pen in defense of her sex” was Christine de Pizan who wrote Epître au Dieu d’Amour (Epistle to the God of Love) in the 15th century. Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa and Modesta di Pozzo di Forzi worked in the 16th century. Marie Le Jars de Gournay, Anne Bradstreet and François Poullain de la Barre wrote during the 17th.
Feminists and scholars have divided the movement’s history into three “waves”. The first wave refers mainly to women’s suffrage movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth 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 1960s (which campaigned for legal and social rights for women). The third wave refers to a continuation of, and a reaction to the perceived failures of, second-wave feminism, beginning in the 1990s.
The Feminine Mystique
Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) criticized the idea that women could only find fulfillment through childrearing and homemaking. According to Friedan’s obituary in the The New York Times, The Feminine Mystique “ignited the contemporary women’s movement in 1963 and as a result permanently transformed the social fabric of the United States and countries around the world” and “is widely regarded as one of the most influential nonfiction books of the 20th century.” In the book Friedan hypothesizes that women are victims of a false belief system that requires them to find identity and meaning in their lives through their husbands and children. Such a system causes women to completely lose their identity in that of their family. Friedan specifically locates this system among post-World War II middle-class suburban communities. At the same time, America’s post-war economic boom had led to the development of new technologies that were supposed to make household work less difficult, but that often had the result of making women’s work less meaningful and valuable.
Feminist theory is an extension of feminism into theoretical or philosophical fields. It encompasses work in a variety of disciplines, including anthropology, sociology, economics, women’s studies, literary criticism, art history, psychoanalysis and philosophy. Feminist theory aims to understand gender inequality and focuses on gender politics, power relations and sexuality. While providing a critique of these social and political relations, much of feminist theory focuses on the promotion of women’s rights and interests. Themes explored in feminist theory include discrimination, stereotyping, objectification (especially sexual objectification), oppression and patriarchy.
The American literary critic and feminist Elaine Showalter describes the phased development of feminist theory. The first she calls “feminist critique,” in which the feminist reader examines the ideologies behind literary phenomena. The second Showalter calls “gynocriticism,” in which the “woman is producer of textual meaning” including “the psychodynamics of female creativity; linguistics and the problem of a female language; the trajectory of the individual or collective female literary career and literary history.” The last phase she calls “gender theory,” in which the “ideological inscription and the literary effects of the sex/gender system” are explored. The scholar Toril Moi criticized this model, seeing it as an essentialist and deterministic model for female subjectivity that fails to account for the situation of women outside the West.
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