what is feminism?


## first wave

The first wave of feminism took place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, emerging out of an environment of urban industrialism and liberal, socialist politics. The goal of this wave was to open up opportunities for women, with a focus on suffrage. The wave formally began at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 when three hundred men and women rallied to the cause of equality for women. Elizabeth Cady Stanton (d.1902) drafted the Seneca Falls Declaration outlining the new movement’s ideology and political strategies.

## second wave

The second wave began in the 1960s and continued into the 90s. This wave unfolded in the context of the anti-war and civil rights movements and the growing self-consciousness of a variety of minority groups around the world. The New Left was on the rise, and the voice of the second wave was increasingly radical. In this phase, sexuality and reproductive rights were dominant issues, and much of the movement’s energy was focused on passing the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing social equality regardless of sex.

This phase began with protests against the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City in 1968 and 1969. Feminists parodied what they held to be a degrading “cattle parade” that reduced women to objects of beauty dominated by a patriarchy that sought to keep them in the home or in dull, low-paying jobs. The radical New York group called the Redstockings staged a counter pageant in which they crowned a sheep as Miss America and threw “oppressive” feminine artifacts such as bras, girdles, high-heels, makeup and false eyelashes into the trashcan.

Because the second wave of feminism found voice amid so many other social movements, it was easily marginalized and viewed as less pressing than, for example, Black Power or efforts to end the war in Vietnam. Feminists reacted by forming women-only organizations (such as NOW) and “consciousness raising” groups.

## third wave

The third wave of feminism began in the mid-90’s and was informed by post-colonial and post-modern thinking. In this phase many constructs were destabilized, including the notions of “universal womanhood,” body, gender, sexuality and heteronormativity. An aspect of third wave feminism that mystified the mothers of the earlier feminist movement was the readoption by young feminists of the very lip-stick, high-heels, and cleavage proudly exposed by low cut necklines that the first two phases of the movement identified with male oppression. Pinkfloor expressed this new position when she said that it’s possible to have a push-up bra and a brain at the same time.

The “grrls” of the third wave stepped onto the stage as strong and empowered, eschewing victimization and defining feminine beauty for themselves as subjects, not as objects of a sexist patriarchy. They developed a rhetoric of mimicry, which appropriated derogatory terms like “slut” and “bitch” in order to subvert sexist culture and deprive it of verbal weapons. The web is an important tool of “girlie feminism.” E-zines have provided “cybergrrls” and “netgrrls” another kind of women-only space. At the same time — rife with the irony of third-wave feminism because cyberspace is disembodied — it permits all users the opportunity to cross gender boundaries, and so the very notion of gender has been unbalanced in a way that encourages experimentation and creative thought.

This is in keeping with the third wave’s celebration of ambiguity and refusal to think in terms of “us-them.” Most third-wavers refuse to identify as “feminists” and reject the word that they find limiting and exclusionary. Grrl-feminism tends to be global, multi-cultural, and it shuns simple answers or artificial categories of identity, gender, and sexuality. Its transversal politics means that differences such as those of ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, etc. are celebrated and recognized as dynamic, situational, and provisional. Reality is conceived not so much in terms of fixed structures and power relations, but in terms of performance within contingencies. Third wave feminism breaks boundaries.

## fourth wave

Some people who wish to ride this new fourth wave have trouble with the word “feminism,” not just because of its older connotations of radicalism, but because the word feels like it is underpinned by assumptions of a gender binary and an exclusionary subtext: “for women only.” Many fourth wavers who are completely on-board with the movement’s tenants find the term “feminism” sticking in their craws and worry that it is hard to get their message out with a label that raises hackles for a broader audience. Yet the word is winning the day.  The generation now coming of age sees that we face serious problems because of the way society genders and is gendered, and we need a strong “in-your-face” word to combat those problems. Feminism no longer just refers to the struggles of women; it is a clarion call for gender equity.

The emerging fourth wavers are not just reincarnations of their second wave grandmothers; they bring to the discussion important perspectives taught by third wave feminism.  They speak in terms of intersectionality whereby women’s suppression can only fully be understood in a context of the marginalization of other groups and genders—feminism is part of a larger consciousness of oppression along with racism, ageism, classism, abelism, and sexual orientation (no “ism” to go with that).  Among the third wave’s bequests is the importance of inclusion, an acceptance of the sexualized human body as non-threatening, and the role the internet can play in gender-bending and leveling hierarchies.  Part of the reason a fourth wave can emerge is because these millennials’ articulation of themselves as “feminists” is their own: not a hand-me-down from grandma. The beauty of the fourth wave is that there is a place in it for all –together. The academic and theoretical apparatus is extensive and well honed in the academy, ready to support a new broad-based activism in the home, in the workplace, and in the streets.


## Kinds of Feminism


## Liberal Feminism


This is the variety of feminism that works within the structure of mainstream society to integrate women into that structure.  Its roots stretch back to the social contract theory of government instituted by the American Revolution.  Abigail Adams and Mary Wollstonecraft were there from the start, proposing equality for women.  As is often the case with liberals, they slog along inside the system, getting little done amongst the compromises until some radical movement shows up and pulls those compromises left of center.  This is how it operated in the days of the suffragist movement and again with the emergence of the radical feminists.



## Radical Feminism


Provides the bulwark of theoretical thought in feminism.  Radical feminism provides an important foundation for the rest of “feminist flavors”.  Seen by many as the “undesirable” element of feminism, Radical feminism is actually the breeding ground for many of the ideas arising from feminism; ideas which get shaped and pounded out in various ways by other (but not all) branches of feminism.


Radical feminism was the cutting edge of feminist theory from approximately 1967-1975.  It is no longer as universally accepted as it was then, nor does it provide a foundation for, for example, cultural feminism.


This term refers to the feminist movement that sprung out of the civil rights and peace movements in 1967-1968.  The reason this group gets the “radical” label is that they view the oppression of women as the most fundamental form of oppression, one that cuts across boundaries of race, culture, and economic class.  This is a movement intent on social change, change of rather revolutionary proportions, in fact.


The best history of this movement is a book called Daring to be Bad, by Alice Echols (1989).  I consider that book a must!  Another excellent book is simply titled Radical Feminism and is an anthology edited by Anne Koedt, a well-known radical feminist


Marxist and Socialist Feminism


Marxism recognizes that women are oppressed, and attributes the oppression to the capitalist/private property system.  Thus they insist that the only way to end the oppression of women is to overthrow the capitalist system.  Socialist feminism is the result of Marxism meeting radical feminism.  Jaggar and Rothenberg [Feminist Frameworks: Alternative Theoretical Accounts of the Relations Between Women and Men by Alison M. Jaggar and  Paula S. Rothenberg, 1993]  point to significant differences between socialist feminism and Marxism, but for our purposes I’ll present the two together.  Echols offers a description of socialist feminism as a marriage between Marxism and radical feminism, with Marxism the dominant partner.  Marxists and socialists often call themselves “radical,” but they use the term to refer to a completely different “root” of society: the economic system.



## Cultural Feminism


As radical feminism died out as a movement, cultural feminism got rolling.  In fact, many of the same people moved from the former to the latter.  They carried the name “radical feminism” with them, and some cultural feminists use that name still.  (Jaggar and Rothenberg [Feminist Frameworks] don’t even list cultural feminism as a framework separate from radical feminism, but Echols spells out the distinctions in great detail.)  The difference between the two is quite striking: whereas radical feminism was a movement to transform society, cultural feminism retreated to vanguardism, working instead to build a women’s culture.  Some of this effort has had some social benefit: rape crisis centers, for example; and of course many cultural feminists have been active in social issues (but as individuals, not as part of a movement).


As various 1960s movements for social change fell apart or got co-opted, folks got pessimistic about the very possibility of social change.  Many of then turned their attention to building alternatives, so that if they couldn’t change the dominant society, they could avoid it as much as possible.  That, in a nutshell, is what the shift from radical feminism to cultural feminism was about.  These alternative-building efforts were accompanied with reasons explaining (perhaps justifying) the abandonment of working for social change.  Notions that women are “inherently kinder and gentler” are one of the foundations of cultural feminism, and remain a major part of it.  A similar concept held by some cultural feminists is that while various sex differences might not be biologically determined, they are still so thoroughly ingrained as to be intractable.


## Eco-Feminism


This branch of feminism is much more spiritual than political or theoretical in nature.  It may or may not be wrapped up with Goddess worship and vegetarianism.  Its basic tenet is that a patriarchal society will exploit its resources without regard to long term consequences as a direct result of the attitudes fostered in a patriarchal/hierarchical society.  Parallels are often drawn between society’s treatment of the environment, animals, or resources and its treatment of women.  In resisting patriarchal culture, eco-feminists feel that they are also resisting plundering and destroying the Earth.  And vice-versa.

## issues





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