“To be ‘feminist’ in any authentic sense of the term is to want for all people, female and male, liberation from sexist role patterns, domination, and oppression.” Bell Hooks made this influential statement in a book published in 1981 called ‘Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism’. Formally, the movement of feminism began at the Seneca Falls Convention which was held in the Wesleyan Chapel of the town of Seneca Falls, New York in 1848 when 300 men and women rallied to the cause of equality. Although feminism is of great importance in our communities, we are yet to see true equality between men and women. However, the change towards a better equal society though slow, is yet noticeable, and we do see women having better access to education and equal opportunities, nowadays.
What is Feminism?
Quite simply, feminism is about striving to empower all women to grasp their full rights and making sure that all girls and women get the same opportunities as boys and men. Factually, men and women are different in many ways. The University of Pennsylvania conducted a study which claims that men and women’s brains are hardwired to excel in different areas. That means, the same information is processed very differently. Many people argue that because men and women are different, whether physically or mentally, there cannot be equality. However, it is critical to understand that “equal” doesn’t mean “same”. The idea of sameness means that two or more people or things are identical, whereas equality addresses the fact that two or more people or things are identical in value. Men and women certainly are not physically or mentally the same but they are identical in value and that doesn’t mean that they don’t have the right to be equal.
History of Feminism:
Women’s Lives Before Feminism
Throughout most of Western History, women were confined to the domestic sphere, while public life was reserved for men. The High Medieval era in Europe (1000 AD-1250) was the time of colossal gender discrimination. During this period, women were denied the right to study, to own property, or to participate in public life. At the beginning of the 19th century, women had very few rights of their own, especially when they were married. Upon marriage, women became the property of their husbands. Whilst divorce was very unfashionable during that period, it was possible for men to divorce their wives for a variety of reasons, but it was not until halfway through the century (1857) when women could divorce an abusive husband. However, even at the end of the 19th century in France, women were forced to cover their heads in public. In parts of Germany, men even had the right to sell their wives. Women did not even gain the right to vote in Europe and in most of the United States till the mid-20th century. They were also prevented from conducting business without a male representative (husband, brother or even son). Women had little to no access to education, and they were also deprived of the ability to practice most professions not only to reserve more employment opportunities for men but also because women’s work threatened men who had long held economic power. In some parts of the world, these restrictions continue to happen until today. For example, in all countries in the Middle East and North Africa there are many restrictive laws in which they do not provide for equal inheritance rights for sons and daughters. With the help of feminism, many attempts have been made to close the gender gap concerning property rights. Still, there is much more to be done.
The Waves of Feminism
The Feminism Movement can be divided into three distinct ‘waves’, which are time periods aimed to raise women’s status in society and give them equal rights.
The First Wave of feminism occurred in the 19th and early 20th century. This phase revolved around gaining basic legal rights for women, with suffrage, the right of women to vote in elections, as the goal of the movement. Many organizations were established to fulfill this cause, like the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and the National Woman’s Party (NWP). Parades, marches, and manifestations were conducted to demonstrate the need for the right to vote. And after many attempts, the Nineteenth Amendment was endorsed by all states in the USA. The Amendment declared, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex” and it ended The First Wave of feminism that laid the groundwork for future feminists and played a crucial role in giving women basic legal rights.
The Second wave took place in the 1960s till the 1980s. This phase was a reaction to women returning to their roles as housewives and mothers at the end of World War II, after working and being independent during the war. Women didn’t want to resume these roles and become dependents again and hence led to the Second Wave of feminism. This movement focused on both public and private injustices that were highly prevalent during that time like issues of rape, domestic violence, and workplace safety. Women became more organized and more involved in protests for equality compared to the first wave, by creating local, state, and federal feminist organizations. This wave achieved many victories like the 1967 Executive Order that gave full affirmative rights to women and banned discrimination on the basis of gender in hiring and employment in the United States, and the Women’s Educational Equity of 1972 and 1974 that provided greater educational equality. The Second Wave of feminism is considered as a hugely successful movement that achieved many victories leading to greater equality between genders.
The Third Wave extends from the 1990s to the present. This movement was a response to perceived failures of the Second Wave where it mainly focuses on reproductive rights for women. It lays emphasis on a woman’s right to make her own choices about her body and states that it is a basic right to have access to birth control and abortion. The Third Wave is different from the First and Second Waves because it spread further into pop culture and media. Girl bands such as Riot Grrrl spread messages of female empowerment and started discussions about patriarchy and body image through punk rock and among teenagers listening to their music. The results of this wave have been slow and steady with The Family Medical Leave Act which allows employees to take unpaid leave for family and medical emergencies becoming the law in 1993. Further, The Violence Against Women Act was passed in 1995, which achieves justice for women who face abuse because it adresses domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking. It also makes Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) a federal crime and provides grants to states for programs that prevent violence against women or provide services for victims of violence. These are significant achievements in the Third Wave.
The Importance of Feminism for Men and Women:
We live in a world in which genders are far from equal, which harms males and females equally. The entire point of feminism is to lift women up to the same level of men. While many people believe that feminism is a positive movement that continues to bring affirmative changes into our communities, some people still aren’t convinced. The importance of feminism for men relies on a simple fact, and that is that the concept of equality is not endangering, and never has been. Men won’t lose rights if women gain more; it’ll simply allow them to work with the opposite gender. For years, women have lived globally, both from strangers and within their close relationships, in a sense of constant fear that their physical safety might be risked. Hopefully, feminism is beginning to change that.
The fight for gender equity is everybody’s responsibility, and that means that feminism too, is for everybody. Today, it’s even more difficult to trace the history of feminism, since it tackled various issues through the years. Today’s feminists are obligated to learn about those who have shaped the world they live in now, as well as acknowledge those who have been marginalized in the past, for their work is still essential, and feminism still has a long way to go.