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Introduction Back to Top

Feminism comprises a number of egalitarian social, cultural and political movements, theories and moral philosophies concerned with gender inequalities and equal rights for women. It is the doctrine advocating social, political and all other rights for women which are equal to those of men.

Feminist political activists have been concerned with issues such as a woman's right of contract and property; a woman's right to bodily integrity and autonomy (e.g. on matters such as reproductive rights, abortion rights, access to contraception and quality prenatal care); women's rights to protection from domestic violence, sexual harassment and rape; women's workplace rights (e.g. maternity leave, equal pay, glass ceiling practices, etc); and opposition to all other forms of discrimination.

Feminist Theory is an extension of Feminism into theoretical or philosophical fields, such as anthropology, sociology, economics, women's studies, literary criticism, art history, psychoanalysis and philosophy. It aims to understand gender inequality and focuses on gender politics, power relations and sexuality, as well as the promotion of women's rights and interests.

Political philosophies such as Socialism, Marxism, Communism and Anarchism all support the principles of Feminism to some degree, as they do all forms of Egalitarianism. In principle, modern representative democracies also enshrine women' rights, although the extent to which such rights are observed in practice is arguable.

In exposing the "mask of masculinity" that Philosophy has always worn, Feminism has helped to undermine many of the certainties that Philosophy has often aspired to. Some feminists argue that a whole new language (a women's language) must be developed in order to rethink the whole of Philosophy.

History of Feminism Back to Top

The history of the Feminist movement can be divided into three "waves":

  • First-Wave Feminism refers mainly to the women's suffrage movements (political reform movements aimed at extending the right to vote to women) of the 19th Century and early 20th Century, especially in Britain and the United States.

    Perhaps the first major figure of Feminism was the 18th Century British writer Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 - 1797). Her "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman" of 1792 can be seen as a feminist declaration of independence to mirror Thomas Paine's 1791 "The Rights of Man". She took the liberal doctrine of inalienable human rights and applied them to women, at the time a bold and controversial step.

    John Stuart Mill later brought the idea of women’s suffrage up in his election platform of 1865 (still highly controversial), and was later joined by numerous men and women fighting for the same cause. The 19th Century Suffragette movement in Britain, headed by Emmeline Pankhurst (1858 - 1928) carried out direct actions (such as chaining themselves to railings, setting fire to the contents of mailboxes, smashing windows and even, on occasions, setting off bombs). One suffragette, Emily Davison (1872 - 1913), died after she stepped out in front of the King's horse at the Epsom Derby of 1913, and many others were imprisoned and went on hunger strikes. In the United States, leaders of the movement included Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815 - 1902) and Susan B. Anthony (1820 - 1906), both of whom campaigned for the abolition of slavery prior to championing women's right to vote.

    During World War I, a serious shortage of able-bodied men occurred, and women were required to take on many traditional male roles, which led to a new view of what a woman was capable of doing. In Britain, the 1918 Representation of the People Act was passed granting the vote to women over the age of 30 who owned houses, and in 1928 this was finally extended to all women over eighteen. In the United States, First-Wave Feminism is considered to have ended with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1919, granting women the right to vote in all states. However, New Zealand had been the first self-governing country in the world to grant women the vote when, in 1893, all women over the age of 21 were permitted to vote in parliamentary elections.

  • Second-Wave Feminism refers to a period of feminist activity from the mid 1960s through the late 1970s, and is associated with the women's liberation movement and the struggle to end discrimination. Second-Wave feminists saw cultural and political inequalities as inextricably linked, and encouraged women to understand aspects of their personal lives as deeply politicized ("the personal is political") as well as reflective of a sexist structure of power and stereotyping.

    This new wave of feminist thought was initiated by the seminal 1949 book "Le Deuxième Sexe" ("The Second Sex") by the French Existentialist Simone de Beauvoir (1908 - 1986). As an Existentialist, she accepted the precept that existence precedes essence and that therefore one is not born a woman, but becomes one, but her Feminist Existentialism in "The Second Sex" prescribes a moral revolution. She questioned philosophy's lack of understanding of the historical and specific nature of women's oppression. She questioned how, if everyone possessed the freedom to make decisions and the capactiy to take existential "leaps into the unknown" as Existentialism suggested, the endless oppression of women could be explained. Did men choose to oppress women, or was the freedom to choose actually illusory (especially for women themselves)? Beauvoir argued that women have historically been considered as the "Other", as a deviation from the normal, as outsiders attempting to emulate male "normality", and that this attitude necessarily limited women's success. She believed that for Feminism to move forward, this assumption must be set aside.

    Betty Friedan's influential "The Feminine Mystique", published in 1963, criticized the idea that women could only find fulfillment through childrearing and homemaking, which was especially common among post-World War II middle-class suburban communities. The Second Wave period saw advancements in women's education and career prospects, and the legal end to discrimination in the workplace in many countries, including the Equal Rights Amendment to the United States Constitution of 1972. Many feminists saw the the famous Roe vs. Wade case of 1973, which effectively legalized abortion in the U.S., as a significant victory

  • Third-Wave Feminism began in the early 1990s, arising as a response to perceived failures of the Second Wave, and also as a response to the backlash against some of initiatives and movements created by the Second Wave. It seeks to challenge what it deems the Second Wave's essentialist definitions of femininity (which they argue over-emphasize the experiences of upper middle-class white women). Third-Wave Feminism has also sparked off debates between "difference feminists" (who believe that there are important differences between the sexes), and those who believe that there are no inherent differences between the sexes and contend that gender roles are due to social conditioning.

Types of Feminism Back to Top
  • Radical Feminism considers the capitalist hierarchy of society, which it describes as sexist and male-based, as the defining feature of women’s oppression. Most Radical Feminists see no alternatives other than the total uprooting and reconstruction of society in order to overthrow patriarchy and achieve their goals.

  • Separatist Feminism is a form of Radical Feminism, which argues that the sexual disparities between men and women are unresolvable, that men cannot make positive contributions to the feminist movement, and that even well-intentioned men replicate patriarchal dynamics.

  • Sex-Positive Feminism is a response to anti-pornography feminists who argue that heterosexual pornography is a central cause of women's oppression, and that sexual freedom (which may or may not involve a woman's ight to participate in heterosexual pornography) is an essential component of women's freedom.

  • Anarcha-Feminism (or Anarchist Feminism) is another offshoot of Radical Feminism and combines Feminist and Anarchist beliefs in which patriarchy is viewed as a manifestation of hierarchy so that the fight against patriarchy is an essential part of the class struggle and the Anarchist struggle against the state.

  • Black Feminism (or Womanism) argues that sexism, class oppression and racism are inextricably bound together. Alice Walker and other Womanists claim that black women experience a different and more intense kind of oppression from that of white women.

  • Socialist Feminism (or Marxist Feminism) connects the oppression of women to Marxist ideas about exploitation, oppression and labour. Socialist Feminists see the need to work alongside men and all other groups, and to focus their energies on broad change that affects society as a whole, and not just on an individual basis.

  • Liberal Feminism (or Individualist Feminism) seeks the equality of men and women through political and legal reform. Liberal Feminists see the personal individual interactions between men and women as the place from which to transform society and argue that no major change to the structure of society is needed.

  • French Feminism (or Post-Structural Feminism) tends to be more philosophical and more literary, than the more pragmatic Anglophone Feminism. It is less concerned with immediate political doctrine and generally focuses on theories of "the body". The 1949 treatise "The Second Sex" by the French author and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir (1908 - 1986) is a foundational tract of contemporary Feminism, in which she sets out a feminist Existentialism which prescribes a moral revolution and focuses on the concept of Woman as the quintessential Other, which de Beauvoir identifies as fundamental to women's oppression.

  • Eco-Feminism links Feminism with ecology, arguing that the domination of women stems from the same patriarchal ideologies that bring about the domination and destruction of the environment.

  • Christian Feminism is a branch of feminist theology which seeks to interpret and understand Christianity in light of the equality of women and men, which has been largely ignored historically.

  • Pro-Feminism refers to support of Feminism without implying that the supporter is a member of the feminist movement. It is usually used in reference to men who are actively supportive of Feminism and of efforts to bring about gender equality.

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