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Feminism 101: Definition, Facts, and Ways to Take Action

Feminism refers to a range of ideas and socio-political movements centered on the belief that women face unequal treatment because of their gender, and that society must establish equality of the sexes.

Feminism believes all sexes and genders deserve equal economic, social, and political rights and freedoms. For centuries, feminist movements have sought to improve the status of women and girls in society through campaigns such as the right to vote, the pro-choice and reproductive freedom movements, and the right to equal pay. In this article, we’ll explore everything you need to know about the basics of feminism, including its definition, important facts, and how people can take action.

What’s the definition of feminism?

At its core, feminism is about equality of the sexes. However, because feminism refers to the full range of ideas and socio-political movements that have developed over the years, a more accurate definition is more complex. To get a clearer view, let’s consider the phases (often known as “waves”) of feminism.

The first wave

There have always been people fighting for women’s rights, but the term “feminism” or “feminisme” in the original French, wasn’t coined until 1837. Utopian Socialist Charles Fourier was the first to associate the term with women’s rights. By the 1890s, the term was popular in America and Great Britain, but the first wave of feminism had already begun. In America, Great Britain, and New Zealand, activists were pushing for voting rights for women. In 1893, New Zealand gave some women the vote in national elections. In 1920, America followed, and then Great Britain in 1928.

The second wave

Feminism always included diverse groups of women, but white women had gotten the most attention as feminism’s figureheads. In the 1960s and 70s, that started to shift with the Civil Rights movement, the fight for reproductive rights, the fight for equal pay, and the establishment of more women’s studies departments at universities. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act in the US finally gave all Black Americans the full right to vote, while in 1973, the Supreme Court ruled that abortion was a constitutional right. While the first wave of feminism focused on voting rights for a select group of women, the second wave expanded the definition of feminism to include economic rights for all women.

The third wave

Rebecca Walker, daughter of Alice Walker, coined the phrase “third wave” after watching the 1991 Anita Hill hearings, where Hill, a lawyer, testified that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her. The hearings drew attention to the lack of protection still facing women in the workplace and society at large. After Clarence Thomas was confirmed, a record number of women entered politics. The “riot grrl movement” was also vital to third-wave feminism. Feminist musicians began exploring topics like sexism, abuse, racism, sexuality, and more through their music.

While the third wave was less cohesive than the first and second waves, it built on what came before and emphasized the work still to be done.

Feminism today

The waves of feminism are very Western-focused, so they don’t represent a perfect encapsulation of feminism. In many places, women and girls still lack the basic rights others take for granted, such as the right to an education and full voting rights. Globally, women are also facing increased threats to reproductive freedom, even in places where progress has been won. In response to these worldwide threats and with the help of new technologies and literature, the feminism of today is intersectional, inclusive, anti-racist, and multicultural.

What five facts should everyone know about feminism?

People have been writing books and articles about feminism and feminist ideas since the 1800s, but here are the five most important facts everyone should know:

#1. Feminism is not about hating men

Feminism as it’s represented in mainstream media can seem like it’s about hating men. There are countless jokes and memes making fun of men and claiming everything would be better if women were in charge. While this type of commentary is often an ironic response to the centuries of hatred and harm women have endured, it can muddy the definition of feminism. Feminism is not about switching the power hierarchy so women are in charge and men are beneath them. It’s about equal rights and freedoms. When men have been prioritized for so long, any change can feel like an attack, but the reality is, feminism wants to make things equal and fair.

#2. Feminism has racism in its history

Feminism is about equality, but certain branches of feminism have not always taken that seriously. During the suffrage era, wealthy white feminists were only interested in the rights of other wealthy white women. They did not consider Black women equals. This trend has continued today, leading to critiques of “white feminism.” This is a type of feminism that centers the needs and goals of white women while ignoring the multi-faceted oppression faced by women of color. Since the 1990s, intersectional feminism (a term coined in 1989) has sought to explain and address the layers of oppression women of color and other minoritized communities deal with.

#3. Feminism wants to make systemic changes

Feminism wants to address the cultural worldviews and everyday interactions that amplify and sustain sexist attitudes, but systemic change is just as important. That includes changing workplace policies, economic legislation, and other structural institutions that prioritize men, limit women’s rights, and reinforce heteronormative, restrictive gender roles. As an example, a feminist approach to childcare and maternity leave must include paternity leave. Only providing maternity leave reinforces the false belief that mothers alone are responsible for caregiving and child-rearing, while fathers don’t play a significant role. Systemic changes tackle gender inequality and discrimination at the root.

#4. Anyone can be a feminist

Feminism isn’t a worldview only women can hold and promote. Anyone who believes in equality of the sexes and women’s liberation is a feminist. While not everyone identifies with the term “feminist” (“womanist” is the preferred term for many Black feminists and other feminists of color), the sentiment remains true. People of all genders can be feminists and fight for equal rights and freedoms. Why would someone not consider themselves a feminist? It’s often because they have a specific definition in mind. Some people believe feminism promotes a victim complex, a hatred of men, or a hatred for women who chose to be wives and mothers. If everyone understood the true definition of feminism, very few people would find fault with it.

#5. The world still needs feminism

After the victories of the second-wave feminist movement, many people believed we didn’t need feminism anymore. The third wave was a direct response to this belief, but even today, some still question the need for a strong feminist movement. You only need to glance around the world to see why it’s still vital. Reproductive rights are under attack, COVID-19 set back gender equality significantly, women are leaving the workforce, and women perform 2.5 times more unpaid labor than men. According to the Global Gender Gap Index, there are still major gaps in political empowerment, as well as economic participation and opportunity. No country has reached total gender equality, while some are experiencing declines. As long as there’s still work to be done, the world needs feminism.

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How can you take action to support feminism?

If you believe in gender equality, what can you do to support feminist values? Here are five ways to take action:

#1. Donate to gender equality organizations

There are hundreds if not thousands of organizations committed to gender equality. Some focus exclusively on the rights of women and girls, while others prioritize gender equality among other goals. You can donate to organizations supporting education, healthcare, water and sanitation, food security, employment, legal protections, and much more. Websites like Charity Navigator, Charity Watch, and GuideStar can help you find organizations that align with your values.

#2. Educate yourself

Education alone doesn’t change the status quo, but if you want to get more involved in feminist movements, you should understand its history, its major figures, its ideas, and so on. You can find books by searching for curated lists online and by typing “feminism” into online retailers like Bookshop.org. There are also great essays, videos, courses and other feminist content available online.

#3. Focus on local feminist issues

While technology lets you give money to just about any organization in the world, you can have the most direct impact by focusing on local issues. No matter where you live, there will be something you can do to help improve the state of gender equality in your community. Check for local organizations and grassroots groups. They’ll run a variety of campaigns throughout the year but will accept money at any time.

#4. Volunteer or work for a feminist organization

Organizations need money for their operations, but they need people, too. Employees and volunteers are the lifeblood of feminist organizations; without them, progress is impossible. Connect with local organizations if you’re able to do in-person work, and if you can’t, look for organizations that use remote volunteers or employees. Even if you’re only able to volunteer during a limited timeframe or for a specific campaign, it makes a difference.

#5. Support women in politics

Despite some progress in many countries, women are underrepresented in politics. You can take action by supporting organizations dedicated to empowering women in politics, voting for candidates with good track records on gender equality, and donating to female candidates who reflect your values. Remember, not every female politician will support policies that advocate for gender equality and feminism. You should always research a candidate before supporting them.

About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.

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