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What is Feminism?

Feminism has many definitions depending on who you ask, but Britannica provides a simple framework: it’s the belief in the social, economic, and political equality of the sexes. No one should be refused certain rights – such as the right to vote, to hold political office, and to work outside the home – because of their sex or gender. Feminism goes beyond basic rights, however, and seeks deeper cultural shifts like an end to sexism and intersectional oppression based on gender, race, sexuality, and class. In this article, we’ll cover a brief history of feminism, different types of feminism, and whether we still need feminism today.

At its core, feminism is the belief that women deserve equal social, economic, and political rights and freedoms. Over the years, feminism has focused on issues like the right to vote, reproductive and sexual freedom, and equal pay. Feminism has also explored racism, gender norms, self-expression, and much more.

A history of feminist movements

There have always been cultures where women held power, like ancient Sparta where women could own and inherit property, make business transactions, and receive a good education. There have also always been women who fought back against patriarchal cultures. However, “feminism” as we know it is a fairly new concept. Mary Wollstonecraft published “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” in 1792, and while she’s considered a feminist icon today, that term wasn’t applied in her time. The term became more well-known in the 1890s in Great Britain and America.

This is when “the first wave” of feminism began to surge. The movement was closely tied with abolitionist movements and focused on suffrage. In 1848, at the Seneca Falls Convention, three hundred attendants agreed on the movement’s goals and strategies. Around the world, women’s rights slowly began to improve. In 1893, New Zealand allowed women to vote in the national elections. The US gave women the right to vote in 1920 while Great Britain followed in 1928.

The second wave began in the 1960s. It was aligned with the anti-war and Civil Rights movements. Reproductive rights and issues related to sexuality also became more prominent. Feminism became more intellectually diverse and complex during these years, as well. Capitalism, the role of women, sexuality, and gender were all discussed as feminist movements around the world became less elitist and more inclusive than during the first wave.

Third-wave feminism is trickier to define, but it both built on and challenged what second-wave feminism started. Third-wave feminism embraced individuality, irony, and the right to self-expression, which included attire and cosmetics their second-wave mothers might have considered oppressive and sexist. The internet played a big role during this era, as well, as it helped spread creative, multicultural feminist content. With its diversity of ideas, third-wave feminism represents a less cohesive movement than the first and second waves.

Are we in the fourth wave of feminism? The wave metaphors are not perfect, but given massive shifts in societies around the world, it’s safe to say that feminism is in a different era compared to the 1990s-2010s. There have been renewed attacks against women’s rights, especially reproductive rights, while the rise of social media gave feminist activists more tools. The fourth wave also represents the most diverse and inclusive version of feminism so far.

Consider taking an online course on Feminism and Social Justice to learn more.

Feminism: three main types

Feminism may seem simple at its core, but there are many different types. Here are three of the main ones to know:

Liberal feminism

Liberal feminism is what most people think of when they hear the word “feminist.” It can also be described as “mainstream feminism.” As defined by philosopher Alison Jagger, liberal feminism focuses on political rights and equality in education and the workplace. That includes issues like equal access to education, equal pay, safer working conditions, and an end to job segregation based on sex. Liberal feminism is also concerned with private life as the distribution of unpaid work at home impacts a woman’s ability to participate in public life. In the United States, liberal feminists focused on the Equal Rights Amendment, which would have amended the constitution to ensure legal gender equality. Feminists worked on the ERA in the 1960s and 1970s, but it was never ratified by enough states.

Over the years, liberal feminism has faced criticism on how it measures success and equality by patriarchal standards and fails to analyze gender, race, and class. Liberal feminism can also fail to challenge institutional power and end up reinforcing destructive capitalist cycles. With its focus on what individual women can do to “get ahead,” liberal feminism often fails some of society’s most vulnerable.

Radical feminism

As the name suggests, radical feminism is more aggressive. It focuses on dismantling the patriarchy and traditional gender roles by ensuring reproductive rights, critiquing the nuclear family and motherhood, and challenging institutional power. Rather than trying to change things through established systems, radical feminists are more inclined to change the systems themselves. The movement rose during the 1960s when women in the anti-war and Civil Rights movements found themselves sidelined. Many activists founded feminist groups and embraced more radical ideas.

Today, radical feminism is often linked to trans-exclusionary radical feminism, which denies that trans women are real women. The term “TERF” originated in the 1970s when radical feminists began to split over support of trans women. Trans-exclusionary radical feminists also call themselves “gender critical.” Because of the negative connotations, feminists who support trans women tend to not identify as radical feminists.

Intersectional feminism

Intersectional feminism examines how sexism, racism, classism, and xenophobia intersect and form systems of oppression. It counters “white feminism,” which by ignoring racial oppression, can support white supremacy. White feminism was born during feminism’s earliest days as the most famous figureheads – like Elizabeth Cady Stanton- only cared about suffrage for white women. The suffragettes also excluded poor, working women and dismissed issues involving wages, working hours, and unions.

There have always been feminists embracing and advocating for intersectional thinking, but the term “intersectionality” was coined in a 1989 paper. In the paper, critical legal and race scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw showed how the intersection of race and gender impacted the experiences of Black men and women in the legal system. Sociologist Patricia Hill Collins’ 1990 book Black Feminist Thought is another essential text on intersectionality and how oppression based on race, gender, class, sexuality, and nation forms what Collins calls “a matrix of domination.” Today, intersectional feminism continues to broaden society’s ideas about feminism, power, and oppression.

Does the world still need feminism?

Is feminism still necessary in today’s world? When we look at women’s rights globally, it’s obvious we do. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2022 Global Gender Gap Report, it will take 132 years to reach full gender parity. The COVID-19 pandemic did not help improve women’s rights as women and girls felt the economic impacts harder, had their unpaid work increase, endured more gender-based violence, and experienced more stress. Women are also more affected by climate change, especially in rural areas. In certain places – like some African countries – men have to travel further to find work while women stay behind to run the household, take care of kids, and protect their land. However, their authority may not be protected by law. When women are given more power, however, they make more sustainable decisions, improve food security, and reduce energy demands.

In some areas, feminist movements are met with brutal violence. On September 16, 2022, 22-year-old Mahsa Amini was detained by Iran’s morality police. She died in custody. Her death sparked one of the largest protest movements since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Led primarily by women, the protests demanded equality and an end to Iran’s oppressive government. Protestors in the Kurdish provinces (Mash Amini was Kurdish) have been especially brave as women remove their hijabs in the streets and cut off their hair. The government response has been violent. According to Human Rights Activists, at least 328 people have been killed – including children – while almost 15,000 have been arrested. The protests in Iran are just one example of a feminist movement facing significant backlash.

Has feminism “won” anywhere?

In certain places, the need for feminism and support for feminist movements is clear. However, what about countries where feminists have supposedly “won,” like the United States? The reality is not as victorious as some might hope. In 2017, writer and editor Amy Alexander wrote a piece for NPR critiquing feminism’s enduring focus on white women and marketing over substance. Alexander writes that feminism seems “more concerned with promoting superficial trappings of genuine equality than with doing the tough work required to address the hard, cold facts of gender and racial inequality.”

Writer Moira Donegan also delves into this shallow, shiny feminism in her newsletter “Not the Fun Kind” and piece “Potemkin Feminism,” which argues that feminism’s trendiness hides the fact it doesn’t have real institutional power. Long-fought-for issues, like the gender pay gap, persist. According to Payscale’s 2022 gender pay gap report, American women earn about 82 cents for every dollar a man earns. When the report controls for job title, education, experience, hours worked, and so on, women earn 99 cents for every dollar a man earns. Race impacts the pay gap, as well; Black women are most likely to be paid less even when they have the same level of experience and the same job as a white man. In 2022, feminism’s lack of real power was perhaps made most clear when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. No society has truly reached equality. Even in places where significant gains have been made, feminism is far from irrelevant.

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.