Feminism is a complex set of ideologies and theories, but on the most rudimentary level, its goal is to achieve equal social, political, and economic rights for women. The first wave of feminism, at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, focused mainly on women’s voting rights and property rights. Then came the second wave of feminism and the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1960s, which focused on issues beyond the legal status of women to include sexuality, reproductive rights, gender roles, and patriarchal attitudes and culture. So where are we now?
Before the late 19th Century women were often taken for granted and were not seen to be as capable as men. At that time, it seemed very natural to the society that men had more power and strength than women, and it was believed that women weren’t meant for the outside world, or to get an education or be employed.
A Brief History of Feminist Goals
In his classic Republic, Plato advocated the belief that women possess “natural capacities” equal to men for governing and defending ancient Greece which was quite a controversial statement at that time. Needless to say, people didn’t agree with him; when the women staged a massive protest over the Oppian Law, which restricted women’s access to gold and other goods, Roman consul Marcus Porcius Cato argued, “As soon as they begin to be your equals, they will have become your superiors!” (Despite Cato’s fears, the law was repealed.)
In The Book of the City of Ladies, the 15th-century writer Christine de Pizan protested the widespread misogyny and the role of women in the Middle Ages. A few years later, during the Enlightenment, writers, and philosophers like Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, widely argued for greater equality for women.
Nowadays, it is very easy for people to dismiss the need for feminism because the said ‘big issues’ have been dealt with, but there is still so much discrimination against women out there. And ‘out there’ doesn’t mean all the way over there, where it can’t get you and you don’t need to worry about it. Women are still hugely under-represented in politics and clearly, any female political representation shows we have clearly, come a long way since the feminist movement began, but we have not come far enough. Not by a long shot.
A recent study conducted for Springer’s journal of Law and Human Behaviour concluded that 90% of women have suffered sexual discrimination in the workplace including offensive sexist remarks or being told they could not do their job properly due to their sex. Also, the study found that 10% of women had been promised promotions or better treatment if they were ‘sexually cooperative’.
These feminist movements have largely impacted women’s roles in society greatly and today women can get an education and work easily. However, although women have the same rights as men in documents, there still is widespread discrimination towards women in modern society. For instance, although women make up to half of the world’s working population, they are still being paid less than men.
The number of women facing sexual assault is much higher than men, and also the unrealistic expectations for women’s physical appearance and behaviour, still stand. Unfortunately, even though the actions against these still continue, in the eyes of people of different sexes, the word feminism now means something completely different than what it did earlier.
Over the years, feminism evolved and became more common as an idea and movement, it also started to be considered as a negative movement. Pat Robertson had once described it as “a socialist, anti-family, political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians.’’ Eventually, the stereotype for a feminist has become an ugly, uptight, aggressive, harsh, demanding, and man-hating woman and it started to be considered as a negative movement towards men. For example, 82% of both men and women believe that the two genders should have equal rights, only 23% of women and 16% of men consider themselves to actually be feminists.
Feminists of the third wave talk so much about that buzzword, intersectionality. What that means is that if feminism to stay relevant in today’s changing world, it has to intersect with other social and political causes. It has to be a global movement that takes into account the full diversity of women’s experiences, and not simply assume that the educated white woman’s experience is universal.
It is about fairness and understanding. About realizing and celebrating the differences between men and women, because they are there even on the most basic biological level but these differences do not instantly make one weaker than the other.
Finally, it is simply about giving women the recognition they deserve, which is due, and appreciating them as equal members of society and giving them a little RESPECT. Is that too much to ask?
The trouble is that sexism is so embedded in all of our lives that it’s easy to not see it, to just take it for granted that that’s the way things are or that it’s natural somehow. We need to stop making excuses. We need to stop turning a blind eye to things that are obviously wrong. People instantly tend to assume that feminism is some kind of doltish, extremist movement. It really isn’t.
More recently, feminists have pointed to prominent cases of sexual assault and ‘rape culture’ as emblematic of the work still to be done in combating misogyny and ensuring women have equal rights. The #MeToo movement gained new prominence in October 2017, when the New York Times published a damning investigation into allegations of sexual harassment made against influential film producer Harvey Weinstein. Many more women resultantly came forward with allegations against many other powerful men—including US President Donald Trump.
The #metoo movement was promoted by a Black American actress Alyssa Milano who was working to give a voice to sexual abuse victims. The movement soon found support among famous Hollywood actors like Gwyneth Paltrow, Ashley Judd, Jennifer Lawrence, and Uma Thurman. The reach and impact of the movement can be assessed by the fact that Time magazine’s Person of the Year, 2017, went to ‘The Silence Breakers’- women who shared their stories about sexual assault and harassment. The magazine’s cover featured big names like Ashley Judd, Taylor Swift, Susan Fowler, Adama Iwu, and Isabel Pascual.
With equality still the underlying precedent, women were then fighting for sexual and reproductive rights. During this time, they were also condemning sexism and the degradation of women, using the Miss America pageant in 1968 as a platform. Fast forward to the current women’s movement that seems to be attempting to redefine gender roles.
In going through these phases of feminism in greater detail, you can note the generational restructuring of intent. In recent changes, one can detect some contradiction between old and new goals. While our generation exists under the same umbrella, we have drifted away from those original and justified ideals.
Gender roles are constantly changing in our society; they will always evolve and exist from generation to generation. The 1950s lifestyle of the “breadwinner” and “homemaker” has been replaced with the dual-earning households to which we have become accustomed. The social norm changed with each new age of women, and it is safe to assume that more change will come in time. That being said, development was not a solution because the lifestyle was not a problem, it was simply different. Men are not our enemy now, and they were not the enemy then.
They would never argue against the strides made during those earlier years. Women changed their roles and rose to professional equality we now enjoy. Women achieved that for themselves, and they did it while amid great adversity.
The most appropriate argument in support of the feminist movement is attempting to eradicate the gap in pay. On the other hand, there are various reasons why people get paid the amount they do. As of 1963, it is against the law to pay someone less based on his or her gender. Brown v. Board of Education was monumental yet still took years to fully implement. The majority of people believe men and women should have equal opportunity and equal pay. Therefore, the problem is largely in carrying out the widespread change.
The “woke bae” is a phenomenon that has only been perpetuated in recent years, and refers to a significant other who is feminist and progressive. The He For She initiative has also recruited men to take a stand for feminism around the world. And in recent years, men as well have recognized and come out as strong supporters of feminism.
In her famous book, How To Be A Woman, Caitlin says that if one thinks of themselves as a feminist – they must have looked at things and gone “Hey, wait a minute, life might just be better if men and women had mutual respect and appreciation for each other” or something to that effect. She says one should stand on a chair and shout as loud as you can, ‘I am a feminist!’ and, we should seriously try it sometime.
The term, Intersectional Feminism was first coined by an American professor Kimberle Crenshaw in the year 1989. It is defined as the study of overlapping or intersecting social identities and related systems of oppression, domination, or discrimination. It means that women experience instances of oppression in varying configurations and in a varying degree of intensity.
Patterns of oppression are not just interrelated but are influenced by those interrelations. For example, gender, class, race, etc. all influence each other and intersect at a point. Caste and gender are interrelated and influence each other to a great degree. There are different axes of oppression we’re talking about like caste, class, race, gender, ethnicity, ability, among others that are the most important in this context.
Still, there has been a fount of support in the ever-widening circles of the movement globally. Criticisms aside, the #MeToo movement has managed to do something that no one would have thought of – or thought possible – in this supremely divided world. There is this sense of solidarity, of compassion, of empathy that reaches out across the world and embraces women into one group hug that also seems to echo a silent acknowledgement that has still not found its way into male parlance.
Women who step up and become involved in politics are receiving more support than they ever have. These are just a few ways that feminism has evolved over the years. The feminist movement still has challenges to face and obstacles to overcome, but with every small success, we get closer to our goals of equality. Though the fight has changed, the stereotypes remain, and the cause will never die, at least not any time soon.