Feminist Theory

What is feminism?

In its simplest form, feminism refers to a collection of movements and theories that aim for the equality of all genders. 

“All genders?”, we hear you ask. Although women have pioneered the feminist movement, believe it or not, the movement does actually involve the entirety of our society. It just so happens that women and marginalised genders have been the oppressed group throughout the majority of history, meaning that when fighting for equality, it feels like women and marginalised genders are gaining from the movement more than men. This has led to a variety of misconceptions about feminists: for example, that they hate men. But essentially, if you believe that women and marginalised genders should have equal rights in society and be treated with respect and dignity, then we’re pleased to say that you are a feminist.

What do you actually mean by equality, though?

The word equality is often thrown around when discussing feminism; ‘equality of opportunity’ and ‘equality of outcome’ are just a couple of the phrases that too often get violently tossed around from debater to debatee. But what does it actually mean? What does it tangibly look like? 

The basic definition of equality is that everyone has the same rights, access and opportunities within political, societal, economic and personal spheres (basically every part of society).

Okay, so in relation to feminism, equality means…?

Feminism holds the belief that women are treated unjustly within these spheres and that men’s voices, needs, and perspectives hold most of this space and are prioritised above the voices, needs, and perspectives of women and marginalised genders. This setup is refered to as the patriarchy: a societal system largely run for and by men, that generally empowers men and excludes women.

This belief is largely dictated by experience; for centuries, women have faced unjust treatment from lack of legal rights to cultural and social norms that disadvantage or threaten us. In more recent years, when women were finally given (or perhaps more accurately, claimed) a seat at the table, we have been able to quantify a lot of this experience through studies and data. Before this, all we knew was the feeling of oppression, often validated by the recognition of a shared experience between women. Fighting for gender equality in these spheres means removing the barriers, behaviours and attitudes that cause this oppression. 

Photo by Nationaal Archief via Flickr

Where did feminism come from?

For a long time in many parts of the world, women have had their lives and experiences dictated by the morality, beliefs and decisions that men chose for them. It was very difficult to question this reality, let alone change it, but for as long as this oppression has existed, there has been resistance against it. In many ways, this makes feminism much older than its “conception” in the early 1830s, when French philosopher Charles Fourier first coined the term. 

That is why – though an important figure when discussing feminism – we will not linger too long on Fourier. Though he was the first to attribute the concept of women’s oppression to a single piece of the lexicon, he was certainly not the first to acknowledge it. We may never truly be able to accurately pinpoint the moment in time when the oppression of women was articulated or by whom, and that is why it’s important that we adopt a global way of thinking about it rather than the all too common and linear Western perspective. There have been many stories, publications and manifestos from across the globe that acknowledge the oppression of women before Charles Fourier was even a twinkle in Mrs. Fouriers’ eye.

Throughout history, the thread of feminism has been woven into the fabric of societies across the globe, each with its own unique pattern of struggle and advocacy. It doesn’t just have one single origin story, illustrating that the quest for gender equality is as diverse as humanity itself. 

In ancient India, for example, women were revered as scholars and sages, contributing to the spiritual and intellectual life of their communities. Meanwhile, the Islamic world offered rights to women in the 7th century that were groundbreaking for their time, in areas such as inheritance and education. The Iroquois Confederacy, with its matrilineal structure, empowered women in ways that European settlers could scarcely comprehend. And in the Imperial courts of China, women of the Tang Dynasty wielded influence both in literature and in the halls of power. 

These examples, and countless others, serve as a reminder that the struggle for women’s rights is not a narrative confined to any one time or place. It is a global story, marked by both victories and setbacks, a journey towards equality that transcends borders and epochs.

Okay, we’ve talked about the ideology and history, but what about the actual feminist movement as we know it today?

We are most familiar with the feminist movement first being driven by the infamous suffragettes, and it is true that this was the driving force behind the biggest changes to legislation and policy regarding gender we have ever seen in the Western world. 

The suffragettes, active mainly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, were instrumental in advocating for women’s right to vote. This movement, marked by both peaceful protests and more militant tactics, was led by key figures like Emmeline Pankhurst in the UK and Susan B. Anthony in the US. Their relentless campaigning, public demonstrations, and sometimes confrontational methods significantly contributed to major legislative changes, granting women voting rights in various parts of the Western world. This period laid the groundwork for subsequent waves of feminism, each evolving to address broader issues of gender equality beyond the right to vote, connecting to the ongoing journey of feminism today.

So, there are loads of different types of feminism? What do the waves mean?

Well, there are so many different types of women and expressions of gender, so naturally, there is not one just understanding or practice of feminism. That is why it’s important to consider the term ‘feminism’ as more of an umbrella term for a variety of localized and specific theories of feminism. Many theories of feminism emerged from the political, cultural and class events of different eras and areas of the world; other theories were born out of a response to an existing feminist ideology; and some feminist ideologies have evolved over the years as the rights of women and society have progressed. 

The ‘waves’ of feminism are a condensed metaphor for understanding the general history of feminism of the past 200 years in the Western world – the waves help us identify and keep track of this history. 

Starting from the suffragette movement, the first wave focused on obtaining legal equality, notably voting rights. The second wave, from the 1960s to the 1980s, tackled broader issues like workplace equality and reproductive rights. The third wave in the 1990s introduced more diversity, questioning the binary view of gender, and embracing intersectionality. Alongside these waves, various facets of feminism emerged, including radical, queer, socialist, intersectional and eco-feminisms, each adding depth and breadth to the conversation about gender equality and social justice.

Oh yes, I hear people use the word intersectional all the time. What does it really mean?

Intersectionality means looking at how different parts of who you are – like your race, gender, or where you come from – affect the way that you’re treated. In 1989, advocate and scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw came up with this idea to help us understand that some people face more challenges because they belong to more than one marginalised group. It’s like saying not everyone has the same experience or struggles, and we need to pay attention to everyone’s stories.

Crenshaw famously said in her TEDWomen talk The Urgency of Intersectionality: “If you’re standing in the path of multiple forms of exclusion, you’re likely to get hit by both.” This captures the essence of intersectionality perfectly. We believe intersectionality is crucial to feminism today because progress for all women can’t happen if we leave some behind. For example, the experiences of black women and white women within the movement are different, and acknowledging these differences is key to achieving real change. Understanding and addressing the unique challenges faced by each group ensures no one is left out of our fight for equality.

Photo of Kimberlé Crenshaw by Lafayette College via Flickr

Everything seems so much better now, though. Do we still need feminism?

We have come a long way in terms of gender equality and we often forget to celebrate the wins and milestones we have achieved. However, we unfortunately still have a long way to go. All you need to do is look at the statistics, read a couple of studies and talk to the women around you to realise that inequalities and challenges still persist in pay, opportunities, representation, and rights for women and marginalised genders all over the world.

Okay, so feminism seems pretty important and still relevant. Why do some people critique it?

When exploring the criticisms of feminism, we feel the need to establish once more the diversity that is the feminist movement. More often than not, many critiques target a particular facet of the many feminisms that exist today. 

In short, people simply have different opinions about feminism and critique it for various reasons – and some critiques are much more valid than others. Many critiques come from people who feel uncomfortable with the changes feminism aims to bring about, especially if they feel these changes might challenge their traditional views or personal benefits. For instance, some people might resent traditional roles changing – their problem stems from women no longer being forced into traditional housewife roles where they are made to do domestic labour that often only benefits men. 

Yet many criticisms have been important in igniting change within the broader movement. Namely, Kimberlé Crenshaw introduced the concept of intersectionality as a critique within feminism itself, suggesting that the movement needed to do a better job of including all women, not just those from a certain race or class. This was a reminder that feminism must keep evolving and become more inclusive.

Other criticisms might target the methods some feminist groups use or disagree with certain feminist theories. Despite these critiques, it’s interesting to note that many people actually agree with the goals of feminism; they just might not be fans of a certain part of it, or sometimes even the word “feminism” itself. This disagreement over terminology doesn’t change the fact that the underlying principles of feminism, such as fairness and equality, are widely supported. It’s all about understanding that feminism, like any big idea, can always learn and grow, make room for different perspectives, and challenge itself along the way.

Why do some people not like the word feminism? Why can’t we call it equalism?

The truth is, we could debate terminology forever. As time passes, the meaning attached to certain terms can change; that is the reason for etymology. There are many incredibly valid reasons why people might not want to identify with the term, especially because it has been used exclusionarily in the past and for many, using a word coined by a man perhaps doesn’t feel the most liberating. However, many people believe that this is the one word that has united women far and wide; it is loaded with centuries of history. It has liberated and fought for our rights and it can be difficult to disassociate it from that. 

No one in this debate is wrong, and it’s completely up to you how you’d like to identify with it. That being said, the word cannot truly be separated from its history, which is why we continue to use it. 

Photo by Nicole Adams on Unsplash

What kind of feminist am I?

Hopefully, by now, you have realised that there is no one way to be a feminist, just like there is no one way to be a woman. Feminism can look different for everyone; what’s important is that we are all united by some common goals – equality, justice and the end to gendered oppression. But if you would like to know what facet of feminism most aligns with your belief system, why not check out our discussion of the main theories of feminism.

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