Encyclopedia  |   World Factbook  |   World Flags  |   Reference Tables  |   List of Lists     
   Academic Disciplines  |   Historical Timeline  |   Themed Timelines  |   Biographies  |   How-Tos     
Sponsor by The Tattoo Collection
Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index


Feminism is a social theory and political movement. Primarily informed and motivated by the experience of women, it provides a critique of gender inequality and promotes women's rights, interests and issues.

Feminist theorists aim to understand the nature of inequality and focus on gender politics, power relations and sexuality. Feminist political activists advocate for social, political, and economic equality between the sexes. They campaign on issues such as reproductive rights, domestic violence, maternity leave, equal pay, sexual harassment, discrimination and sexual violence. Themes explored in feminism include discrimination, stereotyping, objectification (especially sexual objectification), oppression and patriarchy

The basis of feminist ideology is that society is organised into a patriarchal system in which men have advantage over women.

Feminist theory is predominantly, but not exclusively, associated with western middle class academia. Feminist activism, however, is a grass roots movement which crosses class and race boundaries. It is culturally specific and addresses the issues relevant to the women of that society, for example, genital mutilation in Sudan (see also: female circumcision), or the glass ceiling in North America. Some issues, such as rape, incest, mothering, are universal.

Table of contents
1 History
2 Feminism in many forms
3 Relationship to other movements
4 Effect of Feminism in the West
5 Worldwide statistics
6 Perspective: the nature of the modern movement
7 Male feminists
8 Criticisms of feminism
9 See also
10 External links


Main article: History of feminism.
Susan B. Anthony is third from the left, front row.]]
The earliest works on 'the woman question' criticized the restrictive role of women without necessarily claiming that women were disadvantaged or that men were to blame. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, written by Mary Wollstonecraft, is one of the few works written before the 19th century that can be called feminist. By modern standards, her metaphor of women as nobility, the elite of society, coddled, fragile and in danger of intellectual and moral sloth, does not sound like a feminist argument. Wollstonecraft believed that both sexes contributed to this situation and took it for granted that women had considerable power over men.

Feminism is generally said to have begun in the 19th century as people increasingly adopted the perception that women are oppressed in a male-centered society (see patriarchy). The feminist movement is rooted in the West and especially in the reform movement of the 19th century. The organized movement is dated from the first women's rights convention at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848.

Emmeline Pankhurst was one of the founders of the suffragette movement and aimed to reveal the institutional sexism in British society, forming the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). Often the repeated jailing by the Cat and Mouse Act for trivial misdemeanours in activism, inspired members to go on hunger strikes, and because of the resultant force feeding that was the practice, caused these members to be very ill, serving to draw attention to the brutality of the legal system at the time and to further their cause.

Over a century and a half the movement has grown to include diverse perspectives on what constitutes discrimination against women. Early feminists and primary feminist movements are often called the first-wave and feminists after about 1960 the second-wave. There is a so called third-wave, but feminists disagree as to its necessity, its benefits, and its ideas. These three "waves" are called so because like ocean waves, each wave comes on top of the one before, drawing on each other.

Feminism in many forms

The name "feminism" suggests a single kind of ideology, but this has not been the case. Feminist ideas, due to the historical situation and the current legal status of women in certain countries, and many other factors, has impelled feminist ideology to move in different direction to achieve its goals. As such, there are many different kinds of feminism.

One subtype of feminism, Radical feminism, considers patriarchy to be the root cause of the most serious social problems. This form of feminism was popular in the so-called second wave (a "wave" being a large major change in general feminist ideas), though is not as prominent today, however many identify the word "feminism" to mean the ideas proposed by Radical feminism which is not the case. Some find that the prioritization of oppression and the universalization of the idea of "Woman", which was part of traditional Radical feminist thinking, was too generic, and that women in other countries would never experience the same experience of being "woman" than women in Western countries did. Instead of gender oppression, for Western women, race, or economic status, instead of gender, may be the root oppression that they may face.

Some radical feminists advocate separatism—a complete separation of male and female in society and culture—while others question not only the relationship between men and women, but the very meaning of "man" and "woman" as well (see Queer theory); some argue that gender roles, gender identity, and sexuality are themselves social constructs (see also heteronormativity). For these feminists, feminism is a primary means to human liberation (i.e., the liberation of men as well as women, and men and women from other social problems).

Other feminists believe that there may be social problems separate from or prior to patriarchy (e.g., racism or class divisions); they see feminism as one movement of liberation among many, each with effects on each other.

Major subtypes of feminism

Although many leaders of feminism have been women, not all women are feminists and not all feminists are women. Some feminists argue that men should not take positions of leadership in the movement, but most accept or seek the support of men. They argue that because men, having been socialized to aggressively seek positions of power, would naturally try and succeed in assuming positions of power within a leadership hierarchy, would make the feminist movement a male-controlled movement, and not be representative of women, contrary to feminist ideas. Compare pro-feminist, humanism, masculism.

Feminism has been principally a movement within the Western societies in the 20th century. Some limited advances have been made in some non-Western countries; but the movement has been principally Western in origin and effects. Feminists hope that their movement will have an equal effect across the rest of the world in the 21st century.

Relationship to other movements

Most feminists take a holistic approach to politics, believing the saying of Martin Luther King Jr, "A threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere". In that belief, some feminists usually support other movements such as the civil rights movement, the gay rights movement and, more recently Fathers' rights. At the same time many black feminists such as bell hooks criticise the movement for being dominated by white women. Feminist claims about the disadvantages women face in Western society are often less relevant to the lives of black women. This idea is the key in postcolonial feminism. Many black feminist women prefer the term womanism for their views.

However, Feminists are sometimes wary of the transsexual movement because they challenge the distinctions between men and women. Transsexual women are excluded from most "women-only" gatherings and events and are rejected by some feminists who say that no one born male can truly understand the oppression women face. On the other hand, transsexual women are quick to retort that the discrimination and various struggles (such as that for legal recognitions) that they face due to asserting their gender identity, more than makes up for any they may have "missed out on" growing up, and that discrimination against gender-variant people is another face of heterosexism and patriarchy.

Effect of Feminism in the West

Feminism has affected many changes in Western society, including women's suffrage; broad employment for women at more equitable wages ("equal pay for equal work"); the right to initiate divorce proceedings and "no fault" divorce; the right of women to control their own bodies and medical decisions, including obtaining birth control devices and safe abortions; and many others. Most feminists would argue, however, that there is still much to be done on these fronts, where third-wave feminism would agree that the battle has basically "been won". As Western society has become increasingly accepting of feminist principles, some of these are no longer seen as specifically feminist, because they have been adopted by all or most people. Some beliefs that were radical for their time are now mainstream political thought. Almost no one in Western societies today questions the right of women to vote or own land, a concept that seemed quite strange only 100 years ago.

In some cases (notably equal pay for equal work) major advances have been made, but most feminists still struggle to achieve their complete goals.

Feminists are often proponents of using non-sexist language, using "Ms" to refer to both married and unmarried women, for example, or the ironic use of the term "herstory" instead of "history". Feminists are also often proponents of using gender-inclusive language, such as "humanity" instead of "mankind", or "he or she" in place of "he" where the gender is unknown. Feminists in most cases advance their desired use of language either to promote an equal and respectful treatment of women or to affect the tone of political discourse. This can be seen as a move to change language which has been viewed by some feminists as imbued with sexism - providing for example the case in the English language the word for the general pronoun is "he" or "his" (The child should have his paper and pencils), which is the same as the masculine pronoun (The boy and his truck). These feminists purport that language then directly affect perception of reality (compare Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis). However, to take a postcolonial analysis of this point, many languages other than English may not have such a gendered pronoun instance and thus changing language may not be as important to some feminists as others. Yet, English is becoming more and more universal, and the issue of language may be seen to be of growing importance.

Effect on moral education

Opponents of feminism claim that women's quest for external power, as opposed to the internal power to affect other people's ethics and values, has left a vacuum in the area of moral training, where women formerly held sway. Some feminists reply that the education, including the moral education, of children has never been, and should not be, seen as the exclusive responsibility of women. Paradoxically, it is also held by others that the moral education of children at home in the form of homeschooling is itself a women's movement. Such arguments are entangled within the larger disagreements of the Culture Wars, as well as within feminist (and anti-feminist) ideas regarding custodianship of societal morals and compassion.

Effect on heterosexual relationships

The effect of feminism has certainly affected the nature of heterosexual relationships in Western and other societies affected by feminism. While these effects have generally been seen as positive, there have been some negative consequences.

In some of these relationships, there has been a change in the power relationship between men and women. In these circumstances, women and men have had to adapt to relatively new situations, sometimes causing confusions about role and identity. Women can now avail themselves more to new opportunities, but some have suffered with the demands of trying to live up to the so-called "superwomen" identity, and have struggled to 'have it all', i.e. manage to happily balance a career and family. Instead of the onus of childcare resting solely on the female, it has shifted somewhat, and the men are expected to assist in managing family matters more than in previous times. Various socialist feminists in response to the family issue blame this on the lack of state-provided childcare facilities, but this is not the case in all societies.

Men in some circumstances have also felt a loss of power and identity, and have struggled to come to terms with the changing social environments and differing demands made upon them.

There have been changes also in attitudes towards sexual morality and behaviour with the onset of second wave feminism and "the Pill": women are then more in control of their body, and are able to experience sex with more freedom than was previously socially accepted for them. This sexual revolution that women were then able to experience was seen as positive as it enabled women and men to experience sex in a free and equal manner. However, some feminists felt that the results of the sexual revolution only was beneficial to men.

Marriage has also suffered, with some women of the opinion that marriage is an institution that oppresses women, thus opting for cohabitation instead. Other feminists disagree with this, however.

Effect on religion

Feminism has had a great effect on many aspects of religion. In liberal branches of Protestant Christianity, women are now ordained as clergy, and in Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Judaism, women are now ordained as rabbis and cantors. Within these Christian and Jewish groups, woman have gradually become more nearly equal to men by obtaining positions of power; their perspectives are now sought out in developing new statements of belief. These trends, however, have been resisted within Islam and Roman Catholicism. All the mainstream denominations of Islam forbid Muslim women from being recognized as religious clergy and scholars in the same way that Muslim men are accepted. Liberal movements within Islam have nonetheless persisted in trying to bring about feminist reforms in Muslim societies. Roman Catholicism has historically been seen to abuse women (for example, the Magdalen Asylum system in Ireland) -- one example given is that does not allow women to hold any positions as clergy except as nuns; they are excluded from entering the main Church hierarchy.

Feminism also has had an important role in creating new forms of religion. Neopagan religions especialy tend to emphasise the importance of Goddess spirtuality, and question traditonal religion's downgrading of women. In particular Dianic Wicca is a religion whose origins lie within radical feminism.

There is a separate article on God and gender; it discusses how monotheistic religions deal with God and gender, and how modern feminism has influenced the theology of many religions.

Female share of seats in elected chambers in 1997 (percent)
Sweden 40.4
Norway 39.4
Finland 33.5
Denmark 33.0
Netherlands 31.3
New Zealand 29.2
Austria 26.8
Germany 26.2
Iceland 25.4
UK(Commons) 18.2

Worldwide statistics

Despite advances made by women, who have successfully created change towards equality in the West, there is still a very long way to go to true equality, according to those who provide the following statistics:

Perspective: the nature of the modern movement

Most feminists believe discrimination against women still exists in North American and European nations, as well as worldwide. How much discrimination and whether it is a problem is a matter of dispute.

There are many ideas within the movement regarding the severity of current problems, what the problems are, and how to confront them. Extremes on the one hand include some radical feminists such as Mary Daly who argues that the world would be better off with dramatically fewer men. There are also dissidents, such as Christina Hoff Sommers or Camille Paglia, who identify themselves as feminist but who accuse the movement of anti-male prejudices. Many feminists question the use of the "feminist" label as applying to these individuals.

Many feminists, however, also question the use of the term feminist to refer to any who espouse violence to any gender or who fail to recognize a fundamental equality between the sexes. Some feminists, like Katha Pollitt (see her book Reasonable Creatures) or Nadine Strossen (President of the ACLU and author of Defending Pornography [a treatise on freedom of speech]), consider feminism to be, solely, the view that "women are people." Views that separate the sexes rather than unite them are considered by these people to be sexist rather than feminist.

There are also debates between difference feminists such as Carol Gilligan on the one hand, who believe that there are important differences between the sexes (which may or may not be inherent, but which cannot be ignored), and those who believe that there are no essential differences between the sexes, and that the roles observed in society are due to conditioning. Modern scientists sometimes disagree on whether inborn differences exist between men and women (other than physical differences such as anatomy, chromosomes, and hormones). Regardless of how many differences between the sexes are inherent or acquired, feminists agree none of these differences is a basis for discrimination.

This mostly Western debate about feminism should not distract from the fact that the major goal of the feminist movement in the 21st century is to improve the situation of women in non-Western countries.

Male feminists

Feminists disagree over the role of men as participants within the movement. Some female feminists feel that it is inappropriate to describe self-named "feminist men" as "feminist" and instead prefer the title "pro-feminist men"; however, this usage has not caught on in most of American society. Others think that the imposition of a label like "pro-feminist male" on people who prefer another label like "feminist" is equivalent to the imposition of racial epithets that are not preferred by the groups they name.

Criticisms of feminism

Feminism has attracted attention due to its large effects in social change in Western society. While feminism in some forms is generally accepted, dissenting voices do exist.

Some critics (both male and female) find that some feminists are effectively preaching hate against males or claiming male inferiority, citing that if the words "male" and "female" were replaced by "black" and "white" respectively in some feminist writings, the texts could be viewed as racist propaganda.

Some find that because of feminism, males are beginning to be oppressed. Whilst this view is rejected by a number of feminists, those who make this claim often note that males commit suicide 4 times more frequently than females in the USA, leading them to say that the USA is becoming a country where males are severely oppressed. (See statistics here) The statistics for other Western countries are similar (See statistics for Australia and Canada). Note that since the mid seventies this ratio has worsened; however there could be various reasons for these suicides, and thus may not indicate a greater level of male oppression.

Some conservative minded groups see the feminist movement as destroying traditional gender roles, namely when both parents are success-oriented workaholics, children might suffer from neglect. Some feminists respond that these traditional gender roles served to silence and oppress women.

Arguments from a number of men note that social change and legal reform have gone too far and now negatively effect men and families with children. For example, a number of men consider that custody hearings in divorces are biased towards the mother. While some feminists generally disagree with the view that men are equally oppressed under patriarchy, other feminists, especially third-wave feminists agree that men are similarly oppressed.

Some men also express worry that a belief in the glass ceiling for women has led to women being promoted more than men for the purpose of public relations than for their merit. This could be compared to affirmative action; thus, feminists who favour such a method of reform usually present arguments similar to those used for defending affirmative action (i.e. that such a system is required to offset the results of previous discrimination).

Although efforts to curb sexual harassment against women in the workplace are normally applauded, there are those who note that the situation is such that the concern directed towards women in resolving disputes of sexual harassment is indirect discrimination, in that less concern is given to men, when they are the subject of the claims, or when they are claiming a case of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment can occur towards men in different ways than towards women. It is claimed that women are more empowered to make claims towards men of sexual harassment, whilst cases of sexual harassment against men are not encouraged to make claims themselves, are derided by others, or widely go unnoticed by others.

Postcolonial feminists criticise Western forms of feminism, notably radical feminism and its universalization of female experience. These feminists argue that since the assumption of a global experience as a woman is an assumption that is a white middle-class experience as a woman where gender oppression is the primary one, and cannot apply to women to which gender oppression may come second to racial and class oppression. Today, young women most commonly associate "feminism" with radical feminism, and this has put off a lot of these women from being active in feminism, and this has spurred change to move away from second-wave ideals.

See also

External links

Feminist resources