Feminism 101: The History of Feminism

In 1983, Dr. Michele A. Paludi and Lisa A. Strayer replicated Philip A. Goldberg’s 1968 research on gender bias against women which was titled ‘What’s in an Author’s Name’. In this study, 300 students (150 male and 150 female) were presented with identical scientific research papers for evaluation. However, the names of the authors were changed to male, female and sexually ambiguous names. The results showed an overall rating of 72.5% for the male researcher and 50.0% for the female researcher. This study was an evidential confirmation of one of the many gender biases against women, which is that women are less intellectually competent compared to men (especially in the field of science).  However, this reasoning has no factual proof. Likewise, there are various pre-programmed gender stereotypes which have been attributed to women – mostly impeding – which has from time past till present shaped the economic, political, social and cultural structure of the society. Therefore, it was for this reason that feminism was established.

Nevertheless, feminism is arguably one the most misunderstood ideologies of the 21st century; reason being the misleading views of the ideology by the media, fuelled by uneducated advocates of ‘popular’ feminism (also referred to as modern day feminism). Popular feminism presents feminism as a parody of what it originally stands for and the objectives on which it was established. For example, some modern day feminists’ hold that acts of chivalry by men show male oppression. Also, groups such as ‘Meninist’ which have now become a movement that opposes feminism add to the misconception on feminism. This movement purports feminism as an irrelevant cancerous ‘man hating’ ideology which advocates for more rights in favour of women than men. These have in turn caused people to shy away from feminism for fear of being branded as negative stereotypical names (or characteristics) attributed to the ideology. Therefore, Feminism and why it was established shall be discussed.

Before feminism is defined, it is important to understand the distinction between Feminism and Egalitarianism. While egalitarianism is the idea that all human beings are fundamentally equal and should be entitled to resources, feminism concerns the advocacy of gender equality in relation to women. Hence, Feminism is a belief in and advocacy of equal rights for women based on the idea of the equality between the sexes. The advocacy of rights for women officially began with the first wave of feminism which took place from the 1830s to the early 1900s in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and the Netherlands. This wave of feminism mainly focused on political equality between the sexes especially with regards to suffrage (i.e. the right to vote). This movement which was led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the United States began with the Seneca Convention in 1848, where she outlined the objectives of the movement. This movement further gained momentum with the leadership of Stanton together with Susan B. Anthony amongst many other activists.

Accordingly, their advocacy led to the first victory for women’s rights in 1869 when the then Governor of Wyoming protected for the first time the women’s right to vote. Likewise, in 1919, the 19th Amendment which abolished the restriction of the right to vote based on sex was passed in the US. Also, in 1965, the Voting Rights Act was passed which restored the right to vote of Native American women and women of colour. In addition, women also gained shared ownership of their children, some property rights and a say in their wills.

In regards to the United Kingdom, it is often said that the advocacy of Women’s Suffrage began with Jeremy Bentham in 1817. However, it is officially recognised to have begun in the United Kingdom by Women’s Rights Activist and MP John Stuart Mill (and certain philosophers) in 1865.  Mill began a campaign for an amendment of the Reform Act 1832 to include women’s suffrage. This bill though failed which led to the creation of various suffrage groups such as the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), the Manchester Society for Women’s Suffrage amongst many others. As a result of this, the right to vote for women was partially restored to women by the Representation of People’s Act 1918 and later, equality between women and men in relations to suffrage was achieved by the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928.

The second wave of feminism, which is also referred to as the Women’s Liberation movement, took place from the 1960s to the early 1980s. It focused on issues relating to reproductive rights, family, sexism in the workplace and inequalities in the law. Furthermore, the second wave of Feminism, unlike the first wave, sought to include women of all races and social class. During the Second World War, women were given positions in the public sector not because equality was achieved, but because men who would normally be given such positions had gone off to war. Therefore, in order to prevent economic loss, there had to be continuous productivity. However, once the men returned, the women were unfairly relieved of their duties and forced to return working exclusively in the home; this was commonly referred to as the ‘domesticity of women’. Hence, this led to the beginning of the second wave of feminism.

The second wave of Feminism officially began with the publication of Betty Friedan’s ‘Feminine Mystique’ which was influenced by Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex’. In ‘The Second Sex’, Beauvoir explained how the society was male-centred and contested the idea that ‘different’ meant ‘lesser’ in regards to women. In other words, the fact that women got pregnant and men did not was not a reason to strip women of their rights. In ‘Feminine Mystique’, Friedan challenged the post WWII belief that women were made to marry and bear children. Accordingly, she discussed how the domesticity of women wasted their potential and limited their possibilities. Furthermore, she carried out a survey which showed that women who worked were more satisfied than women who stayed home. In 1966, the National Organisation for Women (NOW) which was led by Betty Friedan was created to advocate for the participation of women in society and also ensure that they gained rights which were only available to men. The second wave of feminism led to the implementation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act 1964 (the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 for the UK and the Canadian Human Rights Act 1977 for Canada) which prohibited discrimination of employment on the basis of sex. Accordingly, marital rape was outlawed by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act 1978 in the USA.  However, a seminal victory for the second wave of Feminism was the approval of the birth control pill which allowed women to control pregnancy and child bearing; this made it more convenient for women to work. Finally, some other achievements of the second wave of feminism were of educational and consumer equality.

Although certain victories were achieved by the first and second wave of feminism, nonetheless, there are still various inequalities between the sexes which place women at a disadvantage in the society today. Hence, the present era of feminism (which is also referred to as the third wave of feminism) continues to tackle such issues.

Written by Oluwatodimu Akolade Bankólé

Posted in Human Rights