The History of Feminism
The fight for women’s rights has been integral to societies for hundreds of years. But why, you may ask, does the fight even have to exist? What misfortune led to the gender-based subjugation and oppression that has since been almost impossible to eradicate?
The Netflix show “Brain Games” (which discusses the neurological phenomena that influence certain behavioral patterns) theorizes that gender-based inequality dates back to the Agricultural Revolution (circa 10,000 BC, before the first known civilizations). Men and women were relatively equal in stature before the advent of agriculture, despite occupying different roles in family/tribe life.
While women generally stayed close to the dwelling, gathering plants to eat and taking care of the family, men would travel farther in search of meat. Their roles were not rigid, but rather a convenient way to assign duties within the family structure. And since both the man and woman’s duties were equally important in ensuring survival, there was a relatively equal power dynamic between sexes.
That all changed with the domestication of crops and livestock. Men no longer had to spend all day traveling in search of meat, so they switched jobs to supervise farming. Gathering food was also defunct. The balance of power thus shifted as the man became the sole provider of food and the woman became increasingly confined to the home. The result was a cycle of deep-rooted sexism and misogyny that manifested itself in different cultures around the world.
Feminism, like most long-term movements, has evolved over time to account for new contexts and include a broader range of people. A movement that began with the educated white women of Europe has now expanded to include womxn of color, immigrants, the LGTBQ+ community, and more. We can break down the history and evolution of feminism into five time periods: Pre-Wave Feminism, First-Wave, Second-Wave, Third-Wave, and (the current) Fourth-Wave.
Pre-Wave Feminism (Early Feminism)
One of the first written materials advocating for womens’ equality is Plato’s Republic, which argued that women possess “natural capacities” equal to those of men in governing and protecting ancient Greece and should be given opportunities as such. Protesting has also been around for a long time–in ancient Rome, women staged a massive protest against the Oppian Law, which restricted their access to gold and other trading goods.
In the medieval period (600-1600 CE), writer Christine de Pizan protested the internalized misogyny of Europeans with The Book of the City of Ladies.
The invention of the printing press in 1450 and its subsequent widespread use facilitated a spread of ideas like never before: the European Enlightenment. One of the most prominent advocates for women’s equality during the Enlightenment was Mary Wollstonecraft, who argued for greater opportunities for women (namely the right to education) in her work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Her work serves to remind us that some of the basic tenets of equality outlined by her and her contemporaries hundreds of years ago have still not been granted to some women today.
First-Wave Feminism: Women in the Polls and in the Workforce
The trademark event of the first wave of feminism is often cited as the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, led by abolitionists (advocates for the abolition of alcohol, women whose husbands would drink without regulations and often beat them and their children under the influence) Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. They drafted the now-famous Declaration of Sentiments, which copied The United States’s Declaration of Independence with the opening words:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal.”
Unfortunately, the Seneca Falls women deliberately chose not to include women of color, despite the fact that black men had already been granted the right to vote and advocates for racial equality like Frederick Douglass supported the Women’s Suffrage movement. This injustice was protested by black advocate Sojourner Truth’s speech before the 1851 Ohio Women’s Rights Convention:
“And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man—when I could get it—and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have borne 13 children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?”
New Zealand was the first sovereign state to give women the right to vote in 1893, followed by Australia in 1902 and Finland in 1906. In a limited victory, the United Kingdom granted suffrage to women over 30 in 1918. In 1920, with the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution, white women were granted the right to vote.
But make no mistake: this was NOT done out of a change in ideology. Patriarchal systems used the right to vote as more of a “shut up” mechanism for women who protested, satisfying a one-time desire instead of addressing the oppressive status quo.
However, with more and more women taking up jobs during wartime (WWI and WWII), men began to see the value of women in the workplace and as actual breadwinners. Icons like Rosie the Riveter popped up, proving that women were just as, if not more, capable than men in doing what were considered traditionally “male” jobs.
Realizations of discrimination in the workplace and unequal pay resulted in the final win for the first wave of feminism: the Equal Pay Act of 1963. This act served to partially fix the fact that women were being paid less than men for the same jobs solely due to their gender, although loopholes still exist which allow employers to bypass such equality.
But with the right to vote secured and the realization that they themselves were capable of achieving greater things, women were able to move on to the second wave of feminism.
Second-Wave Feminism: Fighting Traditional Gender Roles
Unlike the first wave, second-wave feminism was the first to address the underlying cultural causes of misogyny, sexism, and traditional gender roles. Instead of asking for a simple request as the first wave had (the right to vote, equal pay), second-wave feminism lamented the fact that a “good woman” was one who spent her whole life in the home, was quiet and submissive, and cared only about marriage and having children.
Betty Friedan’s 1963 work, The Feminine Mystique, addressed these cultural norms, pointing to the nature of women’s magazines and marketing that glorified the submissive, family-oriented wife and expressed disdain for the educated, career-oriented woman. She points out that, while women were technically allowed to have careers, vote, and speak their minds, such actions were discouraged.
Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug joined Friedan in creating the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971, while Steinem’s publication, Ms. Magazine, was the first magazine to feature feminism as a cover subject in 1976.
It was at this point that feminism began to take shape as a movement with a name; it was then called “women’s liberation.”
Advocates during this time pushed for the Equal Rights Amendment, which sought to ban sex-based discrimination and guarantee legal equality. However, such an amendment was never ratified because it faced a considerable conservative backlash during the time. Moreover, the benefits of second-wave feminism mainly extended only to white, college-educated cishet women, excluding all others (including minorities, women of color, the LGBTQ+ community, and immigrants).
The second-wave feminists did have one major win: the landmark ruling of Roe v. Wade, which allowed women the right to a safe abortion and protected doctors from punishment for given abortions.
Third-Wave Feminism: Riot Grrrl and Intersectionality
Third-wave feminism, which took place during the ‘90s and early 2000’s, was by far the loudest, most empowering feminist movement yet. But very often we see that it is erased from the history of feminism, most probably because of the fact that it was largely an underground movement based almost entirely in the US.
The third-wave feminists focused their attention on sexual freedom, which included not only protests against rape culture, slut-shaming, and victim-blaming, but a greater awareness for LGBTQ+ womxn, the absolute annihilation of gendered expectations, discussions of reproductive health and promiscuity, safe sex, and body positivity.
The most notable of the third-wave feminists were the Riot Grrrls, a punk-rock feminist movement consisting of bands like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Excuse 17, and Heavens to Betsy, among others. They spread information and awareness through their music and zines, handmade pamphlets that were distributed at concerts and other places.
Bikini Kill (and even more so, their lead singer, Kathleen Hanna) was probably the most influential during this time, influencing millions of grrrls across the US and even writing what became the “anthem” of the Riot Grrrl movement, “Rebel Girl:”
“That girl thinks she’s the queen of the neighborhood/She’s got the biggest trike in town/That girl, she holds her head up so high/I think I wanna be her best friend, yeah”
Riot Grrrl was the first movement to encourage solidarity instead of competition between womxn, which meant that it was supportive of ALL girls: LGBTQ+, promiscuous, modest, old, young, “masculine,” “feminine,” whatever. The only problem with third-wave feminism was that (especially during its later years) it failed to address racial inequalities.
Fourth-Wave Feminism: #MeToo, Inclusivity, and Equality for Men
Currently, we are all experiencing the fourth wave of feminism: an increasingly inclusive movement fueled by the reach of the internet.
Fourth-wave feminism can be seen as an extension of third-wave feminism, just more “out-there.” Feminism now has a solid name and definition which champions equality for all. The definition of a feminist thus extends to all genders and also recognizes that people of all genders are capable of both destroying and upholding the patriarchy, regardless of who they are or where they came from.
The #MeToo movement on social media seeks to expose sexual assault perpetrators, making it known that sexual assault will not be tolerated any longer. Womxn have formed an online community that is increasingly far-reaching and connected at the same time, supporting each other no matter where they’re from or what they do. Around the world, even in third-world countries, people are starting to address the consequences of rape culture, victim blaming, and misogyny through education and information.
Sexual assault is not the only topic discussed by the fourth wave. Modern feminism seeks to bring visibility to marginalized womxn (especially LGBTQ+ womxn, womxn of color, and womxn who generally do not fit the beauty standard of thin and white), advocating for greater representation of these womxn in the media and normalizing bodies that do not conform to mainstream beauty standards.
Lastly, fourth-wave feminists have done what has not been done in any other wave of feminism: addressing the negative consequences of the patriarchy on men themselves, namely in the form of toxic masculinity.
Toxic masculinity is the societal concept that all men must be hypermasculine, hypersexual, strong, and unemotional all the time. These expectations have a serious negative effect on mens’ mental health, and it starts young with statements like, “man up,” or “boys don’t cry,” or “that’s so gay,” as an insult. Sayings like these also prevent men from sharing or even addressing their emotions because the mentality is that they’re not supposed to have them. Fourth-wave feminists believe that equality should extend to everyone, and if women can break gender norms and just be themselves, so can men.
If there is one fault with fourth-wave feminism, it is this: there is a certain point where we forget to listen. We hear an opinion on the internet and are unwilling to change our minds because we’re stuck in this cycle of quasi-self-righteousness that accompanies a viewpoint that is seen as correct by those around us (this applies for all viewpoints, by the way). We also tend to follow this mob mentality on the internet: that if we agree with most arguments in a certain school of thought, we must automatically fall into that category just because there’s a name for it. It is difficult to think for ourselves in an age where unbiased information is buried by all the biased viewpoints that get more clicks and views.
Something we can all learn from the history of feminism is to spread ideas through education and civil discourse, rather than expecting those with differing viewpoints to change because we yelled at them or manipulated them to do so. We still have a long road to true equality, but we can look to history to improve on past mistakes and create a better future.