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Is Feminism Dead?
What is feminism? There are many different interpretations of the word
“feminism”. However, most people agree that feminism is the theory that men
and women should be equal politically, economically and socially. The feminist
movement is a group of men and women who believe in feminism and are trying
to eliminate the inequality between men and women.
Feminism, as it was first known, has almost died out completely. Feminist
groups today are integrating many more issues into feminism. This seems to be
a good thing at first. However, it is driving women away from feminism and many
women are insulted or embarrassed to be called feminists because of the
negative connotation feminism has adopted.
There are many different types of feminism. The theory that there are
fundamental personality differences between men and women, and that women’s
differences are special and should be celebrated is called cultural feminism. This
theory of feminism supports the notion that there are biological differences
between men and women, for example, “women are kinder and more gentle then
men”, leading to the mentality that if women ruled the world there would be no
Cultural feminism is the theory that wants to overcome sexism by
celebrating women’s special qualities, women’s ways, and women’s experiences,
often believing that the “woman’s way” is the better way.
Another type, individualist feminism, is based upon individualist or
libertarian (minimum government or anarchocapitalist) philosophies. The primary
focus is individual autonomy, rights, liberty, independence and diversity. Moderate feminism is a branch of feminism that tends to be populated mostly by
younger women or women who have not directly experienced discrimination.
They tend to question the need for further effort, and do not think that radical
feminism is any longer viable and in fact rather embarrassing.
Radical feminism is the breeding ground for many of the ideas arising
from feminism. This type of feminism was the cutting edge of feminist theory
from approximately 1967-1975. It is no longer as universally accepted as it was
then and no longer serves to solely define the term, “feminism”. This group views
the oppression of women as the most fundamental form of oppression, one that
cuts across boundaries of race, culture, and economic class. This is a movement
intent on social change, change of rather revolutionary proportions, in fact.
Radical feminism questions why women must adopt certain roles based on their
biology, just as it questions why men adopt certain other roles based on theirs
(Colleen’s Feminist Home page).
Feminism is not a very old concept. For most of history women have been
viewed as the lesser sex and did not argue this point. However, there have been
some very powerful and influential women in history.
Cleopatra the powerful but, ill-fated queen of Egypt (51-30 BC) came to
rule with her brother at age 17 and alone at age 20.
Another female ruler, Elizabeth I was the most successful monarch ever to
sit on the English throne. Her reign, known in English history as the Elizabethan
period, was an era of great accomplishment in England. She transformed the
poverty-stricken England into a great military power.
Nancy Witcher Langhorne Astor who in 1910, became involved in her
husband’s work in Parliament. In 1919 her husband was elevated to the House of
Lords. Nancy ran for the seat vacated by her husband in the House of Commons
and was elected by a substantial majority. She was the first woman to be a
member of Parliament in Britain.
Geraldine Ferraro, who gained influence with the Democratic party after
being elected to the House of Representatives was chosen by Walter Mondale in
1984 to be his vice president. Ferraro was the first female vice-president
In 1988, Benazir Bhutto was sworn in as Prime Minister and became the
first woman to head the government of an Islamic state. As a result of her
leadership of the Pakistan Peoples Party she has spent a total of 6 years in
prison. Since being sworn in she has emphasized the need to reduce sexual
discrimination, institute programs for health and the underprivileged, and make
education reforms. (Distinguished Women Past and Present)
These women have shown feminists and nonfeminists alike that women
can do anything they put their minds to. These women have also shown men that
women are capable of doing what was traditionally thought of as “men’s work”.
These women and their achievements helped to stimulate the women’s
movement and the powerful women of the late twentieth century have helped to
keep a dying feminist movement alive.
The beginning of feminism in the United States cannot be traced back to
any specific event. Olive Banks, a professor of sociology at the University of
Leicester, finds it best to talk about the history of feminism with “the main unit of
analysis [as] the cohort or generation, based on year of birth”. She identifies four
cohorts with the first consisting of those born before 1828 representing the first
generation of the women’s movement.
The first cohort is active although unorganized. It includes women like
Caroline Norton who “successfully stage-managed the first piece of feminist
legislation in 1839″. Other prominent members of the first cohort “include some
of the earliest pioneers in the education of girls, like Anne Jemima Clough,
Frances Mary Buss and the two Shirreff sisters, as well as most of the Owenite
socialist feminists like Anna Wheeler and Frances Wright”.
The second cohort were born between 1828 and 1848. It includes Elizabeth
Garrett Anderson and Sophia Jex-Blake, “who between them pioneered the
opening of the medical profession to women, Emily Davies who opened higher
education to women, several nineteenth-century suffrage leaders such as Helen
Blackburn, Ursula Bright, and Millicent Garrent Fawcett, and Josephine Butler, a
feminist who is best known for fight against the Contagious Diseases Acts.
The third cohort were born within the years 1849 and 1871. At this time,
“the suffrage issue had begun to take precedence over all else and it is this
cohort…that provided the leadership of the suffrage movement as it moved into
the twentieth century”. Prominent women in this group included Emmeline
Pankhurst and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, both militant leaders, Constance
Lytton “who became one of the movement’s martyrs, and on the “constitutional
side” were Helena Swanwick, Isabella Ford, and Frances Balfour.
Banks’s fourth and final cohort were born between 1872 and 1891. They
“represent the last generation of first-wave’ feminism”. Most were swept up into
the suffrage campaign as young women like Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst.
This generation “saw the partial success of the suffrage campaign in 1918, and
its final success in 1928″ (Banks 4-5).
These women and many countless others are responsible for the
nineteenth amendment which was introduced to Congress in 1878 and eventually
ratified in 1920 without being changed (Barber).
Since the ratification of the nineteenth amendment, our society has
changed completely especially for women. Since the 1920s our society has seen
many changes for women such as the importance of higher education, namely
college, a huge increase in working-class women, a media that caters to women,
knowledge about sexuality, birth control, and changes within the family unit
(Burke 21). World War II was a turning point for women. Now, instead of being
kept out of the work force, women were “welcomed into factories, shops, and
just about anywhere they were willing to work”. They became “skilled workers in
airplane and converted auto parts”, taxi drivers, and government workers (Burke
27). The sixties brought about the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the
birth control pill, a shifting economy, and a new women’s movement (Burke 33-34).
During the past twenty or so years, feminism has taken on an entirely
different meaning. Paula Kamen interviewed 103 nonactivists and found that the
stereotypical feminist is perceived as a “bra-burning, hairy-legged, amazon,
castrating, militant-almost-antifeminine, communist, Marxist, separatist, female
skinhead, female supremacist, he-woman, [lesbian], [dyke], man-hater, man-basher, wanting-men’s-jobs, wanting- to-dominate- men, want-to-be-men, war-short-hair-to-look-unattractive, bizarre-chicks-running-around-doing-kooky-things, I-am-a-woman-hear-me-roar, uptight, angry, white-middle-class radicals”.
Of the women interviewed, “most didn’t identify with feminism or want to be
associated with it on a personal or political level. The great irony is that although
feminism has generally made a tremendous difference in the perceptions and
opportunities in many of these people’s lives, it is something that they almost
universally shun” (Kamen 23). When asked if women had achieved equality
nearly everyone responded “no”. The issues which provoked the strongest
feelings were “violence against women, secure abortion rights, and…equal pay
for equal work”. Other issues included “child care and health needs, especially
for single mothers, and racism’s effects on women. The family was a major issue
throughout conversations that called for more tolerance of women’s choices and
a higher valuation and more support for motherhood”.
Many women are afraid to call themselves feminists because of the
feminist stereotype. In View, a magazine for college women, conducted a poll in
September of 1989. Out of 514 female undergraduates, “90% agreed that men
and women should earn equal pay for equal work; 93% said that women want
equality with men; 84% agreed that women should have access to birth control,
regardless of age or marital status; 90% believed that sexism still exists”.
However, only 16% of them women polled said they were definitely feminists.
33% definitely did not consider themselves feminists (Kamen 33-34).
Why don’t women like those polled feel that they are feminists even though
they are, according to what they say, agreeing with the feminist theory? There
are many reasons.
First, “many [women] explained that they are not feminists because they
prefer the female way of life, not the male one”. Many women want and enjoy the
privileges that go with being a woman such as having the door opened for them. Second, because of feminism’s focus on careers, women without
professional ambitions do not see the feminist movement as relating to them and
even view it as antimotherhood.
Third, others feel that “feminists deny what is feminine”, and fourth, “they
associate feminism with lesbians”. Many women “thought feminism did to
gender what communism theoretically does to class: wipe out any distinctions”.
Fifth, women think feminists “hate men or think that women should be
superior to them”.
Sixth, others didn’t feel that the fight for women’s rights was personally
relevant to them (Kamen 35-36).
In general, women seem to have many thoughts on the feminist stereotype
and it is turning many women away from fighting for equality. “The media’s
caricature of feminism, combined with some bad habits in the movement itself,
has lead many women to view the weapon of pro-woman politics with distaste.
The weapon’s own rigidity keeps it from adapting itself to the average woman’s
hand” and this is causing many people to view feminism as dead (Wolf 59). Today, there are just too many issues being tied in with feminism. Modern
feminism has drawn a very unappealing picture of itself. It has become too
political involving such controversial issues such as abortion, lesbianism, and
pornography. It has become too restricted in ways that lead people to think that
its only for middle-class white women, for fighting against men, about not
wearing makeup and chopping one’s hair off. Who is at fault? The media has
played a large role in the death of feminism as it was known it the beginning.
However, the radical feminists themselves gave the media just what they were
looking for. Radical feminists who believe that women should not give birth, get
married even if in love, engage in anything “frivolous”, or be even the slightest bit
vulnerable have no one to blame but themselves. The media loves to report on
eccentric ways and the radical feminists gave them just what they wanted (Wolf
Christine, a twenty-eight-year-old secretary describes the city in which she
lives. She says that it has “a very strong “left” group of feminists. They are a
strong group that dominates many organizations…In my opinion, this group is
also responsible for sabotaging these organizations… . It has been difficult…to
get women to mobilize… Many of the [radical feminists] attend many meetings.
They almost never offer solutions or constructive criticism and because of the
negative feeling they bring with them, they leave many women feeling alienated
or confused” (Wolf 63). Christine is not the only woman who feels this way.
From polls, letters, and interviews it can be seen that the majority of women feel
exactly as Christine (Wolf 60).
XXXXXX, an assistant to the Dean of Business at XXXXX University, feels
that “feminism is dead” and has “taken on many issues”. When asked if she was
a feminist, she quickly retorted “No, I’m not a feminist” as if it was an insulting
label. She feels that “women have not won total equality” and will not do so “in
[her] lifetime”. She feels equality for women “is important”. And although she
has never experienced an inequality due to her sex, she has “been sexually
harassed”. If allowed to reconstruct the feminist movement to her own views, she
would concentrate on the issues of “violence against women, pro-choice, and
equal pay” with “violence against women being the most important”. Feminism
has run out of control. It “has become a checklist of attitudes” (Wolf 60). Women
do not want this. They want to support feminism and call themselves feminists
but, they need to be able to relate to the movement. Not all women find
today’s feminist movement too restrictive. Women like, Lynne Spender, who in a
diary, describes finding happiness and a new sense of being in feminism. After
moving to Canada and contacting a “feminist friend of [her] sister”, she started
going to meetings for “Women Against Violence Against Women” and “feminism
[became her] way of life” (Rowland 122-125). This seems to be a rare case
because from what the studies and polls show, feminism is dying.
Can feminism be salvaged? There are still important women’s issues to be
resolved such as unequal salaries, domestic violence, and rape. Though
women’s rights has come a long way, women are still not equal. Women need to
take action and with feminism in its present state, women will not see equality for
a long time. Feminism can be salvaged but, some major changes must first take
First, feminism must reorganize and refocus itself. The focus of feminism
should be equality for women, not lesbian issues, not minority issues. Feminism
is different and must separate itself if it wants to see a revival. That’s not to say
that minorities and lesbians cannot be feminists. It is just imperative that
different movements must not intermingle. Today’s feminists must realize that
they are scaring women away.
Second, feminism must change the stereotype of the average feminist.
Women, and people in general, do not want to be seen as something they are not.
Included in the stereotype are political factors. Political ideology should not turn
people away from joining a group.
If feminism can make these changes, surely more women would join
groups and volunteer their time to fight for women’s equality. Hopefully, today’s
feminists will realize this so feminism, in theoretical and undistorted form, can
survive. Women need this because even though the feminist movement has
come a very long way and our society has made tremendous advances, women
are still being beaten in their homes with “more than 2 + million women
experienc[ing] violence annually” (National Crime Victimization Survey
1987-1991:Statistics on Women) . This should be a signal that something needs
to be done. If the feminist movement can reform itself, it may be able to make
many more great accomplishments for women.
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