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History Of Feminism And Feminist Theory Essay, Research Paper
History of feminism and feminist theory.
The history of feminism and of feminist theory has many possible origins. However the most plausible explanation for the origins of feminism and of feminist theory can be connected with the desire for social and political reforms .
It is therefore necessary to focus on these social and political reforms, by doing so it becomes possible to highlight the evolution of feminism ( as a form of ideology and a type of activism ). This evolution has not been without intense criticism, the most important critique of all feminist ideology states that due to the origins of feminism it is not an all encompassing political and social movement . Instead however to is an exclusive conservative white suburban theory , that blatantly excludes minority groups, such as black women, lesbians and the lower working class.
If the primary goal of the feminist movement is to unite women in order to change a woman s position in society, then surely this goal would fail if minority groups are excluded ? To answer this question it is of fundamental importance to understand the origins of the feminist movement and hence the rise of feminist theory.
The feminist movement is primarily categorised into two different periods of time. The first period is known as First wave Feminism and occurred from 1760-1935. Within this stage there are five distinct time periods, with each time period playing an important role in the feminist movement. The origins of first wave feminism, especially in the US has often been traced to the abolitionist movement.
The second period of the feminist movement , similarly to first wave feminism is that of Second wave Feminism . Second wave feminism began approximately in 1963 (in the US) , with radical changes occurring in 1970 and continuing into the present. The history of second wave feminism has its origins in the civil rights movements. It is primarily during this time period that distinct feminist theory emerged.
In order to analyse the origins of feminist theory , one must have a clear understanding of what distinguishes feminist theory from other kinds of theory (as well as the process of theory making). According to Alison Jagger there are four important elements that feminist theories possess: a descriptive element, the explanatory element, a normative element, and a practical element.1 It is important to understand these different components of feminist theory, in order to be able to critically evaluate the alleged exclusiveness of feminism.
a. A Descriptive Element: this a a statement of the empirical facts,it is usually in
the form of descriptions of women s lived experiences and of the present day social arrangements, specifically the arrangements of power and its relationship to gender, as well as racial issues and class structures.2
b. An Explanatory Element: this is an explanation regarding the reasoning of why women have the experiences they do and why the arrangement of power and political standing is the way it is.
c. A Normative Element: this is the recommendations for the elimination of possible inequalities that occur, whether it is in the social , political or economical sphere.
d. A Practical Element: this is the physical commitment to the transformation of social organisations and institutions based upon the normative elements of the theory.3
In the construction of feminist theory one important element needs to be considered. That is the element of FALSE UNIVERSALISATION. According to Jagger the definition of false universalisation is as follows: drawing a generalisation that falsely assumes and does not mark the race, class, gender, sexual orientation, of the group being discussed. Applying a set of assumptions about a group to all members of that group. 4 When a person involves false universalisation in their theory or in their activism, they are actually undermining all four of the elements necessary for feminist theory. Therefore, if one fails when describing women s lives to take account of the relevant differences, then one s explanations will probably fail to be adequate, one s recommendations for reforms will be incorrect, and penultimately one will fail to eliminate social inequalities.
It is according to the four elements that feminist theory should be analysed against, as well as the possibility that false universalisation could have occurred in the construction of such thought.
Unlike Jagger who believes that women must have their own gender identity, therefore their own gender ideology; Sally Alexander states that the core of feminism is always posed in terms of women s perceptions of themselves and their status in relation to men 5
It therefore becomes apparent that there will be many discrepancies in feminist
theory , with some theories being more acceptable than others. Feminism strives to seek equality for women,yet as an ideology this conquest both succeeds on certain levels but as an all encompassing ideology seems to fail.
II) First Wave Feminism.
a) A brief overview of the First Wave:
First Wave Feminism can be loosely categorised , into five periods: Late 18 th Century Feminism, Feminist Abolitionism, Declaration Feminism, Militant Suffragist Feminism, and, finally, Early Socialist/Marxist Feminism.6 There is chronologically no clear distinction between these five periods, the time periods seem to overlap into each other. However it makes it possible to classify them into categories because of either one or two distinct characteristics.
b) 18 th Century Feminism in Britain and the US:
During this period feminist activism focused on three issues: the education of women, marriage and property rights, and, later, abolitionism. Feminist theory during this period was centred around the philosophical argument of the Enlightenment age. The theories attention was predominantly focused around the issues of what women were by nature. Therefore philosophical arguments presented the notion that women were, by nature, different from men. 7 The majority of the philosophers claimed that women lacked the capabilities and rationality that men had. Therefore women were unsuited to participate in political, social, and educational life. Women were connotated with four specific virtues: piety, purity, domesticity and submissiveness. Due to philosophical thought and imposed virtues, women were considered to be unfit and incapable of owning property, to obtain work outside the institution of the home as well as to obtain an education equal to that of men. It is therefore both the legal and social patriarchy that removed all the rights of women. Predominantly the English common law and the church, forced women into a position of social and political subordination. The House of Commons referred to women as the weaker sex a group that could not take care of themselves and without the help of men, women would experience
their peril 8
During the mid to late 18 th century the French and American revolutions, presented new radical ideological changes. The most predominate thought was that all human beings possessed certain inalienable rights and freedoms.The Enlightenment philosopher Condorcet in 1787 , published a treatise on the rights of women. He stated that women had the same natural rights as men. During the French revolution of 1789, women were extremely active in the fight against the feudal regime. In 1791 Olympe de Gouges published a declaration on rights of women. She was beheaded in 1793 , for her activism. There after all political activity,in France, for women was banned.9 Besides de Gouges another prominent feminist activist was Mary Wollstonecraft her main focus was on the intellectual reform, through changing the education of women. Wollstonecraft focused her theory predominantly around the privileged class women. She compared this group of women to members of the feathered race, birds confined to cages who have nothing to do but plume themselves. 10 She believed that if men were placed in the same position as women then they too would develop the same characteristics that women possessed. Most of Wollstonecraft s treatise reflect the concerns of the elite women. She demanded equal education , property rights, and marriage rights. It was the work of Wollstonecraft that set the rallying point of first wave theory and activism. Even if this theory did not apply to the majority of women who were in positions of subordination, as well as if this theory predominantly possessed false universalisation.
b) Feminist Abolitionism:
Ellen DuBois states that there are two ways in which abolitionist activism and thinking helped advance the cause of feminism: 1) by highlighting for white, elite women who attempted to engage in public anti-slavery activism the facts of their own limited acceptance in public life, and 2) by providing an arena in which women could learn effective techniques for social activism.
As the abolitionist movement gained momentum, a strain of feminism emerged that was distinct and independent of the abolitionist position, though the two political movements remained effectively linked . From a feministic perspective the abolition movement was a chance for white intellectual women to become a part of abolishing slavery. Never once did the feminist movement consider the plight of black women, and the possible role that these black women could play in the promotion of women s rights. 11
It was the second generation of feminist abolitionists, who had learnt from the abolitionist movement how to effectively organise protests and other forms of activism necessary for liberation. It was this group of women under the leadership of Susan B.Anthony who would lead the next stage of the first wave.
An important question should be raised at this stage in feminist theory development. If the first wave was the foundation for feminist theory, then surely if black women were excluded (as group) especially during the abolitionist campaign, from the formulating of feminist theory and activism , then all types of feminist theory thereafter would exclude them as well?
c) Declaration Feminism:
In 1848 on July 19 th and 20 th the first women s right convention was held in Seneca Falls New York. The issues found to be of uppermost importance were: property rights women, equality in marriage, free speech, amending divorce laws, access to equal participation in public labour. It was during this convention that Lucy Stanton proposed one of the most controversial resolutions to be included in the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments, it demanded the vote for women.12
d) Militant Suffrage in Britain and the US:
Before this time, feminism had centred around the abolitionist movement, primarily for the reason that feminists viewed abolitionism as the perfect example of activism for liberation of a suppressed group. However when Stanton demanded the suffrage for women. There was an immediate outcry and protest from the abolitionist movement, who had rallied on the support of the white middle class women and their influential husbands. The abolitionist movement considered the suffrage of black men to be far more important than that of the suffrage of half the population.
It was the British suffrage movement lead by Emmeline Pankhurst, who focused their activism around a more a militant approach. Their activism included public demonstrations and acts of vandalism, especially along commercial streets such as Bond Street and Regent Street. The British movement was lead by the elite white women, who considered it the job of the elite to protest for the poor working classes. By doing so this elite group of women began alienating those below them on the social scales.13 Taking their cue from the British suffragettes, led by Carrier Chapman Catt, the suffrage movement in the US followed the same militant approach as the British movement.
However unlike the British movement that had completely changed from participating in passive activism to becoming a militant movement. The US continued to have two distinct branches of the suffrage movement. The first was lead by Elizabeth Stanton and Susan B. Anthony who focused increasingly on women suffrage, but were also concerned with broader based political reforms. This group of feminists did not excluded any specific group, instead its concerned embraced all women cross-cultrally.14 The second branch was that of the militants who s primary objective was to secure the suffrage for women. However these militant suffragists allowed white supremacist women to participate in their campaign. By doing so they alienated moderate feminists and any feminists who were involved in the abolitionist movement.
As a consequence of the militant suffrage movement, the feminist movement would be split between those who desired a radical militant approach to reform and those who followed the influence of Marxist and Socialist doctrine. It would be this split that would cause the feminist movement to remain divided. Some feminists believed that the militant approach was immoral because of the involvement of white supremacists and the exclusion of black women. While those who supported the militant approach, considered any other approach to be with out merit, and who accepted that reform was only possible through radical and militant protest.15
e) Early Marxist/Socialist Feminism:
Capitalism itself is not just the larger social rules under which men are privileged over women, it is the cause of women s oppression. 16 Unlike any of the other first
wave theories, early Marxist and Socialist doctrines were not concerned with the
social insubordination of women but rather the economic stature and their position in relation to men. It was during the early 20 th century, with the result of increased industrialisation that concern arose around the working conditions of factory working women. Due to the increase of industrialisation Marxist communist and socialist ideals were gaining support, with union activism steadily increasing. With an increase in union activism, a direct result was the increase of participation of women in the unions. For this reason feminist leaders were forced to add the demand for equal pay to the feminist agenda. However still lacking the ability to vote women participated in strikes and work stoppages, making them an influential group in these protest actions.17
Marxism and socialism provided a platform for the working women to protest against the economic inequalities that existed, especially in the factories. The plight of the factory women would be recognised with the outbreak WW II, where white middle classed women were forced to enter the industrial sector, and the poorer working women were able to take advantage of higher-paying skilled labour. However WW II would see the condemnation of any Marxist and Socialist thinking in the West. Due to this decline, in thinking, the feminist movement would have to reorganise its theoretical position, and move to a more liberal approach in its theory and activism. It can be noted that similarly to all other first wave movements and theory, this socialist approach only appealed to the white middle elite class. Again the plight of black women was ignored.
In the US, the suffrage for women was obtained in 1920. This however did not mark the end of feminism and the struggle for equality. In the Declaration of Sentiments in 1848 a topic of protest that had been ignored , due to its controversy ; would find its foothold in the second wave of feminism. That is the issue of contraceptives and abortion.
iii) Second Wave Feminism
a focus on events in the US.
a) Feminism and the Civil Rights Movement.
Similarly to the first wave who s origins were in the abolitionist movement; second wave feminism has its origins in the civil rights movement. Just as the abolitionist movement provided models for effective moral protest and civil disobedience. Likewise the civil rights movement in the late 1950 s and early 1960’s provided an example of non-violent resistance and civil disobedience.18
In conjunction with the civil rights movement a loose collection of formal and informal organisations dedicated to the implementation of gender equality began to emerge during the 1960 s. These organisations can be classified into two different types.
1) Women s rights groups.
2)Women s liberation groups.
These kinds of organisations differed with respect to their structure and their overall goals.19
1.Women s rights groups.
This is a formally organised organisation, which is dedicated to social reform through traditional legislative and political institutions. Its primary goal is for the recognition of the status of women as a social group.
President Kennedy in 1963, following the advice of Esther Peterson, convened a Commission on the Status of Women, naming Eleanor Roosevelt as its chair. The official report documented widespread discrimination in all aspects of American life, and made 24 recommendations for guaranteeing equal treatment.
The most noticeable changes and reforms, were the equal pay act of 1963; civil rights act of 1964, the formation of NOW, and the publication of Betty Friedan s The Feminine Mystique in 1963.
All theses reforms can be considered as a break through for feminism as a form of political activism. Unlike the first wave, these reforms were not only concerned with white middle class women , but rather with all women. The civil rights act of
1964, prohibited employment discrimination on the basis of sex as well as race, religion, and natural origin.
During this, thousands of young women on college campuses were playing active roles within the anti-war and civil rights movement. However their efforts were often blocked by men, which lead them to form their own liberation organisations.20
2.) Women s liberation groups.
These are loosely organised informal organisations. They do not believe in using the existing political and legislative organisations instead, they focus on consciousness raising , self- help and assertiveness training. These liberation groups are community based and try to achieve feminist reforms not through legislative change but rather through social changes and continual questioning of the patriarchal system. An Example of such a group would be The New Left ( a civil rights group, formed on college campuses , focusing on the liberation of black women in the civil rights movement.).
b) Academic Feminism and Feminist theory
With the issues concerning the suffrage movement, and civil rights being dealt with, feminism was forced to shift its focus. It realised the inequalities that existed in education. Girls and Women were not receiving the same education as their gender counterparts. The experiences of women as a social group were largely lacking from the curriculum. Therefore the desire for equality led to the formation of women s studies department, and academic journals devoted to feminism and women s studies.21
Therefore with the development of these journals and publications, the formation of feminist theory became possible.
However the problem that occurred first wave feminism became the main critique
of the second wave movement. It was the middle class white women who were the visible activists in the second wave. They held positions of power in activist circles and the consciousness raising groups were largely dominated by white middle class women. Also academic feminism, and hence those in positions to publish theory were white middle class women.
As a result second wave feminist theory contained the following
1) it took as its empirical data the experiences of white middle class women
2) it located the explanation of women s experiences solely in terms of women s
oppression on the basis of gender. ( paying little attention to race, class, sexual orientation)
3) The possible reforms for social change were geared towards changing the social conditions of white middle class women.22
There was a realisation on the part of middle class white feminists that the group women, included all women, and thus started the attempts to recruit non-middle class and non-white and non-straight women into the movement.
Many of the recruits found feminism (and feminist theory) unresponsive to their lived experiences. Primarily because the issues, responses, methods, ways of talking, that had been classified as feminism were dominated by white middle class college educated, straight women, they did not portray the experiences of non-white women or women of the lower class.
Therefore feminists have claimed that early feminist theories are completely inaccurate, since they cannot bring about the transformation and liberation of all women, but rather of only a selective group of women.
The basic critique of second wave feminism according to Betty Friedan is as follows Second wave feminism s reinscription of white supremacy and its failure to be responsive to the lived experiences of other or outsider women, rests on the false assumption that women s common experiences of gender oppression are sufficient to link all women and to establish that all women have the same interests in removing the same barriers of gender oppression 23
The feminist movement has been the primary reason for the equality that women experience today. However due to the history of feminism it can be concluded that
as a political movement it failed to unite ALL women. Instead Feminism and feminist theory become predominantly associated with a small specific group of the elite
white. It has therefore become necessary when discussing feminism that one highlights the tremendous inequalities that exist within its doctrine.
Gender equality should be a move by all members of a specific gender for reform,
it should not be exclusive to a specific group. Both the first wave and second wave movements failed to unify all women, perhaps it caused an irreparable drift between race, social and class groups. That could be a possible explanation for the many varying feminist theories today.
Alexander, S.: Becoming a woman.Virgo Press, London, 1994.
Friedan, B.: Betty Friedan Critiques Feminism and calls for New Directions. , New York Times Magazine, July 5, 1981.
Gaarder,J.: Sophie’s World.Phoenix, London, 1996.0
Tong, R.: Feminist Thought. Westview Press,London, 1989.
Wolf, N.: Fire with fire.Vintage, London, 1994.
Yee,S.: Black Women Abolitionists. The University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville: 1992
women s liberation movement Encyclopaedia Britannica Online.
[accessed April 15, 1999]
fem theories Dr Brookes.
[accessed April 15, 1999]
history of the movement The national women s history project.
[accessed April 15, 1999]
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