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Feminism is a diverse collection of social theories, political movements, and moral philosophies, largely motivated by or concerning the experiences of women, especially socially, politically, and economically within a context of patriarchy. As a social movement, feminism largely focuses on limiting or eradicating gender inequality and promoting women's rights, interests, and issues in society.

Within academia, some feminists focus on documenting gender inequality and changes in the social position and representation of women. Others argue that gender, and even sex, are social constructs, and research the construction of gender and sexuality, and develop alternate models for studying social relations.

Some feminist scholars have posited that the hierarchies in businesses and government and all organizations need to be replaced with a decentralized ultra-democracy. Some argue that having any central leader in any organization is derived from the androcentric family structure (and therefore needs reform and replacement), and thus such scholars see the essence of feminism as beyond the surface issues of sex and gender. (See Anarcha-Feminism and Post-structuralism)

Feminist political activism commonly campaign on issues such as reproductive rights, violence within a domestic partnership, maternity leave, equal pay, sexual harassment, street harassment,discrimination, and sexual violence. Themes explored in feminism include patriarchy, stereotyping, objectification, sexual objectification, and oppression.

In the 1960s and 1970s, much of feminism and feminist theory represented, and was concerned with, problems faced by Western, white, middle-class women while claiming to represent all women. Since then, many feminist theorists have challenged the assumption that "women" constitute a homogeneous group of individuals with identical interests. Feminist activists emerged from within diverse communities, and feminist theorists began to focus on the intersection between gender and sexuality with other social identities, such as race and class. Many feminists today argue that feminism is a grass-roots movement that seeks to cross boundaries based on social class, race, culture, and religion; is culturally specific and addresses issues relevant to the women of that society (for example female circumcision in Sudan or the glass ceiling in developed economies); and debate the extent to which certain issues, such as rape, incest, and mothering, are universal.

In 2005 a number of feminist political parties have been formed.



Main article: History of feminism.

First International Convention of Women in Washington D.C. Susan B. Anthony is third from the left, front row.
First International Convention of Women in Washington D.C. Susan B. Anthony is third from the left, front row.

Feminism as a philosophy and movement in the modern sense may be usefully dated to The Enlightenment with such thinkers as Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and the Marquis de Condorcet championing women's education. The first scientific society for women was founded in Middelburg, a city in the south of the Dutch republic, in 1785. Journals for women which focused on issues like science became popular during this period as well. Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) is one of the first works that can unambiguously be called feminist. Feminism became an organized movement in the 19th century as people increasingly came to believe that women were being treated unfairly. The feminist movement was rooted in the progressive movement and especially in the reform movement of the 19th century. The utopian socialist Charles Fourier coined the word féminisme in 1837; as early as 1808, he argued that the extension of women's rights was the general principle of all social progress. The organized movement was dated from the first women's rights convention at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. In 1869, John Stuart Mill published The Subjection of Women to demonstrate that "the legal subordination of one sex to the other is wrong...and...one of the chief hindrances to human improvement."

Many countries began to grant women the vote in the early years of the 20th century, especially in the final years of the First World War and the first years hence. The reasons varied, but they included a desire to recognize the contributions of women during the war, and were also influenced by rhetoric used by both sides at the time to justify their war efforts. For example, since Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points recognized self determination as vital to society, the hypocrisy of denying half the population of modern nations the vote became difficult for men to ignore. (See: Women's suffrage)

Feminism in many forms

Some forms of feminist theory question basic assumptions about gender, gender difference, and sexuality, including the category of "woman" itself as a holistic concept, further some are interested in questioning the male/female binary completely (offering instead a multiplicity of genders). Other forms of feminist theory take for granted the concept of "woman" and provide specific analyzes and critiques of gender inequality, and most feminist social movements promote women's rights, interests, and issues. Feminism is not a single ideology. Over-time several sub-types of feminist ideology have developed. Early feminists and primary feminist movements are often called the first-wave feminists, and feminists after about 1960 the second-wave feminists. More recently, a new generation of feminists have started third-wave feminism. Whether this will be a lasting evolution remains to be seen as the second-wave has by no means ended nor has it ceded to the third-wave feminists. Moreover, some commentators have asserted that the silent majority of modern feminists have more in common ideologically with the first-wave feminists than the second-wave. For example, many of the ideas arising from Radical feminism and Gender feminism (prominent second-wave movements) have yet to gain traction within the broader community and outside of Gender Studies departments within the academy.

For example, Radical feminism argues that there exists an oppressive patriarchy that is the root cause of the most serious social problems. Violence and oppression of women, because they are women, is more fundamental than oppressions related to class, ethnicity, religion, etc. Radical feminists have been very vocal and active in influencing attitudes and state-wide school curriculum standards. Thus, it is not unusual for feminism to be equated with the ideas proposed by Radical feminism. Some find that the prioritization of oppression and the universalization of the idea of "Woman," which was part of traditional Radical feminist thinking, too generic, and that women in other countries would never experience the same experience of being "woman" than women in Western countries did.

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 affecting the others.

Subtypes of feminism

Although many leaders of feminism have been women, not all feminists are women. Some feminists argue that men should not take positions of leadership in the movement, because men, having been socialized to aggressively seek positions of power or direct the agendas within a leadership hierarchy, would apply this tendency to feminist organizations; or that women, having been socialized to defer to men, would be hindered in developing or expressing their own self-leadership in working too closely with men. However, most feminists do accept and seek the support of men. Compare pro-feminist, humanism, masculism, masculinism®.

Today, young women most commonly associate "feminism" with radical and gender feminism, and this has put off a lot of these women from being active in feminism, spurring a move away from second-wave labels. However, the basic values of feminism (gender equality of rights and opportunities) have become so integrated into Western culture as to be accepted overwhelmingly as valid, and non-conformity to those values characterized as unacceptable, by the same men and women who reject the label "feminist".

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 criticize 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 transgender movement because it challenges the distinctions between men and women. Transgender and transsexual women are excluded from some "women-only" gatherings and events and are rejected by some feminists who say that no one born male can fully understand the oppression that women face, also citing the sexism inherent in the notion that femaleness is a default gender that one can enter after shedding externally recognizable male traits. This exclusion is criticized as transphobic by transwomen who assert that the discrimination and various struggles (such as that for legal recognitions) that they face due to asserting their gender identity is closely linked to many feminist efforts, and that discrimination against gender-variant people is another face of heterosexism and patriarchy. See transfeminism and gender studies.

Effects of feminism in the West

Some feminists would argue that there is still much to be done on these fronts, while third-wave feminists would disagree and claim that the battle has basically been won.

Effects on civil rights

Feminists have struggled to overcome power-based barriers throughout the movement's history.
Feminists have struggled to overcome power-based barriers throughout the movement's history.

Feminism has effected 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 the introduction of "no fault" divorce; the right of women in almost all developed countries to exercise a degree of control over their own bodies and medical decisions, including obtaining contraception and safe abortions; and many others. Feminism is commonly viewed as a pro-choice movement, although there are some notable exceptions. The national organization Feminists for Life, for instance, condemns the act of abortion, claiming that the reason that abortion is so common is because women do not have access to alternate resources and information. FFL even suggests that the abortion industry is part of a system which allows the abuse of women and women's rights.

As Western society has become increasingly accepting of feminist principles, many of these issues, perceived as radical in the 19th century, are now part of mainstream political thought, such as the right of women to vote, own land, and choose their own marital partners or decide not to marry.

Effect on language

English-speaking feminists are often proponents of what they consider to be 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 affects 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.

On the other hand, quite a different tendency can be seen in French. Gender, as a grammatical concept, is much more pervasive in French than in English, and as a result, it has been virtually impossible to create inclusive language. Instead, nouns that originally had only a masculine form have had feminine counterparts created for them. "Professeur" ("teacher"), once always masculine regardless of the teacher's sex, now has a parallel feminine form "Professeure". In cases where separate masculine and feminine forms have always existed, it was once standard practice for a group containing both men and women to be referred to using the masculine plural, but nowadays, forms such as "Toutes les Canadiennes et tous les Canadiens" ("all Canadians", or literally "all the female Canadians and all the male Canadians") are becoming more common.

Effect on heterosexual relationships

The feminist movements have 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 consequences that can be catalogued as negative from the traditional point of view on morals.

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. In response to the family issue, many socialist feminists blame this on the lack of state-provided child-care facilities. Others have advocated instead that the onus of child-care not rest solely on the female, but rather that men partake in the responsibility of managing family matters.

There have been changes also in attitudes towards sexual morality and behavior with the onset of second wave feminism and "the Pill": women are then more in control of their bodies, 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 (especially by sex-positive feminists) 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. Whether marriage is an institution that oppresses women and men, or not, has generated discussion. Those that do view it as oppressive sometimes opt for cohabitation or more recently to live independently reverting to casual sex to fulfill their sexual needs.

Effect on religion

Feminism has had a great effect on many aspects of religion. In liberal branches of Protestant Christianity (and in some theologically conservative dominations as well, such as Assemblies of God[1]), women are now ordained as clergy, and in Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Judaism, women are ordained as rabbis and cantors. Within these Christian and Jewish groups, women 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. In Islam women have historically contributed to all aspects of Islamic life, from religious edicts to aid on the battlefield. Around half of the sayings of Muhammad are taken from his wife Aisha, whom men often consulted on religious matters. In this day you will often see many women scholars on Arabic satellite television answering Islam-related questions, asked by both genders. One matter remains debatable nowadays, which is whether or not a woman can lead men in prayers. These trends, however, have been resisted within Roman Catholicism. Roman Catholicism has historically excluded women from entering priesthood and other positions in clergy, allowing women to hold positions as nuns or as laypeople.

Feminism also has had an important role in embracing new forms of religion. Neopagan religions especially tend to emphasize the importance of Goddess spirituality, and question what they regard as traditional religion's hostility to women and the sacred feminine. In particular Dianic Wicca is a religion whose origins lie within radical feminism. Among traditional religions, feminism has led to self examination, with reclaimed positive Christian and Islamic views and ideals of Mary, Islamic views of Fatima Zahra, and especially to the Catholic belief in the Coredemptrix, as counterexamples. However, criticism of these efforts as unable to salvage corrupt church structures and philosophies continues. Some argue that Mary, with her status as mother and virgin, and as traditionally the main role model for women, sets women up to aspire to an impossible ideal and also thus has negative consequences on human sense of identity and sexuality.

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

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.

Worldwide statistics

Stop! The neutrality of this section is disputed.
Female share of seats in elected national chambers in November 2004 (percent)
Rwanda 49.0
Sweden 45.3
South Africa 42.0
Namibia 42.0
Denmark 38.0
Finland 37.5
Norway 36.4
Netherlands 35.0
Germany 32.8
Iceland 30.2
New Zealand 28.3
Austria 27.5
Canada 21.1
China 20.2
UK(Commons) 17.8
Mauritius 17.0
United States 15.0
Japan 7.1

The following is a sampling of statistics related to the relative status of women worldwide.

  • According to the United Nations Human Development Report 2004: Section 28, Gender, Work Burden, and Time Allocation, women work on average more than men, when both paid employment and unpaid household tasks are accounted for. In rural areas of the developing countries surveyed, women perform an average of 20% more work than men, or an additional 98 minutes per day. In the OECD countries surveyed, on average women performed 5% more work than men, or 18 minutes per day.
  • Women own only 1 percent of the world's wealth, and earn 10 percent of the world's income, despite making up 49.5 percent of the population.
  • Women are underrepresented in all of the world's major legislative bodies (see Women in National Parliaments, November 2004). In 1985, Finland had the largest percentage of women in national legislature at approximately 32 percent (P. Norris, Women's Legislative Participation in Western Europe, West European Politics). Currently, Sweden has the highest number of women at 45 percent. The United States has just 14 percent. The world average is just 9 percent. In contrast, half of the members of the recently established Welsh Assembly Government are women.

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. But there are many ideas within the movement regarding the severity of current problems, what the problems are, and how best to confront them.

Extremes on the one hand include some radical feminists such as Mary Daly who argues that human society 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-men prejudice.

On the other hand, many feminists question the use of the term feminist to groups or people 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).

In Marilyn French's seminal works analyzing patriarchy and its effects on the world at large--including women, men and children--she defines patriarchy as a system that values power over life, control over pleasure, and dominance over happiness. According to French, "it is not enough either to devise a morality that will allow the human race simply to survive. Survival is an evil when it entails existing in a state of wretchedness. Intrinsic to survival and continuation is felicity, pleasure. Pleasure has been much maligned, diminished by philosophers and conquerors as a value for the timid, the small-minded, the self-indulgent. "Virtue" involves the renunciation of pleasure in the name of some higher purpose, a purpose that involves power (for men) or sacrifice (for women). Pleasure is described as shallow and frivolous in a world of high-minded, serious purpose. But pleasure does not exclude serious pursuits or intentions, indeed, it is found in them, and it is the only real reason for staying alive" Beyond Power This philosophy is what French offers as a replacement to the current structure where power has the highest value--and it is this feminism to which many (women and men) subscribe. However many believe this view is flawed, simply because one who desires power will usually obtain power over one who does not.

Contemporary criticisms of feminism

Feminism, in some forms and to varying degrees, has become generally accepted in Western society. However, the attention it has attracted, due to the social changes it has effected, has resulted in many dissenting voices. Criticism has come from within the movement, from masculists, and from social conservatives.

Postcolonial feminists criticise Western forms of feminism, notably radical feminism and its most basic assumption, universalization of female experience. They argue that this assumption is based on the expeience of white, middle-class women, for whom gender oppression is primary; and that it cannot so easily be applied to women for whom gender oppression comes second to racial or class oppression.

Non-feminist critics suggest that the continual emphasis on women's issues throughout the evolution of the movement has resulted in gynocentric ideology. They think that modern-day feminists are biased by the lens that filters their world views. They would like to see a gender-neutral term such as "gender egalitarianism" replace "feminism" when used in reference to the belief in basic equal rights and opportunities for both sexes.

Many who support masculism argue that because of feminism, males are beginning to be oppressed. One complaint is that some feminists promote misandry, even male inferiority - it has been argued that replacing the words "male" and "female" in some feminist writings with "black" and "white" respectively would make these texts racist. Another concern is that the belief in a glass ceiling for women has resulted in affirmative action programs that promote women more for the purpose of public relations than for merit. Sexual harassment is also a topic of dispute: critics claim that, in the name of protecting women, men are discriminated against when they are the subject of claims; and that they are treated less seriously when claiming cases.

Other concerns include inequity in health funding (particularly breast vs. prostate cancer), societal sympathy for women vs. vilification of men (e.g., emphasis on "violence against women"), and fears of censorship. While many feminists disagree with the view that men are equally oppressed under patriarchy, others, especially third-wave feminists, agree that men are similarly oppressed and that gender equality means oppression of neither gender.

Conservative criticism includes the claim that the feminist movement is trying to destroy traditional gender roles. Proponents argue that men and women have many natural differences, and that everyone benefits from recognizing them. They consider children to benefit from having a masculine father and a feminine mother; and that divorce, single parenthood, and non-traditional gender roles harm children.

There is also a group of Paleoconservatives including George Gilder and Pat Buchanan who argue that feminism has produced a fundamentally unworkable, self-destructive, stagnant society. They note that societies in which feminism has developed the furthest have below-replacement rates of fertility and high rates of immigration (frequently from countries with cultures and religions hostile to feminism). In the US, "liberal" religious groups most accepting of feminism have noted fewer conversions and less natural increase. The most rapidly growing major religion in the US is Islam, some forms of which are extremely hostile to feminism.

Famous Feminists

See also


  • Antrobus, Peggy. The global women's movement - Origins, issues and strategies, London, Zed Books 2004
  • Bradley, Martha Sonntag. Pedistals and Podiums: Utah Women, Religious Authority, and Equal Rights, Salt Lake City, Signature Books 2005
  • Butler, Judith (1994). "Feminism in Any Other Name", differences 6:2-3: 44-45.
  • Lorraine Code, ed., Encyclopedia of feminist theories, Routledge 2000
  • Echols, Alice. Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967-1975, University of Minnesota Press 1990
  • Farrell, Warren. Why Men Earn More 2005 (ISBN 0-8144-7210-9)
  • French, Marilyn. Beyond Power; War Against Women; From Eve to Dawn, a 3-volume history of women
  • Kampwirth, Karen. Feminism and the Legacy of Revolution: Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chiapas, Ohio UP 2004
  • Lerner, Gerda. The Creation of Feminist Consciousness: From the Middle Ages to Eighteen-Seventy, Oxford University Press 1994
  • Mead, Margaret. Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935)
  • Silverman, Kaja. Male Subjectivity at the Margins, p.2-3. New York: Routledge 1992
  • Sommers, Christina Hoff. Who Stole Feminism? - How women have betrayed women (1996)
  • Thomas, Calvin. (ed.) "Introduction: Identification, Appropriation, Proliferation", Straight with a Twist: Queer Theory and the Subject of Heterosexuality, p.39n. University of Illinois Press (2000)
  • Wertheim, Margaret. Pythagoras' Trousers - God, Physics, and the Gender Wars, W.W. Norton & Co. (1995, 1997)

External links

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