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Feminism is a body of social theory and political movement primarily based on and motivated by the experiences of women. While generally providing a critique of social relations, many proponents of feminism also focus on analyzing gender inequality and the promotion of women's rights, interests, and issues.

Feminist theory aims to understand the nature of gender inequality and focuses on gender politics, power relations and sexuality. Feminist political activism campaigns on issues such as reproductive rights, domestic violence, maternity leave, equal pay, sexual harassment, discrimination and sexual violence. Themes explored in feminism include discrimination, stereotyping, objectification, sexual objectification, oppression and patriarchy. While generally providing a critique of social relations, many proponents of feminism also focus on analyzing gender inequality and the promotion of women's rights, interests, and issues.

Modern feminist theory has been extensively criticized as being predominantly, but not exclusively, associated with western middle class academia. Feminist activism, however, is a grass roots movement which crosses class and race boundaries. It is culturally specific and addresses the issues relevant to the women of that society, for example female circumcision in Sudan, or the glass ceiling in developed economies. Some issues, such as rape, incest, and mothering are universal.



Main article: History of feminism.

First International Convention of Women in 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 began during 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 Middleberg , 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 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 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 after the war. The reasons for this varied, but included a desire to recognise 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 Wilson's Fourteen Points recognised self determination as a vital component of 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

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 for the existence of 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 feminisms have been very vocal and active in influncing attitudes and state-wide school curiculum 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.

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 criticise 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 transsexual movement because they challenge the distinctions between men and women. 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 truly understand the oppression women face. This is criticized as transphobic by transsexual women who assert that the discrimination and various struggles (such as that for legal recognitions) that they face due to asserting their gender identity, more than makes up for any they may have "missed out on" growing up, and that discrimination against gender-variant people is another face of heterosexism and patriarchy. See transfeminism and gender studies.

Effect of Feminism in the West

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 "no fault" divorce; the right of women to control their own bodies and medical decisions, including obtaining birth control devices and safe abortions; and many others. 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". As Western society has become increasingly accepting of feminist principles, some of these are no longer seen as specifically feminist, because they have been adopted by all or most people. Some beliefs that were radical for their time are now mainstream political thought. Almost no one in Western societies today questions the right of women to vote, choose her own marital partner if any, or to own land, concepts that seemed quite strange only 100 years ago.

Effect on Language

Feminists are often proponents of using 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.

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 of 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 childcare facilities. Instead of the onus of childcare resting solely on the female, men have started to recognize their responsibilities to assist in managing family matters.

There have been changes also in attitudes towards sexual morality and behaviour with the onset of second wave feminism and "the Pill": women are then more in control of their body, 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 indepently 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, women are now ordained as clergy, and in Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Judaism, women are now 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. These trends, however, have been resisted within Islam and Roman Catholicism. All the mainstream denominations of Islam forbid Muslim women from being recognized as religious clergy and scholars in the same way that Muslim men are accepted. Liberal movements within Islam have nonetheless persisted in trying to bring about feminist reforms in Muslim societies. Roman Catholicism has historically excluded women from entering the main Church hierarchy and does not allow women to hold any positions as clergy except as nuns.

Feminism also has had an important role in embracing new forms of religion. Neopagan religions especially tend to emphasise the importance of Goddess spirtuality, and question what they regard as traditonal 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

The neutrality of this section is disputed.
Female share of seats in European elected national chambers in November 2004 (percent)
Sweden 45.3
Norway 36.4
Finland 37.5
Denmark 38.0
Netherlands 35.0
New Zealand 28.3
Austria 27.5
Germany 25.8
Iceland 30.2
UK(Commons) 17.8

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

  • Worldwide, women work more than men, when both paid employment and unpaid household tasks are accounted for, according to the United Nations Human Development Report 2004: Section 28, Gender, Work Burden, and Time Allocation. 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 51 percent of the population.
  • Women are underrepresented in all of the world's 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. (Wales, while not an independent country has 50% of its members being women.)
  • In some parts of the third world, women are considered as effectively property, and have no legal rights in practice. Millions of women are expected to undergo female circumcision. In some areas, rape is used as a sentence for a crime, even crimes not committed by the women themselves. (See, for example, the case of Mukhtaran Bibi.)

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 to confront them. Extremes on the one hand include some radical feminists such as Mary Daly who argues that the world 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-male prejudices.

Many feminists, however, also question the use of the term feminist to refer to any who espouse violence to any gender or 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).

Criticisms of feminism

Feminism has attracted attention due to the social changes it has effected in Western society. While feminism in some forms and to varying degrees is generally accepted, dissenting voices do exist.

Some critics (both male and female) find that some feminists are effectively preaching hate against males or claiming male inferiority, citing that if the words "male" and "female" were replaced by "black" and "white" respectively in some feminist writings, the texts could be viewed as racist propaganda. While some feminists generally disagree with the view that men are equally oppressed under patriarchy, other feminists, especially third-wave feminists agree that men are similarly oppressed and that gender equality means oppression of neither gender.

Many feel that while feminists claim to believe in equality of the sexes, the ideology of present-day feminism is inherently gynocentric. These critics cite both the etymology and symbology of the contemporary feminist movement, and the constant focus of its work on issues that affect women. They feel that followers of this ideology tend to see the world through a certain lens, leading them to be prejudiced. These critics say that the feminists start with the assumption that women are widely oppressed in contemporary America, and never stray from that assumption – leading to observations that are clouded by confirmation bias. This group of critics would like to see a new non gender-biased term replace “feminism,” such as “gender egalitarianism." This term would then replace “feminism” when used in reference to the belief, close to universal now in contemporary Western culture, in basic equal rights and opportunities for both sexes.

Some argue that because of feminism, males are beginning to be oppressed. Those who make this claim often note that males die from suicide 4 times more frequently than females attempting suicide in the USA; rates climbed dramatically during the 1980s and early 1990s; 72% of all suicides are white males; slightly over half of all suicides are adult men, aged 25-65; critics conclude that the USA is becoming a country where males especially white males are severely oppressed. (See statistics here) The global statistics are similar (See statistics for [1]). According to sociologists, there are various reasons for these suicide rate increases, and they do not indicate a greater level of male oppression. Some studies of the 20 year increase in male suicide rates (ending in 1998, when the rate began to decrease) have found only a correlation between it and: local economic health and employment rates, suicide methods preferred by men, male isolation if divorced, women seeking treatment for depression in far greater numbers than do men, and (especially) aging populations. It should be noted that during the same approximate period (1952 to 1995) the rates for teen and elder suicide nearly tripled.

Men opposed to women's suffrage

Many people object to the feminist movement as trying to destroy traditional gender roles. They say that men and women have many natural differences and that everyone benefits from recognizing those differences. For example, children are thought to benefit from having a masculine father and a feminine mother; in this view, divorce, single parenthood, or non-traditional gender roles are all seen as harming children more than do conflict in the home, dual but poor role models, or new definitions of masculinity, femininity, or family. The traditional nuclear family is now an exceptional background in the US, and has been the subject of many critiques characterizing it as a racist or culturally ignorant or nostalgic idealized model.

Criticism has been made that social change and legal reform have gone too far and now negatively affect men and families with children. For example, it has been suggested that custody hearings in divorces are biased towards the mother, and several organizations have formed to fight for fathers' rights.

Some men also express worry that a belief in the glass ceiling for women has led to women being promoted more than men for the purpose of public relations than for their merit. This could be compared to affirmative action; thus, feminists who favour such a method of reform usually present arguments similar to those used for defending affirmative action (i.e. that such a system is required to offset the results of previous discrimination).

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

Although efforts to curb sexual harassment against women in the workplace are normally applauded, there are those who note that the situation is such that the concern directed towards women in resolving disputes of sexual harassment is indirect discrimination, in that less concern is given to men when they are the subject of the claims, or when they are claiming a case of sexual harassment. Since the 1990s, proving sexual harassment in the United States (by either men or women) has been made much more difficult by Supreme Court decisions.

Postcolonial feminists criticise Western forms of feminism, notably radical feminism and its most basic assumption, universalization of female experience. These feminists argue that the assumption of a global experience as a woman is based on a white middle-class experience in which gender oppression is primary, and cannot apply to women for whom gender oppression may come second to racial or class oppression.

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 over-whelmingly as valid, and non-conformity to those values characterized as unacceptable, by the same men and women who reject the label "feminist".

See also


  • Butler, Judith (1994). "Feminism in Any Other Name", differences 6:2-3: 44-45.
  • Echols, Alice., Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967-1975, University of Minnesota Press 1990
  • Farrell, Warren, PhD., Why Men Earn More 2005 (ISBN: 0-8144-7210-9)
  • 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, entitled Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935)
  • Silverman, Kaja ., Male Subjectivity at the Margins, p.2-3. New York: Routledge 1992
  • 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)

External links

Feminist organizations

Supportive of feminism

Critical of feminism

Feminism and Religion

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