52 ideas that changed the world - 7. Feminism
How women fought for social and political liberation
In this series, The Week looks at the ideas and innovations that permanently changed the way we see the world. This week, the spotlight is on feminism.
Feminism in 60 seconds
Feminism “means very different things to different people”, but in essence describes a political philosophy that “advocates social, political, economic, and intellectual equality for women and men”, says Stanford University’s Gendered Innovations project.
The history of the feminist movement can be divided into three historical “waves”. Although modern feminism is made up of a vast array of differing schools of thought, all forms of feminism share some core principles.
A central tenet of feminism holds that women face systematic bias as a result of living in patriarchal societies.
Often misunderstood or misrepresented, patriarchy - a term derived from the Ancient Greek words patria, meaning father, and arches, meaning rule - does not refer to a system in which only men hold power or all men hold power, but rather one in which the balance of social, political and economic power is held by men.
Another core feminist concept is “privilege”, which refers to social advantages conferred by an accident of birth at the expense of those who do not have this edge. For instance, members of an ethnic majority group are not generally subject to racial profiling or prejudice to the same extent as ethnic minorities.
From a feminist perspective, patriarchy and privilege go hand in hand, as a system in which “men have more power than women” and “have some level of privilege to which women are not entitled”, writes Linda Napikoski on reference website ThoughtCo.
How did it develop?
“For most of recorded history, only isolated voices spoke out against the inferior status of women,” says Encyclopaedia Britannica.
English writer Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1792 essay A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is often cited as the earliest text to espouse recognisibly “feminist” ideas, urging men to “generously snap our chains, and be content with rational fellowship instead of slavish obedience”.
The word feminism was coined a century later, to describe the movement of women militating for the same political rights as men, primarily the right to vote. By the 1920s, women had won the vote across most of the Western world, thanks to this so-called “first wave” of women’s rights campaigners.
The second wave emerged in the mid-20th century, and focused on achieving broader social and economic equality between the sexes.
Key achievements of this generation include a series of victories in the battle for equal pay and access to divorce, abortion and contraception - but the so-called “women’s lib” movement of the 1960s and 1970s was just as significant for its academic underpinnings.
“Unlike the first wave, second-wave feminism provoked extensive theoretical discussion about the origins of women’s oppression, the nature of gender, and the role of the family,” says Encyclopaedia Britannica. Thinkers such as Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer and Bell Hooks are among those who have helped shape the feminist discourse in the second half of the 20th century.
The third wave - which, depending on which academics you believe, is either ongoing or is being superseded by a “fourth wave” - has seen feminism diversify.
Although the previous waves tended to centre on the experience of white, straight, middle-class women, the third wave includes sub-movements such as sex positive feminism, black feminism, eco-feminism, and - perhaps most notably - intersectional feminism.
This final term, coined by feminist academic Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989, refers to the way in which sexism can be experienced in tandem with other forms of discrimination, such as racism or homophobia.
“Acknowledging how different forms of discrimination intersect with and amplify gender-based discrimination is a critical way to ensure all women reap the benefits of women’s rights,” says the Melbourne-based International Women’s Development Agency.
How did it change the world?
Of all the social movements that seek to improve the lot of humanity, “only feminism can claim to have broadened, permanently, the lives of half the humans in the West”, writes Robert Fulford in the National Post.
The feminist movement “has altered a whole culture’s ideal version of sexual roles. It has changed the professions... how children are raised, how the law deals with domestic life, how corporations and public institutions are staffed,” he continues.
As well as major feminist milestones such as access to abortion and equal pay for equal work, many of the everyday freedoms that women take for granted today were won in the not-so-distant past.
In the UK, for instance, family planning clinics only won permission to prescribe contraceptives to single women in 1974 - “a controversial decision at the time”, notes the BBC. And until the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975, banks were allowed to deny loans or credit cards to women without a male guarantor.
However, these victories come at a cost. In the earliest days of the movement, British suffragists were subjected to brutal opposition, including the force-feeding of hunger strikers. Indeed, throughout history, feminists worldwide have faced mockery, obstruction and even violence.
And the battle is far from over, says the Post’s Fulford. With millions of women “caged by misogynistic religions and male-made dictatorships”, as well as lingering prejudice in even the most progressive of nations, “the world still needs the feminist spirit”.