Feminism, as defined by Barbara Goodwin “is about the oppression of women by men”, however the term ‘oppression’ may be considered as exaggerated as over the years’ women have been appearing as fundamental figures within various fields, such as the political one by acting as ambassadors, generals and Prime Ministers. According to Karen Offen, the term “Feminism” originated in France during the late 19th century and thus it may be considered as a “relatively new term”. Such doctrine however, since its early stages, has always been associated with the ways in which women are disadvantaged within societies and how to achieve equality amongst men and women.
When talking about the theory of Feminism one must be careful in the way he or she refers to the character of women. As a matter of fact, as stated in Peter Barry’s Beginning Theory there are different definitions and interpretations for each word: when referring to the term ‘female’ one is talking about biology, whilst when using the word ‘feminine’ one is referring to the cultural aspect. Lastly when using the expression ‘Feminist’ one is clearly denoting a political matter. Within this parenthesis, human nature has to be taken into consideration, and placing under question whether ‘female human nature’ differs from the male one or if it is universal, results as fundamental. By acknowledging the presence of biological differences then it is appropriate to refer to them as the origin and the source of women’s oppression. However, as argued by all Feminists “the only politically correct conclusion is that inequalities between the sexes have been socially constructed according to patriarchal norms”. Furthermore, if we leave aside the concept of ‘constructed gender’ it is possible to say that both feminine and masculine forms are artificially constructed based on false biological distinctions and that the ‘demarcation lines’ of gender can be easily challenged as they’re not fixed.
Despite the fact that already in Ancient Greece women weren’t satisfied with the way in which they were treated, it was not until the late 19th century that a series of stable and concrete Feminist movements began developing. The ‘first wave’ of feminism emerged in those years within a liberal and socialist political environment and had as primary target that of achieving equal opportunities for women, with a special emphasis on suffrage. Due to the waves’ main goal, examinations on the differences between men and women within the social and political field began: as a result some stated that as women were morally superior than men they should have a greater role in the public sphere whilst other understood the real meaning of equality and demanded their presence in these field.
Following both World War One and World War Two, Feminism received more attention through the establishment of the ‘second wave’ which began around the 1960’s. Within this wave, reproductive rights and sexuality were the leading issues as self-consciousness was growing due to the anti-war and civil rights movements present at the time. Feminists began understanding that the sources of the problem of inequality were linked to patriarchy as well as capitalism and that gender and the socially constructed stereotypes were the issue and not the biological differences between the sexes. One of the main distinctions between the first and second wave was that whilst in the first case the movement was generally driven by middle class white women, the second wave was propelled by women of color who sought for solidarity by stating that women’s struggle was also linked to class struggle.
Post-colonial and Post-modern thinking influenced particularly the development of the ‘third wave’ of Feminist movements which took place in the mid 1990’s and which challenged the issues of gender, body and sexuality. Key aspect that brings distance between this wave and the two previous ones is the strength with which women went against patriarchy and empowered their beauty for themselves as subjects and not as objects. Furthermore, this wave underlines within its policy how differences related to class, ethnicity and sexual orientation must be celebrated and how the distinction between gender and the terms “us” and “them” must be rejected.
With the development of new technologies and the means brought by the phenomenon of globalization it can be said that the internet gave the opportunity for the ‘fourth wave’ of feminism to establish itself. Even if some argue that the high rate of usage of the internet isn’t enough to determine a new wave based upon the Feminist ideology, it has to be taken into consideration that the internet has facilitated the establishment of a global community of Feminists who regularly discuss and take action online. Moreover there is proof that thanks to globalization, the use of new technologies and social networks such as Twitter is currently increasing, especially in areas where women still face injustices and this is for them the only way to be proactive and make a valuable contribution to their society. In point of fact within the Turkish State women all together make up 72% of social media users whilst in the US, with the web campaign United States of Women, Feminists are raising awareness day by day, as well as taking action through online movements and online debates.
Even if within this doctrine all Feminists aim to attain gender equality, there are different beliefs in the ways in which this should be achieved. These differences may be seen by analyzing the different strands of feminism. As a matter of fact, liberal Feminists aim to overcome oppression through equality, believing that “liberal rights should be fully and equally extended to women” thus supporting the concept of ‘sameness’. Liberal Feminists aim to re-evaluate the mainstream theory in which women are considered as ‘second-rate’ men and instead introduce an egalitarian process which proves that women can do what men can do. Socialist Feminists instead think that only with socialism women’s liberation will be reached as it is part of the class struggle. Differently radical Feminists argue that a “radical restructuring of social organization” is necessary for sexual oppression. This strand however, has received various critiques as, instead of demanding equality, radical Feminist believe in their own superiority and perceive to be intrinsically pre-eminent thus they should have not what men have but instead they should have more. Lastly Postmodern Feminists use the insights of postmodernism to understand and enquiry the norms based on gender. As a matter of fact this last strand doesn’t believe neither in sameness nor in diversity but simply focuses its analysis on the question of the organization and the effects of power. Overall, even if there are different strands of feminism which believe in diverse paths to obtain their goals, all those who fight in Feminist movements are constantly challenging gender, oppression and patriarchy. In point of fact, as stated by Eisenstein: “For equality to exist between men and women, the structure of patriarchy must be destroyed”.
Since the beginning, women understood that if they would have ever achieved equality, they would have had to change the public policy, hence stand together in solidarity to prove that societies were wrong. “Challenging and changing female sexist thinking was the first step towards creating the powerful sisterhood” that constituted the second wave of Feminists. Indeed, the unity amongst all Feminists has its origins in the shared commitment to struggle against patriarchy and social injustices by undermining sexisms. Furthermore, Feminist sisterhood resulted in a great success as women had the courage to cross boundaries of both race and class and join together to use their power against discriminations. Through this unison women within the years have been able to achieve certain objectives and result successful in obtaining their goals.
The right to vote is and was one of the main targets achieved by the Feminist movements. New Zealand was the first country that lived through the universal suffrage in 1893, followed by Australia in the subsequent year. Within the years women around the world started gaining such right, however this battle wasn’t always immediate and the Feminist movements with strength and tenacity in some cases had to go through terrible conflicts and rebellions. Nonetheless in some states women saw the option of voting just in the recent years: Switzerland granted the universal suffrage in 1971, whilst Kuwaiti allowed equality in voting just in 2005. However, one of the worst scenarios regarding the universal suffrage took place in Saudi Arabia, where the government permitted women to vote just in 2015. Through the establishment of the new reforms, the female figure has been able to participate within the public life and have the right to express her own beliefs. In the United Kingdom, women’s suffrage became a national issue during the 19th century. Initially women weren’t banned from voting but with the establishment of the Reform Act in 1832 such right was officially denied to them. However in 1872, England saw the formation of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage which fought for women’s equality, but it wasn’t until the end of the First World War that, through the passing of the Representation of the People Act in 1918 women over the age of 30 gained the right to vote. It took the Conservative government other ten years to pass the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act which officially gave the vote to all women over 21, eventually extended to all men and women over 18 in 1969.
Another great success achieved by the Feminist movements is the right to access education. Within the years, studies have been carried out in order to understand the main reasons that prevent girls from going to school; school-based violence, child marriage and discriminatory gender norms where the most frequent ones proving how the issue is linked to gendered and sexist matters. Nonetheless action has been taken and the ‘Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women’ took further steps to grant education to girls. According to this reform all states have the duty to do all of the necessary to eliminate discrimination and reach equality amongst sexes. Furthermore, States must assure same conditions for access to studies and same quality of education to both boys and girls. Feminist movements with their demonstrations and their demands were able to determine the participation of various associations, such as the UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education and the Convention on the Rights of the Child , to their battle. Despite the various achievements obtained by Feminists, universal education is not yet a global norm: girls and women continue to be discriminated in accessing education. Even if in Western countries women have outperformed men within the levels of education – in the US in 2007 women received 62% of associate degrees and 60% of doctorates – the worldwide situation is still critic: 31 million girls over 57 million children aren’t attending schools and two thirds of illiterate adults are women.
Early on, Feminists placed attention not only in the public sphere with issues linked to the right to vote and the possibility to participate in the daily political and social life but also within the private field. Private bonds and domestic relationships were analyzed and resulted in clear examples of male domination and patriarchal interactions. As a matter of fact, until 1923 the only ground for divorce was adultery; even if there was proof of domestic violence and daily beatings the status of the marriage wouldn’t change unless the wife would betray the husband and thus he could request a divorce, as well as denying her of all of her properties and her children. The big change came in 1969 where Feminist movements proved their success and gained the right to divorce when the Divorce Reform Act was passed. Feminist movements have placed all their efforts in trying to obtain greater cultural awareness regarding domestic violence however such matter is still ongoing despite the progress within divorce. Most Feminists believe that it is crucial to have a prevailing agenda whose goal is to end all forms of violence, however theorists are aware that it isn’t a matter that can be stopped through the public sphere but it has to start from the private. In point of fact, most cases of domestic violence aren’t reported because of the fear propagated by the patriarchal relationship within the private sphere.
Vibrant achievement of the Feminist movements is the establishment of various associations that have as central goal that of the protection of the female figure. First in chronological order is the National Organization for Women, also known as NOW, which was founded in 1966 by 28 women during the Third National Conference of Commissions on the Status of Women. As written in the organization’s Statement of Purpose, NOW’s main resolution is “to take action to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of society, exercising all privileges and responsibilities thereof in truly equal partnership with men”. Of equal importance is the establishment of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) which took place in 2010. UN Women’s main thematic areas include political participation, ending violence, peace and security and economic empowerment. Clear similarities may be seen between the aims of these associations and the Feminist movements.
Feminist movements have their origins in the 19th century and since then women have tried to achieve equality with their opposite sex. Differences can be established between the various waves of feminism that developed within the centuries as well as amongst the diverse strands and their ideologies. Nonetheless all Feminists come together in sisterhood as they all fight for what they believe in. Proof of the collective force with which they fought their battles are the various achievements reached within the years: the right to vote, the right to access education and the right to divorce. Furthermore, with the creation of various associations the path to equality has been flattened giving hope to all the women. Overall, one of the most important aspects of the Feminist movements is the strength and power that brings all the women together in facing critiques and challenging social injustices, showing how the will to change and the will to create the context for liberation and equality is fiercer than anything else.