In the 21st century, feminism has become a major social issue. The globalized world has contributed to the spread of feminist ideas to every corner of the world. Mostly, it is considered to be, and it is, a positive influence on the main cause of the feminist movement which achieved considerable results and not only in the U.S. However, due to the multitude of ideas emerged from numerous discussions, studies, debates, and media quarrels, the cause of feminism seems to have drifted from its original pursuit of equality. Mass consciousness sometimes interprets feminism and a witch-hunt for men as one and the same, whereas it is not. Due to multiple occasions of misinterpretation that interferes with the value of and regard for feminist ideas, it is paramount once again to review the roots and main principles of feminism, consider its development over the history, and address the main issues the movement faces in the present time.
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Amending the misinterpretation requires a clear definition of feminism. One of the most widespread, at least, according to the general idea and content, the definition of feminism is provided by Hawkesworth (31). Mary Hawkesworth is a distinguished professor of political science and Gender studies that invested a great effort into spreading the ideas of feminism and increasing their value. She defines feminism as the complexity of social and political movements and ideologies that aim to establish equal freedoms in a variety of life aspects including personal, social, economic, and political.
In order to better understand the diverse goals and ideas of the feminist movement that is now far from homogenous it is paramount to dive into its history. The history of the feminist movement is usually divided into three periods. The first is represented by suffrage movements of the late 19th, early 20th century consisting of women who promoted their right to vote. The second wave is considered to be born in the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s that aimed to equalize the social, legal, and employment spheres of life where women were oppressed. The third wave is presumed to have started in the 90s and was centered on addressing the issues the movement faced in the previous stages.
Although the first wave is considered to be mostly centered on suffrage campaign, the feminist ideas were already discussed earlier in conjunction with several legislative decisions established with the help of women social campaigns. Among those were the right of having custody of their children, inheriting and possessing property in marriage (Freedman 76). Suffragist movement for political rights resulted in all women older than 21 to be legally allowed to vote.
These first-wave victories improved the political, social, and legal position of women. However, major problems with employment, education, birth-giving and a range of other issues persisted. In addition, the victories were mainly achieved in the English-speaking countries, while the rest of the world’s women remained underrepresented and abused. The movement then was far from being associated with a negative attitude towards men. Instead, it was an attempt to be considered human beings and citizens instead of faceless and invisible breeders.
The second wave aimed to address a variety of social, economic, and political issues such as sexuality, family, reproduction, employment, domestic abuse, the legal status of women in many spheres and other problems. Among the major victories were approval of birth control medication, Equal Pay Act of 1963, Women’s Education Equity Act of 1974, Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 197, Equal Credit Opportunity Act 1974, and other legislation that boosted women capacity for being equal to men in a number of spheres. Despite the major achievements in this period, the factual discrimination was difficult to conquer just by passing a couple of laws. Women were still treated disrespectfully and violently at homes and workplaces. Moreover, women were afraid to report such cases. Domestic rape statistics provided by James Orcutt and Rebecca Faison indicate that before 1975 the rate of non-stranger rape reporting by women was estimated at 30% and below (589).
The second wave, however, faced certain criticism amongst the ranks of feminists who saw flaws in one of the main ideological and spiritual compasses for women population of that period – women’s liberation movement. Thus, many women of the lower class felt excluded as liberation, and the feminism ideas proposed by Betty Friedan, a famous American writer, the author of The Feminine Mystique, mostly considered the interests of middle-class women as they had real opportunities in opting for the career than working class ones (Blackwell 34). This to a certain extent has postulated a divide in views. What seemed to be a homogenous power that demanded equality in all spheres started to discriminate some of its own members. Still, the hatred for men was rarely seen. The movement was still concentrated on the restoration of the basic rights of a human being often denied to women by patriarchic society and the loss of homogeneity was purely within the feminist movement with almost no effect on general public’s perception.
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The negativity towards men and shift of public opinion about feminism is strongly connected with the emergence of radical feminism after the 1960s. It popularized the ideas of feminist revolution and deconstruction of the very foundation of patriarchic-based gender relations in society’s main institutions such as religion, economy, family, politics, and so on. The English language also became the object of close scrutiny, as radical feminists believed that it was also a major source of discrimination. While some of the initiatives were quite adequate and improved linguistic equality in speech and writing, such as gender-sensitive language, the others seem rather unreasonable. As such, one can remember such initiatives as replacing words like history, algebra, chemistry with feminitives like ‘herstory,’ ‘galgebra,’ and ‘femistry’ (Mills 99).
To some extent, this may be considered popularization of women’s contribution to these subjects, but, on the other hand, this is rather a change of course from real problems of women in society to either imagined or insignificant. Some activists even challenged the spelling of the word ‘woman’ and attempted to change it to ‘womyn’ or ‘womon’ in order to relieve the word from any relation to men. From here, the abundance and power of provocative claims seem to have touched the society. A famous radical feminist Valerie Solanas, the author of SCUM Manifesto who attempted to murder Andy Warhol, inspired a wave of negativity and resentment towards feminists, which is why less radical second-wave feminists distanced themselves from those like her. Yet, their work was still a bright manifestation that was remembered by contemporaries. The feminist movement for certain people was reduced to a caricature (Dean).
The third wave originated in the 1990s. In a way it challenges the achievements of the previous ones. Certain radicalization can be seen in this period. For instance, one of the main ideologists, Rebeca Walker ushered women not to take for granted women’s achievements of the past and fight on, as many issues had still been unresolved (Walker). She encouraged stopping any relationship with men unless they ‘prioritize our freedom to control our bodies and our lives’ (Walker). The third wave prioritized the abolition of gender stereotypes in all spheres and the reconceptualization of the feminist movement letting women decide what feminism is. The radicalization could be seen from the mere wording of the article which is quite aggressive. It may be understandable due to the then-recent case of sexual harassment claims against newly-elected senator Thomas and the all-white, all-male Supreme Court.
Practically, the movement furthered the political pressure and achieved new gender equality victories such as introducing the legal term ‘marital rape’ and making the act illegal and prosecutable in the UK, and adoption of Equality Act of 2006. A number of women such as Angela Merkel, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Marie Le Pen, and others were elected top-level politicians.
Despite these achievements, Rowe-Finkbeiner argues, the ‘new’ wave lacks cohesion (13). While first and second waves had more or less focused goals, the third wave goals are rather elusive. From the theoretical point of view, this furthered the ideological sway within the feminist movement and caused it to focus on itself, definitions of the main principles, understanding, and self-cognition instead of addressing real-world problems. Due to the lack of cohesion, the ideas of radical feminism seem to be more effective at provoking resonance and shaping public opinion than rational feminism.
In addition to that, radical feminism seems to have spread its influence on society and became a form of ideology supported by law in certain countries. There are some cases of excessive political domination of pro-feminist politicians that turned the patriarchal society into a matriarchal one. As such, in Spain, domestic violence law can be considered overly strict to men. For instance, if a wife or a partner accuses her male partner of violence against her, he is put in jail for up to three days with no evidence needed (Pfordte). If a woman presses family violence charges against a husband, she has a legal right to receive economic help for up to 11 months with no need for conviction (Pfordte). Moreover, until the case is solved, the husband is under restriction order and cannot go back to the house, even if it belongs to him (Pfordte). It has led to a popular rights abuse when women accuse their husbands of violence every 11 months in order to receive profit.
Additionally, the scale of sexism is sometimes overrated. Thus, the study by Zell, Strickhouser, Lane, and Teeter shows that obsession with the topic of sexism makes both men and women perceive their differences more vividly, which results in quarrels and negativity (287). In a sense, this also attracts negativity to those who is overzealous in defending the rights of women.
The new age of feminism seems not to bridge the differences between men and women advancing gender equality but advocate rather for the extension of their own rights, which sometimes results in the violation of the rights of men. This contradicts the earlier movements’ goals and, in some cases, even distorts the concept of gender equality. Radical feminism seems to fuel the tensions between men and women and does not contribute to the resolution of the conflict. To my mind, these manifestations of feminism are not true feminism as they have abandoned its main cause.
Blackwell, Mary. ¡Chicana Power!: Contested Histories of Feminism in the Chicano Movement. University Of Texas Press, 2016.
Dean, Jonathan. “Radical Feminism: What it is and Why We’re Afraid of It.” The Guardian, 2011. Web.
Freedman, Estelle B. No Turning Back. Ballantine Books, 2003.
Hawkesworth, Mary E. Globalization and Feminist Activism. Rowman & Littlefield, 2006.
Mills, Jane. Womanwords. Free Press, 1992.
Orcutt, James D., and Rebecca Faison. “Sex‐Role Attitude Change and Reporting of Rape Victimization, 1973–1985.” The Sociological Quarterly, vol. 29, no. 4, 1988, pp. 589-604.
Pfordte, Juliane. “Spain Gender Violence: What About Abused Men?” Cafebabel, 2013. Web.
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Rowe-Finkbeiner, Kristin. F-Word: Feminism in Jeopardy, Women, Politics, and the Future. Seal Press, 2004.
Walker, Rebecca. Becoming the Third Wave. 1992. Web.
Zell, Ethan, et al. “Mars, Venus, or Earth? Sexism and the Exaggeration of Psychological Gender Differences.” Sex Roles, vol. 75, no. 7-8, 2016, pp. 287-300.