Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Tracing The History of Feminism

Feminism, in simplest words, is a belief that men and women should have equal opportunities, rights, and freedom. One may question that if you believe in the equality of both men and women, then you should call yourself a humanist or equalist, and in fact, that’s what feminism is: it demands equality and justice for everyone. But the reason why feminism is called feminism is because it is necessary to name the problem, and the problem is that it is women who have been excluded from being given basic human rights in the public and private domains. The term itself has been questioned by many people, therefore it becomes necessary to go through the archives of the feminist movement whose roots can be traced back to the late 19th century followed by a strong cultural gain in momentum in the 20th century with the emergence of many radical reforms.

The history of Feminism is disjointed. It is not a monolithic movement, instead it is a conflation of multiple feminism(s) which came in waves each time with different variation in the movement. As a movement, it can be broadly categorized into three waves:

a) First wave feminism that dealt with property rights and the right to vote.

b) Second-wave feminism that dealt with equality for women, and fought against the discrimination against women at various levels.

c) Third-wave feminism was a response to the second wave since the latter
didn’t move ahead with an egalitarian approach rather it focussed only on “white, straight women”.

Now, let us delve deeper into the facts and historical details of various waves of the respective movement :



According to many historians, the modern feminist movement began on July 19-20, 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York. It came to be known as the Seneca Falls Convention which was described as, “a convention to discuss social, civil, and religious, condition and rights of women.”. The main organizers of the event were Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. Stanton was known as a leading influential activist, abolitionist, and advocate of women suffrage. Mott was a leading activist too and an influential speaker. They emphasized on the promotion of equal contract and property rights, and the right to vote for women, and also opposed the ownership and objectification of married women by their husbands. However, the primary focus of the first wave feminists was on the right to vote. An almost a century-long struggle of the first-wave feminism ended with the passage of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1919, granting women voting rights. The 19th Amendment was a legendary victory for the first wave feminism. Though different women in groups continued to work for the rights of women in the field of employment, education, etc, yet the movement that began with a unified goal began to divide and slow down until it again gained momentum in the 1960s with the beginning of the second wave of the feminist movement.



In the 1960s many feminist thinkers like Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan came out against the centuries-long systemic patriarchal oppression and the daily sexism that normalized that women belonged to the four walls of the household. Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex (1949) discusses the history of the long treatment of women as objects owned by men in the family and deconstructs the imbalanced gender roles. But Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) paved the actual way for coming of the second wave of feminism. She discusses the lives of housewives living in the United States who were unhappy with their marginalization to the private domain and being denied participation in the public sphere. Furthermore, Friedan discarded the way women’s magazines, women’s education system for creating this stereotyped-domesticated image of women. Friedan argued that such a domesticated image popularized by the media platforms and the education system led to the normalization of gender roles. This book was groundbreaking in a way that it reached to a large number of housewives who could relate to it and realize their internal colonization by men.


This wave was successful in creating awareness to a fairly large extent, and also earned many achievements such as The Equal Pay Act of 1963, The right to use birth control, the right to educational equality, and 1973 women’s reproductive freedom. The movement worked out fairly well in making people aware of the deeply ingrained patriarchal system in society. But what was largely wrong with this movement was that class and racial differences were creeping in. Black women didn’t feel that they were part of the mainstream movement and that their problems were more or less not taken into account. It was the white privileged upper and middle-class women who were pioneering this movement and their cause.

Now, this is where we see the crevices growing within the movement which is visible even today. The class and racial differences topped with privileges make it difficult for women belonging to lower strata and race other white to voice their oppression, and mostly it is these women who are silenced. As a result of these internal differences among women, many started losing faith in this movement. It also leads to the creation of an image of the feminist as “angry, lonely and men hating” women. Gradually, the second wave started losing its force and influence, until the third wave came in the last decade of the 20th century.



Third-wave feminism was a reaction to the unfinished and divided work and the exclusive nature of the second wave feminists, although the third wave was possible only because of the professional and economic status as well as power earned by the second-wave feminism. The third wave is characterized by the empowerment of a large number of iconic women, the numbers which wouldn’t have been possible to be seen in the early 20th century. Their agenda was to fight sexism, racism, classicism with a more inclusive approach, to include those left out in the former wave.

It is argued that the beginning of the Third wave was marked by Anita Hill’s sexual assault case in 1991. Anita Hill accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. But instead of being believed, her character was labeled and her career suffered tremendously. But the positive impact of it was seen on the women all over America who saw a black woman being vocal about her sexual harassment. Following this case, an improvement was seen “in political representation and equality for women. By 1993, 5 women had joined the US Senate, and 1991 was often called the ‘Year of the Woman’.”.

The first female Attorney General and first female Secretary of State took office, Ruth Bader Ginsburg became the second woman in the Supreme Court in 1993, the Family Medical Leave Act which allowed employees to take unpaid leave for family and medical emergencies became law in 1993, the Violence Against Women Act 1995 improved justice for women who faced abuse: these are some of the primary achievements of the third wave feminism.


The Third wave was concerned with redefining the image of women which had been dictated by patriarchy. They aimed at deconstructing the binary of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ women, and labeling and sexualizing of bodies of women by men. According to Lisa Witter, Co-author of the book The She Spot, “the third wave of feminism is really about defining feminism for what it means to you. For some women, it means having a job, being a full-time worker, and having children. For some women, it means opting out and leaving the workplace after a career, go home, and be a full-time mother. For some women it means being in a lesbian relationship and for others, in a straight relationship….”. Third-wave paves the way for women to define their own identities and shape their lives in a way they want to, without being told and dictated by men either in the public or private spheres.

Now it is important to note that all of the waves had women and men who struggled hard and fought for the rights of women. It is due to their continuous efforts that today we have all the legal and political rights, and that we can be openly vocal about our views. But what is unclear is when exactly the third wave ends and when the fourth wave (still not defined) begins, the demarcation is blurry and undocumented.



Technology and the internet have made it so much easier for everyone especially women to reach out to each other and make their problems known. Assault cases which were previously buried down, are now coming out in the forefront with the help of one share option on any social media platforms. Today’s feminism has changed tremendously from what began in the late 19th century. Now we have children being taught at an early age about patriarchy, sexism, sex education which was earlier a privilege for a few. Not that the mindset of a large number of men has changed, but what is positive to be considered is that the number of men who are coming out in support of women and who speak about the daily sexism women faces whether at the workspace, at public space, or at homes, have multiplied exponentially. Men are now understanding the complexities of the deep-rooted patriarchal system whose target is not just women but also men, since patriarchy demands men and women to fit in the compartmentalized gender definitions of men being strong, harsh, and oppressive whereas women being soft, submissive, and mute.

Every day we see pages on Instagram talking about body positivity: the stereotypical image of a beautiful and attractive woman as slim with body curves has now been shattered. You can be slim, fat, tall, short whatever makes you feel good is what matters now. Females can be comedians too. Earlier this field had a very scant number of women. Now we see a large number of women doing brilliant stand up comedy. So next time you see a woman doing comedy, you don’t say, “a female comedian”; she is a comedian by profession like thousands of men doing the same. Clothes that have been an identifier in defining the character of women by men have brought about a huge revolution. Now we have androgynous clothing blurring the lines between masculinity and femininity. Another important thing to be highlighted is that women and men can wear whatever they want. These people fail to notice that it is the sick mentality of themselves that needs transformation, not the clothes. Priyanka Chopra well said in an interview: “ a woman can walk naked in front of you, and still not asking for it.”

It is important to acknowledge the contribution of the three waves of feminism which built the strong foundation of this movement. But every activity or movement has positives and negatives. The reason why today’s feminism is facing a lot of backlashes is because of a small percentage of people who take the century-long struggles and fights by earlier women for granted, and thereby they label feminism as misandry. This is where the lack of knowledge gets highlighted. One more area where today’s feminism needs to work is being more and more inclusive about rural, tribal, and poor women. There are skills in women from a rural background, but they don’t have the means and privilege to kick start their lives in a constructive direction. What today’s feminists can do is use their knowledge and sources to reach out to the villages and make them aware of how the latter can shape their identities, and hence demolish the class differences. Feminism has come a long way, and still, it has a long way to go. What can fasten its success is the unity among the feminists. And note that anyone can be a feminist: man, woman, child, gay, lesbian, transgender, anyone. Just because the term has female in it doest mean only women can be feminists. Men cry too, and women can be harsh, it is the time to refashion the defined identities and make them fluid and flexible.

Kanishka Gairola
Kanishka Gairola
A Literature Student who is trying to express her thoughts and feelings through letters and words.
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