The phenomenon of feminism worldwide in the latter part of the 20th century reflects the diversity of social and cultural theories, political movements, and moral and religious philosophies shaped by the experiences of women. There is no universally accepted form of feminism that represents all of its advocates, but its representatives share a similar vision.
Feminist theory continues to question basic assumptions about gender and sexuality, including the understanding of what it means to be a woman. Feminist scholars and activists seek clarity about feminine consciousness, the identity of women, their values, and their ambitions.
They address the issue of oppression by men as an issue of power, dominion, and hierarchy. Feminists believe this oppression exists in relation to the identity of women and the challenges they have to face in local and global contexts.
By the mid-20th century the feminist movement had brought about positive transformation and advances for women. Historically, feminism began as a women’s movement that originated at the Seneca Falls Convention (1848) held in New York State.
This first wave of feminism formally ended in 1920 with the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which secured the right to vote for women. Ironically, the values of the early feminist movement have been so ingrained in Western culture that society generally accepts them, even though individuals who agree with those values may not accept being labeled “feminist.”
Second Wave Feminism
|Second Wave Feminism|
In the late 1960s, after 40 years consumed by economic depression, world war, and cold war fears, women again revisited issues of gender equality, launching a movement that came to be called Second Wave Feminism. Looking beyond the right to vote, many women in the industrialized world, joined by some women from developing nations, asserted new rights and demanded liberation from stereotypical female roles.
A precursor of the post-suffrage women’s movement appeared in 1949, when French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir (1908–86) published The Second Sex, a major analysis of women’s lives and roles. Extremely controversial—the book was forbidden to Roman Catholics—de Beauvoir’s insights had little immediate effect on Western women, many of whom had embraced child rearing and homemaking in the prosperous years following World War II.
By the 1960s a growing racial Civil Rights movement and rising opposition to Soviet and U.S. cold war policies were sparking protests in Europe and the Americas. In this climate journalist Betty Friedan’s 1963 analysis, The Feminine Mystique, was a huge best seller.
Pointing to educated, middle-class women’s dissatisfaction with their “perfect” lives, Friedan (1921–2006) not only posed a “problem that has no name” but also helped found the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966 to deal with it. Canada’s National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC) followed in 1971.
The movement quickly took on a life of its own, as women in many nations found new ways to understand and advance their social, economic, and political rights. Asserting that “the personal is political,” movement women discussed issues long considered private, such as motherhood, divorce, abortion, rape, lesbian relationships, prostitution, and the sexual double standard.
In 1976 de Beauvoir keynoted a huge International Women’s Day rally in Brussels that criticized the timidity of United Nations efforts for women. The same year 100,000 Italian women held the first “Take Back the Night” march to spotlight male violence against women.
Around the world, female political leaders began to emerge in far greater numbers than ever before. Legislative bodies in Scandinavia and other western European nations saw near-parity in their sex ratios.
In 1984 Geraldine Ferraro (1935– ) became the first woman chosen for vice president by a major U.S. party (the ticket lost) and in 2007 Nancy Pelosi (1940– ) of California became the United States’ first female Speaker of the House of Representatives. Nations including Britain, India, and Pakistan have been governed by women, although critics say that the feminist movement had little to do with their success.
As was true during the original suffrage movement, not all women (or men) were comfortable with Second Wave Feminism’s new issues and styles of protest. Competing efforts to define the contours of women’s equality versus women’s differences from men continue to create controversy, as does the relevance of feminism in the lives of poor women, women of color, and women living in traditional societies—especially in Africa and the Islamic world.
As an example, in the United States Alice Paul’s Equal Rights Amendment of 1923 was reclaimed by new feminist leaders and became the centerpiece of a broad spectrum of women’s rights initiatives.
In 1972 this measure, promising “equal rights under the law” for women, easily cleared Congress and was sent to the states for ratification. Religious conservatives, led by mother and lawyer Phyllis Schlafly (1924– ), were able to raise enough opposition to halt the ERA three states short of passage.
Schlafly and her supporters feared that traditional wives and mothers would be devalued and could lose legal protections. Claims by some opponents that the ERA would require that public toilets be available to both sexes helped reduce a spirited political controversy to farce.
Other feminist proposals proved more successful. Title IX, a 1972 federal program to afford equal opportunities to high school and college women—although still controversial—greatly expanded women’s college enrollments and participation in competitive sports.
Legislation and market forces combined to narrow the “pay gap” between men and women. Modern contraception—the “pill”—was approved for sale in the United States in 1960; birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger (1870–1966) helped finance its development.
In 1965 a Supreme Court decision in Griswold v. Connecticut struck down a law that had prohibited contraceptive use even by married couples. By 1973 the U.S. Supreme Court’s narrow decision in Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in the first three months of pregnancy.
Continuing bitter controversy over Roe highlights some general problems that, depending on one’s view, have either hampered the modern women’s movement or kept it within reasonable bounds. In the United States, Canada, and elsewhere, anti-abortion protests have tended to increase restrictions and have sometimes made safe, legal abortion unavailable, especially to the poor and rural. Nations emerging from communism, including Russia, where abortion was freely allowed after 1955, have tended to tighten formerly liberal abortion and contraception alternatives.
The same middle-class women whom Friedan urged to shed the bondage of woman’s “separate sphere” have struggled with demanding full-time jobs paired with fulltime home responsibilities, although European nations have traditionally offered generous maternity and childcare benefits. Help-wanted ads no longer separate male and female opportunities.
However, women who have surged into law, medicine, science, the military, and other nontraditional jobs have experienced pay gaps, sexual harassment, and the so-called glass ceiling, which is said to limit women’s ultimate success. By the early 21st century, especially among the Second Wave’s second and third generations, a “mommy track”—giving up an unfulfilling job for motherhood—has emerged as at least a temporary alternative. Critics point out that the mommy track offers little help or economic advancement to working-class mothers.
Recently Third-Wave feminists have been identified, although the Second-Wave feminists assert that the work of the Second Wave is by no means complete. Women who were born in the 1960s–1970s felt that their personal experience set them apart from older leaders of the feminist movement.
Third-Wave feminists of this period, having inherited a feminist tradition from the First and Second waves, strove to form their own distinct identity as feminists, naming and seeking to correct perceived inadequacies and contradictions of their predecessors.
Hazel Carby, a representative of the Third Wave of feminism, identified a problem with the Second Wave. She believed that the Second Wave overlooked the experiences of black women by emphasizing the experiences of patriarchy and oppression endured by white women.
She concluded that theories of patriarchal oppression studied in the 1970s and early 1980s overlooked the negative influences that slavery, colonialism, and imperialism had on women, and sought to raise awareness about these issues through her writings.
Many, but not all, figures within feminism worldwide have been women. Feminists argue that men should not be leaders within feminist organizations because they have been conditioned to seek leadership aggressively.
Similarly, those critical of accepting men in the movement believe that women have been socialized to defer to men, which may hinder their asserting their own leadership when working alongside men. Even so, some feminists believe men should be accepted within the movement because the virtue of equality should serve to promote inclusion and acceptance.
The feminist movement has been influenced by and has shaped the study of culture. Since the late 1970s feminist cultural studies have expanded the study of women and established gender as an important criteria of analysis within broader cultural studies.
Feminist cultural studies serve to answer questions about the influences of present cultural systems and their oppression of women and what can be done to combat patriarchy and oppression. Feminist cultural scholars, by observing the everyday lives of women, learn about their daily experience, how they cope with it, and how they are challenged by systems of inequality and oppression.
Essentially all cultural objects, writings, and practices constitute the subject of cultural studies, and thus the subjects of feminist cultural studies are likewise as diverse. Areas that are studied within feminist cultural studies include advertising, art, being a housewife, class, colonialism, materialism, movies, pornography, postcolonialism, shopping, soap operas, and youth subcultures.
In the 1980s cultural feminists used the mass media in their analysis of culture. Feminist cultural scholars believe that an analysis of mass media gives insight into the dynamics of society and politics.
Feminists who study the influence of mass media on culture seek answers to the questions of how women may relate to and be affected by the mass media and how oppressive patriarchal ideologies may be throughout all forms of mass media. Studies argue that women who engage in watching television dramas and reading romance novels actively judge implicit patriarchal messages found within them.
After the late 1980s, the feminist movement was influenced by post-structuralism. Post-structuralist feminists seek to understand and value feminine subjectivity and the implications of the power of written discourse for women. Some writings argue that the term and meaning of woman itself results from male-dominated discourse.
Through uncritical use of the word, it loses its value in trying to shape and transform feminist thinking. These writings have caused feminists to insist that feminist cultural studies have lost track of the real material lives of women.
The feminist movement has had an effect on written and spoken language in the latter part of the 20th century. English-speaking feminists have advocated using nonsexist language, for example, Ms. instead of Mrs. or Miss and herstory for history. Many feminists advocate using gender-inclusive language, such as humanity in place of mankind or he or she or just she instead of he when the gender of a subject is unknown.
Many non-English languages do not have gendered pronouns and thus do not require gender-inclusive language. The increasing popularity, however, of using English in the world gives feminists reason to promote gender inclusivity in language.
The influence of feminism in the late-20th century created distinctive ways of developing ethics. Feminist ethics attempt to investigate and rethink traditional Western ethics that do not take into account the moral experiences of women, in order to form a critique of traditional ethical theories formed by a male-dominated culture. The aim of the different forms of feminist ethics possesses a liberating aspect, based on moral theory founded in nonsexist methodology.
Late 20th-century feminist thought has also influenced the movement toward equality in Islamic countries. Grounded in Islamic thought, Islamic feminists seek full equality of men and women in both the public and personal sphere. Among the issues addressed are the female dress code in Muslim society, sexuality, and the legal discrimination against women.
A variety of women-centered approaches to feminist ethics have been developed, including feminine, lesbian, maternal, political, and theological. These approaches seek to provide guidelines for undermining the systematic subordination of women. The different forms of feminism that exist worldwide in the late-20th and early-21st centuries are manifold.
They include African-American, Amazon, anarcha-feminism, black, cultural, ecofeminism, egalitarian, equity, existentialist, French, gender, gynocentric, individualist, lesbian and lesbian separatism, liberal, male pro-feminism, material, non-Western, postcolonial, postmodern, pro-sex, psychoanalytic, queer theory, radical, segregationalist, Socialist, spiritual, standpoint, theological, third-world, transfeminism, transnational, and womanist.