Feminism is a set of social theories and political practices that are critical of past and current social relations and primarily motivated and informed by the experience of women. Most generally, it involves a critique of gender inequality; more specifically, it involves the promotion of women's rights and interests. Feminist theorists question such issues as the relationship between sex, sexuality, and power in social, political, and economic relationships. Feminist political activists advocate such issues as women's suffrage, salary equivalency, and control over reproduction.

Feminism is not associated with any particular group, practice, or historical event. Its basis is the political awareness that there are uneven power structures between groups, along with the belief that something should be done about it. There are many forms of feminism.

One subtype of feminists, Radical feminists, consider patriarchy to be the root cause of the most serious social problems. This form of feminism was popular in the second wave, though is not as prominent today. Some find that the prioritization of oppression that Radical feminists did was too universalizing and that women in other countries may find race instead of gender to be the root oppression that they may face.

Some radical feminists advocate separatism -- a complete separation of male and female in society and culture -- while others question not only the relationship between men and women, but the very meaning of "man" and "woman" as well (see Queer theory); some argue that gender roles, gender identity, and sexuality are themselves social constructs (see also heteronormativity). For these feminists, feminism is a primary means to human liberation (i.e., the liberation of men as well as women, and men and women from other social problems).

Other feminists believe that there may be social problems separate from or prior to patriarchy (e.g., racism or class divisions); they see feminism as one movement of liberation among many, each with effects on each other.

Some of the major subtypes of feminism are: Amazon feminism, cultural feminism, ecofeminism, libertarian feminism or individualist feminism, material feminism, gender feminism, pop feminism, liberal feminism, sexually-liberal feminism, spiritual feminism, separatist feminism and third-world feminism. Certain actions, approaches and people can also be described as proto-feminist or post-feminist.

Although many leaders of feminism have been women, not all women are feminists and not all feminists are women. Some feminists argue that men should not take positions of leadership in the movement, but most accept or seek the support of men. Compare pro-feminist, humanism, masculism.

Feminism has been principally a movement within the Western societies in the 20th Century. Some limited advances have been made in some non-Western countries; but the movement has been principally Western in origin and effects. Feminists hope that their movement will have an equal impact across the rest of the world in the 21st century.

Table of contents
1 History
2 Relationship to other movements
3 Impact of Feminism in the West
4 Worldwide statistics
5 Perspective: the nature of the modern movement
6 Criticisms of Feminism
7 Related Topics
8 External links


The earliest works on 'the woman question' criticised the restrictive role of women without necessarily claiming that women were disadvantaged or that men were to blame. Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is one of the few works written before the 19th century that can unambiguously be called feminist. By modern standards her metaphor of women as nobility, the elite of society, coddled, fragile and in danger of intellectual and moral sloth, sounds like a masculist argument. Wollstonecraft believed that both sexes contributed to this situation and took it for granted that women had considerable power over men.

Feminism is generally said to have begun in the 19th century as people increasingly adopted the perception that women are oppressed in a male-centered society (see patriarchy). The feminist movement is rooted in the West and especially in the reform movement of the 19th century. The organised movement is dated from the first women's rights convention at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848.

Emmeline Pankhurst was one of the founders of the suffragette movement and aimed to reveal the institutional sexism in British society, forming the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). Often the repeated jailing by the Cat and Mouse Act, for trivial misdemeanours in activism, inspired members to go on hunger strikes, and because of the resultant force feeding that was the practice, caused these members to be very ill, serving to draw attention to the brutality of the legal system at the time and to further their cause.

Over a century and a half the movement has grown to include diverse perspectives on what constitutes discrimination against women. Early feminists are often called the first wave and feminists after about 1960 the second wave.

Feminist history in the United States

In the United States, this view had begun to evolve by the 1830s. Early feminists active in the abolition movement began to increasingly compare women's situation with the plight of African American slaves. This new polemic squarely blamed men for all the restrictions of women's role, and argued that the relationship between the sexes was one-sided, controlling and oppressive.

Most of the early women's advocates were Christians, especially Quakers. It started with Lucretia Mott's involvement as one of the first women to join the Quaker abolitionist men in the abolitionist movement. The result was that Quaker women like Lucretia Mott learned how to organize and pull the levers of representative government. Starting in the mid-1830s, they decided to use those skills for women's advocacy. It was those early Quaker women who taught other women their advocacy skills, and for the first time used these skills for women's advocacy. As these new women's advocates began to expand on ideas about men and women, religious beliefs were also used to support them. Sarah Grimké suggested in her Letters on the Equality of the Sexes (1837) that the curse placed upon Eve in the Garden of Eden was God's prophecy of a period of universal oppression of women by men. Early feminists set about compiling lists of examples of women's plight in foreign countries and in ancient times.

At the Seneca Falls convention in 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton modeled her declaration of sentiments on the United States Declaration of Independence. Men were said to be in the position of a tyrannical government over women. This separation of the sexes into two warring camps was to become increasingly popular in feminist thought, despite some reform minded men such as William Lloyd Garrison and Wendel Phillips who supported the early women's movement.

As the movement broadened to include many women like Susan B. Anthony from the temperance movement, the slavery metaphor was joined by the image of the drunkard husband who batters his wife. Feminist prejudice that women were morally superior to men reflected the social attitudes of the day. It also led to the to focus on women's suffrage over more practical issues in the latter half of the 19th century. Feminists assumed that once women had the vote, they would have the political will to deal with any other issues.

Victoria Woodhull argued in the 1870s that the 14th amendment to the United States Constitution already guaranteed equality of voting rights to women. She anticipated the arguments of the United States Supreme Court a century later. But there was a strong movement opposed to suffrage, and it was delayed another 50 years, during which time most of the practical issues feminists campaigned for, including the 18th amendment's prohibition on alcohol, had already been won.

Feminists of the second wave in the 1960's focused more on lifestyle and economic issues; "The personal is the political" became a catchphrase. As the reality of women's status increased, the feminist rhetoric against men became more vitriolic. The dominant metaphor describing the relationship of men to women became rape; men raped women physically, economically and spiritually. Radical feminists argued that rape was the defining characteristic of men, and introduced a new phase of hostility to maleness. Lesbian separatists appealed to lesbian women, advocating the complete independence of women from what was seen as a male-dominated society.

Radical feminists, particularly Catharine MacKinnon, began to dominate feminist jurisprudence. Whereas first-wave feminism had concerned itself with challenging laws restricting women, the second wave tended to campaign for new laws that aimed to compensate women for societal discrimination. The idea of male privilege began to take on a legal status as judicial decisions echoed it, even in the United States Supreme Court.

One of the largest, earliest and most influential feminist organizations in the U.S., the National Organization for Women (NOW) illustrates the strong influence of radical feminism. Created in 1967 with Betty Friedan as president, the organization's name was deliberately chosen to say for women, and not of women. By 1968, the New York chapter lost many members who saw NOW as too mainstream. There was constant friction, most notably over the defense of Valerie Solanas. Solanas had shot Andy Warhol after writing the SCUM manifesto, seen by many as a passionately anti-male tract calling for the extermination of men. Ti-Grace Atkinson, the New York chapter president of NOW described her as, "the first outstanding champion of women's rights". Another member, Florynce Kennedy represented Solanas at her trial. Within a year of the split, the new group limited the number of women members who live with men to 1/3 of the group's membership. By 1971, all married women were excluded from the breakaway group and Atkinson had also defected.

Friedan denounced the lesbian radicals as the lavender menace and tried to distance NOW from lesbian activities and issues. The radicals accused her of homophobia. There was a constant fight for control of NOW which eventually Friedan lost. By 1992 Olga Vives, chair of the NOW's national lesbian rights taskforce estimated that 40 percent of NOW members were lesbians. However NOW remains open to male members in contrast to some groups.

Feminists disagree over the role of men as participants within the movement. Some female feminists feel that it is inappropriate to describe self-named "feminist men" as "feminist" and instead prefer the title "pro-feminist men"; however, this usage has not caught on in most of American society. Others think that the imposition of a label like "pro-feminist male" on people who prefer another label like "feminist" is equivalent to the imposition of racial epithets that are not preferred by the groups they name.

In 1979, Belva Lockwood became the first woman to practice law before the U.S. Supreme Court, and in 1981, Sandra Day O'Connor became the first woman to become a member of the Supreme Court.

Relationship to other movements

Most feminists take a holistic approach to politics, believing the saying of Martin Luther King Jr, "A threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere". In that belief, feminists usually support other movements such as the civil rights movement and the gay rights movement. At the same time many black feminists such as bell hooks criticise the movement for being dominated by white women. Feminist claims about the disadvantages women face are often less relevant to the lives of black women. Many black feminist women prefer the term womanism for their views.

However, Feminists are sometimes wary of the transsexual movement because they challenge the distinctions between men and women. Transsexual women are excluded from most women-only gatherings and events and are rejected by some feminists who say that no one born male can truly understand the oppression women face. On the other hand, transsexual women are quick to retort that the discrimination they face due to asserting their gender identity, more than makes up for any they may have "missed out on" growing up.

Impact of Feminism in the West

Feminism has effected many changes in Western society, including women's suffrage; broad employment for women at more equitable wages ("equal pay for equal work"); the right to initiate divorce proceedings and "no fault" divorce; the right of women to control their own bodies and medical decisions, including obtaining birth control devices and safe abortions; and many others. Most feminists would argue, however, that there is still much to be done on these fronts. As Western society has become increasingly accepting of feminist principles, some of these are no longer seen as specifically feminist, because they have been adopted by all or most people. Some beliefs that were radical for their time are now mainstream political thought. Almost no one in Western societies today questions the right of women to vote or own land, a concept that seemed quite strange 200 years ago.

In some cases (notably equal pay for equal work) major advances have been made, but feminists still struggle to achieve their complete goals.

Feminists are often proponents of using non-sexist language, using "Ms" to refer to both married and unmarried women, for example, or the ironic use of the term "herstory" instead of "history". Feminists are also often proponents of using gender-inclusive language, such as "humanity" instead of "mankind", or "he or she" in place of "he" where the gender is unknown. Feminists in most cases advance their desired use of language either to promote a respectful treatment of women or to affect the tone of political discourse, rather than in the belief that language directly affects perception of reality (compare Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis).

Impact on morals

Opponents of feminism claim that women's quest for this kind of external power, as opposed to the internal power to affect other people's ethics and values, has left a vacuum in the area of moral training, where women formerly held sway. Some feminists reply that the education, including the moral education, of children has never been, and should not be, seen as the exclusive responsibility of women. Such arguments are entangled within the larger disagreements of the Culture Wars, as well as within feminist (and anti-feminist) ideas regarding custodianship of societal morals and compassion.

Impact on heterosexual relationships

The impact of feminism has certainly affected the nature of heterosexual relationships in Western and other societies affected by feminism. While these impacts have generally been seen as positive, there have been some negative consequences.

In some of these relationships, there has been a change in the power relationship between men and women. In these circumstances, women and men have had to adapt to relatively new situations, causing confusions about role and identity. Women can now avail themselves more to new opportunities, but some have suffered with the demands of trying to live up to the so-called "superwomen" identity, and have struggled to 'have it all', i.e. manage to happily balance a career and family. Instead of the onus of childcare resting solely on the female, it has shifted somewhat, and the men are expected to assist in managing family matters more than in previous times. Various socialist feminists in response to the family issue blame this to the lack of state-provided childcare facilities, but this is not the case in all societies.

Men in some circumstances have also felt a loss of power and identity, and have struggled to come to terms with the changing social environments and differing demands made upon them.

There have been changes also in attitudes towards sexual morality and behaviour with the onset of second wave feminism and "the Pill": women are then more in control of their body. Some see these changes as not always positive from the feminist perspective.

Impact on religion

Feminism has had a great impact on many aspects of religion. In liberal branches of Protestant Christianity, women are now ordained as clergy. Within these Christian groups, woman have gradually become equal to men by obtaining positions of power; their perspectives are now sought out in developing new statements of belief. In Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Judaism, women are now ordained as rabbis and cantors. Within these Jewish groups, woman have gradually become more nearly equal to men by obtaining positions of power; their perspectives are now sought out in developing new statements of belief. These trends have been resisted within Islam; all the mainstream denominations of Islam forbid Muslim women from being recognized as religious clergy and scholars in the same way that Muslim men are accepted.

There is a separte article on God and gender; it discusses how monotheistic religions deal with God and gender, and how modern feminism has influenced the theology of many religions.

Worldwide statistics

The factual accuracy of this section is disputed.

Despite advances made by women toward equality in the West, there is still a very long way to go, according to those who provide the following statistics:

Females actually make up only 49.7% of the world population, according to the United Nations Population Division. (WPP Annex 2002, 3.8M)

Perspective: the nature of the modern movement

Discrimination against women still exists in the USA and European nations, as well as worldwide. How much discrimination and whether it is a problem is a matter of dispute.

There are many ideas within the movement regarding the severity of current problems, what the problems are, and how to confront them. Extremes on the one hand include some radical feminists such as Mary Daly who argues that the world would be better off with dramatically fewer men. There are also dissidents, such as Christina Hoff Sommers or Camille Paglia, who identify themselves as feminist but who accuse the movement of anti-male prejudices. Many feminists question the use of the "feminist" label as applying to these individuals.

Many feminists, however, also question the use of the term feminist to refer to any who espouse violence to any gender or who fail to recognize a fundamental equality between the sexes. Some feminists, like Katha Pollitt (see her book Reasonable Creatures) or Nadine Strossen (President of the ACLU and author of Defending Pornography [a treatise on freedom of speech]), consider feminism to be, solely, the view that "women are people." Views that separate the sexes rather than unite them are considered by these people to be sexist rather than feminist.

There are also debates between difference feminists such as Carol Gilligan on the one hand, who believe that there are important differences between the sexes (which may or may not be inherent, but which cannot be ignored), and those who believe that there are no essential differences between the sexes, and that the roles observed in society are due to conditioning. Modern scientists sometimes disagree on whether inborn differences exist between men and women (other than physical differences such as anatomy, chromosomes, and hormones). Regardless of how many differences between the sexes are inherent or acquired, none of these differences is a basis for discrimination.

This mostly Western debate about Feminism, should not distract from the fact that the major goal of the Feminist movement in the 21st Century is to improve the situation of women in non-Western countries.

Criticisms of Feminism

Feminism has attracted attention due to its large effects in social change in Western society. While feminism in some forms is generally accepted, dissenting voices do exist: some conservative minded groups see the feminist movement as destroying traditional gender roles which were seen to have resulted in social harmony. Some feminists respond that these traditional gender roles served to silence and oppress women.

Arguments from a number of masculists note that social change and legal reform have gone too far and now begin to negatively impact men, for example, masculists view that custody hearings in divorces are biased towards the mother. While some feminists generally disagree in the view expressed by some masculists that men are equally oppressed under patriarchy, other feminists, especially third-wave feminists agree that a greater equality between the sexes is necessary to better our society.

Postcolonial feminists criticise Western forms of feminism, notably radical feminism and its universalization of female experience. These feminists argue that since the assumption of a global experience as a woman is an assumption that is a white middle-class experience as a woman where gender oppression is the primary one, and cannot apply to women to which gender oppression may come second to racial and class oppression.

Related Topics

External links