I thought an open post for people to discuss their view of feminism might be worth a go.
But first, as this is the blog of a historian and a journalist, let’s set feminism in context with a quick summary of recent history (UK for specific examples) and differing types of feminism.
Most of us tend to think the start of feminism began with the suffragettes campaigning for emancipation.
However, that would be to ignore the C18 writer, translator, and philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792, in which she calls for women to receive education, instead of being treated as beautiful objects without a brain.
Education is, and always has been, critical for women seeking reform and equality. In the nineteenth century, reformers of both sexes continued to fight for the opportunity for women to have access to education. And not just education: suffrage, marital law and property rights started to become topical as reformists of both sexes sought to campaign against existing discriminatory legislation.
Let’s have a look at the Contagious Diseases Acts. For some reason I didn’t learn about this in my O-level history classes at school. These acts were passed in the 1860s to look after the British armed forces. Police officers (men) were given powers to arrest prostitutes, who were then checked for VD by doctors (men), and the women were locked up for three months, which was then later extended to a year. This was important because it protected the innocent men from contracting VD from prostitutes. Men were not checked. Logic there? None. These acts were repealed in 1886 after considerable public support.
But from one extreme to another. If working class prostitutes were being arrested to stop men contracting VD, what about the middle classes still fighting for educational equality?
While women were admitted to study and pass exams at university in England, they weren’t entitled to take degrees. The University of London was the first to admit women to degrees in 1878, some 30 years after taking in women students. By 1900, over 30 per cent of the 536 graduating students were women.
In contrast Oxford did not award degrees to women until 1920, and Cambridge was a very tardy 1947/8.
The first woman to gain honours in a University examination which was intended to be equivalent to that taken by men for a degree was Annie Mary Anne Henley Rogers. In 1877 she gained first class honours in Latin and Greek in the Second Examination for Honours in the recently instituted ‘Examination of Women’. In 1879 she followed this with first class honours in Ancient History.
Annie Rogers returned to Oxford to matriculate and graduate on 26 October 1920.
Oxford University Archives October 2007
But the suffragettes in the UK, and elsewhere in the world where women sought the vote on equal terms with men, are what we consider to be the really significant activity in the women’s rights movement.
In 1918, women over 30, with property, got the right to vote. At the same time the act extended the right to vote to all men over 21. Double standards or what? It took British women another ten years to achieve parity. Well behind many other countries.
And that is a brief selective summary of what has become known as first-wave feminism. Much as I hate labels, I might as well admit they are there.
So, moving on, what is second wave feminism? Well, it’s loosely described as 60s–80s. It includes a period of names such as Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Mary Daly and Germaine Greer. Women like these, and many others, thought that getting the vote (not that all countries had, or even now have, equal voting rights for women) wasn’t quite equality. There was still considerable discrimination both de facto and de iure.
This is when reproductive rights come into płay. Yes, other women had advocated for birth control, think Stopes and Sanger, but our second wave feminists want total bodily autonomy for women. (Stopes and Sanger were not in favour of abortion but advocated for birth control for that reason.)
We see in the UK and the USA, the approval of the pill (free contraception in the UK for women), legal abortions, equal pay acts, sex discrimination acts, and laws to protect pregnant women at work.
Laws against domestic violence and marital rape came into force. Rape and crisis shelters were set up.
In publishing, we had Spare Rib, Ms, Virago Press, all to promote women’s rights and women writers.
And then what?
Second wave feminism fell out of fashion.
Why? Well it was white and middle class of course. And clearly, working class, poor women, lesbians and women of colour don’t experience the same oppression.
So then, we have so-called third wave feminism which focuses very much on intersectionality, ie all the things second wave feminism was criticised for not focusing on. Class and colour became more important.
Third wavers are also less rigid, feminism is whatever a feminist wants it to mean. It’s OK to wear girly clothes, make-up, and high heels. Pornography and prostitution can be a choice. Because choice is the way to destroy the gender binary established by the patriarchal society. These feminists also espouse slut walks and reclamation of language. Eg, bitch, slut, cunt, etc.
And … the so-called fourth wave, is pretty similar to three.
Three and four look to soften the messages of two. They speak for equality not women’s rights, or feminism per se, because equality for everyone is more important. The prime message here is equal rights for every minority group. No one group takes precedence. We should all fight together.
But let’s look at two big issues within feminism before I finish.
One is the status of pornography, prostitution/sex work and sadomasochism. This one splits feminists right down the middle. Some think it is OK for women to work in pornography or sex – both can often involve sexual activities – and, consent to total sexual submission within BDSM rules where women give total power to a male dominant.
The one feminist group considers such sexual activities to be detrimental to women, it perpetuates their objectification, continues to reinforce the power role of men, and the use of women by men as mere purchasable items, pornography and (female) prostitution for the pleasure of men. The other group thinks women have the right to choose and enjoy how they sexually express themselves, including making a living from it. This includes legalisation of prostitution and safe working environments. Any restriction smacks of censorship. This second group, initially known as sex-pro feminists, is now commonly referred to as sex-pos feminism.
Finally radical feminism. In essence, radfems wish to dismantle the current patriarchal society whereby dominant males oppress everyone who doesn’t fit in with that model. (Lesbians, gays, trans men and women, queers, intersexuals.) If that’s difficult to grasp, think Marxism, which says the working classes are always oppressed by their capitalist bosses. Same principle, different groups of people. Radfems tend to see the prime tenets of feminism as bodily autonomy and economic independence (from men). They are rarely ‘sex-pos’ as they see the sex industry as degrading, humiliating and objectifying to women, that merely serves to gratify male desire.
Early feminists worked for equality in education, suffrage, property rights, marital laws.
Later feminists worked for equal pay, reproductive rights, pregnancy rights at work, overturning domestic violence, marital rape, setting up refuges, and, attacking the implicit societal bias of gender discrimination.
Late C20 feminists pushed for intersectionality including within feminism: the rights of working class and poor women, lesbians, women of colour, trans men and women, and reclamation of language and appearance, while still challenging the gender binary.
Some feminists don’t agree with the sex industry. Others do.
Radfems just want to change society.
And … how many women in how many countries still do not have suffrage, equal rights to education, bodily autonomy, or affordable health care?
This is a relatively short and objective summary. I’ve not cluttered it up with sources, or, sadly, my opinion.
Open forum, for your views on feminism.