Feminism has been defined as a belief that women have been treated unfairly in society and that the situation should be rectified. This definition encompasses the two major aspects of feminism: It is a body of social theory that seeks to explain the universality of women’s subordinate status, and it is a social movement acting in the interests of women through political action and other attempts to improve the lot of women. Feminism has profoundly affected virtually all academic disciplines as they have had to respond to criticism of their theoretical paradigms that ignored the effects of gender. Feminist thought has affected the humanities, the natural sciences, and the social sciences. In addition, feminism has affected all societal institutions, including the economy, the family, education, religion, and politics. It would be fair to say that feminism and the women’s movement have altered the landscape of American life as deeply as any paradigm shift of the 20th century.
Feminism traces its roots to the Enlightenment, when thinkers such as Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and the Marquis de Condorcet championed women’s education. Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women, published in 1792, may be the earliest feminist writing of the modern age.
The first wave of feminism and the women’s movement began in the early 19th century among abolitionists, especially women abolitionists, who began to draw comparisons between the oppression of the slaves and the position of women in society; neither could own property in their own name, vote, sit on a jury, or testify in a court of law. In 1848 the first women’s rights convention was held at Seneca Falls, New York, organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. The suffrage movement won victory finally with the passage of the 19th Amendment, which in 1920 granted women the right to vote. After this achievement, the first wave of feminist activism died down for about 50 years, as many women and men assumed that with the vote, equality was assured.
The second wave of the feminist movement had its first stirrings during World War II, when women took on factory and other war-related work for the men who had gone overseas. Women also played a significant role in the military for the first time. Day care was provided for the children of working mothers, who were told they could accomplish anything. After the end of the war, the propaganda reversed; women were sent home to their children, who they were told now needed them at home, and consequently some women felt let down and deceived. Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963, described what many women were feeling, a sense of malaise and purposelessness that led to feelings of despair and deep unhappiness.
Two prongs of feminism were important from the start: During the 1970s, organizations such as the National Organization for Women worked for legislation guaranteeing women equal opportunity in the workforce and equal rights under the law. Discrimination on the basis of gender became illegal, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and other enforcement agencies backed up the laws. At the same time, women were making enormous strides in academia and altering the way gender was treated in research and scholarly endeavor. Out of this intellectual ferment, with cross-pollination from the world of social activism, various strains of feminist theory emerged.
Radical feminists take patriarchy as the starting point of women’s unequal treatment. They argue that patriarchy is separate from and predates capitalism. Men as a group dominate women as a group, with men being the primary beneficiaries of women’s subordination. Patriarchy is related to male violence against women. Many radical feminists consider rape the ultimate expression of male power and believe that male appropriation of female bodies through violence includes marriage and childbearing as well as domestic labor.
Unlike radical feminists, Marxist feminists consider gender inequality to derive from capitalism, not patriarchy. Men’s domination of women is a by-product of capital’s domination over labor. Capital depends on women’s domestic labor in the home to provide for the day-to-day care of workers and the care and socialization of the next generation of workers.
Liberal feminists interpret women’s subordination as a summation of numerous small-scale deprivations. Their view is grounded in the classical liberal position that individuals should be free to develop and pursue their own interests. Liberal feminists accept the basic organization of society, including capitalism and democracy, but seek to expand rights and opportunities for women.
Difference feminism refers to the ideas of feminists who believe there are significant inborn differences between men and women and who argue that society should adopt more feminine values of pacifism and nurturance.
Eco-feminism draws parallels between male domination of women and human domination of the earth and promotes close connections between feminists and environmentalists.
Contribution of Feminism
Feminists have brought many issues to the attention of scholars and researchers. The first of these is simply the importance of taking gender into account in research. No longer is it acceptable to conduct research only on male subjects or to talk only to the men in a household or village. Secondly, a gendered perspective encourages researchers to see the world from the viewpoint of the oppressed and the other. Social life is understood to consist of multiple power relations in which different groups stand in different relations to one another based on group membership and identity. Gender studies show that the world is seen in terms of contrasting pairs of attributes, one pair being male and female. Patriarchy is a model for the way the colonial powers exploited subject peoples or the way humans exploit the earth.
Within anthropology, feminism has had fundamental effects. For example, physical anthropologists challenged the dominant man-the-hunter model, which posited analogies between male-dominant African savanna baboons and the evolution of male-dominant human societies. Noting that primates more closely related to humans, such as chimpanzees and bonobos, are less male dominant and can be described as egalitarian or even female centered, feminists have proposed the woman-the-gatherer model, which has had far-reaching influence. Research now focuses on the importance of food sharing in the evolution of humans and human culture.
Current issues in feminist anthropology include questions about the extent to which anthropologists can reinterpret older ethnographic works to look for hidden or unacknowledged sources of female power, by, for example, retheorizing kinship relations. The issue of politically motivated research and the role of the anthropologist in advocating for dispossessed and marginalized people continues to be controversial both within the field and between anthropologists and the wider community.
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- Di Leonardo, M. (1991). Gender at the crossroads of knowledge: Feminist anthropology in the postmodern era. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Fox Keller, E. (1992). Secrets of life: Essays on language, gender and science. London: Routledge.
- Friedan, B. (1963). The feminine mystique. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
- Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Lorber, J. (1994). Paradoxes of gender. New Haven: Yale University Press.
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- Walby, S. (1990). Theorizing patriarchy. Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell Inc.