What Is Feminism?

Feminism is often misunderstood. Men in particular, especially those who feel threatened, will sometimes complain that feminists hate men. But this is nonsense. For a start, feminism is an umbrella term covering a wide range of views. In essence, feminists simply wish to provide women with the freedom to live their lives in any way they see fit.

Pre-Feminism

Before turning to feminism itself, it might be helpful to understand what feminists are reacting against. And in order to do that it is necessary first to look at the status of women throughout history. Even in a highly sophisticated culture like Ancient Greece, it was taken for granted that women were inferior and should be subordinate to men. Aristotle, perhaps the greatest of Greek philosophers and a man whose writings are still admired today, said shockingly crude things about women, even describing them as incomplete or deformed men! In Politics, for example, he states quite bluntly that “the male is by nature superior”.

Some have argued that women enjoyed a higher status in nomadic, hunter-gatherer societies than they ever did in agricultural or feudal ones. Whether or not this was true, it is quite clear from contemporary writings that women in the tribal societies of northern Europe enjoyed greater respect and higher status than those living under Roman rule. Indeed, when the Romans came into contact with the tribes of Germany, Gaul and England, they were appalled by this high status, seeing it as proof of their barbarous, uncivilized nature!

Modern feminism grew out of the European Enlightenment, which itself began in the 17th century. Before this, women belonged first to their fathers then to their husbands. They could not vote, own property, or participate in public life. And, though they were expected to raise the children, they didn’t have any rights over them. The man was the unquestioned head of the household. Wife beating was also common. Indeed, in certain Mediterranean cultures it was considered a natural part of married life right up to the 20th century.

The History of Feminism

True feminism really began during the European Enlightenment. And perhaps the most famous of these early feminists, certainly within the English-speaking world, was Mary Wollstonecraft. Wollstonecraft, an Englishwoman, was living in Paris during the French Revolution. In 1792, inspired by the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen’, she published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. In this work, she argued that women should be given the same opportunities as men, especially in education and work. This was a time during which reason and rationality were highly prized. But, it was argued, men alone were capable of exercising it. Wollstonecraft disagreed. Men may seem more rational, but that is due to conditioning: women have been taught to be shallow and silly and so that is how they behave.

From the 19th century until early in the 20th, the main focus was on winning the vote. In America in 1869, for example, Elizabeth Stanton founded the National Woman Suffrage Association. At first, such organizations were relatively tame, merely lobbying and raising awareness. But, by the 20th century, more radical, even violent groups had appeared. In Britain, for example, Emmeline Pankhurst and her followers organized pickets and boycotts. Eventually, in 1893, New Zealand became the first nation to grant women the vote, followed by Australia in 1902. The franchise was extended to women in the UK in 1918, in the USA 1920, and in France in 1945.

Key Arguments

Patriachy is one of the main targets of feminist campaigners. Dictionaries usually define this as a system under which men hold all the power and exclude women. Of course, by the 1960s this was no longer true. Compared to past generations, Western women had a great deal of power and influence. But, argue feminists, though progress has been made, patriarchal thinking lingers. For example, even in Western Europe and North America there is still an assumption that women need a man to complete them. If a man does not marry or have children, he will be considered a free spirit, whereas a woman will be pitied as a failure. Or take single parents. A man who is raising his child alone is likely to be admired and praised. A single mother, on the other hand, is likely to be judged negatively.

Once the patriachy is accepted, its effects can be seen everywhere. Take the human body. The philosopher Susan Bordo has argued that the traditional philosophical divide between mind and body has been used to reinforce gender divisions. Mind, spirit, intellect etc. were associated with men, while matter and body were associated with women (even today people still speak of ‘mother’ Earth). Under a patriachy, the female body is reduced to an object that exists for the benefit of men – especially men with money and power. Even today a female politician, journalist, or writer is more likely to be judged on her looks and body shape than her male equivalent.

You can even see the effects of patriachal thinking in Hollywood films. Go back to the old adventure movies of the 1930s and you will generally find that the woman is passive, helpless, and dependent on a man to rescue her. Her own fears and desires often mean very little. What matters is the effect she has on the male hero.

Gender roles are another source of anger. Under a patriachy, gender is largely defined by men. Dolls and toy kitchens, for example, are little better than forms of social engineering, argue feminists: girls are being trained to think of domestic chores and child-rearing as their purpose in life. Many feminists would add that gender stereotypes are unfair on men as well, teaching them that it is shameful to be emotional and vulnerable.

Feminists are especially keen to promote these ideas in the poorer, more traditional cultures of Africa. Female circumcision is a particular source of anger, as are arranged marriages. Birth control and access to contraception is also being fought for. Women, it is argued, are only free when they have the right to decide how many children they give birth to. What good is it to create new education or career opportunities for a woman who has no access to contraception?

Mainstream feminists would also point out that they do not wish to replace a male-dominated society with a female-dominated one. They simply want equality. And they want freedom. A woman should be free to do any job she likes, live in any way she sees fit (so long as this does not break the law or hurt anyone), be paid the same as a man, and so on. Indeed, ask a feminist to define her goal in just one word and she would probably say “justice”.

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