A Beginners Guide to Feminism

For some unknown reason the term ‘feminism’ has been tainted. What once described the belief that women deserve equal rights has transitioned into a dirty word connoting man-hating and radicalisation. How have we allowed this to happen and how can we change this? Well, first we have to understand the definition of feminism and its related ideologies.

Simply put, feminism refers to ‘the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes’. It argues that women have the right to a voice and demands equal treatment of the sexes. Coming in waves, feminist motivations have evolved through the centuries. Once campaigning for legal rights, the movement has grown to provide women with identities and sexual freedoms.

The first-wave of feminist thought pioneered during the 19th and 20th century. Realising that the only way for change to occur would be by attaining political power, groups such as The Suffragette’s and The Suffragist’s worked tirelessly to gain – dare I say it – suffrage. Not only accomplishing women’s right to vote, the movement helped put an end to chattel marriages and provide women with the right to own property. More importantly, this wave created a dialogue within society illustrating the power of the female race: no longer would they passively wait at home, and no longer would they be oppressed.

Second-wave feminism is dated around the early 1960’s to late 1980’s with feminist greats, such as Simone Beauvoir and Betty Friedan, fighting for cultural equality. During this wave, the debate for female rights extended to a social and cultural context demanding sexual equality as well as gender equality. In Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, she details the ways in which society indoctrinates women to fit patriarchal ideals: ‘one is not born, but rather, she becomes, a woman’. She argues that for feminism to progress, women must break from the grasp of the social construction of the female other. Meanwhile, Friedan questions the stagnant nature of the mid-20th century housewife, challenging their passive and accepting nature. She builds onto Beauvoir’s argument, encouraging women to reclaim their identities and to find meaning to their lives outside of the household. Ultimately, the second-wave stresses the need for female social freedoms.

It is during the third-wave of feminism that the term takes on a negative definition as the varying feminist outlooks begin to conflict. There is the beginning of branches such as: radical feminism, which believes that sexism is so prevalent in society that the only way to end it is to remove the concept of gender completely; cultural feminism, which argues that society can only be improved by encouraging feminine behaviour rather than masculine behaviour; liberal feminism, which claims that women have the ability to fight against sexist thought by eliminating the power from these terms; and the list continues. Whilst each of these ideologies has common grounding it could be argued that they validate sexist thought. For example, reclaiming derogatory terms is impossible unless both parties accept the terms lack of meaning. The third-wave challenges the concept of a ‘good woman’ and sparks the need for sexual liberation in women.

Finally, we reach fourth-wave feminism, the latest evolution of the movement. In an age of technological power, fourth-wave feminism is ever present with the aid of social media. The internet facilitates the challenging of sexism within society and the formation of campaigns such as #ThisGirlCan and #MeToo aids the growth of societies awareness to sexist issues within society. The fourth-wave promotes equality in the work place and highlights the need for action against sexual assault.

Despite being a movement about women’s rights, feminism encourages male participation and understanding. Many men identify as feminists and have helped with the progression of the movement. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, for example, states ‘I do call myself a feminist […] It’s worth paying attention to the roles that are dictated to us and to realise that we don’t have to fit into these roles. We can be anybody we want to be’. Feminism is a movement that encourages equal rights for both genders, meaning that, yes, women should be able to rock a cropped hair do and biker boots in the same way that men should be able to rock luscious locks and stilettos.

For those looking to learn more about feminism I would encourage you to read some of the following texts. They are incredibly illuminating and show how sexism remains present in today’s society:
Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique
Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things To me
Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House
Sylvia Plath’s A Bell Jar
Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber

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