Reality Check – Revealing What Feminism Truly Means
A movement shrouded by clichés and misinformation
A few days ago, I asked my 14 year old brother what feminism meant to him. He immediately evoked top-less riots and misandry. And unfortunately, most people’s perception of feminism is limited to this vague idea of a flashy, generally man-hating movement aiming to place women above men.
In truth, stereotypes almost completely cloud the initial goals and values of feminism and have done so for decades. As a consequence, less than one in five women in the UK and the US call themselves a feminist. Moreover, many celebrities have avoided to call themselves openly feminists because they did not want to be associated with these stereotypes, or because they did not really understand feminism themselves.
But what really is feminism, under all the misconceptions? I am by no means a professional with the most extensive knowledge of feminism, but I believe that it has done a lot to help promote gender equality, and that we Gen-Z should especially stay informed on feminism and the issues linked to its misunderstanding. I have undergone the research for this article partially to answer my own questions about feminism, and I want to share what I found.
A quick and basic definition of feminism
The definition of feminism is often contested, but it can be resumed as the following: “Feminism is a range of social movements, political movements, and ideologies that aim to define, establish, and achieve the political, economic, personal, and social equality of the sexes.” (Wikipedia).
To put it even more simply, feminism is about gender equality and equal opportunities for all genders. Feminism is also about de-centering the male perspective of our societies (that we often know as patriarchy) and thinking about different approaches and points of view to study and solve social problems.
A brief history of feminism and a few of its key figures
Early feminism stemmed from influences of the Enlightenment in Europe in the late 1700s. The movement that inspired the American and French revolutions of the late 18th century focused on reason and equality for all. That “all men are created equal” was one of the main revendications of the American Declaration of Independence.
However, this postulate did not apply to women or people of color at the time, which was a great source of tension for early feminism: In France, in 1791, a few years after the French Revolution and the issuing of the Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen, political activist Olympe de Gouges challenged this male-only “equality” with her Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen.
She was, however, executed by guillotine for her political stances and opposition to the revolutionary government in 1793. In the UK, Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792, promoting the then-radical idea of equal education for women and men. The word Feminism itself was coined in 1837 by French philosopher and socialist utopist Charles Fourier.
Mary Wollstonecraft, Source: Britannica
Feminism is believed to be divided into four waves, the first of which being the fight for women’s suffrage (aka the right to vote), among others. It began with the Seneca Falls Convention in July 1848, during which a group of 300 men and women came together to discuss the status of women in the United States, and purposefully mirrored the Declaration of Independence to shed light on the injustice of women’s status: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal”.
It also called for property rights, labor rights, education rights and the right to vote for women. Many leaders of the movement, such as Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth were also abolitionists. Women were finally granted the right to vote at different times in different countries: Women could vote by 1893 in New Zealand, by 1902 in Australia, by 1920 in the US, 1928 in Britain, 1944 in France or 1971 in Switzerland. In China, during the late Qing period, feminists called for liberation from traditional roles and gender segregation through the Hundred Days’ Reform. In 1899, Qasim Amin, considered the father of Arab Feminism, wrote The Liberation Of Women and began the fight for women’s rights in the Arab world. Similar movements stemmed across the world during that era.
Feminists continued to demand the reform of family laws for instance, which gave their husbands control over their wives, or the abolition of “marital exemption” in rape laws. French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir published The Second Sex in 1949, expressing feminists’ sense of injustice.
The Second Wave of feminism stretched from the 1960s to the 1980s and was known as the Women’s Movement or Women’s Liberation. It was mainly concerned with issues of equality beyond suffrage, such as gender discrimination. Second-wave feminists saw women’s cultural and political inequalities as tightly linked and encouraged women to understand aspects of their personal lives as deeply politicized and as reflecting sexist power structures.
This wave once again stretched across the world as president Nasser of Egypt introduced “state feminism”, or as the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua aided women’s quality of life despite that it failed to achieve a social and ideological change in the country.
This was the time when the ambiguous Ms began to be used rather than Miss or Mrs, or that the terms sexism and sexual harassment were coined, demonstrating the similarities between discrimination against women and racism.
Third wave feminism began with the Riot Grrrl movement in the early 1990s and Anita Hill’s televised testimony that Clarence Thomas had harassed her. Third wave feminism was based on more inclusion and more varied experiences of women than the first and second waves, which it believed to be overly centered on upper middle-class white women.
Feminist leaders of the second wave and third wave include Gloria Anzaldúa, bell hooks, Chela Sandoval, Cherríe Moraga, Audre Lorde, Maxine Hong Kingston, and many other non-white feminists. Third-wave feminism also saw internal debates between difference feminists, who believe that there are considerable psychological differences between the sexes, and those who believe that the so-called psychological differences between the sexes are only due to socialisation and the perpetration of gender roles.
This wave of feminism also developed the standpoint theory, which is a feminist theory stating that a person’s social position influences their knowledge, that research and theory treat women and feminism as unmiportant, and that traditional science should not be seen as unbiased.
This advocated against global issues such as rape, incest or prostitution, but also specific issues within cultures, such as female genital mutilation or glass ceiling practices. Fourth wave feminism is the wave we are living through today. It is a resurgence of interest towards feminism that is associated with social media and is believed to have begun around 2012.
It is best known for the #MeToo movement and is strongly linked to technology and platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Tumblr or blogs. According to feminist scholar Prudence Chamberlain, the fourth wave principaly aims to promote justice for women and opposition to sexual harassment and violence against women.
It has been galvanized by scandals such as the 2012 Delhi gang rape, or the 2017 Harvey Weinstein allegations and Weinstein effect. Examples of fourth wave feminism campaigns include One Billion Rising, the 2017 Women’s March, the 2018 Women’s March, and the #MeToo movement, among others.
Some recurrent misconceptions that have stemmed from critics and conservative opinions through the ages
So that’s a short history of feminism and of its goals and values through the ages. But how come many still view feminism as a man-hating or man-destroying movement?
The truth is, ever since the movement was created, it has faced very strong opposition. Some feel that their positions are threatened by feminism movements aiming to profoundly change the system. Requests that we perceive today as legitimate and normal were seen as radical only a few decades ago: the right for education, vote or property for women were perceived as absurd.
Misinformation has always surrounded feminism, and this has conveniently been used to undermine it. In 1992, for instance, Pat Robertson began a petition to stop feminist movements in Iowa and accused feminism of being “a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”, which is far from what feminism has ever been, but can be convincing in the eyes of those who are not well-informed and who have never questioned their society’s structure.
In this way, misconceptions that feminists aim to destroy men and oppress them probably stem from the fear of losing privileges or opportunities in the face of goals of radical change.
Another misconception is that feminism calls for men and women being “the same”, which seems absurd because biologically speaking, they are different. Some anti-feminists even go to the extent of claiming that because men and women are different, they can’t be equal.
However, feminism promotes gender equality and the same rights, which is different from claiming that women and men are the same, and is independent from biological features.
Moreover, a common claim is that feminism only liberates women at the expense of men. Once again, feminism is not to be confused with misandry, and truthfully, feminism also liberates men by attempting to break down society’s standards and gender roles.
Feminism is extremely complex and includes a whole series of widely different movements, though linked together by the goal of women empowerment. Extremist feminist movements exist and some of them do aim to place women above men.
However, most feminists only strive for gender equality, which after thousands of years of countless gender gaps is largely due. As Gen-Z, I believe that we can continue to grow and shape a future that is more inclusive for all genders.
This fight starts with knowledge, proper understanding and avoiding misconceptions and stereotypes, and it is up to us to continue what women in the 18th century have started and continue promoting proper gender equality in all areas. After all, #ItBeginsWithUs