History of Feminism: A Short Overview From The 17th Century Onwards

History of Feminism: A Short Overview From The 17th Century Onwards
Describing the roots of feminism in a clear and exactly chronological way is, because of the diversity and plurality of the theme itself, impossible. There are too much causes, effects and consequences in history that

might be taken as a beginning of this ‘movement’; a change of thinking, behavior and acting, or the rise of awareness over recent political, economical, and social circumstances and the feeling that those are unequal, unjust, and discriminating the bigger part of society.

This part outlines three important currents of feminist history, where women from an initial position of ‘powerlessness’ non-violently increased their rights against all odds:

1.Liberal Feminism:
The way in which women have acted in political movements to reach more meaning within the political process, which also included the fight for legal status, voting rights and participation in general. This approach worked/works within the structure of the existing society system to integrate women into it.

2.Marxist/Material feminism:
The way in which women have fought for economical independence according to the theory of Marxism in its variety of critique and its continuation through the time. This approach tries to overcome the existing structure of capitalistic society, which is seen as the root of women’s oppression.

3.Radical feminism: The way in which women, who felt excluded and misrepresented by the two previous currents, pushed a new way of thinking forward, which has lead into a new strand of feminism. This approach argues that the root of women’s oppression lies within the patriarchal structures of society and they want to overcome them.

4.Gender as a category: The way in which the gender issue as a key category in itself was brought into the theoretical discussion of feminism by some important female writers.

To keep in mind, this is a short overview, only picking out some important happenings within the different currents of the whole movement, which is too vast and diverse to be presented in greater detail.

1. Liberal Feminism

Since the French revolution 1789 the equality between man and woman were an issue in Europe, which was primarily discussed in so-called ‘Salons’, a certain kind of meeting points of the intellectual upper-class society, which were mainly established in the capitals of most of the European countries. In the United States the roots of the women’s movement can be dated back to the "Seneca Falls: Declaration of Sentiments" written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton 1848. She orientated consciously patriotic on the Declaration of Independence and claimed on equal rights for women, who have not, in her opinion, gained any freedom after establishing the New Republic. In a similar way but in this case following the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen in France in 1789, Olympe de Gouges wrote the "Declaration of the Rights of Woman" in 1791. Both declarations, in their ways different, primarily demanded:

1.Women’s suffrage,
2.Free access to University,
3.Legal status for married women,
4.Property rights for married women,
5.Free access to the Labor market and equal wages,
6.Independence from men.

In general the liberal women’s movement was a social movement promoting the rights of women in society, mostly to gain admittance in the public sphere and to be set on equal terms with men. There must be noted that this movement was not a unified and well-organized one, but can more be understood as a term that describes the different wings, currents, actions, and happenings within the field of the liberal women’s movement.

Other mentionable steps towards a liberal women’s movement were made in the field of literature, like Mary Wollstonecraft’s "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman" published in England in 1792, where women of the educated classes began to promote their rights of women in education and work, or Harriet Taylor’s "The Subjection of Women" published under the name of her husband John Stuart Mill. Similarly, Marian Evans was the real author of the writings of Herbert Spencer on Women’s Liberation.

The first wave of the modern women’s movement took place from the middle of the 19th century till the beginning of the 20th century. In it women fought for fundamental political and citizen rights for women. A radical wing of the movement, the Suffragettes, were more or less organized feminists in Great Britain and the United States, who fought at the beginning of the 20th century vigorously for many years for the general right to vote, to stand for election, and equality with men with unusual methods, which had a dimension from passive resistance, over disturbance of public events, to hunger strike. Prominent suffragists include Susan B. Anthony, Emmeline Pankhurst, Kate Sheppard and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

The fight for woman’s suffrage was a long-term one, often criticized, disturbed, or combated by opponents of the movement, above all men. Women, who took part, were attacked by society, which was partly so horrified about the audacity of some women to fight for their ‘rights’. The public opinion got slowly changed. Just several decades later the first countries started to constitute woman’s suffrage, like New Zealand 1893, followed by Australia and most of the European countries. But still today there are countries, like the United Arab Emirates, who have not yet equal voting rights. However, after the fight was won in most of the countries, the organized liberal movement continued in several directions. While the majority of the women did not looked further, a minority understood that the quest for women’s rights would be an ongoing struggle, that was only improved, not satisfied, by the vote. The roots of inequality, one consequence of the first wave of women’s movement, seem to lay deeper than being thought in the beginning of the struggle.

“It’s like you start to feel that something is wrong, you start to look beyond, you start to ask you and others why it is how it is, you start to do something to change the situation you see as problematic, you start to realize that not everybody is willingly to change it, you start to see your fight in a greater perspective and finally, you will know that there is more to do than you thought in the beginning.”

2. Marxist/Material Feminism

Like written above, the first steps were made in the direction of political participation, mostly initiated by women, who came from the middle or upper-middle class. Their aim had been equalization within the existing society system. Another influence of the women’s movement came from below, demanding better working conditions for women by following the Marxist approach of overcoming the existing structures. According to the social issue of this time and the entrance of women in productive labor, the claim of the feminists had reached the economic basis. Close to that, the rise of the Marxist or Socialist movement advanced the rights of women to economic parity with men.

In 1879 August Bebel published his book "Woman and Socialism", which was an important theoretical work that parallels women and proletariat as a minority unit of mankind. Bebel argues that the social emancipation of women is an integral part of transforming social relations and overthrowing capitalism. Women are encouraged to take their place as equals in these societies, although they rarely enjoyed the same level of political power of men. Following the mentioned ideas, in the organizing process of the working class in Europe and America, a number of women played leading roles, among them Clara Zetkin, Rosa Luxemburg, Ana Pauker and Alexandra Kollontai.

Later, in both World Wars, manpower shortage brought women into traditionally male fields of work. By demonstrating that women could do ‘men's work’, and highlighting society's dependence on their labor, this shift encouraged women to strive for equality. Subsequently, the posed roots (and other) are the historical framework of the Marxist Feminists, who are dealing with the basic analytical principles of class contradictions. To hold class analysis central they changed the focus from the duality between the proletarian and capitalistic/bourgeois class to the contradictory (class-) relations between men and women. Based on that distinction, they have developed an analysis of reproduction as the basis for women’s oppression in capitalistic societies. In this concept, oversimplified, men are seen as the productive part, while women are the reproductive one. Between both exists an asymmetrical relationship, which is also visible in the realm of labor. As a consequence, female work, like housing and childcare, is less important and less valuable in comparison to male work.

Close to the Marxist Feminists, but considered to be differentiate from them, the Material Feminists see the liberation of women by improving their material condition, which means above all to free her from housework, because it subjugates the women to men by making them economically dependent on them. Thus, the major concern of the Material Feminists was and still to provide the economic independence of women. Materialism, in this context, is used to highlight the key role of production, including domestic production, in understanding the conditions leading to the oppression of women.

3. Radical Feminism

Radical feminism emerged among the already presented feminist currents, because some women felt not in that way presented and included as the majority of these movements did followed their persuasion. These women were unsatisfied with the results of the movement so far and tried to reach more by following a more radical and uncompromised way. Radical in this context is used as an adjective meaning the root. Thus, radical feminists seeking the root cause of women’s oppression and their answer lie in the key word of patriarchy. They believe that the society is built upon patriarchal structures where women (but also men) are oppressed by dominant men, who have more social power over others because they are in a higher hierarchical position than the others. This approach also includes the possibility that women can take an active part in this form of society by overtaking the role of dominant men. But radical feminists focus on men as the oppressors, in the latter case women who overtake the role of dominant men are treated as men.

Patriarchal structures can be found everywhere, for example in family traditions where the man is the part who financially supports the family while the woman stays at home caring for the children and doing the housework. Or look at the political or economical stage, in higher positions (e.g. leader, chiefs etc.) there can be noted a lack of women. Radical feminists see these patriarchal structures as the cause of inequality between men and women through dividing rights, privileges and power by gender. Thus, they oppose existing political and social organization by being skeptical about any political action within the current system.

Under this perspective several methods of finding the way out of women’s oppression were drawn among radical feminists. Some of them, like replacing patriarchy with matriarchy (which is still hierarchical), were just supported by a minority. But the idea of supporting cultural change, which undermined patriarchy and associated hierarchical structures, should led into a new approach of feminism, called Cultural Feminism. The cause of this development lies in the 1960s women’s movement, because many activists became pessimistic about the very possibility of social transformation and turned their attention to the building of alternatives. Thus, the difference between radical and cultural feminism is primarily a matter of time; radical feminists want to transform the society in one whole process, while cultural feminists want to build up a women’s culture within the existing structures to change them slowly.

Prominent radical feminists are Mary Daly, Andrea Dworkin, and Catherine MacKinnon, while prominent cultural feminists are Alison M. Jaggar, Paula Rothenberg and Alice Echols.

4. The Arise of ‘Gender’ as a Category

Back to the theoretical sphere of feminism there has been a change in the way how women’s oppression is put on women and how they become fixed by that. Earlier the biological differences between the two sexes were seen as naturally given. Within former theoretical approaches these differences had concerned the inequality between men and women and were used as an unquestioned truth. But the fact that the bodies of men and women are different becomes increasingly understood as a cultural produced difference, which was/is made by its definition within society.

In 1949 Simone de Beauvoir published "The Second Sex", a profound analysis of women’s role in society and women’s oppression under patriarchy. Within de Beauvoir deals with criticism of Marxist economic reduction and Freudian determinism to uncover the origins of the definitions of women as the ‘Other’ of men. This concept describes the asymmetrical relationship between the Self/Subject as the active, powerful part, which is attributed male, and the Other as the passive, powerless part, which serves as a projection of everything the Self/Subject rejects and is attributed female. Actual femininity has lost all the meaning of original femininity, which has been stolen from women and whose power became attributed to men. According to this principle de Beauvoir explains further how not only systematic oppression of women works, but how different oppressions within a society are related together:

Women are not simply free individuals, but members of an oppressed caste defined as inferior by religion and science; socialized to a psychological dependency on men; and restricted in their political and economic activities by laws and social convention.

In this way she describes how standards and norms are created in a hierarchical society and why there is the need of resisting women (also, why women may not resist them). She is arguing that women must unite in a political struggle to overcome her oppression. De Beauvoir was one of the first who distinguished between the biological entities of woman (e.g. uterus, ovaries etc) and her role in society, what she calls ‘femininity’, which is socially constructed, as a result of childhood and socialization as well as of choices and changes during female lifetime. Thus, the central claim of her feminist masterpiece is ‘one is not born a woman but becomes one’. Focusing on reproduction as one way where women can struggle with their role by rejecting maternity through abortion, de Beauvoir has contributed to the second wave of the women’s movement from the 1970s onwards.

Realizing that resistance against female subjugation can evolve from the woman’s nature body self, the fact that women are the one, who can decide over life and death, got a powerful meaning even more when the birth control pill was developed and accessibly on capitalistic markets or the struggle for legalized abortion spread throughout the world.

Gender originally was introduced by Dr. John Money in 1955 in the term gender role in place of sex change. He distinguished as one of the first between sex and gender to write about individuals for whom sex and gender were not congruent, not the same (Transgenderism). During the 1970s debates have arisen within the feminists’ movement how to define the term gender and what it means. The initial discordance about it has lead later to a consensus among most of the feminist writers to use it only for socio-culturally adapted traits. The idea that sex and gender are unrelated gained ground during the 1980s. The definition of sex and gender are commonly used in the public discourse as followed:

a. Sex
- refers to the biological classification of an individual either ‘male’ or ‘female’ based on chromosomes, genitalia and secondary sexual characteristics;

b. Gender
- is the perceived or projected (self-identified) femininity or masculinity of a person, which arise from the political, social and cultural environment and societal views and expectations of males and females

Sex and gender are regarded as fluid categories and cannot be simply equated with biology and culture. Both gender and sex are influenced by race/ethnicity, socioeconomic class, sexual identity and orientation, and political and historical context.

The theoretical/political distinction among Marxist, radical, liberal and cultural currents of feminism may initially sensitize one to particular ways of viewing sex and gender relations.

These relations seek to explain the inequality between males and females in terms of sex roles in power sharing, decision making, and the division of labor. They are focused on the attributes acquired in the process of socialization: our self and group definitions, the appropriate roles, values and behavior, and the accepted and expected interactions in relationship between women and men. The sex and gender relations are represented through gender roles and identities, which means how individuals define and can define themselves under certain conditions. To contradict this actual understanding of sex/ gender in society reviewing and questioning of the truth as concept is necessary to show differences in and roots of oppression.

Related Essays Womens Studies