Feminism is both a theoretical perspective and a social movement. As a theoretical perspective, feminism provides an explanation of social behavior and social phenomena, particularly those having to do with gender. As a social movement, feminism seeks to bring about social change, specifically gender equity.
Feminism as a social theory is not a single, unified perspective. Rather, there are multiple feminisms (e.g., liberal feminism, socialist feminism, standpoint feminism). However, there are several principles common to all feminist perspectives. One principle is that gender is socially created rather than innately determined. This is not to deny the fact that humans are biological beings and that our biological makeup influences who we are as women and men. However, from a feminist perspective, there is a complex interaction between biology and culture, and biological traits may be modified by environmental or social conditions. Feminism defines gender as a set of social expectations that is reproduced and transmitted through a process of social learning.
A second feminist principle is that gender is a central organizing factor in the social world. Gender is embedded in all social interactions and processes of everyday life as well as all social institutions. At the institutional level, gender is shaped by a society’s economic and political structure. In every society, a specific set of gender norms is dominant, even though these norms may vary from society to society—further evidence that gender is socially constructed. According to the feminist perspective, no gender is inherently better or superior to any other. However, the culture of a society may imbue one gender with a higher value than another gender. In the United States and most Western societies, for example, masculinity (i.e., behaviors and traits associated with being male) is valued more highly than femininity (i.e., behaviors and traits associated with being female). Men, therefore, are accorded greater access to resources and rewards in these societies, simply because they are (masculine) men. Thus differential valuing produces gender inequality.
A common misconception about feminism is that it focuses only on women or “women’s issues.” It is the case that feminism’s primary goal, as a theoretical perspective, has been to study and explain the position of women in society, largely because women and the behaviors and traits associated with them have historically been devalued or ignored. Nevertheless, feminism recognizes that men have gender, too, and that although virtually all men benefit in some way from gender privilege, some groups of men are disadvantaged by other social factors. A third principle of feminism, therefore, is that gender inequality does not have the same consequences for all women and men. The feminist perspective examines how gender inequality intersects with other types of inequality— racism, social class inequality, heterosexism, ageism, and inequalities based on physical and intellectual abilities—to affect different groups of women and men differently. For instance, a man who behaves effeminately is viewed as deviant and is punished for this deviation in various ways, which include social ostracism; discrimination in employment, housing, and other areas; and sometimes even violence. Similarly, poor men of color have less access to societal resources and rewards than white middle-class women do, because the negative effects of racism and social class inequality in their lives outweigh the advantages of gender privilege.
Because feminism understands gender to be socially constructed, this perspective holds that any aspects of current constructions of gender or gender norms that are harmful or destructive can be changed. And because gender norms are institutionalized, this change must occur not only at the individual level but also at the institutional level. Feminists are advocates for social change that brings about gender equity, and they have mobilized to bring about such change through collective action. In this way, feminism is more than a theoretical perspective; it is also a social movement.
Although feminist theory and resistance to gender inequality have been found in early Christian writings, as well as in writings from the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Reformation, historians date the emergence of feminism as a social movement toward the end of the 18th century. It was during the late 1700s that some women began publicly demanding equal rights with men, especially in the area of education. During the first half of the 19th century, women working in anti-slavery organizations in the United States, Great Britain, and Europe became angry when their male peers prohibited them from speaking in public and segregated them at meetings and conventions. Armed with the organizational and administrative skills they had acquired through anti-slavery activism and using abolitionism as an ideological framework for understanding their own inequality relative to men, these women began to hold conferences and stage protests demanding equal rights for women. The most famous women’s rights conference was held at Seneca Falls, New York, on July 19 and 20, 1848. There about 300 women and some sympathetic men adopted the Declaration of Sentiments, modeled on the Declaration of Independence, along with 12 resolutions that supported equality between the sexes and opposed laws and customs that discriminated against women. But as this “first wave” of the feminist movement developed, its focus narrowed on winning women the right to vote. This effort took nearly three quarters of a century to achieve its goal. Ratification of the 19th Amendment occurred on August 26, 1920.
Following ratification of the 19th Amendment, feminism as a social movement became dormant. Although small groups of feminists, such as the National Women’s Party, continued to lobby for women’s rights, including the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, it was not until the 1960s that a second mass mobilization occurred. A number of factors contributed to the resurgence of feminism as a social movement at this time, including the appointment by President John F. Kennedy of a Presidential Commission on the Status of Women that documented widespread and severe labor force discrimination based on sex, as well as the publication in 1963 of the bestseller The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan. Feminism also appealed to women involved in the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement, who were motivated by their personal experiences of gender discrimination in these social movements as well as in the larger society.
This second wave of feminism was not homogeneous. It included, for example, lesbians as well as heterosexual women, and pro-feminist men were involved. However, one serious criticism of contemporary feminism—a criticism that was also leveled against the first wave of feminism—was racism. Critics maintain that feminism as a social movement was composed of mostly white, economically privileged, well-educated women, who disregarded or deliberately excluded the concerns of women of color as well as poor and working-class women of all races and ethnicities. At the same time, by focusing largely on winning formal legal rights for women—and often succeeding—second wave feminism also overlooked the concerns of younger generations of women, who came after them.
Although it has been argued that most young women today reject feminism, research documents the development of a third wave of feminist activism that is rebellious against conventional gender norms and that also embraces inclusiveness. Studies of third wave feminism emphasize its celebration of sexuality, women’s agency and autonomy, and multiculturalism. Third wave feminists have adopted a multiracial emphasis and address problems resulting from racism, social class inequality, homophobia, and other inequalities in addition to gender inequality. In fact, the inclusiveness of third wave feminism is likely to be key to the continued viability of feminism as a social movement in the 21st century.
- Lorber, Judith. 2005. Gender Inequality: Feminist Theories and Politics. Los Angeles: Roxbury.
- Renzetti, Claire M. and Daniel J. Curran. 2007. Women, Men and Society: The Sociology of Gender. 6th ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
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