Women’s Movements Essay

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Movements on behalf of women arise from the gendered social constructions that have accompanied the biological differences between male and female that pervade social life. The political processes by which rules are made and valued objects and services are distributed have institutionalized gender differences since the beginning of human history. Traditional systems of religious and political thought have relegated women to a secondary status. Thus, the potential beneficiaries of ”women’s movements” conceivably encompass more than half of humanity. Yet women are also divided by all of the social distinctions and sources of subordination to which the human experience gives rise. These differences present both obstacles to mobilization and a multiplicity of competing claims characterized in terms of identity struggles.

To speak of ”women’s” movements requires attention to the distinction between movements made up of women as a constituency or organizational strategy and those movements in which the empowerment of women is both a goal and source of theoretical and ideological negotiation and contestation, that is, ”feminist” movements (Ferree & Mueller 2004). Although feminist mobilizations are always concerned with the subordination or self-actualization of women, the elasticity of that definition has led to enormous variety in movements. According to Karen Offen (2000), the term itself is a product of intellectual discourse in late nineteenth-century France. Among feminists the most consistent division globally and historically has been that between liberal and socialist feminisms. Since 1848 an intense rivalry developed in Europe that was echoed in most parts of the world. The pervasive socialist/liberal difference is still found in Raka Ray’s (1999) comparison of feminist organizing in Bombay and Calcutta; in European and North American feminists’ responses to neo-liberal political and social restructuring; and in Latin American women’s responses to authoritarian governments.

As one of the major social movements developing in the modern period, feminist movements have, to some extent, shared the same repertoire of collective action as labor, environment, male suffrage, and other ”rights” movements. They have embraced a familiar repertoire of mass meetings, petitions, demonstrations, and electoral campaigns. At the same time, nineteenth-century feminists challenged cultural norms and values through a more symbolic and discursive repertoire associated today with ”new social movements.”

By the time European powers dominated the world in the nineteenth century, many of the ideas associated with feminism had become embedded in the larger cultural package of ”modernity.” Indigenous leaders in the European colonies sometimes entertained these ideas along with other modern systems of thought as a way of coming to terms with the imperial powers. With the overthrow of colonial powers in the twentieth century, feminist ideas have been attacked for their association with western imperialism and other discredited ”modern” ideas. Similarly, when the Soviet system collapsed late in the twentieth century, ideas about women’s equal participation in politics and the paid labor force were discredited in many countries of Eastern Europe because of their association with an imposed Soviet-style socialism.

Like most long-running international movements, feminists have gone through periods of highly public mobilizations followed by ”abeyance” periods (Rupp & Taylor 1987), but the transformative moments redefining the relationship of women to men and to society have historically been quickly suppressed by counter-movements that reestablished women’s traditional subordination. This was true until the suffrage movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries offered a foundation in the polity for resisting counter-movements and offered the potential for global mobilization through new international governmental and non-governmental organizations.


  1. Ferree, M. M. & Mueller, C. (2004) Feminism and women’s movements. In: Snow, D. A., Soule, S. A., & Kriesi, H. (Eds.), The Blackwell Companion to Social Movements. Blackwell, Oxford, pp. 576—607.
  2. Offen, K. (2000) European Feminism: 1700—1950.Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA.
  3. Ray, R. (1999) Fields ofProtest. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN.
  4. Rupp, L. & Taylor, V. (1987) Survival in the Doldrums. Ohio State University Press, Columbus, OH.

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