The English language is swarming with animal words. Next post: There’s nothing fishy about animal words

geek glasses Previous Post: How has the meaning of 'geek' changed over time?

A brief history of feminism

A brief history of feminism

To celebrate International Women’s Day, here is an extract on feminism from the Dictionary of Critical Theory, edited by Ian Buchanan.


One of the most important social movements of the past two centuries and certainly the social movement which has brought about the most enduring and progressive transformation of human society on a global scale. It is customary to divide the history of feminism into a First, Second, and Third Wave, with each period signalling a different era in the struggle to attain equality between the sexes. Today feminism means many different things to different people, but at its core, if one goes back to its origins in the late 18th century, it is primarily a social movement for the emancipation of women. That movement was slow to start, and it wasn’t until the late 1880s that the term ‘feminism’ actually appeared. Before then, the more usual term was ‘women’s rights’. The first advocates for women’s rights were for the most part lonely voices pleading against obvious and manifest iniquities in society’s treatment of women.

This was certainly the case in one of the earliest self-consciously feminist works, namely Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), which was written at the height of the French Revolution. Establishing what would become a common theme throughout much feminist writing, Wollstonecraft conducts her critique on two fronts: on the one hand, she criticizes patriarchal society (as it would later be called) for the unjust way it limits women’s rights, as well as their opportunity for education, self-expression, and economic independence; while on the other hand, she criticizes women for buying into femininity which, in her view, turns women into mere ‘spaniels’ and ‘toys’. Wollstonecraft’s solution was better education for young women, not the granting of equal rights. So in this sense, one might say feminism begins not with Wollstonecraft but rather with the various Women’s Suffrage movements that sprang up in the early 1800s.

A century of struggle

Achieving full voting rights for all women regardless of age, race, or marital status took more than a century of struggle, easily justifying Juliet Mitchell’s claim that feminism is ‘the longest revolution’. The focus on voting rights, as important as these are, tends to obscure the fact that it was not only the right to vote that women were fighting for, though this was of course emblematic inasmuch that once they could vote they would be able to use the democratic process to bring about other forms of change. In point of fact, however, even after women obtained the right to vote in most parts of the world at the turn of the 20th century, it was still several decades before full equality was obtained. And many would say that it has not yet been obtained.

It is worth mentioning that throughout the long First Wave of feminism women fought against several other injustices as well, of which three are key. (i) Women were restricted in terms of the ownership of property, requiring them to marry so as to inherit, thus preventing them from attaining true independence (it is this issue which exercises proto-feminist writers like Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë). (ii) Women did not have full rights over their own body, which meant they had no legal protection against sexual violence (e.g. the idea that a husband could rape his wife was not admitted as law until late in the 20th century). (iii) Women were discriminated against in the workplace, which not only meant women were paid less than men for the same work, it also restricted them from applying for certain jobs, denied them promotion, and made no allowance for maternity leave. Many of these problems persist today.

The Second Wave of feminism

Once suffrage was granted, the women’s rights movement fell into decline, and remained quiescent until the late 1950s and early 1960s when it was reignited by a new generation of activists who called themselves the Second Wave of feminism. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique(1963) is generally credited as the tipping point for this second round of political struggle. Echoing Wollstonecraft, she argued that women were victims of a false belief in the promise of femininity and urged them to look beyond their domestic situation for fulfilment. The National Organization for Women (NOW) was formed in 1966 and became the central focus, in the US, for feminist activism. Its goal was the ratification of an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, which it did not manage to achieve in full, but it nonetheless made giant strides towards it. Second Wave feminism also took the view that equality between the sexes would only come about if there was a sea change in cultural attitudes on the part of both women and men. Authors like Germaine Greer and Kate Millett called for a sexual liberation as well, arguing that women could alter their status as the second sex (to borrow the title of Simone de Beauvoir’s important book) by overturning the double standards applied to their sexuality and behaviour.

The Second Wave of feminism came to an end in the early 1980s partly as a result of its successes—many women felt that all the relevant battles had been fought and won—but primarily because of the change in political climate. The Reagan-Thatcher era was very unfriendly to equal rights and it rolled back many of the gains that had been made. This is the period of the so-called ‘culture wars’ when feminism was caricatured as mere political correctness and its political agenda scorned in the press. Third Wave feminist scholar Susan Faludi documents this in her Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women (1991). But there were also problems within feminism. Feminist scholars of colour, particularly those from the Third World, argued very forcefully that feminism neglected race and class. These issues are central to the Third Wave, which many cite as beginning with the outraged response of feminist critics to the treatment of Anita Hill during the Senate-confirmation hearings for US Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991. Hill testified that Thomas sexually harrassed her when she was working in the Department of Education, and later at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Thomas flatly denied this, and was subsequently confirmed by the Senate.

The opinions and other information contained in OxfordWords blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.