A Brief History of Feminism

Rachel Scully, Arts and Life Editor

In an age of strong women and feminist leaders, it is important to remember the struggle women of the past endured for women’s rights to progress to what they are today. Although not everything is perfect, progress is progress, and women’s voices today are able to encourage change in our country. It is time to pay respect to the feminist roots with a brief breakdown of how the idea evolved throughout history.

Feminism in the United States is seen in three waves, the first wave starting in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York, where the first Women’s Rights Convention was held on the site of what is now the Women’s Rights National Historic Park. At the time, women were primarily seen as property and did not have rights equal to men’s. A woman’s individuality was dependent on the man she married. They did not have the right to vote or own property and did not have any legal identity.

By the end of the 19th century the focus was on women’s right to vote. With the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1919, women were finally given the right to vote, which ended the first wave of feminism.

The second wave brought about new ideas and challenged the social norms surrounding women. Feminist activists were inspired by the civil rights movement in the 1960s and began to have a stronger presence in society.

Also in the ‘60s, feminism broke down into subcategories to align with the peace movement, gay liberation movements and more. Many important figures started to push back against the stereotypes of women in society. Germaine Greer, an Australian feminist writer,  challenged the nuclear family, stating that society’s exclusive approval for such families contributed to the problem. Betty Friedan also challenged the traditional family unit, with her 1963 book The Feminine Mystique, which criticized the idea that women could only find fulfillment through being  housewives.

In 1960, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the birth control pill, which allowed women to control their sexuality, according to History.com. Activists were able to fight back against discrimination and abortion laws, while also fighting for workplace equality and equal pay. In 1964, The Civil Rights Act was passed that prohibited discrimination in employment on the basis of gender.

Although feminism’s second wave continued into the ‘80s, full freedom was still not achieved.

There is not much clarity about what the goals are in the third wave of feminism. However, it is generally described as beginning in 1991 when Oklahoma law professor Anita Hill challenged the Supreme Court nomination of Clarence Thomas. Her testimony referred to her experience years earlier, working with Thomas as her supervisor at two government agencies. Hill detailed, in a congressional hearing, allegations of workplace sexual harassment by Thomas, who was nevertheless confirmed as a Supreme Court justice.  Still, the hearing gave women more confidence to come forward regarding sexual harassment at work and resulted in a push to increase the number of women in positions of power, according to a September 2018 New York Times article.

In the wave of feminism that followed, many women claimed that sexuality was a source of power and self-expression. Judith Bulter, an American feminist philosopher and gender theorist,  pushed for the downfall of a gendered society. According to her theory of sexuality and gender, published in her essay, Performative Acts and Gender Constitution, gender is essentially a performative repetition of acts associated with society’s male or female norms. Much of what she wrote stays relevant to feminists today.

Depending on the source, either the third wave of feminism is still ongoing or we are about to enter a fourth wave. “Feminism has come a long way, but it needs to continue to grow in order for it to be effective,” said Casey Bednarski ‘18, who holds a bachelor’s degree in Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies and Sociology. “This is the inclusion of all voices, such as people of color and people from the LGBTQ+ community.”

“I think that since the late 1970s, there has been a growing movement to understand feminism as ‘equality for all,’” Amy Wainwright, M.F.A., M.S., Professor of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at John Carroll University, said. “However, this is not the way that feminism is commonly understood… Feminism tries to find ways to bring equality and justice to all people and fight hatred.”

Although there are many interpretations of feminism, all of them have the same goal: to fight for the social equality of the sexes. Understanding how far the movement has come is extremely important. In order to move forward, it is vital to respect the past.

Editor’s Note: Information from Pacific University Magazine, Vox and The New York Times was used in this article.