Gender Stratification

Feminism and Women's Movements

Definition of Feminism

Feminism and the women's movement have developed in multiple phases and continue to change and diversify.

The women's movement, or the feminist movement, refers to a set of political campaigns seeking reform of issues affecting women. This movement is connected to feminism, the belief that women and men are equal and should have equal rights. Feminism has multiple branches and variants. However, most feminists agree on some common goals:

  • increasing gender equality
  • expanding choices in social roles so that both men and women can explore whatever talents and interests they choose
  • eliminating norms and laws limiting women's educational opportunities, access to jobs, and income potential
  • ending sexual violence and aggression
  • promoting sexual freedom and ensuring that women have control of their bodies and sexual experiences

In Western societies several waves of women's movements have occurred. Most theorists identify four waves of feminism, each with particular interests related to larger social and cultural issues and trends.

First-Wave Feminism

First-wave feminism began in the 19th century; in the United States it was linked to the antislavery movement but eventually split over which cause to put first.
First-wave feminism occurred during the 19th and early 20th centuries. It rejected common social and cultural beliefs about women and femininity. Some common assumptions at the time were that women were intellectually inferior and hyperemotional. This impacted women in many ways. They were not educated to the degree that men were. Very few colleges accepted women students, and girls were sometimes educated at home rather than being sent to school. Women's roles were to run households and to be wives and mothers. If women did do paid work, their salary belonged to their husbands. Often women could not own or inherit property. They were not allowed to vote. First-wave feminists focused primarily on women's suffrage, the right to vote in political elections, as well as working conditions, contract and property rights, and educational rights for women of all ages.
First-wave feminism, which arose in Europe and the United States in the 19th century, focused heavily on fighting for women's suffrage, or the right to vote.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ggbain-00111
In the United States the first-wave feminist movement was initially linked to the antislavery movement. However, after the Civil War, advocates of both rights for women and rights for African Americans eventually split over which cause to focus on. White feminists such as Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902) opposed the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments, which granted suffrage to African American men. They argued that neither feminists nor African Americans should accept the amendments as written but should hold out for amendments that granted suffrage to all men and women. Sojourner Truth (c. 1797–1883), who escaped from slavery and became a leader in both abolitionist and feminist circles, also held this view. Other white feminists, such as Lucy Stone (1818–93) and Julia Ward Howe (1819–1910) chose to side with African Americans who thought that insisting on including women's suffrage in the amendments would doom them to failure. They believed the amendments would not be ratified if women were included. The 14th and 15th Amendments were ratified, in 1868 and 1870, respectively. They secured voting rights for African American men, but no voting rights for women of any race. The 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote, was ratified half a century later, in 1920. Outside the United States, women's movements achieved women's suffrage at different times. New Zealand led the way, passing women's suffrage in 1893. Women in Canada and several European nations gained the right to vote in the early years of the 20th century.

In addition to working for suffrage, first-wave feminists worked to change other laws affecting women. For example, they pushed for changes in laws about holding property, marriage and divorce, and employment. Within different religious denominations, early feminists called for and took on leadership positions, including working as preachers and ministers. They also worked to change perceptions and traditions about women and women's roles. They argued that different moral standards applied to men and women, contesting the idea that women's behavior must be strictly controlled.

Second-Wave Feminism

Second-wave feminism emerged during the 1960s; it was linked to the civil rights movement but criticized for a focus on the concerns of white women.

Second-wave feminism began during the 1960s and continued through the 1980s. Although this wave was linked to the civil rights movement, it has been criticized for focusing mainly on the concerns of middle-class white women. Many of these feminists fought for the rights of many oppressed groups, but the focus of the movement was basic gender equality. This wave dealt with the inequalities of laws regarding women, including sexual, reproductive, and workplace issues. Second-wave feminists also pushed for cultural changes. For example, they pointed out the ways that household work and childcare fell mostly to women, whether or not they worked outside the home. They pushed back against workplace rules that required them to wear skirts and dresses. They brought greater social awareness to rape, including marital rape, and domestic abuse, as well as worked to counter these issues by setting up hotlines and shelters. Many of these feminists also stressed the objectification of women in the media, objecting to the ways that women were represented primarily as sex objects. They protested beauty pageants such as the Miss America Pageant. Others pointed out the virgin-whore dichotomy, the cultural tendency to define women and girls as either pure and moral beings who should be protected or as wanton sexual beings who are attractive but deserve no respect. In the later years of second-wave feminism, some theorists emphasized the social and cultural backlash, or reaction, against the gains made by women during this period.

Various branches of feminism, each unique in their focus, were formed during the second-wave movement. One branch of feminism that arose during this wave is liberal feminism. Liberal feminism focuses on working within the mainstream social structure to gain equality for women. Inequality between men and women exists in the workplace, education, politics, and the law. Liberal feminists believe the source of these inequalities lies in the legal system, and they focus on laws regarding reproductive rights, such as birth control and abortion. They also focus on ending domestic violence, sexual harassment, and unequal pay. They seek to change the laws and structures that support inequalities between women and men.

Radical feminism focuses on eliminating gender roles and patriarchal structures. Radical feminists believe that women's oppression is caused by social roles, structures, and institutions formed by male supremacy and patriarchy. Unlike liberal feminists, radical feminists do not want to be equal to men and do not seek to work within the established, mainstream organization of society. Instead, they are focused on eliminating patriarchy, traditional gender roles, and the traditional structure of society.

Ecofeminism focuses on the idea of a connection between women and nature and the unjust dominance men have over both. Ecofeminists have a strong commitment to protecting the environment, emphasizing the ways both nature and women are mistreated by patriarchal society. Also called ecological feminism, this approach often explores the concept of feminine aspects that are present in nature. Ecofeminists also promote respect for the organic processes, holistic connections, and intuitive depth that they argue are inherent to both nature and women.

Third- and Fourth-Wave Feminism

Third- and fourth-wave feminism include a greater focus on the diverse concerns of many subgroups of women, taking into account issues of race, class, sexual orientation, and other factors of identity.

Third-wave feminism began in the 1990s and continues to be important in the 21st century. It includes campaigns to have women represented at all levels of government. It also focuses on the diverse concerns of many subgroups of women, including poor women, women of color, and the LGBTQIA community. Third-wave feminists grew up at a time when educational, professional, and cultural opportunities were open to women. Rather than having to knock down barriers to gain entry to areas of study, professions, or activities socially reserved for men, third-wave feminists began to look at other barriers, particularly those around race, class, and diverse sexuality and gender expression. Third-wave feminism introduced the concept of intersectionality, initially to examine the oppression of women of color. Intersectionality is a framework for examining how factors of social stratification such as gender, age, race, class, and sexual orientation are not separate, but intertwined. This concept attempts to identify how each factor functions to create different layers and experiences of oppression, stratification, and injustice.

Fourth-wave feminism arose in the 21st century. Third- and fourth-wave feminism are not always clearly separated and delineated, as they share many concerns and approaches. Fourth-wave feminism stresses intersectionality and inclusivity (including the concerns of all women). It is characterized by the use of technology, particularly social media, to share its messages. Important goals include starting conversations and changing norms, behaviors, and expectations. These feminists often call out or expose sexist and oppressive behavior publicly, bringing attention to instances of injustice in order to initiate change. As with all social movements, the momentum and gains of third- and fourth-wave feminism are often met with backlash and resistance. These feminists continue to work against laws, traditions, and expectations that limit opportunities for women, while looking closely at gender and gender identity, race, sexual orientation, class, ability, and many other factors of marginalization (being treated as insignificant and not central to a group or society).