The Origins of Feminism
The basic tenet of feminism since the beginning has been equality between the genders. Although largely originating in the West, feminism as we now know it, is a worldwide phenomena and is represented by many institutions committed to activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests. When we think of feminism in the modern world, we largely bring to mind leading and radical feminists such as Wollstonecraft and Woolf. However, feminism did not commence in the eighteenth century. Infact, it has a profound place in ancient history dating back to the time before Christ.
The Influence of Sappho
The Greek poet Sappho is one of the greatest poets in classical literature. Her lyric poetry is among the finest ever written, and although little of her work has survived and not much is known about her, she is regarded as one of the greatest women poets. Many consider her as the greatest woman poet in world literature.
She lived on the island of Lesbos around 600bc. In her lifetime, her work was widely known and admired in the Greek world. Plato called her 'the tenth muse', and she was a major influence on other poets, such as Horace and Catullus in the ancient world and to many more recent lyric poets.
The intense speculation about her sexuality has tended to overshadow her poetic achievements. One medieval pope even considered her so subversive that her poems were burnt. Some of her poems were written for the women she loved but her circle of women friends and admirers was not unlike Socrates' circle of followers. She may have been a lesbian in the modern sense but this was not unusual in the ancient world. The remnants of her poetry that have survived through the ages, show her intense, sensuous and highly accomplished love poems are among the finest in any language. Sappho can be credited with raising awareness of feminism through her poetry, which had a profound effect on those who appreciated it.
Feminism in Roman Times
Men have been threatened by women since time immemorial. In the 3rd century bc, Roman women filled the Capitoline Hill and blocked every entrance to the Forum when consul Marcus Porcius Cato resisted attempts to repeal laws limiting women’s use of expensive goods. ‘If they are victorious now, what will they not attempt?’ Cato cried. ‘As soon as they begin to be your equals, they will have become your superiors.’ For most of recorded history, only isolated voices have spoken out against the inferior status of women, presaging the arguments to come. In late 14th- and early 15th-century France, the first feminist philosopher, Christine de Pisan, challenged prevailing attitudes toward women with a bold call for female education. Her cause was carried on later in the century by Laura Cereta a 15th-century
Venetian woman who published Epistolae familiares (1488; “Personal Letters”; Eng. trans. Collected Letters of a Renaissance Feminist), a volume of letters dealing with a plethora of women’s complaints, from denial of education and marital oppression to the frivolity of women’s attire.
Subsequent Feminist Rebellions
The defense of women had become a literary subgenre by the end of the 16th century, when Il merito delle donne (1600; The Worth of Women), a feminist broadside by another Venetian author, Moderata Fonte, was published posthumously. Defenders of the status quo portrayed women as superficial and inherently immoral, while the emerging feminists produced long lists of women of courage and accomplishment and proclaimed that women would be the intellectual equals of men if they were only given equal access to education.
Debates on the Nature of Womanhood
The so-called ‘debate about women’ did not reach England until the late 16th century. After a series of satiric pieces mocking women was published, the first feminist pamphleteer in England, writing as Jane Anger, responded with Jane Anger, Her Protection for Women (1589). This volley of opinion continued for more than a century, until another English author, Mary Astell, issued a more reasoned rejoinder in A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694, 1697). The two-volume work suggested that women who were inclined neither toward marriage nor a religious vocation should set up secular convents where they might live, study, and teach.
Obviously there is better documentation available for the waves of feminism that were fought in the 20th Century. These are often broken down into 3 distinct waves:
The Three Waves of Feminism
First Wave (1909-1960)
Early feminism focused on the promotion of equal contract and property rights for women and the opposition to chattel marriage (a form of marriage in which the husband owned his wife in a legal relationship similar to that of slavery) and ownership of married women (and their children) by their husbands. By the end of the 19th Century,activism focused primarily on gaining political power, particularly the right of women's suffrage (the civil right to vote). The right to vote was the main focus of the suffragettes. There is plenty of literature available to study on the suffragette movement.
Second Wave (1960-1980)
Second-wave feminists saw women's cultural and political inequalities as inextricably linked and encouraged women to understand aspects of their personal lives as deeply politicized and as reflecting sexist power structures. Associated with the Second Wave is the phrase "Women's Liberation" . This line was first used in 1964. By 1968, "Women's Liberation" was being used to refer to the whole women's movement. Bra-burning also became associated with this wave. Unfortunately due in large part to the media coverage during this phase, feminists were portrayed as women who viewed clothing like brassiers as patriarchal, reducing women to the status of sex objects.
Third Wave (1990-present)
Beginning in the early 1990s, third wave feminism arose as a response to perceived failures of the second wave and also as a response to the backlash against initiatives and movements created by the second wave. Third Wave feminists are often the children of feminists from the 1970s (Second Wave Feminists). Third Wave feminism is very individualistic. Although it does not reject political activism, Third Wave feminism is focused more on personal empowerment as a starting place for social change. Third Wave feminism celebrates the construction of individual identities in a complex, postmodern world, and invites women to define themselves as they see fit from a huge range of possibilities. Third-wave feminists often focus on "micro-politics" and challenge the second wave's paradigm as to what is, or is not, good for women.
The basic tenet of feminism since the beginning has always been equality between the genders. The early suffragettes achieved legal equality by getting the right to vote for women. The second wave champions made huge inroads in terms of sexual equality but unfortunately due to their intense efforts and the manipulation of these activities by the media, the term “feminist” is often associated with man-hating extremists. As with any subject matter, it is the select few who take the cause to the outer limits of its boundaries that make the healines in the media and are used to form the public and historical opinion of the entire group. With that said the current wave of feminism is attempting to undo some of the derogatory associations that feminism has collected along the way.
Types of Feminism
Feminism is not a simple or unified philosophy. Many different women (and men) call themselves feminists, and the beliefs of these groups of people vary widely. Below is a brief summary of the different types of feminism:
Liberal feminism is characterized by an individualistic emphasis on equality. According to this philosophy, society itself does not need a major overhaul, but rather laws need to be changed and opportunities have to be opened up to allow women to become equals in society. To a liberal feminist, evidence of progress is seen largely by the numbers of women in positions previously only occupied by men. Especially powerful positions. In the U.S.A and much of the Western world, liberal feminism is the most mainstream form of feminism.
Socialist feminism (sometimes known as ) is different to liberal feminism in that it emphasizes that true equality will not be achieved without a major overhaul in society. In particular a major economic overhaul needs to occur. Socialist feminists argue that there are fundamental inequalities built in to a capitalist society because power and capital are distributed unevenly. So, for a Socalist Feminist it is not enough for women to individually work to rise to powerful positions in society; rather, power needs to be redistributed throughout society. Liberal feminists focus on individual empowerment, whilst socialist feminists focus on collective change and empowerment.
Radical feminism is similar to socialist feminism in that it emphasizes the need for dramatic social change in order to achieve genuine equality for women. Sometimes these two philosophies are grouped together and go hand in hand. Radical feminists believe that society is extremely patriarchal, and until patriarchy is transformed on all levels the system will remain unjust and inequality will remain. A minority of radical feminists are separatist feminists, who believe that men and women need to maintain separate institutions and relationships.
The Fight into the Future
There is clearly still a long way to go before women achieve true equality. The gender gap in wages is still very much in evidence and there are women in many societies around the world who are very suppressed and are denied their basic human rights. These women have nothing approaching equality with men.