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FEMINISM: introduction and basic history
By Kat Seiffert


  1. Belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.
  2. The movement organized around this belief.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition
Copyright © 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company.

Feminism is a popularly misconstrued movement that is often associated with burning bras and the superiority of the female over the male, although both are true for parts of feminism’s history. It would be also misguided to assume that the term “feminism” could be replaced with “equalism” because feminism identifies itself with women’s rights and equality rather than the equal rights of everyone. Today, feminist issues range from access to employment, education, child care, contraception, and abortion, to equality in the workplace, changing family roles, addressing sexual harassment, and equal political representation.

Before deconstructing “feminism” further, it is imperative to address the difference between being a “female” and being “feminine,” as they are two terms essential to the feminist movement:

A female is defined solely biologically whereas to be feminine is a social construct that adheres to the image of the passive, defenseless, rather emotional housewife in a dress. To be masculine is to be tough, rational, domineering businessman in pants. Many people do not fit into the strict social categorizations of being a feminine female or a masculine male but rather define themselves somewhere in between. Therefore, being a female does not necessarily imply that one is feminine and vice versa. A feminist is someone who believes that sexism causes social problems. NB: a person does not need to be biologically a female in order to be a feminist, nor feminine -- nor NOT feminine (see below)!

Today, feminism means something entirely different than when the first feminist document, Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women, was published in 1792. (Women wrote documents complaining of sexism -- see for instance Mary Astell's Some Reflections Upon Marriage (1700) -- but Wollstonecraft's pamphlet was the first to propose a plan for social reform.) Part of the reason why feminism is often misunderstood is due to a lack of historical understanding of the feminist movement.

Feminism has occurred in three waves over slightly more than 200 years. The first wave of feminism, termed “equality feminism,” was the movement of women demanding full legal equality, full educational and commercial opportunity, the right to collect wages, and the right to vote. At the same time, first wave feminists wanted to be like men and therefore shed their femininity to become more masculine.

The second wave of feminism during the 1960s and 1970s overwhelmingly argued for a “woman-centered” perspective, which put women as superior to men. The second wave is also called “difference feminism.”

Over the past few decades, a third wave of feminism occurred. Third wave feminism calls for equal social, political, and economic rights between men and women while not asserting the superiority of either gender. Third wave feminists neither swear off femininity nor exclude masculinity from their personality. The point is to be equal without overwhelmingly accepting or barring socially constructed gender roles.

Post-structuralist feminists such as Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray have proposed an alternatives to patriarchal language, sometimes called écriture féminine.

A feminist, today, is more than fighter for the equality of the sexes. He/she is “one who studies gender in order to demystify the essentialist mythologies that trap men and women into determining gender identity as ‘natural’,” according to Lisa Starks in her essay “Hyperfeminisms: Poststructuralist Theories, Popular Culture, and Pedagogy.” With that definition, one does not need to be female to be a feminist as there are many males who are feminists. To be a feminist means to question and/or reject the socially constructed gender affixed to being a male or a female.

For more information about Feminism and Feminist Organizations consult:

The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory & Criticism. Ed. Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth. London: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 1994.

Website covering feminism in general and links to feminist organizations: http://feminism.eserver.org

National Organizations for Women website: http://www.now.org/

Great definitions and history of feminism: http://migreens.org/amberwaves/2001summ/feminism.htm

Links to Pro-Feminist Men’s Groups: http://www.feminist.com/resources/links/links_men.html

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December 2004