At present, women constitute almost half of the total human population in the world. For the most part of our human history, both women as a group and their interests were kept at the fringes. Their views and issues were not even recognized as part of academic and non-academic discourse, let alone being discussed. Feminist women have fought a long battle to create an academic domain for themselves. Feminism today represents the culmination of women’s struggles to get their voices heard. This article will trace the journey of ‘feminism’ since its inception till today and prospective future directions feminism can possibly venture into.
Feminism: The Understanding
Feminism is a woman-centered perspective of looking at social reality and the structures of the world. It emerged as a reaction to a lack of a woman-centric understanding of the world. It has three underlying principles that it subscribes to:
- The starting point of all sociological investigations for them is the situation and experience of women in the world.
- Women are the subjects of the investigation process. Social reality is understood from the point of view of women. In a way, this perspective gives much-needed recognition and validity to women’s experiences.
- It has critical and activist undertones. Critical understanding brings attention to unequal, exploitative, and discriminatory treatment being meted out to women in society. It does not stop at illuminating problems but also presents solutions in the form of alternate concepts and paradigms. Its efforts are directed towards seeking to produce a more inclusive world that takes into account women’s understanding and experiences.
Feminism: Theoretical Basis
The essence or core of feminist theory can be summarized into five questions. First, they begin by asking the simple question ‘What about women?’ They do this by bringing attention to the negligible presence of women in academic and non-academic discourse. The second question they ask is, ‘Where are women’s voices in social, historical, political, and economic discourse?’ If they have been present in society throughout history, then why have scholars, the public, and social actors themselves remained blind to their presence so far? Even though women have been an intrinsic part of society throughout history, their invisibility to scholars, the public, and social actors clearly points out the inequality administered to them. The third question they engage with is why the situation is as it is, i.e., finding explanations for the lack of a women-centric approach. The fourth question that they deal with is, How can we change and improve this situation? This question leads them to engage in finding solutions to make this world a more just place for women and all people. The fifth question that evolved with time was what about the differences that exist among women at the intersections of social location, class, race, age, affectionate preference, marital status, religion, ethnicity, and global location?
Feminism: A Timeline of events that led to Feminism
In one sense, there has always been a feminist perspective. It’s not that there were no protests against the inferior treatment doled out to women as a group before the formal beginning of feminism. The earliest published works of protest appeared in the 1630s and continued for about another 150 years as a thin but persistent trickle. Since then, feminist writings have kept on growing both in quantity and quality. Initially, such writings rose as critiques of the works of enlightenment thinkers (like Jean Rousseau) who did not see that enlightenment principles like liberty and equality were applicable to women. The term feminism was used for the first time in the French medical Fraternity. Its initial connotation was not positive (empowering women). It was used to refer to the condition of men whose physical bodies were experiencing changes that made their bodies resemble female bodies.
Beginning of the 1700s: With the advent of printing technology came the publication of pamphlets, magazines, and books that prescribed appropriate ‘feminine behavior.’ They encouraged women to take on a private role in society and to serve their husbands dutifully. There was another phenomenon of ‘salons’ taking place parallel to this. ‘Salons’ emerged as spaces set up for debate by privileged women. Catherine de Vivonne was the first woman to establish a salon at her home, where she provided space for debates and literary activities.
1791: After the French Revolution, French playwright and activist Olympe de Gouges penned ‘The Declaration of the Rights of Women and Female Citizens.’ She called for equal rights for women, as they were already available for men.
1792: “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” by Mary Wollstonecraft. She criticized enlightenment thinkers for how they talk about equality but don’t extend the same to women. She specifically called for the necessity of divorce and called ‘marriage for support a form of prostitution.’ Her views definitely evoked waves of shock among the people of her time. In her own words, “I do not wish women to have power over men but over themselves.”
1806: Mary Astell, a devout Christian, analyzed the contention that women, being ‘inferior, should be under the control of men. She countered Church’s stance and argued that women are equally intelligent souls and are given the faculty of thinking. She championed treating women equally by making education opportunities available to them.
1832: Harriet Martinique rose to prominence with her work “Illustrations of Political Economy.” She is also called the ‘Mother of Sociology.’ What was so unique about her was that she was writing on themes that were considered to be purely a domain of male intellectuals.
1843: Merion Ried, a Scottish writer, wrote “A Plan for Women.” She criticized society’s concept of ‘womanly behavior,’ which limits women’s opportunities.
1848: Seneca Falls, New York. It was the first public gathering devoted to American women’s rights. Here they rewrote the ‘Declaration of Independence’ and proclaimed that all men and women are created equal.
1856: The campaign for women’s rights was held for the first time in Europe at Langham Palace Circle, London.
When we look at the history of feminism, it becomes obvious that feminist activities did not show same intensity in all space and time. There were times when such activities were quite intense, followed by time periods when such activities were not that noticeable, although they were present at ground level. These periods depicting crest and trough in journey of feminism are referred to as ‘waves.’ The feminist literature has identified four such waves- the first wave, the second wave, the third wave, and the fourth wave.
Feminist Theories: A multi-dimensional view
The Impact of Feminism on Sociological Theory and Research
The development of Sociology as an academic discipline coincides with periods of intense feminist activism (it emerged during the high points of feminist protest in 1830–60 and then got organized as an academic discipline in another period, 1890–1930). Current feminist research on the history of sociology shows that a large number of women have made significant contributions to sociology: Harriet Martinique (the Mother of Sociology), Edith Abbott, Jane Addams, Anna Julia Cooper, Florence Nightingale (the Mother of the Nursing Profession), Marianne Weber, and Ida B. Wells. This feminist research also points to a form of gender politics in sociology that, over time, pushed the “founding mothers” of the discipline to the periphery and made their contribution invisible. The founding fathers of Sociology who assumed centrality in the profession—Spencer, Weber, Durkheim, and Parsons—made conservative responses to the feminist arguments and treated gender as an inconsequential topic in sociology.
In present times, a dialectical relationship exists between Feminism and Sociology. Both disciplines interchange concepts and theories with one another, which has led to the enrichment of both disciplines. There is not a component of the sociological inquiry that hasn’t been influenced by the feminist perspective. The permeation of feminist ideas has also increased in the institutional setup of the discipline, with the rise in number of women entering academia as students, teachers, and scholars. ‘Sociologists for Women in Society’ was formed in 1971. Today, there are numerous sociological journals dealing with topics of gender and sex. Some prominent among such journals are Gender and Society, Feminist Economics, Men and Masculinities, Journal of Sex Research, International Journal of Transgender Health, Feminist Criminology, Violence Against Women, etc.
Drawing from the above point, one major trend in feminist work prevalent today is to weave together ideas drawn from various theories like Politics of the Body (Alison Phipps), History of Sexuality (Michel Foucault), Sexual Politics (Kate Millet), Gender Trouble (Judith Butler), Gender Performativity (Judith Butler), etc. Leela Dube, Neera Desai, Uma Chakraborty (Understanding Gender through Caste), and Sharmila Rege (Writing Caste, Writing Gender), the stalwarts of Indian feminism, have made significant contributions in discipline with their works as well.
In the sphere of Sociological Research, Maria Mies championed the cause of participatory approaches. She argued that traditional research methods created an artificial separation between research subjects and researchers. This has led to research losing its potential for activism and becoming quite mechanical. She suggested that researchers should involve themselves and divulge as much information about themselves as possible to build trust and solidarity with research subjects. Only such research holds the potential to transform social realities.
Feminism and its perspectives have permeated the research agenda of Sociology. The sociology of gender is specifically related to the study of how society constructs the ideas of ‘male’ and ‘female’, their roles, relations, and identities. In a way, Gender has now become an almost unavoidable variable in research studies. Its credit heavily goes to the increase in the number of women entering academic settings. Gender socialization encompassing masculinity too, with its special focus on how a ‘man’ is made in society, has attracted significant attention from researchers. For example, R.W. Collins’ concept of hegemonic masculinity inspired many such studies in this direction.
Emergence of male feminists: Feminism as a perspective began as a women-dominated perspective, but with time it has drawn support from men too. There are men who have openly come out in support of feminism and have openly discarded stereotypical socialization that promotes gender equality. Some of the prominent male feminists are Mark Ruffalo, Ryan Gosling, former American President Barack Obama, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (Founder of modern Turkey), Alan Alda, Qasim Amin, etc., to name a few.
Since the advent of feminism, a lot of feminist-based professional associations and organizations have come into existence at the national and international levels. For example, UN Women, AWID (Association for Women’s Rights in Development), Womankind Worldwide, the Center for Reproductive Rights, Women for Women International, the Women’s Environment and Development Organization, etc. are among the prominent organizations working towards achieving global inequality. In India, there are also many organizations engaged in similar kind of work. Prominent among them are SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association), Snehalaya, NEN (North East Network), Azad Foundation and MAKAAM etc.
What makes feminist perspectives unique?
- The first and foremost feature that sets the feminist perspective apart is its interdisciplinary community, which includes not only sociologists but scholars from other disciplines such as anthropology, biology, economics, history, law, literature, philosophy, political science, psychology, theology, etc.
- Secondly, it encompasses a dual agenda, where it is not only associated with developing a critical understanding of society but also with changing the world in directions deemed just and humane for women.
- It has played a key role in revitalizing the prevalent knowledge system. Since its very beginning, it has posed a radical challenge to established systems of knowledge by bringing forth women-centered understandings of reality. In a way, it helps to deconstruct the existing knowledge system, thus bringing to light its hidden aspects.
Why should we study Feminist Waves?
By engaging with questions about women, the feminist strand of thought has managed to produce a revolutionary change in our understanding of the world. It has led us to discover the imbalances and loopholes in what we have taken as universal and absolute knowledge of the world. It removes the veil and makes us come face-to-face with the fact that knowledge is derived from the experiences of “men” as the prime subject. It provides a space for hitherto invisible, unacknowledged “women” who were subordinated but were performing crucial roles in sustaining and recreating the society we live in.
Careers, H. R. (2019, August 3). 10 Feminist Organizations Around the World Doing Fantastic Work. Human Rights Careers. https://www.humanrightscareers.com/magazine/feminist-organizations/
D. (2019, February 12). The Feminism Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained. DK.
Feminism: The First Wave. (2021, April 5). National Women’s History Museum. https://www.womenshistory.org/exhibits/feminism-first-wave-0
Feminism: The Fourth Wave. (2021, December 3). National Women’s History Museum. https://www.womenshistory.org/exhibits/feminism-fourth-wave
Feminism: The Second Wave. (2020, June 18). National Women’s History Museum. https://www.womenshistory.org/exhibits/feminism-second-wave
Feminism: The Third Wave. (2020, June 23). National Women’s History Museum. https://www.womenshistory.org/exhibits/feminism-third-wave
Freedman, J. (2001). Feminism. Open University Press. https://doi.org/10.1604/9780335204151
Glenza, J., Pengelly, M., & Levin, S. (2022, June 24). US supreme court overturns abortion rights, upending Roe v Wade. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/jun/24/roe-v-wade-overturned-abortion-summary-supreme-court
Hasanagic, A. (2019, November 2). 25 Organizations Fighting for Gender Equality. Human Rights Careers. https://www.humanrightscareers.com/magazine/organizations-gender-equality/
Jenainati, C. (2010, July 2). Introducing Feminism: A Graphic Guide.
Lia Thomas’ victory at NCAA swimming finals sparks fierce debate over trans athletes. (2022, March 21). The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2022/mar/21/lia-thomas-victory-at-ncaa-swimming-finals-sparks-fierce-debate-over-trans-athletes
Malinowska, A. (2020, July 8). Waves of Feminism. The International Encyclopedia of Gender, Media, and Communication, 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781119429128.iegmc096
Project, B. (2019, April 1). 5 Organizations Fighting for Women’s Empowerment in India – The Borgen Project. The Borgen Project. https://borgenproject.org/5-organizations-fighting-for-womens-empowerment-in-india/
Ritzer, G. (2021). Sociological Theory. McGraw-Hill Humanities, Social Sciences & World Languages. https://doi.org/10.1604/9780073528182
Scholz, S. J. (2010, February 1). Feminism: A Beginner’s Guide.