Feminism: Overview

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Feminism: Overview

Feminism may broadly be defined as a movement seeking the reorganization of the world upon the basis of sex equality, rejecting all forms of differentiation among or discrimination against individuals upon grounds of sex. It urges a worldview that rejects male-created ideologies. At another level, it is also a mode of analysis and politics, committed to freeing all women of gender-based oppressions. Literally, then, anyone who supports such an ideology can be a feminist, regardless of gender.

Since the 1980s, following women's campaigns and struggles as well as theoretical and empirical research highlighting gender discrimination pervasive in law, policy, and opportunities to work, organizations and governments around the world have begun to incorporate gender considerations into policies and programs. International agencies such as the United Nations support many women's projects globally, including World Conferences on Women (Mexico, 1975; Copenhagen, 1980; Nairobi, 1985; Beijing, 1995), bringing together thousands of women to facilitate exchange and global networks.

Any discussion of feminism must analyze not only its genesis, practices, and forms of resistance (organized women's movements) but also its writing and theorizing, which has been an important form of self-expression and indeed a conscious exercise in building a body of feminist knowledge. Since the 1980s Western feminist thought has generated newer, more nuanced understandings of such concepts as "sex," "gender," and "woman." In this entry, the term feminism is used inclusively to discuss facets of the women's movement as well as feminist theorizing.

Feminism (both as ideology and struggle) can hardly be discussed as a seamless narrative, for in the twenty-first century it is practiced within different social and political configurations, and women's movements flourish in diverse locations. However, it is evident that despite broad commonalities, feminist struggles are influenced by local, cultural, national, and indeed global factors that shape local polities and economies.

An overview of salient developments reveals fascinating interrogations of Western feminism by non-Western women as well as deep divisions among Western feminists based on race, class, and sexual orientation. In fact, in the early 2000s many believe that the term is valid only in its plural form, feminisms, to reflect its many transnational manifestations across race, class, and religion.

Anglo-American Feminism

Developments in Anglo-American feminism are often characterized in terms of waves, with the "first wave" in the United States beginning with initiatives as early as the organization of the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1869 by Susan B. Anthony and other such efforts in the early decades of the twentieth century when women's liberation was seen in terms of "human" liberation. These struggles led to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in the U.S. Constitution, enfranchising American women in 1920.

Following this there was a comparative lull in feminist activity. Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1963) is widely cited as a seminal text that precipitated public dialogue in America about feminism by pointing to an inchoate sense of "something wrong lodged in the minds of countless American housewives." Kate Millett's classic text Sexual Politics (1970) located women's oppression in patriarchies that operated through women's most intimate sexual relationships. Anglo-American feminists of this period were also drawn to developments in French feminism, which in turn drew inspiration from early seminal texts such as Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex (1953).

The "second wave" was marked by an explosion of complicated theories borrowing from philosophy, psychoanalysis, and politics that aimed (1) to challenge patriarchal values and constructs that oppressed women and to critique such portrayals in contemporary literature and popular culture, and (2) to represent the figure of the woman as an autonomous subject, focusing on the gendered body of woman to better understand such issues as reproductive rights, sexual harassment, and violence. Consciousness-raising was seen as a key tool for furthering feminism, and oft-repeated slogans of this phase were "sisterhood is powerful" and "the personal is political."

The active entry of black women served to expose polarities within U.S. "mainstream" feminist politics. Black feminist politics, rooted in the black liberation and civil rights movements (1960s1970s), had convinced many African-American women of the need for a politics that was both antiracist and antisexist. The Combahee River Collective (a Boston-based black feminist group founded in 1974) aimed at "struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression." From these contestations emerged new practices of theorizing, most prominently articulated by bell hooks. Sisterhood, hooks asserted, required a commitment on the part of white women to examine their own complicity in white privilege, because black women's oppression was located at the intersections of race, class, and gender. Reacting to a narrowly defined feminism, the African-American writer Alice Walker coined the term womanist to describe a woman "committed to survival and wholeness of an entire people, male and female." Thus, responding to the reality of women's multiple identifications, feminism broadened out along issue-based trajectories.

Trajectories within Feminism

Interrogations within feminism have spawned various strands in feminist thought that have acquired labels. Although categorizations hardly do justice to the variety of complex positions, some broad explanations are possible.

Liberal feminism.

Liberal feminists see the oppression of women in terms of inequality between the sexes and are concerned with equal access to opportunities for women. However, they believe that private and public domains are governed by different rules, attitudes, and behavior. Thus, in matters of family for instance, love, caring, and sensitivity come first. The National Organization for Women (NOW, 1966), an early organization of the second wave in the United States, exemplified such feminist practice.

Radical feminism.

Radical feminists, on the other hand, link women's oppression to patriarchy and see its manifestations in personal relationships and sexuality. Early articulations of this position led to the celebration of women's lives and the writing of women's history. Radical feminists have founded women's newsletters, bookstores, and presses. Many radical feminists celebrate lesbianism, although all radical feminists are not lesbians.

Lesbian feminism.

Lesbian feminists in the United States in the 1970s began by theorizing about how society's treatment of lesbianism reflects not only its attitudes toward homosexuality but also its attitudes toward sexuality, femininity, male power, and gender politics in general. They argued that lesbianism in turn teaches about gender politics and forces a rethinking of constructions of sexuality and female desire. Thus social lesbianism emerged as an ideology and practice that sought to transform dominant ideas of sexual roles. Disrupting hegemonic sexual roles and division of labor, lesbianism seriously calls into question traditional attitudes toward women's roles as being primarily reproductive.


Ecofeminism links the patriarchal domination of woman with the exploitation of natureboth as forms of oppressing the "other." Their analyses involve dualisms where attributes are thought of in terms of oppositions (culture/nature, mind/body, man/woman). They campaign against racism and economic exploitation as well as the exploitation of nature. Many ecofeminists are also environment activists.

Feminist Theory and Women's Studies

From the social action of the women's movement in the United States there emerged research consciously done within a feminist context, analyzing gender issues embedded in the most familiar facets of lifefamily, relationships, work, education, religion, media. Thus began women's studies, in which women became "subjects" rather than "objects" of study. Women's studies centers and departments drawing scholars from disparate academic disciplines became institutionalized in the U.S. academy in the 1970s. The National Women's Studies Association (1977) and the Feminist Press (1970) were committed to the production of feminist texts in order to create a body of knowledge that could be used to teach women's studies as an academic discipline.

As feminist scholars researched and questioned women's invisibility in history and psychology, "scientific" constructions of women in medical discourses, and popular images in literature, art, and religion, there emerged feminist theory, which sought to uncover the gender bias in the production of academic knowledge. Researchers challenged the tools of analysis used in sociology, history, psychology, and economics to argue that conceptualizations excluded women and that the disciplinary models used silenced women's voices. They argued that a "method of feminist inquiry" in an academic discipline did not necessarily involve alternative methods but rather a focus on alternative origins of problematics, explanatory hypotheses, and evidence and a new prescription for the appropriate relationship between the inquirer and her or his subject of inquiry. Feminist theorizing, in its project of writing women into theory and law, thus became a strategy of resistance. Feminist scholars drew from a range of ideologies to challenge existing disciplinary paradigms.

Feminism and Other Ideologies

In analyzing the roots of women's oppression, feminist theorists were attracted to two of the central ideologies of the twentieth centuryMarxism and psychoanalysis. Marxist analyses provided a framework for understanding women's economic oppression and issues of class within feminism. Psychoanalysis, with its preoccupation with sexual differences, offered a means for analyzing personality structures and object relations in the hope that individuals (i.e., women) would be freed from their unconscious conflicts. Sigmund Freud (18561939) became an important influencealthough, while some scholars found in his theorizing important tools for their own, others attacked him for being a misogynist.

Given that by the 1980s many feminists believed that women's experience of patriarchy and male domination differed by race, class, and culture, feminist theorizing needed other theoretical tools. Those who realized the limitations of constructing theories based on generalizations about the experience of Western white middle-class women found a natural ally in post-modernism. Postmodernist critiques offered a resistance to modernist conceptions of reason and claims of scientific "neutrality." There emerged clear overlaps between the postmodernist stance and feminist positions, which had long criticized Enlightenment ideals that legitimized an autonomous self as being reflective of masculinist agendas. Constructivism and deconstruction, which challenged the positivist tradition in science and essentialist theories of a single "truth" or "reality," appealed to feminist theorists. These approaches opened up possibilities for understanding how power operates through constructions of knowledge (i.e., about women) that are perpetuated through the medium of language by those who have the power over language/knowledge (i.e., men). Feminist psychologists used constructivism to argue that theories of women's sexuality were in fact organized within particular assumptive frameworks that strengthened patriarchal controls over women's bodies and desires. Thus constructivism, with its focus on representations of gender (rather than sex difference) provided for feminist thought a germinal insight: that woman, beyond the sexual differences, is a social category.

Gradually a whole range of disparate concepts were inserted in feminist thought that drew not only from Freud but also Jacques Lacan (19011981) and Michel Foucault (19261984). In theorizing about difference, feminist theorists were influenced by the writings of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida (b. 1930). Foucauldian conceptualizations of power and hegemony proved useful for understanding institutionalized patriarchal power structures that subordinated women. The "postmodern turn" thus became a pressing issue for feminist scholars, although there are many diverse positions within this framework.

Anglo-American feminist theory from the 1960s into the 1980s reflected the viewpoints of white middle-class North American and western European feminist scholars who did not interrogate their own methodological legacies and failed to recognize the embeddedness of their own assumptions within a specific historical context. An example of this approach was represented by Robin Morgan's book Sisterhood Is Global (1984), which asserted that women in their experience of oppression "shared a common world view." These assumptions of sameness were fiercely contested for their ethnocentric bias in the 1980s.

Theoretical Challenges: Race and "Third
World" Feminism

The United Nations international conferences in Mexico (1975) and Copenhagen (1980) revealed tensions between First World and Third World women. Clearly divisions along lines of nationality, race, class, caste, religion, and sexual orientation needed to be inserted into women's experiences of oppression. By the Nairobi Conference (1985) the myth of "global sisterhood" had been abandoned and feminism became as heterogeneous as the women who supported it across the globe.

The 1980s witnessed a lashing out against white middle-class feminists' universalizing and homogenizing discourses that erased the voices of women who differed in race, class, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. Although the contestations had already been initiated by black women, an even stronger challenge came from women of color (of other ethnicities: Latina, Chicana) and Third World women from postcolonial societies in Asia and Africa. Chandra Talpade Mohanty theorized in a 1986 article about the location of Third World women "Under Western Eyes." The writings of Trinh T. Minh-ha and Gloria Anzaldúa powerfully critiqued white women's hegemony in conceptualizations of feminism and feminist struggles. Sophisticated theorizing by Gayatri Spivak, Minh-ha, and Mohanty established that women in formerly colonized societies had cast aside old lines of dependency on the "center."

These influential and groundbreaking texts on issues of race, ethnicity, region, sexuality, and class forced remappings of feminism within and beyond the United States. Henceforth, histories of women were more consciously inclusive, emphasizing multiculturalism and incorporating the experiences of African-American, Latin-American, Asian-American, and Native-American women. Thus feminism was strengthened by voices from the "margins." "Identity" and "location" became important concepts, pushing the boundaries of earlier conceptualizations to acknowledge that all oppressions are interrelated and that identity politics cannot be separated from other aspects of liberation.

Global Feminisms: Nationalism and Religion

After the mid-1980s, documentation of women's resistance movements in non-Western societies further deepened understandings of women's liberation globally. Historical reconstructions of women's movements in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Asia (India, Sri Lanka, China, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Japan) and elsewhere (Egypt, Turkey, and Iran) established that women had played significant roles in the national liberation and revolutionary movements of their countries. Feminist struggles had progressed along varied, sometimes interrelated trajectories, all of which contributed to the growth of feminist consciousness. This challenged the view that feminism was a "foreign" ideology being imposed upon Third World countries and asserted that, like socialism, feminism had no ethnic identity.

In the 1990s further documentations of feminist struggles in the postcolonial nations of Asia, Africa, and Latin America challenged the omissions in the existing literature. They also interrogated two other predominant Eurocentric tendencies: (1) to link women's movements with modernization and development, and (2) to assume that feminism grows out of a linear process of social change. Regional data revealed that poor women in India, Brazil, Chile, and Peru had been at the fore-front of many local struggles involving issues of work, wages, and environment and that, since women's movements in India and the Philippines were stronger than in the more industrialized Japan and Russia, it could hardly be assumed that "development" and "modernity" were prerequisites for women's movements to flourish.

Thus, similarities and divergences within feminism(s) have become more starkly visible. In Africa and West Asia there appear regional similarities because feminist struggles have been intertwined with movements of national liberation and state consolidation. In Latin America, on the other hand, women's movements have been closely connected to democratization movements against authoritarian states. Women's movements in Asia, Eastern and Western Europe, and Russia are characterized by much more diversity.

Such documentation of global feminism(s) has further refined the understandings of women's movements in relation to state control and how that shapes or restricts feminist engagement, as in the cases of Russia, China, South Africa, and Palestine. For instance, although erstwhile Russia and other communist states in eastern Europe curtailed the growth of independent women's movements, they passed labor laws, legalized abortion, and created employment for women and supportive public institutions to reduce some of women's domestic work. China is one of the countries where state-affiliated women's organizations form the backbone of the women's movement. Rural women support the All-China Women's Federation (ACWF) more than they support women's groups.

Regimes of colonial domination provide important illustrations of how women's movements have had to think of race and gender simultaneously and how colonial domination facilitated women's entry into nationalist struggles and therefore into public spaces. In many postcolonial societies (India, for example), women did not have to struggle for suffrage; they gained the right to vote alongside the men when their countries were declared sovereign. Contemporary India has an active women's movement encompassing a range of issueswork, environment, ecology, civil rights, health. Abortion is legal and accessible. However, feminists are alarmed at the use of reproductive technologies (sex-determination tests) to selectively abort female fetuses despite legislation in 1994 banning such testing. Campaigns are underway to lobby for a Women's Reservation Bill, giving women 30 percent reservation in Parliament (Menon, 1999).

In the South African context, given the history of apartheid, feminism has been in intimate dialogue with the political movement. Unlike in the United States, where scholars have had to develop a feminist knowledge in the absence of a mass feminist movement, South African women have been theorizing within the context of an ongoing liberation politicsaddressing apartheid as well as struggling for agency within the antiapartheid movement. In Islamic societies struggles for women's rights have involved campaigns against conservative gender-discriminatory interpretations of Islam, particularly in relation to the use of the veil, women's right to education, and for more favorable provisions in marriage and divorce laws. Women's movements in Iran and Turkey have histories of activism, and Egyptian women have made considerable progress in creating spaces for women in civil society as professionals, activists, and politicians. Even in Afghanistan and Palestine, where women have long suffered under militarization, women's groups have continued to run girls' schools and support groups to aid medical and other relief projects for victims of war and insurgency.

However, there have been destructive implications for women when ethnic and religious nationalisms have become xenophobic. In the name of preserving a cultural national identity women have been put behind the veil by fundamentalist regimes such as the Taliban in Afghanistan. In Kashmir (India), as militancy grew in the 1980s, Muslim women felt pressured to cover their faces, although veiling was not a widespread practice in the region. Women's movements have often been challenged by caste and religious affiliations that compel women to defend oppressive cultural practices as part of asserting loyalty to religious (rather than gender) identities. Veiling in Islamic societies and female circumcision in parts of Africa are classic examples, yet it is important to appreciate regional women's viewpoints. Feminists also have been concerned about the appropriation of feminist discourse by right-wing political forcesas by the Hindu Right in India (1990s) and by neoconservative elements in U.S. politics.

However, critiques of women's status within conservative Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism ultimately lead many scholars of religion to argue that while orthodox religious practices may be relentlessly misogynist, more in-depth examination can help revitalize deeper, more ancient egalitarianism in most religions. Thus feminists in the 1990s examined religious theologies pointing to both the contradictions and the spaces for subversions within religions. Such understandings can provide tools to subvert existing gender hegemonies within orthodox religions.

Some Key Issues

Theoretical dilemmas and practical issues continue to challenge the women's movement across the globe. Issues such as pornography and women's portrayal in the media have been important issues for urban women, while for millions of rural Third World women, resisting development-related policies has been critical if they are to survive the march of globalization and avoid displacement as multinational corporations appropriate their lands. Gender-discriminatory laws governing marriage and divorce in many regions and religions have generated feminist struggles for social change. Trafficking in women and children and legalization of prostitution and abortion are key issues for feminism in many countries. Feminist practices and legal strategies continue to grapple with law-makers, state authorities, and sometimes with the conservative strands among the women's movement itself. Below is a brief discussion of some issues facing feminism(s) in the early twenty-first century, with special emphasis on the ongoing attempt within the movement to build transnational collaborations and feminist communities of solidarity that stretch beyond divisions of culture, nation, region, and privilege.

Abortion and new reproductive technologies.

Abortion (the conscious decision to terminate pregnancy) has long been a contentious issue. Religion and tradition are invoked by conservative "pro-life" groups, especially within the Roman Catholic Church and some Protestant organizations. However, feminist activists the world over stress that abortion should be viewed as an issue of autonomy, constitutionality, and economic status rather than simply of ethics. There are interesting ironies: while pro-life groups in America and Europe attack abortion clinics, millions of women in ostensibly more traditional societies (China and India) have easy access to abortion. State population control policies in these countries support a pro-choice situation.

Another critical area with regard to women's reproductive roles is the explosion of technology enabling the manipulation of genetics and reproduction, procedures collectively known as new reproductive technologies (NRTs), used for in-vitro fertilization (IVF) and surrogate motherhood. Inherent in such technologies are social consequences closely affecting women. Feminists criticize the invasive role of NRTs and the manipulation of women's bodies through powerful hormones and surgical procedures that can traumatize the system. Feminists also point out the contradiction that in America pro-life campaigners have routinely threatened abortion clinics, whereas most IVF clinics still manipulate (and often "waste") embryos for surrogate motherhood. Feminists who campaign against the use of invasive technologies argue for women's bodies to be as free from intervention as men's and not to be "plundered medically."

Globalization, feminism, and transnational collaborations.

Economic reforms undertaken by many nations in recent times have had complex implications for women and have shaped feminist agendas. With growing capitalism in China, for instance, many benefits and protections for women have been dismantled. In Russia, privatized enterprises rarely provide women the protection and maternity benefits that a strong, less democratic state did. In developing countries in Latin America and Asia, globalization and World Bank policies have rendered many women and unskilled laborers jobless. Feminists have critiqued this neoliberal globalization and U.S. policy, arguing that feminism(s) of the West must resist the cultural and economic domination of their home country over the lives of Afghans, Iraqis, Palestinians, and Israelis. Many feminists in the United States have been engaged in the effort to pluralize feminism. Zilla Einstein (2004) argues for a "polyversal feminismmultiple and connected" to express women's shared humanity. Chandra Mohanty (2003), reiterating the need to "decolonize feminism," conceptualizes transnational solidarities among women that recognize and accept difference. Such transnational "feminist communities anchored in justice and equality" aim for a feminism "without borders."

Antifeminism: The Backlash

Feminist movements the world over continue to face resistance, whether from the Catholic Church, Islamic leaders, or right-wing Hindu fundamentalists who promote restrictions on women beyond familial roles. Pro-life religious groups in Europe have been pitted against feminists lobbying for a woman's right to abortion. Resistance to feminism is manifest not only in religious fundamentalism but also in a backlash broadly termed as "antifeminism," which accuses feminism of promoting "anti-family" ideologies that threaten the well-being of children and communities. Antifeminist campaigns in the United States use Internet technology to "warn" readers about the hidden, "destructive subversions" in feminism.

Besides this issue-based resistance, it is necessary to point out that in many non-Western societies (such as Chile, India, Bangladesh, Turkey, and Iran) it is not uncommon to encounter suspicion even among women toward "feminists," who are perceived to be "man-haters" who promote "anti-family" agendas. In fact, many women who believe in broadly feminist ideals and engage in activities that promote women's rights refuse to be called "feminists." A plausible explanation for the discomfort many women feel at being called feminists may be that in its inspiration, origins, and relevance, the "ideology" of feminism is still widely perceived to be Western and bourgeois, however erroneously.

In the United States, debates continue even within feminism with regard to the goals of feminism and its successes. Conservatives within feminism argue that feminists have exaggerated the problems of workplace discrimination and violence against women and disapprove of trends in the women's movements, which they believe have hurt women by forcing them out of traditional roles. Feminists, however, argue that the women's movement is alive and well and that much ground still needs to be traversed toward achieving gender equality. They assert that in the new millennium feminism offers a politics of solidarity that, while acknowledging difference, can build feminist communities to resist many contemporary crises in the context of globalizing economies and rising fundamentalism.

This entry begins with a broad chronological overview, introducing important strands within Anglo-American feminism, which occupied a "mainstream" position in scholarship until the mid-1980s, when challenges from African-American women forced major reconceptualizations. The variety of issues around which women organized created issue-based trajectories, or "schools"(cultural feminism, ecofeminism, lesbian feminism). Next, the article describes how feminist scholars drew inspiration from Marxism, psychoanalysis, and post-modernism to analyze the female subject in academia, law, and society, generating a rich variety of feminist theory. Following this is a discussion of how challenges by "Third World" feminists and documentation of feminism(s) from diverse global locations enriched feminism as a whole, offering new models for organizing across nations and cultures. Examples drawn from contexts as varied as Iran, India, Russia, China, and Latin America highlight the variety of feminist struggles and theorizing. Finally, the entry touches upon some key issues that remain the focus of feminist engagement: abortion, sexuality, legalization of prostitution, and the pressures of globalization on millions of women in developing economies.

See also Antifeminism ; Equality: Gender Equality ; Family Planning ; Feminism: Africa and African Diaspora ; Feminism: Chicana Feminisms ; Feminism: Islamic Feminism ; Feminism: Third World U.S. Movement ; Gender ; Human Rights: Women's Rights ; Motherhood and Maternity ; Philosophies: Feminist, Twentieth-Century ; Sexual Harassment ; Womanism ; Women and Femininity in U.S. Popular Culture ; Women's History ; Women's Studies .


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