views updated May 29 2018


This entry contains the following:

Gwendolyn Mikell

Shamita Das Dasgupta

Valentine M. Moghadam

Sîan Hawthorne


African feminisms must be identified as post-Cold War phenomena, although many precursors and contributing influences coalesced during the mid-1970s and 1980s, and we have witnessed the florescence of African feminist movements in the post-1995 period. These feminisms have acknowledged African cultures and philosophies that celebrated women's participation in separate but complementary gender arenas, as well as subjected the gender bias within traditional culture to the critiques of modern life.


The slow evolution of African feminisms relative to American and European feminism is related to the fact that between 1957 and 1967 most Sub-Saharan African countries were emerging from colonialism, and public attention was focused on drawing the parameters of new state political, economic, and legal systems. Women subordinated gender concerns to nationalist concerns during this period. They played complementary roles with men in the movements that brought about independence, and elite women mobilized their organizations and institutions to support the nationalist parties. However, the fact that women did not receive the recognition that was due them and were increasingly marginalized within post-independence politics allowed a critical activist dynamic to emerge in African women's feminist dialogue.

African women tended to reject Western feminism (as well as the use of the term) in the 1960s and early 1970s because they saw it as a hegemonic force focused on individualism and the "politics of the body." In the dialogues that followed, scholars such as Niara Sudarkasa and Kamene Okonjo emphasized the assymetrical but complementary roles of men and women, and Gwendolyn Mikell focused on how the emerging African feminists blended traditional communal and pronatal concerns with the new strategies for survival within a crisis-ridden state. Scholars such as Oyeronki Oyewumi accused European colonizers and missionaries of creating binary male/female categories that distorted the reality of women's blended public and private roles in traditional African cultures. In general, African women resented the early Western focus on clitoridectomy or "genital cutting" as sensationalist and as a hegemonic attempt to control African women's private realms.

Takyiwaa Manuh and Frances Dolphynne described women's primary concern with addressing the serious social and economic challenges they faced in the 1980s and their resulting determination to craft new laws that created greater equality in property ownership, maintenance of children, and justice for wives given the existence of polygynous forms of marriage. However, during the economic decline of African states and the emergence of economic restructuring programs monitored by the international financial institutions, the devastating increases in maternal, infant, and child mortalities and the increase in HIV/AIDS prevalence rates drew attention to women's health status. Organizations such as Women in Nigeria (WIN) devised strategies to educate women about their economic and political rights, producing documents in local languages that increased knowledge accessibility. Not surprisingly, many African women scholars such as Patricia McFadden began to stress the need to interrogate and transform the conditions facing women in Africa through feminist activism.


The United Nations Decade of Women (1975–1985) set in motion a chain of local, national, continental, and global conversations that produced more varied concerns, which crystallized into what scholars call African feminism. Filomina Chioma Steady describes how the 1985 Women's Conference in Nairobi provided an opportunity for African women from all walks of life to share in discussions about "forward looking strategies" to address illiteracy and poverty and the responsibilities that women had to press governments to construct and implement national women's policies. However, with the end of the Cold War and the withdrawal of Western countries from much of Africa in the absence of a Soviet threat, the challenges for women altered. Into the political void stepped military governments, rebel groups, and informal armies that exploited the natural resources of Liberia, Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, waged genocidal war in Rwanda and Sudan, and used rape as a tool of war. This violence against women accompanied by the rising HIV/AIDS rates in the 1990s had the effect of clearly focusing African women's feminist mobilization on issues related to the state.

The Fourth Women's Conference in Beijing in 1995 was the major culminating event, after which the language of feminism was widely used across Africa. The African national and NGO delegations that went to Beijing came back with broader ideas about how to implement democratic changes, demand that their countries sign onto CEDAW, provide educational equity for the girl child, and establish goals for the representation of women in politics. African women from different cultural and religious backgrounds, including Muslim, Christian, Traditional, Afro-Asian, Arab, and Swahili, could now discuss aspects of the Beijing platform relating to the family in a way that guaranteed respect for all traditions. In 1994, South Africa, which had moved from apartheid to democratic elections, and Rwanda, which was recovering from genocide, became important sites for feminist discussions. Some of the discussions among women of the African National Congress (ANC) involved women negotiating a percentage of elected and appointed positions in the new government; and this has been replicated in Uganda, Rwanda, and other places. Aili Mari Tripp has emphasized the fact that these local and regional African women's organizations have focused on the elimination of difference and the emergence of a culture of unity within African state politics.

The debate about whether African feminism should be equated with activism or scholarship by and about women was heated at the end of the millennium. The notion of "'women's rights as human rights'" and the focus on eradicating violence against women began to be thoroughly integrated into the activism of African women's organizational networks such as BAOBAB in Nigeria. Women shared ideas and tactics in subregional conferences in Rwanda and Uganda, Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar, South Africa, Ghana, and Mali about how to construct a "Culture of Peace" that empowered women. Out of these discussions came support for the notion that in a post-war environment, women needed to transform national security strategies and insert themselves into state, transstate, and United Nations policy initiatives, such that human security gained importance as a balance to militarized security. They were aware that in situations of economic or political crisis, religion could be a critical arena for either local amelioration or conflict resolution. For example, Ayesha Imam and others helped counter the post-militaristic conflict between religious groups in Nigeria by working on equitable treatment for Muslim women accused of ZINA (sexual) crimes under Islam, and these death sentences were overturned. Women such as Regina Amadi-Njoku and Ndioro N'Diaye have helped push these notions of gender inclusion into the dynamics of the African Union and have helped it systematically integrate women into their emerging peace and conflict resolution mechanisms.

Equally as important has been the intellectual mobilization in the formation of African feminist ideas. Molara Ogundipe-Leslie and others have examined women's portrayal of themselves and their aspirations through literature. Then, through the Gender Institute at the University of Cape Town, women have analyzed their own conditions and proposed new approaches to African feminist understandings. The journal Feminist Africa became the major tool for women's dialogue about these issues. Through its pages one could see African women examining the scholarly arena with the goal of removing disciplinary boundaries that inhibited gender knowledge and recreating it as a site for feminist imagination and greater gender equity. Over a period of five years, Feminist Africa highlighted the work of groups such as the Association of African Women for Research and Development (AAWORD) and the Council for the Development of Social Research in Africa (CODESRIA). The journal explored ways that women's organizations mobilized to transform the African state and thoroughly examined "sexual cultures" (no. 5) and "subaltern sexual-ities" (no. 6). These approaches were considered sufficiently inclusive to encompass new sexual realities, despite the fact that they challenged the binary sexual symbolism of traditional African culture. Rather than occurring in isolation, this feminist intellectual dynamism has also been global, in that African women and American Africanists have shared their ideas and analysis at forums such as the Women's Caucus of the African Studies Association in the United States.

The subtle shift from the pervasive use of the term feminism to the analysis of social conditions related to gender equity is symbolic of the new African perspectives. Certainly, there is a link to traditional predilections to deny a singular focus on women's individualism and urge concern for what is positive for society in general. However, the new focus on gender conditions and experiences is designed to be inclusive and holistic, reflecting the realization that the meanings and contexts of maleness and femaleness have begun to alter in the new global environment. African women pushed for and achieved a new Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (2005) that, although still not acknowledging women's full sexual rights, was a tribute to their activism. In that sense, African feminists have returned to the issue of the body but on their own terms and within the context of historical and cultural change. The scholarly articles in Feminist Africa (no. 5 and no. 6) point this out and that African women are now challenged to respond to and transcend the historical conditions of the region. The new thinking about gender included consideration of the need for scrutinizing African gender hierarchies, especially to counter stereotypes and achieve greater equity in how sexuality and homosexuality play out within African culture.

Most recently, African feminist activists have begun to ask themselves how to think about these transformations and how African women will function as gender stereotypes fade away in the coming period. The book Africa after Gender? edited by Catherine M. Cole, Takyiwaa Manuh, and Stephan F. Miescher, is symbolic of this new period of feminist intellectual questioning. It examines volatile arenas of gender confrontation, forms of women's activism in public spaces, ritual and performative aspects of gender, and issues of masculinity, misogyny, and seniority. In the final chapter of the book, Helen Mugambi raises this issue: Can there be a post-gender question in African studies at a time when women's everyday lives at the local and state levels are still permeated by the gender hierarchies and battles of a post-colonial era? She answers it by proposing that African feminists reject a linear approach to the gender issue in favor of a circular approach that blends history, present challenges, and desired futures into a dynamic, interactive configuration that is constantly imagining, seeking, and addressing equitable treatment for both women and men.


ABC News. 2003. Death by Stoning: Justice, Punishment, and Human Rights (Video recording). Princeton, NJ: Films for the Humanities and Sciences.

Amadi-Njoku, Regina, and Ndioro Ndiaye. 2002. African Women at the Service of the Union. Geneva: International Labor Organization and International Office for Migration.

Cole, Catherine M.; Takyiwaa Manuh; and Stephan F. Miescher, eds. 2007. Africa after Gender? Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Hassan, Shireen. 2005. "Terms of Engagement: South African Challenges." Feminist Africa no. 4. Available from http://www.feministafrica.org/.

Imam, Ayesha. 2002. Islam and Women's Human Rights. John Humphrey Freedom Award.

Imam, Ayesha; Renee Puttin; and Henry Omole, eds. 1989. Women and the Family in Nigeria. Dakar, Senegal: CODESRIA.

James, Stanlie M., and Abena Busia. 1993. Theorizing Black Feminisms: The Visionary Pragmatism of Black Women. New York: Routledge.

Mama, Amina. 1995. Beyond the Mask: Race, Gender, and Subjectivity. New York: Routledge.

McLaurin, Irma. 2001. Black Feminist Anthropology: Theory, Politics, Praxis, and Poetics. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

McFadden, Patricia. 2005. "Becoming Post-Colonial: African Women Changing the Meaning of Citizenship." Meridians 6 (1): 1-18.

McFadden, Patricia. 1997 "The Challenges and Prospects of the African Women's Movement in the 21st Century." Women in Action, no. 1. HURINet, Available from http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/30/152.html.

Miescher, Stephan. 2005. Making Men in Ghana. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Mikell, Gwendolyn, ed. 1997. African Feminism: The Politics of Survival in Sub-Saharan Africa. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Mikell, Gwendolyn. 2005. "Working From Within: Nigerian Women and Conflict Resolution." Georgetown Journal of International Affairs 6(2): 87-94. (Summer/Fall).

Ogundipe-Leslie, Molara. 1994. Re-Creating Ourselves: African Women and Critical Transformations. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.

Oyewumi, Oyeronke. 2003. African Women and Feminism: Reflecting on the Politics of Sisterhood. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.

Pereira, Charmaine. 2002. "Between Knowing and Imagining: What Space for Feminism in Scholarship on Africa?" Feminist Africa, no. 1. Available from http://www.feministafrica.org/.

Steady, Filomina Chioma, and Remie Toure, eds. 1995. Women and the United Nations. Rochester, NY: Schenkman.

Steady, Filomina Chioma. 1981. The Black Woman Cross-Culturally. Rochester, NY: Schenkman.

Sutherland, Addy, and Aminata Diwa, eds. 2005. Women Writing Africa: West Africa and the Sahel. Johannesburg: Wits University Press.

Tamale, Sylvia. 1999. When Hens Begin to Crow: Gender and Parliamentary Politics in Uganda. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Tripp, Aili Mari. 2005. "Regional Networking as Transnational Feminism: African Experiences." Feminist Africa, no 4. Available from http://www.feministafrica.org/.

                                        Gwendolyn Mikell


Europeans and North Americans have often been skeptical of feminism in Asia because of instances of women's oppression there such as domestic violence, dowry, and seclusion. Women's activism has a long history in Asian cultures albeit its distinctiveness from European and North American feminism.

The uniqueness of Asian feminism is based on:

  1. The conception of multiple sources of women's subjugation rather than patriarchy only;
  2. The recognition of imperialism and colonization as causes of gender oppression;
  3. A focus on collectivism instead of individualism;
  4. The rejection of the label feminism as a symbol of European and North American ideological domination.

Asian feminist perspectives are also called third-world feminism as it includes race, class or caste, sexuality, imperialism, gender, and the role of state in analyzing gender oppression. In many Asian societies, the common experiences of feudalism, traditions, colonization, and androcentric social and familial hierarchies reduced women to domestic subservience. Consequently, feminist activism historically concentrated on improving women's lots. Feminist movements of the 1970s and 1980s, conversely, stressed women's emancipation and empowerment and their entry into the core of national politics.

Feminism in Asia has traditionally been disparate along class lines, with mainly elite women occupying leadership roles. However, conditions of poverty have drawn feminist theorizing to Marxism, whereas the centers of action and debate are located in nongovernmental organizations (NGO) rather than academia.


Rapid industrialization after World War II, U.S. occupation of Japan, and the Korean War (1950–1953) shaped the women's movements in the two countries. Japanese feminists utilized their experiences of organizing for suffrage in the nineteenth century to agitate against the occupation and, later, to demilitarize U.S. bases. Simultaneously, women's groups worked to improve health care, food supplies, and social benefits for families. By the early 1950s Korean and Japanese women increasingly entered labor forces and, in 1956, Japan established its first female trade union. Nevertheless, a clash between pro-work and pro-motherhood forces polarized the fledgling Japanese feminist movement. In the early 1990s women regrouped to force the government to pass laws protecting part-time workers and child-care laws to support working mothers. Since then Japanese women's movements have taken up issues such as prostitution, trafficking, sex tourism, reproductive rights, and violence.

In Korea, workingwomen's conditions remained poor and marginalized, particularly in rural areas. In 1983 Korean women pressured the government to establish a special agency for women's welfare, the Korean Women's Development Institute, and in the early 1990s, they worked to pass laws ensuring labor equality. In both Korea and Japan, women's participation in political processes continues to climb.

Feminism in China can be traced back to the 1800s, when many women resisted marriage to live as independent workers. After the revolution in the 1950s, the communist government introduced laws to initiate gender equality in the marriage and labor structures to mobilize women to join the workforce. Most Chinese women's groups were established under the government's auspices. Nonetheless, the Chinese government's one-child policy to reduce population has encouraged violence against women and sex-selective abortions. With rising consumerism and unemployment in the post-Mao era, women are being sidelined in the labor force while traditional gender roles in the family are being resurrected.


Following globalization and growing affluence in Southeast Asia, a new class of urban, professional, workingwomen is exerting significant influence on the market and politics and has begun to scrutinize traditional gender disparity. But these critiques consciously reject European and North American models and position feminism within local cultures. For example, in Malaysia women's organizations such as Sisters in Islam (established in 1988) are engaged in seeking women's rights within an Islamic framework.

Since the 1980s Southeast Asian feminists have been challenging the working conditions of housemaids and women employed in multinational companies, domestic violence, polygamy, inequality within marriage, and lack of educational opportunities. In the Philippines feminists took leadership in ousting U.S. military bases in 1991. Antiprostitution and antitrafficking campaigns have occupied the center stage of women's activism in Thailand.

Vietnamese women's movements carry the legacies of the two Trung sisters (both died in 43 ce), who led an all female army against Chinese invaders in 40 ce, and of Bui Thi Xuan (d. 1802), a peasant-revolt leader in the eighteenth century. The first women's organization in Vietnam was formed in 1930. Vietnamese women played critical roles and held high-ranking positions in the rebellion against the French in the 1940s, in the war with the United States from 1964 to 1973, and against invasions by Cambodia and China in 1978 and 1979. The communist government has actively forwarded women's rights and endeavored to end patriarchal and feudal control. Women's participation has been vital in national reconstruction after the wars, and the government has passed several laws supporting workingwomen, particularly mothers.


After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1980s, central Asian nations became independent and began restructuring their governances and economies. The resultant sociopolitical upheavals placed in jeopardy women's rights guaranteed during the Soviet regime. Even under communism the main culture of the region was Islamic, which is being vigorously reclaimed with various traditions affecting women, such as purdah and segregation, making a comeback.

The Soviet administration viewed feminism as socially divisive, and this attitude is prevalent in the early twenty-first century. The burgeoning women's movements are prioritizing issues of violence, reproductive rights, sexuality, and gender equality but have lost grounds in achieving equitable political representation. To dissociate from the past women's movement under the Soviet administration because of its ties to the Communist Party, contemporary women's movements have de-emphasized participation in political processes. Instead, central Asian women's movements are attempting to find a balance between their identities and roles as Muslims and feminists in society.


Feminism in south Asia is inexorably linked to nationalism. Although women have historically played prominent roles in socioeconomics of the region, their organized political participation occurred during anticolonial struggles that led to sovereignty in the late 1940s. After independence several powerful women's NGOs operated in each country, such as Bangladesh Mahila Parishad (established in 1970), the National Federation of Indian Women (established in 1954), the Women's Action Forum in Pakistan (established in 1981), the Women's Foundation of Nepal (established in 1988), and the Voice of Women in Sri Lanka (established in 1978), often working simultaneously against repressive governmental policies and instituting supportive laws.

Although influenced by European and North American thought, south Asian feminist philosophies have been deliberately nested in indigenous cultural contexts. Feminist activism has centered on women's inclusion in political processes, economic advancement, issues of violence, and overall improvement of status. The theoretical bases of south Asian women's movements have generally been broad and have stressed intra- and extranational issues such as political repression, judicial insensitivity, law enforcement tyranny, neocolonialism, and globalization. The movements tend to work concurrently on legislative and nonlegislative solutions and redress. For example, mainly because of women's activism India passed The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act into law in 2005, whereas the majority of anti-HIV intervention is being led by regional NGOs. The movements are characterized by their nongovernmental and decentralized status as well as diversity in mass base, structure, administration, and focus.

South Asian nations have generated voluminous and varied feminist writings in indigenous languages and English that range from fiction to theory. The first feminist utopist writing in English, Sultana's Dream (1905), is credited to India's Begum Roquia Sakhawat Hossain (1880–1932). Susie Tharu and K. Lalita edited a valuable two-volume collection of women's writings from 600 bce to the 1990s in Women Writing in India (1991–1993). Although operating under harsh political conditions, such as civil war, armed insurrection, governmental corruption, theocratic stranglehold, and crushing poverty, women's movements for social and legal equality in south Asia have been vast, radical, and vibrant.


Despite the diverse political situations in each country, feminist organizations in Asia have endeavored to forge regional alliances. Between 1990 and 1992 women's movements in Japan and Korea collaborated on the issue of Japan's exploitation of comfort women during wars. In 1996 Pakistan's Women's Action Forum formally apologized to Bangladeshi women for the Pakistani military's atrocities and rampant rape during the 1971 war that led to the formation of Bangladesh. In the 1990s Naripokkho of Bangladesh (established in 1983) created transnational collaboration among several nations including France, England, Canada, and the United States to facilitate the treatment of girls and women disfigured by acid thrown on them. Asian women's organizations continue to convene conferences and exchange programs to further such collaborative relationships.


Asian Development Bank. 2001. Country Briefing Paper: Women in Bangladesh. Programs Department (West).

Corcoran-Nantes, Yvonne. 2005. Lost Voices: Central Asian Women Confronting Transition. London: Zed Books.

Gelb, Joyce, and Marian Lief Palley, eds. 1994. Women of Japan and Korea: Continuity and Change. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Jayawardena, Kumari. 1986. Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World. London: Zed Books.

Kumar, Radha. 1993. The History of Doing: An Illustrated Account of Movements for Women's Rights and Feminism in India, 1800–1990. London: Routledge.

Robinson, Catherine A. 1999. Tradition and Liberation: The Hindu Tradition in the Indian Women's Movement. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Sen, Krishna, and Maila Stivens, eds. 1998. Gender and Power in Affluent Asia. London: Routledge.

Sisters in Islam. Available from http://www.sistersinislam.org.my/index.htm.

Tharu, Susie, and K. Lalita, eds. 1991–1993. Women Writing in India: 600 B.C. to the Present. New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York.

                                      Shamita Das Dasgupta


Middle Eastern feminism is a discourse and practice of educated and employed middle-class women, some of whom are active in women's organizations. Using a variety of legal and discursive strategies and calling themselves secular, Muslim, or Islamic, Middle Eastern feminists challenge women's institutionalized second-class citizenship and call for change in women's positions in the family, the polity, and the religious community. Feminists and women's organizations are rebelling non-violently against women's location in the private domain and men's control of the public domain. Their principal demands are (1) egalitarian family laws; (2) criminalization of domestic violence and other forms of violence against women, including "honor killings"; (3) nationality rights for women and their children; and (4) greater access to employment and participation in political decision making. The point of reference for Middle Eastern feminism is the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), but some also use the Qur'an and early Islamic history to make the case for women's participation and rights. "Islamic feminists" call for women's right to ijtihad, or religious interpretation, and the reform of patriarchal Islamic jurisprudence.


Middle Eastern feminism has existed since at least the early twentieth century, often in conjunction with nationalist or other progressive social movements. However, in the latter part of that century feminist activities became more focused on women and gender issues and more organized. That process arose in the context of sociode-mographic changes (urbanization, increased female educational attainment and salaried employment, declining fertility, the predominance of the nuclear family), political developments (the spread of fundamentalism as well as a gradual process of political liberalization in some of the countries in the region), and the global women's rights agenda.

Whereas the period from the 1950s to the 1970s saw women involved almost exclusively in official women's organizations or charitable associations, the period since the third United Nations World Conference on Women in Nairobi in 1985 saw the expansion of many types of women's organizations. State conservatism in some countries forced women's organizations and feminist leaders to assume a more independent stance than they might have taken in previous decades. For example, the preamble of the 1986 report of the Arab Women's Solidarity Association called on women "to unite, to close ranks and become a political and social force able to effect changes in prevailing systems, laws and legislation that will be beneficial for women and for all the people." A recommendation of the political committee was for the "release of general freedoms, particularly the freedoms of expression and organization; for respect of human rights for men and women; for a greater participation by women in political decision-making, and for an equal share with men in the authority exercised both in the state and the family" (cited in Toubia 1988). The first meeting of Arab women's nongovernmental organizations in Amman, Jordan, in November 1994 made similar recommendations.


Women's organizations include the traditional charitable or service organizations, professional associations, women-in-development (WID) nongovernmental organizations, research centers and women's studies institutes, women's auxiliaries of political parties, and women's rights or feminist organizations. All are contributing to the development of civil society in the region, although the feminist organizations perhaps are doing this most consciously. For example, Moroccan feminist organizations such as l'Union d'action feminin and l'Association démocratique des femmes marocaines launched a campaign in the early 1990s to reform the patriarchal family law, the Moudawana, in the face of state lack of interest and organized Islamist opposition. In the latter part of the 1990s a more conducive political environment enabled a feminist-state alliance that succeeded in legislating a more egalitarian family law in 2003.

The Lebanese League for Women's Rights runs candidates for political office, and the Beirut-based Women's Court launched highly visible campaigns "to resist violence against women" in 1995, 1998, and 2000. North Africa's Collectif 95 Maghreb Egalité was the major organizer of the "Muslim Women's Parliament" at the NGO Forum that preceded the fourth United Nations World Conference on Women in Beijing in September 1995; later it formulated an alternative "egalitarian family code" and promoted women's political participation. North African feminist action also is concerned with the social rights of working-class and poor women. Turkey is home to the Association to Support Women Candidates (Kader), Flying Broom, Women for Women's Human Rights, the Foundation for the Support of Women's Work, and Anakultur (a feminist organization for rural women). Palestine's Legal Aid and Counseling Center lobbies against family violence. The Jerusalem Center for Women promotes women's rights and peaceful solutions to the conflict with Israel. Birzeit University's Institute of Women's Studies seeks to produce new generations of feminist leaders in the Middle East.

Middle Eastern feminism also may be seen in literary and cultural efforts such as the publication of books, journals, and films. Feminist publishing houses include Cairo's Noor (which organized the first Arab Women's Book Fair in 1995), Morocco's Edition le Fennec, and Iran's Roshangaran Press and the Cultural Center of Women, along with journals and magazines such as Morocco's 8 Mars, Iran's Zanan [Women], and Turkey's Partisi. The quarterly feminist journal Al-Raida is published by the Institute for Women's Studies in the Arab World at the Lebanese American University. The Women's Library in Istanbul contains research and documentation on women and gender issues. Skillfully circumventing censorship, Iranian filmmakers, male and female alike, have produced internationally acclaimed films with feminist themes.

Well known in their own countries as well as in international feminist circles, Middle Eastern feminists include Algeria's Khalida Messaoudi and Boutheina Cheriet; Iran's Shahla Lahiji, Noushin Ahmadi-Khorassani, Parvin Ardalan, and Shadi Sadr; Jordan's Haifa Abu Ghazaleh and Rana Husseini; Lebanon's Lamia Shehadeh and the late Laure Moghaizel; Morocco's Latifa Jbabdi, Rabéa Naciri, and Nouzha Skalli; Palestine's Hanan Ashrawi, Zahira Kamal, and Souheir Azzouni; Tunisia's Bochra Bel Haj Hmida, and Esma Ben Hamida; and Turkey's Sirin Tekeli and Pinar Ilkaraccan.


Campaigns for women's rights have succeeded in effecting legal reforms and policy changes. In Iran, as a result of a well-publicized case of a girl's death at the hands of her brother and father, feminist lawyers and activists challenged the automatic granting of child custody to the father in the aftermath of divorce. In 1999 Egyptian feminists secured the reversal of Article 291, which exonerated rapists who married their victims. Egyptian feminists and public health activists also have formed or worked with coalitions against female circumcision. In December 2001 the Jordanian cabinet approved several amendments to the Civil Status Law, raising the legal age for marriage to eighteen for both males and females and granting women legal recourse to divorce. An amendment to the penal code makes perpetrators of honor crimes liable to the death penalty. However, judges are allowed to commute the sentences of the convicted, and the practice continues, with families using underage men as the perpetrators of the violence.

In some countries feminists are contributing to national dialogues and political debates on democracy and human rights, and women's organizations are building coalitions with human rights organizations to expand civil society and citizenship rights. Algerian feminists not only are active in the struggle for modernization of family law and against religious extremism but also have formulated a position on democracy that is based on their experience with the violent Islamist movement of the late 1980s and the 1990s.


Feminism in the Middle East continues to confront obstacles and challenges. In addition to the resource constraints of many women's organizations, feminism faces unreliable or patriarchal governments, societal conservatism, the preoccupation of Islamist movements with women's appearance and behavior, and cultural debates about "authenticity" versus westernization. Nevertheless, domestic and global developments have produced women's movements that challenge popular understandings and legal codes regarding the public sphere and the private sphere and that demand more access to the public sphere, full and equal participation in the national community, and full and equal rights in the family. Those gender-based demands not only would extend existing rights to women but also broaden the political agenda and redefine citizenship in the region.


Afary, Janet. 1996. The Iranian Constitutional Revolution, 1906–1911: Grassroots Democracy, Social Democracy, & the Origins of Feminism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Al-Ali, Nadje. 2000. Secularism, Gender and the State in the Middle East: The Egyptian Women's Movement. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Arat, Yesim. 1994. "Toward a Democratic Society: The Women's Movement in Turkey in the 1980s." Women's Studies International Forum 17(2/3): 241-248.

Journal of Middle East Women's Studies. 2006. Special issue: "Women and the Public Sphere in the Middle East and North Africa," guest editors Valentine M. Moghadam and Fatima Sadiqi. Vol. 2, number 2.

Mernissi, Fatima. 1987. Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Moghadam, Valentine M. 2003. Modernizing Women: Gender and Social Change in the Middle East. 2nd edition. Boulder, CO: L. Rienner.

Toubia, Nahid, ed. 1988. Women of the Arab World: The Coming Challenge. London: Atlantic Highlands.

                                  Valentine M. Moghadam


The term Western feminism is controversial because the appellation Western is ambiguous—does it name a geographical place, a political or ideological hegemony, or a state of cultural, historical, or racial homogeneity? Does it preserve imperialist divisions between the "West" and "the rest," enabling a series of exclusive and exclusionary valuations along axes of superiority/inferiority, civilized/uncivilized, and developed/underdeveloped? Is it the enabling fiction of racially white global dominance in the fields of politics, culture, law, and economics? Are Western and white analogous? Who is included in the category—second- and third-generation immigrant populations with complex forms of national identification, resident nonwhite populations, people of mixed race? What implications are there for its use in a postcolonial context in which the terms Western and Eastern have been rigorously critiqued? And what of the differences between the countries that are conventionally considered to be Western? Yet the term may have some valency insofar as it now necessitates the kinds of qualifications suggested here and thus recalls its specific history. The term feminism is also problematic insofar as it suggests a homogenous political movement through time and space. The history of feminism, however, indicates a multiplicity of feminisms that offer significant differences of emphasis, context, and motivation however much they share the common goal of female emancipation and equality.

Bringing the terms feminism and Western together raises yet another series of difficulties, not least that some feminist approaches have been explicitly opposed to the liberalist frameworks of the eighteenth-century European Enlightenment within which the West was established as the dominant global power. Nonetheless, Western feminism is both created by and resistant to the form of post-Enlightenment individualism that established the autonomous, rational individual as the basis upon which the basic rights of citizenship might be secured. Western feminism, in addressing the unequal status of women, has necessarily aligned itself with the emancipatory discourse of Western liberalism, which has proved to be a powerful tool for feminists seeking to establish gender parity. It has also required, however, acquiescence with the principle of the sameness of individuals, and this has often been at the expense of the specificity of a more plural understanding of women and the differences between them. Further, some feminists believe that Enlightenment individualism inscribes patriarchal values and is thus of limited worth. Consequently, Western feminism invokes a complex history of both complicity and resistance, and if it has any definitional utility it is with regard to embodying and clarifying this tension.

Western feminism also names a specific set of discourses that have historically been promoted as universal. To recognize some forms of feminism as Western, therefore, is to acknowledge the particularity of feminist programs produced within the West and to resist both the imposition of a homogenous narrative of feminist achievements on non-Western contexts as well as the assumption that Western feminist analyses and objectives are shared with non-Western movements. At the more localized level, however, the term is unsatisfactory inasmuch as it obscures the huge regional and political differences between the feminisms that operate in the countries that constitute what is, at least in everyday use, understood to be the West. Moreover, it appropriates those forms of feminism that are critical of the ethnocentrism of Western feminism and may identify as Western but are nonetheless produced in dialogue with Western intellectual and political environments. For the purposes of this entry, therefore, the term Western feminism will refer to those feminist discourses that are inscribed within or conducted with reference to liberalism and that operate within those regions conventionally considered to be Western, namely western Europe, North America, and Australasia.

There are two main approaches to discussing the development of Western feminism and delineating between the various feminisms that constitute it. The first offers a chronological treatment of Western feminism from its emergence in the nineteenth century to the early twenty-first century, while the second offers a system of classification of the main forms of feminist thought and activity within Western feminism.


The historical development of Western feminism is generally discussed in terms of three main "waves," each of which constitutes a stage in the form of feminist activity. The chronology and thematic organization is somewhat loose, however, and each stage overlaps with the others.

First-wave feminism is usually dated from the mid-1850s to the beginning of World War II and was characterized by its liberalist stance insofar as it sought, through political activism, the full citizenship rights of universal suffrage, self-determination, access to higher education, and ownership of property.

Second-wave feminism, often considered synonymous with the women's liberation movement, refers to the reemergence of feminist activity in the aftermath of the World War II until the 1990s. Significant developments in the first half of the twentieth century prepared the ground: Simone de Beauvoir published The Second Sex (1949), reinvigorating debates regarding the status of women rendered dormant during World Wars I and II; women's suffrage had been achieved in most Western countries; and women's participation in higher education had also undergone a period of rapid expansion.

Like the first wave, the second wave was largely defined by its liberal agenda, but expanded its focus to include a vision of female solidarity; demands for equal pay; interventions in the spheres of reproduction, sexuality, and cultural representation; and the more substantial theorization of patriarchy. Many of the forms of feminism outlined below emerged during the second wave, but as Elizabeth Weed (1989) argues, "for all the varieties within the [feminist] movement … the 'second wave' … was inscribed within the liberal system of individual rights … and the various strains of feminism have had to engage in one way or another with the terms of that inscription. It is in this sense that 'liberal feminism' is the mainstream feminism" (p. xii). Several defining features and concerns of second-wave feminism rapidly emerged. First, all feminists, regardless of their particular approaches, agreed that in societies that divide the sexes into binarized cultural, economic, or political spheres, women are less valued than men. Second, key concepts such as patriarchy, sexism, and misogyny were formulated as ways of theorizing about the purportedly universal oppression of women. Third, autonomous female identities were suggested in which women's bodies and conventionally "feminine" activities were prioritized and represented as positive in contrast to the centuries-old portrayal of femininity as a source of danger, impurity, and evil. Finally, feminists acted on the principle that women could consciously and collectively change their social position and identity whether through advocating for equal employment, reproductive, and sexual rights, or by challenging and resisting male violence against women, pornography, sexual exploitation, unequal domestic arrangements, and all other forms of gender-based discrimination.

Despite broad agreement regarding the assessment of the position of women, considerable disagreements began to emerge among feminists in the 1970s and 1980s. Feminists of color, who confronted both sexual and racial discrimination, and lesbian feminists challenged the movement; both groups argued that second-wave feminism was dominated by white, middle-class, and heterosexual agendas that failed to address the multiple axes of oppression in the intersections between class, race and sexuality. The failure of the leaders of the women's liberation movement to take up the concerns of their fellow feminists resulted in the splintering of the movement. If feminism was losing its identity as a unified political movement, however, it was beginning to make its presence felt in universities as feminists recognized the powerful role of educational institutions in shaping cultural values and meanings and the importance of critiquing their exclusion of women's contributions. Women's studies departments and programs were established in universities starting in the late 1960s, and by the early 1980s the field had been an established discipline for approximately a decade. It was the combination of the critiques of feminism on the grounds of racism and heteronormativity and its increasing academicization that contributed to a decisive shift against the movement's liberalist roots and produced what is now referred to as the third wave.

The emergence of third-wave feminism in the 1990s was the result of an explosion of theoretical perspectives informed by poststructural, postcolonial, and queer theory, each of which problematized the dominant (European) liberal presentation of individualism as homogenous and universal. Because of its roots in liberalism, feminism was by no means exempt from these critiques. Chandra Talpade Mohanty (1991), for example, offered a powerful criticism of the "colonialist move" in some Western feminist scholarship on women in the "Third World," particularly insofar as it appropriated the "production of the 'third world woman' as a singular monolithic subject" (p. 51). She was particularly critical of the presumption in Western feminist scholarship of a conflation between women as historical subjects, and "woman" as a homogenous category of analysis on the basis of presumed shared oppression.

While many of the concerns of the second wave have continued to be important, Western feminist activity in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries marks both a self-reflexive turn and a mature phase in feminist activity as it seeks to address the previously hegemonic assumptions of the second wave. It registers a shift in the common preoccupations that have informed debates between feminists. Most notably, there has been a movement away from the denunciation of gender inequalities toward the poststructural theorization of discursive constructions of gender. In addition, third-wave feminists advocate a sustained examination of hegemonic representations of masculinity and a more nuanced understanding of the often-significant differences between women in the contexts of class, ethnicity, race, sexuality, and economic status.


Western feminism is generally divided into six main types—liberal, Marxist, socialist, radical, psychoanalytic, and poststructural—each identified on the basis of their central approach (see Tong 1998 for a thorough survey). Before discussing the ways in which these types differ from one another, it is important to note that the various categories regularly overlap and that they all share in common a concern with the causes of the oppression of women and suggest means through which it might be overcome.

Liberal feminism is committed to the full equality of women and men, arguing that this can be achieved through legislation and social reform. It assumes the fundamental sameness of men and women on the basis of the Enlightenment universal individualism and proposes the reformation rather than the dismantling of social systems and institutions that have hitherto discriminated against or excluded women. Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) is considered to be the classic expression of the liberal feminist perspective. The liberal feminist tradition was continued during the 1960s and 1970s by feminists such as Betty Friedan, who in 1966 founded the National Organization for Women (NOW) in order to campaign for women's rights.

Marxist feminism disagrees with the liberal analysis of both the causes of women's inequality and the means for overcoming it. Instead, it suggests that the cause is capitalism, in particular the ways in which it promotes private ownership of property and the means of production by a relatively small number of men, in turn producing the class system and ensuring women's social and economic inequality. The solution proposed is the replacement of capitalism with a socialist system with the effect that women would achieve an economically equal status with men. Shulamith Firestone's The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (1970), in which she identified "sex class"—the condition of women as an oppressed class—is an early classic of Marxist feminism. Other well-known Marxist feminists include Michèle Barrett and Christine Delphy.

Radical feminists are critical of both liberal and Marxist perspectives, arguing that the analysis of and solution to women's disempowerment must be more far-reaching than either the liberals or Marxists suggest. Rather than capitalism or institutional sexism, it is patriarchy—understood as a complete and universal social system that places men as hierarchically dominant—that lies at the root of women's oppression, and it must therefore be completely dismantled. For many radical feminists, liberalism and socialism are simply different expressions of patriarchy, and thus to adopt any one of these perspectives is to fail to address the fundamental cause of women's oppression. Kate Millett's Sexual Politics (1970) is an exemplar of radical feminist analysis in which she examines patriarchy as a socially conditioned belief system that masquerades as the natural order, showing how patriarchal attitudes and systems have penetrated such areas as literature, philosophy, and psychology. Andrea Dworkin, Mary Daly, and Catharine A. MacKinnon are also considered to be influential proponents of radical feminism.

Socialist feminism emerged in response to the Marxist prioritization of the proletariat struggle over that of women. It offers a synthetic analysis of the causes of women's oppression combining elements of the Marxist perspective with the radical feminist view that sexist oppression is endemic in society. Alison M. Jaggar (1983), for example, argues that it is necessary to interrelate the complex forms of women's oppression rather than focusing on a single cause, and she uses the Marxist concept of "alienation" in order to show that within capitalist systems the various roles demanded of women lead to their oppression rather than their full integration within society.

Psychoanalytic feminism attributes the root of women's oppression to the Oedipal crisis suggested by Sigmund Freud, whereby individuals are created as gendered selves as a result of their induction into the world of regulated cultural discourses through the intervening force of their fathers, a movement requiring the negation of the mother. From a feminist perspective psychoanalysis offers a compelling explanation for women's secondary social position within patriarchal societies and indeed for the existence of patriarchy (see Mitchell 1974). Some feminists argue that patriarchy is shown by psychoanalysis to be a product of the male imagination and is therefore open to challenge and transformation (see Mitchell 1974). Others, such as Sherry B. Ortner (1975), Dorothy Dinnerstein (1976), and Nancy Chodorow (1974), argue that if some form of Oedipal crisis is inescapable then its values and meanings can be realigned more positively toward women through dual parenting and women's greater participation in the workforce, leading to those characteristics traditionally associated with weak and dangerous femininity becoming meaningless. Nonetheless, psychoanalysis has tended to validate essentialist and universal gender idealizations, aligning femininity with passivity and negativity and masculinity with agency and normativity. It is thus a dangerous tool for feminists to wield without undertaking critical adjustments to its core propositions, a task that has been undertaken by Juliet Mitchell, Jacqueline Rose, and Elizabeth Grosz.

Each of the feminist approaches discussed above shares a liberal provenance in common. In particular, each provides a unified account of women's oppression and suggests total solutions that mark them out as modernist in orientation. The final school of feminist thought—poststructural feminism—is distinctly at odds with modernist approaches insofar as it refuses to offer a metanarrative of women's oppression but rather suggests that there is no single cause for women's subordination, and that, therefore, there can be no unified approach toward overcoming it. Poststructural feminists are expressly critical of liberalist feminism, suggesting that its efforts to provide unified accounts of women's oppression instantiate phallocentric modes of thought. They also claim that sexual and gender identities are not inherent properties of individuals but are rather constructed through (phallogocentric) language. As such, poststructural feminism derives much of its own account from the intellectual strategies of thinkers such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan, and to some extent, therefore, it too can be charged with taking up the discourse of the "fathers." By far the most influential proponent of feminism in this vein is Judith Butler (particularly in her 1990 book, Gender Trouble [2nd edition, 1999]).

Poststructural feminists also argue that the promotion of any feminist project on the basis of the assumed commonality of women's experiences is unfeasible because it ignores differences between women rooted in the intersections of race, class, and sexuality. Here they share much in common with those feminists who identify the ethnocentric bias within much Western feminism, where whiteness is figured as both normative and invisible. Hazel Carby (1982), for example, has argued that Western feminism has not included an awareness of the different nature of black women's experiences and that consequently many of the feminist insights regarding the sources of women's oppression are inadequate. She suggests, however, that a supplemental inclusion of non-white perspectives in feminist work would not solve the problem but rather that "the process of accounting for [black women's] historical and contemporary position does, in itself, challenge the use of some of the central categories and assumptions of recent mainstream feminist thought" (p. 213).

Poststructural feminism in turn has been strongly criticized for overemphasizing differences between women and suggesting that the category "woman" is merely a product of phallocentric discourse and thus an empty signifier. As Naomi Schor (1987) has argued, "Whether or not the 'feminine' is a male construct, a product of a phallocentric culture destined to disappear, in the present order of things we cannot afford not to press its claims even as we dismantle the conceptual systems which support it" (p. 97). Perhaps the defining feature of Western feminism, therefore, is likely to remain for the foreseeable future a productive struggle between the claim for the common identity of women and the respect of difference.


Barrett, Michèle. 1980. Women's Oppression Today: Problems in Marxist Feminist Analysis. London: NLB.

Beauvoir, Simon de. 1953. The Second Sex, trans. and ed. H. M. Parshley. New York: Knopf. (Orig. pub. 1949.)

Butler, Judith. 1999. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. 2nd edition. New York: Routledge.

Carby, Hazel. 1982. "White Women Listen! Black Feminism and the Boundaries of Sisterhood." In The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in 70s Britain, ed. Hazel Carby and Paul Gilroy. London: Hutchinson in association with the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, University of Birmingham.

Chodorow, Nancy. 1974. "Family Structure and Feminine Personality." In Woman, Culture, and Society, ed. Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Daly, Mary. 1978. Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism. Boston: Beacon Press.

Delphy, Christine. 1984. Close to Home: A Materialist Analysis of Women's Oppression, trans. and ed. Diana Leonard. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Dinnerstein, Dorothy. 1976. The Mermaid and the Minotaur: Sexual Arrangements and Human Malaise. New York: Harper and Row.

Dworkin, Andrea. 1981. Pornography: Men Possessing Women. New York: Putnam.

Firestone, Shulamith. 1970. The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution. New York: Morrow.

Friedan, Betty. 1963. The Feminine Mystique. New York: Norton.

Grosz, Elizabeth. 1990. Jacques Lacan: A Feminist Introduction. London: Routledge.

Jaggar, Alison M. 1983. Feminist Politics and Human Nature. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Allanheld.

Lorde, Audre. 1981. "An Open Letter to Mary Daly." In This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, ed. Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa. Watertown, MA: Persephone Press.

MacKinnon, Catharine A. 1987. Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Millett, Kate. 1970. Sexual Politics. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Mitchell, Juliet. 1974. Psychoanalysis and Feminism. New York: Pantheon.

Mitchell, Juliet, and Jacqueline Rose, eds. 1982. Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the École Freudienne. London: Macmillan.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade; Ann Russo; and Lourdes Torres, eds. 1991. Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Ortner, Sherry B. 1975. "Oedipal Father, Mother's Brother, and the Penis: A Review of Juliet Mitchell's Psychoanalysis and Feminism." Feminism Studies 2(2/3): 167-182.

Rich, Adrienne. 1980. "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 5(4): 631-660.

Schor, Naomi. 1987. Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine. New York: Methuen.

Tong, Rosemary Putnam. 1998. Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction. 2nd edition. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Weed, Elizabeth, ed. 1989. Coming to Terms: Feminism, Theory, Politics. New York: Routledge.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. 1975. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, ed. Carol H. Poston. New York: Norton. (Orig. pub. 1792.)

                                            Sîan Hawthorne


views updated Jun 08 2018


FEMINISM. Although "feminism" is a nineteenth-century neologism, it is now generally accepted in anglophone historiography as a shorthand label for discourses that criticize misogyny and male dominance, argue for an improvement of the female condition, and demand a public voice for women speaking on behalf of their sex. A large corpus of writings, published all over Europe from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century, can be considered "feminist" in this sense.


The first systematic feminist treatise is probably Christine de Pizan's Le livre de la cité des dames (14041405; Book of the city of ladies), composed at the French court in response to the misogyny of Jean de Meun's second part of the Roman de la rose (Romance of the rose). Pisan argued that the pervasive misogyny of the classical and Christian canon presented a distorted image of female nature produced by male arrogance and prejudice: "If women had written the books," she wrote in 1399, "they would have done it otherwise." Women's reason and sense of justice were in no way inferior to those of men, she contended. Pizan's City of Ladies, built on "the field of Letters" and consecrated by the Virgin Mary, is an allegory of the female voice in history, which, once raised, will never be silenced.

After the advent of printing, feminism established itself as a prolific genre, part of an interminable series of polemics between the detractors and the defenders of women known as the querelle des femmes, 'quarrel about women'. A few examples will illustrate its most widespread arguments: One of the characters in Baldassare Castiglione's The Courtier (1528) declares that "everything men can understand, women can too," and he cites Plato's inclusion of women in the ruling elite of the politeia against the Aristotelian reasoning of his opponent. Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa opens his "On the Nobility and Excellence of the Feminine Sex" (1529) with the thesis that sexual difference is confined to the reproductive organs while God has endowed "both male and female . . . with the same and altogether indifferent form of soul, the woman being endowed with no less excellent faculties of mind, reason, and speech than the man." In "On the Excellence and Dignity of Women" (1525) Galeazzo Flavio Capella accuses men of duplicity: they exclude women from most pursuits and then "prove" that they are unable to participate in them. The French author François Billon asserted in 1555 in Le fort inexpugnable de l'honneur du sexe féminin (The invincible fortress of the honor of the female sex) that male arguments against women usually rely on custom rather than reason, and, like many others before and after him, he likens the oppressive husband to the "tyrant." The theme of "wicked men" could also be discussed in moral terms, as in Marguerite de Navarre's observation (in the Heptaméron, 1559) that men's chief pleasure consisted in dishonoring women and their chief honor in killing other men, both of which went against God's law. The opposition of feminine piety, virtue, and refinement to male profanity, vice, and vulgarity is found in much feminist literature. Another popular genre, found all over Europe from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century, is the galleries of illustrious women, proving by historical example that they could equal men in every respect.

In the first half of the seventeenth century, feminist voices were raised in several countries. Lucrezia Marinella's The Nobility and Excellence of Women and the Defects and Failings of Men (Venice, 1600), Marie de Gournay's Equality of Men and Women (Paris, 1622), and Anna Maria van Schurman's Dissertation on the Aptitude of the Female Understanding for Science and Letters (Leiden, 1641; French transl.: Paris, 1646; English: London, 1659) were the most widely known, but similar arguments were made by Arcangela Tarabotti (Nuremberg, 1651), Johann Herbin (Wittenberg, 1657), María de Zayas (Spain, 1637), Margaret Cavendish (London, 1663), Margaret Fell (London, 1666), and others. The arguments of the querelle were thus widely disseminated. Some of them were already found in Erasmus's writings, and Castiglione, Agrippa, and Van Schurman were translated into several European languages. As the editor of Michel de Montaigne's Essays, Gournay was known all over Europe.

It seems safe to conclude that by the middle of the seventeenth century most literate women and men in western Europe were conversant with at least some of the arguments of the querelle. Its main themes were: (1) the recognition of women's equality with men as immortal souls and rational beings; (2) the assertion that men are like tyrants, wielding an arbitrary and unjust power over women; (3) the argument that the present "nature" of women is the product of a biased education; (4) the demand for access to higher education and the Republic of Letters; (5) the indictment of men's outrageous treatment of women, especially in marriage; (6) the glorification of "strong women," usually by means of galleries of historical examples; and (7) the call for "politeness" and a softening of manners tied to an upgrading of the "feminine virtues," so that (upper-class) women became the agents of a civilizing mission.


After 1660 the above themes persisted, but feminism increasingly interacted with Cartesianism and other innovative currents of thought. The Amazon faded into the background while the learned woman became a more common, but also highly controversial, figure. In France the rise of the female author and the antifeminist backlash, best exemplified by Molière's play Les femmes savantes (1672; The learned women), coincides in time. In Italy a learned woman, Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia, was awarded a doctorate in philosophy (Padua, 1678; probably a European first).

François Poulain de la Barre (On the Equality of the Two Sexes, 1673) reworked existing feminist arguments in a Cartesian framework, drawing on Descartes's methodological maxim of radical doubt, his dualism of body and mind, and his mechanistic biology. "The Soul has no Sex" becomes "The Mind has no Sex," but it is important to note that Poulain also seeks to demonstrate that the male and the female body are generally alike, except for the reproductive organs. Poulain criticizes the contradictory use of the concept of "nature" by the philosophers of natural law. He proposes an entirely nongendered curriculum for the education of both women and men (On the Education of Women, 1674). Apart from feminism and Cartesianism, Poulain's egalitarian social philosophy draws on the philosophy of natural rights, the Jansenist moral critique of rank, the cultural relativism of travelogues, biblical criticism, and the quarrel of the ancients and moderns. The result is an early instance of an Enlightenment social philosophy. Poulain turns feminism into a systematic philosophy and establishes a space for feminism within Enlightenment discourse.

Despite Poulain's strict egalitarianism, the praise of the "feminine virtues" is not absent from his work. This is probably true of the bulk of Enlightenment feminist theory. A good example is Antoinette de Salvan de Saliez, a lady from Albi in southern France, who declared in 1682 that "among civilized people, the equality of the sexes is no longer contested." By "civilized" she meant polite, peaceful, and lettered; she abhorred the aggressive lifestyle of the traditional warrior aristocracy. Salvan's version of the equality of the sexes was predicated on a feminization of elite culture. This type of argument was double-edged: it could be used to carve out a space for women within elite culture, but it was also conducive to a restriction of women to the sphere of morality and manners. We should not forget that, despite all the Enlightenment discourses about equality, universities and scientific academies continued to exclude women.

Cartesian rationalism influenced most late-seventeenth-century and early-eighteenth-century feminists in one way or another. Poulain de la Barre was translated into English (London, 1677), and his arguments, if not his name, are copied and paraphrased over and over again. In England, William Welsh (1691), Mary Astell (1694), Judith Drake (1696), and John Toland (1704) defended the equality of the sexes in Cartesian terms, as well as by an environmentalist psychology they took from Poulain or from John Locke. In France similar arguments were advanced by Gabrielle Suchon (1693), Morvan de Bellegarde (1702), Claude Buffier (1704), and Anne Thérèse de Lambert (1727). "Men," Lambert wrote, "have seized authority over women rather by means of force than by natural right."

In 1687 Christian Thomasius, the main protagonist of the early German Enlightenment, advocated an equal education for men and women. In the 1720s and 1730s, the German poets Christiane Mariane von Ziegler, Anna Helena Volckmann, and Sidonia Hedwig Zäunemann defended female authorship and the equal mental capacity of women: "Der Schöpfer hat uns ja mit gleichen Geist bedacht / Und gleiche Seelen-Kraft und Triebe beygebracht," wrote Zäunemann in 1738 ("For the Creator has endowed us with the same mind / And the same vitality and impulses"). In Spain the equality of the sexes was defended in Benito Feijoo's Teatro crítico de errores comunes (1725; Critical exposition of common prejudices), one of the founding texts of the Spanish Enlightenment. In Italy, Giuseppa Eleonora Barbapiccola stressed the Cartesian theme of the sexless mind in her translation of Descartes's Principles of Philosophy (1722), and in 1723 a Paduan academy, the Ricovrati, organized a debate on the question "if women ought to be admitted to the study of the sciences and the noble arts." In 1732, Laura Bassi obtained a degree in philosophy at Bologna where she taught from 1732 to 1778. At the same university, Maria Gaetana Agnesi held a chair of mathematics. Agnesi was one of the protagonists of a debate on the academic education of women that went on until the 1780s.

Another critical discourse on gender emerged in the ambit of philosophical history. Poulain de la Barre had outlined a hypothetical history of the origins of inequality in which the subjection of women was depicted as a historical result instead of a "natural" condition. However, the combination of travelogues and speculations about the primitive past of the species also resulted in a theory of the progression of European, and especially French, civilization. This was evidenced by the greater liberty enjoyed by women of the eighteenth century compared with both the European past and the Asian present (the latter point was made by Montesquieu as well as Voltaire). It was possible, however, to evaluate the liberty of women in widely divergent ways, ranging from George Louis Leclerc Buffon's assertion that female liberty was "necessary to the refinement [douceur ] of society" and was only found among "the most civilized nations," to the Scot John Millar's fear that commercial society would lead to "dissolute manners," and, ultimately, to "universal prostitution." In both cases, however, the female condition was theorized as historically determined instead of being an immutable fact of nature.

To the eighteenth-century mind, gender had become an "essentially contested concept." Montesquieu had read Poulain de la Barre, and he had one of his personages in the Persian Letters exclaim that male supremacy was not founded in nature. Rousseau voiced egalitarian-feminist opinions in his early essay On Women as well as in his unpublished notes On Education, drafted for Mme Dupin in 17461751, but later he embraced the contrary theory that a virtuous republic was unthinkable without the exclusion of women from the public sphere. Toward the end of the century, Marie-Jean Caritat, marquis de Condorcet, Olympe de Gouges, Marie-Madeleine Jodin, and others formulated a full program for the emancipation of women. Similar programmatic feminist writings were published in most parts of Europe, notably by Theodor Gottlieb von Hippel in Prussia, Mary Wollstonecraft in England, and in an anonymous pamphlet in the Dutch Republic, arguing "that women ought to take part in the government of the land." Such bold claims on behalf of women would be inexplicable without the upsurge of Enlightenment feminist thought, of which only a few examples have been adduced above.


The new women's history of the past thirty years has unearthed an enormous corpus of previously unknown or forgotten feminist sources. Pending a full quantitative investigation, only tentative conclusions are warranted.

Before 1600, elite women possessing literary and intellectual skills were probably more numerous in Italy than anywhere else. It was also in Italy that women were admitted to several literary academies, and, in a few cases, acquired a university degree. There are also two German examples: Dorothea Erxleben, who became Germany's first woman medical doctor in 1754, and Dorothea Schlözer, who was the first woman to receive a Ph.D. from a German university (Göttingen), in 1787. Renaissance feminism was vigorous in Italy, the German Empire, and France, probably less so in England and the Dutch Republic.

In the course of the seventeenth century, French feminism became the strongest in Europe, exercising a notable European influence, as French supplanted Latin as the main language of international elite sociability. From the late seventeenth century, a steady stream of feminist publications began to come from British presses. In the eighteenth century, feminist arguments were found all over Europe. This is now fairly well documented for France, England, Spain, Italy, the Dutch Republic, and the German lands, and there are examples from Denmark, Sweden, and other nations. One gets the impression that Enlightenment feminism was strongest in France and Britain, but this picture may well be corrected by future research.

The development of feminism over time is not easy to ascertain. To picture it as a linear "rise" would be to simplify a story that is probably better captured by the metaphor of waves and backlashes. The main watershed in the history of early modern feminism is the transition from the Renaissance querelle to the Enlightenment, but even here caution is required, for many Renaissance themes lived on within eighteenth-century feminism. This is especially true of the "feminine virtues," which were in various ways combined with egalitarian, rationalistic arguments.

It remains true, however, that the linkages between feminism and Cartesianism, as well as the frequent use by feminists of the environmentalist social psychology of Poulain, Locke, and others, gave Enlightenment feminism a "philosophical" tone that had been less conspicuous in the literary genre of the querelle. Theological themes were gradually marginalized, while the new "science of man" acquired a greater importance, both for feminists and for their opponents. Finally, the acceptance of the female author, albeit with ups and downs, seems to be a European phenomenon from the early eighteenth century onwards.

At the present time it is not possible to determine whether the quantity of feminist publishing increased over the long run. In the French case there is a distinct peak in the 16301680 period, and perhaps another one in the early eighteenth century, but after that the picture is less clear. From the late seventeenth century, the periodical press played an increasingly important role, but again, quantitative investigations are not yet available.


Much of early modern feminism follows definite literary conventions. Eulogies of the "beautiful Sex" by male authors frequently give an impression of frivolity and "literary gallantry." Some historians have pictured the Renaissance querelle as a vain literary game instead of a serious argument for equality and dignity. While it cannot be doubted that some texts lend themselves to such a reading, it is seldom the whole story. The literary games people play tell us what is on their minds. The pro- and anti-woman literature of the querelle bespeaks a deep-seated ambivalence and anxiety about the place of women in society. In the most literal sense it shows that the subjection of women was not "unquestioned." Moreover, many feminist tracts, especially those written by women, are suffused with sincere indignation and despair about women's oppression.

Finally, different feminisms and "feminist moments" should be interpreted in the context of struggles over particular practices, such as literary authorship and taste, elite sociability, female networks, university politics, forms of religious worship, marriage laws and customs, and social and political issues. Many feminist utterances that seem outlandish at first sight only disclose their real meaning and significance when read in their specific context.

The feminism of the early Enlightenment (16501700) partook of the philosophical turn of that age. It demonstrated that the status of women is liable to be questioned in a period of transition when the entire intellectual and cultural landscape is shifting. A similar dynamic was visible in the late eighteenth century when feminism developed in tandem with the democratic revolutions.

Seen over the long run of European history, the writings of the early modern feminists present us with a consistent sequence of rejoinders to the mainstream apologies for male supremacy, a countercanon that originated somehere in the Late Middle Ages and has continued ever since. It represents a major feature of European history that has no parallel in the other great civilizations of the world.

See also Cartesianism ; Cornaro Piscopia, Elena Lucrezia ; Enlightenment ; Gender ; Marguerite de Navarre ; Salons ; Sexual Difference, Theories of ; Women .


Akkerman, Tjitske, and Siep Stuurman, eds. Perspectives on Feminist Political Thought in European History: From the Middle Ages to the Present. London and New York, 1998.

Albistur, Maïté, and Daniel Armogathe. Histoire du féminisme français du moyen âge à nos jours. Paris, 1978.

Bock, Gisela, and Margarete Zimmermann, eds. Die europäische Querelle des Femmes: Geschlechterdebatten seit dem 15. Jahrhundert. Stuttgart and Weimar, 1997.

Bolufer Peruga, Mónica. Mujeres e illustración: La construcción de la feminidad en la ilustración española. Valencia, 1998.

Browne, Alice. The Eighteenth Century Feminist Mind. Brighton, U.K., 1987.

Bruneau, Marie Florine. "Learned and Literary Women in Late Imperial China and Early Modern Europe." Late Imperial China 13 (1992): 156172.

DeJean, Joan. Tender Geographies: Women and the Origins of the Novel in France. New York, 1991.

Goldsmith, Elizabeth C., and Dena Goodman, eds. Going Public: Women and Publishing in Early Modern France. Ithaca, N.Y., and London, 1995.

Goodman, Katherine R. Amazons and Apprentices: Women and the German Parnassus in the Early Enlightenment. Rochester, N.Y., and Woodbridge, U.K., 1999.

Harth, Erica. Cartesian Women: Versions and Subversions of Rational Discourse in the Old Regime. Ithaca, N.Y., and London, 1992.

Honegger, Claudia. Die Ordnung der Geschlechter: Die Wissenschaften vom Menschen und das Weib, 17501850. Frankfurt am Main and New York, 1991.

Jordan, Constance. Renaissance Feminism: Literary Texts and Political Models. Ithaca, N.Y., and London, 1990.

Labalme, Patricia H., ed. Beyond Their Sex: Learned Women of the European Past. New York and London, 1980.

Lougee, Carolyn C. Le Paradis des Femmes: Women, Salons, and Social Stratification in Seventeenth-Century France. Princeton, 1976.

MacLean, Ian. Woman Triumphant: Feminism in French Literature, 16101652. Oxford, 1977.

Odorisio, Ginevra Conti. Donna e Società nel Seicento: Lucrezia Marinella e Arcangela Tarabotti. Rome, 1979.

Offen, Karen. European Feminisms, 17001950: A Political History. Stanford, 2000.

Perry, Ruth. The Celebrated Mary Astell: An Early English Feminist. Chicago and London, 1986.

Schiebinger, Londa. The Mind Has No Sex? Women in the Origins of Modern Science. Cambridge, Mass., 1989.

Smith, Hilda L. Reason's Disciples: Seventeenth-Century English Feminists. Urbana, Ill., Chicago, and London, 1982.

Stuurman, Siep. François Poulain de la Barre and the Invention of Modern Equality. Cambridge, Mass., 2003.

Taylor, Barbara. Mary Wollstonecraft and the Feminist Imagination. Cambridge, U.K., 2003.

Siep Stuurman


views updated May 21 2018









Feminism refers to social theories, economic ideologies, political movements, and moral philosophies aimed at bringing equality to women. Feminism has been identified with different groups and different issues over the course of its history. The first wave gave rise to liberal feminists, who fought for the right to vote, access to education, and marriage law reforms in the 1800s and early 1900s. The second wave witnessed the emergence of radical feminists, who protested for work and reproductive rights in the 1960s and 1970s. The numerous feminist groups concerned with all forms of oppression (e.g., racism, classism) evolved as the third wave in the 1990s.


The desire for equality predates the existence of the term feminism or the movement it has come to represent. The term feminism comes from the French word féminisme and was popularized by Hubertine Auclert in 1882 when she organized the first womens suffragist society in France. However, prior to the advent of the word, there were publications that fell within the purview of feminism. One of the first, by the medieval French poet Christine de Pizan, was Livre de la cité des dames (1405; The Book of the City of Ladies, 1999), in which Pizan suggests that women should build their own cities, free of men, so as to avoid mens violence and oppression. Dealing more specifically with rights, John Lockes Two Treatises of Government (1690) argued that all individuals have indelible natural rights to life, liberty, and possessions, which no government can deny.

Lockes work inspired Mary Wollstonecrafts Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), one of the first feminist manifestos. Wollstonecraft argued that women were human beings who should not be denied the same individual rights as men because of their sex. She advocated that women be viewed as equal to men under the law, with all the same rights and privileges, including the right to education, earnings, and property ownership. The rights of women were further advocated by John Stuart Mill in his treatise The Subjection of Women (1869). Mill contended that women should be granted the same rights and privileges as men under the law. In 1866, during his term as a member of Parliament for Westminster, Mill introduced a motion to enfranchise women on the grounds that taxpayers should have representation. The motion was defeated (196 to 73 votes), but the impetus for womens suffrage was not. The right to vote and the right to a proper education were two primary concerns that propelled the first of the three waves of the feminist movement.


The period from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth century saw tremendous activity for the womens movement. Key concerns included improvements in education, employment, and marriage laws. In much of North America and Europe, the right to higher education provided the movements initial spark. In other nations, cultural and religious constrictions such as suttee (self-immolation by Hindu widows), purdah (isolation of women, shielding them from public view), child marriage, and foot binding provided the initial focus for reform. In England and the United States in the 1800s (dates vary by state), marital laws were reformed with the passage of married womens property acts, which enabled wives to own property, enter into contractual agreements, sue, and be sued. However, in many countries it became apparent that the right to vote was instrumental in obtaining other reforms, so voting became the focus of the movement.

In the United States the first womens rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. In 1869 Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony founded the National Woman Suffrage Association and demanded not just the right to vote but marital reform as well. The exclusion of male members and the request for marital reform, instead of focusing solely on the vote, was frowned upon by some (e.g., Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell), resulting in the creation of the American Women Suffrage Association. However, the two groups merged in 1890. Women in New Zealand were among the first to obtain the right to vote (1893), and other countries quickly followed. For example, womens suffrage was achieved in Australia in 1902, Finland in 1906, Denmark in 1915, Russia in 1917, Czechoslovakia, England, and Germany in 1918, the Netherlands and Sweden in 1919, and the United States in 1920.

In many countries, after winning the right to vote, women turned their attention to education and employment rights. Upon achieving greater educational and employment access, women entered both of these spheres in record numbers. However, this newfound freedom was quickly tempered by the Great Depression. Although the effects of the Depression were felt at different times in different countries, the 1930s saw immobilization in the feminist movement. During this period, women were discouraged from seeking employment because of the scarcity of jobs. This employment hiatus was quickly reversed with the start of World War II in 1939, as women were encouraged to fill voids in a number of professions previously closed to them (e.g., factory workers, pilots) because so many men were sent to battle. Women proved to be effectual workers, but they were nonetheless displaced by returning soldiers at the wars end.

The tumultuousness of the war years was followed by a period of relative calm, during which the movement waned. However, having tasted independence, career options, and good pay, women were no longer content to be housewives. The publication of Simone de Beauvoirs Le deuxième sexe in 1949 (The Second Sex; English trans., 1953) reminded women that there was still much work to be done. This period of tranquility soon ended in the 1960s with the start of the second wave of the feminist movement.


The term second wave was coined by Martha Lear and refers to the feminist movement that began in the 1960s. The leading issues were demands for employment and reproductive rights. In the United States the second wave rose out of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements. Even within these pro-rights organizations, women were relegated to second-class status. In an effort to gain a voice, two branches of the feminist movement emerged: the womens liberation movement (WLM) and the National Organization for Women (NOW). The WLM evolved out of the New Left and encompassed more loosely organized radical groups that formed following their exclusion from other New Left politics. They gained great notoriety in 1968, when they demonstrated against the Miss America pageant for its sexist objectification of women. NOW was a more structured, liberal group founded in 1966 by Betty Friedan, Aileen Hernandez, Pauli Murray, and others. Although NOW grew to become more inclusive, in 1968 Ti-Grace Atkinson left it and created her own group, the Feminists, to protest NOWs hierarchical structure. NOW also lost members because of its pro-choice stance; some conservative women, led by Elizabeth Boyer, left the organization and created the Womens Equity Action League. In spite of these early setbacks, NOW grew to become the largest womens organization in the United States and championed the equal rights amendment (ERA) as its primary cause. Despite approval by the U.S. House and Senate, the ERA was not ratified by the requisite thirty-eight states by the 1982 deadline.

This period was marked by a number of historic events, including the 1963 Commission on the Status of Women report that documented discrimination against women in all facets of life. The pervasiveness of discrimination was also the topic of Betty Friedans best-selling book The Feminine Mystique (1963). These two documents invigorated the womens rights movement, and its activities were instrumental in bringing about changes. In 1963 Congress passed the Equal Pay Act, which prohibited unequal pay for equal work. In 1964 Congress passed Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibited employment discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, religion, and national origin. Ironically, the inclusion of sex was actually a last-minute attempt to kill the bill, but it passed anyway. Prohibitions against sexual discrimination were further extended in 1972 with the passage of Title IX of the Education Amendment, which prohibited discrimination in educational settings. In 1973 the U.S. Supreme Courts decision in Roe v. Wade struck down state laws restricting a womens right to an abortion, thereby legalizing it in all fifty states.

In addition to employment and reproduction rights, concerns about pornography and sexuality more generally also came to the fore. However, there was little consensus on these issues, and this disagreement culminated in what is termed the feminist sex wars. The sex wars of the 1980s were between antipornography feminists (e.g., Catherine MacKinnon, Andrea Dworkin, and Robin Morgan), who argued that pornography degrades and promotes violence against women, and sex-positive feminists (e.g., Camille Paglia, Ellen Willis, and Gayle Rubin), who opposed limiting sexual expression. This conflict, along with the fact that many feminists felt that other sources of oppression, such as race and class, were being neglected, caused the already multipartite movement to become increasingly fractured, resulting in the birth of third-wave feminism.


Third-wave feminism evolved out of the disillusionment of many feminists with the overemphasis on the experience of middle-class white women in the mainstream. Feminists of color (e.g., Gloria Anzaldúa, bell hooks, Chela Sandoval, Cherrie Moraga, Audre Lorde, and Maxine Hong Kingston) emphasized the significance of race, class, sexual orientation, and other socially structured forms of bias on womens lives (Kinser 2004). Critical race theorist and law professor Kimberlé W. Crenshaw introduced the term intersectionalities to highlight the multiplicative effect of these different sites of oppression. Counter to postfeminist contentions that feminism was obsolete as women had gained equality, third-wavers contended that there was still work to be done, specifically related to the micropolitics of gender oppression.

The term third-wave feminist was popularized by the 1992 Ms. magazine article titled Becoming the Third Wave by Rebecca Walker, who stated: I am not a post-feminism feminist. I am the third wave (Walker 1992, p. 40). In her article Walker describes her rage over the outcome of the Clarence Thomas hearings (in which Anita Hill testified that Thomas had sexually harassed her; Thomas was confirmed as a Supreme Court justice, while Hill was repudiated) and her subsequent commitment to feminism. Walkers article generated a large response from young women, who indicated that they have not given up the cause but are feminists in their own way. That is, they embrace a more pluralistic definition of feminism; they are concerned with the intersectionalities of oppression and the impact of globalism, technology, and other forces, and they operate on a more grassroots level (Kinser 2004). Although both second- and third-wave feminists are still at work, their divergent concerns spawned different groups, including black feminists, critical feminists, and global feminists.


Although there are many types of feminism, the four most common are liberal, radical, Marxist, and socialist. What differentiates them is the degree to which they accept that the different social structures in power are responsible for oppression. Liberal feminism, considered the most mainstream, accepts that sex differences exist but contends that social, legal, and economic opportunities should be equal for men and women. Liberal feminists are concerned with individual rights and promoting change through legal and legislative means while still operating within the current patriarchal structure.

Radical feminism emerged from the ideals of the New Left and the womens liberation movement in the late 1960s. Radical feminists argue that men are the oppressors of women and that the patriarchal social structure must be replaced for women to gain equality. The term radical feminism is used to represent many divergent groups, including cultural feminism, lesbian feminism, and revolutionary feminism.

Marxist feminists believe that womens oppression stems largely from economic stratification brought about by the production methods inherent in capitalism. Accordingly, capitalism must be destroyed in order to emancipate women both as workers and as property within the marital sphere.

Drawing from both radical and Marxist ideologies, socialist feminists argue that both class and sexism are sources of womens oppression. They advocate the end of capitalist patriarchy to reduce all forms of exploitation, as they are also concerned with oppression resulting from race, age, religion, and the like. In contrast to liberal feminisms emphasis on individual rights, socialist feminists emphasize the social existence in the broader community.


In addition to voting, property, employment, and other rights, the womens movement has also promoted other changes. For instance, not only do women have the right to vote but a number of countries have had female political leaders, including Chile, Finland, Ireland, Israel, Liberia, and Switzerland. In addition access to education has brought about a large increase in the number of women students, such that women now outnumber men in many nations schools. With regard to language, feminism has been influential in advancing the use of nonsexist terms (e.g., humankind in lieu of mankind ). It has also had a tremendous impact on the institution of marriage, in terms not only of whether women marry but also whom they choose to marry (a man or a woman), as well as the distribution of familial labor within the marital union. Moreover following the lead of the nineteenth-century suffragist Lucy Stone, many women now maintain their maiden names after marriage. The movement has also influenced religion, with many liberal denominations now ordaining women. Feminist thinking has also influenced the social sciences. It is no longer acceptable to collect data solely on men and to apply the findings to women, because there are often important gender differencesfor example, personality (Chodorow 1978). Further, feminist researchers advocate increased use of qualitative methods in which participants play a greater role in informing the definition and measurement of the phenomenon under study.

SEE ALSO Critical Race Theory; Feminism, Second Wave; Friedan, Betty; Gender Gap; Inequality, Gender; Intersectionality; Marxism; National Organization for Women; Patriarchy; Reproductive Rights; Sexism; Sexual Harassment; Sexuality; Socialism; Steinem, Gloria; Suffrage, Womens; Womanism; Women; Women and Politics; Womens Liberation; Womens Movement; Womens Studies; Work and Women


Chodorow, Nancy. 1978. The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender. Berkeley: University of California Press.

De Beauvoir, Simone. [1949] 1953. The Second Sex. Trans. H. M. Parshley. New York: Knopf.

De Pizan, Christine. [1405] 1999. The Book of the City of Ladies. Trans. Rosalind Brown-Grant. London and New York: Penguin.

Friedan, Betty. 1963. The Feminine Mystique. New York: Dell.

International Museum of Women. 2003. Chronology of Worldwide Woman Suffrage. http://www.imow.org/exhibits/suffrage/chronology_suffrage.pdf.

Kinser, Amber E. 2004. Negotiating Spaces for/through Third-Wave Feminism. National Womens Studies Association Journal 16 (3): 124153.

Locke, John. [1690] 1992. Two Treatises of Government. New York: Classics of Liberty Library.

Mill, John Stuart. [1869] 2001. The Subjection of Women, ed. Edward Alexander. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

Presidents Commission on the Status of Women. 1963. Report of the Committee on Education. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Roe v. Wade. 1973. 410 U.S. 113.

Walker, Rebecca. 1992. Becoming the Third Wave. Ms., JanuaryFebruary, 3941.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. [1792] 1989. Vindication of the Rights of Women. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus.

Worldwide Guide to Women Leadership. 2007. Chronological List of Female Presidents. http://www.guide2womenleaders.com/Presidents-Chronological.htm.

Kim S. Ménard


views updated May 18 2018



As a social and political movement with a long, intermittent history, feminism has repeatedly come into being, generated change, and subsided into oblivion. As an eclectic body of theory, feminism entered the academy in the early 1970s as a part of the women's studies movement, where its contribution to scholarship in the arts, social sciences, and humanities has perhaps been particularly significant. Despite the variety of its political positions, social commitments, and theoretical vantage points, feminism's common concern is with the social pattern, widespread across cultures and history, whereby power and entitlements are distributed asymmetrically to favor men over women. This asymmetry has been given many names, including the subjugation of women, sexism, male dominance, patriarchy, systemic misogyny, phallocracy, and the oppression of women. A number of feminist theorists simply call it gender, and that usage will be adopted here.

The concept of gender rests on the assumption that there are two sexes, male and female. The cultural meanings assigned to those sexes through complex social processes establish a power relation in which masculinity predominates over femininity, and the things associated with masculinity predominate over their feminine counterparts. The term gender refers to this power relation, which operates through society's institutions and practices by conferring the control of resources and the right to social goods on men while relegating women to subordinate positions in service of men's interests and concerns. But because gender always works in a complicated interconnection with other abusive power systems such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, age, and disability, some women enjoy more power than some men. By the same token, these other power systems produce greater amounts of privilege for some women than for others.

One of the characteristic features of gendered power relations is androcentrism: the (usually unstated) view that man is the point of reference for what is normal for humans. According to the logic of androcentrism, if man is the yardstick or measure for being human, then women, not being men, must be defective humans. Furthermore, because androcentrism presumes that men are the point around which everything else revolves, the feminist insistence that women too are full–fledged human beings is just as much about men as everything else is—it is a threat to masculinity, or an attempt to usurp men's rightful place in the natural order of things.

Racism and discrimination against gays and lesbians employ the same sort of logic: the white race and heterosexuality are the norm for human beings, so anything other than the norm must be defective—not just statistically but morally abnormal. From this it follows that the demand to de–center the dominant group (or, to use another spatial metaphor, to dismantle the hierarchy that puts the dominant group on top) must be seen as a threat to the group—a threat to "the Southern way of life" or to "the family as we know it." Looking at the demand in this way keeps the focus on the dominant group, so that it, rather than unjust treatment of the subgroup, remains the center of attention.

Criticism and Construction

As a political movement, feminism has sought to undermine or overthrow the social mechanisms through which gender operates to oppress women. Because gender identity cannot be understood or even perceived outside its complicated interaction with other abusive power systems, feminists resist those as well. A feminist politics is not only a politics of resistance, however. It is also a politics of construction. It seeks to build a more just society—one that is as good for all kinds of women as it is for all kinds of men. So, for example, "first-wave" U.S. feminists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, and Lucretia Mott worked for the right of women to own property, not to be enslaved, and to vote.

As a field of scholarship, feminism likewise pursues two goals. The first is criticism. Feminists have uncovered and opposed gender bias in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, the arts, and professions such as law and medicine. Sandra Harding, for example, has criticized the view, widely shared by scientists themselves, that science is value–free. She argues that scientific knowledge is produced largely by men who command significant amounts of social prestige, and that the perspective of these men is necessarily colored by assumptions and values arising from the kinds of activities in which they engage. As science leaves this perspective unexamined, it assumes an objectivity that it does not in fact possess.

What Donna Haraway has dubbed the "god trick"—the ideal of a perspectiveless and timeless view from nowhere that purports to secure objectivity—strikes many feminists as both politically suspect and impossible to achieve. Feminist epistemologists such as Lorraine Code and Helen Longino argue that greater objectivity is attained by taking careful and rigorous account of knowers' social locations than by ignoring the effects of power on what kinds of knowledge is legitimated, whose knowledge is considered authoritative, and which knowers are ignored or excluded as a result.

As well as questioning sexist understandings of objectivity, feminists have criticized the gender bias that inheres in other key theoretical concepts and indeed in mainstream theories themselves. But like political feminism, academic feminism does more than criticize—it also constructs. Feminist economists, for example, have not rested content with condemning the masculine bias inherent in the individualism and competition of much economic theory; they have constructed economic models that begin from the fact of human dependency and connection. Feminist historians have not only pointed to the gender gaps created by their profession's focus on military campaigns and other male–dominated activity in the public sphere, but have used women's diaries, letters, and other writings to construct histories of women and of domestic life. Feminist constructions in philosophy include a shift from mainstream epistemology's preoccupation with necessary and sufficient conditions for knowledge, to the theoretical importance of the social location of the knower. Equally significant has been the construction of feminist moral theory, particularly the ethics of care and feminist responsibility ethics.

Feminist Epistemology

While on its face there seems to be something paradoxical about feminist criticisms of reason, given that the forms of argumentation on which these criticisms depend are themselves a part of what is under attack, the burgeoning literature on this topic may be understood, not as a repudiation of reason tout court, but as a dissatisfaction with a particular picture of reason. This picture, which underlies much of contemporary nonfeminist ethics as well as other areas of mainstream philosophy, is that of a pure, universal reason, abstracted from historical and social contexts, operating dispassionately and objectively to produce true propositions. Feminists fault this picture as much for what it excludes as for what it portrays.

For one thing, the picture excludes the emotions, rather than acknowledging that feelings such as empathy, resentment, or anger play a useful role in reasoning—especially moral reasoning. The picture in particular excludes what people care about, rather than acknowledging that what they care about can itself be a reason for thinking or acting the way they do. It excludes trust, rather than acknowledging that trust is what keeps one's reasoning from becoming paranoid. And it excludes narrative or figurative modes of reasoning, rather than acknowledging that people often use stories and images to make sense of the world.

One important strategy for feminist epistemologists, then, has been to identify the tension between the explicit content of philosophical arguments, which appears gender–neutral, and the models, metaphors, and imagery underlying these arguments, which covertly favor the experiences and preoccupations of privileged men. A second important strategy has been to question the tradition that divorces reason from other human attributes. Many feminists have emphasized the role of the emotions in rational reflection, while others have emphasized the point that human reasoners are embodied, and that the social constructions surrounding differences in embodiment count among the conditions that make knowledge possible. Still others have emphasized the essentially social nature of human existence, arguing that knowledge is not "in the head" of solitary reasoners, but rather is produced and imparted in communities of knowers, and that abusive power systems operate in these communities to discredit unjustifiably certain kinds of reasoning while authorizing others.

Borrowing from Marxist analysis, in the 1980s feminist standpoint theorists such as Nancy Hartsock and Patricia Hill Collins drew an analogy between women in gendered societies and workers in capitalist societies. They contended that just as the false presuppositions that sustain the ideology of capitalism are most visible from the hard–won perspective of the worker who has participated in consciousness–raising and political engagement, so too the false presuppositions that sustain the ideology of gender are best seen from the standpoint of those who have had to acquire detailed, self–reflective knowledge of the gender system simply in order to be able to function within it. Feminist standpoint theorists are less interested in claiming a single, unified standpoint that is representative of all women, however, than in taking seriously the knowledge that informs women's practices—whether domestic, emotional, intellectual, or professional.

Ethics of Care

One such practice is that of giving care. In the United States, but also in many other societies, women do far more unpaid, hands–on caregiving than men—they change the diapers, wash the dishes, clean the bathrooms, take the dog to the vet, feed and dress the children, take care of sick or disabled family members, and provide long–term care for elderly relatives. Even when married women have full–time jobs, they still almost invariably do the vast majority of the housework, childcare, and elder care. Nearly 75 percent of unpaid elder care is done by women, and after a divorce or in cases where the parents never married, 75 percent of dependent children live with and are cared for by their mothers rather than their fathers—a figure that approaches 100 percent when the children are infants or toddlers. Paid caregivers are mostly women, as well. Almost 96 percent of professional nurses are women, and the percentage of women providing daycare for children is close to 99 percent. In Canada, women do 80 percent of all caregiving, both paid and unpaid.

The Harvard psychologist Carol Gilligan, taking seriously the idea that women's experience of caregiving produces its own kind of moral reasoning, questioned whether the scale of moral maturity developed by her colleague, Lawrence Kohlberg, was as universally applicable as he supposed. At the first stage of Kohlberg's scale, morality is conceived of as a system of punishment and obedience. At Stage Two, it is motivated by personal reward. At Stage Three, it is taken to be a matter of helping and pleasing other people. At Stage Four it is understood as a set of rules for maintaining the social order. Those who reach Stage Five can sum up those social rules in a principle such as "the greatest good for the greatest number," while those at Stage Six are able to think of morality in terms of self–chosen universal principles of justice. Not everyone, claimed Kohlberg, reaches the more advanced stages of moral maturity.

Gilligan, noting that men consistently scored higher on the Kohlberg scale than women, questioned the reliability of the scale rather than accept its implication that women tend to be less morally mature than men. She claimed that many of the girls and women in her own developmental studies simply reasoned about moral matters "in a different voice." Instead of talking about rights and rules, they were using the language of relationships and connection. Rather than reasoning abstractly, their thinking was contextual and concrete. She called this a "care" orientation toward morality, and opposed it to the "justice" orientation displayed at stages Four, Five, and Six on Kohlberg's scale. Gilligan was careful not to say that the "different voice" is the voice of all women across cultures and through time, any more than the voice of justice is the voice of all men. She did, however, argue that gender shapes the experience of men and women differently, and that gendered experience—particularly the experience of living in a society that expects girls and women to perform vast amounts of caring labor—produces "different modes of moral understanding."

Nel Noddings, Virginia Held, Sara Ruddick, Joan Tronto, and Eva Kittay are among the most prominent of the feminist theorists who have used Gilligan's moral psychology to construct an ethics of care. They have examined caregiving for the moral understandings internal to the practice, offering accounts of not only what it is to care well, but also of the social and political framework in which this practice takes place. While care theorists have by no means created a unified account, it is nevertheless possible to identify three characteristic features of the ethics on which most, but not all, care theorists agree:

  1. a caring relationship;
  2. engagement with another's will; and
  3. particularism.

Caring well both requires and is an expression of a caring relationship. The caregiver must care about the person she cares for, not only to keep the caregiving from becoming impersonal, cold, or self–serving, but because caring is a value in itself. To care in this sense is to feel concern for one's charge (Kittay's term for the person receiving the care). But while caring engages the emotions, the word does not refer solely to a cluster of feelings. As Held points out, it is also a moral term. It is a good thing to care about others; a bad thing not to care. Because it is a moral term, it can be used to guide how and when to act on one's feelings, as well as to evaluate specific instances of caregiving.

On the view of a number of care ethicists, the caring relationship requires engagement with another's will—the caregiver must treat her charge not simply as an object of her care, but as someone with wants, intentions, and desires of his own. Noddings calls on caregivers to practice what she calls engrossment, which consists of such close attention to the feelings, needs, ideas, or wants of their charges that the caregivers' own will is displaced. Other care ethicists emphasize the importance of self–knowledge, lest the caregiver confuse her own will with the will of her charge.

Caring well also requires the caregiver to pay attention to the particulars of a caring relationship rather than being guided by abstractly formulated rules or principles. It is by being closely attentive to this particular person, who needs this particular kind of care, in these specific circumstances, rather than by reflecting on general moral precepts, that morally admirable care is given. This is not to say that caregivers ought never to engage in abstract thinking. But the point is to remain within the caring relationship, which requires attention to the person for whom one cares rather than attention to moral abstractions.

A number of feminist ethicists have argued (repeatedly) that each of the three central features of the ethics of care reinforces the stereotype of the self–effacing wife and mother, prescribing courses of action and ways of thinking that are bad for women. In particular, the critics have identified three dangers. First, if the caregiver cares about the person she cares for, her feelings will not permit her to leave her charge's needs unmet, which poses the danger of exploitation. Second, the caregiver might become so engrossed in the needs and wants of her charge that she gives up her own sense of right and wrong, thereby losing her integrity. And third, if the caregiver attends closely to the particular needs and circumstances of her charge, her field of vision cannot accommodate the broader concerns of social justice.

Kittay's solution to the problem of exploitation is to call for financial, economic, and logistical support for caregivers. She argues that if one begins from the fact of human dependency instead of from the assumption that "all men are created equal," then caring for those who need it can be seen as one of the requirements of justice—as can support for those who provide this care. Diemut Bubeck has a different solution. Her idea, modeled on military service, is that men and women alike could spend some period of their lives in a "caring service" whose mission would be to provide respite care for unpaid dependency workers.

As for the problem of integrity, one solution is to build self–care into the ethics of care so that it does not become an ethics of self–erasure. However, if the caregiver's only motive for taking care of herself is that she can then better care for her charge, she stands in danger of losing herself altogether. Cheshire Calhoun's 1995 account of integrity provides a different solution. She argues that integrity is not only the personal virtue of holding fast to the moral values that are central to one's self–conception, but also a social virtue, exercised by reliably standing for one's own best moral judgments to other people. If integrity involves being the kind of person others can depend on, it cannot be threatened by caring well. Indeed, for the caregiver to do what she knows to be wrong would count as defective care, because it would mean that her charge could not rely on her.

In response to the claim that the ethics of care is too focused on the personal and the particular to attend to issues of social justice, Tronto proposes to redraw the boundary that political theorists and others have marked between morality and politics. As caregiving is a practice embedded in social life, she claims, it has to be understood in a political context and not just a moral one. A politics of care that complements the ethics of care would, in Tronto's view, recognize and support the caring labor on which every society depends. Such a politics would shift the goals of social policy from preserving autonomy to fostering interdependence; from promoting interests to meeting needs. It would value citizens even when they cannot fend for themselves.

Responsibility Ethics

The ethics of care is based on a morally crucial relationship between people that has too often been ignored or dismissed by nonfeminist ethicists, but relationships other than those involving care are also morally important, and they too give rise to responsibilities. Nor are relationships the only source of the moral demands made on people. For these reasons, several feminist ethicists have gone beyond care to develop an ethics of responsibility.

Margaret Urban Walker is less interested in the abstract questions that philosophers have traditionally raised about the conditions under which someone is morally responsible (Was he free to act otherwise? Did she form the proper intention?) than in examining how practices of responsibility operate within actual moral communities. People hold one another to their promises, excuse them, demand an explanation, give them a standing ovation, let them stew in their own juice, award them the Nobel Prize, and sentence them to death by lethal injection. In these and other ways responsibility is assigned, accepted, taken, deflected, redirected, and renegotiated.

How one is expected to participate in society's practices of responsibility depends just as much on one's gender, class, age, ethnicity, and race as it does on one's own achievements. Who gets to do what to whom is largely determined by the social power that is distributed according to these demographics, as is the matter of who must account to whom. And just as social position influences whether and to what extent one may take, assign, or avoid responsibility, so too it plays a role in determining who may set or change the rules that govern when, how, and by whom this may be done.

As Walker points out, however, the system is rigged. The social forces that allow some people to take responsibility for the things that are pleasant or rewarding, while imposing on other people the kinds of responsibility that keep them from attaining many of the good things in life, are the same forces that hide the fact that this is going on. Some of these forces naturalize the uneven distribution of responsibility, concealing the coercion that sustains the arrangement by representing it as natural—as when women are said to have a maternal instinct that qualifies them to care for children while men do not. Other forces normalize the unfairness, focusing so much attention on the norms or standards for fulfilling a particular responsibility that the question of why a particular kind of person must assume the responsibility is completely hidden from view. Incessantly barraging women with the norms for looking attractive, for example, is a wonderful way of concealing the unfairness of requiring them to take far more responsibility for their appearance than men.

Practices of responsibility look forward as well as backward. In The Unnatural Lottery, Claudia Card points out that people who have suffered from unfair distributions of responsibility can do more than make backward–looking assignments of blame for past wrongs. A woman who has been raped, for example, can adopt a forward–looking stance that allows her to take responsibility for what happened to her—not in the sense of blaming herself, but in the sense of refusing to be a victim. She can be responsible for rebuilding her life at the same time as she holds her attacker responsible for his deed.

Normally, adults are expected to know the moral rules and to be aware of the standards by which other people judge them. That is part of what it means to be a morally competent person. But in "Responsibility and Reproach," Calhoun observes that morally competent people can lose their competence in abnormal moral contexts, such as the one that feminists take themselves to inhabit. If, for instance, the normal moral context allows men to deflect responsibility for changing their babies' diapers, then even a well–meaning man is unlikely to see the sexism behind his assumption that when he does change a diaper, he is doing something nice rather than doing merely what he ought. As he is behaving irreproachably according to the standards of the moral context he inhabits, it hardly seems fair to blame him. One could, after all, excuse him for the same reason one excuses young children's wrongdoing—that he is not responsible for his attitude because he has not yet learned the moral rules that govern the abnormal moral context feminists occupy. But Calhoun thinks he should be held responsible anyway. When feminists reproach people who engage in sexist behavior, she argues, they teach them that what they are doing is wrong, motivate them to change their behavior, and show them respect rather than treating them like children. This is one way in which feminists can take responsibility (in Card's sense) for sexism.

The ethics of care and responsibility ethics display some common themes. Both reject the idea that persons are essentially self–sufficient and unconnected, insisting instead that selves are always nested in webs of relationship. Both emphasize the differences among people rather than making abstract generalizations about human nature. Both use gender as a central category of analysis. Both use the language of responsibilities rather than rights or duties. And both begin from careful examinations of actual, real–time personal interactions. This on–the–ground quality is highly characteristic of feminist ethics—it is a way of avoiding the mistake of theorizing from too limited a set of examples.

Feminist Bioethics

In Canada and the United States, the bioethics movement and second–wave feminism both began in the late 1960s, but the two discourses had little to say to one another for the better part of two decades. It was not until 1989 that the U.S. journal of feminist philosophy, Hypatia, published two special issues devoted to feminism and medical ethics. The few essays by feminists published up to that time in the premier U.S. journal in bioethics, the Hastings Center Report, dealt solely with ethical issues surrounding women's reproductive systems.

All that has changed. The 1990s saw a steady stream of conferences, monographs, anthologies, and essays in learned journals that examine bioethical issues through a feminist lens. Susan Sherwin's No Longer Patient: Feminist Ethics & Health Care appeared in 1992, as did Feminist Perspectives in Medical Ethics, edited by Helen Bequaert Holmes and Laura M. Purdy. The International Network on Feminist Approaches to Bioethics, begun in 1993 by Holmes and Anne Donchin, has some 300 members worldwide and has sponsored several conferences on feminist bioethics, in conjunction with the International Association of Bioethics. In 1995, the prestigious Kennedy Institute of Ethics devoted its Advanced Bioethics Course to feminist perspectives on bioethics, and the plenary lectures of that course were then published in a special issue of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal. In 1996, the Journal of Clinical Ethics published special sections in each of its four issues on feminism and bioethics. That same year saw the publication of an anthology edited by Susan M. Wolf, Feminism and Bioethics: Beyond Reproduction. In 1998, the Journal of Medicine and Philosophy devoted an entire issue to the feminist ethic of care. Anne Donchin and Laura M. Purdy's anthology, Embodying Bioethics: Feminist Advances, appeared in 1999. In 2001, the journal Bioethics published an issue devoted to feminist bioethics. Textbooks and readers in bioethics routinely include essays written by feminists.

Feminist bioethics largely consists of criticism directed at practices surrounding the care of women's bodies, and in particular, the parts of women's bodies that mark them as different from men. There has been an ongoing focus on women's reproductive practices, in the form of arguments in defense of abortion, debates about the wisdom of various methods of assisted reproduction, arguments against sustaining postmortem pregnancies, ethical analyses of various sorts of maternal–fetal conflicts, concern about HIV testing of newborns and pregnant women, pleas for better prenatal care for pregnant women, debates about the use and abuse of the birth control implant Norplant, arguments for and against amniocentesis and other genetic testing of fetuses, and discussions about hormone replacement therapy for postmenopausal women. And when feminist bioethicists have moved "beyond reproduction," as Susan M. Wolf puts it, they have tended to criticize practices of healthcare for women—weighing in, for example, on the debates over the medical management of breast cancer, arguing that tying healthcare insurance to employment disadvantages elderly women, or protesting the injustice of a healthcare delivery system that devotes a disproportionate amount of high–tech care, such as arterial angioplasty and organ transplantation, to men. While this criticism can be seen as a political and moral protest against the sexism that permeates the healthcare system, it has been argued that the preoccupation with women's bodies, and especially women's reproductive health, tends to reinforce the androcentric view that men are normal but women, being abnormal, require special accommodations both within healthcare and within bioethics.

Not all of feminist bioethical criticism focuses on women's (reproductive) health. Mary Mahowald has, for example, used standpoint theory to criticize healthcare providers who systematically discount their patients' knowledge about their illness and treatment. Virginia Warren has pointed out that medicine's preoccupation with crisis issues diverts attention from what may be called housekeeping issues, which are perceived as women's work and are on that account not valued. Susan M. Wolf has argued that gendered differences in medical treatment, suicidal behavior, healthcare insurance, and social expectations about self–sacrifice offer a reason to suppose that legalizing physician–assisted suicide would further oppress women. A number of feminists have criticized the cost–cutting measures resulting in shorter hospital stays that unfairly exploit the gendered division of labor within families, where, compared to men, women do vastly disproportionate amounts of caregiving, even if this means that they are restricted to part–time employment or give up their jobs altogether.

Feminist bioethicists' constructions have consisted mainly of reconceptualizing problems in areas of healthcare practice and policy ranging from postmenopausal motherhood to home healthcare, and then offering solutions based on those reconceptualizations. With the major exception of the work of some feminist bioethicists on the ethic of care, however, constructions in theory have been almost nonexistent. Much more could be done both to expand the ethic of care so that it furnishes conceptual tools for social and political analysis, and to use the practice of medicine itself to enrich ethical theory. That so little of this work has been done is not surprising, not only because feminist bioethics is a very young discourse but also because bioethics in general has failed to produce much distinctive theory, contenting itself with the pragmatic strategy of agreeing on middle–level ethical principles where it can, and scavenging from the standing political and moral theories when it must. Feminist bioethicists, however, do not have the luxury of that sort of pragmatism, because it is the business of feminism to be deeply suspicious of the standing political and moral theories, on the grounds that they are shot through with gender bias and so cannot be regarded as trustworthy. Many feminists argue that their task is to construct new theory rather than to refine theories that leave everything exactly as it was.

Why ought feminists theorize about ethical issues arising from biomedical practice? Why, that is, should there be a feminist bioethics at all? One answer is that medicine ought to be of particular concern to feminists because it is one of the hegemonic discourses of our time, commanding enormous amounts of social prestige and authority. Because it is so powerful that no other discourse except, possibly, that of international capitalism competes with it, it interacts with gender at many levels and in many different ways. Feminists continue to criticize that interaction, but they also wish to learn from it. By studying how power, in the guise of gender, circulates through the healthcare system, they contribute to the body of normative theory that might guide this socially valuable institution in the direction of greater justice.

hilde lindemann nelson

SEE ALSO: Abortion; Abuse, Interpersonal: Abuse between Domestic Partners; Adoption; Aging and the Aged: Old Age;Authority in Religious Traditions; Autonomy; Body: Cultural and Religious Perspectives; Care; Children: Rights of Children; Circumcision, Female Circumcision; Coercion; Compassionate Love; Embryo and Fetus; Environmental Ethics: Ecofeminism; Fertility Control; Gender Identity; Maternal-Fetal Relationship; Psychiatry, Abuses of; Reproductive Technologies; Research Policy: Subjects; Sexual Ethics; Sexism; Women as Health Professionals


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International Network on Feminist Approaches to Bioethics. Available from <http://www.fabnet.org>.


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The terms feminism and feminist, as they are used throughout the world, connote, respectively, movements that have advocated the idea of women's emancipation and the individuals who have supported these movements. Nineteenth-century French political discourse commonly used the term féminisme as a synonym for women's emancipation. Its exact origin remains uncertain, but dictionaries do not record its use in this sense before the 1870s. In the following decade, it was used by the first self-proclaimed feminist, Hubertine Auclert (1848–1914), in her periodical La citoyenne (The woman citizen) and gained currency after a number of "feminist" congresses in the 1890s. Before the turn of the twentieth century, the term appeared first in British, then in Belgian, French, Spanish, Italian, German, Greek, and Russian publications.


In European societies, feminism often acquired various cultural meanings. It connotes a political ideology as well as a social movement. The historian Karen Offen has aptly defined it as "the name given to a comprehensive critical response to the deliberate and systematic subordination of women as a group within a given cultural setting" (p. 20). As a historical phenomenon, feminism can accordingly be defined as an "encompassing program of sociopolitical critique and remediation, with gender issues at its very core" (p. 24). European feminist movements addressed imbalances of power between the sexes, raised issues concerning personal autonomy or individual freedoms, and supported ideas and movements for sociopolitical change, often intersecting with other concerns such as class, race, age, or religion.


Since the eighteenth century, European feminists have debated the distribution of political, social, and economic power between the sexes and have challenged women's subordination to men in the family and in society. The fortunes of European feminism have varied greatly from one society to another, often depending on the possibilities for voicing dissent. Most feminist movements in Europe were transnational in scope and addressed common themes. In the first half of the twentieth century, national politics and population issues figured prominently; in the second half, European feminists continued to fight for women's economic opportunities and equal legal status with men but also turned to new issues, as the "personal" became "political."

In the history of European feminist thought, historians have identified two basic approaches, not necessarily distinct and often intertwined. The so-called relational argument proposes a gender-based but egalitarian organization of society, emphasizes the rights of women in relation to those of men, and insists on women's distinctive contributions to society. The "individualistic" argument sees the individual, irrespective of its sex, as society's basic unit and stresses more abstract concepts of individual human rights as well as the quest for personal independence. Although it is tempting to categorize each European women's movement as either "relational" or "individualistic," the great historical and political heterogeneity of these movements argues against simple categorizations. Not all women's organizations were feminist, some can indeed be seen as antifeminist, yet their activities outside the domestic realm generally contributed to the development of a feminist consciousness.


By the beginning of the twentieth century, national feminist movements had emerged in many western, central, and northern European countries. These movements were largely liberal, Protestant, and middle-class. Their members organized against the subordinate legal status of women and their exclusion from higher education and the professions, for women's suffrage and a variety of social and moral reforms. In Great Britain, Germany, France, Scandinavia, and Italy, feminists became increasingly concerned about the fate of the bourgeois marriage and shared the general anxiety about the falling birthrate in their countries. Working-class women also organized and joined socialist organizations in Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Russia. Although some of their leaders proclaimed a "clean separation" from bourgeois feminism, European feminists increasingly crossed class barriers, especially after transnational cooperation came to a temporary halt during World War I and national movements united to support the war effort. The aftermath of the war saw not only the reorganization of Europe's political landscape but also the development of new feminist movements.

Feminists in the successor states to the Austro-Hungarian Empire got off to a shaky start. Newly enfranchised women activists in the new Austria were certainly pleased when the son of Marianne Hainisch, the founder and president of the Bund Österreichischer Frauenvereine (BÖFV; League of Austrian women's associations, founded in 1902) was elected president of the republic. Yet widely divergent views on feminist issues in the two major parties, the Social Democratic and the Conservative, kept them from enacting significant feminist policies. While Social Democratic women, often exhibiting an anti-Catholic bias, addressed the double burden of women workers and protested restrictive laws on abortion and on contraceptive information, the middle-class feminists of the BÖ FV emphasized peace and harmony in postwar Austrian society. They pressed for better educational opportunities and changes in Austrian women's legal and economic situation, and they promoted international peace.

Feminists fared differently in smaller Catholic countries, especially when nationalist issues were also at stake. When the monarchy in Portugal, a rural and Catholic nation, was replaced by a republic in 1910, a small but enthusiastic feminist movement, the Liga Republicana das Mulheres Portuguesas (Republican league of Portuguese women), emerged in Lisbon. Its leaders worked for the economic autonomy of married women, a divorce law, and a number of other legal reforms, but their efforts were hampered by World War I and came to a standstill in 1926, when the authoritarian regime of António Salazar took control. The Portuguese feminists had no choice but to succumb to its Catholic, nationalist, and corporatist principles. After World War II, "unofficial" women's organizations were dissolved and coeducation in the schools was abolished. The constitution of 1966 reestablished the husband's marital authority. Feminist activism reemerged only after the end of the authoritarian regime in 1974.

In the neighboring country of Spain, the program of the Asociación Nacional de Mujeres Españolas (National association of Spanish women), founded by educated urban women in 1918, also called for major changes in civil legislation, women's access to education and the professions, equal opportunity, and equal pay. High illiteracy rates—especially among women—poverty, infant mortality, prostitution, and discriminatory laws provided a broad agenda for both middle-class and socialist feminists. In 1930 the constitution of the Second Republic gave women full political rights and secularized civic life. The republican government soon came under attack from the Right, especially after the disastrous election of 1933, for which the Left blamed women voters. When civil war ensued in 1936, a number of women's organizations emerged on both sides, but feminist issues were rarely at the top of their agenda. Under the regime of the victorious General Francisco Franco (1892–1972), abortion was redefined as a "crime against the state," coeducation ceased, male authority in marriage was restored, and marriage loans (incentive programs offering government grants to newlyweds for the purchase of household goods) were paid along with birth premiums. Yet feminism reemerged in the 1970s and gained momentum after Franco's death.

Irish feminists had to contend with Catholicism and nationalism as well, but the outcome was different from that in Spain, Austria, and Portugal. The proclamation of the Irish Republic in 1916 stipulated equal political rights for both sexes, and militant Irishwomen became activists for independence during the years of undeclared war with England that followed. When Irishwomen were partially enfranchised in 1918, Cumann na mBan, the women's organization associated with the nationalist party Sinn Féin, called upon women voters to support the cause of Irish independence. After Ireland achieved legislative independence in 1921, the constitution of the Irish Free State gave equal rights to both sexes. In the 1920s and 1930s, Irish feminists waged a battle on matters concerning divorce, access to contraceptive information, the age of consent for girls, the legal situation of unmarried mothers, and prostitution. When Ireland finally gained independence in 1937, the new constitution discriminated against women. Irish feminists did not challenge this until the 1970s, and the constitutional clauses on women's status were still in effect in the 1990s.

The development of Scandinavian feminist movements took yet another path. Postwar Swedish society, for example, was still relatively poor and predominantly agricultural; however, high literacy rates, Protestant traditions, and a Social Democratic Party that was more nationalist, more populist, and less Marxist than some of its counterparts in other countries contributed to the formation of a particular brand of "feminism." Nineteenth-century Swedish feminists rejected the term and named their movement kvinnosaken, or "woman's cause," a name that by the 1920s was widely connected with a radical liberal faction that supposedly promoted mostly the interests of single, childless women. Its representatives founded a school for women's civic education at the Fogelstad estate, which contributed a new dimension to European feminism by emphasizing environmental issues, the skills of rural women, and women's special qualities and contributions to society. This Swedish brand of what could be called antimilitarist ecofeminism enjoyed a revival around the turn of the twenty-first century. "Classic" feminist demands such as the abolition of legal, state-regulated prostitution, full legal rights for married women, educational equality, access to the civil service, and motherhood insurance were largely met in the 1920s. With increasing industrialization and modernization of the country, many Swedish feminists became associated with the Social Democratic Party and committed themselves to solving the dilemma of combining employment and motherhood. A number of reforms after the 1936 elections, including the legalization of contraceptives, promoted women's economic independence and created facilities for child care and household support services but also addressed the division of domestic labor and the perpetuation of gender roles. Framed in terms of Sweden's national interest, this program was central for Swedish society beginning in the 1960s and ensured the success of the Social Democrats for many decades.


Woman suffrage was undoubtedly one of the most prominent causes of feminist movements in Europe. At the beginning of the twentieth century, they could already look back on decades of struggle. The road to full political participation for women varied but was characterized by similar developments: European suffragists often based their demands for inclusion on women's special contribution to society while at the same time raising questions of equal rights and representation. By 1922 twenty-one European countries had passed woman suffrage laws. The vote was won in Finland in 1906 and Norway in 1913; seventeen countries followed between 1915 and 1922; Spain and Portugal joined the ranks in 1931. Yet four European countries denied the vote to half their population until the end of World War II (France until 1944 and Italy until 1945) or even longer (Greece granted woman suffrage in 1952, Switzerland in 1971).

The postwar successes of the European suffrage movements, or so the conventional argument goes, were largely "a reward" for women's participation in the war effort, though woman suffrage was passed in some neutral countries and women in warring countries such as France still stood empty-handed. As in the United States, woman suffrage in Europe was actually the result of a transnational development that originated in the suffragist movements of the nineteenth century and depended on other factors as well, for example, different democratic traditions, the intensity of the class struggle, the extension of male suffrage, or changing coalitions between liberal and conservative or socialist parties.

No European country allowed women to vote before the suffrage had been extended to all males, and even then restrictions applied: in Great Britain, for example, only married women, female heads of households, or women over thirty with university degrees could vote between 1918 and 1928; Belgium introduced suffrage des morts in 1920 for mothers and widows of war casualties; Austria initially excluded prostitutes from voting; and Portugal, which demanded a literacy test for male voters, in 1931 extended the suffrage only to women with "higher education."

Italy passed local woman suffrage for "educated" women as well as for mothers and widows of slain soldiers in 1925, shortly before Benito Mussolini abolished all elections. The discourse and tactics of the feminist movements in France and Switzerland did not differ much from those in the rest of Europe, and the French feminist movement achieved some prominence. Women in these countries counted on being granted the vote after World War I. The necessary referenda in several Swiss Kantone (states), however, produced overwhelmingly negative results until 1971. In France, the cause of the feminists was primarily defeated by anticlerical republican forces, which feared that women would vote against the republic. This argument turned up in other Catholic countries as well, but was of special significance for the Gauche démocratique (democratic Left) in France. Only in 1944 did woman suffrage finally become part of the program of Charles de Gaulle's provisional government.

After World War I, many newly enfranchised European feminists would have sided with Marie Juchacz, who, in the first speech given by a woman elected as a representative to the German parliament, claimed that "political equality has given my sex the possibility to fully develop its powers" (quoted in Offen, p. 252). Thus, equal suffrage rights not only epitomized civil and political equality but was also considered the gateway to women's social rights. European feminists did not merely aspire to participation in the male political sphere but sought to redefine that sphere. Whereas the social rights demanded by men centered on questions of wages, hours, and insurance for disability and old age, the respective feminist discourses concentrated on gender-neutral social insurance, protective laws for women workers, and maternity benefits for all mothers, employed or not (protection des mères in France, Mutterschutz in Germany). The developing European welfare states traveled different roads to insuring the risks of sickness, old age, and unemployment, notably in Great Britain, where insurance systems were largely tax funded and thus comparatively gender neutral, and in Germany, where they were often tied to the male "breadwinner" and thus disadvantaged women. Nevertheless, the "feminization of poverty" remained a problem throughout Europe and the need to remedy it was uncontested within feminist movements.

The question of protective laws for women workers was a different matter. Before 1914, most countries had passed laws prohibiting night work as well as dangerous employment for women workers and limiting their hours. This transnational development was facilitated by the founding of the International Labor Organization (ILO) in 1919. Protective labor legislation for women was highly contested. The debate centered on gender roles, gender relations, and the "welfare" of the family and the nation. Feminists could be found on both sides of the issue. The fight about protective labor legislation was mostly symbolic, however, and had relatively few practical consequences. In most European countries and for the greater part of the twentieth century, women represented only a minority of industrial workers; night work was never prohibited for nurses and the eight-hour day and minimum wage legislation never applied to sweatshops. Laws could be easily abolished, for example, during both world wars and the Soviet civil war, when the number of women workers increased sharply, or could be circumvented by both employers and women workers.

European feminist movements were far more unified when it came to maternity legislation, demanding not only restrictions on employment but also financial support for pregnant women and mothers. Feminists throughout Europe declared motherhood a "social function" of the state and demanded public maternity funds, maternity insurance, paid leave, and cash allowances for mothers and children. They thus continued a debate that had originated in the nineteenth century, when some rudimentary legislation was also enacted. In 1913 Great Britain passed more comprehensive maternity laws; Norway followed suit in 1915, Germany in 1924, France in 1928, and Sweden in 1931. Even though these laws were passed somewhat hesitantly and with minimal benefits, they provided a base for making employment compatible with family responsibilities. Benefits for mothers and children were extended as the European welfare states developed, with France introducing family allowances in 1931, Italy and Germany in 1936, Sweden in 1937, Spain in 1938, Portugal in 1942, and Great Britain and Norway in 1945. Originally a demand of feminists that envisioned a "mother's salary," family allowances now functioned as a kind of financial compensation for families. Generally, the checks were sent to the fathers.

As woman suffrage gradually expanded throughout Europe after World War I, women became more visible in national and, to a more limited extent, international politics. Women activists tried to influence the terms of peace in 1919 and, while their achievements seem limited, the Treaty of Versailles did include certain provisions for equal rights and specified the inclusion of women in the work of the ILO and the League of Nations. Building on the work of the International Council of Women (founded in 1888) and the International Women Suffrage Alliance (founded in 1904), the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom emerged in 1919 to support a broad feminist network, whose members worked for the newly founded international organizations. They promoted laws that would secure the citizenship of women married to foreigners, end state-regulated prostitution and the "trade" in women and children, and defend women's employment at all levels.

Paradoxically, those national feminist movements that had fought so vehemently for woman suffrage did not necessarily profit from it after the war, and vice versa. Suffragists had been somewhat underrepresented in the German women's movement, yet the Reichstag had the highest percentage of women representatives in 1919 (10 percent, followed by Finland with 9 percent and the Netherlands with 7 percent). In contrast, the British Parliament had only one female member in 1919 and fifteen (less than 3 percent) in 1931. Without a common cause, many feminist movements disintegrated into special interest groups. Although adult women outnumbered men in many countries after the massive casualties of the war, coalitions of women voters on behalf of women's supposed common interests did not materialize anywhere in Europe. Plans to found women's parties were either quickly abandoned or resulted in short-lived and unsuccessful experiments, as in Sweden and Austria, for example.

During the decade of the garçonne (boyish girl) and of the flapper, who sported knee-length dresses and the Bubikopf (short-cropped hair), many feminists lamented not only the "loose morals" of a new generation of women but also the lack of interest in feminist issues. Although European women had entered public life at an unprecedented scale, the younger generation did not necessarily seek emancipation as understood by more traditional feminists, nor did they appreciate the role feminist movements had played in opening the opportunities of modern life to them.

Overall, the interwar decades were not characterized by a triumph of democracy but rather by a sense of crisis, as a growing number of countries succumbed to authoritarian or totalitarian regimes, which often meant a strengthening of traditional gender roles. Socialist women in Russia thought their dream had come true when the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917, but some of them soon faced exile and even imprisonment for criticizing party leaders. Although the new Soviet government completely refashioned marriage and family law, legalized abortion on demand, and addressed the problem of prostitution—issues firmly rooted in nineteenth-century progressive thought—most of the much-hailed benefits for working women, including transformation of work, child care, the household, and gender roles, were on paper only. The prewar generation of liberal feminists, largely opposed to the Bolsheviks, was effectively silenced and lost the enfranchisement gained under the provisional government. But the fate of feminist movements was sealed as well in the right-wing authoritarian regimes that came to power in Italy in 1922, in Germany and Portugal in 1933, in Greece in 1936, and in Spain in 1938. In Germany, where for a decade the women's movement had been under attack from the Right for being too liberal, too dominated by Jewish women, too international, and too pacifist, the National Socialists declared "women's emancipation from women's emancipation."

Feminist organizations in these countries were outlawed outright or forced to cooperate with the government under a strict set of guidelines. Fascist and military dictatorships were both anticommunist and antifeminist and fiercely supported the reconsolidation of male authority over women. Specifically, they objected to higher education, many forms of paid employment for women, and their political participation, which was confined to the party's mass organizations. While the percentage of female party members was small (4 percent in Portugal, 6 in Germany in 1936, and 8 in Soviet Russia in 1924), with virtually no representation in the higher ranks, every totalitarian party founded special organizations to "meet women's needs" or to "educate" them: the Zhenotdel in the Soviet Union, the Fasci Femminili in Italy, the Nationalsozialistische Frauenschaft in Germany, and the women's Falange in Spain all proclaimed a private role for women but at the same time functioned as important instruments of public mass mobilization.

In the 1920s European feminists had warned against the dangers of totalitarian regimes, which would reduce women to "servants of men" and "childbearing machines." Wherever these regimes came to power, all politically active women were ostracized. In Germany, the lives of Jewish, socialist, and pacifist women were in extreme danger—women could be arrested and sent to concentration camps just like men. Some feminist leaders managed to escape, but life in exile proved depressing and difficult, even if they could rely on international women's networks. Others suffered long years of imprisonment or were murdered in concentration camps. As the Nazis extended their grip over Europe, feminists in democratic countries joined the war effort, not the least because they did not want to share the fate of their German peers. In the words of the British feminist Margery Corbett Ashby, in 1940 "the problem was no longer how to force democracies logically to include women, but how to protect democracy itself" (quoted in Offen, pp. 367–368). Women became involved in the war effort as both perpetrators and victims of its violence. As feminists faced the ruins of half of Europe, campaigns for "peace and bread" often seemed more important than those for equal rights.


In contrast to the development of feminist movements after 1918, organized feminism barely survived World War II; its aging leadership was dispersed, imprisoned, or had been executed, and large parts of its records were lost or destroyed. The first half of the twentieth century had seen dramatic progress for women, first and foremost equal political rights, increased literacy, better access to schooling at all levels and to the professions, changes in marriage and property laws, increasing equity in the developing welfare states, and even early proposals to restructure the domestic division of labor. The legal status of married women, the question of their employment, and the dilemma of combining employment and family responsibilities still figured prominently on the list of problems, however.

International feminist organizations hailed the United Nations Charter, which declared equal rights in 1945, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including equal rights for married women and equal pay, in 1948, and the establishment of a UN Commission on the Status of Women. In postwar Europe, many political parties, and the resurgent communist parties in particular, wooed women voters, but female elected officials remained few and far between in most European countries. On both sides of the Iron Curtain, women's "organizations" increasingly replaced feminist movements. After the catastrophe of World War II, women and men throughout Europe, overwhelmed by problems of survival and rebuilding, longed most for a return to "normalcy," often defined in terms of traditional gender roles.


Whereas European feminist movements had developed rather gradually in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the "new" women's movement made a rather sudden appearance on the political stage in the late 1960s. "Second wave feminism" was characterized by highly provocative campaigns and a close-knit international communications network. Taking their name from a New York organization, the Danish Redstockings paid only 80 percent of the price of a bus ticket, arguing that they earned only 80 percent of a man's salary; in France, feminists placed a wreath commemorating the "unknown wife of the unknown soldier" at the Arc de Triomphe and stormed the offices of the fashion magazine Elle; British feminists supported striking women workers and protested against beauty contests; in Germany, women turned against the traditional gender roles practiced in leftist student protest movements and founded self-help institutions such as cooperative child care centers and women's shelters. Feminists in Rome and Milano "took back the night" in protest marches, a movement that spread throughout Europe. Many campaigns were inspired by the "new" feminist movement in the United States, in particular the founding of encounter and self-help groups and the emergence of a lesbian feminist movement. Inspired by what Betty Friedan had termed the "problem without a name," women in Italy and Great Britain started to demand payment for housework, a campaign that extended into Germany, Canada, and the United States. In 1976 the protests of prostitutes against state regulation and police harassment in France, Germany, Italy, and Great Britain and the protests of black feminists in Germany against racism culminated in the International Tribunal on Crimes against Women in Brussels.

The major issue for almost all Western European feminist movements, however, was the controversy about abortion. In the wake of massive campaigns in which French and German feminists admitted they had had abortions, laws were gradually liberalized. Great Britain had already reformed its laws in 1967, and feminists defended the reforms in 1975, the same year French abortion laws were liberalized. In 1974 Italian feminists were thrust into action by a mass trial in Trent, and in 1977 their campaign resulted in a highly controversial law that allowed termination of pregnancies under certain circumstances. A similar law in West Germany legalized first-trimester abortions on ethical, eugenic, medical, and social grounds in 1974. This law became a major issue during the unification process fifteen years later, since abortion had been legalized without any restrictions in East Germany. The feminist discourse about abortion, however, did not limit itself to legal issues but addressed issues of unwanted pregnancy and, ultimately, sexual power relations. While safe abortions on demand had become the epitome of women's liberation for some feminists, others saw them as a last resort and tried to spread information about contraceptive methods instead.

There were some significant exceptions to the "autonomous" European women's movements that defined abortion rights as their central issue: questions of sexuality and male domination were discussed less openly in Ireland; Scandinavian women generally worked closely with the Social Democratic parties in their countries and took the legislative road to articulate and respond to feminist grievances; women activists in Spain and Portugal were first closely tied to authoritarian regimes and later contributed to building democratic nations.

Many "second wave" feminists not only were at odds with the "New Left" but also distanced themselves from the older feminist movements, which they criticized for demanding "only" legislative reforms and "mere" equality with men instead of fundamental social changes. Initially, even the term feminism was discredited (and replaced by women's liberation). It ultimately prevailed, and feminist debates focused increasingly on the relationship of "difference and equality," a debate that continued into the twenty-first century. The debates of the "new" feminists, debates about hierarchies and women's liberation, employment and housework, families and reproductive rights ultimately revealed that neither businesswomen nor factory workers, neither housewives nor mothers were homogenous groups that could be represented as such, but rather individuals claiming the right to make their own decisions.


The second half of the twentieth century witnessed the developments many early-twentieth-century feminists had envisioned: women's political representation in Europe rose to unprecedented levels, with Scandinavian countries once more leading the way. In 1999 women made up 43 percent of the parliament in Sweden, 37 percent in Denmark, 34 percent in Finland, 31 percent in the Netherlands, and 30 percent in Germany, but only 9 percent in France and 6 percent in Greece. In Russia, the figure was 6 percent in 1992.

Throughout Europe, the gender gap in higher education narrowed. By the mid-1980s, women made up more than 40 percent of all university students in most countries and more than half in Poland, Hungary, Norway, Portugal, and France. Still, they often clustered in certain fields such as education, language, and literature studies and were underrepresented in some of the fields leading to prestigious (and well-paid) jobs, such as engineering and science. The same was true for women's participation in the labor market: labor conditions improved and wages rose, yet the discrepancy in men's and women's wages remained.

In the early years of the twenty-first century, solving the dilemma of combining wage work with family responsibilities was still widely considered a mother's job. Although some European countries created family policies to help deal with this problem, for example, by contributing to old age insurance for parents who stay at home or by introducing generous paid family leave policies, the percentage of fathers availing themselves of these opportunities remained in the low single digits, even in countries such as Sweden, where these policies had been in effect since 1974. Often, this was a rational choice to secure the family income. While Eastern European countries propagated full-time employment for women, mainly for economic reasons, and developed an extensive system of public day care, Western European women generally saw part-time work as the solution. Yet most European women still worked a double shift, taking over the lion's share of childrearing and unpaid housework. Also, family patterns changed significantly. Birthrates dropped throughout Europe, as did rates of marriage, while divorce rates and the number of children born outside marriage climbed. In spite of a multitude of social programs, the average poverty rate of children in the European Union stood at 20 percent in 1993.

Apart from changes in political representation, employment, and family patterns, the second half of the twentieth century saw a host of legal reforms concerning marriage, divorce, and women's economic opportunities. These reforms occurred on three levels, the national, European, and international, where the ILO and the United Nations continued to work for women's rights. After the decade of the woman was declared in 1975, feminist networks became visible at a number of international conferences, from Mexico City to Beijing. Undoubtedly, the need for feminists to speak about and act on women's rights and women's issues inside and outside Europe did not vanish with the twentieth century.

See alsoGender; Suffrage.


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Anja SchÜler


views updated May 14 2018


FEMINISM , both a political movement seeking social equities for women and an ideological movement analyzing a wide range of phenomena in terms of gender politics. Jewish feminism in the modern era has played a significant and transformative role in virtually every area of Jewish religious, social, and intellectual life.

Jewish Feminism and its Impact Prior to the 1960s

Although modern Jewish feminist movements were inspired in large measure by Enlightenment claims regarding human equality and dignity, proto-feminist efforts to raise women's social and religious position can be found in many Jewish communities prior to the 19th century. Tracing shifts in gender ideology and in women's actual status is difficult, however, because of the paucity of sources written by women prior to the 17th-century memoir by *Glueckel of Hameln. References to women in male-authored documents, particularly responsa literature and legal documents, give some evidence of sporadic agitations for change in women's status in Jewish communal life and religious life. For example, numerous sources indicate that in Germany and France between 1000 and 1300, a time of high economic and social status for Jewish women, women demanded increased involvement in religious life, including the voluntary assumption of commandments from which they were exempt in talmudic Judaism (Grossman).

Critical evaluation of the position of women within Judaism also appears as part of Christian traditions of anti-Judaism. In the Niẓẓaḥon Vetus, an anthology of 12th- and 13th-century Jewish-Christian polemic in northern France and Germany, Christians criticized Jews for not including women within the covenant: "We baptize both males and females and in that way we accept our faith, but in your case only men and not women can be circumcised." In the Juden Buchlein (1519), Victor von Karben mocks the refusal of Jews to include women in a prayer quorum. This critique continued in the notorious anti-Jewish text, Johann Eisenmenger's Entdecktes Judentum (1700), and women's inferior status within Judaism became a major theme among German (and some American) Protestant (and some Catholic) theologians in the 19th and early 20th centuries (J. Plaskow, K. von Kellenbach, S. Heschel). The inferior status of women within Judaism was presented in order to denigrate Judaism as "Oriental" and "primitive" and to challenge whether Jews should be accorded emancipation into European society. Jewish women's inferiority was also cited in Christian theological writings to argue that Jesus treated women as equals whereas other rabbis of his day did not, a claim with little historical grounding. Jewish apologetic responses to such charges began in 19th-century Germany with arguments that Judaism honors and elevates women's status in the home and community by exempting them from the religious obligations of study and public prayer incumbent on men. The nature of these charges and counter-charges made it difficult to articulate Jewish feminist criticisms of sexism.

Jewish enlightenment and, later, socialist critics of Jewish communal and religious structures often fought for women's rights, but feminists did not always ally themselves with secularism and against religion as a means to improve women's status. With modern pressures to reshape both gender roles and the status of minority groups, Jewish women had to await emancipation as both Jews and as women to enter secular society. While Jews were permitted entry into German universities in the early 19th century, women were excluded until the 1890s. At the same time, some European feminist organizations did not admit Jews. Rather, early efforts at redressing gender imbalance attempted to enhance women's educational opportunities and position within the Jewish community, creating social service and charitable organizations run by women. The *Juedischer Frauenbund (Jewish Women's Organization) was founded in Germany in 1904 by Bertha *Pappenheim and strove to win voting rights for women within Jewish communal affairs. Within the United States, Rebecca *Gratz founded the 19th-century Sunday school movement that created new roles for women in Jewish education. The tradition of Jewish women's *salons was significant not only as a new, neutral space for Christians and Jews to meet, but as an emerging culture of conversation and reflection on gender and Jewish identity. Indeed, Jewish women intellectuals, from the 18th to the 20th centuries, frequently found greater resonance within Christian society, and were sometimes only reluctantly admitted to Jewish intellectual circles; Martin *Buber, for example, initially did not want to admit women to the Juedisches Lehrhaus, the adult Jewish educational center he founded in Frankfurt am Main in 1920 (Friedman).

Changes in women's status within the synagogue came slowly. In mid-19th century Germany, teenage girls were given ceremonies of *confirmation along with boys in Reform congregations, similar to ceremonies prevalent in churches, but women still sat separately from men in the synagogue. Mixed seating in the synagogue was first introduced in the United States in 1851 in Albany, New York, and in 1854 at Temple Emanu-El in New York City. It became common in the United States after 1869 when many new post-Civil War synagogues opened but did not spread to European Reform synagogues until much later and then only tentatively (Goldman).

Conversely, modernity also saw the distinct spheres of women's traditional expressions of Judaism minimized or eliminated by non-Orthodox Jews, such as *mikveh observance (immersion in the ritual bath following menstruation and childbirth), which declined radically in the modern era, though revived in the late 20th century. Since the mikveh served as a gathering place for women to socialize and also to exert authority in the absence of men, its decline undermined women's opportunities to assemble away from male presence. Further, the falloff in adherence to Jewish law weakened women's status as sources of domestic and gendered legal expertise, particularly concerning laws of kashrut. Traditionally entrusted with responsibility for the laws of *niddah and kashrut, women had been viewed with the moral trust, intellectual ability, and religious commitment necessary for their strict adherence to those often complex laws. Still, male authorities, whether fathers, husbands, or rabbis, always retained ultimate control over adherence to laws within women's domain.

The modern era opened new public and communal religious and educational opportunities for women. Pressure from the changes in secular society that encouraged women and men to take advantage of equalizing educational and vocational opportunities affected the Jewish world, too. Educational reforms in the Orthodox and ḥasidic communities of Eastern Europe in the early 20th century, led by Sarah *Schnirer, established a network of schools for religious girls, *Beth Jacob, and the liberal rabbinical seminaries established in Europe and the United States in the late 19th century permitted some women to attend courses, although not to receive rabbinic ordination.

The United States had a small and relatively uneducated Jewish community prior to the 1880s. Women received only minimal Jewish education and were not voting members of the community. The demography quickly shifted at the turn of the century, as over two million Jews from Eastern Europe arrived as immigrants between 1881 and 1924. They included women who had been exposed to political organizing and analysis, and who soon became major forces in the nascent labor, socialist, anarchist, and communist movements in New York and other cities in the early years of the 20th century. Rose *Schneiderman, for example, was a leader of the *Women's Trade Union League, the campaign for women's suffrage, and the *International Ladies Garment Workers Union. However, once those movements were institutionalized – as labor unions and political parties – women were removed from leadership positions. Separate women's organizations also played an important role within Jewish communal life in the United States; the *National Council of Jewish Women, founded by Hannah Greenebaum *Solomon at the 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, initially provided educational and vocational training for immigrants through a series of *"settlement houses" established in impoverished urban areas.

The Impact of Feminism Since the 1960s

Jewish women, including Betty *Friedan, Gloria *Steinem, and Letty Cottin *Pogrebin, have been in the forefront of the Second Wave feminist movement in the United States that began in the late 1960s. The re-emergence of a Jewish feminist movement, as part of the Second Feminist wave, led to major changes in women's status in Judaism and to a flourishing of Jewish feminist scholarship and theology. The most dramatic change in Judaism for many centuries came with the equality of women in synagogue worship, a movement led by American Jewish feminists and which has gradually extended to Jewish communities elsewhere in the world. The public honoring of young women in the synagogue, the Bat Mitzvah, became widespread by the late 1960s, followed by decisions by Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative denominations of Judaism to include women in the prayer quorum, call women to the Torah, and allow women to lead synagogue worship services. Perhaps the most striking transformation from previous Jewish practice has been the ordination of women as rabbis (see *Semikhah).

The first ordination of a woman as a Reform rabbi took place in Germany in 1935; she was Regina *Jonas, murdered at Auschwitz in 1944. Ordination of women as rabbis and cantors was initiated in the United States in the 1970s by Reform Judaism (1972) and was subsequently adopted by the Reconstructionist (1974) and Conservative (1984 for rabbis, 1986 for cantors) movements. Several hundred women rabbis and cantors have been ordained thus far in the United States, and in Britain. Commissions within the Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative movements have revised the prayer book *liturgy to use inclusive or gender-neutral language and include references to the biblical matriarchs as well as patriarchs. Feminist biblical commentaries, written from a range of religious perspectives, have also been published (Frankel; Goldstein; Kates and Reimer). Numerous collections of feminist rituals and blessings to mark occasions in women's lives have been developed, including feminist Passover liturgies, prayers for the birth and weaning of a baby, and ceremonies for naming baby girls (see *Birth), egalitarian wedding services for hetero- and homosexual couples (see *Marriage), and celebration of *Rosh Ḥodesh, the New Moon, as a women's holiday.

Within Orthodoxy at the beginning of the 21st century, women now have opportunities for studying rabbinic texts, heretofore limited to men. With training in particular areas of Jewish law, women serve as legal advisors to Orthodox women regarding issues connected with divorce and niddah observance. Orthodox women have established women-only prayer groups and institutions for studying rabbinic texts, and a few Orthodox synagogues have started to permit women to read from the Torah under certain circumstances and conditions, deliver a sermon, and even lead the service. Several clauses have been proposed for inclusion in the *ketubbah (religious marriage contract) that would provide recourse for a woman whose husband refuses to grant her a Jewish divorce, though none has yet attained universal approval by Orthodox rabbis. The problem of the *agunah remains a central issue for Orthodox feminists, particularly in Israel, where the Orthodox rabbinate has exclusive control over Jewish marriage and divorce. Organizations of Orthodox women attempting to address the problem of the agunah include the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, and Getting Equitable Treatment.

By contrast, the Reform movement has entirely eliminated the *get, the divorce decree given by a man to his wife, while the Conservative movement has developed a clause that can be inserted into a ketubbah that allows a bet din (court of Jewish law) to issue a get to a woman if her husband refuses to do so. Since 1980, the Reconstructionist movement has used an egalitarian get that can be issued by either spouse.

Feminism, Zionism, and the State of Israel

During its early years, the political Zionist movement, centered in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, harbored considerable ambivalence toward women. Although *Zionism presented itself as an emancipatory movement for Jews, positions of political leadership were firmly maintained in men's hands. The Zionist negation of the Diaspora was linked to a negation of piety, and overcoming the Diaspora meant "becoming a man" (le-hitgaber). During the early waves of immigration to Palestine prior to statehood, women worked alongside men in the cultivation of farmland; they have also served with men in Jewish self-defense forces prior to and after the foundation of the state. Yet with the establishment of the State of Israel, women were not granted proportional roles of power within the government, even though Israel's Declaration of Independence proclaimed full equality (Herzog; Hazelton). Instead, a myth of gender equality within the State was promoted to disguise the reality of women's subservience. Thus, while women held traditionally male positions within the kibbutz system, few men took on traditionally female positions, such as childcare, and while women are drafted into the Israeli army, they are generally assigned subordinate tasks and are not given combat duty. Most problematic, since the Orthodox rabbinate holds full legal control over marriage and divorce, women's freedom to initiate and control marital relationships is impeded and women rabbis are disempowered. Women are also prohibited from public communal prayer at Jewish holy sites, such as the Western Wall in Jerusalem, despite years of court challenges by feminist groups.

Although a woman, Golda *Meir served as Israel's prime minister from 1969 to 1974; few women have held senior positions within the Israeli cabinet or parliament. Given the central role of army service in establishing careers within the political and financial arenas, the unequal position of women in the Israeli military has had long-term career consequences. Racial discrimination within Israel against Jews from non-European backgrounds and the Israeli emphasis on large families has also affected women's ability to acquire an education, escape poverty, and achieve career success. Nevertheless, women are increasingly educated and constitute a high percentage of the Israeli workforce. The Israel Women's Network, founded by Alice Shalvi in 1984, is an advocacy group for women's rights that concentrates on legislative and political efforts to overcome discrimination against women in the workplace, military, religious courts, and in the healthcare and educational arenas. With particular attention to violence and sexual harassment, the iwn helped secure passage in 1998 of legislation criminalizing sexual harassment and holding both the harasser and employer responsible for civil damages.

Throughout the modern era women managed to retain some influence in Zionist social service organizations within the Jewish communities of North America and Europe, collecting and distributing funds and goods, and running schools and vocational training programs. Those activities, a central feature of maintaining Jewish communal cohesion, became the basis for modern women's organizations, such as *Hadassah, the National Council of Jewish Women, *wizo, *Na'amat, and Women's *ort (Organization for Rehabilitation and Training), which became wealthy and powerful institutions during the course of the 20th century.

In the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war that left Israel with control of the West Bank and Gaza, several feminist organizations emerged that called for return of the occupied territories to Palestinian control, and condemned the violence and impoverishment in those territories. Women in Black, founded in 1988 to hold weekly silent vigils of Israeli and Palestinian women calling for an end to the occupation, soon became an international peace network and has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. New Profile is a feminist organization that seeks to change Israel from a militarized to a peace-seeking culture, and works especially on educating children for peace (see essays in Fuchs, Israeli Women's Studies).

Feminist Scholarship

Historical study of Jews, which began in the 19th century, was initially seen as a manly endeavor and women's lives and contributions were virtually ignored in chronicles of the Jewish experience. The growth of the field of women's studies, particularly in the United States, helped establish a counterpart within Jewish Studies. Feminist analysis has criticized masculinist biases in describing the Jewish past, but has also used historicism to justify feminist innovations (see *Historians, Women). Feminist analyses of rabbinic literature have uncovered legal precedents for changing halakhic prescriptions regarding women (Hauptman) and interpretive patterns of leniency in establishing Jewish law (Biale), as well as patterns of gendered rhetoric in rabbinic literature that create the masculinity of men and of God (Boyarin; Baskin; Eilberg-Schwartz).

Feminist attention to gender has also exposed the male biases in describing Jewish experience (Koltun; Heschel; Rutenberg). Modernity has been elevated as rational, progressive, and male by describing pre-modern Judaism via tropes of nostalgia using female metaphors. Modern Judaism was described as both positively masculine, in seeking political and religious emancipation, and negatively feminine, as in Haskalah literature in which leaving the Jewish fold and associating with Christians was described as a kind of prostitution (Feiner). In early 20th century debates over which language was more appropriate for Jews, Yiddish or Hebrew, the former was viewed as an effeminate, women's language, while Hebrew was valorized as male. Few women writing modern Hebrew or Yiddish literature were accorded the same recognition for their work as their male colleagues by a literary establishment dominated by men, and few writings by women have been included in the "canon" (Seidman; Fuchs).

In the early years of women's studies, the task seemed to be fairly straightforward. Textual expressions of misogyny and male-centeredness were demonstrated, and even if the thinker had been dead for centuries, his influence was generally said to continue to this day, as part of a long chain of patriarchal tradition. More recently, however, feminist scholars have developed more complex analyses, demonstrating ambivalences toward women within the same thinker and text, and also turning to metaphorical uses of masculine and feminine imagery in matters not explicitly related to men and women. Male privilege is not always a straightforward matter. For instance, classical and modern Jewish texts evoke an identification between men and the male God, yet undermine that identification by depicting all Jews, including men, as female in relationship to God.

Feminists differ in how to interpret women's experience and power in patriarchal structures. Some find ways in which women turned their exclusion from aspects of Judaism into a positive experience. C. Weissler has discovered numerous prayers traditionally recited by early modern women as they undertook various domestic duties, such as baking ḥallah and kindling Sabbath lights (Voices of the Matriarchs (1998); see *Tkhines; *Liturgy). S. Sered has found that women respond to the male-oriented religious system by becoming ritual experts within the female sphere, sacralizing and holding authority over the domestic sphere and the laws of niddah and mikveh. Excluded from the realm of men, she argues, women redefine their realm as normative and meaningful. J. Bahloul's study of Algerian Jewish women delineated a strong social network of women. Still other feminists argue that finding women's empowerment in female spheres mandated by men undermines arguments for gender equality and may romanticize women's experience unjustifiably.

Perhaps the most controversial field of feminist scholarship is study of gender and the Holocaust (Ofer and Weitzman, eds.). Women were more likely than men to be chosen by the Judenraete for deportation from ghettos to death camps, and women were more likely than men to be selected for immediate gassing upon arrival at the death camps. J. Ringelheim suggests that women and children made up 60 to 70 percent of those gassed in the initial selections. Based on deportation and death figures as well as the numbers of Jews in dp camps at the end of the war, Ringelheim concludes that more Jewish women were deported and killed than Jewish men, a disparity due to Nazi policies of killing pregnant women and those who arrived at camps with children, as well as the far larger percentage of elderly women than men among Jewish deportees.

Feminist Analyses of Judaism

During the 1970s feminist critics began to expose the absence of women's voices within the male-dominated structures promoted by Judaism's exclusively male-authored texts. Feminists also strove to reconstruct the lost voices of women, trying to recover evidence of women's history and self-understanding that would allow a more diversified picture of the multiple Judaisms that have flourished throughout the Jewish past. While Judaism traditionally defines itself as a divinely revealed religion, its beliefs and practices have been interpreted and regulated almost exclusively by male authorities until the modern period. Feminist analysis has pointed out that men have created the legal systems articulated in the Mishnah, Talmud, and codes of Jewish law, and acted as supreme arbiters of its interpretation by reserving the rabbinate for men. Courts of Jewish law were historically run by male rabbis, and women were excluded as witnesses in most court cases. In rabbinic law, men may contract a marriage or divorce a wife, but women can neither acquire a husband nor divorce him. Women enter into rabbinic discourse as objects of discussion, when their ritual purity, sexual control, or marital status impinges upon men's lives.

Many Jewish feminists have suggested that the insistence on overwhelmingly male imagery for God was a deliberate effort to strengthen the male-dominated institutional arrangements of Jewish life and undergird male authority over women in the religious and societal realms. As a result, feminist analysis views Jewish texts with suspicion for their collusion with societal patriarchy in silencing women's voices, or, even worse, as creating patriarchal oppression and endowing it with the aura of divine sanction. At the same time, some feminists have culled biblical and rabbinic texts to find counter-patriarchal traditions that support principles of justice and equality, or voices of trickster women seeking to correct halakhic inequities (Pardes; Adler). Even as D. Setel argued that the prophet Hosea's metaphor of Israel as God's adulterous wife was pornographic, R. Adler noted that God's reunion with the adulterous Israel, which violates Deuteronomic law (20:4) mandating a husband's divorce of an adulterous wife, might be understood as a "constructive violation" of Jewish law – "the metaphor that preserves the covenant breaks the law" (Adler, 163–64).

By the 1980s, Jewish feminist theology (see *Theology, Feminist) began redefining classical, male-authored Jewish understandings of God, as well as associated concepts, such as revelation, the problem of evil, and the nature of prayer. Basing their critique of Judaism on the premise that all experience is gender-based, theologians like J. Plaskow and R. Adler demanded a reconsideration of theological and ethical categories assumed to be universal, but which, they argued, reify men's experience and have little relevance to women. Jewish feminist theology flourished in particular in the United States, supported by the growth of the academic field of women's studies at American universities and by the theoretical insights of Christian feminist theology.

Under the influence of postmodernism, feminist thought has attempted to denaturalize assumptions regarding women, emphasizing the social rather than biological creation of "woman" and the attendant assumptions regarding heteronormativity. An ideology of compulsory heterosexuality, not innate inclination, feminists argue, has pressured women into marriage with men and defined homosexuality as sinful. Feminist analysis has noted that in contrast to male homosexuality, lesbianism was never clearly defined in biblical literature, and never condemned with the severity of male homosexuality in rabbinic literature. Similarly, the condemnation of male masturbation in rabbinic texts finds no female counterpart, and the genital self-examination by women that is mandated in rabbinic laws regulating the laws of niddah replicates masturbatory acts. Freedom of sexual expression for women and men is considered central to women's rights but also essential to reclaiming women's control over their bodies after centuries in which fathers, husbands, and male rabbis regulated women's lives (Schneer and Aviv; Magonet).

*Lesbian Jewish identity as both homosocial and homosexual has been marginalized in the recent efflorescence of queer Jewish studies and its attention to the (male) body as a site of Jewish cultural, sexual, and religious identity. Lesbian thinkers have emphasized the body as a source of the spiritual, celebrating manifestations of women's sexuality and arguing the centrality of eroticism to religiosity (Plaskow, Standing Again at Sinai). Although numerous gay and lesbian synagogues, as well as a World Congregation of Gay and Lesbian Jewish Organizations have been founded in recent decades, only the Reform and Reconstructionist rabbinical seminaries ordain openly gay and lesbian rabbis (R. Alpart, S.L. Elwell, and S. Idelson, eds. Lesbian Rabbis: The First Generation (2001)).

Adler has argued that the traditional male-only environments of rabbinic study not only fostered homoeroticism, but was dominated by a "methodolatry" that revolved around male concerns, omitting those of women. Responding to a husband's post-World War ii query, asking a rabbi if he is halakhically obligated to divorce his wife because her incarceration in a concentration camp may have included forced intercourse, Adler notes that only the man's requirements form the question and not those of his wife. In responding to the absence of women from the formative practices and exegeses of rabbinic Judaism, Plaskow insists that women as well as men stood at Sinai and received God's revelation, and that their experiences and interpretations should be included as equally normative as the rabbinic law developed by men in response to the revelation.

Other feminist analyses of halakhah proceed differently. Both R. Biale and Hauptman have pointed to halakhic interpretations that have been favorable to women, and to sociological processes of analyzing halakhah that result in lenient conclusions. These scholars explain certain traditional practices, such as excluding women from being called to the Torah for an aliyah, as reflections of particular social settings, not as eternal legal dicta.

Changes in Feminist Theory

Postmodernism, which has had a strong influence on feminist theory, has changed the modes of understanding power and analyzing language. Instead of viewing power solely as hierarchical domination, feminist theory, influenced by M. Foucault, has come to understand power as capillary, a disciplinary regime maintaining its force not only through conventional sources of domination, but also through the unconventional, including language itself. Complementing Foucault's understanding of the exercise of power are studies by Gramsci and Althusser of the consent of the disempowered to regimens that maintain their subjugation. Changing the understanding of power opens new ways to interpret women's position within Judaism. T. El-Or's study of ḥaredi (ultra-Orthodox) women demonstrates that their education is designed to keep them in a state of ignorance and subordination to men. By contrast, Sered's studies argue that women's piety and rituals create a sense of personal self-worth and permit female religious leadership within women-only domains, such as the mikveh and ezrat nashim. L. Levitt has challenged classical liberalism as a tool of feminist empowerment, and M. Peskowitz has called for greater attention to the ideological function of rabbinic texts in creating power structures and the adherence to them. Surprisingly little attention has been given by Jewish feminism to theorizing race and class, in contrast to other feminisms. E. Shohat has written on Arab-Jewish identity and the biases toward Europe in Jewish self-understanding, and K. Brodkin has described How Jews Became White Folks (1999) in the United States. Feminist efforts to address antisemitism as part of a larger critique of racism are notable within a multicultural atmosphere that has tended to ignore Jewish experience (Biale, Galchinsky, and Heschel, eds.; M. Brettschneider, ed.; Bulkin, Pratt, and Smith, eds.).

Contemporary attention to the ways Jewish women's experiences have differed from those of men has led to both internal and external critiques of Judaism. While countless Jewish theologians in previous generations proclaimed the moral superiority of Jewish law, most disregarded the ethical significance of the inferior status of women in Jewish law. Written in apologetic terms for a wider Christian readership, traditional Jewish theology tended to defend the traditional, subordinate role of women as an expression of respect for a femininity that is considered intrinsic and not culturally produced. Jewish feminism has struggled with the fine line between its critique of Judaism's sexism and antisemitic attacks on Judaism.


A. Grossman, Pious and Rebellious: Jewish Women in Medieval Europe (2004); J. Plaskow, "Feminist Anti-Judaism and the Christian God," in: Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, 7:2 (1991), 99–108; K. von Kellenbach. Anti-Judaism in Feminist Religious Writings (1994); S. Heschel, "Configurations of Patriarchy, Judaism and Nazism in German Feminist Thought," in: T. Rudavsky (ed.), Gender and Judaism (1995); idem, "Jüdische-feministische Theologie und Antijudaismus in christlich-feministischer Theologie," in L. Siegele-Wenschkewitz (ed.), Feministische Theologie und die Verantwortung für die Geschitchte (1988); M. Friedman, Martin Buber's Life and Work: The Early Years 18781923 (1981); K. Goldman, Beyond the Synagogue Gallery: Finding a Place for Women in American Judaism (2000); E. Frankel, The Five Books of Miriam (1998); E. Goldstein, The Women's Torah Commentary (2000); J.A. Kates and G.T. Reimer, Reading Ruth (1994); L. Hazelton, Israeli Women (1977); H. Herzog, Gendering Politics: Women in Israel (1999); E. Fuchs, Israeli Women's Studies: A Reader (2005); J. Hauptman, Rereading the Rabbis (1998); R. Biale, Women and Jewish Law (1984); D. Boyarin, Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture (1993); J.R. Baskin, Midrashic Women: Formations of the Feminine in Rabbinic Literature (2002); H. Eilberg-Schwartz. God's Phallus and Other Problems for Men and Monotheism (1994); E. Koltun, The Jewish Woman: New Perspectives (1976); S. Heschel (ed.), On Being a Jewish Feminist (1983; rep. 1995); D. Rutenberg (ed.), Yentl's Revenge: The Next Generation of Jewish Feminism (2003); S. Feiner, The Jewish Enlightenment (2003); N. Seidman, A Marriage Made in Heaven: The Sexual Politics of Hebrew and Yiddish (1997); E. Fuchs, Israeli Mythogenies (1987); S.S. Sered, Women as Ritual Experts (1992); J. Bahloul, The Architecture of Memory (1996); D. Ofer and L. Weitzman (eds.), Women in the Holocaust (1999); J. Ringelheim, in: T. Wobbe (ed.), Nach Osten nationalsozialistisher Verbrechen (1992); I. Pardes, Countertraditions in the Bible: A Feminist Approach (1992); R. Adler, Engendering Judaism: An Inclusive Theology and Ethics (1997); J. Plaskow, Standing Again at Sinai (1990); D. Schneer and C. Aviv, Queer Jews (2002); J. Magonet (ed.), Jewish Explorations of Sexuality (1995); T. El-Or, Educated and Ignorant: Ultraorthodox Jewish Women and their World (1994); L. Levitt, Jews and Feminism: The Ambivalent Search for Home (1997); M. Peskowitz, Spinning Fantasies: Rabbis, Gender and History (1997); D. Biale, M. Galchinsky, and S. Heschel (eds.), Insider, Outsider: American Jews and Multiculturalism (1998); M. Brettschneider (ed.), The Narrow Bridge: Jewish Views on Multiculturalism (1996); E. Bulkin, M.B. Pratt, and B. Smith (eds.), Yours in Struggle: Three Feminist Perspectives on Anti-Semitism and Racism (1984).

[Susannah Heschel (2nd ed.)]


views updated May 29 2018



The emergence of the women's liberation movements in the late 1960s and early 1970s had a profound impact on scholarship as well as on society. Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1963) set the stage for liberation movements by detailing middle-class women's isolation, even oppression, within the suburban household. Women's roles in the antinuclear movements, such as the Aldermaston marches in the United Kingdom or SANE (Students Against Nuclear Energy) in the United States, further served as catalysts in the mid-1960s within diverse social sectors. For example, women within the male-dominated Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) began to resist their relegation to food preparation and child care, and to argue for women's rights to be included in the SDS agenda. In NUC (the New University Community), a faculty wing of SDS, pressure increased in regard to addressing women's issues, such as discriminatory employment practices, unfair divorce laws, and attention to medical and biological issues specific to women. Independent Marxist-feminist groups emerged along with so-called radical feminists, often linked to lesbian-centered groups. Protests and demonstrations on behalf of women's rights regarding sexual choice, day care, and equality in the workplace pushed women's liberation into the public spotlight. Gradually public awareness and involvement in debates about feminist issues increased. Meanwhile, female perspectives, long neglected in mainstream academic research, began to gain the attention of historians and literary and film scholars. Indeed, these two faces of feminism can hardly be separated: Academic women were often actively involved in working for social change on a range of women's issues, while activist women often enjoyed the support of universities in furthering their ends.

Women film scholars were among the first to reject the traditional male-centered perspectives in academia and, with Copernican force, to reverse the position from which texts were approached to engage a female-centered one. With Sexual Politics (1970), a forceful critique of misogyny in the male modern novel and of Freud's male-centered psychoanalytic theories, Kate Millett burst on the literary scene and was soon followed by other (less vitriolic) feminist literary critics. Women film scholars, too, eagerly took up the baton. Meanwhile, male film theory (especially in England) introduced structuralist approaches in the wake of research by scholars such as Louis Althusser, Roland Barthes, and Jacques Lacan. In this context, some feminist film theory also turned to neo-Marxism, structuralism, and psychoanalysis in ways not so common at the time in feminist literary analyses. Feminist critics began to look at the ways in which women were represented on film as well as to expose the utter neglect of female directors in male scholarship; in the wake of these initiatives, film scholarship was never again the same. Three main strands (in practice, often mixed) emerged early on in feminist film theory: "archival" and historical approaches, sociological role-focused approaches, and what has been called cine-psychoanalysis. A certain coherence within the limited frame of 1970s and 1980s feminist film research can be demonstrated, built around the concept of the gendered gaze of the camera; but in the 1990s, as a result of changing political, social, and intellectual contexts, including the waning of feminism as a widespread activist movement, several alternate perspectives developed. There was the flood of research by minority and women of the Third World (itself a problematic and much-debated term). Masculine studies, inspired by feminist theory, emerged, as well as queer studies, which severely challenged some of the concepts basic to feminist film theories. Finally, the introduction of new interdisciplinary fields like visual studies and digital media, related to film studies, had the effect of broadening the somewhat narrow gaze-related theories to consider historical, technological, and institutional contexts given short shift in cine-psychoanalysis. Second-wave feminist theorists have further revised gaze theories.


In tandem with ongoing scholarship in history and literature, women film scholars have long endeavored to identify forgotten filmmakers—forgotten because most male film critics and scholars writing before the 1960s were not interested in women directors. Because their films were in distribution, Dorothy Arzner (1897–1979) and Ida Lupino (1914–1995) were the first women directors in the sound era to be studied. Foreign directors, like Mai Zetterling (1925–1994), also gained attention at this time. Later, feminists took a great deal of interest in women directors and producers from the silent era, like Lois Weber (1881–1939) and Mary Pickford (1892–1979). Since the 1990s, the Women Film Pioneers Project has been engaged in intensive international study of early women in cinema in their many roles.

Sociological analysis of women in film soon followed. Three books on women and film emerged at nearly the same time in the early 1970s, mainly using a sociological and role-focused analysis: Molly Haskell's From Reverence to Rape (1973), Marjorie Rosen's Popcorn Venus (1972), and Joan Mellen's Women and Their Sexuality in the New Film (1974). Although perhaps insufficiently appreciated by academic feminists in its historical moment, Haskell's book has had the longest-lasting impact. Feminist film theorists of the time, frustrated by sociological and role analyses, were seeking to move beyond Haskell's approach. Drawing on a vast knowledge of Hollywood as an institution and of movies themselves, Haskell took a penetrating look at the shabby treatment of women on- and offscreen. She had a strong feminist understanding of how threatened American men felt by women, as well as an intense appreciation of actresses and their performances. Haskell points out the irony that both the Production Code and the Depression "brought women out of the bedroom and into the office" (p. 30). She argues that actresses of the 1930s and 1940s (such as Rosalind Russell, Katharine Hepburn, and Joan Crawford) offered images of intelligence, forcefulness, and personal power, far surpassing roles of actresses in later films. Male directors who "integrate women into the flow of life" enjoyed the spunky, smart woman capable of challenging the hero. Haskell defines herself as a film critic first and a feminist second, hoping to address "the wholeness and complexity of film history" (p. 38).

A new generation of women film scholars turned to the melded disciplines of metaphysics, semiotics, and psychoanalysis, a shift prompted by what they saw as the limits of studies focusing on individual actresses and women's roles in cinema. To compare images of women in film with women's lived reality seemed simply to critique the current gendered organization of society or to expand it by, for instance, insisting on more male involvement in domestic matters. The new scholars hoped instead to discover the root cause of women's secondary status in Hollywood and society in the first place. Laura Mulvey's groundbreaking essay, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" (1975), partly inspired by reaction to American sociological film analyses, seemed to fulfill the need for a new kind of analysis, and her ideas rapidly took hold. Mulvey's polemical contribution was to isolate three related "looks" in Hollywood cinema, and to argue that these were all male: the look of the camera (mainly operated by men) in the pro-filmic studio site; the look of the spectator, which of necessity followed the camera's masculine gaze; and the dominating look of male characters within the filmic narrative, depriving women of agency and subjectivity. Theorizing the cinematic gaze from a psychoanalytic perspective, Mulvey argued that in film viewing the screen paralleled Jacques Lacan's mirror phase in which the child misrecognized his perfect self. Cinema was set up so that men could identify with the idealized male hero within the symbolic order as presented by the narrative, while women were left to identify with figures relegated to inferior status and silenced. Mulvey was one of the first to appropriate psychoanalysis as a political weapon to demonstrate how the patriarchal unconscious has structured film form. The essay's significance derived in part from her vivid language: "Woman's desire is subjugated to her image as bearer of the bleeding wound: she can exist only in relation to castration and cannot transcend it." Man, she argued, can live out his fantasies by "imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer, not maker, of meaning" (Visual and Other Pleasures, p. 14).

In the wake of Mulvey's deliberately polemical essays, certain tropes and conventions began to develop in relation to a "male" gaze and the three "looks" that Mulvey outlined. In addition, British and American television studies had an impact on psychoanalytic feminist film theory, for the medium of TV necessitated different theories of the spectator–screen relationship. These theories were seen to have some application to film, expanding the rather restricted notion that there was just one "male" gaze.

Mulvey's essay was often misread as a depressing description of woman's fate rather than as a call to action. Mulvey in fact believed that psychoanalytic theory could advance our understanding of the position of women and thereby enable women to move forward. Her effort to challenge the pleasures of Hollywood cinema arose from Hollywood's reliance on voyeurism—the male gaze at the woman deprived of agency. Her polemical call "to free the look of the camera into its materiality in time and space and the look of the audience into dialectics and passionate detachment" (p. 26) clearly related to her own practice (together with Peter Wollen) as an avant-garde filmmaker.

b. San Francisco, California, 3 January 1897, d. 1 October 1979

Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino were the only female directors in the classical Hollywood era (roughly 1930 to 1960). Both received scant attention until scholars began to study film from a feminist perspective. After serving her apprenticeship in Hollywood, first as typist and then as screenwriter and successful film editor, Arzner directed films for Paramount from 1927 to 1933, when she left to make films independently. She retired from filmmaking in 1943 for reasons that remain unclear but perhaps have to do with her health or the exhaustion of working in a male-dominated establishment. Despite Arzner's short Hollywood career, she made several important films, including Christopher Strong (1933), Craig's Wife (1936), and Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), that now belong to a canon of what have been called "resisting" Hollywood melodramas.

Although many of her films appear to conform to Hollywood's patriarchal ideology—something Arzner no doubt was careful to do to keep her job—there is often a critical undertow to her narratives. In Christopher Strong Katharine Hepburn plays an independent, pioneering female pilot, Lady Cynthia Darrington (loosely modeled on Amelia Earhart). In love with a married man by whom she has become pregnant, she apparently commits suicide when attempting to break an aviation record. Arzner clearly intends the viewer to identify with the courageous female aviation pioneer, and to see in her suicide her sense of responsibility both toward Strong's wife and her unborn child. Craig's Wife offers a contrasting type of heroine and demands other kinds of identification from the viewer. Harriet Craig (Rosalind Russell) dominates her daughter, intervenes in her love life, and tries to prevent her from marrying the man she adores. Although it is hard to identify with Harriet, Arzner manages to show how the entire upper-middle-class family system produces women like her.

Dance, Girl, Dance offers an interesting insight into the often degrading lives of female performers. The film's perhaps dated binary opposition between "high" and "low" female performance art—presented as an opposition between a ballerina (Maureen O'Hara) and a sexy dancer (Lucille Ball)—nevertheless allows her to critique the male gaze and to reveal the crudity of male voyeurism. Women, the film suggests, are split apart because of what men want from them. Thus, in her films Arzner is able to render "strange" the patriarchal ideology pervasive in classical Hollywood cinema.


Christopher Strong (1933), Craig's Wife (1936), Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)


Johnston, Claire, ed. The Work of Dorothy Arzner: Toward a Feminist Cinema. London: British Film Institute, 1975.

Kaplan, E. Ann. Motherhood and Representation: The Mother in Popular Culture and Melodrama. London and New York: Routledge, 1992, 2000.

Mayne, Judith. Directed by Dorothy Arzner. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Suter, Jacqueline. "Feminine Discourse in Christopher Strong." Camera Obscura 1, no. 2 (1979): 135–150.

E. Ann Kaplan

Mulvey's article prompted a good deal of research, as well as intelligent critiques of her theories. Early on, E. Ann Kaplan's Women and Film (1983) tried to straddle some of the debates about feminist film theory ongoing in the 1970s. Asking why some women were so strongly drawn to psychoanalysis and poststructuralism, she

argued that pointing to social oppression per se could not account for women's second-class status. Attention to language and the unconscious seemed to offer some hope of understanding what increasingly seemed a mystery that biology—namely, that women gave birth and were needed to care for children and that this very function limited what they could achieve—could not explain. Too many exceptions showed that women could overcome or deal with their biological roles; there had to be something deeper, something much harder to change than social policies or cultural norms.

Like other work in the field at the time, Kaplan's conception of the feminine, given its generally heterosexual and Eurocentric focus and orientation, was apparently a monolithic "woman" who was really a white, Western woman, neglecting the specificity of minority and other marginalized women. A bit later, David Rodowick pointed out that Mulvey did not attend to Freud's complex remarks about the contradictoriness of desire that calls into question strict gender binaries such as male/female and activity/passivity. Mary Ann Doane extended Mulvey's research, pursuing avenues that Mulvey only touched on. For example, Doane introduced the concept of the female body in its relation to the psyche, as against the prior focus on image and psyche. She contrasted representation of the female body in Hollywood and in avant-garde cinema, influencing later research. Doane also contrasted male and female distance from the image, arguing that for the male the distance between film and spectator must be maintained, whereas the female overidentifies with the image, obliterating the space between viewer and screen, thereby producing a degree of narcissism. Turning to Joan Riviere's concept of the female masquerade, Doane explores what it might mean to "masquerade" as a spectator. She concludes that there are three possible positions for the female spectator: the masochism of overidentification with the image, the narcissism involved in becoming one's own object of desire, and the possibility of cross-gender identification, as women choose to identify with the male hero. Doane objects to theories of repression because they lack feminine power, instead taking the position that women need to develop a theory of spectatorship apart from those that male culture has constructed for them.

Gaylyn Studlar has suggested that a focus on pre-Oedipality makes more sense than the conventional attention to Oedipal scenarios for explaining how films construct gendered spectators. Substituting Gilles Deleuze's study of Sacher-Masoch's novels for Mulvey's Freudian/Lacanian framework, she argues that masochism can also ground narrative. Studlar replaces Oedipal sadism with pre-Oedipal pleasure, viewing masochism as a "subversive" desire that affirms the compelling power of the pre-Oedipal mother.


As these debates show, there was never any uniformity within cine-psychoanalysis about the gaze, or about what kind of psychoanalysis was most appropriate to cinematic modes. But with its binarisms, psychoanalytic film theories fitted the Cold War era in that they looked back to nineteenth-century Europe and reflected a world fixed on a framework in which communism versus capitalism was a subtext. Freud's theories enabled an understanding of the neuroses produced in the nineteenth-century bourgeois family—itself the anchoring institution for the Industrial Revolution. In this light, using psychoanalysis in a critique of capitalist ideology made sense. In the years since 1983, US culture and society have changed dramatically, as have international relations. It took the collapse of the Soviet Union to open space for rethinking imperialism and it took the increased flows of peoples across borders and into the academy to encourage new perspectives, such as postmodernism and its related postcolonialism.

As cine-psychoanalytic theories began to seem rather formulaic—despite the efforts of Doane and other scholars to underscore the complexities and penetrating questions that such theory involved, and despite Mulvey's own continuing "corrections" to her polemical 1975 essay—more resistance to gaze theories arose. In the 1980s B. Ruby Rich, Gayle Arbuthnot, Sue-Ellen Case, and other gay women offered strong critiques emerging from their alternate perspectives (even if these were not so explicitly marked as "lesbian" as in later work). It was primarily the dominance of French structuralism—Lacanian theories, Saussurian semiotics, and Althusserian Marxism—in gaze theories that troubled critics, along with the obvious heterosexual foundation on which the theories were based. It was this foundation that Teresa De Lauretis so profoundly interrogated. Working with Freud's and Luce Irigaray's theories among others, De Lauretis notes the intimate relationship of sexual and social indifference in Western culture for centuries—a link that served to bolster colonial conquest and racist violence—before turning to examine lesbian representation through diverse attempts of lesbian writers and artists to deploy their struggles in ways that engage the body as linked to language and meaning. Meanwhile, the so-called Stella Dallas debate, referring to the 1937 film in which Barbara Stanwyck portrays a woman who gives up her beloved daughter in hopes of giving her a better life among more "respectable" people, dramatized differences emerging in feminist film theory. Kaplan argued that filmic identification with the figure of Stella invited audiences to accept as proper her giving up her daughter and therefore forgoing motherhood through her internalization of patriarchal familial norms. By contrast, Linda Williams argued that the film invited audiences to share multiple points of view, and that Stella's actions could be seen as showing strength and agency. Responses published in Cinema Journal between 1984 and 1985 opened for debate and critique some of the assumptions in feminist film theory of the time and introduced research on images of the mother in cinema.

b. Oxford, England, 15 August 1941

Laura Mulvey could not have anticipated the widespread impact of her short polemical essay, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," published in 1975 in the British journal Screen. The essay's psychoanalytic formulation of a "male gaze," and its condemnation of classical Hollywood cinema's patriarchal bias, immediately provoked interest, debate, and in some quarters dismay. Those who appreciated Mulvey's theories went on, as did Mulvey herself in her extensive writings, to deepen, adjust, and further her insights; those who responded negatively to the essay were challenged to articulate why, and in so doing to develop other theories. Much of the criticism of the essay called into question its strong psychoanalytic stance, shortchanging its political argument. Since the essay's publication, debates within film theory about the utility of psychoanalytic theories have continued.

In a subsequent essay published in 1981, "Afterthoughts on 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' inspired by King Vidor's Duel in the Sun, "Mulvey addressed persistent questions about her lack of attention to the material female spectator in her "Visual Pleasure" essay. She noted that she was less interested in the female spectator who resists the "masculinization" that Hollywood cinema demands than the one who secretly enjoys the freedom of action and agency that identifying with the male protagonist offers. Using Freudian theories about female sexuality as well as Vladimir Propp's analysis of narrative structure in folk tales, Mulvey examined the difficulty of sexual difference in the western Duel in the Sun (1946).

Mulvey is also a filmmaker and has made several with Peter Wollen, including Penthesilea (1974), Riddles of the Sphinx (1977), and Amy! (1979). These films reflect Mulvey's theoretical views of Hollywood cinema, exploring the difficulty of representing the feminine in a patriarchal world. In each film the struggles of women in patriarchy are transformed by placing them within the discourses of psychoanalysis and history. Some of the films make reference to Hollywood cinema—Amy!, for example, refers specifically to Dorothy Arzner's Christopher Strong—in order to examine the ideological bases of that film.


Penthesilea (1974), Riddles of the Sphinx (1977), Amy! (1979)


Fischer, Lucy. Shot/Countershot: Film Tradition and Women's Cinema. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989.

Kaplan, E. Ann. Motherhood and Representation: The Mother in Popular Culture and Melodrama. London and New York: Routledge, 1992, 2000.

——. Women in Film: Both Sides of the Camera. London and New York: Routledge, 1983, 2000.

Mulvey, Laura. Fetishism and Curiosity. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.

——. Visual and Other Pleasures. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.

E. Ann Kaplan

Objections to cine-psychoanalysis included: 1) objection to psychoanalytic film criticism's obvious heterosexism; 2) its apparent exclusion of the body; 3) its equally apparent pessimism about social change because of investment in linguistic theories; 4) its incipient "whiteness"; and 5) its a- or even antihistorical bias. Scholars critiquing psychoanalytic theories refused the inherently Cartesian mind–body split; denied that language was totally determining; attended to cinematic practices and representations of minority, Third World, and gay women; and, finally, corrected the lack of basic historical information by seeking to find out what women had actually accomplished in Hollywood from its earliest days. If earlier gay and lesbian critiques anticipated the explosion in gay and lesbian approaches to film, as well as the related "queering" of gender images and psychoanalysis, later work was inspired by Judith Butler's theory of gender as performative rather than biological. Black and Latino studies were instituted as more minority students attended college, and debates about US and international racism raged. Inspired work in feminist film and cultural studies began to develop, led by African American critics and filmmakers, such as bell hooks, Michele Wallace, Jacqueline Bobo, and Julie Dash. In Black Looks: Race and Representation, for example, hooks justly criticized feminist theorists for their lack of attention to the specificity of race in film. Building on white feminists' gaze theories, hooks coined the term "the oppositional gaze" as she shifted the point of view in a series of readings to the gaze of the hitherto oppressed black subject, whose look at white culture was for so long forbidden. Carol Clover moved gaze theories forward, and feminism backward perhaps, in her groundbreaking 1992 study of the horror film, the genre in which emerges, she argues, a gender crossing that is liberating for males. Heroines in slasher films, she says, are "transformed males," and what looks like male-on-female violence stands in for male-on-male sex. Clover goes on to show, however, that this gender game, once observed, applies in other kinds of film in which, perhaps in response to feminist agendas and analyses, males appropriate the female form for their own ends and desires, a process that challenges gender-specific theories of identification.

The directions in which the field grew and changed, through its destabilization by questions raised by minority, gay, and Third World women, eroded older, seemingly secure binaries of feminist film theory. Psychoanalytic theories of the gaze no longer were central to feminist analysis. However, these ideas then informed "masculinity" studies of Steve Neale, Krin Gabbard, and Peter Lehman, which followed feminist film theory and which were part of the shift from feminist film theory to gender studies in film. Within feminist scholarship, approaches broadened to combine historical, sociological, psychological, and genre aspects in research by Miriam Hansen, Lucy Fischer, Annette Kuhn, and Janice Welsch, among others. Hansen's study of gender in early American cinema brought feminist theory to silent cinema studies, while Kuhn's cultural studies approach includes an ethnographic study of cinema viewing practices through interviews with elderly London residents.

A solid body of feminist research, including feminist film theory, has provided the foundation for much cultural work by third-wave feminists, whose interest in cross-identification, transvestism, and transgender images is taking feminist work in new directions. Psychoanalysis may not be the central focus of many studies, but, like gaze theory, it is now being revised to fit new family paradigms, digital media, and phenomena of late global capitalism. Although the pioneers of feminist film theory have moved on to new topics, feminist theory continues to be relevant to film scholarship. A great deal has been written about feminist film theory and its vicissitudes, including many edited anthologies. Significantly, in 2004 the prestigious journal Signs devoted an entire issue to reevaluating feminist film theory. Almost from its origins, feminist film theory has been defined by lively debates; but important also are the strong links between the feminist movement and feminist scholarship, which have persisted as feminisms have arisen and waned and then reemerged in different environments.

SEE ALSO Gay, Lesbian, and Queer Cinema;Gender;Marxism;Melodrama;Psychoanalysis;Queer Theory;Woman's Pictures


Clover, Carol. Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.

De Lauretis, Teresa. The Practice of Love: Lesbian Sexuality and Perverse Desire. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Doane, Mary Ann. "Film and the Masquerade: Theorizing the Female Spectator." Screen 24 (September-October 1982): 74–87.

——. "Woman's Stake: Filming the Female Body." In Feminism and Film, edited by E. Ann Kaplan, 86–118. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Gledhill, Christine, ed. Home Is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman's Film. London: British Film Institute, 1987.

Hansen, Miriam. Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.

Haskell, Molly. From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies. 2nd ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

hooks, bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End Press, 1992.

Kaplan, E. Ann. Women and Film: Both Sides of the Camera. London and New York: Routledge, 1983, 2000.

Kuhn, Annette. Cinema, Censorship and Sexuality, 1909–1925. London and New York: Routledge, 1988.

Mellen, Joan. Women and Their Sexuality in the New Film. New York: Horizon Press, 1974.

Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." In Visual and Other Pleasures, 14–26. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.

Rodowick, David. "The Difficulty of Difference." Wide Angle 5, no. 1 (1982): 4–15.

Rosen, Marjorie. Popcorn Venus: Women, Movies, and the American Dream. New York: Avon Books, 1973.

Studlar, Gaylyn. In the Realm of Pleasure: Von Sternberg, Dietrich, and the Masochistic Aesthetic. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

E. Ann Kaplan


views updated May 21 2018


Although the term "feminism" was not invented until the 1880s, reform movements aiming to improve women's lives emerged early in the nation's history. At the end of the Revolutionary War, women lived under far more constraints than men. In slavery, to be sure, neither men nor women had rights. But in the free white population, women, governed by the doctrine of coverture—laws defining the status of women during marriage—were transferred from paternal guardianship to their husbands' rule when they married, with no legal access to property, education, children, occupations. Female education was rudimentary at best. Still, marriage was women's most reasonable choice because (except for widows) if unmarried, women had to live in their parents' homes, work as servants in other people's homes, or go into the sex trade.


In a subsistence farming economy, women's subordination was less visible and more bearable than it would become in the emergent middle-class and urbanizing culture of the post-Revolutionary years. By the 1790s, white women from the middle and upper classes had begun publishing (an activity itself testifying to changes in women's lives) on behalf of such initiatives as female education, access to respectable and decently paying work, the right to keep money and property, liberalized divorce laws, esteem for unmarried women, and participation in public life. These women hoped their work would argue effectively for female mental equality while demonstrating female abilities. Because conventional beliefs that women were weak in mental and moral as well as bodily strength seemed to justify treating them like children, the first feminist literary work aimed to demolish these beliefs. Granting that women could never equal men in physical strength, the early writers decoupled physical from mental strength, accepting the mind-body split established by the seventeenth-century French philosopher René Descartes and dissociating themselves from their own physicality. They drew inspiration from such European feminists as Mary Wollestonecraft, as well as from Enlightenment ideas about human rationality that had been important to American Revolutionary thought.

By 1848, when the first women's rights convention took place at Seneca Falls, New York, the idea of "women's rights" had become familiar across the culture. Among early initiatives, the drive for female education was especially successful, with women's schools springing up across the nation, especially in the northeast. Although not at the same level as good men's schools—even the best were more like high schools than colleges—they turned teaching into a women's profession while producing an ever-larger number of graduates who could read and write well beyond the minimal level. These graduates in turn constituted a market for printed literary goods that women themselves supplied.

The emergence of women writers, the expansion of female education, the development of teaching as a female profession, and the growth of a women's literary market are thus all interconnected expressions of cultural feminism in a capitalizing economy. Women writers became part of the literary landscape, but always as representatives of their gender rather than as individuals. Publishing was a balancing act for each of them, and the suffrage issue became a test case. In 1818, when the great educator Emma Hart Willard (1787–1870) petitioned the New York State legislature for funding to open a girls' school in Troy, New York, she celebrated education's capacity to control women's boisterous, unruly energies. She used herself as an example of how educated women would petition but never seek to vote or hold public office. A quarter century later, however, Margaret Fuller (1810–1850) in "The Great Lawsuit: Man vs. Men and Woman vs. Women" (1843, expanded in 1845 into Woman in the Nineteenth Century) said women's needs could never be fairly represented in public policy unless women represented themselves. The Declaration of Sentiments issued by the Seneca Falls Convention openly called for women's suffrage.

But the franchise was not to come about for another seventy years, and some of its opponents were women like Willard and her educator sister, Almira Hart Phelps. Some women firmly believed that women's role in the home was incompatible with any kind of public life; others feared that anti-suffrage sentiment would delay all feminist reform. Thus, many anti-suffrage women—like Willard and Phelps—worked energetically for other women's issues. The anti-suffragist Catharine Esther Beecher (1800–1878), for example, published widely on female education and improving women's lives in the home. Her 1841 Treatise onDomestic Economy, for the Use of Young Ladies at Home, and at School argued that homemaking should be respected as a profession, that women should be trained as homemakers, and that teachers should be trained to train such women. Her curriculum included chemistry, physics, mechanics, anatomy, and physiology among other difficult subjects. She thought reading belles lettres was a waste of time, but to make an impact she chose the printed word.

Whether Beecher's Treatise looks feminist to later eyes, it helped further technological education for women and led directly to the founding of the profession of home economics at the end of the nineteenth century, under which aegis women were able to go to college and even become professors. Another powerful anti-suffrage voice was that of Sarah J. Hale (1788–1879), editor in chief of the monthly Godey's Lady's Book from 1837 to 1877. Under cover of the women's magazine format, Hale agitated tirelessly for a huge array of goals that would now be recognized as feminist even while she adamantly opposed the vote, sexual freedom for women (for men too), dress reform, and anything else that in her view allowed women to behave or look too much like men. Through her editorials and editorial policies, she nurtured women authors, supported women editors, encouraged female business entrepreneurs, strove to open new professions to women, and espoused modern technologies like the sewing and washing machines to make women's traditional work less laborious. She wrote many different kinds of books, but always with an emphasis on improving women's lot: cookbooks with information about chemistry and nutrition, floras mixing sentimental verses with botanical information. She wanted women to learn astronomy, botany, chemistry, geology, anatomy, and physiology, and she spearheaded a successful campaign in the 1840s for schools that would train women doctors. She feminized this major breakthrough by claiming it was obscene for women to be examined intimately by men. In 1850 she published what she considered her crowning achievement—a thousand-page biographical encyclopedia of famous women throughout history. Woman's Record; or, Sketches of All Distinguished Women, from "The Beginning" till A.D. aimed to show how, despite all obstacles, women had managed to leave their mark on history and also how the impact of women in history was increasing and improving as the world became more enlightened and more Christian. "Christian" to Hale meant qualities of compassion and altruism, which she linked to women, whose physical weakness relative to men had always, she claimed, made them more sympathetic to Christian goals.

On account of the many southern subscribers to the Lady's Book she opposed abolition, going so far as publicly to criticize abolitionist women for disturbing the peace. In 1853, responding specifically to Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly (1852), she published Liberia; or, Mr. Peyton's Experiments, a novel endorsing Liberian colonization for free African Americans. The novel has a striking portrayal of a strong African American heroine, Keziah, who, however, can come into her own only in a country of her own—which, Hale insisted, could never be the United States, where racism was simply too entrenched. Whatever one thinks of the politics of this novel, the fact that it was published at all (like Lydia Maria Child's abolitionist Appeal on Behalf of That Class of Americans Called Africans [1833] and Stowe's antislavery Uncle Tom's Cabin) shows clearly that women expected to publish freely on all sides of even the most explosive political topic.


Even if they had not actually been teachers themselves, women who published for other women often wrote like teachers. Simultaneously, they turned to that favorite women's genre, the novel, to reach the largest possible audience, presenting stories in which young women learned how to overcome obstacles, stand on their own two feet, and be respected and admired by all. Far from resenting the commandeering of fictional entertainment for didactic purposes, women apparently loved such books. The first example of this new kind of woman's fiction, Catharine Maria Sedgwick's (1789–1867) A New-England Tale, appeared in 1822. Until then, the typical woman's story had been a tear-jerking seduction tale in which a naive young girl is taken advantage of by a rogue who woos her, gets her pregnant, and abandons her to shame and early death. The narrative, ostensibly counseling women not to listen to men's flattery, indicated that women were so weak-willed and weak-minded that to listen to flattery was to believe it. In A New-England Tale, however, Sedgwick introduced an all-American girl with mental strength, a powerful sense of justice, a capacity for resistance, and—key to her survival in a capitalist culture—a desire to be useful. The orphaned Jane Elton is adopted by an unfeeling aunt who exploits her as an unpaid servant. In time she moves out, takes a teaching job, and gets engaged to an attractive young lawyer who turns out to be a scoundrel. She breaks her engagement without regret when she discovers his true character and prepares for life without marriage. But she marries a young widower with a daughter, a man who respects and admires her, offering her romance, security, and above all friendship.

The formula in these stories of trials and triumph—the woman's novel—featuring energetic and competent protagonists who contributed to the ongoing national (or at least northern) project of modernization propelled hundreds of novels to best-seller status, establishing a standard for sales that almost no novels by men attained. Two examples of the type—Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World (1850) and Maria Susanna Cummins's The Lamplighter (1854)—not only sold hundreds of thousands of copies but remained in print until the twentieth century. Diversified by settings and obstacles, and enlivened by a friendly narrative voice, the novels often situated the heroine between two other feminine types, a meek and helpless victim and a selfish, greedy, fashion-crazy "belle." The differences between these characters and the protagonist made an obvious statement about female self-reliance, as well as a statement about female citizenship in the United States. The belle's acquisitive egotism undermines community and squanders resources. The helpless woman, although appealing in her way, counters the so-called cult of true womanhood idealizing purity, piety, passivity, and submissiveness. In this formula fiction, such women are burdens to others and useless to themselves—not true women at all. The heroines, although true women to the core, and certainly pure and pious, are neither passive nor submissive. No fragile, fainting stereotype here: these novels tell women to value inner character, get the best education possible, learn a useful trade, respect women who work for a living, esteem unmarried women, marry men who can be companions, and help other women by setting an example.

The genre attracted a wide range of women authors. E. D. E. N. Southworth's (1819–1899) The Hidden Hand; or, Capitola the Madcap, serialized in 1859–1860 and then published as a book in 1888, had an extraordinary success. The heroine, Capitola Black, enters the action as a street urchin in New York City, dressed in boys' clothes. "Because I was a girl," she explains, "there seemed to be nothing but starvation or beggary before me;" then, "all of a sudden, a bright thought struck me; and I made up my mind to be a boy!" (p. 40). Discovered accidentally by an uncle from the South, who takes her back to his plantation, she embarks on a career of principled resistance to Southern mores, venturing out to punish oppressors and free victims and, implicitly, impose Yankee values on the backward South. By the end of this joyous, romping, cheerfully subversive story, all wrongs have been righted, and Capitola has married her faithful childhood friend.

Almost a decade later Louisa May Alcott (1832–1888) published Little Women (1868), the most loved girls' book in the United States for more than a century. The characters derived from Alcott's own family and starred Jo March (modeled on Alcott herself) as the heroine who wanted to be a boy. Jo has many setbacks as she learns how to be a woman without sacrificing the essential core of her independent, powerful personality. Eventually, she succeeds as a writer and goes on to marry a kindly professor and run a boys' school. Alcott's point, ultimately, is that the best women are those with the most gumption and internal resistance to the status quo. But there is a kind of sadness in this novel; the different careers available to the two genders show how far women are from occupational equality.

If feminism is about independence and resistance to unjust authority, all these novels are feminist. If feminism is about group consciousness, asserting female solidarity in the face of male tyranny, then the novels' advocacy of mutual respect and esteem among women makes them feminist even though they do not describe formal associations of women agitating for women's rights. Nor do they depict women who want to reform the nation's politics or economy—they want to belong. If persuading women to choose husbands who see them as equals is feminist, these are feminist novels. If living without men is a feminist goal, they are not; at least until toward the end of the Civil War, marriage for the protagonist is the inevitable ending. During the 1860s a few novelists, recognizing that the huge number of men killed made marriage impossible for many women, tried to work out alternatives. Among these, Augusta Jane Evans's Macaria; or, Altars of Sacrifice (1864), Harriet Prescott Spofford's Azarian: An Episode (1864), and Alcott's Work: A Story of Experience (1872) depict female companionship among women who will not marry. Azarian comes the closest to what today's literary culture might think of as a lesbian novel.

Possibly, most women's novels eschewed radical feminist plots because their readers were young, white, and middle class. Women who could not or did not read, or who read at basic levels—working-class women, immigrant women, women in slavery—were not likely to absorb these lengthy and self-consciously literary texts that, along with lessons in character formation, aimed to increase reading skills and instill a love for good books. The novels' belles tended to be wealthy, spoiled, and contemptuous of the bookish protagonist, implying that upper-class women were not a target audience either. The novels are full of loyal and interesting servants—in this era all middle-class and even genteelly poor households had servants—but always as secondary characters. The story did not resonate with African American women; the two important published narratives by African American women recovered to date—Our Nig (1859) by Harriet Wilson and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) by Harriet Jacobs—use the formula to show its irrelevance for women of color.


Formal women's rights activism in the United States grew directly out of abolitionism. Both Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902) and Lucretia Mott (1793–1880), Quaker organizers of the Seneca Falls Convention, turned to women's rights when they were denied seating at an antislavery convention in London because they were women. If abolitionism provided an official venue for feminists to argue their case for women's suffrage, the two reform movements would soon develop a complicated relationship during the periods preceding and following the Civil War. Although Frederick Douglass attended the first meeting of woman suffragists at Seneca Falls, many pre–Civil War abolitionists themselves argued that feminist concerns should be subordinated to the more pressing needs of slavery reform, which temporarily sidelined feminists' attempts to gain women's suffrage. Race also split suffrage issues between white and black women and black men and women. The black activist and writer Frances Watkins Harper (1825–1911), who entitled her late trials and triumph novel Iola Leroy; or, Shadows Uplifted (1892) after the pen name of activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett, felt frustrated as early as the American Equal Rights Association Convention of 1869 that black women were especially sidelined from gaining the vote. She fictionalizes this voice in her periodical novel Minnie's Sacrifice (1869) when her heroine asks, "'But, Louis, is it not the negro woman's hour also? Has she not as many rights and claims as the negro man?'" (Harper, p. 78; O'Brien, pp. 1–2, 11).

Along with abolitionism, the temperance movement interacted significantly with women's rights. Until recently alcoholism was thought of as weakness of will, not disease; many believed that large numbers of heavy drinkers threatened the nation's moral fiber. As well as moralizing, male reformers decried the toll of heavy drinking on economic productivity while women noted the abuse of wives and children by drunkards. Given the laws of coverture, a married woman could not escape from a drunkard husband nor protect her children, whereas such a husband could abandon his family at will, returning occasionally to confiscate whatever meager wages his wife might have earned. A highly sensationalist literature of inebriation pervaded the working-class press, mostly written by men, appearing in cheap pamphlets and weekly story papers rather than between the covers of a book or in the glossy magazines.

Thus, in the literary world temperance seems more a class than a gender issue; in middle-class woman's fiction, the men's great weakness is financial irresponsibility demonstrated in bad business investments that impoverish their families. The first of many recessions to hit the U.S. economy occurred as a direct result of stock speculation in 1837; with women lacking all legal control over family resources, the melodramatic plot device of a comfortably well-off family suddenly pauperized turns out to be quite realistic.

The following excerpt is from a speech by Lucretia Mott, a mother of contemporary feminism:

Woman has been so debased, so crushed, her powers of mind, her very being brought low . . . woman must avail herself of the increasing means of intelligence, education, and knowledge. She must rise also in a higher sphere of spiritual existence. . . . Then will the time speedily come . . . when the monopoly of the pulpit shall no more oppress her, when marriage shall not be a means of rendering her noble nature subsidiary to man, when there shall be no assumed authority on the one part nor admitted inferiority or subjection on the other.

"'Abuses and Uses of the Bible,' a Sermon delivered at Cherry Street Meeting, Philadelphia, Eleventh Month, Fourth, 1848." Edited from Warthmore Friends Collection MSS 0476, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania.


That men wrote temperance stories and women, although highly active in the movement, seldom did, raises the reverse question: whether men's writing across the board registers feminist awareness. Certainly, Timothy Shay Arthur's Ten Nights in a Bar-Room and What I Saw There (1854) features women as victims of the drunkard's failings, but its solution is prohibition not women's rights. In James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking novels, women—whether powerful or weak—are obstacles to men. Herman Melville's fiction has almost no women characters. Walt Whitman's poems celebrate women as mothers of men. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's women are good wives or long-suffering ciphers, and Edgar Allan Poe's are victims of violently paranoid fantasies. Margaret Fuller tried to rescue transcendentalism from the exclusively male perspectives of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, insisting that women too had divine souls.

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864) is the exception. Earlier stories, including "Young Goodman Brown" (1835), "Egotism; or, the Bosom Serpent" (1843), and "The Birth-mark" (1843) often centered on icy male characters whose egotism destroyed the women who loved them; but beginning with The Scarlet Letter (1850) he featured the women themselves. The problem as presented in The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables (1851), The Blithedale Romance (1852), and The Marble Faun (1860) was that both male egotism and female compassion were inherent and gender-specific. How then could women ever attain true social equality without changing their inner being? If they changed their essential nature, would they still be women? It was Hawthorne's literary habit to raise but not answer questions. His novels proposed small improvements that might make women's lives more bearable, but except for The Scarlet Letter, they show women defeated by the struggle to remain loving and yet assert themselves as individuals. His one avowed feminist—Zenobia, in The Blithedale Romance—kills herself. This outcome is hardly what women activists hoped for then or look for now, and yet its very bleakness recognizes women's dilemma in a way that no other male writer approached.

See alsoAbolitionist Writing; Declaration of Sentiments; Domestic Fiction; The Hidden Hand;Letters on the Equality of the Sexes;Little Women;The Scarlet Letter;Seneca Falls Convention; Suffrage; Temperance; Woman in the Nineteenth Century


Primary Works

Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women; or, Meg, Jo, Beth, andAmy. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1868.

Beecher, Catharine Esther. A Treatise on Domestic Economy, for the Use of Young Ladies at Home, and at School. Boston: Marsh, Capen, Lyon, and Webb, 1841.

Declaration of Sentiments. Seneca Falls Woman's Rights Convention, 1848. Votes for Women: Selections from the National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection, 1848–1921, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Fuller, Margaret. "The Great Lawsuit: Man vs. Men and Woman vs. Women." The Dial (July 1843). Expanded into Woman in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Greeley and McElrath, 1845.

Hale, Sarah J. Woman's Record; or, Sketches of All Distinguished Women, from "The Beginning" tilla.d. 1850. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1853.

Harper, Frances Ellen Watkins. Minnie's Sacrifice. In Minnie's Sacrifice; Sowing and Reaping; Trial and Triumph: Three Rediscovered Novels, edited by Frances Smith Foster, pp. 3–92. Boston: Beacon Press, 1994.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter: A Romance. Boston: Ticknor, Reed, and Fields, 1850.

Sedgwick, Catharine Maria. A New-England Tale. New York: Bliss and White, 1822.

Southworth, E. D. E. N. The Hidden Hand; or, Capitola the Madcap. 1888. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Secondary Works

Bardes, Barbara, and Suzanne Gossett. Declarations ofIndependence: Women and Political Power in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1990.

Baym, Nina. Feminism and American Literary History:Essays. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1992.

Baym, Nina. Woman's Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820–1870. 2nd ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.

Bushman, Richard L. The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities. New York: Knopf, 1992.

Cott, Nancy F. The Bonds of Womanhood: "Women's Sphere" in New England, 1780–1835. 2nd ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997.

Epstein, Barbara Leslie. The Politics of Domesticity: Women,Evangelism, and Temperance in Nineteenth-Century American Thought. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1981.

Lutz, Alma. Emma Willard: Daughter of Democracy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1929.

O'Brien, Colleen. "The White Women All Go for Sex: Frances Harper and the Racist Revolution." Unpublished paper, Georgia State University, Atlanta, 11 February 2005.

Okker, Patricia. Our Sister Editors: Sarah J. Hale and theTradition of Nineteenth-Century American Women Editors. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995.

O'Neill, William L. Feminism in America: A History. 2nd ed. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1989.

Sklar, Kathryn Kish. Catharine Beecher: A Study in AmericanDomesticity. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1973.

Woody, Thomas. History of Women's Education in theUnited States. Vol. 1. New York and Lancaster, Pa.: Science Press, 1929.

Yellin, Jean Fagan. Women and Sisters: The AntislaveryFeminists in American Culture. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989.

Zboray, Ronald J. A Fictive People: Antebellum EconomicDevelopment and the American Reading Public. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Nina Baym


views updated May 14 2018


the french revolution and its influence
restoration, reaction, and the persistence of a "feminist" critique
the revolutions of 1848 and their aftermath
the peak of pre–world war i feminism

The word feminism, which originated in France during the nineteenth century, was not used in reference to female emancipation until the 1890s; even into the twentieth century some movements for women's emancipation did not use the word. There is, moreover, no single, specific definition for the term. This article uses the term feminism synonymously with women's emancipation—unorganized and organized efforts to improve women's status and oppose their systematic subordination. Critical responses to women's subordination appeared in Europe as early as the fifteenth century, but the eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosophy, with its emphasis on reason, education, progress, individual self-fulfillment, and natural law as a source of knowledge, redefined what it meant to be human, and thus raised issues about women's humanity. The role of women, and in particular, their legal civil status and their education, played a large role in Enlightenment discourse.

Karen Offen and other historians of feminism have detected two feminist currents evolving in the nineteenth century that were based on different representations of women. The "individualist," or egalitarian current derived from the assumption that women and men share a common human identity and therefore should also have equality in the public, political realm. Access to knowledge, education, and work would allow women to pursue self-fulfillment as individuals, just as men pursued their constitutionally guaranteed right to "happiness." The other current emphasized the difference between men and women, and particularly women's physical, emotional, psychical, and social capacities in motherhood and other relational—rather than individualistic—roles. Women's special cultural and social contributions as self-sacrificing nurturers formed the basis for advocating an improvement in their status and in their right to have a public role. It is important to keep in mind, however, that these two categories are a means for historians to understand and analyze the many faces of feminism, and that contemporaries did not necessarily perceive these distinctions in categorical terms. Feminists lived lives, espoused ideologies, and participated in movements that combined both currents. At the same time feminism emerged within specific national contexts and national identities, as well as in relation to other reform movements, philosophies, or nonconformist religions—all of which gave it multifaceted characteristics. But issues raised in one national context often inspired political movements across borders, and by the second half of the nineteenth century international organizations began forming, which, in turn, reinforced national movements.

the french revolution and its influence

In the efforts to implement Enlightenment principles, the French Revolution gave birth to modern feminism. That is not to say, however, that European feminism had only one moment of birth, or that the Revolution gave rise to a feminist "movement"—but it created a ripe occasion for intensified philosophical debate and political action. When Louis XVI (r. 1774–1792) called for the Estates-General to meet and invited his subjects to submit their grievances, women demanded economic and political justice for their sex. A few women immediately denounced male privilege, especially in the legal realm. In abolishing the estate system, eliminating feudal privileges, and producing the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, claiming that "Men are born and remain free and equal in rights," the National Assembly of 1789 sought to implement "universal" principles about human rights that immediately and deliberately excluded women, who were viewed as incapable of reason and unable to act as morally independent individuals. One staunch advocate of political rights, the marquis de Condorcet (Marie-Jean de Caritat; 1743–1794), argued that women should be granted citizenship; he eloquently stated that differences between men and women stemmed from education, not nature. He further unveiled the contingency of "natural" determination when, for example, he queried, "Why should beings exposed to pregnancies and to passing indispositions not be able to exercise rights that no one ever imagined taking away from people who have gout every winter or who easily catch colds?" (quoted in Hunt, p. 120).

A small group of women formed a cercle social (social circle) in 1790–1791 to campaign for women's rights, especially civil equality in marriage, divorce, property ownership, and education. In 1791 the playwright and essayist Olympe de Gouges published the "Declaration of the Rights of Women," in which she offered a poignant critique of female exclusion from the "Declaration of the Rights of Man." She stated that "woman is born free and remains equal to man in rights" and therefore should partake in all "public dignities, offices and employments." But none of the national assemblies ever seriously considered legislation that would grant women political rights, and the constitutions of 1791, 1793, and 1795 deliberately excluded them.

Nonetheless women engaged in street politics that, in their own minds, conferred citizenship. The Society of Revolutionary Republican Women, for example, had as its main purpose combating counter-revolution and defending, at a time of war, invasion of the Republic by foreign enemies. The group sought to expand women's political and even military participation. Their fate exemplifies the need to redefine and even rigidify gender roles in the revolutionary context. The group's confrontational activities in support of the Republic led the government to ban all women's clubs and societies in 1793. Lawmakers proclaimed that nature determined only men should take on public and political roles. The ultra-revolutionary journalist Pierre-Gaspard Chaumette (1763–1794) complained that women were making themselves into men, and pointedly noted that nature had not given men breasts to feed children. The Revolution created a more intense need to emphasize men's and women's natural biological differences and to determine their social roles accordingly. That same year Olympe de Gouges met her fate at the guillotine, denounced as an "unnatural" woman, and convicted as a counterrevolutionary. In reaction to the revolutionary chaos, the Napoleonic Code of 1804 codified women's subjugation by stipulating that married women had to obey their husbands in return for their protection and that they could not make legal contracts, control their own property or wages, or engage in business without their husband's permission; in short, the code placed women in the same status as children, criminals, and the mentally deficient.

More important than the explicit feminist activity during the French Revolution was the philosophical debate about women's civil and political rights that it provoked well beyond France. Condorcet's Plea for the Citizenship of Women became well known throughout Europe, as did Olympe de Gouges's "Declaration." The Englishwoman Mary Wollstonecraft caused a stir with her Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), in which she argued eloquently, like Condorcet, for women's inherent capacity to reason and for their need of much better education. Demands for women's rights were made in Belgium, the Dutch Republic, and in some German and Italian states and principalities. But there too advocates faced a backlash as well as the legal subordination of women as the Napoleonic Code was adopted throughout Europe.

restoration, reaction, and the persistence of a "feminist" critique

The Restoration of monarchical and religious authority throughout Europe after 1815 reinforced

women's legal subjugation. Science and philosophical conceptions of knowledge—such as positivism—reinforced women's physiological inferiority and their natural incapacity for any public function. Even in this conservative climate, however, social criticism of women's position persisted. The field for thinking about women changed dramatically in the contexts of increased female literacy, industrialization, urbanization, national independence movements, evolving nation-states, and the rise of socialism. A "literary feminism" emerged in tracts and novels such as Marion Kirkland Reid's A Plea for Women (1843), and Charlotte Brontë's novels Jane Eyre (1847) and Shirley (1849). Germaine de Staël's Delphine (1802) and Corinne (1807), and George Sand's Indiana (1832) and Lélia (1833) caused considerable controversy. These works implicitly or explicitly criticized marriage and stirred their readers with imaginative alternatives. Writers in Denmark, Spain, Germany, Bohemia, Russia, and Scandinavia produced similarly influential novels. The genre empowered women as writers and influenced the consciousness of readers.

The question of women's status gained more poignancy with the emergence of French and British utopian socialist movements between 1820 and 1840. In reaction to the visible impoverishment of the working classes, whose living conditions were worsened by industrialization and urbanization, utopian socialists turned their attention to the family. In particular, they attacked marriage as an institution that economically and sexually subjugated women. Followers of Henri de Saint-Simon (1760–1825), particularly Marthélemy-Prosper Enfantin (1796–1864), promoted a romantic vision of feminism that emphasized harmony between the sexes based on the complementary nature of their differences. While Enfantin encouraged women's emancipation, he also advocated free love, a move that caused dissension among his followers and eventually brought government prosecution. However some of Enfantin's followers began a newspaper that stressed the importance of women's economic independence and their right to work. The focus on sexual difference also led Saint-Simonian women to stress motherhood itself as a basis for equality, particularly in the role of childhood education.

Saint-Simonianism failed as an emancipatory movement for women in part because men in the movement would not share real power. Many of these feminists then turned to the ideas and followers of Charles Fourier, whose 1808 tract Théorie des quatre mouvements claimed that human progress as a whole required the emancipation of women. Another group of feminist men and women clustered around the newspaper Gazette des femmes; they circulated petitions demanding the suppression of article 213 in the Napoleonic Code, which required a wife's obedience to her husband. They also made explicit demands for equal parenting rights and for the right to work, to vote, to sit on juries, to attend universities, and particularly to study and practice law and medicine.

Anne Wheeler advocated Saint-Simonian ideas in Britain, where she wrote with the political theorist William Thompson Appeal on Behalf of Women (1825), in which she argued that the economy should be restructured to reduce competition. In the 1830s the utopian socialist Robert Owen criticized the family and women's sexual oppression within it. Antislavery and nonconformist religious movements also inspired advocates of women's emancipation in Britain. Meanwhile, in the German Confederation, reform Jews called for greater equity between men and women. In industrialized Saxony, Louise Otto sought improved conditions among working-class women, and campaigned for educational reform for middle-class women. In Italy, the Risorgimento gave female proponents of national unity considerable political voice. Among the most influential were Clara Maffei in Milan and Christina Trivulzio Belgioioso; Belgioioso had been inspired by Fourier.

the revolutions of 1848 and their aftermath

The revolutions of 1848 that erupted throughout Europe everywhere brought women into the political arena alongside men, and created new opportunities and new reasons to criticize their legal status. When the French monarchy was overthrown and a Republic established, feminist clubs and newspapers proliferated as they never had before. Various clubs advocated different types or degrees of female emancipation, ranging from complete equality in both private and public spheres to specific demands for the right to work. Most feminists at this time were not concerned with autonomy from men, children, and the family, but instead focused on motherhood as the reason for greater access to education and the right to participate in civil and political life. The concept of mother-educator not only became a source of dignity for women, but a key strategy in French feminism for justifying public involvement despite formal exclusion from politics.

The 1848 revolutions in central, eastern, and southeastern Europe also gave women political experience and to various degrees promoted an emancipatory consciousness among them. Women founded associations in German principalities and in parts of the Habsburg Empire to support political demands, such as education for the lower classes and the abolition of serfdom. Some of them sought change in the status of women. German feminists, for example, like the French, emphasized their distinctive contributions as women; but in the drive toward national unification, they also stressed their role in nation-building. Louise Otto founded the Frauen-Zeitung (Women's newspaper), in which she insisted that those who advocated emancipation should also embody a "true womanliness." The revolutions produced a long list of eloquent feminists throughout Europe who made various demands through their newspapers, magazines, and in their political participation. But just as had happened from 1793 on in France, revolutionary governments eventually excluded women from politics, censored their newspapers, and disbanded their clubs. Then the forces of counterrevolution throughout Europe further silenced feminists and the social movements that had supported them. The Habsburg Empire was so fearful of the power women had exhibited in this era of upheaval, it passed a law in 1849 that prohibited female participation in any political activity. In 1850, the Prussian king denied women the rights of assembly and association.

Untouched by the cycle of revolution and reaction, England produced the first sustained female emancipation movement in the second half of the century. Its solid liberal foundation and stable parliamentary system could more easily tolerate the feminist challenge than could the emerging nation-states of Continental Europe. British activists had been inspired by earlier French feminism. But they also learned from the successful organizational efforts of American women in the 1840s antislavery movement that then led to the first Women's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in July 1848. British activists protested the marriage law that subordinated married women more completely than in any other European country; they demanded reform of the divorce law; and they criticized the moral double standard in the Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864, 1866, and 1869, which subjected female prostitutes (and women of the working classes wrongly suspected of prostitution) to medical examinations in order to prevent the spread of venereal disease. Josephine Butler spearheaded a loud campaign to repeal the acts, and her efforts spawned movements in France and Italy that opposed regulated prostitution.

Meanwhile, the social critic Harriet Taylor Mill, also inspired by American women, exerted tremendous influence on her husband, the well-known political theorist and parliamentarian John Stuart Mill. In 1869 he published The Subjection of Women, a scathing and eloquent critique that compared women's status to that of slaves: "I am far from pretending that wives are in general no better treated than slaves; but no slave is a slave to the same lengths, and in so full a sense of the word, as a wife is. Hardly any slave…is a slave at all hours and all minutes…. Above all, a female slave…is considered under a moral obligation to refuse to her master the last familiarity. Not so the wife: however brutal a tyrant she may unfortunately be chained to" (p. 41). Mill also stressed the injustice of a system that deprived women of their own property and even their own earnings, and claimed "the power of earning is essential to the dignity of a woman" (p. 60). Mill's tract was immediately translated into French, German, Swedish, Danish, Russian, Dutch, and Italian; before the end of the century, it was also translated into Polish, Spanish, and Japanese. In many countries it became the philosophical foundation for women's rights and the direct inspiration for organized movements.

the peak of pre–world war i feminism

Organized movements for women's emancipation developed throughout Europe by the end of the nineteenth century. Extended male suffrage, new concepts of citizenship, the rise of the mass press, improved education for girls, and organized socialist movements were among the factors that inspired or facilitated the demands for improved legal status, higher education, more employment opportunities, equal pay, and compensation for the work of mothers. In Italy, national unification required the codification of laws that varied across provinces, and thus raised questions about women's legal and civic status. In France, Léon Richer and Maria Deraismes demanded change in the French marriage law, particularly with regard to women's property rights. National tensions and military build-up throughout Europe gave added meaning to citizenship. Conscription into the military meant that men earned citizenship through the "blood tax" of national service; women argued that they too paid a blood tax by risking their lives in childbirth and raising their children to be good citizens. Their emphasis on the social functions of motherhood had strategic importance as governments increasingly viewed their populations as a national resource—just at a time when birth rates began to fall precipitously.

With the help of a burgeoning feminist press, the movement peaked between 1890 and 1910. Feminists continued to demand change in the realms of both the private (marriage law, property, divorce, custody of children) and the public (obtaining the vote, higher education, equal pay, access to professional work). The movement's peak coincided with movements for women's access to female forms of birth control that arose throughout Europe and that raised issues regarding female reproductive and sexual freedom. The kind of philosophy espoused by John Stuart Mill and others led women to think about possession over their own bodies and the concept of "voluntary motherhood"—which suggested the limitation of pregnancies through abstinence or through the use of female contraceptive devices such as sponges and pessaries. For the most part, however, organized feminism shunned birth control movements; while many women privately supported family limitation, they also feared that separating sexuality from reproduction would turn women into objects denuded of any dignity. Although some radicals attempted to make birth control a feminist issue—such as Nelly Roussel (1878–1922) in France—it would take another half century, and a revolution in consciousness, for reproductive freedom to assume a central role in the feminist agenda.

As feminism grew, so did the issues that divided its adherents. Socialism became one such wedge. The ideological marriage of female emancipation with the plight of the working poor and the vision of restructuring or overthrowing capitalism in the first half of the century was torn asunder in the second half with the legalization of labor unions, the International Workingmen's Association, and the birth of socialist parties. Because women worked for lower pay, most labor unions demanded a "family wage" for men, which would make it unnecessary for women to work outside the home, and this demand was articulated during the debate about the "woman question" at the 1866–1867 congress of the First International. Feminists responded with a renewed demand for the right to work at equal pay with men. Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and other socialist theorists including Clara Zetkin further articulated the notion that women could not possibly be emancipated until after a socialist revolution. Capitalism, not "masculinism," was the true enemy. In the 1880s the Second International further articulated this position, which became the official ideology of socialism. Most socialists viewed feminists—the vast majority of whom were bourgeois—as misled counterrevolutionaries who undermined the socialist-revolutionary project of overthrowing the bourgeoisie. Socialist feminists such as Clara Zetkin refused to work with "bourgeois" feminists, some of whom also opposed capitalism, but given the remote possibility of revolution, sought to improve women's status within the existing system. Religion further divided feminists; Christian women rose to the cause of female emancipation, but within a conservative framework: they sought social services and charity to make marriage and motherhood easier for women, and renounced the individualism and political demands of their sisters.

Initially, nineteenth-century advocates of women's rights did not seek political equality through the vote. But as demands for universal male suffrage grew louder in the 1860s, the first group advocating the vote for women formed in England. In 1904 suffragists formed the International Alliance for Women's Suffrage in Berlin, which helped advance the cause throughout Europe. The movement in Britain became the most vociferous and violent. Members of the Women's Social and Political Union, founded by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst in 1903, resorted to violent civil disobedience; as the Parliament refused even to discuss the vote for women, the WSPU disrupted political meetings. By 1909 "suffragettes"—the term distinguished the radicals from the more moderate "suffragists"—were regularly breaking windows of official buildings. Suffragettes' demonstrations soon became riots, and organizers were arrested. The prisoners went on hunger strikes to further publicize their cause. They were then subjected to the brutal torture of force-feeding. By 1913 suffragettes resorted to placing bombs in public places and destroying museum paintings. That same year Emily Wilding

Davidson sacrificed her life to the cause of female suffrage when, before thousands of spectators at the Derby, she threw herself in front of the king's horse. These acts of violence and tragedy drew condemnation, but they also created a good deal of publicity that brought worldwide attention—and ultimately support—to the cause of votes for women.


The historiography of feminism remains relatively new, and much research remains to be done. "Second wave" feminists—those of the 1970s—rediscovered the forgotten experience of women's emancipatory efforts in the nineteenth century. They understandably labeled their findings as the "first wave" of feminism that ended when women in most European countries were granted the vote after World War I. Karen Offen has more recently suggested a different metaphor—that of volcanic eruptions, the molten lava of which is never inert, and which continually pushes through fissures of established patriarchal power structures. This metaphor indeed helps promote an understanding of different national experiences and a better appreciation of the ongoing efforts of all sorts that persisted between the so-called waves. The French Revolution produced the most radical questioning of gender roles, which in turn led to a severe repression of women's voices, a pattern replicated in subsequent nineteenth-century periods of revolution and reaction. Countries less touched by revolution, diverse as they were—such as Britain, Russia, and the United States (whose feminism so influenced Europe)—could more easily afford to tolerate women's organizations. But everywhere World War I silenced the feminist voice, as the vast majority of women put aside demands specific to their sex and loyally devoted themselves to their respective nationalist causes and war efforts.

See alsoButler, Josephine; Engels, Friedrich; Fourier, Charles; Gender; Gouges, Olympe de; Marx, Karl; Mill, Harriet Taylor; Revolutions of 1848; Roussel, Nelly; Saint-Simon, Henri de; Sand, George; Suffragism; Utopian Socialism.


Primary Sources

Bell, Susan Groag, and Karen M. Offen, eds. Women, the Family, and Freedom: The Debate in Documents, 1750–1950. 2 vols. Stanford, Calif., 1983.

Hunt, Lynn, ed. and trans. The French Revolution and Human Rights: A Brief Documentary History. Boston, 1996.

Mill, John Stuart. The Subjection of Women. Toronto, 2000.

Waelti-Walters, Jennifer, and Steven C. Hause, eds. Feminisms of the Belle Epoque: A Historical and Literary Anthology. Texts translated by Jette Kjaer, Lydia Willis, and Jennifer Waelti-Walters. Lincoln, Neb., 1994.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. New York, 1988.

Secondary Sources

Allen, Ann Taylor. Feminism and Motherhood in Germany, 1800–1914. New Brunswick, N.J., 1991.

Moses, Claire Goldberg. French Feminism in the Nineteenth Century. Albany, N.Y., 1984.

Offen, Karen. European Feminisms, 1700–1950. Stanford, Calif., 2000.

Paletschek, Sylvia, and Bianka Pietrow-Ennker, eds. Women's Emancipation Movements in the Nineteenth Century: A European Perspective. Stanford, Calif., 2004.

Rendall, Jane. The Origins of Modern Feminism: Women in Britain, France, and the United States, 1780–1860. London, 1985.

Stites, Richard. The Women's Liberation Movement in Russia: Feminism, Nihilism, and Bolshevism, 1860–1930. Princeton, N.J., 1991.

Taylor, Barbara. Eve and the New Jerusalem: Socialism and Feminism in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge, Mass., 1993.

Elinor Accampo


views updated May 18 2018


The term "feminism," broadly defined as the advocacy of political, economic, and social equality between men and women, was not coined until the 1910s; however, though the word itself did not exist in the nineteenth century, the concept of "woman's rights" certainly did. The organized movement for female suffrage and gender equality began in the small upstate village of Seneca Falls, New York, where Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902) and Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906) organized the first women's rights convention in July 1848. This meeting, attended by some three hundred men and women, ratified the Declaration of Sentiments, a document written by Stanton based on the Declaration of Independence, outlining the key problems faced by nineteenth-century American women. As such the Declaration of Sentiments established the agenda of the women's rights movement for the next seventy-five years.


In the Declaration of Sentiments, Stanton enumerated specific complaints concerning the oppressed status of women in American society: their inability to vote; exclusion from higher education and professional careers; subordination to male authority in both church and state; and legal victimization in terms of wages, property rights, and divorce. After identifying these injustices, the document proclaimed a series of resolutions, including the assertion that "woman is man's equal . . . and that all laws which prevent woman from occupying such a station in society as her conscience shall dictate, or which place her in a position inferior to that of man, are contrary to the great precept of nature, and therefore of no force or authority" (Kraditor, p. 187).

The right to vote became a pressing goal in the latter part of the nineteenth century; from 1870 to 1917 the American Woman's Suffrage Association sponsored the weekly Woman's Journal, edited over the years by Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Henry B. Blackwell, and others. Women would not formally be granted the right to vote until the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, but significant progress was made in advancing their social, economic, and legal status during the latter half of the century. For example, in 1848, the same year as the Seneca Falls Convention, the state of New York passed the landmark Married Woman's Property Act, the first legislation of its kind in the United States, recognizing the right of women to own and retain property separate from their husbands. This law was expanded in an 1860 omnibus Act concerning the Rights and Liabilities of Husband and Wife, which improved inheritance laws for women and acknowledged mothers as joint guardians of their children; however, this progressive legislation was partially rescinded in 1862.

The decades between 1850 and 1900 also saw unprecedented growth in the number of colleges founded for women. Many of the "Seven Sisters" were established during this time period—Vassar in 1861, Wellesley in 1870, Smith in 1871, Radcliffe in 1879, Bryn Mawr in 1880, and Barnard in 1893—joining the ranks of institutions like Oberlin and Mount Holyoke that had opened their doors to females in the 1830s. Yet even with improved access to higher education, admission into the professions remained elusive for women. An 1873 Supreme Court decision, Bradwell v. Illinois, epitomizes this difficulty. The case originated in 1869, when Mrs. Myra Bradwell passed the Illinois law exam but was denied admission to the state bar "by reason of the disability imposed by [her] married condition." Arguing that marriage is "neither a crime nor a disqualification" (Cullen-Dupont, p. 26), Bradwell claimed that the state of Illinois had violated her constitutional rights, specifically those guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. She appealed her case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ultimately decided against her. The opinion of Justice Joseph P. Bradley, in which he asserted his "repugnance" at the "idea of a woman adopting a distinct and independent career from that of her husband," is often cited as an example of the prevailing patriarchal attitudes toward women during this time period: "The paramount destiny and mission of woman are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator. And the rules of civil society must be adapted to the general constitution of things" (Cullen-Dupont, p. 27).

As Bradley's statement suggests, women were not viewed as individuals in the nineteenth century. They were dependent beings confined to a domestic sphere who were completely defined by their social relationships to others—as daughter, spouse, mother, aunt, and sister. Female fulfillment was not to derive from the pursuit of personal ambition but rather from women's roles as "angels of the house," instilling moral values in their children and creating a tranquil domestic refuge for their husbands. Throughout the nineteenth century the notion of "true woman-hood"—as illustrated in Louisa May Alcott's 1868 novel Little Women—dictated that females should be selfless, pious, submissive, and silent; women who deviated from these restrictive norms were ostracized and held in contempt.

Even in matters of dress, women were expected to conform to socially constructed standards of beauty and femininity, much to the detriment of their personal health. Traditional female attire featured long, heavy skirts with multiple layers of petticoats, often weighing as much as twenty pounds, and whalebone corsets so tight that broken ribs and organ damage were common ailments among middle- and upper-class women. Yet despite the obviously impractical and unsafe nature of these garments, Amelia Jenks Bloomer (1818–1894) was subjected to scathing attack in the early 1850s when she published a pattern for "rational dress"—nicknamed "bloomers"—in the Lily newspaper. Bloomers featured a knee-length skirt beneath which loose linen trousers, gathered at the ankle, were worn. No corsets, petticoats, or other confining under-garments were needed. Women who adopted the bloomer costume, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and Susan B. Anthony, praised the physical freedom it afforded but endured both hostility and ridicule for appropriating traditional male attire. Fearing that the controversy over dress reform would eclipse critical issues like suffrage, these women eventually abandoned bloomers and returned to conventional apparel.

Dress reform resurfaced in the 1890s with the advent of the bicycle. In order to participate in the new recreational sport of cycling, women adopted "knickers" in increasingly large numbers. This manly garb was widely satirized in the popular press, just as bloomers had been four decades earlier; the cartoon "Life in the New Navy, circa 1900" which appeared in the 11 July 1896 issue of Life magazine, reflects a deeply rooted cultural anxiety about the subversive implications of women donning male clothes. As the image depicts, the navy of the future consisted primarily of women wearing uniforms of differently styled knickers—the unique details of each design apparently indicating distinctions in military rank. The cartoon humorously suggests that once females begin usurping traditionally male privileges, such as the wearing of pants, there is no limit to the potential power they might wield.

Beginning in the last two decades of the nineteenth century the "New Woman" emerged in both the United States and Europe as a reaction against the Victorian cult of domesticity. New Women were educated, were committed to the goals of personal autonomy and financial independence, and looked upon marriage and motherhood as a matter of individual choice rather than of economic necessity or biological destiny. The diverse ranks of New Women included writers, political thinkers, suffragettes, and social activists; through the medium of the popular press, they critiqued conventional views of female beauty (long hair and long skirts) and restrictive social protocols such as the need for women to be accompanied by chaperones. They also demanded an end to the sexual "double standard."


Many writers, both male and female, addressed the issue of women's social condition during this time period. For example, the 1879 novella Daisy Miller by Henry James (1843–1916), features a wealthy, attractive, but uncultured "American girl" touring Europe who openly rebels against the standards of female propriety. As the novella progresses, Daisy's behavior grows increasingly headstrong and reckless; dismissing the need for a chaperone as an absurd, infantilizing encumbrance, she walks unescorted in the Pincio Gardens and visits the Colosseum late at night with Mr. Giovanelli, her "third-rate" Italian suitor. James punishes Daisy for these infractions in etiquette not only by making her the target of malicious gossip but also by inflicting the most dire of consequences—death from malarial fever. In this respect Daisy Miller serves as a cautionary tale for young women, suggesting that their very survival depends on passive, unquestioning acceptance of restrictive gender roles. James's 1886 novel The Bostonians explicitly satirizes the "great sisterhood of women" committed to suffrage and social reform, lampooning their simplistic narrative of "how, during the long ages of history, they had been trampled under the iron heel of man" (p. 58). Some scholars believe that the romantic triangle James dramatizes in the novel, in which the feminist Olive Chancellor and the conservative southern attorney Basil Ransom vie for the affection and control of the beautiful "inspirational" speaker Verena Tarrant, is based on an actual incident involving the suffragist Susan B. Anthony, the abolitionist Wendell Phillips, and a popular young lecturer, Anna Dickinson.

Male aversion to women's entry into both the public sphere and professional careers is also reflected in James's characterization of the female physician Dr. Mary J. Prance in The Bostonians. Prance is unsexed by her profession, short-haired and boyish in her appearance, and forthright in her speech. James further undercuts Prance's legitimacy as a doctor by making her a proponent of homeopathy. Similarly, in William Dean Howells's 1881 novel, Dr. Breen's Practice, the anomalous figure of the female physician (who also happens to be a homeopath) is treated with overt contempt. Grace Breen enters the field of medicine not out of an altruistic desire to heal and to mitigate human suffering but because she has been disappointed in love. The inherent weakness of Grace's character is further symbolized by her inability to drive a carriage. Dependent upon a male driver for transportation to see her patients, Grace eventually falls in love with her chauffeur and forsakes her medical practice in order to marry him. Through his negative characterization of Grace, Howells insidiously questions the fitness and suitability of all women for the practice of medicine.

These negative attitudes toward female physicians are dramatically counterpointed in two contemporary novels by women—Dr. Zay (1882) by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (1844–1911) and A Country Doctor (1884) by Sarah Orne Jewett (1849–1909); together these four works capture the tenor of the contentious public debate regarding women and medicine in the 1880s. In fact, Phelps's novel was largely inspired by the sense of outrage she experienced while reading Dr. Breen's Practice in serial installments in the Atlantic Monthly. In contrast to Grace Breen, Phelps's protagonist, Zaidee Atalanta Lloyd, is strong, competent, and highly successful in her chosen profession, ministering faithfully to her townspeople through epidemics of scarlet fever and diphtheria. Remarkably, Dr. Zay's proud, independent spirit and commitment to medicine do not preclude romantic involvement and marriage; by the novel's end she has accepted the hand of Waldo Yorke, a progressive-minded individual who understands that her duties will regularly take her away from home. As such, the Yorkes' marriage promises to be a true partnership predicated on mutual support and respect, unlike the pattern of domination and submission so common in nineteenth-century literature. Nan Prince, however, the heroine of Jewett's novel A Country Doctor, is not as fortunate. Believing that she must ultimately sacrifice personal happiness in order to pursue her medical career, Nan rejects the proposal of her devoted suitor, Mr. George Gerry, stating:

I could not marry the whole of myself as most women can. . . . I know better and better that most women are made for another sort of existence, but by and by I must do my part in my own way to make many homes happy instead of one; to free them from pain, and teach grown people and little children to keep their bodies free from weakness and deformities. (P. 242)

Nan's statement reveals that she views the healing profession as all-consuming and therefore regards marriage as an unacceptable compromise for both spouses.

The complex issue of women, careers, and marriage is also examined in an 1874 novel called Fettered for Life; or, Lord and Master by the suffragist Lillie Devereux Blake (1833–1913). In many ways this melodramatic tale offers a compendium of the obstacles and injustices faced by nineteenth-century American women of various social classes. Blake's protagonist, Laura Stanley, is by all definitions a "New Woman," a recent graduate of Essex College (a thinly disguised version of Vassar) and a strong proponent of female suffrage, who has journeyed alone to New York City in order to establish a career as a teacher. There she encounters a former college acquaintance, a wealthy young woman named Flora Livingstone, who leads the glamorous but unfulfilling life of socialite—constantly dressing, dancing, and flitting from one superficial engagement to the next. Unhappily betrothed to the imperious Ferdinand Le Roy, Flora admires her friend's independence and professional ambition yet feels powerless to change her own situation. The misery of Flora's existence as Mrs. Le Roy is mitigated only by the private satisfaction of writing verse; yet when she dares to publish a poem in a literary magazine without her husband's knowledge or consent, he flies into a rage, burns her manuscripts, and forbids her to write again. Flora then attempts suicide by throwing herself into the sea; although rescued, she dies a few days later of a fever caused by exposure. On her deathbed, Flora pleads with her mother concerning the fate of her younger, unmarried sisters: "Mamma, don't let any of the other girls marry men they don't love. . . .You thought I should be happy in marriage, but it has killed me. . . . I want you to remember this. . . . that women as well as men need an occupation for their energies, and that marriage without love, is worse than death" (pp. 350–351).

Over the course of the novel Laura's life is also threatened by a man—the corrupt, licentious Judge Silas Swinton, whose avocation is the cavalier seduction, abandonment, and ruination of a series of attractive, independent women. When Laura resists Swinton's advances, he orders her kidnapped, chloroformed, and brought to his residence. Laura escapes sexual violation only through the intervention of two other women, Rhoda Dayton and the cross-dressing Frank Heywood, both of whom had been earlier objects of the judge's unsavory attention. With her virtue and reputation intact, Laura goes on to win first prize for one of her paintings at the New York Academy of Design and embarks on a career as an independent artist. And yet despite the successful trajectory of her professional aspirations, the novel ends on a conventional note with Laura's acceptance of a marriage proposal. As in Phelps's novel Dr. Zay, Laura's fiancé, Guy Bradford, offers a promising new model of marriage and manhood, assuring her: "Your obligations to me shall be no greater than mine to you. We will make life's journey hand in hand, equals in all things" (p. 379).

Perhaps the most intriguing character in Fettered for Life, however, is the mysterious Frank Heywood. Like Laura Stanley, Frank (whose female name is never revealed) arrives in New York City friendless and alone, eager to pursue her fortune. After enduring repeated insults, rejections, and sexual propositions, she pawns her last possession—her father's watch—and purchases a man's suit. The transformation, she states, is both instantaneous and remarkable: "My limbs were free; I could move untrammeled, and my actions were free; I could go about unquestioned. No man insulted me, and when I asked for work, I was not offered outrage" (p. 366). Disguised as a man, "Frank" secures a job as an investigative newspaper reporter and works his way up to the position of editor. His ultimate ambition is to become the owner and editor in chief of a prominent journal, which will be the vehicle for promulgating his own progressive social agenda. Yet because Frank's success depends entirely on maintaining a credible male identity, all intimate personal relationships must be forsaken; as he tells Laura, "I shall not marry; my work must be my father and mother, wife and children to me" (p. 302).

Fundamental questions about marriage, personal and professional independence, and the nature of female identity continued to preoccupy women writers throughout the 1890s. Two landmark works of fiction, the 1892 short story "The Yellow Wall-Paper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860–1935) and the 1899 novel The Awakening by Kate Chopin (1851–1904) reflect these concerns. The first-person narrator of Gilman's story, in the throes of postpartum depression, discovers she is imprisoned both literally in the upstairs bedroom of the home she and her physician husband have rented for the summer and figuratively by the rigid behavioral expectations of the Victorian cult of domesticity. Through her mounting obsession with the grotesque wallpaper decorating her room, she comes to realize that her husband's solicitous concern for her well-being is merely a way of infantilizing and controlling her. The narrator's descent into insanity at the story's end represents a desperate and extreme means of escape from these oppressive circumstances.

Similarly, Edna Pontellier, the protagonist of Chopin's novel, gradually "awakens" to her profound dissatisfaction with the roles imposed by marriage and motherhood. Though her husband, Léonce, provides generously for her outward existence, Edna feels empty and unfulfilled; looking inward she begins "to realize her position in the universe as a human being"—in other words, her identity as a separate, autonomous individual. Edna rebels against custom and convention, abandoning her Tuesday visits to other socially prominent New Orleans wives; she takes up sketching, learns to swim, and eventually becomes involved in an adulterous relationship. By the conclusion of The Awakening, Edna understands that while she can renounce the submissive, acquiescent role of wife, the role and responsibilities of motherhood cannot be ignored. Her sons appear in her imagination "like antagonists . . . who sought to drag her into the soul's slavery for the rest of her days" (p. 175). Edna eludes this entrapment by taking her own life; just as the narrator of "The Yellow Wall-Paper" finds freedom in madness, so Edna Pontellier discovers release in death.

The fiction of Edith Wharton (1862–1937) illustrates how the themes of female dependence and powerlessness persist in early-twentieth-century American literature. In her 1905 novel The House of Mirth, Wharton chronicles the tragic downfall of Lily Bart, a charming woman in her late twenties whose very survival depends upon marrying well. Born into an affluent family ruined by an unspecified financial reversal, Lily is orphaned as a young adult and minimally supported by her staid aunt, Mrs. Peniston. Because of her beauty, sophistication, and family lineage, Lily is welcomed in New York's elite social circles, yet she lacks the financial wherewithal to keep pace with her upper-class associates. Having incurred a significant debt from gambling at bridge, she naively allows Gus Trenor, the husband of a wealthy friend, to "invest" money in the stock market on her behalf. He agrees, hoping thereby to secure the young woman's sexual favors. Over time Trenor provides Lily with many thousands of dollars, which he falsely claims represent the dividends on her original investment. By the time Lily discovers Trenor's duplicity, she is more than $10,000 in debt, with no viable means of repayment.

As vague rumors circulate about the impropriety of her behavior, Lily's prospects of marriage evaporate; she is ostracized and eventually exiled from the privileged social set in which she previously circulated. Lily's downward spiral accelerates when she is disinherited by her conservative aunt and must actually work for a living for the first time in her life. She becomes an apprentice in a millinery shop, where she ineptly sews spangles and veils on ladies' hats and is soon dismissed. Musing on her failure, Lily realizes: "She had been fashioned to adorn and delight; to what other end does nature round the rose leaf and paint the hummingbird's breast? And was it her fault that the purely decorative mission is less easily and harmoniously fulfilled among social beings than in the world of nature?" (p. 311). Wharton's symbolism is clear—in a patriarchal society, women serve a merely "ornamental" function; they are passive, physically attractive commodities rather than active, purposeful agents. Just prior to Lily's "accidental" overdose from chloral at the end of the novel, she confides to Lawrence Selden, an acquaintance who has deliberately distanced himself from her like all the rest:

I am a very useless person. I can hardly be said to have an independent existence. I was just a screw or a cog in the great machine called life, and when I dropped out of it I found I was of no use anywhere else. What can one do when one finds that one only fits into one hole? One must get back to it or be thrown out into the rubbish heap—and you don't know what it's like in the rubbish heap! (P. 320)

The "one hole"—or narrowly defined social niche—into which Lily is destined to fit is that of wife. Once she is deemed unmarriageable, however, Lily loses that foothold and becomes a pariah, concluding after a series of painful humiliations and rejections that her life as a single woman has neither purpose nor intrinsic worth. Like Edna Pontellier, Lily cannot be redeemed; as such, death offers her only means of escape.

These troubling representations of women's plight are echoed and reaffirmed in the work of other late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century female writers like Willa Cather, Susan Glaspell, and Mary Wilkins Freeman. While not overtly propagandistic, these literary texts played a crucial role in galvanizing the political movement for radical social change later known as feminism.

See alsoThe Awakening; Cross-Dressing; Daisy Miller; The House of Mirth; Woman's Journal; Women and Economics; Women's Suffrage; "The Yellow Wall-Paper"


Primary Works

Blake, Lillie Devereux. Fettered for Life; or, Lord and Master. 1874. New York: Feminist Press, 1996.

Chopin, Kate. The Awakening and Selected Stories. 1899. New York: Penguin Books, 1984.

James, Henry. The Bostonians. 1886. New York: Modern Library, 2003.

Jewett, Sarah Orne. A Country Doctor. 1884. New York: Penguin Books, 1986.

Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. 1905. New York: New American Library, 1964.

Secondary Works

Ammons, Elizabeth. Conflicting Stories: American WomenWriters at the Turn into the Twentieth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Appleby, Joyce, Eileen Change, and Joanne Goodman, eds. Encyclopedia of Women in American History. 3 vols. New York: M. E. Sharpe, 2001.

Bardes, Barbara, and Suzanne Gossett. Declarations ofIndependence: Women and Political Power in 19th Century American Fiction. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1990.

Coultrap-McQuin, Susan. Doing Literary Business:American Women Writers in the Nineteenth Century. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.

Cullen-Dupont, Kathryn, ed. The Encyclopedia of Women'sHistory in America. New York: Facts on File, 2000.

Harris, Susan K. 19th Century American Women's Novels:Interpretive Strategies. New York and London: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Howard, Angela, and Frances Kavenik, eds. Handbook ofAmerican Women's History. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 2000.

Kilcup, Karen, ed. Soft Canons: American Women Writers and Masculine Tradition. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1999.

Kraditor, Aileen S., ed. Up from the Pedestal: SelectedWritings in the History of American Feminism. New York: Quadrangle Books, 1968.

Langley, Winston, and Vivian Fox, eds. Women's Rights in the United States: A Documentary History. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.

Marks, Patricia. Bicycles, Bangs, and Bloomers: The NewWoman in the Popular Press. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1990.

Norton, Mary Beth, and Ruth Alexander. Major Problems inAmerican Women's History: Documents and Essays. 3rd ed. Boston: Heath, 2003.

Stanton, Elizabeth Cady, Susan B. Anthony, and M. J. Gage. The History of Woman Suffrage. 3 vols. New York: Ayer, 1979.

Kerry Driscoll

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