Feminist theory is the extension of feminism into theoretical or philosophical discourse. It aims to understand the nature of gender inequality. It examines women’s social roles, experience, interests, and feminist politics in a variety of fields, such as anthropology and sociology, communication, psychoanalysis, economics, literary, education, philosophy, and even linguistics. Feminist researchers embrace two key tenets: (1) their research should focus on the condition of women in society, and (2) their research must be grounded in the assumption that women generally experience oppressive subordination. Thus, feminist research rejects Weber‘s value-free orientation in favor of being overtly political — doing research in pursuit of gender equality. Any movement not seeking equality cannot, therefore, be called Feminism (which basically rejects modern conservative notions of feminism).
Modern Western feminist history is split into three time periods, or “waves”, each with slightly different aims based on prior progress.
I. First-wave feminism of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries focused on overturning legal inequalities, particularly women’s suffrage.
18th century: the Age of Enlightenment — The Age of Enlightenment was characterized by secular intellectual reasoning and a flowering of philosophical writing. Many Enlightenment philosophers defended the rights of women, including Jeremy Bentham (1781), Marquis de Condorcet (1790), and, perhaps most notably, Mary Wollstonecraft whose A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) is one of the first works that can unambiguously be called feminist. In America, feminist movement leaders campaigned for the national Abolition of Slavery and Temperance before championing women’s rights. The antislavery campaign of the 1830s served as both a cause ideologically compatible with feminism and a blueprint for later feminist political organizing. Attempts to exclude women only strengthened their convictions.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage saw the Church as a major obstacle to women’s rights, and welcomed the emerging literature on matriarchy. Both Gage and Stanton produced works on this topic, and collaborated on The Woman’s Bible (1895) to challenge the traditional position of religious orthodoxy that woman should be subservient to man.
Early 19th-century feminists reacted to cultural inequities including the pernicious widespread acceptance of the Victorian image of women’s “proper” role and “sphere”. As Jane Austen addressed women’s restricted lives in the early part of the century, Charlotte Brontë, Anne Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell, and George Eliot depicted women’s misery and frustration. Feminists of previous centuries charged women’s exclusion from education as the central cause for their domestic relegation and denial of social advancement, and women’s 19th-century education was not much better.
“I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat, or a prostitute.” — Rebecca West, “Mr. Chesterton in hysterics”, The Clarion, 1913
Major issues in the 1910s and 1920s included suffrage, economics and employment, sexuality and families, war and peace, and a Constitutional amendment for equality. Both equality and difference were seen as routes to women’s empowerment. Women entered the labor market during the First World War in unprecedented numbers, often in new sectors, and discovered the value of their work. The war also left large numbers of women bereaved and with a net loss of household income. The scores of men killed and wounded shifted the demographic composition.
II. Second-wave feminism (1960s–1980s) broadened debate to include cultural inequalities, gender norms, and the role of women in society.
The backlash against U.S. women is real. As the misconception of equality between the sexes becomes more ubiquitous, so does the attempt to restrict the boundaries of women’s personal and political power. (Clarence) Thomas’ confirmation, the ultimate rally of support for the male paradigm of harassment, sends a clear message to women: “Shut up! Even if you speak, we will not listen.”
I will not be silenced.
I acknowledge the fact that we live under siege. I intend to fight back. I have uncovered and unleashed more repressed anger than I thought possible. For the umpteenth time in my 22 years, I have been radicalized, politicized, shaker) awake. I have come to voice again, and this time my voice is not conciliatory.
The night after Thomas’s confirmation I ask the man I am intimate with what he thinks of the whole mess. His concern is primarily with Thomas’ propensity to demolish civil rights and opportunities for people of color. I launch into a tirade. “When will progressive black men prioritize my rights and well-being? When will they stop talking so damn much about ‘the race’ as if it revolved exclusively around them?” He tells me I wear my emotions on my sleeve. I scream “I need to know, are you with me or are you going to help them try to destroy me?” — Rebecca Walker, Becoming the Third Wave, MS Magazine, 1992
III. Third-wave feminism (1990s–present) refers to diverse strains of feminist activity, seen as both a continuation of the second wave and a response to the perceived failures of and backlash against initiatives and movements created by Second-wave feminism during the 1960s to 1980s, and the realization that women are of “many colors, ethnicities, nationalities, religions and cultural backgrounds”. The third wave embraces diversity and change. In this wave, as in previous ones, there is no all-encompassing single feminist idea, and thus no single target for anti-feminists to focus upon.
Third-wave feminism seeks to challenge or avoid what it deems the second wave’s “essentialist” definitions of femininity, which often assumed a universal female identity and over-emphasized the experiences of upper-middle-class white women.
Essentialism as it relates to Feminism theorizes that there are innate, essential differences between men and women. That is, we are born with certain traits. This is often used as an explanation for why there are so few women in science and technology. It is also used as a rationale for pigeonholing, offering limited education, hiring discrimination, etc. It is also sometimes raised (including by women) under the guise of Equal but different.
In “Deconstructing Equality-versus-Difference: Or, the Uses of Poststructuralist Theory for Feminism,” (.pdf) Joan W. Scott describes how language has been used as a way to understand the world, however, “post-structuralists insist that words and texts have no fixed or intrinsic meanings, that there is no transparent or self-evident relationship between them and either ideas or things, no basic or ultimate correspondence between language and the world”. Thus, while language has been used to create binaries (such as male/female), post-structuralists see these binaries as artificial constructs created to maintain the power and privilege of dominant groups.
For third-wave feminists, therefore, “sexual liberation,” a major goal of second-wave feminism, was expanded to mean a process of first becoming conscious of the ways one’s gender identity and sexuality have been shaped by society and then intentionally constructing (and becoming free to express) one’s authentic gender identity.
Third wavers inherited a foothold of institutional power created by second wavers, including women’s studies programs at universities, long-standing feminist organizations, and well-established publishing outlets such as Ms. magazine and several academic journals. These outlets became a less important part of the culture of the third wave than they had been for the second wave.
In expressing their concerns, third-wave feminists actively subverted, co-opted, and played on seemingly sexist images and symbols. This was evident in the double entendre and irony of the language commonly adopted by people in their self-presentations. Slang used derogatorily in most earlier contexts became proud and defiant labels. The spirit and intent of the third wave shone through the raw honesty, humour, and horror of Eve Ensler’s play (and later book) The Vagina Monologues, an exploration of women’s feelings about sexuality that included vagina-centered topics as diverse as orgasm, birth, and rape; the righteous anger of punk rock’s riot grrrls movement; and the playfulness, seriousness, and subversion of the Guerrilla Girls, a group of women artists who donned gorilla masks in an effort to expose female stereotypes and fight discrimination against female artists.” — Third Wave continued
Third-wave theory usually incorporates elements of queer theory; anti-racism and women-of-color consciousness; womanism; girl power; post-colonial theory; postmodernism; transnationalism; cyberfeminism; ecofeminism; individualist feminism; new feminist theory, transgender politics, and a rejection of the gender binary (see, for example, Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (.pdf, 1990)).
Third-wave feminism seeks to challenge or avoid second-wave “essentialist” definitions of femininity, which over-emphasized the experiences of white, upper middle class women. A post-structuralist interpretation of gender and sexuality, or an understanding of gender as outside binary maleness and femaleness, is central to much of the third wave’s ideology. Proponents of third-wave feminism claim that it allows women to define feminism for themselves by incorporating their own identities into the belief system of what feminism is, what it encompasses, and what it can become through one’s own perspective.