feminism . a herstory

In the global West, various eras of Feminism serve to categorise changes that occurred following the industrial revolution. Whether there are three or four of these is up to debate, but for a more holistic outlook, I will work through events and developments without labelling specific forms as intrinsically tied to timelines. Several waves of Feminism remain active with their goals and history the primary factors distinguishing them from each other.

We start in the pre-war years. The end of the Victorian era where gender equality began to enter the political agenda. As Feminists such as Mary Wollstonecraft radically challenged the status quo towards the start of the industrial revolution, drawing attention to injustices faced, women’s groups began to rise in popularity as the voting discourse entered the mainstream. Known broadly as the first wave, suffragettes and lobbyists involved were primarily white, upper- and middle-class women operating under the conception of gender essentialism. Though they had made rapid and unprecedented progress in encouraging women into the workplace, their participation was channelled into domestic, low-paid work that reinforced traditional gender roles, no wonder as the dominant ideology of the time was fiercely traditional. However, this encouraged women’s financial independence in society, meaning that a step had been taken to re-balancing the scales. 

During WWI, women temporarily held blue-collar jobs that were formerly occupied by men (farming and munitions), proving to wider society that they can adopt the role of the economic breadwinner when required. Hence, Feminists during the peace period campaigned for improved working standards and education, while following WWII, second-wave radical Feminism took over as a dominant Feminist ideology. They were primarily white, middle-class women who identified the female sex as a biological class, challenging power structures in society (for instance, patriarchy). In addition, they focused on violence towards women and girls (VAWG) alongside the sexist nature of pornography, though have historically ignored intersectionality, instead, sowing seeds of conflict across the political sphere. For instance, Germaine Greer is a renowned second-wave Radical Feminist, essentialist and exclusionary who was prominent in the 1960s and 70s.

Marxist Feminism, however, offered a different perception. Rooted in classical theory, this attribute the plight of women to structural (macro) factors, namely relating to Western capitalist. Barrett, for instance, discussed how economic dependency serves to place women in subordination to male breadwinners, as the woman was historically unpaid (or underpaid). Hence, the gendered division of labour is seen as toxic to women, who are in turn perceived as the property of men. Though Marxist Feminism, historically, had somewhat the same issue as Radical Feminism in its ignorance of intersectionality, unlike Radical Feminism, Marxist Feminism has developed and modernised to encapsulate the struggles of those facing multiple disadvantages too.

So here we turn to the modern age. The events that took place from the 1980s and 90s emphasised a definitive shift in attitudes and values. As Radical Feminism declined, contemporary forms of Feminism took hold in mainstream society. Black Feminism, for instance, challenged the complicity and essentialism of white women (Truth), identifying multiple oppressions in the lives of Black women while still acknowledging the role of class. Kimberlé Crenshaw, for instance, coined the term intersectionality concerning the compounding effects of various inequalities. Her contributions to academia have proven highly influential in shaping modern Feminism, inspiring millennials and Gen-Z alike to inspire social change. This model is arguably the most holistic, therefore, through its contemporary outlook on ethnicity, class and gender. This has since been applied to fields as broad as disability studies and social policy due to its incredible value. From Audre Lorde’s experiences of being a Black lesbian in 1950s New York, surviving and forming safe spaces with those like-minded, to Davis’ experiences of systemic, mainstream racism and an unsatisfactory criminal justice system (CJS), Black Feminism proves an effective analysis of Western society.

Lastly, Eco Feminism rose to prominence alongside Black Feminism, though with different purposes, to explore environmental impacts to women in the modern-day. Hence, Mellor discussed an analogy of women, unacknowledged, cleaning up after men in wider society. This strand has much in common with Green Socialism, promoting similar policies to try and improve society, tying into Crenshaw’s explanation of political intersectionality as women sometimes get involved with the Eco Feminism movement to improve their situation amid climate change and rising far-right popularism. Hence, political agendas of the Right (which directly affect them) influence their response and affiliations.

There are many issues with historical forms of Feminism, one being that some are instruments for the advancement of affluent, white women (Meyers), however each, to some extent, have society positively, despite pitfalls affecting their modern perception. Alas, Feminism in all its strands has nonetheless been critical in constructively shaping society.


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