An Extremely Brief History of Feminism

    When discussing the topic of feminism, many images can be conjured, from Emma Watson speaking against gender inequality to people with strange haircuts getting offended on Tumblr. Not only is the idea of feminism varied now, but it has changed throughout the past as well. Though often seen as a liberal front, early feminist movements surprisingly began as religious endeavors.

Though the movement for women’s suffrage was in effect in the late 1800s, what large this movement was the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, or WCTU. In a time when alcohol legislation didn’t exist—including a legal drinking age—women rallied to support the passage of the Temperance Act. Though the WCTU began primarily with intentions of supporting the 18th Amendment, it also worked to raise the age of consent, supplied towns with clean water fountains and taught schoolchildren about the dangers of alcoholism. A collection of Ellen White’s endorsements of the WCTU can be found in The Temperance Work compilation.

When prohibitionist supporters realized a voting female populous could sway the legislation towards an ban on alcohol, WCTU supporters began rallying for the right of the female vote. The suffragist organizations of the late 1800s to early 1900s introduced familiar characters such as Susan B Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Sojourner Truth. This is what is referred to as first-wave feminism, with the focus primarily on legal issues and the right to vote. With the 18th and 19th Amendments passed in 1920, public feminism lost its notoriety to aspects of history such as mafia wars, the Great Depression and World War II.

While first-wave feminism was focused and directed in its goals of prohibition and equal representation, second-wave feminism had a broader, less conclusive scope. During the 1960s and 1970s, the legislation achieved by the proponents of women’s rights were predominantly socially-focused, such as the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the still-debated Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. During this period, the oral contraceptive or birth control pill was approved by the FDA and the US Armed Forces accepted women into its ranks.

Another period of feminism known as third-wave feminism began in the mullet-clad era of the 1990s. During this phase, which is considered to constitute most approaches to feminism of the 2000s and 2010s, much reform no longer focuses on women’s civil rights but on social issues and the media. Gender roles and stereotypes have been considered antagonists of third-wave feminists, and the primary faces of the third wave have been musical artists, bands and authors rather than occupational activists (people who primarily focused on social activism and legal reform still exist, but are not considered been the face of third-wave feminism). Unlike its more conservative predecessors, third-wave feminism itself began to split itself on primary issues, such as pornography and sex work, matters was seen as exploitation by some and empowerment by others.

It should be noted that this “wave” classification system was based off a New York Times Magazine article from 1968 and primarily analyzes Western hemisphere’s feminism movement. There remain many countries (contributors to Eastern civilization) which currently don’t allow women to drive cars or to become involved with basic political processes. Also, unlike its militantly-organized predecessors, one should note that modern feminism isn’t a controlled institution with a unified goal. There may be general ideals which many feminists agree upon, but in a postmodern society it seems the only thing preventing someone from being a feminist is that individual’s personal decision to identify as one.

While relating on the history of feminism, I believe we must ask the question: Though inclusivity is important, should the activism of Malala Yousafzai fall under the same “feminism” that encompasses arguments about modern chivalry such as whether or not men should hold doors for women? Though blatant goals, occupational organization and unified beliefs could make the modern feminist movement the political steam engine it once was, it should be remembered that even the Seventh-day Adventist Church has all those things and even it has trouble making cohesive decisions, despite its intentions for good.

Sources for this article include “Four Waves of Feminism” by Martha Rampton of Pacific University Oregon and Gender Communication Theories & Analyses: From Silence to Performance by Charløtte Kroløkke and Anne Scott Sørensen.


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