People Power (Social Movements)


The women’s movement.

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Summary: #first wave    #second wave    #third wave     #assessment of third wave    #sex vs. gender    #sexism    #dualism in language    #personal is political    #recent issues    #books 



Some more ‘theory’: note that the discussion of ‘theory’ has always been an essential part of the women’s movement, and it is divided into ‘waves’ (three or possibly four by now!) largely on the basis of changes in approach – leading to changing demands.


We might compare this with the labour movement, where many demands were purely economic, or for more political power, without (except in the case of Marxism) much in the way of theoretical or philosophical argument.


The bracketing of periods of feminist activity into ‘waves’ relates very much to the theory as well as the practice.


1. The ‘First wave’ of feminism.


All the developments that occurred up until the middle of the 20th century can be described as belonging to the first wave of feminism, because they shared the following ideas:


 - it was believed that political equality (the vote) would lead to or come with legal, economic, and social equality and equal treatment/rights – and political equality would lead to changes in attitude. But when the vote was obtained, and nothing else changed, then formal equality was seen as not enough. There was still a need for more fundamental material and attitudinal changes, or as Millett puts it (p 85) - ‘changes in social attitudes and social structure, in personality and institutions’.


- the main political perspective (philosophical viewpoint) adopted during this phase was a liberal perspective (though some were socialist, see below): central to this is:

 (i) an emphasis on individual freedoms and rights – which hitherto had only applied to men of course…

(ii) an emphasis on beliefs/values, and the goal is to change attitudes.


As we saw (with Mary Wollstonecraft especially), one early aim of the women’s movement was to get acceptance that women had an equal ability to reason (see the extracts for examples of philosophical and other views claiming that women were inferior in their rational abilities). It is important to note that to be regarded as an adult – and therefore having the ability to exercise moral and legal responsibility (i.e. autonomy) depends on a person being accepted as rational.



There were differences within the women’s movement in the first wave, for example the view that women are not that different to men, and it is social conditions that prevent women realising their potential, as against the argument that differences between men and women are innate. The Liberal Feminist view minimises the differences between men and women - all are rational etc. cf. Mary Wollstonecraft "the distinction of sex (i.e. gender) [should be] confounded in society, unless where love animates the behaviour."


Note that many ‘liberal’ political philosophers (e.g. Rousseau) have had anti-woman elements in their theories (see Notes on feminism). A deep and critical examination of theories about women in society was one of the main factors that led to the ‘second wave’.



For me, by far the most radical of the first wave feminists was Simone de Beauvoir (1908 – 1986) whose book The Second Sex (1949) brought the philosophy of existentialism into feminism. (See de Beauvoir). Her in-depth exploration prepared the way for the ‘second wave’ of feminism.


The book contained an analysis, and rejection, of other explanations of the position of women – Marxist, Freudian etc – and advocated an approach based on existentialism. For existentialists there is no pre-given human nature (hence no pre-given differences between men and women, other than the purely biological) – we make choices in life that define our being. However, these choices are very often affected by the society in which we live, and by others, who are competing to keep the freedom to define their own identity. For de Beauvoir, women are an Other to men, but men have defined themselves first (their role, identity etc), so that women are always explained in relation to men: men are the ‘norm’ against which women are measured – and women are not taken as existing in their own right. Men have the ability, through work and political power, and their higher position in society, to ‘transcend’: to gain fulfillment and to shape their own destiny. Women lack this ability because of their position in society, and especially because of the expectations of men. Hence: ‘the second sex’.


There is an extract from this book in ‘The Penguin Book of Twentieth-Century Protest p 207).


2. The second wave of feminism (1960s/70s – 1990s):


It became clear that although women now had the vote, (but note that many countries have taken a long time to ‘give’ the vote to women – see #footnote) and more women now had paid jobs, nothing much had changed as regards their status. A more radical stance needed to be taken. The conventional political struggle has failed, and there was still a need to change the dominant thinking about women.


Even the youth/hippie movement of the 1960s, and the various socialist parties and groups of the time (see later weeks) still too often treated women as subservient to men. ‘Free love’ as one feminist has said, simply meant that men expected women to be readily available. Even with contraception it was not so easy for women to express their needs, or to refuse sex if pressured into it. In socialist groups – despite their professed belief in equality for all – women were given ancillary roles, making the refreshments or minding the crčche. In one Trotskyist group the leader, Gerry Healy, took advantage of his position to demand that women slept with him in return for promises of promotion within the organisation. The WRP as it then was collapsed when the leader’s behaviour became public knowledge. I don’t have first-hand knowledge of right-wing groups at the time, but I doubt the pattern of behaviour was much different!


In 1970 the first Women’s Liberation Conference was held in Oxford. There were 600 women present, and they formulated demands for: equal pay, 24 hour child care, free contraception, free abortion on demand – the new focus on reproduction, women’s experience, and the new argument from some feminists that there are important differences between men and women is all part of a new way of thinking in the movement.


Thus this phase stressed "difference" - and problems of “identity”, (see below) and it drew on biological, anthropological and psychological evidence and theories (as had de Beauvoir). The political outlook of the second phase/wave was more radical than the first, i.e. demanding more profound social changes.


During this wave, women’s papers such as Spare Rib, Shrew, and Wires were started. Refuges for battered women, and rape crisis centres were established. And within the movement, groups tackled specific issues and especially violence against women, (e.g. Women Against Violence Against Women; Reclaim the Night; the Working Women’s Charter 1974).


Key texts of the second wave:

The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, 1963 – resisting the pressure on women to adopt the role ascribed to them of mother; used arguments such as that the children of mothers who stayed at home did not benefit but were bored and dependent. (See The Penguin Book of Twentieth-Century Protest p 287)


Of Woman Born by Adrienne Rich, 1976 – motherhood as penal servitude, and as a patriarchal institution – leading to questioning of all aspects of reproduction, parenthood etc.


The GLC also had an important role in promoting women’s causes (it gave Ł4.6 million to women’s projects before being closed down in 1986), and there were links with the political ‘left’ over Clause 28 (which restricted discussion of homosexuality in schools). See, for example, Beyond the Fragments by Sheila Rowbotham.


During the 1980s/90s: as in USA, extra issues were identified as needing to be addressed within the movement: black women, immigration, women in the third world (though movements representing the latter had been in existence since 1913)… In Britain OWAAD (Organisation for Women of African and Asian Descent), was set up in 1978, and wound up in 1982. See and (the first page of an article about OWAAD.)


From 1981 a camp was established at Greenham Common, (site of US nuclear weapons and missiles, especially cruise) which linked the women’s movement with the anti-war movement. For many feminists, war is derived from, or part of the problem of, male violence… The camp caused controversy (of course!) by excluding men. In 1982 30,000 women surrounded the base – by 1990 were over 100 peace camps around the world. Eventually the base was closed down – though it is a matter of debate as to whether the camp contributed to the decision to close it.

See: The Road to Greenham Common, by Jill Liddington, Syracuse University Press,1989.


The perspective/philosophical viewpoint of the second wave was ‘radical feminism’: central issues concerned women’s control over their bodies, sexuality, and reproduction. The importance of reproduction lay in the fact that if women are tied by it, or to it, it prevents them going into public life. (The feminist analysis of the role of ‘reproduction’ later came to include the reproduction of ideas… see the third wave below).


Common to this perspective is the belief that there are physical/biological as well as psychological and socio-economic dimensions to the exploitation of women, which go beyond capitalism. In other words, patriarchy and dominance over women are found in other socio-political systems, and not only in capitalism.


There were many ways in which the 2nd wave of feminism contributed to politics, social issues (and philosophy):


- Feminism threw new light on the ‘public/private’ distinction. Hitherto (especially in liberal political thinking) these were regarded as completely separate – what happens in the home has nothing to do with public issues such as politics; but when it is argued that ‘the personal is the political,’ this has repercussions on political thought. Nowadays it is accepted that contraception, abortion, domestic violence, rape etc are matters that need to be publicly discussed; and governmental policies are crucial in determining how women (more so than men) are treated in relation to these and other issues. (Take the current debate over the identification of men accused of rape… or the Catholic position on condoms in dealing with the spread of AIDS).


- The second wave of the movement led to a celebration of diversity, which arose out of discussions of women’s ‘identity.’ In addition it was soon recognised that although they have many experiences in common, white women and black women (for example) experience sexism differently – black women having to face a double discrimination; similarly with other categories such as ‘class’, sexual orientation, ability/disability…  This phenomenon is called ‘intersectionality’…


It was important therefore, given the way ‘women’ had all been squeezed into one ‘identity’, to counter this stereotyping with a celebration of our diversity. Recently, ‘identity politics’ has come under attack – presumably because it lacks a way of bringing together the experiences of different ‘identities.’ Other criticisms are based on the danger of ‘essentialism’ – i.e. a view that should run counter to how feminists think, if they accept what e.g. de Beauvoir argues, that women are ‘made’ not ‘born’. Bearing in mind that we are talking about the ‘women’s liberation movement’, the question has to be asked whether ‘identity’ is a liberating concept, or one that traps individuals and groups. Nationalism, if taken as a type of identity politics, illustrates this nicely I think. (The Wikipedia discussion, though abstruse in places, adds to this: 


- Second wave feminists practiced ways of organizing that were non-hierarchical – since a key feature of patriarchy is that it is a power-relation. These ideas and practices had an impact on other social movements (e.g. greens).


Towards the end of this period, there was a ‘backlash’ against feminism (though we might argue that there has always been a backlash against feminism!), and Backlash, by Susan Faludi, 1991 – noted that feminism was being blamed for women’s woes in the ‘80s. This she saw as a way of re-domesticating women.


3. Third wave (and perspective):


This wave is distinctive because the ideas behind it are ‘post-modern’.


Postmodernism is a difficult idea, but in this context one way of describing it is the deconstruction of all dominant narratives’. (See Notes on feminism and I hope to complete notes specifically on postmodernism and feminism).


‘Deconstruction’: taking apart, breaking down so as to reveal hidden meanings (a philosophy mostly associated with the French 20th century philosopher Derrida – though he went beyond deconstruction, some argue).. For example, feminists point out that the use of the word ‘he’ or ‘mankind’ as if it includes women is deceptive – since women have been excluded from e.g. citizenship, and denied equal rights with men. Yet most people who use the word ‘mankind’ don’t realise this hidden past in its meaning.


‘Narrative’ is a word used to indicate that we should question the idea that there are ‘truths’: since the ‘truth’ has been established by white western men… perhaps the word truth hides the fact that what is being claimed is not true. For example, in politics the definition of the purpose of the state was for a long time (especially since the 18th century, and the ideas of John Locke) that it ‘defends our rights and our property’ – yet women (and blacks…) at the time had neither property nor rights – so in relation to the state they didn’t exist? If, it was argued, modern thinking had such appalling beliefs at its core, (because we were ‘modern’ we were superior and justified in exploiting others) then it was necessary to take apart (deconstruct) these ‘modern’ beliefs and to think in a new way – one that gave women, people of other races, and the natural environment their rightful place. Putting this in philosophical language, postmodernism saw that "discourses of power assume inequality at their very roots" (Whelehan 1995).


What is the ‘dominant narrative’? The dominant narrative is ‘modernism’ – the ideas brought about by the Enlightenment: these include a belief in individual rights as inviolable, individual property, freedom, and the scientific method. Radical political theorists, including some feminists, want us to examine these ideas more closely – to ‘deconstruct’ them.


Questions then arise such as: is there such a thing as an isolated individual whose freedom is sacrosanct? Are we not social beings – what about our responsibility to each other? How can a mother exercise her individual freedom and take care of a baby? What rights do people have if they have no property? (At this point in time the Roma are being expelled from France). Can science help to solve political or ethical problems: if it is wonderful, why is the environment under threat from technological inventions? (See point 3.4 in pp21feminism.htm for notes on the origins of science and feminism).


The version of postmodernism that I believe is the most useful follows the seminal work by Jean-Francois Lyotard: The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, 1979. In fact Lyotard with this work brought about the idea of ‘postmodernism’.


Feminist postmodernism:

Some versions of postmodernism seem to be apolitical, or as leading to cynicism, since it rejects all modern ideas; but the ‘third wave’ of feminism, together with anti-colonialism in recent times, has adopted postmodern ideas in a way that enables a critique of modernism and of patriarchy.


The ‘modern’ world, it is argued, came about with the scientific revolution and with the colonization by Europe of much of the rest of the world. ‘Modern’ thinking almost always included (mostly explicit but sometimes hidden) a belief in the superiority of the white man – (the stress here is on both ‘white’ and ‘man’!) since he (never ‘she’) had developed technologies and knowledge that were in advance of anything else in the world, and this had enabled him to colonise other countries (to ‘bring them the advantages the white man had’ – in theory!). Consequently a world-view emerged in which whites were superior to blacks, and men were superior to women.


(This is the ‘flip side’ of the Enlightenment that Kate Millett saw as having contributed to the growth of the women’s liberation movement. For critics of the Enlightenment there was much more about it that was conducive to the emergence of patriarchy than the liberation of women – see The Enlightenment: race, slavery, women).


Feminists came up with new concepts to describe, for example, the way that men’s view of the world had taken over and was used to support men’s power over women: such thinking was phallocentric... 


Where exactly this new ‘postmodern discourse’ has got us is a matter of controversy – but its strength lay in not only challenging ideas that had been accepted unquestioningly, but in its being interdisciplinary (breaking down barriers between ‘disciplines’ such as ‘politics’ and ‘morality’ for example). Postmodernism sees the fragmentation and pigeonholing of knowledge into disciplines as a product of the old, ‘modern’ way of thinking.


Some critics of postmodernism say that it is ‘relativist’ – i.e. if all discourses or all points of view, are simply the expression of a will-to-power on the part of some group or other – where is the ‘truth’? Or should we agree with postmodernists and say that ‘truth’ is another of these terms used to bolster the ‘modernist’ view of the world?! A less difficult criticism is that postmodernism is simply far too academic to be of much use in confronting real-life problems of male domination!!


As an example of the way that the third, postmodern, wave opened up questions in the women’s movement, there ensued an argument as to how women should behave: if men have been able (had the right!) to be openly sexual (wolf-whistling, lads mags etc), while women are expected to be modest – and with this to have no power or status, then why should women not gain power by having the same freedom as men to be openly sexual? Women then demanded the right to decide what the limits were to their own sexual behaviour - women having always been told by men how to be ‘sexual’ – or how they should not be! Previous feminist arguments, that appearing attractive to men was playing into their hands, (as it were!) now came under question: being attractive to men can be ‘empowering’ after all.


Thus, (following a recent discussion in the pages of the Guardian) for Rebecca Walker, daughter of the novelist Alice Walker, the ‘third wave’ meant continuing the second wave activism ‘but still shaving your legs.’ On the other hand, for Wendy Shalit, the third wave carried the sexual revolution too far, and ‘conditioned young women to become sluts’ – pole-dancing [some feminists said they saw nothing wrong in women doing this if they chose to] cannot be empowering, and women should be ‘modest’.



For Siegal there are still issues of power, not just sexual power either. ‘It is confusing to be a daughter of feminism in a culture that has changed in your favour – but stopped half way (at most)’. The stripping pole (pole dancing) has become a distraction – much as ‘bra-burning’ did in the second wave. ‘We need to keep our eyes on the wider array of women’s issues.’


4. Assessment of the third wave:


Germaine Greer and others believe the third wave achieved little – as against the second wave, which brought about changes in legislation, women’s shelters, feminist institutions etc.

On the other hand, many self-described third-wavers said to Deborah Siegal (Guardian 31.08.07) for her book: Sisterhood Interrupted: from radical women to grrls gone wild… that the third wave had achieved things, e.g. (in America): the Young Women’s Project, Third Wave Foundation, Younger Women’s Task Force, REAL Hot 100. In the UK there are new media – six new feminist publications launched in 18 months, and the website The F Word (edited by Jess McCabe).


New concepts and perspectives:  This section is as in Philosophy and feminism.


Feminism has had a substantial impact on philosophy: it has developed new perspectives, and new concepts – or at the least, a re-thinking of existing concepts.

Some of these concepts have entered our everyday language – though not always in the sense intended by feminist thinkers!


4.1 sex vs. gender 


For much of our intellectual history we have assumed that men have certain ‘natural’ characteristics, and women have others. Feminists have pointed out that there is a difference between ‘male’(a biological category) and ‘masculine’ (a character trait), likewise: ‘female’ and ‘feminine’. Men (males) do not have to be ‘masculine’ (strong, ambitious, ‘big boys don’t cry’ etc) – nor do women (females) have to be ‘feminine’ (delicate, sensitive, nurturing, intuitive etc).

In other words we need to distinguish between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’:

Men and women have different biological characteristics = sex (male/female), but culture determines/defines gender, i.e. what "masculinity/femininity" mean.

As an illustration of the feminist view, here is what Simone de Beauvoir wrote in 1949 in The Second Sex Part IV:

"One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman. No biological, psychological, or economic

fate determines the figure that the human female presents in society; it is civilisation as a

whole that produces this creature, intermediate between male and eunuch, which is

described as feminine.."


i.e. de Beauvoir challenges accepted views of the “nature" of woman, and asks that we examine the question: how is woman constituted? (see: Simone de Beauvoir).


4.2 sexism:

To my mind, this is one of the least-understood words used in discussions about the relations between the sexes. Too often it is used whenever someone says something about a difference between men and women… However, it should only apply in situations where ‘women's characteristics’ are said to be not just different to men’s but "inferior".


Simone de Beauvoir pointed out that, of course, "different" implies different from something, and the crucial question that is often overlooked is that men’s characteristics are regarded as ‘normal’ or ‘essential’ and women’s as somehow lacking or inferior. As she said: the question is often asked ‘what is a woman?’whereas no-one asks ‘what is a man?’ ‘Man’ is assumed to be the norm, woman somehow deviant from the norm


Sexism means arguing three things:


(i) Women are different, and (ii) this is by nature (women – and men - have no choice over how they are, they cannot be changed...), and (iii) since it is assumed that ‘men’ represent what is normal, or best, then women are (by nature) inferior (if they were merely culturally inferior they could be re-educated...).


Notice, in other words, that the concept ‘sexism’ depends on what was said above about the difference between ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ with regard to sex/gender….


The consequence of sexism is to reinforce the lack of power that women have – to continue to take power from women by defining them in a certain way. It is when we look - closely and critically - at the ways in which women have been described as different that we begin to see the power-relations involved.


So, it is not sexist per se to say women are different – it depends on the kind of difference! It is not sexist to say women are biologically different (unless from this you draw conclusions that put women down). The term ‘sexism’ was devised by analogy with ‘racism’…  There is no point in pretending that black people don’t have black skins, and other physical difference to whites. On the other hand, if you use these differences in a way which indicates you think they make the black person inferior, you are being racist. So, feminists are not trying to claim there are no biological differences between men and women, but they are wary of differences which are given different values. (See the list of ‘dualisms’ that comes at the end of this section).


To my mind – and this may be controversial but I believe it follows from the above, and many feminists would also argue this way: a disparaging remark or statement about men is not truly sexist: men generally (men as men – this is not a question merely of individuals, as there are of course exceptions to the rule) are in a position of power and privilege, and no amount of negative remarks or statements about men can alter that. On the other hand, the problem with sexism is – as stated above – precisely that it reinforces a position of inferiority on the part of those to whom it is directed (and superiority on the part of the originator).


In sum, power-relations are at the heart of the matter: men who treat women as inferior do so in order to make themselves feel superior. Note Virginia Woolf's (1929) vivid account of this: (quoted in Feminism: A Reader ed. Humm 1992)


Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size. Without that power probably the earth

would still be swamp and jungle.


Whatever may be their use in civilised societies, mirrors are essential to all violent and heroic action.  That is why Napoleon and Mussolini both insist so emphatically on the inferiority of women,

for if they were not inferior, they would cease to enlarge…


How is he to go on giving judgement, civilising natives, making laws, writing books, dressing up and speechifying at banquets, unless he can see himself at breakfast and dinner at least twice the

size he really is!


4.3 It is important to note that sexism can be deeply embedded in the language we use:

I call this way of thinking ‘normative dualism’ - the pairs of characteristics represent: the ‘norm’ – on the left below - and against it an inferior or ‘abnormal’ counterpart. But of course, the left-hand side represents attributes of men…


same thing, different values:

angry                                                               hysterical

assertive/dominant                                          bitchy/bossy

talk/converse                                                   gossip/chatter

complain                                                          nag

stud/Don Juan/Casanova                                whore/slut/slag


hierarchical categories:

superior                                                           inferior

normal                                                             different

essential                                                           complementary


distinct characteristics:

mind                                                                body

reason/logic/analysis                                        intuition/feeling/hunch

transcendence                                                 immanence

culture                                                             nature

active                                                               passive

public/state/society                                          private/community/family

universal                                                          particular

impartial/objective                                           personal/subjective

truth                                                                opinion

autonomous/independent                                dependent/nurturing/relational

self-regarding                                                  other-regarding/altruistic

hard/strong                                                      soft/sensitive/weak

polygamous                                                     monogamous

penetrating                                                      receptive

active                                                               masochistic/narcissistic


4.4  a new way of seeing the world: the personal is the political:


            The pioneering 18th century feminist Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 – 1797), author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1791), argued that women (a) have the ability to reason but (b) have been prevented from developing and using it by being expected to be merely "beautiful": they are told their main value is in their beauty – they are praised for this to ‘compensate’ for their treatment as inferior beings:


An early demand of the women’s movement was for ‘wages for housework’ – this raises other issues, but also relates to the question of what is personal or private and what is ‘political.



Finally, as can be seen from the statistics on domestic violence, as well as in the anger at the inadequate policing of rape and stalking, violence even in the home is not a purely ‘personal’ matter…

(See: Statistics on Inequality etc).


5. Recent issues: where is feminism now? 

(See original notes for an earlier list: Women's Movement)


Issues that are under discussion now include:

The ‘glass ceiling – unequal pay e.g. for male and female broadcasters

Inequality in pay – the gap is still large and it will take many years to equalize pay, despite there being an equal pay law!

The #metoo movement – unwanted sexual advances, and coercion into sex acts: women have now made it public how often this goes on

 There is much more awareness of the problem of female genital mutilation (I prefer this term to ‘circumcision’): thousands of young girls in Britain are likely to be affected by this practice, which in Egypt for example is incredibly widespread. This is perhaps evidence of the importance of the second wave concern for women other than middle-class westerners.


6. Books:

Oakley, Ann: Housewife (1974?), The Men’s Room (?), Taking it like a woman (autobiography), A Critical Woman (2011) Bloomsbury 30.00


Recent/Forthcoming Books on Feminism Today:

‘Is Feminism finding its voice again?’ See: Guardian: Kira Cochrane,

Reclaiming the F Word: the New Feminist Movement, by Catherine Redfern, Kristin Aune

Kat Banyard: The Truth About men and Women Today

(Guardian): Women of the Revolution – forty years of feminism (articles in the Guardian) 6.99/9.99

Nicholas D Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn: Half the Sky (on plight of women in the developing world).

Ellie Levenson: The Noughtie Girl’s Guide to Feminism

Nina Power: One Dimensional Woman

Sheila Rowbotham: Dreamers of a New Day 

Natasha Walter: Living Dolls

Website: - contemporary UK feminism…


Footnote: When did women get the vote?

Women and votes: a brief history (extracts from Atlas of Women by Joni Seager), full picture on the site of the inter-parliamentary union:

1848 French men – women not until 1944

1893 New Zealand first country to give women the vote

1902 white Australian women - Aboriginals not until 1967

1915 Denmark: both men and women get the vote

1918 UK – women over 40

1920 white US women - native Americans (men and women) living on reservations not until 1924

1928 UK – restrictions withdrawn

1929 ‘literate’ Puerto Rican women – rest not until 1835

1930 Turkish women

1931 white South African women, Indians and ‘coloured’ women: 1984, blacks not until 1994

1956 Egyptian women

1963 Iranian women

1971 Swiss women

1974 Jordanian women

1980 Iraq

1989 Namibia

1999 Kuwait nearly gives vote to women – suffrage bill defeated by two votes – even though more than a third of the workforce is women

2001 Bahrain gives women the vote

2005 Kuwait

In 2005 men were allowed to vote in local elections in Saudi Arabia (women not allowed to vote or to stand), in the United Arab Emirates parliament is appointed: no-one has the vote!