People Power (Social Movements)
The women’s movement.
Links: Imagining-Other Home Page
Part One: Introduction and History.
1.1 Definitions of feminism:
Maggie Humm (author of: Feminisms, a Reader, Harvester 1992 and The Dictionary of Feminist Theory, Harvester 1989):
"[feminism] incorporates both a doctrine of equal rights for women (the organised movement to obtain women's rights) and an ideology of social transformation aiming to create a world for women beyond simple equality... it is the ideology of women's liberation since intrinsic in all its approaches is the belief that women suffer injustice because of our sex.”
Rebecca West, 1913:
“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."
Wilson, E.: Hidden Agendas... Tavistock 1986:
“[Feminism] embraces many theories - is a political commitment – or... an ethical commitment.. - to giving women their true value. It is not even possible to say it is a commitment to equality, since some feminists have argued... for separate spheres of influence, emphasising difference and complementarity rather than equality...”
- women ‘suffer injustice because of our sex’ – that is, women as a category are in a different position to men
- there may be other injustices – unfair treatment of groups of people due to class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability etc, but the way we deal with the sexes cuts across all of these (this is called ‘intersectionality’: there are interlocking systems of power that affect different sections of society)
- feminists are not all in agreement on everything, however, since some argue for equality (and would minimise the differences between the sexes), and others argue for a new order that recognises the differences between men and women but does not privilege men at the expense of women.
1.2. What kind of changes does the women’s movement seek?
Kate Millett, Sexual Politics 1969 (first published in Britain 1971) ‘A sexual revolution would require, perhaps first of all, an end of traditional sexual inhibitions and taboos, particularly those that most threaten patriarchal monogamous marriage – [for example] homosexuality, ‘illegitimacy’... It would ‘bring the institution of patriarchy to an end, abolishing both the ideology of male supremacy and the traditional socialization by which it is upheld’ 1971 (p 62)]
1.3. Patriarchy and tradition:
Although much of history has been just that (history), there were, in early times, cultures with significant goddesses; these were superceded by e.g. Judeo-Christianity and a "male" God. There is evidence for this in the fact that Celtic Christianity has retained the equal treatment of male and female.
Pythagoras: (500 BC):
"there is a good principle which created order, light and man, and a bad principle which created chaos, darkness and woman."
It might be worth pointing out that other early philosophies, notably Taoism, believed everything in the world could be put into one of two categories – however, for Taoism both elements of the duality are equally important (you cannot have light without dark, dry without wet, success without failure, etc).
Aristotle (4th century
The great philosopher Aristotle believed that there was a distinction between (mere) ‘matter’ and ‘form’. Whatever gave matter its form was clearly of more importance than the matter itself. He then decided that when a child is created, the ‘matter’ is provided by the mother (in the womb), and the ‘form’ by the father (presumably via the sperm). He also argued that women (like slaves and children) did not have the same reasoning capacity as men, and therefore should not be given citizenship, or involved in political decision-making, let alone become rulers.
Galen the 2nd century AD physician and biologist wrote:
"The female is more imperfect than the male... just as man is the most perfect of all animals, so also, within the human species, man is more perfect than woman. The cause of this superiority is the [male's] superabundance of warmth, heat being the primary instrument of nature."
With the advent of Christianity came the view that Eve was responsible for tempting Adam to disobey God – leading to our inherent sinfulness, and the need for Christ to come and die for us to save us from our sins… Although the Virgin Mary has an important part in Catholic doctrine, God is of course a Father, and Jesus was his son. The disciples were all men (though radicals argue that Jesus mixed happily with women, even with a prostitute). Given this dominant hostility to women, the native idea of the "wise woman" had to be replaced by male priests, bishops etc, and male religious experts. The ideas of St Paul and St Augustine were part of the ‘mix’ as they continued the Judaic tradition of regarding the body as sinful, and women as temptations for the body.
The growth of science from the sixteenth century on, in Europe: male experts in ‘medicine’ replaced wise women, even in matters such as childbirth (apart from the midwife). "Witches" were killed off in vast purges: some were burned, others were drowned – if they failed the notorious test: they were held or thrown into water, and if they floated they must be witches, if they drowned they weren’t...
- Isaac Newton (perhaps our greatest scientist) saw sexual temptation as a threat (Easlea 1981)
- Francis Bacon, 1561 - 1628, (who laid down the principles of scientific procedure) saw women as closer to nature (cf. "dualisms"...), and science's task was to unveil nature, penetrate her secrets even against her will (Easlea). This reflected a broader anti-woman stance:
"He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or of mischief. Certainly the best works, and of greatest for the public, have proceeded from the unmarried or childless men."
Note especially Rousseau's ambiguous view that women were more sensitive than men, and therefore it was right to leave childcare to them, so as to cultivate ‘sensitivity’ in the boys who would grow up to be the decision-makers in government… The education of boys and of girls should be different, as well, to prepare them for their different roles in society.
In the 19th
century, with the development of biology as a science, it is perhaps not
surprising to find that ‘explanations’ for the differences between men and
women were promulgated; (even!)
"Man is the rival of other men; he delights in competition, and this leads to ambition... With woman, the powers of intuition, of rapid perception, and perhaps of imitation, are more strongly marked than in man, but some, at least of these faculties are characteristic of the lower races, and therefore of a past and lower stage of civilisation.
The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shown by man attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than woman can attain – whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands".
2. History of the movement:
2.1 In the 17th and 18th centuries, women played important roles in the struggles against the power of the old regime, the king and aristocracy, in the French Revolution.
Olympe de Gouges wrote a Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen in 1791. Written after the revolution of 1789, it expresses the disillusion that was growing among women with the male-oriented new regime – despite its dedication to ‘liberty equality and fraternity’. The Declaration includes the view that: “ignorance, omission or scorn for the rights of woman are the only causes of public misfortunes and of the corruption of governments…”.
Article 10: “woman has the right to mount the scaffold [i.e. to be guillotined!], she must equally have the right to mount the rostrum…” – women should have the same share of jobs, official positions etc as men.
Article 11: women should have the right to identify the father of their child, and not be forced to hide the truth – clearly the latter must have been a common practice at the time.
Article 17: “Property belongs to both sexes…” and no-one can be deprived of it without due legal process.
2.2 Kate Millett identifies the Enlightenment [see: Notes on the Enlightenment] as the point during which women’s issues first arose – especially with Mary Wollstonecraft: Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792…
Mary Wollstonecraft: (1759 – 1797) - (Outram) – Wollstonecraft first worked as a teacher and then was a headmistress. She realised that girls were being educated to an inferior position, and wrote Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, 1787 – she argued that Enlightenment ideals demanded that women be given a decent education
- she became a governess to Lord Kingsborough, then went to France to observe and write about political upheaval there
- back in England she joined a radical group along with William Godwin (anarchist), Tom Paine (socialist/liberal) [see: Notes on Burke and Paine], Henry Fuseli (artist, influenced William Blake) and Joseph Priestley (scientist)
- wrote Vindication of the Rights of Men, 1790, attacking Burke
- she wrote her Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792
- Gertrude Himmelfarb (The Roads to Modernity , 2008) says this is mostly an attack on Rousseau, and although not systematic or cohesive it criticised women for allowing themselves to be placed in a subservient (domestic, family) role – she wanted women to become like (the best kind of) men – rational, independent, and above all educated.
- she also attacked Francis Bacon (see above)
- "the distinction of sex (i.e. gender) [should be] confounded in society, unless where love animates the behaviour" – her perspective was a ‘liberal’ one, i.e. social attitudes needed to change (not a radical/socialist perspective), and she minimises the difference between men and women (other feminists acknowledge there are differences, but re-write them/reverse the value-judgments that go with them)
, argued that women have the ability to reason but 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:
"Pleasure is the business of woman's life, according to the present modification of society; and while it continues to be so, little can be expected from such weak beings. Inheriting ... the sovereignty of beauty - they have, to maintain their power, resigned the natural rights which the exercise of reason might have procured them, and chosen rather to be short-lived queens than labour to obtain the sober pleasures that arise from equality. Exalted by their inferiority... they constantly demand homage as women...
Why do they not discover that they are treated like queens only to be deluded by hollow respect, till they are led to resign, or not assume, their natural prerogatives?... It is true they are provided with food and raiment, for which they neither toil nor spin; but health, liberty and virtue are given in exchange.
I lament that women are systematically degraded by receiving the trivial attentions which men think it manly to pay the sex, when in fact, they are insultingly supporting their own superiority."
2.3 Women also played an important part in the anti-slavery movement, including in the Caribbean: the first female anti-slavery convention in America (1837)’ (p 66). Sojourner Truth in 1851 [quote p 72].
2.4 What changed during the Enlightenment and what caused the change?
Millett points out that the three main strands of change during the Enlightenment (industrial, economic and political revolutions) had nothing to say about ‘one half of humanity’. The changes in technology, production and even in politics, did nothing directly for women. Millett’s view is (like mine): what needed to change was ways of thinking about men and women…
However, ‘anti-patriarchal’ and pro-women beliefs began to appear at this time – what caused this change?
- perhaps it goes back to the Renaissance with the opening up of education, including to women;
- or the Enlightenment’s rationalism (which actually was in opposition to the Christian religion with its patriarchal attitudes);
- and its humanism (a concern for deprived groups),
- and even its science (examining what the real differences/similarities between men and women are, and examining nature).
- the French Revolution also contributed with its overthrow of traditional authority, and the notion of individual rights and government by consent (Wollstonecraft was a friend of Tom Paine).
3. The ‘first phase’ in the ‘sexual revolution’, for Millett, stretches between the 1830s and the 1930s.
For Millett, the decade of the 1830s marks the beginning of the first stage in the women’s movement, since it brought:
- ‘the coming of age of the reform movement in England, the Reform Act of 1832 which extended the franchise, didn’t actually give women legal rights– in fact it was the first legislation de jure to exclude women, since it used the word ‘male’ instead of ‘people’, but it paved the way for other important legislative changes in the next decade.
However, progress would be very slow: and there were profound contradictions in social attitudes to women (Paradoxes p 66) - which ran very deep:
- Marriage, whilst leaving women in a condition of complete property-less subservience to men, was therefore much the same as ‘feudalism’ P 68).. In marriage a woman had no control over her earnings, was not allowed to choose where she lived, could not manage her own property, nor sign papers or bear witness… (p 67). [Quote Blackstone p 68 on non-existence of the wife, except as inferior…] On the death of the husband, if he was intestate, the woman could be disinherited by the state.
- But this went alongside the use of women for extremely hard work, e.g. in the mines as ‘drawers’ [quote p 70].
Another contradictory attitude can be seen in the (Victorian especially) belief in ‘chivalry’… [see quotes p 69 especially] where women were well cared for by their ‘natural protectors.’ Millett argues (p 73) that the doctrine of chivalrous protection rested on ‘a cleverly expeditious bit of humbug’ i.e. that all women were ‘ladies’ (i.e. like the minority of upper-class women) and all were able to indulge in indolence, luxury – provided they found a man to protect and look after them!
The ‘first priority’ for the liberation of women (as with any oppressed group) was education.
Note the dominant view for a long time was that education should serve to make them better wives – not to be so educated as to threaten men’s superior position, nor so ignorant as to be of no use to their husbands. [Quote Rousseau’s view p 74]. ‘The whole education of women should be relative to men…’ (Millett then explores Tennyson’s poem The Princess, which shows a similar ambivalent attitude, as well as Tennyson’s confusion over the whole issue).
But ‘a little
knowledge is a dangerous thing’ – as it creates the desire for more. In
Note that not all Abolitionists were in favour of emancipation of women – and in London at the World Anti-Slavery Convention, 1840, two women were excluded, including Lucretia Mott (a Nantucket Quaker) who went on to found the first women’s Anti-Slave Society.
1850 Harriett Taylor in
1866 J.S. Mill presents the first suffrage petition to parliament, and publishes Subjection of Women in 1869.
United Nations Committee on the Status of Women set up.
1880s Women’s Suffrage Societies e.g. NUWSS, also Women’s Protective and Provident League for protective legislation against exploitation of women workers.
Differences between ‘constitutional’ and ‘militant’ wings of the movement emerge. More mass demonstrations, parades and pickets, then the Pankhursts’ followers took to arson and window-breaking – the process of ‘educating’ the public was taking so long, it was inevitable that more radical tactics would be use, and this ‘kept the flame alive’. Public sympathy grew with the violence of the police treatment of the suffragettes (including forced feeding).
On the other hand the non-violent approach of much of the movement influenced later civil rights and non-violence movements (Gandhi, Martin Luther King)
1903 WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union) – Emily Pankhurst (in the ILP) – 1908 rally of 250,000 - 500,000
Women’s Freedom League
In 1905 Emmeline’s daughter Christobel was the first WSPU member to be imprisoned. The Daily Mail invented the term suffragettes as a term of abuse, but the women adopted it in pride. The women chained themselves to railings, sabotaged political meetings, clashed with the police and smashed windows. Some of the women consequently sent to prison went on hunger strike, and were brutally force-fed. In April 1914 they attacked major works of art (e.g. Velasquez’s Rokeby Venus was slashed: ‘destroying the most beautiful woman in history as a protest at the destruction of the most beautiful modern woman Mrs. Pankhurst), and the police began to follow them more closely, monitoring meetings and phone calls. Files show that in 1913 Home Office instructions were to take the photos clandestinely (many women had refused to have their photos taken).
(G 10.10.2003) notes that police surveillance techniques, e.g. taking photos of
demonstrators, were first developed to deal with the suffragette movement –
photos are printed of 18 suffragettes who went to prison in 1914, and most of
them are ‘snatched’ as today’s paparazzi would do. They could be seen in an
exhibition marking the founding of the Women’s Social and Political Union, 100
years ago at the
women adopted brooches designed by Sylvia Pankhurst as ‘medals’ (showing the
House of Commons portcullis with a prison arrow though it). They saw themselves
as ‘soldiers’ in a ‘war’. More militant tactics were evolved, including hunger
strikes, chaining themselves to
In 1912 Una Dugdale Duval married Victor Duval and refused to use the word ‘obey’ in the ceremony – causing a national scandal!
In 1914 Pankhurst got the WSPU to support the war – when the war ended, in 1918, women over 30 got the vote. (See Footnote). Only in 1928 was the franchise extended to everyone over 21.
Millett views the campaign for suffrage as a ‘red herring’ [quote p 83] – once the vote had been gained, the movement faded away; and yet little had changed… She also says (p 84) that it was too bourgeois, and was ‘never… sufficiently involved with working women’.
Economy and production:
For some feminists, the problem was women’s exclusion from the economy and from production; 1921 Six Point Group demanded: equal pay; widow’s pensions; equal rights of guardianship; laws on child assault; equal civil service opportunities; provision for unmarried mothers. After the Second World War it was difficult to go on holding the view that women could not do equal work to men! However, as Millett points out (p 85 ff), the objection was raised to women working in the professions – not to their doing hard manual work, since this had been open to them for a long time (see above, re ‘drawers’ etc). Middle class women had to deal with male notions of ‘decorum’ (i.e. it was not fitting for a woman to use her mind).
In the working classes and the unemployed, women were subject to despair. [Quote from American Knights of labour investigation p 86]. There were gradual changes in terms of protection at work – which benefited men as well as women. But women did not have the unions to back them – unions had, and still have, an ambivalent attitude to women workers: they are often seen as cheap labour that can undermine the employment of men. Patriarchal attitudes can be found here still – under the guise of ‘protective’ reforms:- if women go to work: family structures are disrupted; they will have access to sex; they will not have enough time to work at home as well etc.
There was no concern about women having fulfilling work, or equal pay – rather ‘a frequently patronizing air of concessions made to the physically inferior.’ Women and children are lumped together in British Parliamentary discussions and papers of the time, and in America, Louis Brandies’ (1908) Oregon Brief, which won protective legislation was based on the assumption that ‘women are fundamentally weaker than men in all that makes for endurance, in muscular strength, in nervous energy, in the power of persistent application and concentration.’
Alongside this, there was discussion over women’s work in the home, and some feminists demanded ‘wages for housework’… For many of these feminists, the stress on economic change was allied to a belief in socialism – or Marxism – the latter arguing that equality would come with communism. It was also argued by Marxist feminists (not all Marxists were feminists!) that women had a crucial role in the "reproduction of the labour force" (a discussion taken further in the second wave – see below). In fact, many women found Marxist and socialist groups a disappointment: in Marxist theory, women found, their experience was excluded from the central category of "class"; and in practice, inside socialist groups they were still exploited: it was expected they would make the tea, look after any children in a crèche, and maybe sell newspapers, while the men took part in meetings and discussions of strategy, policy and theory. In the WRP women were actually viciously exploited by the leader Gerry Healy – and the group fell apart when the extent of this exploitation was revealed [though this was not the only factor: such groups have a tendency to fragment quite often!]. The negative experience of women in the Soviet Union – who were encouraged to go to work, but who found they were still primarily responsible for housework and childcare as well! – contributed to both the second and third wave critiques of socialist ideas. (See below)
The movement grew through the ‘60s alongside other protest movements, e.g. CND, Vietnam Solidarity, the New Left… also Ford strike for equal pay.
Part Two: ‘theory’:
A distinctive feature of the Women’s Movement is that it has developed in stages or ‘waves’, and each wave has been based on a new set of ideas about feminism.
Note that the discussion of ‘theory’ has always been an essential part of the movement – as noted above, even ‘liberal’ political philosophers have had anti-woman elements to their theories. The bracketing of periods of feminist activity into ‘waves’ relates very much to the theory as well as the practice. (see also: Notes on feminism)
All the above events and ideas 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 legal, economic, and social equality and equal treatment/rights – and political equality would also 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 material and attitudinal changes, or as Millett puts it - p 85 - ‘changes in social attitudes and social structure, in personality and institutions’. This led to the ‘second wave’ (see below).
The main political perspective (philosophical viewpoint) adopted during the ‘first wave’ was a liberal perspective (though some were socialist, see below): central to this is an emphasis on beliefs/values, justified by reasonable arguments, but it is also primarily based on an individualistic outlook: liberal political philosophers (Locke, especially) argued for the freedom of the individual from government interference, the right to protection by government, and the right of the individual to influence government (democracy). For Locke this right was based on property ownership – if I have property then I can expect to be protected against others who might steal it. I have, as it were, an interest in government decisions if they are likely to affect my property.
Clearly, the goal of freedom for the individual was shared by women – though of course in the 18th century the fact that Locke’s argument was based on property ownership meant that women were excluded.
It also follows that 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 the ability to exercise moral responsibility (an indicator of adulthood, legal responsibility, autonomy etc) is regarded as being dependent on a person being accepted as rational.
Feminists at this stage argued social conditions prevent women realising their potential, and that women were as capable of reasoning as men. The Liberal Feminist view, then, minimises the differences between men and women. Thus, cf. Mary Wollstonecraft "the distinction of sex (i.e. gender) [should be] confounded in society, unless where love animates the behaviour."
Socialist feminists were also involved in the first wave of feminism: for them, economic and social equality would entail equality for women. This was because economic inequality and exploitation was seen as at the root of all other forms of inequality and exploitation. Moreover, capitalist property relations were such that they exclude women as well as men – all are part of the exploited working class, and only a revolution abolishing class difference would bring equality for women.
A deep and critical examination of theories about women in society was one of the main factors that led to the ‘second wave’.
2. The second wave of feminism:
It became clear, during the first half of the 20th century, that the conventional political struggle had failed, - the vote had not changed the status of women - and there was still a need to change the dominant thinking about women.
Moreover, after the upheavals of 1968, (the youth revolt, and the May Days in France) feminists realised that the struggle had not been primarily about women and had not addressed their concerns (and, as noted, after the experience of some women in socialist and "liberation" movements...). It was clear that a more radical stance needed to be taken.
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”, and it drew on biological, anthropological and psychological evidence and theories (e.g. 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.
Of Woman Born by Adrienne Rich, 1976 – motherhood as penal servitude, and as a patriarchal institution.
The GLC also had an important role in promoting women’s causes (it gave £4.6 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.
1980s/90s: as in
See http://www.feministactivistforum.org.uk/page23.htm and http://www.jstor.org/pss/1395018 (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,
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.
Simone de Beauvoir’s book The Second Sex (1949) was very influential on this phase of the movement. (See pp21feminismdebeauvoir.htm). 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; and these choices are very often affected by others – or by the Other, as they sometimes put it. For de Beauvoir, women are an Other to men, but men have defined themselves (their role, identity etc) first, 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. Hence: ‘the second sex’. Of course, biological differences were used as a justification for the roles that women were expected to adhere to – but de Beauvoir argued that there was nothing to stop women taking on other roles in society.
She asked why men alone were assumed to be capable of undertaking ‘projects’ that were creative, and that gave meaning to their lives – while women were seen as occupying a secondary place. Men were not held back by any physical/biological constraints, and they could be creative, take part in politics etc – which she saw as ‘transcending’ the realm of the physical. She then asked why shouldn’t women also ‘transcend’ their physical constraints (in particular child-bearing)?
There were many other 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… Finally, it was important (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’ – the view that women are ‘in essence’ different from men. ‘Essentialism’ is 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: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Identity_politics).
- 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
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’.
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
(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 notes on the Enlightenment, especially: Race, slavery and women in the Enlightenment).
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. Achievements of the women’s movement? New concepts and perspectives:
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!
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.
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" or not "normal".
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. I return to the question of ‘differences’ after giving a more precise definition of ‘sexism’:
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.
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).
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:
stud/Don Juan/Casanova whore/slut/slag
This kind of view explains why some women feel patronised by having doors opened for them,
or being called ‘dear’ or ‘darling’ (terms which, when used between people who are close
indicate simply affection; but when addressed by a male stranger to a woman they reinforce the
perception of the man’s superiority).
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’ (i.e.
reflecting power relations – not only between the individuals concerned but in the wider society
as well). As John Lennon pointed out, in the context of revolutionary politics, ‘how do you treat
the woman back home?’ is a pertinent question! In looking at the origins of the women’s
movement we can see that the way women were treated in radical, even supposedly
revolutionary, left-wing groups (to mind the crèche, sell papers, make the tea – but not get
involved in serious debates) led many such women to build their own movement.
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).
Amartya Sen, the economist, points out that:
- There are some 100 million “missing women” in the world - i.e. women who would be alive today if they had received the same quality of nutrition and health as men.
- Each year some 100 million girls suffer genital mutilation.
- Approximately 1 million children, mostly girls, per year are forced into prostitution.
- In South Asia, female literacy rates are 50% those of males, and in Afghanistan: 32%, Sudan: 27%.
- One third of women in Barbados, Canada, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and the U.S. report having been sexually abused as children or adolescents.
- In the U.S. in 1993, 1,530 women were killed by their partners. Each year in the U.S. approximately 7 million women report being subject to various form of physical violence at the hands of their male partners.
Source: notes by Professor Stephen Darwall, University of Michigan – http://www-personal.umich.edu/~sdarwall/ - this site has notes on courses at the university of Michigan, on philosophy: see especially course 152.
- One in four women will experience domestic violence according to the British Crime Survey (2009).
- Domestic violence accounts for 16% of all violent incidents reported to police.
- On average, two women a week are killed by their partner or former partner in England and Wales – over 100 a year.
- Women who are abused by their partners are likely to be attacked 20 times before they report it.
Some statistics from 2007 (Emine Sauer, Guardian 24.08.07):
- 81% of domestic violence is committed by men against women.
- Over 50,000 women and children seek safety in refuges every year.
- Up to 10 commit suicide every week.
- Police receive nearly half a million calls a year from women about domestic violence – almost certainly only the tip of the iceberg.
- Only 13,000 cases are considered by the Crown Prosecution Service in England and Wales.
- Women’s Refuges, and Charities: The first refuge was set up in West London in 1971 by Erin Pizzey, and there are now around 400 refuges in England and Wales.
5. Recent issues, and where is the women’s movement now? Discussion.
The ‘glass ceiling’, inequality in pay, #meetoo movement, FGM…
When did women get the vote?
Extracts from from Atlas of Women by Joni Seager:
1848 French men – women not until 1944
1902 white Australian women - Aboriginals not until 1967
1929 ‘literate’ Puerto Rican women – rest not until 1835
1930 Turkish women
1931 white South African women – Indians and ‘coloured’ women in 1984, blacks not until 1994
1956 Egyptian women
1963 Iranian women
1971 Swiss women
1974 Jordanian women
In 2005 men
were allowed to vote in local elections in