Power and Protest:
the women’s movement (sm6)
1. The origins and first wave/phase of the women’s movement:
1.1 origins (Mary Wollstonecraft, Enlightenment humanism and rationalism)
1.2 The ‘first wave/phase’ (1830s – 1930s/50s) (education, suffrage and the suffragettes, equality of work; political equality, the liberal perspective, inadequacies of Marxism, links with other social movements)
2. The ‘second wave’ (1960s/70s - 1990s) (radical demands: equal pay, wages for housework, control over reproduction, abortion, opposition to domestic violence; issues of ‘difference’ and ‘identity’; radical feminism; Simone de Beauvoir; non-hierarchical organisation; backlash)
3. Third wave feminism: (postmodernism, deconstruction, feminist postmodernism).
4. Recent issues, and where is the feminist movement now? (Sexual objectification of children, lap-dancing and pole-dancing as liberating for women, the cuts, female genital mutilation).
5. Recent books/articles/websites.
NB. For other aspects of feminism, see:
Notes on feminism (deals especially with the impact of feminism on political theory and philosophy).
Simone de Beauvoir (feminism and existentialism).
Feminism: extracts (a small selection of quotes).
Feminism and Postmodernism (to be completed).
Feminism Today (miscellaneous notes, taken from the press etc, on various topics relevant to feminism,).
1. Origins and first phase/wave of the women’s movement:
1.1 Origins of the women’s movement:
(see also Notes on feminism for attitudes and practices that were anti-woman, many of which go back to the earliest stages of ‘civilisation’.)
Kate Millett, Sexual Politics
1969 (first published in
She identifies the Enlightenment as the point during which women’s issues first arose – especially with Mary Wollstonecraft: Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792… Millett points out, however, that the three main strands of change during the Enlightenment (industrial, economic and political revolutions) had nothing to say about ‘one half of humanity’. Thus the emergence of technology, the socialist dream of redistributing wealth, and the development of democracy and the extension of the franchise ‘all had… but a tangential and contingent effect’ on women.
So Millett asks: what lay behind the profound ‘anti-patriarchal’ i.e. pro-women beliefs (for definitions of ‘patriarchy’ see Notes on feminism) that began to appear at this time? Perhaps, she says, 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).
In other words, Millett’s view is (like mine): what needed to change was ways of thinking about men and women… the changes in technology, production and even in politics, did nothing directly for women.
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).
1.2 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
She does stress, however, that the movement had a ‘long gestation’, 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 cold 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].
Finally, on the other hand, there was 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, and what Veblen called ‘vicarious consumption’ – provided they found a man to protect and look after them!
Note the link in
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 – and in
1850 Harriett Taylor in
1866 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 – 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).
[Alan Travis (G 101003) 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
The jailed 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
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 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 crčche, 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
The movement grew through the ‘60s alongside other protest movements, e.g. CND, Vietnam Solidarity, the New Left… also Ford strike for equal pay.
Some ‘theory’ again (!):
All the above can be described as belonging to the first wave of feminism, because they shared the following ideas:
- at this stage, 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 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 an emphasis on beliefs/values, and the goal is to change attitudes. 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.
- other arguments used at this stage: how social conditions prevent women realising their potential, as against the argument that differences between men and women are innate. The Liberal Feminist view, then, 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 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 (see Notes on feminism). The bracketing of periods of feminist activity into ‘waves’ relates very much to the theory as well as the practice. 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:
After the upheavals of 1968, which 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. The conventional political struggle has failed, and there was still a need to change the dominant thinking about women.
In 1970 the first Women’s
Liberation Conference was held in
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 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
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’.
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… 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’ – 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: 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.
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
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’.
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
(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 forthcoming notes on 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.’
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
4. Recent issues: where is feminism now?
Issues that are under discussion now include:
(i) Until the 1980s local councils had no financial or other support for victims of domestic violence, rape crisis centres etc – and what will become of them with the current cuts?
(ii) The sexualisation of children (I prefer ‘sexual objectification’) - i.e. the use of children dressed in a sexy way in advertising, and encouraging very young children to dress ‘sexy’ - is a critical and controversial area (some mothers see nothing wrong here).
(iii) There is a need still for
both the old-established feminist groups and the new ones: for example, the
Co-operative Women’s Guild which was founded in 1883 is still going strong – it
originally campaigned for maternity benefits, and recently has campaigned
against sex trafficking, and it has raised money for the Mercy Ships to
(iv) There is
much more awareness of the problem of female genital mutilation (I prefer this
term to ‘circumcision’): thousands of young girls in
5. Recent/Forthcoming Books on Feminism Today:
For a recent article on ‘Is Feminism finding its voice again?’ See: Guardian 24.07.10, Kira Cochrane: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2010/jul/24/feminism-not-finished-not-uncool
Reclaiming the F Word: the New Feminist Movement, by Catherine Redfern and Kristin Aune…
Other recent books:
Ellie Levenson: The Noughtie Girl’s Guide to Feminism
Nina power: One Dimensional Woman
Natasha Walter: Living Dolls
Sheila Rowbotham: Dreamers of a New Day
Kat Banyard: The Truth About men and Women Today
Nicholas D Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn: Half the Sky (on plight of women in the developing world).
Women and votes: a brief history (from G 290903 – extracts from from Atlas of Women by Joni Seager, full picture on the site of the inter-parliamentary union:
When did women get the vote?
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