Category Commentary

What is Feminism?

by Lucia Ruffolo


When someone hears the word feminism in 2016, they probably picture some overly dramatic man-hater who complains too much and doesn’t shave her legs. They might even use hurtful words to describe feminists (followers of feminism), such as “whales” or “cows”. Journalist Milo Yiannopoulos calls feminism “cancer”. At the other end of the spectrum you’ll see a multitude of women advocating for movements such as “Free the Nipple” and “The Free Bleeding Movement”. I think it’s safe to call both ends of the spectrum pretty radical. Regardless, the question we really need to ask ourselves is what actually is feminism, and what is the history behind it? It is crucial to note that feminism is separated into three waves: first-wave, second-wave, and third-wave. While all three movements share a common interest, they all have different primary focuses of accomplishment.

First off,  what actually is feminism? While this question receives a wide variety of answers, the Merriam Webster definition of feminism is “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities”. While that sounds like a pretty factual statement now, it didn’t to those who lived about a hundred years ago. The feminist movement that took place between the late 1800s to the early 1900s was known as first-wave feminism. First-wave feminists’ goal was to gain women’s suffrage, or the right to vote. These women were known as suffragettes. Notable suffragettes include Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul, Carrie Chapman Catt, and Sojourner Truth.  Along with fighting for the right to vote, these suffragettes pushed for other basic rights such as the ability to own property, get custody rights for their children, and hold any sort of political power. During these times a man could give their children up for adoption without the mother’s consent. Women had no rights during this time and were considered nothing but a man’s property. To get their point across women had to perform civil disobediences along with hunger-strikes, with some even risking their own lives. Finally, in 1920 the 19th amendment was certified to the U.S. Constitution, granting women the right to vote.

Secondly, second-wave feminism began in the 1960’s and lasted until the 1980’s. Though women had the right to vote, life was still limited when it came to the workplace and the family. Most women married in their early twenties and started a family as soon as possible. They then devoted their lives to household chores and child care. If a woman did work, she was limited to jobs such as a teacher, a nurse, or a secretary. Working women were paid significantly lower salaries than men and were denied promotions, for employers thought that they would eventually become pregnant and quit their jobs. Feminist Betty Friedan founded an organization that helped fight gender discrimination through courts and legislatures. Gloria Steinem, another prominent second-wave feminist, addressed and tried to end sexual harassment towards women. She also advocated for women to express their sexuality openly, have access to birth control, and have the right to get an abortion.

Lastly, there is third-wave feminism. Third-wave feminism began in the early 1990’s and continues to today. The purpose of third-wave feminism is to include women of different races, religions, ethnicities, and backgrounds instead of just focusing on the typical middle-class white woman. It also tries to fill in the gender inequality gaps that still exist, such as working towards equal social justice and economic rights, specifically concerning the wage gap. Third-wave feminism tries to redefine how the media views gender, sexuality, femininity, and masculinity. Despite popular beliefs, feminism benefits men as well. “We’ve begun to raise our daughters more like sons, but few have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters” (Gloria Steinem). This quote explains that while masculinity is accepted in today’s culture, femininity is not and is often seen as weak. Feminism can help a male who likes to do things that are traditionally feminine, without having to feel weak or ashamed.

In conclusion, whether you agree with all the aspects or not, the feminist movement is a very important development that has changed how the world has perceived women and gender in general.

Before you detest feminism completely, it is important to understand that you do not have to agree with all the waves or values of feminism to be one. Overall, feminism has one goal: to ensure that everyone in the world, male or female, has equal opportunities to do great things and live their life the way they please without having to conform to ridiculous, preconceived stereotypes.

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