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This article is written by Abanti Bose, from Amity University, Kolkata. This article emphasizes on the history, evolution, and theories of feminism and how it has shaped today’s society. 


As defined in Britannica, feminism is the belief in social, economic, and political equality of the sexes. Feminism is not only restricted to fighting for women’s rights or securing equality for women it also means to advocate for equality of all sexes, therefore it means to protect the rights of women, transgenders, LGBTQ people, and even men, thus if a person believes in equality of sexes that person is a feminist. Although if we talk about the history of this movement, it majorly originated in the west, and it has taken various forms throughout the world particularly to advocate for women’s rights against patriarchal oppression. Throughout the western history, women were confined in the domestic sphere while public life was reserved for men. In medieval Europe, women were not permitted to own property nor they were allowed to participate in public life. In the eastern country, women were victims of Sati, child marriage, etc. At the end of the 19th century in France, women were still forced to cover their heads in public, and, in most parts of Germany, a husband still had the right to sell his wife. In the United States, women were not allowed to vote till 1920, just a hundred years from now women got their voting rights. Apart from this women faced many atrocities such as they were restricted from conducting business without a male representative be it father, husband, or even a legal representative. Furthermore, they were barred from education, they had little or no access to education at all. Thereafter, to curb all the atrocities women started this movement to claim equal rights of which they were deprived of. 

History of feminism 

The belief and idea of feminism have their roots in the earliest era in human history. The early history of feminism is divided into three parts they are as; the first wave of feminism which deals with property rights and the right to vote, the second wave focused on equality and anti-discrimination, and the third wave of feminism which started in the 1990s as a backlash to the second wave’s perceived privileging of white, straight women. The three waves of feminist movements are mentioned below briefly. 

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The first wave of feminism 

The first wave of feminism took place in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century in the western world. This movement mainly revolved around gaining basic legal rights for women. Politics, business, economy, and every other aspect of social life were dominated and regulated by men, and women were mainly confined to household chores. Unmarried women were seen as the property of their fathers and married women were seen as the property of their husbands. Women lacked basic rights such as the right to vote and even the concept of marital rape was unheard of. 

Therefore, it led to the first wave of the feminist movement which is often demarcated as officially beginning with the signing of the ‘Declaration of Sentiments’ at the Seneca Falls Convention, the first-ever women’s rights convention. The stepping stone of this convention took place when Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott were denied seating at the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention in London.

With the formation of the American Equal Rights Association in 1866; suffrage, the right of women to vote in elections became the goal of the movement so that women could fight for their legal rights. After years of struggle and fighting for the basic rights in 1869, Wyoming became the first state to grant suffrage to women. 

In 1920, the nineteenth amendment of the United States Constitution declared “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” With this, the first wave of feminist movements end. However, the victory was only for white women, of colour were still practically disenfranchised and several tactics such as bodily harm and even arrest were used to prevent them from voting. 

The first wave marginalized black women who faced oppression due to their gender and colour. White women were afraid to grant black women the power due to widespread racism and the fact this might hinder their cause. Therefore it led to the formation of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) to protect the rights of women of colour. 

The first wave of feminism set the stage for the second, which had a more expansive purview and extended the struggle for equality to other sections of society. 

The second wave of feminism

The second wave of feminism started in the 1960s and continued until the 1980s. The second wave of feminism focused on women trying to secure better jobs which were mainly reserved for men. Women brought forward the issues of rape, reproductive rights, domestic violence, and workplace safety. Women developed their own popular culture which spread all over the globe through books, films, etc. This movement was triggered by the publishing of Betty Friedan’s book, “The Feminine Mystique” which discussed the general unhappiness of the American women in that period. Another significant factor of this movement was approving oral contraceptive pills by the Food and Drug Administration, which led women to focus on their careers instead of being forced into family life. 

The Kennedy administration also set up a Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, which was chaired by former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. A report released by the commission on gender inequality recommended paid maternity leave, access to education, and good childcare to help women. An organization called Women Strike for Peace mobilized 50,000 women in 1961 to protest against nuclear bombs and tainted milk. This marked one of the steps where women took part in politics actively which was previously reserved for men. After this women took part in protests and advocacy for equality. Legislations like the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were significant measures that were adopted to bridge the gap between the sexes. Furthermore, the Women’s Educational Equity Act of 1972 and 1974 provided educational opportunities for both sexes. 

This wave also brought forward many ambitious and resourceful feminist leaders like Friedan. A young journalist, Gloria Steinem, became one of the eminent feminist leaders when her writing about the ‘Playboy Club’ and its chauvinist elements that revolved around women gained popularity. Apart from this, she was a stalwart advocate for legalizing abortions and federally funding daycares. 

As a whole, the second wave of the feminist movement can be characterized as the movement which invoked a feeling of solidarity among women fighting for equality. Radical feminism was prevalent and it involved the complete elimination of male supremacy and challenged the gender roles which were predominant during that period. Socialist feminism was also a form of feminism created post the Second World War. Like Marxism, it acknowledged the oppressive nature of the capitalist society and saw a connection between gender and racial discrimination. 

The third wave of feminism 

The third wave of feminism mainly dealt with the reproductive rights of women. Feminists spoke about women’s right to birth control as it was a basic right of women to take decisions about their own bodies. When the Supreme Court upheld the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act and restrictions on abortion, there was a huge protest march called the ‘March for Women’s Lives’ in Washington DC in 2004. Attended by activists, second and third wave feminists, and celebrities, the march showed how important the issue of reproductive rights was to the Third Wave. 

In the United States, there was a deal of improvement in the politics with women’s representation. Apart from this the first female Attorney General and first female Secretary of State took office during the third feminist movement. Hilary Clinton gave her famous ‘Women’s Rights are Human Rights’ speech at the UN in 1995, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg became the second woman in the Supreme Court in 1993.

The third wave spread actively through pop culture and media, it also laid emphasis on the voices of young girls. Girl bands like the “Riot Grrrl” spread messages of female empowerment through punk rock and started discussions of patriarchy and body image amongst teenagers listening to their music. “The Vagina Monologues” by Eve Ensler became a controversy that spoke on issues such as domestic violence. Strong characters in movies and television shows became prevalent during the third wave. This movement started to reclaim terms such as “bitch”, “slut”, etc. which were used to label women and used them as tools of liberation. Films and TV programs affected the portrayal of the third wave feminist movement, for example, Thelma and Louise, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 30 Rock and Parks, and Recreation. Solid female women’s activist characters turned out to be more common to the public when young adult ladies turned into an important demographic in the international media and a generation of girls grew up in a completely different feminist environment than their mothers.

Transfeminism was also brought into the mainstream movement. The rights of trans people were recognized and the discussions of gender, body image and sexuality that defined the third wave of feminism made it more inclusive to trans feminists. Even till this day large sections of the society are ignorant about the rights and challenges faced by transgenders, but this wave of feminist movement played an active role in educating the society.  

In India, the 1980s and 90s were characterized by national protest against rapes. Cases such as those of Hetal Parekh, Bhanwari Devi, and Pratibha Murthy triggered activists all over the country and it led to legal victories of the Indian women groups. 

In the field of politics women representation improved with Mayawati becoming the first Scheduled Caste Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh in 1995 and Sonia Gandhi the first female Leader of the Opposition in 1999. 

Kinds of feminism 

The various types of feminism are as follows:

  • Liberal feminism 

This type of feminism works in a way to incorporate feminism in the mainstream structure of the society. The origins of this structure stretch back to the social contract theory of the government instituted by the American Revolution. Abigail Adams and Mary Wollstonecraft proposed from the very beginning equality for women. However, the problem with the liberals is that they slog along inside the structure getting very little done with the compromises. 

  • Radical feminism 

Radical feminism provides an important foundation for the rest of “feminist flavors”.  Seen by many as the “undesirable” element of feminism, Radical feminism is actually the breeding ground for many of the ideas arising from feminism; ideas which get shaped and pounded out in various ways by other (but not all) branches of feminism.

It talks about the feminist movements which arose during the civil rights and peace movements. The reason this type of feminism is known as radical feminists is that this group saw the oppression of women and they revolted against it to free women from that societal position. 

  • Marxist feminism 

This type of feminism recognizes that women are oppressed and attributes the oppression to the capitalist/property system. Thus, the only way women could get past this oppressive system is to end the capitalist system. Many feminists believe that this kind of oppression faced by women is due to the capitalistic system and class struggle which plays an important factor in the subordination of women. The difference between Marxist feminists and radical feminists is that Marxists feminists address the economic system behind the oppression faced by women. 

  • Cultural feminism 

Cultural feminism is a movement that points out how modern society is hurt by encouraging masculine behavior, but society would benefit by encouraging feminine behavior instead. It emphasizes on the essential differences between men and women in terms of biology, personality, and behavior. It points out how the different virtues possessed by women would help in the betterment of the society. 

Feminism on gender

Most people, in general, think that sex and gender are co-extensive, women are female and men are males. However, many feminists have disagreed and endorsed the sex and gender distinction. Sex reflects the biological differences between a man and a woman and on the contrary gender refers to social and cultural differences. 

In the past sex differences between a man and a woman were used to argue in order to restrict women professionally. For example, it was stated that women should not become airline pilots since they will be hormonally unstable once a month and, therefore, unable to perform their duties as well as men. 

Gender as a social construct 

Social learning theorists talk about various aspects of how society treats and shapes us, man and woman. For example, parents entirely treat their children differently based on their sex. In a study, when parents were asked to describe their infants of opposite sexes they used adjectives such as strong, decisive for the boy and completely different adjectives such as delicate, tiny, caring for the girl child. Furthermore, children are often dressed in a stereotypical way such as boys are dressed in blue and girls in pink. They are often forced to behave in appropriate and socially acceptable ways like boys in their childhood are given trucks and guns and girls are given dolls. Another pertinent point upheld by the social learning theorist is that children are often influenced by what they read and mostly in their books males are portrayed as leaders, adventurers, etc. but women on the other hand are followers, caregivers, etc. Socialising influences like these are still thought to send implicit messages regarding how females and males should act and are expected to act shaping us into feminine and masculine persons.

Problems that arise with sex and gender distinction

Feminists upheld that sex and gender distinction is problematic as it is often used to justify women’s oppression and does not hold the actual reasons accountable. For example in job interviews, males are treated as more gender neutral persons and they are not asked if they are planning a family or whether they would like to take a vacation but on the other hand women face queries that are associated with procreation. Apart from this women are devalued on the aspect that they are more closely associated with their bodily features than men; terms like irrational, emotional are often used to describe women but not men. 

Another major problem that is deeply associated with socially constructed notions of gender is that it makes people easily adopt stereotypical approaches that have prevailed for a long time. For example, in a study conducted to determine the beliefs of people that whether women should stay at home or not, more than one-third of the public agreed that women should stay at home in order to take care of their family. Thus, resulting in women facing barriers in their professional field. 

With sex and gender distinction women and men are presumed to adopt socially acceptable gender roles. Women are accepted to do more feminine things and on the contrary, men are ridiculed if they are sensitive or do feminine things. For example, even if society accepts that a woman is into sports they find it difficult to accept that a boy likes to do make-up or even wears the colour pink. Certain things are labeled as “girly” by the socially constructed gender roles and it is only reserved for women. Sex and gender make it very difficult for the society to reach gender fluidity and is also often reflected through media; like in the popular television series “The Big Bang Theory”, the character Raj was made fun of by all his friends as he was sensitive and liked more things which the society labeled as ‘feminine’. But also many other progressive shows, on the other hand, depict gender neutrality. 

Therefore, feminism seems to want to do away with something that should not be done away with, which is unlikely to motivate social agents to act in ways that aim at gender justice.

Feminist perspective on power 

The classic formulation of power is defined by Max Weber as, “the probability that one actor within a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his own will despite resistance”. A huge strand of feminist theorizing of power begins with the dispute that the origination of power as power-over, mastery, or control is verifiably masculinist. To dodge such masculinist connotations, numerous feminists from an assortment of theoretical foundations have contended for a re-conceptualization of power as a limit or capacity, explicitly, the ability to empower or change oneself as well as other people. Subsequently, these feminists have tended to comprehended power not as power-over but rather as power-to. Jean Baker Miller claims that “women’s examination of power…can bring new understanding to the whole concept of power”. Miller, in this case, disregards power as domination but as the capacity to produce change. Similarly, Virginia Held argued that the capacity to give birth and to nurture and empower could be the basis for new and more humanly promising conceptions is different from the concept of power which exists and is achieved through domination. She stated that her understanding of power talks about the capability to transform and empower oneself and others around us. 

A comparative study of power can likewise be found in the work by the prominent French feminists Luce Irigaray and Hélène Cixous. Irigaray, for example, urges feminists to question the definition of power in phallocratic cultures. 

Recently the notion of empowerment has been widely taken by the advocates of power feminism. The reaction against a perceived over-emphasis on women’s victimization and oppression in the feminism of the 1980s, power feminism emerged in the 1990s in the writings of feminists such as Camille Paglia, Katie Roiphe, Christina Hoff Sommers, and Naomi Wolf. Power feminists not only discard the notion of excessive focus on the victimization of women but also the claim made by previous theorists that women are “sensitive creatures given more to a caring, interconnected web of human relationships than to the rugged individualism espoused by men”. Interestingly, power women’s activists embrace a more individualistic, self-assertive, even aggressive conception of empowerment, one that will, in general, characterize empowerment regarding decisions with very little concern for the contexts inside which choices are made or the alternatives from which women can pick. 

Feminism and resistance 

Gender resistant feminisms focus on specific behaviors and group dynamics through which women are kept in a subordinate position, even in subcultures that claim to support gender equality.

Some forms of resistance build on the possibility of a repetition that undermines the force of normalization. Through reiteration, re-articulation, and repetition of new notions, dominant discourses are challenged. Subversive repetitions can be described as resistance that circulates and forms a network of mobile points of resistance. This kind of resistance produces new truths and norms. 

The #metoo campaign is an international movement against sexual harassment. Beginning in the US, it spread virally over the world during 2017 and is a model of how rehashed thoughts can establish new discourses. The campaign, strangely, shows how power as well as resistance, can be transmitted in a “net-like” mode that includes signs, and the recognition of signs, just as various feelings (powers). It is resistance that ought to be analyzed as something circulating among the individuals who share the encounters of bodily suffering and/or dread of sexual maltreatment and the individuals who, all the more, by and large, perceive those encounters as disempowering. Resistance inspires, provokes, generates, encourages, and sometimes discourages, resistance. Circulating resistance works through accounts that motivate new stories. The narrating shows up as an unstable cycle, whereby discourse can be both an instrument and an impact of resistance. These instances produce resistance.

Furthermore, Ninni Carlsson (2009) has stated in her research on narratives of having experience of sexual harassment, one precondition for acknowledgment of and the accomplishment in activating a political inquiry is a sure discursive preparedness. To be perceived, a gathering must as of now have a specific impact and power over the dominant talks. In this sense, the #metoo movement could be perceived as similar to an after effect of women’s activist discursive power just as of female subordination. Curiously, the #metoo opposition is profitable as in it delivers new— yet at the same time conceivable and discursively secured— narratives and new “truths” about men, masculinity, and sexual orientation, along these lines challenging previous hegemonies and cultures of silence. 

A complicated network of power and resistance emerges in cases where, as it seems, gender inequalities are met by a feminist resistance, which in turn strengthens the very power it protests. Multiple entangled relations of power and resistance reinforce and nurture each other. 


Thus, after the detailed analysis of the history of the feminist struggle and the various theories of that talks about feminism we can understand the struggle undertaken by feminists over the century to improve the conditions of women who were treated as second class citizens in the past. Feminism not only intends to protect the rights of women but also advocates for equal rights of all genders including men, transgender, and members of the LGBTQ community. The purpose of this movement was to secure and protect the rights of women and later on the transgenders, members of the LGBTQ community to which they are entitled to and were only denied such rights and powers due to patriarchy. 

Even though through these movements over the decades women have secured equal rights and opportunities and rights, we still have a long way to go to change the atrocities faced by women even in the 21st century. More than 39,000 girl child gets married every year, female soldiers are more likely to be raped by their fellow comrades than getting killed in a combat, in rural, India female infanticide is still practiced even in the 21st century, 112 countries in the world do not criminalize marital rape, several countries have strict abortion laws which make it difficult for a woman to back out from a pregnancy which she doesn’t want to go through thereby not even giving women the freedom to be in control of their own bodies, and several other instances which occur thus restricting women from achieving equality. 


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