After reading about the small group of women from the feminist organization Code Pink who recently crashed the Republican National Convention, I began to think about the way that feminists are perceived today by American society and the history of feminism in general.
I found myself compelled to explain to the members of my community what feminism is all about, or at least, my personal take on it. I cannot after all claim to speak on behalf of the entire feminist community.
It’s crucial to understand that many feminists’ beliefs differ from one another and therefore there will be variances in their personal descriptions of what it means to be identified as a feminist. There are cultural feminists, libertarian feminists and liberal feminists, among many others.
I believe the feminist title may be applied to the individual who focuses their energy on actively battling oppressive patriarchal social constraints that affect people of all races and genders. Notice that I say, ‘the individual.’ The popularly held belief seems to be that one must be a woman to be a feminist, when in fact, anyone may be.
A core drive of a feminist like myself will always be to obtain equal rights and respect for women in society. However, I try not to limit myself to that, as I believe that all people deserve to live in a world in which they are not dominated because they are deemed inferior for whatever reason. I’d like to emphasize that I and most other feminists are not seeking to rid the country of patriarchy and oppression only to replace it with a despotic matriarchy. Economic, social, political and educational equality for all people in every nation is the goal of feminist action.
When speaking of feminism it’s necessary to explain another term that goes hand in hand with it, patriarchy. Patriarchy permeates world history and is still quite prevalent today. Patriarchy, simply put, refers to a society that is structured in such a way that places men in positions of authority over women. We are currently immersed in such a society here in the United States, although unfortunately it would at times seem that many people are not aware of it, or do not believe it.
Anyone seeking to understand feminism really must start with its history. There are three popularly recognized waves of feminism. The first took place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and consisted mainly of middle-class white women who were then seeking to gain the right to vote.
The first wave, otherwise known as the women’s rights movement, truly got on its wheels at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention in New York. The convention was dedicated to the discussion of women’s rights, was attended by both men and women and was openly ridiculed by the news media. Seneca Falls is often times called the starting point of the Women’s Suffrage Movement. Congress wouldn’t pass the 19th amendment to the constitution giving women the right to vote until the year 1919, 71 years after the convention. A few well-known suffragists involved in the first wave were Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.
The second wave of feminism was more diverse, pulling in women from many races and nationalities. It took place during the 1960’s and the “bra-burning” image that many now associate with the term feminist was born out of this era; although I can not say whether or not bra-burnings actually occurred.
Women questioned the depiction of the suburban housewife in pop-culture and broke away from the image. Sexual freedom was strongly emphasized by second-wavers.
It was also during this time that the feminist group called the Redstockings organized a protest of the 1968 Atlantic City Miss America Pageant. The group encouraged a boycott of all types of women’s beauty products and asked that women who attended the event to bring such items to throw into what had been dubbed a “freedom trash can.”
The third wave began during the mid-90’s and many critics argue that it is highly individualistic. Although many feminists of this wave are politically active, a large portion of third wave feminists focus on self-empowerment and less on changing the social order. There is a bit of a clash between second-wavers and third-wavers.
While some of us still spend our time battling with the glass ceiling in the workplace and mentally oppressive media depictions in society, many third-wavers have gone in another direction. They are working to reclaim words such as “bitch” in an effort to keep them from being used as weapons by others. They have also embraced many things that second-wavers believed to be oppressive, arguing that they are embracing their femininity.
It is not necessary to belong to a feminist organization in order to influence change in our society; it is not really essential to even identify yourself as a feminist. All you truly need is the courage to stand up, addressing injustice and oppressive structures in society when you see them. I recommend questioning the world around you. Do not simply accept that some things are just the way they are. Encourage change by informing members of your family or community that sexism and discrimination exist. Research these issues; seek out information about problems that exist in your community. For those who want to be more politically active and do identify with the term feminist, I recommend checking out some of the feminist literature that’s available to you in CU’s library.
I have taken criticism from several friends, some family members and dozens of mere acquaintances when I openly identify myself as a feminist. However, that has not stopped me and I do not want it to stop anyone else from fighting against oppression and injustice. I believe in equality for all people. I believe in freedom, respect and tolerance. I am a woman; I am a feminist.