A quick trip through the historical timeline of feminist activity.
As women’s history month draws to an end, it seems like the perfect time to reflect on just how far feminism has come. Yay! So I’ve complied a trip through time, highlighting key moments and figures in women’s journey to equality.
For ease of reading, I’ve grouped everything into the three ‘waves’ generally recognised in western feminism. Of course it’s not as easy as slotting everything into 3 sections: life ain’t no textbook. But they are a good starting point for those dipping their toes in the water. Enjoy!
First Wave Feminism:
Mary Wollstonecraft: “I do not wish women to take power over men; but over themselves”
During the 18th and 19th Centuries, various women took pen to paper and expressed the unfairness of their subordinate position in society. These voices throughout the years paved the way for the First Wave of feminists: organised groups which sprung up in Britain and the USA from the latter half of the 19th Century.
1865: Manchester becomes home to The Women’s Social and Political Union, founded by Emmeline Pankhurst - Britain’s first women’s suffrage society. The women’s suffrage movement is officially born and the term suffragette is coined for women campaigning to have the right to a political vote. Tactics shifted from writing to demonstrating their ideas.
This was very much the era of storming political meetings, chaining oneself to railings, hunger strikes and prison time for any outspoken feminists trying to argue their case.
During WWI, many imprisoned suffragettes were released and encouraged to take part in the war effort. Thanks to various suffragette campaigns, women were allowed to do ‘men’s jobs’ (i.e. working in factories making stuff other than blouses) during the war.
As the war came to an end, British women over 30 joined their sisters in New Zealand, Australia, Norway, Finland, The Netherlands and Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in having the right to vote. It took until 1928 for British women to have the same voting rights as men.
Throughout this timeline, we see Black female activists such as Sojourner Truth (1979?-1883) speaking out specifically about the rights of Black women in the USA. The fight for suffrage there was frequently linked with the fight for the abolition of slavery.
Frances E.W Harper was the first African-American women to be published in the USA and was another prominent voice expressing the experience of Black women in the USA. And whilst the 19th Amendment (1920) theoretically gave women the right to vote, this wasn’t a reality for many Black and migrant women in the USA until the second wave of feminism was well underway.
Second Wave Feminism:
Simone de Beauvoir: “one is not born woman. One becomes this”.
A lot of activism died down after women received the right to vote. Anyone continuing to advocate for further women’s rights (eg access to safe abortions, equal treatment at work) was pretty much labelled an ugly, grumpy lesbian and brushed under the carpet.
UNTIL! A new way of thinking about women’s place in society developed after Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex was published in 1949. Her writing questioned the key belief that women are ‘other’ than men. A lot of feminist writing at this time was influenced by existentialism: the idea that first a person exists, and then their actions make them into who they are. So the big message of the second wave was that women are individuals, capable of achieving their own dreams.
We can see this reflected in the events and achievements of the second wave: In the 1960s, the contraceptive pill was approved for use, meaning women could CHOOSE to have a baby later in life - or not at all - allowing them time to do things like build a career, travel or just generally have more fun. With the ‘70s came strikes around equal pay and treatment at the workplace (notably at Ford for instance).
Many women stood up against male-imposed beauty ideals. Case in point: The Women’s Liberation Movement flour-bombed a co-host of the Miss World Pageant in 1970, right in front of the Albert Hall (a wonderful story which I urge you to google).
In 1974 the Combahee River Collective of Black feminists met for the first time. They highlighted the experience of Black women and said only they can identify their needs and speak about their experiences as Black women. Voices speaking out about the combined experience of class, race and sex oppression became louder. A good example of this is the book ‘Ain’t I a Women’, by bell hooks, which calls for women to celebrate their diversity.
Third Wave Feminism:
Andrea Dworkin: “our notion of two discrete biological sexes cannot remain intact”
The third wave (that’s where we are now btw) is characterised by intersectionality and inclusivity. Contexts such as race, sexuality and gender identity are more important than ever in the fight for equality. We tend to recognise now that connected systems oppress women, therefore different women experience discrimination differently.
Since the 90s, the rise in cosmetic surgery being undertaken and eating disorders being experienced by women has exploded. Queue ‘The Beauty Myth’ by Naomi Wolf, a landmark feminist text arguing that images of beauty are used against women.
Over the last three decades, we’ve had increasing conversations about differentiating sex from gender. As such, we’ve got the ball rolling with some limited progress in terms of gender identity: The UK Gender Recognition Act (2004) gives legal clout to a person’s gender change. Unfortunately, it only offers two options for gender reassignment (i.e. male/female) BUT we’ve got to start somewhere.
Pop culture and social media is also playing a huge part in feminism during the third wave. TV and Film finally started showing smart, empowered, independent female protagonists from the mid-nineties (my fave is Mulan). Girl Power is alive and well. Sell-out musicians (Beyonce, Spice Girls), climate activists (Greta Thunberg), billionaire CEOs (Cindy Eckert), all with massive social media followings are great examples of the impact feminism is having on pop culture AND vice versa. We can also thank social media for the fact that different voices and experiences across the world are being shared now more than ever.
Sexual liberation is also a keystone in third wave feminism. In 2005, the scientific community confirmed Helen O’Connell’s map of the clitoris. This was a huge step in understanding how females experience sexual pleasure and dismantling the taboo surrounding female sexuality.
So in terms of what feminism looks like today? For me, it’s all about choice. It’s having the autonomy, both in terms of psychological empowerment and practical rights, to sculpt my life exactly the way I want it to look. It’s about enjoying cleaning the bathroom (yes, really) and cooking for my boyfriend on a Monday, and hustling at work to pay my rent, my nail technician and my pole dance membership on a Tuesday. I don’t want to be lumped into a societal role ‘because I’m a woman’, and I’m bloody grateful to everyone, who’s fight for equality means that by and large, I am not.
I’ll leave you with one last quote from Anna Quindlen about what feminism in the third wave is: ’it’s who makes the money and who makes the compromises… It's a state of mind’.
Further reading & watching:
Feminism, a Graphic Guide - Cathia Jenainati, Judy Groves, Jem Milton
A Room of One’s Own - Virginia Woolf
The Beauty Myth - Naomi Wolf
Feminists: What Were They Thinking? - Netflix Documentary
The Principles of Pleasure - Netflix Docuseries
Author; Maria Bennett
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