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A Brief History of Western Feminism

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Historically and to date, people have defined feminism in many ways. In, In Sisterhood and Solidarity: Queering African Feminist Spaces, Awino Okech (2013) said that feminism consists of “our friendships, networks, our bonds, organizations, and our individual and collective feminist energies” (p. 16). Okech wrote that the feminist movement is a space where feminists “mobilize” their “feminist principles” (2013, p. 16). For the most part, feminist principles promote equality and equity for all people, including women and girls. In this regard, feminism is a sociopolitical and revolutionary movement that works to end violence against women and girls.

In What’s in a Name? Womanism, Black Feminism and Beyond, Black feminist theorist Patricia Hill Collins (1996) cited activist Pearl Cleage’s definition of feminism as: “the belief that women are full human beings capable of participation and leadership in the full range of human activities—intellectual, political, social, sexual, spiritual and economic” (p. 12). Cleage’s articulation of feminism stresses the importance of recognizing the humanity of women and girls as integral to shielding them from and against oppressions of different sorts.

Similarly, combating oppression was central to bell hooks’ definition of feminism. In 1984 hooks noted that feminism takes place “anytime and anywhere people resist sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression” (p. xi). But because oppression takes shape in different ways, so too does the work to end it, making the breadth and depth of feminism expansive.

For this reason, how feminism is expressed and practiced remains broad and contested. According to feminist historian Estelle Freedman (2013), the word feminism emerged in France in the 1880s, “the term combined the French word for woman, femme, and -isme, which referred to a social movement or political ideology” (p. 32). By 1890, it had spread through Europe, making its way to North and South America by 1910, growing into “waves,” first, second, and third, with some even arguing for a fourth.

First- and Second-Wave Feminism

While feminism has become a convoluted movement, its inception was imagined by white feminists to have been much less nuanced and more straightforward. The first two waves contextualized feminism as universal, premised on the idea that it is rooted in our biological and lived experiences as cis-gendered women living in and resisting a patriarchal world. First-wave feminists demanded an end to sexism and misogyny. In North America, for instance, first-wave feminism, active between 1880 and 1930, was known as the suffrage movement. During this time, women demanded gender equality with men through social reform.

This era was marked by protests for human rights such as the right to vote, the right to education, and labor rights. New Zealand would be the first to grant women voting rights in 1893; Australia followed in 1902. Finland did the same in Europe in 1906, as did Canada in 1918. Ecuador would pave the way in South America in 1928, Sri Lanka in Asia in 1931, and Senegal for Africa in 1945 (Hobbs and Rice, 2013; Tripp, 2013). In this way, first wavers are seen as the founding and seminal figures of feminism, understood broadly, worldwide.

Second-wave feminism, on the other hand, was active after World War II, between 1945 and 1975. It emphasized equal pay with men, reproductive rights, and sexual liberation, as well as an end to violence against women, including domestic violence (Hobbs & Rice, 2013; Tripp, 2013; Valentine, 2002).

Aili Mari Tripp (2013) suggests that it was during the second wave that European and North American-based organizations doing gender equity work began to focus more on international efforts. On the other hand, during this same period, women’s movements worldwide were launching, independent from women’s movements in the West. So much so that the United Nations (UN) would declare 1975 the International Women’s Year, and the First UN World Conference on Women took place that same year in Mexico City.

During this time, Latin American women suffragists were active around their continent, energizing others internationally. These international movements took on leadership roles and shifted what Tripp (2013) identified as, “the center of gravity in global women’s mobilization dynamics” (p. 696), thereby expanding and enriching how we have come to understand feminist organizing and solidarity movements.

Third-Wave Feminism

Indigenous, Black, and other non-white voices of color would continue to be excluded from feminism until 1985 when events like the Third United Nations Women’s Conference held in Nairobi laid the groundwork for third-wave feminism (Basu, 2004; Dearham, 2013; Moghadam, 2005; Valentine, 2002). In Nairobi, more than 60 percent of the participants were from the Global South (Tripp, 2013). Mari Tripp (2013, p. 695) posits that it was at the Nairobi conference that women from “the South” challenged the “ideological dominance” and “cultural imperialism” of “the North,” seeking a redefinition of feminism that was plural (see also Mohanty, 2003; Reagon, 1983). This marked a shift toward more inclusion of diverse voices from outside of Europe and North America. Nairobi was a pivotal moment for the feminist movement in that tensions that erupted resulted in participants questioning gender in relation to issues of race, multiple geographic scales, as well as the role of women in political decision-making (Dufour et al., 2010; Hobbs & Rice, 2013; Tripp, 2013). This would in turn shape how third-wave feminism has come to be characterized by tensions, internal conflict, and opposition to feminism as a monolith.

In an interview with Time titled “10 Questions for Jamaica Kinkaid,” (2013) Black Caribbean American writer Jamaica Kinkaid stated, “I think one of the terrible things that feminism never addressed is the moral situation...We are so interested in equality. We want to do the things that men do, but so many of the things that men do are repulsive and shouldn’t be done at all” (5:34). Here, Kinkaid reminds us that on our quest for feminism, we need to be attentive to bell hooks’ assertion that “patriarchy has no gender”; that is, even feminists can internalize patriarchy and misogyny. In this regard, third-wave feminists challenged internalized patriarchy and highlighted divisions and tensions within the feminist movement.

South Asian artist and educator Vivek Shraya (2018) suggests that misogyny’s insidious and pervasive nature seeps into all women, “Even those who profess to love women” (p. 76), including feminists. To quote Shraya, "I’m afraid of women who’ve either embodied or defended the men who harmed me, or have watched in silence. I’m afraid of women who adopt masculine traits and then feel compelled to dominate or silence. Women who see me as a predator and whose comfort I consequently put before my own.”

She adds, “I’m afraid of women who have internalized their experiences of misogyny so deeply that they make me their punching bag” (2018, p. 76). To this end, the third wave brought to light these inter and intra-relational breakdowns between feminists, even among those working toward a common vision.

In The Pathology of Racism: A Conversation with Third Word Wimmin, Black African American womanist Doris Davenport (2015) articulated, “While black and white feminists can sometimes work together for a common goal with warmth and support and even love and respect occasionally, underneath there is still another message. That is that white feminists, like white boys and black boys, are threatened by us” (p. 82). Further to this, Chandra Talpade Mohanty (2003) asserted, “histories of feminism document histories of domination and oppression. No non-contradictory or pure feminism is possible” (p. 63).

These quotes summarize the rallying cry of non-white third-wave feminists. This challenge to a monolithic understanding of feminism meant that the third wave has been characterized by tensions and internal conflict, much like at the Third United Nations Women’s Conference held in Nairobi (Dufour et al., 2010; Hobbs & Rice, 2013; Tripp, 2013). The Fourth UN conference, held in Beijing in 1995, was less tense and allowed feminists to expand the definition of violence against women to include issues of environmental degradation, economic disparity, armed conflict, and poverty (Hobbs & Rice, 2013; Tripp, 2013). In a sense, Nairobi and Beijing laid the groundwork for new articulations of feminism and feminist solidarity. It was third-wave feminists who insisted on a rewriting of feminism’s origin, which had long suggested it was located solely in North America and Europe.

I’ll end it here. This month, I’ll be reading the theories chapter of my Ph.D. dissertation to talk about feminisms, including transnational feminism, solidarity movements, interventions from Indigenous, Asian, Global South, and queer feminists. As well as Black African American and Black Sub-Saharan African feminists. Please like, subscribe, and share.

Until next time, in solidarity.

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