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A Brief H(er)story of Feminism

A multitude of colourful ribbons amid a purple background

If you’re a bit rusty on the history/herstory of feminism and would like a very quick refresher, this blog post is for you!

Feminism was and is a philosophy and practical movement that recognises the inherent equality between men and women. Feminism was created to oppose patriarchy; patriarchy is a human-made system and paradigm in which men are deemed to be superior to women.

However, patriarchy is often presented as not human-made at all—it is presented as the norm, as the natural state of things, as the way things should be. Simone de Beauvoir wrote of this in 1949, in her classic book The Second Sex: “Legislators, priests, philosophers, writers, and scientists have striven to show that the subordinate position of woman is willed in heaven and advantageous on earth.”[1] This sense of the superiority of men and the inferiority of women has played out in so many ways in our society, and feminism as a movement has worked extremely hard to correct this imbalance societally, culturally, politically, economically, within family units, and so on. Each wave and thread of feminism has steadily made progress towards the ultimate goal of full equality for women.

First-wave feminists in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century sought political equality between men and women, specifically seeking the right to vote and also the right to stand for Parliament. Brave suffragettes often risked—and in some cases even sacrificed—their lives to achieve this goal. We owe them a great debt, so next time you are standing in line to vote, please give a minute’s silence in appreciation for their courageous spirit.

Second-wave feminists in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, as part of the women’s liberation movement, focused on correcting structural imbalances between men and women in the economic, employment, education and legal systems, as well as within the family and the home. Numerous victories included equal pay for equal work (seems like a crazy concept to us now, that women would be legally required to be paid less for doing the exact same job!!), no-fault divorce, the invention of the pill, new opportunities for women to study and work in fields traditionally dominated by men, and government-supported childcare. The life choices on offer for many Western women today—including the ability to be financially independent—exist predominately due to those feisty and fierce second-wave feminists.

Third-wave feminists turned their attention to protest against restrictive cultural and societal expectations placed on women, and included the perspectives of women of colour, queer women and non-Western women. A small sample of this work includes exploring the Beauty Myth[2] (i.e., the need for women to be aesthetically pleasing at all times—often at great pain and expense); recognising sexual double-standards—especially calling out damaging ‘slut shaming’ cultural norms; questioning heteronormativity (i.e., the viewpoint that heterosexual relationships are a ‘normal’ or preferred sexual expression); critiques by women of colour regarding the narrow concerns of predominately white women in second-wave feminism; advocating for the equal validity of all life choices available for women, including the choice not to have children; rejecting the limitations imposed by socially-constructed gender binaries; and pointing out the ‘intersectionality’ of oppression faced by many women not only along gender lines, but also along multi-faceted points of difference including race, class, ability, sexuality and ethnicity.

And now, in the late 2010s, we have the #MeToo and Times Up movements and the global Women’s Marches, in which women have found the courage to speak up and be honest about their experiences at the hands of men and to show their support for one another. This action of solidarity is powerful, because patriarchy has long been encouraging women to fight amongst ourselves and fragment our power.

While this is a very brief and whirlwind tour through feminist history/herstory (needless to say, there’s a lot more to it!), I celebrate these magnificent people for their vision, for their persistence, and for their courage. Their work has resulted in huge changes to our societal fabric, lessening the various impacts of patriarchy for all of us.

Thank you thank you thank you!

Postscript: I'll be sharing about a new flavour of feminism - spiritual feminism - in future blog posts.

[1] de Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. 22. Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1975 (reprinted edition).

[2] Wolf, Naomi. The Beauty Myth. London: Chatto & Windus, 1990.

If you like this blog post, you might also enjoy my book The Patriarchy Illusion: A Down-to-Earth Guide to Spiritual Feminism.

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