Feminism: A Brief History of Feminist Theory and Practice in the United States

Photo Credit: Flickr/Phil Roeder

By Laura Berlinsky-Schine

READ MORE: Discrimination, Gender equality, Women in the workplace, Equality, Feminism, Sexism, National Organization for Women

When did feminism begin? Was it with Betty Friedan, whose book, The Feminine Mystique, became the feminist manifesto of the 1960s, championing feminist thought and efforts to liberate housewives across the United States? Was it with Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott, prominist leaders in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century women's movement?

Or does it go back even earlier? Abigail Adams, for example, could have been one of the most radical feminists of her day. Despite living in a very male-dominated society, she famously wrote, "In the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors" in a letter to her husband, John Adams, urgining him and his fellow members of the Contiental Congress in mind when declaring independence from Great Britain. For the time, this was a bold outcry against the patriarchy.

It's difficult to pinpoint a specific moment when the feminist movement began. Over years, decades, and centuries, many women and men alike have fought tirelessly against sexism and gender inequality to change social norms and expectations.

Many historians and women's studies scholars identify four waves in the history of feminism and the women's movement in the United States. Read on for a brief history of these movements, the key people involved, and how feminist movement has evolved in the modern world.

First-wave feminism

Sarah Margaret Fuller Ossoli, known as Margaret Fuller, a writer of feminist thought, published Woman in the Nineteenth Century in book form in 1845. The piece originally appeared in a short version in The Dial magazine as "The Great Lawsuit. Man versus Men. Woman versus Women" in 1843.

Considered by many to be the first major feminist work in the United States, the book applies the transcendentalist idea of cultivating to individual to gender equality. Fuller proposes that women should enjoy greater spiritual and intellectual freedom, which would allow both women and men to achieve enlightment. Many of her ideas have been compared to those of English philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, whose book, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, argues that women appear to be inferior to men only because they haven't enjoyed the same education men receive. Her book was published in 1792.

There are many transcendentalist ideas expressed in the essay based on Fuller's strong dedication to transcendentalism. One of the main ideas is the cultivation of the individual, which to Fuller included women as well as men. The essay applies the idea of the individual to the enlightenment of all mankind: allowing women as individuals to have greater spiritual and intellectual freedom will advance the enlightenment of both men and women and, therefore, all of mankind.

While this influential book sparked conversations among prominent philosophers, authors, and leaders, most people point to the Seneca Falls Convention, the first women's rights convention, which took place Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848, as the beginning of first-wave feminism in the United States.

The Conventon began as a response to the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, where some of the liberal feminists of the day, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, along with other women, were not allowed to seated because of their gender. Cady Stanton and Mary Ann M’Clintock, along with other members of the M’Clintock family, drafted the Declaration of Sentiments. The Declaration of Independence, of course, did not use gender-neutral language, so the Declaration of Sentiments mirrored the Declaration of Independence in style and content, and, among other declarations, stated the resolution, "Woman is man's equal—was intended to be so by the Creator, and the highest good of the race demands that she should be recognized as such."

Participants of the Convention signed the Declaration, which propelled the women's suffrage movement. Initially, Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony formed the American Equal Rights Association to promote voting rights for all. As more radical feminists than some of their peers, they broke off from less liberal feminists including Lucy Stone, Henry Blackwell, and Julia Ward Howe to form the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA). Many important figures in the feminist movement, including Sojourner Truth, made attempts to vote or run for public office, before the Nineteenth Ammendment, which granted women the right to vote, was finally ratified in 1920.

It is important to note that the women's movement was closely connect with the abolitionist movement in the nineteenth century. Key proponents of women's rights were abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass and Sarah and Angelina Grimké.

Second-wave feminism

Second-wave feminism came largely as a response to the "re-domestication" of women after World War II. During the war, women assumed roles that had previously existed under men's purview, including many professions, since many men werefighting in the war. After World War II, women were expected to resume their roles as housewives.

However, around the world, women began to rebel against this label and idea. French author Simone de Beauvoir, for instance, penned the book, The Second Sex, wondering why women are considered the "other" gender. This is largely considered the beginning of worldwide second-wave feminism.

Inspired by de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique, publishing the book in 1963. She interviewed former classmates from Smith College and analyzed depictions of women in the media to ague that women deserve much more than the traditional roles they had thus far occupied. Her book is credited is kickstarting second-wave feminism in the United States.

With Friedan as the president of the National Organization of Women (NOW) and other key figures in the movement working towards equal opportunities for women and men, including Gloria Steinam, who worked undercover as a Playboy Bunny and exposed the male chauvinist environment, the 1960s saw great victories for the gender equality movement, including the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which abolished wage disparity based on age; 1968, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin; the EEOC decision ruling illegal sex-segregated help wanted ads; and the legalization of no-fault divorce.

In the 1970s, the movement continued with victories such as the Title X Family Planning Program, which provided people with comprehensive family planning and health services, including birth control options; the Education Amendments of 1972 and Title IX, which prohibited discrimination in higher education on the basis of gender; Eisenstadt v. Baird, a case that struck down a law banning the distribution of contraceptives for unmarried people; the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) of 1978, which banned discrimination against pregnant women; and one of the major victories in the women's rights movement, Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court case that legalized abortion in the United States.

A major disappointment to feminists everywhere came in the form of the Equal Rights Amendment. Drafted by Alice Paul and Crystal Eastman, the ERA sought to end all forms of gender discriminiation, and was first introduced to Congress in 1921. The amendment gained support and momentum in the 1960s, and was submitted for ratification in 1972. In 1977, 35 of 38 states required ratified the amendment, but opposition from anti-feminist figures like Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative who opposed liberal feminism ideologies, caused four states to retract their support. The ERA original ratification deadline of March 22, 1979 was extended until June 30, 1982, but no other states ratified the amendment.

Despite this disappointment, second-wave feminism saw numerous victories, both in feminist theory and practice. Among the other triumphs, women's studies emerged as an academic course and discipline.

Third-wave feminism

In the early 1990s, members of Generation X sought to redefine the idea of feminism. This new movement focused on the idea of cultural feminism.

In 1991, Attorney Anita Hill accused Clarence Thomas, whom President George H. W. Bush had nominated for a seat on the Supreme Court, of sexual harrassment. Thomas was confirmed despite her testimony, and continues to sit on the bench today.

In conjunction with other events, this testimony sparked third-wave feminism, a term coined by Rebecca Walker in a Ms. Magazine op-ed entitled, "Becoming the Third Wave." Third-wave feminists trace the beginning of their movemnt to the emergence of riot grrrl, the feminist punk subculture, which sought to define the word "girl" as a derogatory replacement of "woman."

The 1990s saw many triumphs for third-wave feminists and the movements. Many women entered Congress, with just two seats occupied by women previously. The decade also saw its first female Attorney General and Secretary of State and second female Supreme Court justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The third wave of feminism also emphasized reproductive rights, race, class, sex-positive feminism, and social issues, LGBT rights, and the reclaiming of derogatory terms to describe women, along with the proponence causes like gender-neutral language and redefining gender roles.

Fourth-wave feminism

Fourth-wave feminism generally refers to a period beginning in 2012. This movement is characterized by opposition to sexism, violence against women, sexual assault and rape culture on college campuses, body shaming, and workplace harrassment. It is also strongly associated with social media and new communication devices and methods. Feminist Scholar Prudence Chamberlain said that the fourth wave's feminist perspective challenges aggression against women and wonder's why today's gender inequality issues still exist.

Laura Bates's Every Day Feminism Project began in 2012 to document exampels of sexism around the world. The project is considered the beginning of the fourth wave of feminism.

Wendy Davis's 13-hour filibuster in Texas in 2013, which sought to prevent an abortion bill restricting women's reproductive rights from passing, was a large-scale example of the women's protests that occured during this era.

The feminist perspective and ideology is in no way over; the fourth wave of feminism is an ongoing movement. On January 21, 2017, men and women alike took to the streets around the world to fight for a wide range of issues, including women's rights, women's health issues, immigration reform, reproductive rights, environmental cuase, LGBTQ rights, racial equality, and freedom of religion. Originally held in repsonse to the election and inauguration of Donald Trump, the march was reprised on January 21, 2018. These marches are not just an example of liberal feminism or radical feminism, but represent a range of views and perspectives and global cultural feminism and liberal ideologies.

The ongoing #MeToo movement began in response to numerous reports of sexual assualt and violence against women. Tarana Burke coined the phrase "Me too" in 2006 to encourage women to share their stories of oppression and violence they had experienced and promote empathy among women. Alyssa Milano popularized the phrase after many women in Hollywood reported that Harvey Weinstein had sexually harrassed or assaulted them. As more and more women and men have recounted their stories of oppression and assault by powerful, influential men accross industries, the movement continues to grow. The movement does not exist in antithesis to sex-positive feminism, but rather promotes the idea that the prevalence of sexual assualt and harrassment against women has been widespread in the workplace for far too long without consequence.

Of course, we still have a long way to go. Many issues regarding gender roles, women's health, women in the workplace, and a still male-dominated society remain today. However, we've made great strides against the patriarchy in the United States, and gain new ground every day.

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