Feminism refers to political, cultural, and economic movements aimed at establishing greater, equal, or, some argue, superior rights and participation in society for women and girls, including legal protection and inclusion in politics, business, and scholarship, and recognition and building of women's cultures and power. Feminists are persons of either sex, or females only (in which case males may be profeminists), who believe in feminism.

Feminist theory emerged from these feminist movements.[1][2] It includes some of the sociological theories and philosophies concerned with issues of gender difference and is manifest in a variety of disciplines, such as feminist geography, feminist history, feminist theology, and feminist literary criticism as well as women's literature, music, film, and other media. Feminist activists have campaigned for women's rights[3][4][5][6][7] and interests–such as legal rights of contract, property rights, and voting rights–while also promoting women's rights to bodily integrity and autonomy and reproductive rights including abortion rights. They have struggled to protect women and girls from domestic violence, sexual harassment, and sexual assault.[3][8][9] On economic matters, feminists have advocated for workplace rights, including maternity leave and equal pay, and against other forms of gender-specific discrimination against women.[10][11][12]

During much of its history, feminist movements and theoretical developments were led predominantly by middle-class white women from Western Europe and North America.[13][14][15] However, at least since Sojourner Truth's 1851 speech to American feminists, women of other races have proposed alternative feminisms.[14] This trend accelerated in the 1960s with the civil rights movement in the United States and the collapse of European colonialism in Africa, the Caribbean, parts of Latin America, and Southeast Asia. Since that time, women in developing nations and former colonies and who are of color or various ethnicities or living in poverty have proposed additional feminisms.[15]



Louise Weiss along with other Parisian suffragettes in 1935. The newspaper headline reads, in translation, "THE FRENCHWOMAN MUST VOTE".

Protofeminism preceded feminism and is based on sources other than feminists' writings. Feminists' writings then began to appear, such as those by Christine de Pizan in the 15th century and Mary Wollstonecraft in the late 18th century. Starting in the 19th century, feminism tended to arise in in what we now refer to as waves, especially in the United States and the United Kingdom. First-wave feminism sought equality in property rights, changes in the marriage relationship, and, eventually, in women's suffrage, or women's right to vote. Second-wave feminism, also sometimes called women's liberation, began in the 1960s and focused on discrimination and on cultural, social, and political issues, and books about it included The Feminine Mystique and The Second Sex. It was often accused of orienting to upper middle-class white women and, sometimes, of biological essentialism. Third-wave feminism began in the 1980s or early 1990s and addresses feminism across class and race lines, as being grounded in culture rather than biology, and through many issues, so there's less concentration on particular issues.

Post-feminism is, depending on the participant, either a later development of feminism or a denial that feminism has any continuing justification, so not all feminists consider post-feminism a part of feminism, some viewing it rather as a critique of feminism.[16]

Theoretical schools

Feminist theory encompasses work in anthropology, sociology, economics, women's studies, literary criticism,[17][18] art history,[19] psychoanalysis,[20] philosophy,[21][22] and other areas. Feminist theory aims to understand gender inequality and focuses on gender politics, power relations, and sexuality. While providing a critique of these social and political relations, much of feminist theory focuses on the promotion of women's rights and interests. Themes explored in feminist theory include discrimination, stereotyping, objectification (especially sexual objectification), oppression, and patriarchy.[1][2]

Elaine Showalter modeled the development of feminist theory,[23] although Toril Moi criticized this model, seeing it as essentialist, deterministic, and failing to account for the situation of women outside the West.[24]

Movements and ideologies

Several overlapping movements of feminist ideologies have developed over the years.

Liberal feminism seeks individualistic equality of men and women through political and legal reform without altering the structure of society.

Socialist feminism connects oppression of women to exploitation, oppression, and labor. Marxist feminists feel that overcoming class oppression overcomes gender oppression;[25] some socialist feminists disagree.[26] Radical feminism considers the male-controlled capitalist hierarchy as the defining feature of women's oppression and the total uprooting and reconstruction of society as necessary[8] and has branched into such as anti-pornography feminism, opposed by sex-positive feminism. Anarcha-feminists believe that class struggle and anarchy against the State[27] require struggling against patriarchy, which comes from involuntary hierarchy. Cultural feminism attempts to revalidate undervalued "female nature" or "female essence";[28] its critics assert that it has led feminists to retreat from politics to lifestyle.[29] Separatist feminism does not support heterosexual relationships. Lesbian feminism is thus closely related. Some writers criticize separatist feminism as sexist.

Womanism[30][31] emerged after early feminist movements were largely white and middle-class.[13] Black feminism argues that sexism, class oppression, and racism are inextricably bound together.[32][33][34] Chicana feminism focuses on Mexican American, Chicana, and Hispanic women in the United States. Multiracial or "women of color" feminism is related.[35] Standpoint feminists argue that feminism should examine how women's experience of inequality relates to that of racism, homophobia, classism, and colonization.[36][14] Postcolonial feminists argue that colonial oppression and Western feminism marginalized postcolonial women but didn't turn them passive or voiceless. Third-world feminism is closely related.[15] These discourses are related to African feminism, motherism,[37] Stiwanism,[38] negofeminism,[39] femalism, transnational feminism, and Africana womanism.[40]

Conservative feminism is conservative relative to the society in which it resides. Libertarian feminism conceives of people as self-owners and therefore as entitled to freedom from coercive interference.[41] Individualist feminism or ifeminism, opposing so-called gender feminism, draws on anarcho-capitalism.[42]

Postmodern feminists argue that sex and gender are socially constructed,[43] that it is impossible to generalize women's experiences across cultures and histories,[44] and that dualisms and traditional gender, feminism, and politics are too limiting.[45] Post-structural feminism uses various intellectual currents for feminist concerns.[46] Many post-structural feminists maintain that difference is one of the most powerful tools that women possess.[46][47] Contemporary psychoanalytic French feminism is more philosophical and literary than is Anglophone feminism.

Ecofeminists see men's control of land as responsible for the oppression of women and destruction of the natural environment, but a criticism is that ecofeminism focuses too much on a mystical connection between women and nature.[48]

Societal impact

The feminist movement has effected change in Western society, including women's suffrage; in education; in gender neutrality in English; job pay more nearly equal to men's; the right to initiate divorce proceedings; the right of women to make individual decisions on pregnancy (including access to contraceptives and abortion); and the right to own property.[11][12]

From the 1960s on, the campaign for women's rights[49] was met with mixed results[50] in the U.S. and the U.K. Other countries of the EEC agreed to ensure that discriminatory laws would be phased out across the European Community.

In the U.S., the National Organization for Women (NOW) began in 1966 to seek women's equality, including through the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA),[51] which did not pass, although some states enacted their own.

Reproductive rights in the U.S. centered on the court decision in Roe v. Wade enunciating a woman's right to choose whether to carry a pregnancy to term. Western women gained more reliable birth control, allowing family planning and careers. The movement started in the 1910s in the U.S. under Margaret Sanger and elsewhere under Marie Stopes and grew in the late 20th century.

The division of labor within households was affected by the increased entry of women into workplaces in the 20th century. Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild found that, in two-career couples, men and women, on average, spend about equal amounts of time working, but women still spend more time on housework,[52][53] although Cathy Young responded by arguing that women may prevent equal participation by men in housework and parenting.[54]

Although research suggests that, to an extent, both women and men perceive feminism to be in conflict with romance, studies of undergraduates and older adults have shown that feminism has positive impacts on relationship health for women and sexual satisfaction for men, and found no support for negative stereotypes of feminists.[55]

Participation in the CEDAW (By Canuckguy et al. & Allstar86 (attributed per Wikipedia file CEDAW_Participation.svg, as accessed Jul. 26, 2010).)
     Signed and ratified     Acceded or succeeded     Unrecognized state, abiding by treaty      Only signed     Non-signatory

In international law, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is an international convention adopted by the United Nations General Assembly and described as an international bill of rights for women. It came into force in those nations ratifying it.[56]

In religion, feminist theology reconsiders the traditions, practices, scriptures, sacred texts, and theologies of religions from a feminist perspective.[57][58][59] Its goals include increasing the role of women among the clergy and religious authorities, reinterpreting male-dominated imagery and language about the deity or deities, and determining women's place in relation to career and motherhood. Most Christian feminists agree that God does not discriminate by sex. New feminism is a branch of difference feminism within Catholicism. Islamic feminism aims for full equality in public and private life, highlights the deeply rooted teachings of equality in the Quran, encourages questioning patriarchal interpretation of Islamic teaching. and draws on secular and Western feminist discourses. Jewish feminism addresses all major branches of Judaism to open up all-male prayer groups, end exemption from positive time-bound mitzvot, and enable women to function as witnesses and to initiate divorce. The Dianic Wiccan feminism, one faith of many in Wicca, is female-focused and Goddess-centered and teaches witchcraft as every woman's right. In Wicca, "the Goddess" is a deity of prime importance, along with her consort the Horned God. In the earliest Wiccan publications, she is described as a tribal goddess of the witch community, neither omnipotent nor universal, and it was recognised that there was a greater "Prime Mover", although the witches did not concern themselves much with this being. Atheist feminism objects to sexism in all major religions.


Distinction between sex and gender

The distinction between sex and gender is generally that sex is biological (e.g., chromosomal or morphological) while gender is social or cultural (e.g., how societies structure relationships).


Gender-based inquiries into and conceptualization of architecture have also come about, leading to feminism in modern architecture. Piyush Mathur coined the term "archigenderic". Claiming that "architectural planning has an inextricable link with the defining and regulation of gender roles, responsibilities, rights, and limitations", Mathur came up with that term "to explore...the meaning of 'architecture" in terms of gender" and "to explore the meaning of "gender" in terms of architecture".[60]

Women's writing

Women's writing came to exist as a separate category of scholarly interest relatively recently. In the West, second-wave feminism prompted a general reevaluation of women's historical contributions, and academic sub-disciplines included women's writing, developed in response to the belief that women's lives and contributions have been underrepresented as areas of scholarly interest. Much early feminist literary scholarship rediscovered older texts by women, some since reissued. Feminist science fiction developed when writers of science fiction combined its sensationalism with political and technological critiques of society.

Women's music

Women's music is generally music composed by females and, in the case of lyrics, written from experiences and perspectives of women and girls.

Women's film

Women's cinema generally refers to films in which the directors, writers, or, possibly, cinematographers are women, and not simply that some actors are women.

Riot grrrl movement

Riot grrrl (or riot grrl) is an underground feminist punk rock movement that is often associated with third-wave feminism. Riot grrrls took an anti-corporate stance of self-sufficiency and self-reliance. Riot grrrls' emphasis on universal female identity and separatism often appears more closely allied with second-wave feminism than with the third wave. The movement sought to give women the power to control their voices and artistic expressions. It encouraged and made "adolescent girls' standpoints central", allowing them to express themselves fully.

Sexuality and pornography

As part of the feminist sex wars, a term for the acrimonious debates within the feminist movement around feminism, sexuality, sexual representation, pornography, sadomasochism, the role of transwomen in the lesbian community, and other sexual issues, the debate on porn pitted anti-pornography feminism against sex-positive feminism.

Prostitution and trafficking

Feminsts' views on prostitution vary. Some favor women's right to control their own bodies and sexuality including for commerce. Some argue that prostitution is so tangled with murder, human trafficking and imprisonment by international criminal organizations, low or no pay for sexual slavery, sexism, denial of law enforcement against sexual assault, higher AIDS rates, and child prostitution as to be inseparable in practice. However, most feminists oppose punishing prostituted women, as they lack the power of their bosses and customers.

Relationship to political movements

In the U.S., feminism, when politically active, formerly aligned largely with the political right, e.g., through the National Woman's Party, from the 1910s to the 1960s, and presently aligns largely with the left, e.g., through the National Organization for Women, of the 1960s to the present, although in neither case has the alignment been consistent.


Since the early twentieth century, some feminists have allied with socialism. In 1907, at an International Conference of Socialist Women in Stuttgart, suffrage was described as a tool of class struggle. Clara Zetkin of the Social Democratic Party of Germany called for women's suffrage to build a "socialist order, the only one that allows for a radical solution to the women's question".[61][62][63]

In Britain, the women's movement was allied with the Labour party. In the U.S., Betty Friedan emerged from a radical background to take leadership. Radical Women is the oldest socialist feminist organization in the U.S. and is still active.[64] During the Spanish Civil War, Dolores Ib¡rruri (La Pasionaria) led the Communist Party of Spain. Although she supported equal rights for women, she opposed women fighting on the front and clashed with the anarcha-feminist Mujeres Libres.[65]

In Latin America, revolutions brought changes in women's status in countries such as Nicaragua, where feminist ideology during the Sandinista Revolution aided women's quality of life but fell short of achieving a social and ideological change.[66]

The end of Commmunist governments led to changes in Eastern European gender roles.


Nazi Germany and the contemporary fascist states illustrate the disastrous consequences for society of a state ideology that, in glorifying traditional images of women, becomes anti-feminist.[67] In Germany, after the rise of Nazism in 1933, there was a rapid dissolution of the political rights and economic opportunities that feminists had fought for during the prewar period and to some extent during the 1920s.[citation needed] In Franco's Spain, the right-wing Catholic conservatives undid the work of feminists during the Republic.[citation needed] Fascist society was hierarchical with an emphasis and idealization of virility, with women maintaining a position largely subordinate to men's.[68]

British Fascism, for its part, attracted many women to its ranks.[69]. In particular, three prominent suffragette leaders (Mary Allen, Mary Richardson, and Norah Elam) used militant tactics to get votes for women in Britain in the early 1900s, and that had earned them Holloway prison terms, where they underwent hunger and thirst strikes and force feeding in the cause. During the 1930s, all three became prominent leaders in Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists (BUF). Elam became a BUF propagandist, driven by her disillusionment with what she saw as the antiquated Party political system that then dominated. She asserted that women had been given the vote simply to patronize and shut them up, making them think they were taking part in democratic decision-making, and then shrewdly sidelining them and making them politically impotent. Her Fascist propaganda bitterly criticized fellow suffragettes for giving up the feminist agenda and returned time and again to a concern with women's lack of freedom and the lack of influence that any one individual can exert through voting alone. The alternative to democracy she believed the BUF offered was not simply a vague utopian vision. She referred to the practical ideology underlying her Fascist concept. This New Creed, she believed, came in the form of a "Corporate State" which would deliver real equality and participation for all citizens, Corporatism being a system in which various groups in society (economic sectors and professional specializations) are conceived as the essential parts of the state making up the whole, the organs making up the body. The British House of Commons would be made up of representatives from each Corporation. She detailed little.[70] When she was put forward as a candidate for a Parliamentary seat in Northampton in 1936, Mosley accompanied her to Northampton to introduce her to her electorate at a meeting in the Town Hall, where in a public meeting he announced that "[h]e was glad indeed to have the opportunity of introducing the first candidate, and it killed for all time the suggestion that National Socialism proposed putting British women back into the home. Mrs Elam had fought in the past for women's suffrage ... and was a great example of the emancipation of women in Britain".[70] Whether this idea of a Corporate State would ever have produced for women the power to influence public life in the way Elam hoped was never realised in Britain. World War II and its aftermath revealed the full horrors of fascism and what it was capable of and coincided with the demise of the BUF, which never actually fought or won any seats in elections.

Scientific discourse criticism

Some feminists, such as Evelyn Fox Keller, criticize traditional scientific discourse as historically biased towards a masculine perspective,[10] including the idea of scientific objectivity. Primatologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy notes the prevalence of masculinely coined stereotypes and theories, such as of the non-sexual female, despite "the accumulation of abundant openly available evidence contradicting it".[71]

Many feminist scholars rely on qualitative scientific research methods that emphasize women's subjective and individual experiences, including treating research participants as authorities equal to the researcher. Objectivity is eschewed in favor of open self-reflexivity and the agenda of helping women. Also, part of the feminist research agenda is the uncovering of ways in which power inequities are created and/or reinforced in society and in scientific and academic institutions. A feminist approach to research often involves nontraditional forms of presentation.[72]

Biology of gender

Modern feminist science challenges the biological essentialist view of gender. However, it is increasingly interested in the study of biological sex differences and their effect on human behavior. For example, Anne Fausto-Sterling's book, Myths of Gender, explores the assumptions embodied in scientific research that purports to support a biologically essentialist view of gender.[73]

Her second book, Sexing the Body, discussed the alleged possibility of more than two true biological sexes. This possibility only exists in yet-unknown extraterrestrial biospheres, as no ratios of true gametes to polar cells other than 4:0 and 1:3 (male and female, respectively) are produced on Earth. However, in The Female Brain, Louann Brizendine argues that brain differences between the sexes are a biological reality with significant implications for sex-specific functional differences.[74] Steven Rhoads illustrated sex-dependent differences across a wide scope.[75]

Carol Tavris, in The Mismeasure of Woman, uses psychology and sociology to critique theories that use essentialism and biological reductionism to explain differences between men and women. She argues that "women are not the better sex, the inferior sex or the opposite sex", rather she contends that there are ever-changing hypotheses that justify inequality and perpetuate stereotypes.[76]

Evolutionary biology

Sarah Kember–drawing from numerous areas such as evolutionary biology, sociobiology, artificial intelligence, and cybernetics in development with a new evolutionism–discusses the biologization of technology. She notes how feminists and sociologists have become suspicious of evolutionary psychology, particularly in as much as sociobiology is subjected to complexity in order to strengthen sexual difference as immutable through pre-existing cultural value judgments about human nature and natural selection.[77] Where feminist theory is criticized for its "false beliefs about human nature", Kember then argues in conclusion that "feminism is in the interesting position of needing to do more biology and evolutionary theory in order not to simply oppose their renewed hegemony, but in order to understand the conditions that make this possible, and to have a say in the construction of new ideas and artefacts."[77]


Feminism has led to increased participation by women in the health care they receive (e.g., the book Our Bodies, Ourselves), deliver (e.g., as doctors and midwives), and seek (e.g., lactivism).


Feminist therapy is the application of feminist principles to psychotherapy.



Men have responded in each wave of the movement positively and negatively,[78] varying from pro-feminism to masculism, the men's rights movement, and anti-feminism.[79][80][81] In the 21st century, new reactions have emerged from male scholars in gender studies[82][83] and men's rights activists who promote male equality (including equal treatment in family, divorce, and anti-discrimination law)[84] and academics like Michael Flood, Michael Messner, and Michael Kimmel are involved with men's studies and pro-feminism.[85][84][86][87][88]

Historically, some men have engaged with feminism. Philosopher Jeremy Bentham demanded equal rights for women in the 18th century. In 1866, philosopher John Stuart Mill (author of "The Subjection of Women") presented a women's petition to the British parliament and supported an amendment to the 1867 Reform Bill. Others have lobbied and campaigned against feminism.

Men as feminists

Some feminist women maintain that identifying and participating as a feminist is the strongest stand men can take in the struggle against sexism.[89][90] Highlighting critical debates about masculinity and gender, the history of men in feminism, and men's roles in preventing violence and sexual assault, a critical analysis of first-person stories by feminist men addresses the question of why men should care about feminism in the first place and lays the foundation for a larger discussion about feminism as an all-encompassing human issue,[91] drawing on earlier work.[92] Fidelma Ashe argues that traditional feminist views of male experience and of "men doing feminism" have been monolithic and explores the multiple political discourses and practices of pro-feminist politics and evaluates each strand through an interrogation based upon its effect on feminist politics.[93][94]

Other feminist women argue that men cannot be feminists, being incapable simply because, in terms of their acculturation, they are not women. They maintain that men are granted inherent privileges that prevent them from identifying with feminist struggles, thus making it impossible for them to identify with feminists.[95]


Pro-feminism is the support of feminism without implying that the supporter is a member of the feminist movement. The term is most often used in reference to men who are actively supportive of feminism. The activities of pro-feminist men's groups include anti-violence work with boys and young men in schools, offering sexual harassment workshops in workplaces, running community education campaigns, and counseling male perpetrators of violence. Pro-feminist men also are involved in men's health, activism against pornography including anti-pornography legislation, men's studies, and the development of gender equity curricula in schools. This work is sometimes in collaboration with feminists and women's services, such as domestic violence and rape crisis centers. Some activists of both genders will not refer to men as "feminists" at all and will refer to all pro-feminist men as "pro-feminists".[96][97]


Antifeminism is opposition to feminism in some or all of its forms.[98] Writers such as Camille Paglia, Christina Hoff Sommers, Jean Bethke Elshtain, and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese have been labeled "anti-feminists" by feminists.[99][100] Daphne Patai and Noretta Koertge argue that in this way the term "anti-feminist" is used to silence academic debate about feminism.[101] Paul Nathanson and Katherine K. Young's books Spreading Misandry and Legalizing Misandry explore what they argue is feminist-inspired misandry.[102] Christina Hoff-Sommers argues feminist misandry leads directly to misogyny by what she calls "establishment feminists" against (the majority of) women who love men in Who Stole Feminism: How Women Have Betrayed Women.[103] Marriage rights advocates criticize feminists like Sheila Cronan who take the view that marriage constitutes slavery for women and that freedom for women cannot be won without the abolition of marriage.[104]


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  • DuBois, Ellen Carol (1997). Harriot Stanton Blatch and the Winning of Woman Suffrage. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-06562-0. 
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