History of Feminism Theory & Feminist Thought

The history of feminist thought can be broken down roughly into three waves. First-wave feminism, from the 18th until the beginning of the 20th century, was a movement to liberate women legally, economically, and politically. Feminists of that period sought equal rights for women with respect to owning property, engaging in labor, protection from violence, and voting. Of special note is that first-wave feminists came from all sides of the ideological spectrum: Libertarian, Christian conservative, Socialist, Anarchist. Not all supported suffrage, and some advocated for free love and the abolition of marriage.

The second wave of feminism began in the 1960s and lasted until about the 1990s. It focused on increasing economic opportunity for and ending social discrimination against women. Much influenced by European postmodern philosophers, feminists began to apply the idea of social construction to advance their ideas. Differences between men and women, apart from those in reproductive organs, are not the product of human nature rooted in biology but of social and cultural conditioning in favor of males. Thus, achieving equality became a matter of reconstructing culture and thereby human nature. Inevitably, that meant the use of state force, by instituting affirmative action, creating sexual harassment laws, reforming the prosecution of rape, introducing speech codes and mandatory diversity/sensitivity training on college campuses, and censoring sexually explicit materials. And, unlike with its first-wave predecessors, Leftism predominated among the second-wavers.

Simultaneously, feminists in academia began to view the social and natural sciences as being taught from an inherently biased perspective, namely that of white males, to the disadvantage women's and minorities' perspectives. More radical feminists claimed that our cognition and experiences are socially constructed by our group affiliation. Finding white, heterosexual male standards of logic and science oppressive, they offered subjugated groups' ways of knowing as antidote. Hence, the proliferation of courses in feminist science, literary theory, sociology, and psychology, and the establishment of entire departments devoted to [insert oppressed group here] studies in colleges and universities across the country. 

Third-wave feminism is said to begin in the early 1990s in response to a perceived backlash against the outcomes of second-wave feminism, and a concern that young women were no longer interested in feminist issues. But this wave continues to be concerned with the issues of the second wave: reproductive rights, gay and transgender rights, eliminating sexism and racism, achieving economic equality and social justice for women and other oppressed groups, and environmentalism.

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Feminist positions on pornography currently break down into three rough categories. The most common one is that pornography is an expression of male culture through which women are commodified and exploited.

"During the past three decades, women have made notable gains in the workplace and in pay equity, including increased labor force participation, substantial gains in educational attainment, employment growth in higher paying occupations, and significant gains in real earnings. …

However, despite these gains the raw wage gap continues to be used in misleading ways to advance public...

Sexual correctness is a dogma that permits no dissent. Gender feminists have no scruples about silencing and dismissing the voices of women who disagree.

An article analyzing how Betty Friedan's book The Feminine Mystique doesn't apply as much today as it did in the 1960s.

Feminists oppose initiatives that give individuals more control, such as education policies that allow parents to choose their children's schools and Social Security reforms that offer individuals options for how to save for retirement.

A variety of statistics on divorced parents and their children. Interestingly, many of the statistics seem more favorable to fathers than are often reported.

"Researchers have debated for years whether men or women are likelier to engage in 'mate poaching.' Some surveys indicated that men had a stronger tendency to go after other people's partners, but was that just because men were more likely to admit engaging in this behavior? Now there's experimental evidence that single women are particularly drawn to other people's partners, according to a...

"Dr. Anthony Synnott may have not discussed some of the other hidden areas of gender differences that tend to obscure that women (mostly single mothers) are 2.5 times more likely to kill or injure their children, that children raised by single mothers are far more likely to have negative social outcomes compared to two biological parent families or single father homes, yet judges award...

It was Lucretia who suggested the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention; she participated in its organization as fully as Stanton; she was the first signatory on the convention’s declaration.

"The institution that most strongly protects mothers and children from domestic abuse and violent crime is marriage. Analysis of the 1999 findings of the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), which the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has conducted since 1973, demonstrates that mothers who are or ever have been married are far less likely to suffer from violent crime than are mothers who...

McElroy profiles Harman, an often forgotten force in the early fight for women's rights.

This is a timeline detailing all the major events in American history that led to the woman's successful campaign to get the Nineteenth Amendment passed in 1920.

The Paycheck Fairness bill would require the government to collect information on workers' pay, by race and sex, with the goal of equalizing wages of men and women, by raising women's wages.

An examination of poll numbers indicating that, in spite of being granted the vote in 1923, women were slow to fully exercise their rights.

One of the many laudable goals of the original women's movement was its rejection of the idea that women are reducible to their anatomy. Our bodies are not our selves.

The claim that American women as a group face systemic wage discrimination is groundless.

"According to all the media headlines about a new White House report, there's still a big pay gap between men and women in America. The report found that women earn 75 cents for every dollar men make. Sounds pretty conclusive, doesn't it? Well, it's not. It's misleading."

A short history of the suffragette movement in the United Kingdom.

Throughout most of its history, American mainstream feminism considered equality to mean equal treatment under existing laws and equal representation within existing institutions.

"If you've been paying attention lately, some companies are marketing to women very effectively, while others are not.

The smart ones are beefing up their customer service training, offering incredible return policies and providing intuitive 'e-mail a friend' tools. The slower-on-the-uptake companies may do as little as use photos of women on their sites and call it a day."

A short article analyzing the current state of "Third-Wave" feminism, and its vehemently pro-abortion stance.

"Are women more interested in men who are already in a relationship? Female and male participants who were single or in a relationship viewed information about an opposite-sex other and indicated their interest in pursuing this target. Half of the participants were told that the target was single and half read that the target was currently in a relationship. The results showed that only single...

In this article, McElroy explains how Foucault's philosophy explains gender feminists' anti-pornography stance.

This informal study done by an online dating service shows what men and women think of the attractiveness of the opposite sex. It also shows how each sex responds to this attractiveness.

Chart or Graph

"[T]his chart graphs female assessment of male attractiveness (gray line) and the number of messages sent to males (blue line)."

"Men viewed a majority of females as moderately attractive, but they chose to interact with and pursue the highly attractive females much more."

Results of a survey taken in 1923 Chicago, when only 35% of women, in spite of being granted the vote, decided to exercise their right at the polls.

"This chart covers sexually active women over the age of 30."

Analysis Report White Paper

This report presents, first, an integrative summary of pertinent economic research that has investigated possible sources of the observed difference between the earnings of women and men.

Behind the Pay Gap examines the gender pay gap for college graduates. One year out of college, women working full time earn only 80 percent as much as their male colleagues earn.

Men are increasingly receiving custody of their children, and single-father families with children are growing at a faster rate than even single-mother families. However, many observers still believe that custodial fathers are small in number. Indeed, there are a number of myths concerning custodial fathers, myths that are dispelled by empirical data.

Feminism in its classical phase was a momentous chapter in the history of freedom. But for most of the world’s women, that history has barely begun; for them, the classical feminism that succeeded here offers a tried-and-true road map to equality and freedom.

The central concept of feminist epistemology is that of a situated knower, and hence of situated knowledge: knowledge that reflects the particular perspectives of the subject. Feminist philosophers are interested in how gender situates knowing subjects.

The ideology of legal feminism today goes far beyond the original and widely supported goal of equal treatment for both sexes. The new agenda is to redistribute power from the 'dominant class' (men) to the 'subordinate class' (women).

Equity feminist Paglia argues that it's time for every American feminist to admit that both mainstream and academic feminism have been guilty of ideological excesses that require correction.

Second-wave feminism, or gender feminism, has been greatly influenced by French postmodern philosophy.

In this interview, equity feminists Paglia and Sommers describe what has gone wrong with feminism, and how to refocus the movement.

This entry describes the two main streams in feminism: classical-liberal (equity) feminism and egalitarian (gender) feminism.

In this article, Hoff Sommers exposes some of the untruths, misinformation and exaggerations that feminist scholars put out and how they dismiss criticism.

This excerpt from Bork's book Slouching Towards Gomorrah -- Modern Liberalism and American Decline reflects on radical feminism and its impact on American cultural, political and educational institutions.

In this essay, Yates describes the attack on logic that has been emanating from within academia for the past few decades.

In this lecture, Fox-Genovese argues that feminism has turned into an elite movement out of touch with the concerns of most women.

This report examines the linkages between early initiation of sexual activity, number of non-marital sex partners, and human well-being. In general, the earlier a woman begins sexual activity, the greater the number of non-marital sex partners she is likely to have over the course of her life.

Video/Podcast/Media

Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield discusses his book Manliness with feminist author Naomi Wolf. In the book, Mansfield traces the meaning of the word from ancient times until today's gender neutral society.

Libertarian feminist Camille Paglia discusses her views on the state of academia, the feminist establishment, date rape, sexual harassment, and her opposition to politicized agendas in the classroom.

This book offers a sharp debate on the impact of feminism on men between bestselling author Warren Farrell and the acclaimed philosopher James P. Sterba.

Libertarian Party members Mark Selzer and Angela Keaton discuss the development of feminism the 70s and 80s. They cover gender and libertarian feminism, and the social and cultural influences of both.

This talk is a very nice example of the contemporary radical feminist perspective, especially their views of men, power, pornography, patriarchy, capitalism, justice, economic equality and environmentalism.

This debate nicely illustrates some of the misgivings third-wave feminists have with second-wavers.

This debate between Harvard psychology professors Pinker and Spelke focused "on the research on mind, brain, and behavior that may be relevant to gender disparities in the sciences, including the studies of bias, discrimination and innate and acquired difference between the sexes."

This documentary features feminists voicing support for domestic workers. Because society undervalues women's work in the home, the services domestic workers perform are, the argue, underpaid and underprotected.

Primary Document

As long as working women also have to do the work of child and family care at home, they will have two jobs instead of one.

Let there be then no coercion established in society, and the common law of gravity prevailing, the sexes will fall into their proper places.

A short speech delivered by the famous abolitionist and former slave at the women's convention in Ohio, uniting the causes of the slaves and women, and arguing that she, too, is a woman, and deserves the same rights.

In this essay, Lillian Harman, daughter of Moses Harman, argues against age of consent laws.

One of the earliest American campaigners for civil rights, ending slavery and women's suffrage, Weld's speech points out the corrupting and demoralizing effects of slavery, and calls for women to exercise their political rights and take an active role in abolition.

A collection of brief articles by Florence Finch Kelly published in Liberty (includes articles on the economic and sexual freedom of women).

In this article, Walker coins the phrase "Third Wave" feminist. The article itself expresses her outrage with the confirmation of Clarence Thomas as a Supreme Court justice given the accusations of sexual harassment made by Anita Hill.

The Platform for Action is an agenda for women's empowerment. It aims at accelerating the implementation of the Nairobi Forward-looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women.

"This report presents information on receipt of support payments by women following divorce or separation and receipt of child support payments for children of never-married women. It includes information on the award and actual receipt of child support payments by women for the benefit of their children. The questions were not asked of men with children from an absent mother as the survey...

A protégé of Albert Jay Nock, La Follette provides a libertarian defense of feminism. A strong believer in individual liberty, she viewed economic freedom as the key to women's liberation.

"This report focuses on the child support income that custodial parents reported receiving from noncustodial parents living elsewhere, and other types of support, such as health insurance and noncash assistance. The most recent data in this report are from the Child Support Supplement to the April 2010 Current Population Survey (CPS). It provides demographic information about custodial parents...

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, two American activists in the movement to abolish slavery called together the first conference to address Women's rights and issues in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848.

De Gouges, a butcher's daughter, wrote several plays and pamphlets, including this work, which argues that women should have the right to vote, a national assembly and better education.

Autobiography of the famous American suffragette who, with Susan B. Anthony, instigated the "First Wave" of feminism in the United States.

There are few things which present greater obstacles to the improvement and elevation of woman to her appropriate sphere of usefulness and duty, than the laws which have been enacted to destroy her independence, and crush her individuality.

The feminist objection to pornography is not based on prurience, which the dictionary defines as lustful, itching desire.

Excerpts from Abigail Adams' letters to her husband, in which she argues for women's rights.

"A preliminary total of 4,609 fatal work injuries were recorded in the United States in 2011, down from a final count of 4,690fatal work injuries in 2010, according to results from the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI) program conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The rate of fatal work injury for U.S. workers in 2011 was 3.5 per 100,000 full-time equivalent (FTE)...

Eastman, a social feminist, wrote this essay following the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, arguing for the continuation of the feminist movement.

Writing under the pen-name 'Constantia' this early American feminist published this essay, which later turned into her more famous book, The Gleaner.

In this essay, Martineau describes how government exercises power over women without their consent, a fact she considers a violation of the doctrine of "consent by the governed."

Lamenting the imprisonment of Moses Harman, who had been convicted for distributing materials on birth control, de Cleyre argues forcefully against marriage.

Betty Friedan's analysis that there is an "unnamed problem" in America, which defines women as capable of a certain role ignited a revolution that pushed anew for women's rights in the workplace and elsewhere.

An essay arguing for women's equality.

Perhaps the most famous work by the French Existentialist and feminist, this book, which takes a look back at the history of women.

In this essay, anarchist writer Emma Goldman argues that "[t]he right to vote, or equal civil rights, may be good demands, but true emancipation begins neither at the polls nor in courts.

The Woman's Bible, written by famous 19th Century feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton and a 'Revising Committee', is one of the first attempts by women to evaluate the Judeo-Christian legacy and its impact on women through history.

A theoretical legal treatise from activist attorney MacKinnon ... co-author of the controversial Dworkin-MacKinnon anti-pornography civil rights ordinance.

The following presents a speculative fictional gynocentric rewrite of Freudian theory, placing women centre stage and men at the problematic margins of social and psychological life.

Feminism is a movement, meaning a group working to accomplish specific goals. Those goals are social and political change -implying that one must be engaged with the government and law, as well as social practices and beliefs.

Schreiner traces the inequalities of labor practices between men and women. She examines how technology has effected social changes and advocates for women to be less dependent on men for economic support and well-being.

An anarchist, Goldman advocated for women's rights but opposed suffrage.

Anna Garlin Spencer, nearly forgotten today, was, in her time, considered among the foremost theorists about the family and women. She published Woman's Share in Social Culture in 1913.

In light of Hillary Clinton's and Barack Obama's presidential candidacy in 2008, second-wave feminist Steinem asserts that sexism is a more serious barrier in American society than racism.

"This report provides a statistical picture of women in America in five critical areas: demographic and family changes, education, employment, health, and crime and violence. By presenting a quantitative snapshot of the well-being of American women based on Federal data, the report greatly enhances our understanding both of how far American women have come and the areas where there is still...

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