Nowadays, feminism seems to be in the highlight. Even the misogynists now side with feminists. PlayBoy recently decided to incorporate “feminist” content into their online magazine while continuing to objectify women. Narendra Modi who oversaw the Godhra riots where hundreds of women were raped and killed has shown concern for women’s rights.
Celebrities like Emma Watson and Beyonce have made feminism popular. The ‘HeForShe’ campaign set-off hundreds of Instagram posts supporting the cause of gender equality. Pop culture is rife with messages about ‘being comfortable in your skin’ and ‘feeling good about yourself’.
No one is spared from answering the ‘woman question’. From Sonam Kapoor to Farhan Akhtar to your school mate and even your neighbor has an opinion on feminism.
Feminism is so trendy and admired that people feel a need to differentiate between the ‘all accepting-men loving- smiling’ feminists from the ‘extreme-angry-bra burning- man hating’ feminazis.
This movement which has been highly political has been co-opted and made devoid of its meaning. It is now conflated with choice, empowerment and simple equality. What was first a movement about ’personal is political’ is now about ’personal is personal’. Feminism is cool. It’s popular. It’s a feeling of empowerment. It’s mainstream. We don’t need to talk about it anymore.
The story and history of feminism however shows that fighting for women’s liberation was considered something radical and threatening. Feminists have always been seen as highly dangerous women who challenged the status quo.
This history of feminism can be broadly into three waves each with its own ideology, goals and approach.
FIRST WAVE FEMINISM
First wave sprang in nineteenth and twentieth century in a society where women did not have voting or property rights and were expected to inculcate the four virtues of piety, purity, submission, domesticity and have a limited public role. The beginning of first wave feminism can be traced to 1848 in Seneca Falls Convention where three hundred men and women gathered to fight for equality for women. The Seneca Falls Declaration was drafted explaining the strategies and philosophy of the movement.
It was heavily influenced by abolitionism and coupled the demand for women’s liberation and abolition of slavery. Feminists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Sojourner Truth were at the forefront of the movement.
There was an emphasis on opening up opportunities for women, with a focus on suffrage. Efforts were also made in the realm of education, religion, marriage law, admission to professions and financial and property rights. Debates around the participation of women in public sphere led to the questioning of the differences between men and women.
Unfeminine women who destabilized the natural order of things led a movement to change and influence the lives of other women. They actively resisted the sexist and patriarchal setup of the US society and advocated for women’s rights.
It is considered to have ended in 1920 with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment giving American women the right to vote.
“Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.”
― Sojourner Truth
SECOND WAVE FEMINISM
The second wave began in 1960s and continued until the 90s. This movement sprang in the background of demonstrations against the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. There was an emphasis on forming women only groups which helped women share their common grievances and understand their oppression. It was through these consciousness raising groups that the term ‘personal is political’ was coined. Groups like National Organization for Women (NOW) and Redstockings headed the movement.
The second wave is characterized by its radical approach. Protests against Miss America pageant were organized and symbols of feminine beauty like lipsticks, bras, high heels and fake eyelashes were thrown in trashcans. They were literally the ‘bra-burning’ feminists.
Unlike the first wave wherein mostly white middle class women participated, women of color play major role in this movement. Further, black feminism originated due to the shortcomings of the movement and tried to redress the problems faced by black women.
The second wave focused on reproductive rights, conditions in workplace, sexuality, family and legal inequalities. A distinction was made between sex and gender. While the former was identified to be biological, the latter was believed to be a social construct. This was accompanied by larger critiques of capitalism, patriarchy, heteronormativity and the role of women as mother and wife.
Women were viewed to be a ‘social class’ and the movement was largely dominated by ideas of women’s liberation, sisterhood, solidarity and loyalty to one’s own kind.
“Feminism has never been about getting a job for one woman. It’s about making life more fair for women everywhere. It’s not about a piece of the existing pie; there are too many of us for that. It’s about baking a new pie.”
― Gloria Steinem
THIRD WAVE FEMINISM
Third wave began in the mid-90s and continues till today. It culminated from the discomforts with the second wave perception of gender related issues and their emphasis on group identity. Therefore, the third wavers focused on individual empowerment and sex positivity. The roots of intersectional feminism can be found in the third wave.
Third wavers like Judith Butler described gender as a ‘performance’ of gendered roles. The movement espouses the market driven image of a woman who is empowered by personal grooming. Things like cosmetics which were shunned by third wavers as they were seen as oppressive were embraced by the third wavers. They embraced the idea of ’universal womanhood’ and encouraged every woman to define feminism for herself.
Third wavers seek to achieve economic power instead of political power. Hence, the philosophy of Sheryl Sandberg and other feminists who believe if women try hard enough they can achieve milestones in the corporate world is characteristic of third wave feminism.
It is characterized by individualism and heavily influenced by the consumerist and capitalist culture. Slut Walks embody the third wave feminism and its involvement with reclaiming words like ‘sluts’ and ‘bitches’. It believes in sexualization of one’s sexuality if it benefits the individual women and instills in them a feeling of empowerment. Most celebrities exemplify this kind of feminism which is highly personalized and individualistic.
“For many of us it seems that to be a feminist in the way that we have seen or understood feminism is to conform to an identity and way of living that doesn’t allow for individuality, complexity, or less than perfect personal histories. We fear that the identity will dictate and regulate our lives, instantaneously pitting us against someone, forcing us to choose inflexible and unchanging sides, female against male, black against white, oppressed against oppressor, good against bad.”
― Rebecca Walker
The F word is not simply just that. It’s much more. It’s our only hope to save women. Despite the progress made women all around the world face some kind of violence or the other. At least 200 million girls and women alive today have been a victim of female genital mutilation, half of them living in just three countries, according to UNICEF, the United Nations children’s agency. Reports of sexual abuse and male violence against women, especially poor and Dalit women are disturbingly frequent. Domestic violence kills more women than war does.
We face the covert forms of violence. In the shape of bargained aspirations, hesitant personalities, anxiety about their bodies and being, we are still tethered to patriarchy in the most horrible ways.
The stakes are high. We who live dishonestly and refuse to say the truth because we are privileged still have a choice. Those who live with violence being repeatedly committed against their bodies, their minds and souls don’t.
We can sit and pretend as much as we want that we have reached the moon when it comes to women and the problems faced by them. But the beast shows up in different forms at different times in different places.
The beast deceives us into reluctance, ignorance even complacency. Her story is about our refusal to let it make us passive and weak. Her story is the evidence of our strength, our brilliance, our worth, our love and our wisdom. Her story is the proof of our shortcomings and our failures. Her story is about that woman who refused to tolerate. It is time we become that woman.