The term feminism refers to the belief that men and women are politically and morally equal and should be treated as such. The term is most often attached to various movements over the last two centuries that have acted to implement this vision of equality by embedding it in law and throughout the culture.

Diverse schools exist within the feminist tradition, however, and they often disagree on the definition of equality. For individualist feminists, equality means equal treatment under laws that respect the person and property of all human beings regardless of secondary characteristics such as sex, race, and ethnicity. For another school, known as radical or gender feminism, equality means socioeconomic equality, in which power and wealth are redistributed by law throughout society so that the historical privileges of men are erased. These two schools of feminism define the extremes within the movement.

Historically speaking, the form of feminism with which Western society is most familiar established itself in the 18th century as a protest against the laws and conventions that required women to function in a subordinate role. Two women pioneered this movement: Olympe de Gouges and Mary Wollstonecraft.

De Gouges was a French playwright and journalist at the time of the French Revolution. In 1791, in response to the famous Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789, she issued the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Citizen, in which she challenged the exclusion of women from citizenship and argued for equality between the sexes.

The British classical liberal Mary Wollstonecraft also responded to the French Revolution. Wollstonecraft first wrote the pamphlet Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), in defense of the ideals of the Revolution, which had come under attack from the British statesman Edmund Burke. A Vindication of the Rights of Women followed in 1792. In this work, she argued that women are the equals of men and only appear inferior due to their poor education, which required them to focus on the domestic arts. The second Vindication is considered to be a founding document of feminism.

Thus, Western feminism was born in the claim that men and women are equal as moral and political agents who possess the same natural rights. Feminism gave voice to the broader demand that those rights be equally recognized and to its call that women be educated to think independently.

As an organized movement, American feminism arose from a different set of historical circumstances. In particular, it sprang from the abolitionist movement of the 1830s. Abolitionism was the radical antislavery movement that demanded an immediate cessation to slavery on the grounds that every man was a self‐​owner; that is, every man has moral jurisdiction over his own body.

Abolitionism fostered feminism in several ways. It was the first organized, radical movement in which women played leadership roles and were encouraged to speak from public podiums to mixed audiences of men and women. Many of the female abolitionists came from Quaker backgrounds, in which they were accorded far more education and equality than the general population. They soon became uncomfortable with one aspect of abolitionism: They seemed to be working only for men’s self‐​ownership, not for women’s as well. William Lloyd Garrison, the leading figure within abolitionism, shared feminists’ discomfort and came to champion women’s rights.

In the early 19th century, a married woman could not enter into contracts without her husband’s consent, women lost all title to property or future earnings upon marriage, children were legally controlled by the father, and women were generally without recourse against kidnapping or imprisonment by husbands and other male relatives. Sarah Grimké’s famous pamphlet, Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Woman (1837), compared the laws governing slaves with those governing women, which were remarkably similar even in wording. Thus, feminist demands focused on eliminating legal barriers to women, as well as acquiring the same rights to person and property as men enjoyed.

A pivotal moment came in1840 when American female delegates to the World Anti‐​Slavery Conference in London were barred from sitting in the assembly. Two women who were so outraged—Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton—returned home and organized the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention to discuss women’s rights. There they drafted the Declaration of Sentiments. Arguably the most famous feminist document, the Sentiments paraphrased the Declaration of Independence to declare woman’s independence from man’s shadow. A woman’s suffrage resolution also was introduced and narrowly passed.

From that point until the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920, mainstream American feminism focused on securing the vote for women with Stanton and Susan B. Anthony assuming leadership roles. Other feminists were active in three separate areas—social (especially labor) reform, reproductive rights, and education—but they tended to function as either as individuals or female voices within broader reform movements. The situation was similar in Britain, where “suffragettes” campaigned for universal suffrage for decades before the vote was extended to single women over the age of 30 in 1918 and then to all adults over 21 years of age in 1928.

After achieving the vote for women, feminism in America and Britain appears to have lacked a central issue to galvanize the movement. Again, individual women spoke out for women’s rights. For example, in 1920, Suzanne La Follette’s book, Concerning Women, defended free markets and opposed state intervention into women’s lives. Women also spoke out from within broader movements; for example, Dorothy Day—founder of the influential periodical The Catholic Worker—was instrumental in the Catholic pacifist movement.

Nevertheless, feminism as a self‐​conscious and independent movement effectively disappeared from America until the 1960s, when Second Wave feminism, an expression that acknowledged their 19th‐​century forerunners as the First Wave, emerged. As with abolitionism, Second Wave feminism sprang from discontent with the treatment of women within a broader movement: in this instance, opposition to the Vietnam War. This revival sprang from left‐​wing or liberal ideology.

Second Wave feminism’s call for women’s liberation resonated with many women who were chafing at the sexual and social restrictions of the 1950s, restrictions that included abstinence before marriage, the assumption of domesticity rather than a career, prohibition against children out of wedlock, and attitudes against lesbianism. Betty Friedan’s pathbreaking 1963 work, The Feminine Mystique, which argued that domesticity enslaved women, inspired a generation of women to pursue a career instead. Helen Gurley Brown, author of the best‐​selling book, Sex and the Single Girl (1962), expressed an emerging sexuality that accompanied both the rise of feminism and the new availability of effective birth control—the pill.

Second Wave feminism aimed at reform rather than at revolution; women demanded equal representation and fair treatment within the existing system. For example, one of the movement’s major goals was affirmative action, through which women would be included in greater numbers within existing institutions such as universities. The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) became the pivotal issue for liberal feminism. This proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution aimed at guaranteeing equal rights under the law regardless of sex. It proved a stunning defeat for liberal feminism when the ERA’s deadline for ratification passed in 1979.

Hitherto, radical feminism (also called gender feminism) had functioned as a minority and revolutionary voice within the Second Wave. In the early 1980s, radical feminism became ideologically dominant. Radical feminism defined current society and institutions as “the patriarchy”—a mixture of white male culture and capitalism through which men as a class oppressed women as a class. A key ideological theorist, Catharine MacKinnon, called the vision “post‐​Marxist feminism” because of its reliance on class or gender analysis and its anticapitalist approach. This gender analysis view of sexuality was reflected in books like Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will (1975), in which all men were portrayed as “rapists” because all men benefit from the “rape culture” of patriarchy. In a series of books, theorist Andrea Dworkin explained how virtually every aspect of society, from pornography to children’s books, sexually exploited women and created violence against them.

Radical feminism’s methodology is predicated on the notion of political correctness: a system of laws and policies that encourage proper expression and behavior while discouraging improper forms. For example, government funds are routinely allocated to programs that promote the expression of correct sexual attitudes in the workplace and on campus. Meanwhile, laws and policies against incorrect attitudes or behavior (e.g., comments viewed as sexist or sexually harassing) punish such expression, often through costly lawsuits.

Political correctness runs counter to the natural‐​rights origins of classical liberal and 19th‐​century American feminism, also known as individualist feminism or, by the present‐​day formulation “ifeminism.” The punishment of speech, even with the intention of preventing harassment, would have undoubtedly alarmed the early feminists, who staunchly defended freedom of speech, especially speech on which society frowned. After all, censorship laws were used to silence abolitionist feminists from speaking out on both slavery and women’s rights. Throughout feminist history, censorship has stifled discussion of controversial topics such as birth control and lesbianism. Thus, freedom of speech has been vital to the development of feminism and the well‐​being of women.

The assumption of class conflict that underlies political correctness also runs counter to feminism’s individualist roots. Political correctness divides society into distinct classes defined by characteristics such as gender and race; the classes are deemed to have different and antagonistic political interests. Thus, government intervention is necessary to protect and promote disadvantaged classes in order to ensure a proper distribution of wealth and power throughout society occurs. In short, some classes receive governmental privileges to the disadvantage of other classes.

By contrast, individualist feminism advocates the elimination of all classes under law so that every individual has equal rights and an equal claim to person and property, regardless of characteristics such as gender or race. The proper role of government is to eliminate privilege and protect the rights of individual men and women equally.

Between the polar extremes of gender and individualist feminism lie a variety of other schools that either employ a different ideological approach or define themselves according to another standard. For example, equity feminism aims at equality under existing institutions without necessarily reforming the current system to reflect the natural rights of individuals. Ecofeminism links male domination of women to the destruction of the environment and so focuses on the role women must play in preserving nature.

Whatever the school or tradition, however, certain issues are considered to be feminist ones. Reproductive rights such as birth control and midwifery are of primary importance because they involve a woman’s control of her own body in an area that is uniquely female. Indeed, abortion is often considered to be a litmus test of feminism; that is, those who oppose legal abortion cannot be feminists of any description.

Whatever consensus might exist between schools of feminism on reproductive rights, however, breaks down on other issues. Pornography highlights these differences. Radical feminists view pornography as the quintessence of man’s sexual oppression of woman and wish to prohibit it as an act of violence in and of itself. Individual feminists may or may not like pornography, but they view it as a choice every woman (or man) has a right to make either as a participant or as a consumer. They wish to decriminalize pornography and other sex work as a matter of personal choice. So‐​called pro‐​sex feminists celebrate sex work as an ultimate expression of women’s empowerment; they also seek decriminalization.

The future of feminism is problematic. In the Western world, most inequalities under the law and within the culture have been swept away so that women and men generally face the same basic choices. Indeed, to the extent that there is gender inequity, it lies in the privileges that women are granted through laws or policies such as affirmative action. Hence, both individualist and equity feminism argue for the removal of privileges for women in order to achieve true equality. Moreover, the rise of counterintuitive schools of feminism, such as conservative feminism that champions the traditional family and conservative values, has acted to blunt the historical mission and goals of feminism.

Outside the Western world (e.g., in Africa and Arab nations), women often endure second‐​class citizenship and widespread violation of their natural rights. The burqa has become a symbol of the oppression of such women, but it also reflects the division between Western and non‐ Western feminists. The all‐​concealing costume that women are often forced to wear, most notoriously by the Taliban in Afghanistan, is anathema to Western feminists. But many of their non‐​Western counterparts argue that wearing a burqa or adopting other allegedly antifemale practices of Islam are free choices and should be respected as such. As radical feminism expresses itself increasingly through global organizations, especially through the United Nations, it is not clear how its ideology and goals will reconcile with the deep cultural differences it encounters among women.

Further Readings

Brownmiller, Susan. Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1975.

Hersh, Blanche Glassman. The Slavery of Sex: Feminist Abolitionists in America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978.

La Follette, Suzanne. Concerning Women. New York: Arno Press, 1972.

McElroy, Wendy. Individualist Feminism of the Nineteenth Century: Collected Writings and Biographical Profiles. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2001.

———. Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the Twenty‐ First Century. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2002.

Paglia, Camille. Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990; New York: Vintage, 1991.

Taylor, Joan Kennedy. Reclaiming the Mainstream: Individualist Feminism Rediscovered. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1992.

Wendy McElroy
Originally published