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Feminism is a movement committed to the social, economic, and political equality of the sexes – a concept whose origins were uniquely a product of Western thought. Throughout most of world history, women's lives everywhere were tightly circumscribed, characterized by a much narrower range of choices and privileges than were the lives of men. Females were confined largely to the domestic sphere, while public life was exclusively the domain of males. With the philosophical advances of the Enlightenment – the 17th- and 18th-century Western intellectual movement that celebrated the power of reason and, by extension, mankind's ability to change the status quo for the better – the first seeds of what would eventually become modern feminism were sown.

Enlightenment philosophers initially ignored gender-related inequities and focused exclusively on issues of social class and caste. Female intellectuals of the Enlightenment such as the playwright Olympe de Gouges sought to bring public attention to the plight of women. In 1791 de Gouges published Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne (Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the [Female] Citizen), which boldly asserted that women ought to be regarded as men's equals in terms of intellect, talents, and overall competence. A year later the Englishwoman Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, the seminal English-language feminist tract claiming that women deserved to be given the same opportunities as men in the realms of education, work, and politics.

The success of the 19th-century movement to abolish slavery encouraged feminists to pursue their own agendas with an attitude of hope and confidence. Along with their counterparts in Europe, "suffragettes" worked to include women's rights in the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which forbade disenfranchisement on the basis of race. But not until 1920 would women be granted the right to vote in the United States.

Once the goal of suffrage had been achieved, the feminist movement fell into a protracted lull both in Europe and the United States, splintering into various factions focused on such issues as education, maternal and infant health care, voter-registration drives, and protective labor legislation for women. Then the Great Depression and World War II put a temporary halt to feminist activism all over the world.

A so-called "second wave" of feminism, heavily influenced by the revolutionary spirit of the civil-rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement, arose in the 1960s and 1970s. Feminist activists during this period organized demonstrations on behalf of such concerns as the removal of sex stereotypes from children's books, the creation of Women's Studies departments at colleges and universities, paid maternity leave, financial assistance for childcare, abortion rights, and pay equity in the workplace.

Legislatively, the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which was amended to ban employment discrimination on the basis of sex) represented early victories for the second wave, whose genesis can be traced to the 1963 publication of the onetime Communist activist Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique. An instant bestseller, the book asserted that American women lived in "a comfortable concentration camp" and were victimized not only by many forms of discrimination, but also by the socially transmitted message that they could find a sense of identity and fulfillment solely by living vicariously through their husbands and children. In October 1966 Friedan co-founded the National Organization for Women (NOW), which grew into the largest organization of feminist activists in America.

The feminist movement that Friedan helped create in the 1960s and 70s characterized American society as racist, sexist, patriarchal, and irredeemably discriminatory against women and minorities. To address these problems, the movement proposed to entirely restructure the country's social and economic institutions – from the family to the workplace to the school to the marketplace.

As it evolved, feminism by the 1980s embraced affirmative action, or race- and gender-based preferences and quotas, in employment and education. It espoused such measures as the right to taxpayer-funded abortion-on-demand; federally financed and regulated daycare; "comparable worth" laws to codify government wage fixing; and federally mandated parental-leave benefits (forcing employers to skew worker benefits in favor of women). The common thread running through each of these measures was a preference for expanded government control over private life and the private sector.

By the 1990s, the radical feminist movement had begun to founder. Formerly powerful centers of opinion such as Ms. Magazine lost readership. Female college students dismissed older feminists as inflexible and passé and ridiculed their anti-male rhetoric. Meanwhile, other forms of feminism emerged to challenge the intellectual monopoly of the radical feminist establishment, notably women who considered themselves "equity feminists" as opposed to "gender feminists." While pushing hard for initiatives that would guarantee women equal access to business and educational opportunities, these "equity feminists" also supported women who chose to stay home and raise children, ridiculed the Marxism of their more radical sisters, and (noting the advances in biological research) rejected the notion that there were no essential differences between males and females.

Acknowledging the existence of more than one legitimate definition of feminism, this so-called “third wave” feminism rejects the second wave's "essentialism" which posited a universal female identity and an inflexible female worldview.

The RESOURCES column located on the right side of this page contains links to articles, essays, books, and videos that explore:

  • the history, ideals, and values of feminism
  • the notion that women in corporate America are paid less than their equally qualified male counterparts



* For recommended books on this topic, click here.

                                 SEE ALSO

* Feminists

* Feminist Groups

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