The derivations of modern feminist principles are commonly assumed to be from the Enlightenment period of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Yet the Mexican nun Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (1651–1695) was also one of the first advocates of women's education. Regardless of the point of origin, early sex-based equality supporters and contemporary feminist activists shared similar impetuses—specifically, an equitable role for men and women in the public and private sectors, an emphasis on the values of education and knowledge, and a more egalitarian understanding of innate ability regardless of sex. Feminist thinking and activism is commonly categorized into three categories: radical, liberal, and socialist. Radical feminism seeks a foundational change in gender relations, thereby evoking a cultural and political environment that emphasizes the autonomy and agency of women. Liberal feminism is focused on the removal of institutionalized social and political barriers that prevent the achievement of equality. Socialist feminism primarily points toward the relationship between the patriarchal and capitalistic structures that historically subordinated women. Mary Wollstonecraft's “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” (1792) is often heralded as the foundational text for contemporary feminist principles and practices. But Wollstonecraft's essay never utilized the word feminism, thus sparking a debate on whether this text is actually feminist or humanist. To counter this concern, historians such as Eileen Hunt Botting utilize the term protofeminist as a means to describe early woman-based philosophical traditions (Botting 265 ).

Educational reform was a central area of concern for supporters of equality based on gender. In “The Subjection of Women” (1869), John Stuart Mill advocated for women's liberty and equal opportunity, specifically in terms of education. Alice Rossi writes that Mill contended, “women's thoughts are thus as useful in giving reality to those thinking men” (Rossi, 221 ). Mill's ideas presaged contemporary feminism, which argued that men's liberation, in addition to women's social freedom, was imperative to dismantling an oppressive patriarchal system, thus reprising this type of egalitarianism. Mill also campaigned for woman suffrage and “objected to the British common-law principle of coverture” (Freedman 53

Throughout the nineteenth century, gender-based equality was the movement's predominant concern, known as first-wave feminism. In 1848 at the Seneca Falls Convention, Elizabeth Cady Stanton read the “Declaration of Rights and Sentiments,” which articulated that the history of mankind was the “history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman” (Stanton 70 ). Voting rights were not the central component of this convention. Rather, early gender-equality supporters focused on property rights for women, changes in parenting practices, equal labor contracts, and women's rights as a direct offshoot of human rights.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, suffragists such as Stanton, Lucy Stone, and Susan B. Anthony worked toward ensuring that the right to vote was granted to women. It was only in the 1920s that the U.S. Senate passed the Nineteenth Amendment granting this right. Individuals such as Margaret Sanger utilized the suffragist movement as a platform to advocate for a woman's right to birth control and control of her own body. In 1923, Alice Paul strove to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) that sought to eliminate discrimination based on sex. As section 1 of the ERA states, “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex” (Vile 177 ). The ERA was revised in the 1970s but again failed to be ratified by the requisite number of states by the deadline. Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex (1949) powerfully illuminated this type of continuing subordination of women, despite social and political progress.

Coinciding with political, social, and economic reform, including the availability of the birth-control pill, the 1960s ushered in “second-wave feminism.” Along with liberalism's emphasis on the individual, twentieth-century feminism demanded the acknowledgement of, and freedom for, a woman to act on her own free will. Retackling issues such as reproductive rights, involvement in the political process and government, equal access to education, and equal pay, 1960s feminism worked toward creating a sex-equitable society. The emphasis on the individual's well-being as central to political and social change generated the phrase “the personal is political.” Women such as Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Gloria Steinem came forward as political strategists in this era. The second-wave feminist movement also experienced several intramovement disputes including the roles of women of color, lesbian and trans-identified activists, and the movement's stance on pornography.

). These epistemologies only represented the interests of the privileged class that were disguised as universal human interests. The assumption that a singular feminist identity could encompass global identities and differences reiterated positivism and a hegemonic form of feminism. Women in developing and postcolonial nations and women of color and various ethnicities have proposed different nuances to feminism. Gloria Jean Watkins, also known as bell hooks, suggests replacing “I am a feminist” with “I advocate feminism” (hooks 1984: McCann and Kim 55 ), thereby creating space for a multiplicity of political and personal identifications.

Material feminism, considered a branch of radical feminism, argues that material conditions have a direct impact on social conditions in relation to gender. First coined in 1975 by Christine Delphy, material feminists point toward the divide between the public and private spheres and a woman's home responsibility as burdensome, thereby negatively affecting the standard of living. Material feminists also call for a reconceptualization of double duty (women's paid labor outside the home and unpaid labor inside) in an attempt to include domestic work as a viable form of production. In fact, feminist writers, such as Donna Harraway, examine the interplay between materialism, capital, patriarchal oppression, and biopolitics as a means to include civil, political, and cultural reform in relation to the redistribution of wealth.

There is frequent debate within feminist discourses regarding the influence, inclusion, or even exclusion of Marxist theory. Both radical and socialist feminists take issue with Marxist theory, arguing that the understanding of the relationship between gender, patriarchy, and capitalism is incomplete. However, Marxist feminists contend that the elimination of capitalism would eradicate sexism, racism, homophobia, and other social oppressions. More so, Marxist feminists see the divide between private and public lives perpetuated by a gendered division of labor. Establishing distinct modes of material production, women's work within the home and the rearing of children are viable forms of production within capitalism. Nevertheless, capitalism has worked to separate and discount home (private) work from public work, thereby further concretizing the divide between women and men.

Historically, both first- and second-wave feminism are often cited as reflecting the values of middle-class white women, largely marginalizing black feminists, global feminists, and other women of different age, race, sexuality, ability, and culture. Stanton and Anthony are frequently accused of mobilizing based on bourgeois ideologies and privileges rather than on a more comprehensive reflection of class and racial systems. Moreover, participation in the abolition movement played a central role in either dividing or buttressing support for women's rights. Sarah and Angelina Grimké urged women's rights activists to support the abolition movement. Sojourner Truth's speech “Ain't I a Woman” (1851) testified to the inseparability of race and sex. Reaching beyond these first two waves, scholars have made room for the larger company of voices that have emerged because of the civil rights movement and its spinoffs based on sex and gender. Feminism is a critical perspective on local and global systems. The work of feminist activists in the past and the present seeks a wholesale dismantling of oppression while advancing equality regardless of sex and gender.

Elisabeth Woronzoff-Dashkoff

See also: Sanger, Margaret (1879–1966) ; Stanton, Elizabeth Cady (1815–1902)


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