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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.

No figure has been more significant in the history of feminism than the late Betty Friedan, co-founder of the National Organization for Women (NOW). A longtime member of the Communist Left, Friedan in 1940 endorsed the Popular Front strategy of starting idealistic movements in order to lure well-meaning people into advocating Communist objectives. From 1942-43, Friedan was a member of the Young Communist League. In 1944 she sought to join the American Communist Party but was turned down because, according to her FBI files, “there already were too many intellectuals in the labor movement.” From 1943-1952, Friedan worked as a journalist for Communist-controlled media.

Friedan is generally credited with having started the "second wave" of feminism by authoring the 1963 book The Feminine Mystique, which held that women as a class 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 – while sublimating their own aspirations to be something other than wives and mothers. An almost instant best-seller, The Feminine Mytique sold some 600,000 hardcover copies and more than two million in paperback.

Another significant figure in the feminist movement was the late Andrea Dworkin, a longtime member of NOW. Maintaining that rape and the subjugation of women formed the basis for most human cultures, Dworkin urged women not only to fight back against their male oppressors, but actually to form their own, gender-exclusive nation-state. She characterized all heterosexual sex as the equivalent of rape; she wished to "destroy patriarchal power at its source, the family, [and] in its most hideous form, the national state"; she called marriage “a legal license to rape”; and she asserted that "the hurting of women is ... basic to the sexual pleasure of men," whom she described as “rapists, batterers, plunderers, killers.”

Patricia Ireland
, NOW's longest-serving (1991-2001) president, was among feminism's most dominant personalities during that period. Her radical roots, however, dated back to an earlier time. Indeed, in the late 1970s Ireland developed a strong affinity for the regime of Cuba's Communist dictator Fidel Castro. (Another Castro sympathizer, Socialist Workers Party member Pat Silverthorn, would later become Ireland's lesbian lover.) In the 1980s, Ireland participated in numerous pro-communist rallies. She also took part in a Miami Free Speech Coalition demonstration against U.S. aid to the anti-communist Contra rebels in Nicaragua.

The issues highest on NOW's agenda during Ireland's tenure were abortion rights and gay and lesbian rights. Ireland and NOW also depicted America as a nation where sexual harassment and violence against women were rampant, and where the health-care system, the education system, and corporations were generally hostile to women's needs. During her tenure with NOW, Ireland earned a reputation for characterizing her female political adversaries as inauthentic women; for instance, she once called Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson of Texas a "female impersonator."

NOW's president from 2001 to 2009 was Kim Gandy, who dismisses the notion that marriage is necessarily beneficial to women, especially poor women. “I think promoting marriage as a goal in and of itself is misguided,” she says. “The marriage movement is giving women the message that a bad husband and father is better than none at all. Single moms are being demonized. NOW is committed to exposing and organizing against this deliberate return to the days of unchallenged male control.”

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  • the history, ideals, and values of feminism
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* Feminists

* Feminist Groups

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