Learn About Feminism: The Ideas, Beliefs, Movements

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Feminism refers to a diverse variety of beliefs, ideas, movements, and agendas for action.

The usual and most basic definition of feminism is that it is the belief that women should be equal to men and currently are not. It also refers to any actions, especially organized, that promote changes to society to end patterns which disadvantage or women. Feminism addresses economic, social, political and cultural disparities of power and rights.  

Feminism sees sexism, which disadvantages and/or oppresses those identified as women, and assumes such sexism is not desireable and should be ameliorated or dismantled. Feminism sees that those identified as men experience advantages in a sexist system, but also sees that sexism can be detrimental to men.

A definition from bell hooks' Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism: "to be 'feminist' in any authentic sense of the term is to want for all people, liberation from sexist role patterns, domination, and oppression."

The core similarities among those using the term for their own beliefs, ideas, movements and agendas for action are as follows:

A. Feminism consists of ideas and beliefs about what culture is like for women just because they are women, compared to what the world is like for men just because they are men. In ethical terms, this form or aspect of feminism is descriptive. The assumption in feminism is that women are not treated equally to men, and that women are disadvantaged in comparison to men.

B. Feminism also includes ideas and beliefs about how culture can be and should be different—goals, ideals, visions. In ethical terms, this form or aspect of feminism is prescriptive.

C. Feminism includes ideas and beliefs about the importance and value of moving from A to B—a statement of commitment to behavior and action to produce that change.

D. Feminism also refers to a movement—a collection of loosely connected groups and individuals committed to organized action, including changes in behavior of members of the movement and persuasion of others outside the movement to make change.

In other words, feminism describes a culture in which women, because they are women, are treated differently than men, and that, in that difference of treatment, women are at a disadvantage; feminism assumes that such treatment is cultural and thus possible to change and not simply "the way the world is and must be"; feminism looks to a different culture as possible, and values moving towards that culture; and feminism consists of activism, individually and in groups, to make personal and social change towards that more desirable culture.

There are many differences within the constellation of ideas and groups and movements called "feminism" on:

  • What counts as unfairness, discrimination or oppression
  • What in culture produces the disadvantages women experience, and whether a patriarchal society exists which is to be deconstructed, challenged, and dismantled
  • How sexism is expressed as conscious and unconscious individual attitudes and behavior, and also how institutions perpetuate sexism even if individuals aren't consciously or unconsciously sexist in attitudes
  • Whether the goal is equal treatment and opportunity of women and men to achieve in similar fields of work and culture, or whether it is equal respect in different roles
  • Which women's experiences are taken as normative—do women of different races, classes, age groups, etc. experience inequality in significantly different ways or is the common experience as women more important?

Feminism as a set of beliefs and commitment to action has intersected with various economic and political beliefs, generating some different paths of feminism. Among these are socialist feminism, Marxist feminism, liberal feminism, bourgeois feminism, individualist feminism, cultural feminism, social feminism, radical feminism, ecofeminism, and so forth.

Feminism often asserts that men are beneficiaries of certain advantages of sexism, and that those advantages will be lost if feminist goals are achieved. Feminism also usually asserts that men will benefit from the true mutuality and self-actualization that is possible the more those goals are achieved.

Origin of the Word

While it is common to see the word "feminism" used for figures such as Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 - 1797), the word was not around that early. The term first appeared in French as féminisme in the 1870s, though there is speculation it was used before then. At this time, the word referred to women's freedom or emancipation. Hubertine Auclert used the term féministe about herself and others working for women's freedom, as the description of individuals, in 1882. In 1892 a congress in Paris was described as "feminist." In the 1890s, the term began to be used in Great Britain and then America in about 1894.