The Core Ideas and Beliefs of Feminism

The ongoing struggle to achieve gender equality

Two Mexican activists holding a poster with an image of an Indigenous woman in the style of Rosie the Riveter
Two activists for Indigenous women at a 2018 Women's March.

Karen Ducey / Getty Images

Feminism is a complex set of ideologies and theories, that at its core seeks to achieve equal social, political, and economic rights for women. Although feminism benefits everyone, its aim is to achieve equality for women, because prioritizing those who are most oppressed means freeing everyone else. Since men's rights are already secured and institutionally protected, feminism does not aim to help men.

The Origin of the Word "Feminism"

While it is common to see the word "feminist" used for figures such as Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797), the terms feminist and feminism were not used in the modern sense until a century after her 1792 book "A Vindication of the Rights of Women" was published.

The term first appeared during the 1870s in France as féminisme—although there has been some speculation that it may have been used before then. At the time, the word referred to women's freedom or emancipation.

In 1882, Hubertine Auclert, a leading French feminist and a campaigner for women's suffrage, used the term féministe to describe herself and others working for women's freedom. In 1892, a congress in Paris was described as "feminist." This launched a more widespread adoption of the term in the 1890s, with its use appearing in Great Britain and then America beginning about 1894.

Feminism and Society

Almost all modern societal structures are patriarchal and are constructed in such a way that men are the dominant force in making the majority of political, economic, and cultural decisions. In large part, this is the case due to colonization and imperialism by Europeans. Part of the cultural erasures perpetrated by imperialism involved eliminating the many existing matrilineal societies across the world and instituting Western patriarchy instead. Feminism focuses on the idea that since women comprise one-half of the world population, true social progress can never be achieved without the complete and spontaneous participation of women.

Feminist ideals focus on what culture is like for women as compared to what the world is like for men. Feminist scholars study the ways in which women are not treated equally to men.

Feminist ideology considers in which ways culture can and should be different across genders: Do different genders have different goals, ideals, and visions? There's a great deal of value placed on the importance of moving from point A (the status quo) to point B (female equality) through a statement of commitment to behavior and action to produce that change.

Feminism is not only about protecting the lives and rights of cisgender, heterosexual women, but also queer, transgender, and gender-expansive people. Feminism also considers the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, class, and other factors, particularly since, in many cases, those who live at those intersections (trans women or women of color, for instance) are the most vulnerable. Scholars and activists have considered these intersections and developed frameworks for what feminism means through this lens. One such foundational statement is the 1977 Combahee River Collective Statement. Developed by a collective of Black feminists, the statement delves into the complexities and challenges of feminism as it intersects with the politics and identities of race, sexuality, and class, and provides a fuller idea of what feminism means for those who are not cisgender, heterosexual, and White.

Feminism and Sexuality

One arena in which women have long been oppressed is with regard to sexuality, which includes behavior, sexual interactions, posture, and exposure of the body. In patriarchal societies, men are expected to be the commanders, standing tall and allowing their physical presence to represent their role in society, while women are expected to be quieter and more subservient. Under such societal conventions, women are not supposed to take up much space at the table, and most certainly, they should not be seen as a distraction to the men around them.

Feminism seeks to embrace female sexuality and celebrate it, as opposed to so many societal conventions that condemn women who are sexually aware and empowered. The practice of elevating sexually active men while denigrating sexually women creates a double standard across genders.

Women have long been subjected to sexual objectification by men. Many cultures still cling to the notion that women must dress so as to not arouse men, and in many societies, women are required to fully cover their bodies.

On the other hand, in some so-called enlightened societies, female sexuality is routinely exploited in the mass media. Scantily clad women in advertising and full nudity in movies and television are commonplace—and yet, many women are shamed for breastfeeding in public. Sex workers—the majority of whom are women and queer folks—are institutionally disadvantaged and among the most vulnerable, while also being excluded even from some so-called feminist circles. These conflicting views on female sexuality create a confusing landscape of expectations that women and men must navigate on a daily basis.

Feminism in the Workforce

There are many differences within the constellation of feminist ideals, groups, and movements related to workplace unfairness, discrimination, and oppression that result from the real disadvantages women experience. Feminism assumes that sexism, which disadvantages and/or oppresses those identified as women, is not desirable and should be eliminated, however, it continues to be an issue in the workplace.

Unequal salaries are still pervasive in the workforce. Despite the Equal Pay Act of 1963, on average, a woman (on average) still earns only 80.5 cents for every dollar a man earns. This varies significantly when race is factored in, however. As of 2018, White women earned about 79 cents for each dollar a man earned, while Asian women earned 90 cents—but Black women earned only 62 cents, Latinx or Hispanic women earned only 54 cents, and Indigenous women earned only 57 cents. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, women's median annual earnings in 2017 were $14,910 less than that of their male counterparts.

What Feminism Is and What it Isn't

There is a common misconception that feminists are reverse sexists, however, unlike male sexists who oppress women, feminists do not seek to oppress men. Rather, they seek equal compensation, opportunities, and treatment across genders.

Feminism seeks to achieve equal treatment and opportunity for women in order to achieve similar opportunities across different fields of work and culture and equal respect in a variety of roles. Feminists theorists often explore the concepts with regard to which of women's experiences are taken as normative, as well as the ways in which inequality is compounded by the intersection of multiple factors and identities.

The goal of feminism is to create equity, which is essential for leveling the playing field to ensure that no one's rights are violated due to factors such as race, gender, language, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, political or other beliefs, nationality, social origin, class, or wealth status.

Further Study

At the end of the day, "feminism" is an umbrella term that covers a number of different beliefs. The following list provides examples of a variety of feminist and ideologies and practices.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "The Core Ideas and Beliefs of Feminism." ThoughtCo, Aug. 31, 2021, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2021, August 31). The Core Ideas and Beliefs of Feminism. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "The Core Ideas and Beliefs of Feminism." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).