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Exploring gender inequality: What is feminism?

Learn everything you’ve ever wanted to know about feminism, including why it’s so important and who has the right to call themselves a feminist.

What is feminism header

By Rhiannon Wardle

Although the term feminism hasn’t existed for quite so long, the fight for gender equality has been going on for centuries. Coined in 1837 by a French philosopher, feminism initially referred to feminine qualities of character, but the term has since been politicised.

Despite some people believing that feminism has no place in today’s society, the sad truth is that women globally are still in a worse position than men. This is why we must carry on educating ourselves about feminism and its evolution. 

To help you understand feminism in greater depth, we’ll be discussing the importance of feminism, the history of different feminist movements, and some of the most famous types of feminism. We’ll finish off by thinking about who gets to call themselves a feminist, and how we can move towards gender equality in society.

What is the definition of feminism?

Feminism can be defined as the advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of gender equality. 

In our Introduction to gender inequality open step, experts describe gender equality as denoting equal respect, rights and opportunities for everyone, regardless of gender identity. These ideas are underpinned by legislation that exists in order to protect these rights and ensure that people are not discriminated against based on gender. 

Essentially, everyone should have the same access to resources, opportunities, work, and the chance to participate in society. This includes representation in government, the media, and large corporations. 

This isn’t just random feminist ideology – the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) state that gender equality is a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world, alongside being a fundamental human right. While SDG 5 relates directly to gender equality, there are as many as 51 references to gender equality within 14 of the 17 total SDGs.

Although this notion of gender equality may seem simple, there are certainly some obstacles we face. There are many historical, cultural and traditional reasons why gender equality has not been achieved, and some of these reasons are deeply embedded in society and difficult to challenge. We’ll discuss this in more detail throughout the article.

If learning about feminism immediately interests you, we have some options for you to explore more in-depth. Our Understanding Gender Inequality course by the University of Exeter and our A Global History of Sex and Gender course by the University of Glasgow are both excellent starting points to truly understand the history of gender.

The history of different feminist movements

Feminism has changed and evolved dramatically over the years, and it’s important to acknowledge the history behind the different feminist movements in order to understand where we are today. Below we’ll give a brief overview of the first, second, third waves of feminism, and the more widely contested fourth wave.

First wave feminism

Known as the first wave of feminism, this was a movement primarily focusing on women’s suffrage in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Women wanted to be afforded the same basic human rights, and voting was rightfully considered a part of that. Led by the Suffragists, a group of women seeking the vote by peaceful and legal means, and the Suffragettes, who took more of a militant approach, women in the UK fought to have their voices heard.

The women’s suffrage movement was closely linked to the abolitionist movement in America, with abolitionists like Frederick Douglass supporting women’s suffrage. However, racist ideologies were still pervasive in first wave feminism. Women of colour only got the vote in 1928 in the UK, compared to the majority of white women in 1918.

Second wave feminism

The second wave of feminism is characterised by the female liberation movements of the 1960s that focused on legal and social equality. This period of time was also known as the ‘sex wars’ due to the prioritisation of issues such as domestic violence, reproductive rights, sexuality and pornography. 

In our open step on Feminism and Sexuality, you can learn more about the intertwining of feminism and LGBTQ+ politics that emerged in the 60s. Both movements were radical, centred on legal rights and criticised the patriarchy as an oppressive force. 

Third wave feminism 

In the 1990s, there was a resurgence of feminist activity once again. This time, there was more of a focus on intersectional feminism, which recognises that our identities are complex and the amount of privilege we have depends on a combination of different identifiers. We go into more detail about intersectionality later in this article.

Essentially, this wave of feminism was much more concerned with identity than ever before. Women were curious about how gender identity and sexuality could be shaped by their experience of the world and patriarchal forces. There were many conversations about how beauty, womanhood and femininity were perceived, and how women could construct their own identities without feeling constricted by male desires. 

Fourth wave feminism?

The different waves of feminism are not set in stone, and there is some debate as to when the different waves start and stop. The fourth wave is particularly contested, but many suggest that it began around 2012 and is still progressing today.

Some of the focal points of fourth wave feminism are sexual harassment, rape culture and body shaming. In 2012, Laura Bates set up her website Everyday Sexism and received thousands of women’s personal stories of harassment, assault and sexist remarks. 

A culture slowly started to form where women were more able to speak out about the sexism they faced, and we saw this with the Me Too movement gaining traction across Hollywood in 2017.

Different types of feminism and feminist theory

We’ve talked about the different waves of feminism, but not all feminists believe in the exact same thing. Here, we highlight several of the most popular feminist theories. 

Marxist feminism

The origins of Marxist feminism are with the ideology of Karl Marx, a German philosopher, sociologist, and revolutionary. The theory argues that women’s oppression is linked to capitalism, as the capitalist system functions on the basis of patriarchal control.

Marxist feminism emerged in the 1840s, where women had limited ability to control property, were expected to take care of unpaid domestic work, and generally had very little power in the capitalist system. We explore this in more detail in our Feminist Perspectives on Work open step.

So what did Marxist feminists hope to achieve? The main goal of Marxist feminism was to liberate women by fighting the oppression and exploitation they faced by capitalist society.

Liberal feminism

The main focus of liberal feminism was fighting for equal opportunities for both genders. In particular, they cared about legal equality, where legislation would protect a woman’s right to have equal opportunities in areas such as education, work and voting rights.

Feminists who focused on women’s suffrage are good examples of liberal feminists, as they were fighting for equality in the eyes of the law. Liberal feminists believed that women were not discriminated against because of their lack of talent or intelligence, but purely on the basis of sex. 

Cultural feminism

In the 1970s, cultural feminism emerged. Advocates of cultural feminism believed that the main reasons for female oppression were social constructs and representations of gender identity. So this is largely to do with how we view femininity and masculinity, and how gender norms are so deep-rooted that they affect all of society.

An important practice for cultural feminists was the creation of women-only spaces such as workshops, collectives and bookshops. As we explore in our Cultural Feminism open step, these spaces allowed women to create a patriarchy-free consciousness and attempt radical new ways of living. In these spaces, women were able to reject gender roles and avoid male violence.

Radical feminism

Radical feminism gets a lot of criticism, with many men and women fearing that radical feminists want to rid the world of men and cause general chaos. However, the truth is not so violent. Radical feminists largely believe that social norms and institutions stem from the patriarchy and should be challenged. They seek to challenge ideas about marriage, reproductive rights, sex work and more.

They also believe that equal legal rights don’t necessarily equate to equal treatment and opportunities, and they’re wary of political change due to the male domination that exists in politics.

Radical feminist theory argues that the patriarchy gives men feelings of entitlement, privilege and control, in opposition to the marginalisation of women. For this reason, radical feminists hate the patriarchy, but not men themselves. 

Intersectional feminism

We touched on intersectionality earlier on in the article, but it deserves its own definition since intersectional feminism is what we’re striving for today. Intersectionality was coined by American law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989.

She describes intersectional feminism as “a prism for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other”. Essentially, not all inequality is equally bad. You can learn more about Crenshaw’s arguments in our intersectionality open step.

We often talk about inequalities as if they exist in their own separate categories, without thinking about the bigger picture. Instead, intersectional feminism advocates that we think about the overlapping of our identities, including race, gender, sexuality, class, disability and immigrant status. 

The reality is that all women do not have the same lived experience, and that’s why we can’t take a single-minded approach to feminism. It’s even possible for women to have more privilege than men in some instances – it all just depends on our overlapping identities. 

Why is feminism important?

There are so many reasons why feminism is important, so we’ve broken this down into a few different contexts: feminism in the workplace, in the media, and on a global scale. This isn’t exhaustive by any means but will help to give you an idea about the breadth of feminist issues and reasons why we need to keep fighting for gender equality.

Feminism in the workplace 

Equal representation, treatment and responsibility in the workplace is most definitely a feminist issue. Even in Western countries like the UK and US, women face a lot of barriers in the workplace. Global data shows that on average, women earn less than men all over the world, but this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Other than being paid less than men, women experience many barriers to equality in the workplace. They are much more likely to be discriminated against based on maternity, and they are far more likely to have to abandon work due to domestic and caring responsibilities.

Gender roles and stereotypes also have a negative impact in the workplace, although these ideas affect men and women alike. Certain jobs and industries are considered to be more masculine, such as construction and IT, and this can make it difficult for women to feel accepted in the workplace or even apply for these roles. You can learn about Improving Equality and Diversity with Technology in our ExpertTrack by UAL.

Equally, negative ideas about femininity permeate workplaces. Certain roles, including that of a nurse, nanny and secretary, are largely associated with feminine work. This puts men off applying for these jobs while also reinforcing the stereotype that women are more suited to domestic and administrative work.  

In addition, femininity is considered a weakness in leaders, with many people believing that women are too emotional or weak to handle high-stakes positions. This can create a confidence gap between men and women and also make feelings of imposter syndrome more common in female leaders and managers. It also impacts men, who are taught to adhere to toxic masculinity standards if they don’t want their leadership or decision-making capabilities questioned.

We have some excellent courses to help empower women to feel confident in the workplace. Salary Negotiation for Women in the Workplace by Hustle Crew will ensure that you’re paid your worth, and Believe, Build, Become: How to Supercharge your Career will help you to realise your full potential.

Feminism in popular media

Popular media is a mirror to society, reflecting its norms and values. This is why female representation in popular media is so important. As technology continues to evolve, our society is consuming countless forms of media every day that depict women in a certain light. 

We’re talking about the way women are represented in films, magazines, TV, social media, art and novels. We’re also thinking about the number of female directors, producers, writers and CEOs in these industries. Unfortunately, women are often presented through the lens of the male gaze, and this is a consequence of a lack of women being supported to create popular media.

One of the most obvious examples is in the film industry, where UN research on popular films across 11 countries found that only 31% of all speaking characters were women. In addition to that, just 23% of films featured a female protagonist, which closely reflected the percentage of female filmmakers at 21%.

In our open step on Challenging gender inequality in society, experts discuss how unfair representation can lead to issues such as harmful beauty standards and gendered ageism. However, feminist discussions have started to make a difference, with companies such as the Swedish Film Institute sharing production funds equally between men and women.

If you’re interested in questioning society’s standards on women, especially in the media, we have some great courses for you. Exploring Body Neutrality and Body Image with Jameela Jamil by Tommy Hilfiger will help you reclaim power over your own self-worth and transform your relationship with your body. You can also learn about Gender Representation in the Media more generally, in this course by the University of Strathclyde.

Feminism on a global scale

When we discussed the famous feminist movements in history, we took a Western perspective. However, gender inequality is an issue that spans the entire globe. Feminism doesn’t stop mattering because some countries appear to have reached a surface-level display of equality. There are still places in the world where women experience intense levels of violence, sexual assault, poor health and a lack of education, among many other issues.

In our Gender Inequality: A Global Issue open step, we discuss exactly what gender equality looks like on a global scale right now. According to the UN Sustainable Development Goals Report of 2021, one in three women are subjected to physical or sexual violence in their lifetime and up to 10 million girls will be at risk of child marriage over the next decade. Furthermore, women spend 2.5 times more hours on unpaid domestic and care work than men. 

Thinking about the kind of power and responsibility that women hold in society, the UN report also looked at female representation in important areas. They found that women represent only 25.6% of national parliaments, 36.3% of local governments, and 28.2% of management positions. These numbers are incredibly low considering the female population in society, and this is just proof that feminism is still so important in modern society.

Who can be a feminist?

The good news is that anyone can be a feminist. Feminism is not just for women, and men can absolutely be feminists too. This is because gender equality is not just a women’s issue, but a problem for all of society. Standards of masculinity and femininity can be damaging for everyone, and everyone benefits from having a more balanced, equal and representative society.

It is worth noting that the label ‘feminist’ doesn’t feel right for everyone. The term has been so widely attributed to white feminism that some women of colour don’t feel comfortable using the same label. For example, in a personal essay, writer Ayomide Zuri talks about the lack of understanding that racial inequality is often more pervasive than gender equality. She says, “it is time for us black women to define ourselves on our own terms, and to gather in spaces created by us and for us”.

How can we reach gender equality in society?

This is a complicated question with a complicated answer. While some changes that we can make are tangible, like ensuring men and women have legal equality and creating laws to tackle discrimination, some are less easy to pinpoint. 

As we discuss in our Gender Inequality; what we know so far open step, some of the challenges exist within ourselves. Nobody is immune to sometimes slipping into stereotypes and assumptions, even if they are a feminist. We are socialised to accept gender stereotypes and discriminatory behaviour from a very young age, so one of the first things we need to engage with and question is our own belief system.

We can also question the behaviour and opinions of those around us in order to make small but impactful changes. Whether we discuss issues surrounding gender equality with our friends, parents, grandparents or significant others, voicing our thoughts and questioning society can help to challenge age-old ideologies. For some more practical tips on things you can do to enact change, we have some advice below.

Taking action

In our open step, Take Action: Promoting equality and non-discrimination in your community, experts discuss how you can take action to create change in areas you care about, and this can certainly be applied to movements for gender equality. 

Once you’ve done some research and decided which area you’re most interested in – whether that’s reproductive rights, domestic violence, or equal representation in a certain industry – you can start to take action.

Here are some examples of how to take action:

  • Join community meetings
  • Organise an event for charity or to raise awareness
  • Run a workshop for community members
  • Support your neighbourhood by volunteering
  • Join forces with local charities and offer support 
  • Create a community newsletter and share important information
  • Write to your politicians about local and national legislation
  • Attend protests to show support for a cause

Final thoughts

As we’ve discovered, feminism is a huge but extremely important topic in modern society. Knowing about the history of gender equality can help us fight our battles in the future and keep moving towards a fairer society for all. Hopefully, you’ve learned something interesting and feel inspired to learn more about gender and feminism. Even better, why not try taking action against gender inequality today?

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