Feminism: Losses and Victories

Some psychology students and faculty describe themselves as feminists, but others cringe at the term—and believe feminism needs less bra-burning, man-hating. The goal of feminism is equality for women at work and home.

Majorities of white, black and Hispanic adults say feminism has helped them. But a smaller share of Democrats than Republicans say the movement has done so.

The Missing Waves of Feminism

While critics of the “wave” concept point out that it oversimplifies a complex and continually evolving movement, the wave model provides a helpful framework for understanding how feminist ideas and activism evolve. From the revolutionary Vindication of the Rights of Women published by Mary Wollstonecraft in 1792 to the sex revolution of the 1960s and on up through Tarana Burke’s #MeToo campaign of 2017, women have been fighting for political, economic and cultural freedom and equality.

While the first waves of feminism focused on the quest for voting rights, the second wave was marked by the publication of Betty Friedan’s 1963 book The Feminine Mystique, which challenged the postwar belief that women could achieve happiness only by being wives and mothers. The second wave also saw the birth of gender and women’s studies departments in universities and colleges. It led to gains such as the Equal Pay Act and Title IX, along with legal victories like Roe v. Wade.

Feminism in the Universities

Feminism's popularity at universities increased as women became increasingly active in political and social activism. They challenged discriminatory practices in employment and housing, sought to address sexist educational standards and policies, and demanded equal access to university facilities for men and women.

Some of the early feminists incorporated socialist and liberationist ideals into their ideas about equality. Jeanne Deroin and Pauline Roland, for example, signed one of the Mouvement de Liberation des Femmes manifestos. Eugenie Niboyet founded the first French feminist daily newspaper, La Voix des Femmes.

Today, feminists are still promoting change in the world's universities. For example, they are working to make sure that gender issues are taught and discussed in all fields of study. Introducing students to feminist concepts helps them develop more healthy understandings of their lives and their own identities, which in turn leads to better decision-making. In the long run, such lessons will have a positive impact on society as well.

Feminist Activists

Feminist activists are those who primarily formulate the feminist agenda, including its public image. They often conduct research into the various forms of oppression that affect women and then use this information to identify strategies for fighting them.

Throughout history there have been efforts to resist male domination that should be considered feminism, although the focus tends to be on movements that emerged around the 1920s and 1960s. These efforts are often referred to as "First" and "Second Wave feminism."

Some people who agree with the descriptive claims of feminism argue that a main goal should be ending all injustices that affect women, including those that are not directly related to sex. But others, especially those inspired by The Feminine Mystique, disagree about what would count as justice for women, and about how these different injustices interrelate (Jaggar 1994).

Activists who fight for gender equality can be found all over the world. For example, when women's rights to reproductive choice in El Salvador were violated by the government there, feminists from across the world mobilised to bring their case to international bodies, such as the Inter-American Court.

Feminist Movements

A variety of women-led movements have been instrumental in rolling back discriminatory laws. These include the abolitionist movement, which brought together male and female activists and emphasized women's roles in revolutions and in changing societies. The same-sex marriage movement is another example, as feminists have pushed to make it not just a matter of "if" but also a matter of "when" same-sex couples will be allowed to marry in all states.

While third-wave feminists may have seemed complacent, the feminism of the fourth wave has been energized by protests and movements like #MeToo, Time's Up and the Women's March. Despite the fact that many of those pushing for fourth-wave feminism may disagree with each other on the normative or descriptive claims of feminism, they have united around the goal of equality. Whether they are throwing flour bombs at the Miss World beauty pageant or burning their bras in a public protest, these feminists have made it clear that they will not be silenced.