If you go to some video about feminism on YouTube, you’ll soon find dozens of angry people in the comments talking about how feminism has changed over time and how it’s just cancer nowadays. Actually, with just a few exceptions, such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s talk on TEDx Talks, discussing feminism on YouTube is like asking to be massacred.
Before getting into the question of whether feminism has become a cancer or not, I’d like to make an observation. Even though there are so many angry comments on YouTube offending feminists and saying they are the real oppressors, you hardly find these “angry feminists” in the comments. Yes, you find a lot of anti-feminists talking about how feminists are offensive (usually using offenses to say this, as if they didn’t notice the great hypocrisy here), but there are none of these “evil feminists” in the comment sections. Funny, huh?
I’m not saying that there are no radical feminists (I’ll talk more about that later), but I’m pointing to the fact that, looking at the discussions about feminism on the internet, aggressive anti-feminists seem to exist in much greater numbers than the aggressive feminists who they are criticizing.
But, after all, why is there so much hatred against feminism? Did the movement really lose its essence?
What is feminism?
First, we need to understand what feminism really is. The two most common definitions are “a movement that fights for female supremacy” and “a movement that fights for equality between men and women.”
However, the true definition of feminism is: “the advocacy of WOMEN’S RIGHTS on the basis of the equality of the sexes.”
And I want you to understand that very well. The goal of feminism has always been to elevate women to the same level as men. Whether it’s fighting for the right to vote or for equal pay, feminism has always sought to make women, in a particular situation of disadvantage, have the same opportunities as the opposite sex.
Therefore, feminism hasn’t been about the “fight for female supremacy” or about “the fight for equal rights for men and women,” but about a “fight for women to have the same rights as men.”
The last two examples may look the same, but there is a crucial difference here. If I say that feminism has always been about the fight for equal rights between men and women, it opens up space for criticism such as “but feminism has never done anything for men, it doesn’t care about our rights.” But if I say that feminism has always been about making women achieve the same rights as men, I’m saying that the focus of the movement has never been to fight for both genders, but to fight for women in a scenario where they were at a disadvantage and thus achieve gender equality.
The three (or maybe four) waves of feminism
Yes, feminism has changed over time. As some battles were won, others became the focus of the movement. To differentiate the periods of fight and the issues that feminism has dealt with, we often speak of “different waves of feminism.” It’s common to say that there are three waves, each one related to a certain period and claims made by women of a certain time, but many people today say that we are experiencing a fourth wave. And we need to understand these waves to realize that the feminist movement hasn’t lost its essence, but only transformed and adapted to the needs of each period.
The first wave
Going from the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century, the first wave of feminism was marked by basic demands such as the right to vote, as well as political and public participation. At that time, women were still seen as housewives and property of their husbands. Thus, they also fought for equality in marriage and for men not to control all the assets.
It is noteworthy that these women were not yet known as feminists, but rather as suffragettes. There were no discussions on the right of abortion, as there are today, and many women defended the traditional family.
The second wave
The second wave of feminism occurred from 1950 to 1990, although its most active phase was between the 1960s and 1970s. It was at this time that discussions on abortion began, as well as contraceptive methods, sexual freedom and the facilitation of divorce.
It was also here that the discussion about gender began, which would be more a social than a biological matter. In other words, for the second wave of feminism, the genre was nothing more than a series of characteristics imposed on a person in a given period of history.
One of the striking events of that time was the emergence of protests against beauty contests, which, according to feminist groups, were only used as a way of objectifying and oppressing women, treating them more as sexual than thinking beings.
The collective was also a milestone of this period, since one of the tactics of feminist groups at the time was bring more women to the movement through collective activities, giving rise to the famous phrase “sisterhood is powerful.”
The feminists of the second wave, wondering why there was so much oppression against women, came to the conclusion that their reproductive capacity was that reason. Patriarchy would then exploit this capacity in the same way that capitalism exploited labor. Here we can see the influence of Marxism on the feminist movement. That being said, feminists and Marxists came together on some points, such as wage inequality and long working hours for women who, in addition to having formal jobs, were also required to perform domestic tasks on their own.
One of the flaws of the second wave, however, was the lack of representativeness for certain groups of women, since most feminists of the time were white. Thus, other women initiated the identity feminism, claiming that differences in race and sexuality were key to building the different types of oppression suffered by these groups. Black feminism, then, consolidated as an independent strand. And it was this whole question of identity that eventually gave rise to the third wave.
The third wave
The third wave of feminism came up with a different philosophy and denied the concept of sisterhood. For third-wave feminists, it was necessary to recognize the wide variety of women and the different dilemmas that they faced.
Another milestone of the third wave was the disbelief in the meaning of words, institutions, and symbols. In the third wave, even biological characteristics should be break down, since they would be the fruit of a science always dominated by men. Women also began to appropriate sexist terms, which eventually led to the “SlutWalk.”
The movement, therefore, abandoned the idea of “female victim” to embrace female empowerment.
The fourth wave
It is common to talk about a fourth wave of feminism these days, which would be marked mainly by the use of social media to make people aware of the movement.
Some of the themes that the fourth wave of feminism deal with would be rape culture, the role of women in the media, abuse in the workplace, and silencing in relation to these issues.
The movement also becomes more comprehensive now, including more men in the fight for gender equality. Feminism that fights only for women is no longer enough on the fourth wave, and many feminists are turning down this term.
But did feminism lose its essence?
Feminism had to adapt over time, including more issues to fight for when others were defeated. So I wouldn’t say that it necessarily lost its essence, but only adapted itself to the new realities through the different waves discussed above, always fighting for situations where women were at a disadvantage in order to achieve gender equality. And, well, wasn’t feminism always about that? Fighting for situations where women were at a disadvantage to achieve gender equality?
And I know this may make some people not see feminism as a fight for equality, but for supremacy, since when a particular group loses its privileges, equality looks like oppression. And as long as this idea is spread, even women begin to believe in it.
Does radicalism exist? Obviously, yes. Every movement that strives for equality at some point becomes as radical as the system that this same movement used to fight against. A simple search on the internet will soon take you to radical feminists with phrases across the body such as “teach girls to castrate” and “there are enough males, create them as fagots.” Some groups are, moreover, clearly misandric and even unscientific in denying biological factors. Not to mention those who reject any male opinion, saying that the feminist movement does not belong to men so that they can give their opinion on it (as if this silencing were not a characteristic opposed to a movement that fights for freedom, of course).
Elizabeth Cady Stanton can serve as an example of radical feminism (hold the stones, please). She was one of the great forerunners of the feminist movement, although the type of woman she seemed to stand for did not include black women or low-educated women. In fact, she seemed to defend only part of the women, the white, well-educated, middle-class people.
When black men gained the right to vote before women, Elizabeth Cady Stanton did not seem very happy. To her, the woman was superior to black men, mostly illiterate and uneducated, so they were more apt to vote than those black men. It’s from her the phrase: “We educated, virtuous white women are more worthy of the vote (talking about black men).” And also: “What will we and our daughters suffer if these degraded black men are allowed to have the rights that would make them even worse than our Saxon fathers?”
It is fair to imagine that this behavior can still exert influence in our current society and make so many people see feminism as a “supremacist” movement, focused only on the rights of a certain group of women who do not care about who will have to be knocked down in order to achieve their goals. However, to say that this strand of feminism is unique to the twenty-first century simply means to deny history.
But don’t forget that only a part of feminism has surrendered to radicalism. Just as we can find feminists who border misandria, we can also find dozens of other feminists open to dialogue and even willing to include men in the movement. That would be one of the milestones of the fourth wave, after all.
During my major research phase on feminism, I was fortunate to find a lot of feminist blogs that dealt with the issue of gender intelligently and reasonably. And I believe that was one of the main factors that, even when I came in contact with the radical part of the movement, made me believe in feminism and defend it in discussions.
The feminist movement, like any other movement that fights for freedom, is subject to the emergence of strands that take its principles to a radical level, thus reaching the very system that it used to fight against. However, this doesn’t mean that the whole movement is following that fate. It’s necessary to analyze feminism as a whole, understanding its waves, the claims and the radicalisms of each one of them before simply saying that the feminism of the first wave was good and that nowadays it has become just a cancer. We need to understand that the world is much grayer than black and white, and that the concept of “good and bad” has several layers. And to try to understand these layers and give a fair opinion, we cannot fall into the temptation to judge a whole movement with more than a century of history based on images of radical feminists that we see on the internet.
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