Feminism and woman's natureThe most far-reaching social development of modern times is the revolt of women against sexual servitude
While feminism takes many forms and cannot be characterized in any seamless way, it nonetheless encompasses the struggles of women to secure their economic and political agency. From the Women's Suffrage Movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to the Women's Liberation Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, feminism is typically associated with particular historical moments when a coalition of women succeeds in bringing issues of gender equality, sexual oppression, and sex discrimination into the public arena. Whether it takes the form of an explicit demand for the vote (as did the Suffrage Movements) or a more generalized demand for women's freedom (as did the Women's Liberation Movement), feminism is invariably engaged in resistance to prevailing notions of women's ‘nature’.
In the nineteenth century, the ideological ascendancy of science and medicine joined the spread of industrialization to promote the ‘sexual division of labour’ based on the assumption that ‘biology is destiny’. Women's fixed role as caregivers was ideologically determined by their biological capacity to bear children. Associated with that biological capacity was a host of psychological attributes — passivity, dependence, moodiness — which further reinforced a growing emphasis on the gendered separation of the domestic and the public spheres. The qualities requisite to economic or political success were linked to biologically based notions of masculinity and femininity, according to which men's bodies and minds are naturally suited to positions of power and women's are naturally suited to positions of subordination. While the resistance to this view of sexual difference varies historically and culturally, it is against this backdrop that modern and contemporary feminism must be understood.
Feminism and political activism
Not surprisingly, feminism often consolidates into a political movement as a result of women's participation in other radical, reformist, or revolutionary activities. For example, women were active in the anti-slavery movements of the nineteenth century. Yet, at a World Anti-Slavery Convention held in London in 1840, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were forced to sit in the gallery because the convention's organizers had determined that women could not be delegates. Eight years later, Mott and Stanton convened the Seneca Falls Women's Rights Convention, which adopted a platform explicitly revising the US Declaration of Independence to accord women the same guarantees that it granted to men. (‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal …’) In addition, it specified a set of grievances regarding the usurping by men of women's political, legal, and economic autonomy. It would not be the last time that the hypocrisy of demanding rights for some while denying them to others would initiate a women's movement. Women's experience as coffee-makers, typists, and sexual attendants to men in the anti-war and civil rights movements of the 1960s similarly activated both the demand for women's full participation in the public sphere and denunciation of masculine sexual prerogatives.
The Women's Liberation Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, the backdrop to contemporary feminism, is characterized by two intersecting trajectories. On the one hand, in spite of the liberalization of non-marital sex (occasioned in part by the wide distribution of the birth control pill), women remained men's sexual subordinates. Feminists challenged ‘sexist’ images of women in popular culture and in the pornography industry in relation to a growing understanding of women's ‘political subordination under patriarchy’. Women's bodies, then, became the ground on which the struggle for liberation was waged. On the other hand, a connection was made between women's ‘consciousness’ and their sexual subordination. While feminists like Margaret Sanger had long before identified women's complicity in perpetuating their own subordination, the concept of ‘consciousness raising’ as an instrument of liberation emerged only in this later period. Consciousness raising, a collective activity of mutual support and critique, encouraged individual women to see the ways in which their habits of thought conformed to a particular set of ideological presuppositions about women's nature and women's roles — why am I supposed to wash the dishes, change the diapers, watch soap commercials, stay within the budget, and worry about cellulite, while he earns the money, fattens happily, determines when we will have sex, and metes out judicious punishment to the children when he returns from his important work in the real world?
Though this characterization of consciousness raising might appear a parody of the concerns of middle-class married women, the fact that such women were drawn into the movement in large numbers was crucial to the widespread recognition that women were no longer content to sit on the sidelines of political/public life. The slogan ‘the personal is political’ captured the Movement's insistence that what goes on behind the closed doors of the domestic sphere has everything to do with what goes on outside it. On this basis, despite serious differences among feminists as to whether the goal was equality with men or freedom from them, a broad agenda for change could be articulated. The women's health movement demanded everything from an increase in the number of women doctors, to access to abortion and contraception, to freedom from sterilization abuse, to a full understanding and celebration of women's bodies in feminist terms. (Our Bodies/Ourselves, still the principal women's health handbook, was first published in 1971) More generally, women demanded ready access to the political arena, to economic self-sufficiency, to childcare, to freedom from male violence, to divorce, and to workplaces free from sexual harassment.
Understanding power and oppression
While feminism must be seen as an activist demand for political and economic reform, it has always been informed by serious reflection on the nature of sexual difference and the mechanisms by means of which sexual difference is enmeshed in, even created out of, relations of power and oppression. Mary Wollstonecraft (A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792), John Stuart Mill (The Subjection of Women, 1869), Margaret Sanger (Women and the New Race, 1920), Simone de Beauvoir (The Second Sex, 1949), Betty Friedan (The Feminine Mystique, 1974), and bell hooks (Ain't I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism, 1981) are among the many feminists who have endeavoured to understand the causes and forms of women's oppression, and to reconceptualize sexual difference. Contemporary feminism has achieved more systematic interventions into the arenas that authorize representations of sexual difference, in large part because feminists have secured a greater presence in academia (and in elite domains of business, politics, medicine, science, and the mass media). For example, feminist historians have unmasked the assumption that history is determined by great wars and great men, and have succeeded in drawing attention to the ways in which women's work has significantly affected historical developments. Feminist scholars have demonstrated the extent to which male bias has determined the normative assumptions of the social, natural, and behavioural sciences. In the arts, literary and artistic canons are no longer restricted to the work of men.
Though feminism's relation to other struggles for political liberation has always been an element of its self-understanding, this has become particularly salient in recent years as feminism is increasingly exposed as beholden to a pernicious set of assumptions about class, race, sexuality, ethnicity, and nationality. Feminism has been challenged to re-think the centrality of a unified and singular woman's identity to its political aspirations, since that identity too often comes at the expense of other, equally significant forms of identification. For example, African-American women's identity is constructed in relation to the history of slavery in which white women were complicit. The institutionalized racism that persists in spite of legal reforms continues to ensure white women's relatively greater access to those who uphold multiple systems of domination and subordination, namely, white men. Adding class as a factor further complicates the feminist agenda, for upper-class white women have considerable economic and social power over lower-class men and women, irrespective of race or ethnicity.
The feminist programme has been unsettled as well by the claim that, however unwittingly, it privileges heterosexuality as a normative feature of women's identity. According to this view, for example, the focus on abortion and contraception as the principal items on the feminist reproductive freedom agenda has too often ignored the realities of lesbian (and gay male) sexuality. Lesbian and gay procreation face challenges very different but, it is argued, equally compelling as those faced by women who wish to resist the heterosexual reproductive paradigm.
Whatever its fragmentation, within those arenas where it has a relatively secure footing, feminism can be credited with effecting profound changes in the ideological construction of womanhood, not only in the US and Europe, but more globally. The issue of women's autonomy in relation to reproduction and to work, and the issue of women's health more generally, have found themselves on the global political stage. Feminism continues in its struggle to establish itself as the ground for women's political, economic, and cultural ascendancy in the face of its own internal debates about the significance of differences among women.