Simply put, feminism is a political philosophy and practice centering on the concerns of women and opposing gender inequality. There is no one universally accepted way of conceptualizing feminism or of being a feminist; therefore, many contemporary feminists feel that the plural term feminisms best encompasses the great diversity among approaches to feminism. Generally speaking, the various contemporary approaches to feminism overlap in their dedication to opposing sexism, misogyny, and structural inequalities between women and men, as well as inequalities between girls and boys. Many types of feminism also emphasize the importance of women's personal experiences, arguing that “the personal is political.” Additionally, most contemporary feminisms share an intellectual and ethical commitment to addressing forms of structural inequality that intersect with gender, such as racism, classism, heterosexism, ageism, xenophobia, and/or sizeism.
Although some media sources and opponents of women's equality have called into question the contemporary relevance, or even existence of contemporary feminism, feminism remains both alive and necessary in the 21st century. Women still earn less than men, and this wage gap is greatest for women of color. Physical violence perpetrated against women by their current or former romantic partners remains prevalent and continues to constitute a leading cause of injury to women. Globally, women receive inferior healthcare and education to men, and wield less political and economic power than men. And in many countries, including the United States, constituents have yet to elect a female head of state.
With a long history, extending back to the 19th century, feminism seeks to eradicate these and other injustices through a variety of means. Feminism has transformed not only higher education but language itself. Women, men, and people of varying gender identities who are aligned with the goals of feminism continue to strive for gender equality in numerous ways, including engagement with scholarly and/or artistic work, and by participating in social movements.
Feminism has been conceptualized as occurring in three “waves.” The first wave of feminism is most closely associated with 19th and early 20th century struggles for women's suffrage. In the United States, feminist activism became less visible in the years following 1920, when voting rights were finally secured for women. However, feminist organizing reemerged in the late 1960s. This “second wave” of feminist activism and scholarship blossomed as female activists became increasingly dissatisfied with their experiences in mainstream civil rights and antiwar movements dominated by men. Second wave feminism subsequently took a variety of forms, both liberal and radical, including the genesis of the Women's Liberation Movement, resistance to violence against women via the creation of rape crisis centers and battered women's shelters, and organized efforts to change women's relationships with mainstream institutions such as law enforcement and the mainstream medical establishment.
During the second wave of feminism, women also gathered together and engaged in what came to be known as “consciousness raising” (CR): the sharing of personal stories in an effort to uncover commonalities of experience and understand the underlying social structures that served as the foundation of women's subjugation. Defending the second-wave feminist practice of consciousness raising against claims that CR amounted to little more than a form of apolitical group therapy, Carol Hanisch is reputed to have coined what would become a feminist mantra: “The personal is political.” Second-wave feminists who embraced this premise came to realize that their experiences, previously understood as private and personal, were connected to gender inequality and other intersecting forms of oppression; this realization made political analysis and collective action possible. This feminist emphasis on the value of personal experience remains an important cornerstone of contemporary strains of feminism.
Although second-wave feminists achieved many legal and social victories, including the (still contested) legalization of abortion and various legal protections and remedies for female workers and spouses, the ideologies and practices of second wave feminism were not completely unproblematic. In particular, second-wave feminists frequently theorized women as universal, ignoring the differences between and among categories of women. Working-class women, women of color, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered women found themselves alienated from a mainstream feminism, which all too frequently centered on the perspectives and needs of women with economic, racial, and other privileges.
The third wave of feminism is considered a corrective to many of the shortcomings of second wave feminism. These contemporary feminists highlight a multiplicity of voices, emphasizing intersections of identity beyond gender, including race, class, and sexuality. Additionally, whereas second wave feminism has been seen as encouraging a “cult of victimization” among women, contemporary feminists place a greater emphasis on women's agency. For example, this third wave has seen the increasing emergence of sex-positive writing and activism, particularly by sex worker rights activists, scholars, and writers. Other focal points for third wave feminism include movements for the inclusion of transgender and gender-queer practices, and in the case of globalization, an emergence of transnational feminisms that extend and/or challenge Euro-American feminist goals.
Although there is some speculation about an existing or imminent fourth wave of feminism, as of this writing it is nonetheless more common to consider contemporary feminisms as part of an ongoing third wave.
However, the wave metaphor has recently drawn criticism from feminist scholars; conceptualizing feminism as occurring in three waves may encourage an understanding of feminism as disjointed, or consisting of temporally and ideologically discrete approaches.
Dissatisfied with disciplinary canons dominated by the writings and perspectives of “dead white men,” late-20th-century feminist professors and students made a concerted effort to imbue higher education with a feminist perspective that honored the work of feminist scholars and adequately addressed the reality of diverse women's lives. Today, feminist professors located within traditional disciplines throughout the humanities, social sciences, and hard sciences continue to integrate women's perspectives into their coursework, and adopt a curriculum that fosters students’ critical examination of gender inequalities. When possible, such professors often seek to reclaim the work of disciplinary foremothers. For example, early feminist sociologists such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Jane Addams, Marion Talbott, and Edith Talbott were completely eclipsed by their male contemporaries until feminist sociologists began integrating them into the theoretical curriculum.
However, the still developing approach to teaching now known as feminist pedagogy goes beyond simply integrating the work of female researchers and writers into the existing curriculum. Professors and other instructors who adopt a feminist pedagogical stance are critical of the power differential that exists between student and teacher, and often seek to dismantle classroom hierarchies in a variety of ways. Students are not constructed as obedient recipients of their teacher's expert knowledge; rather they too are understood as having knowledge worth contributing. In particular, the sharing of personal experiences in the classroom is believed to provide students with an opportunity to make concrete connections between theoretical course concepts and the lived experience they know intimately. In some feminist classrooms, students share responsibility for curricular development.
In addition to attending to power dynamics in the classroom, feminist teachers aim to devise curriculum that highlights power and inequalities, and one that features diverse perspectives.
Feminism has also transformed how many academics approach their research. As with feminist pedagogy, feminist research is characterized by an acknowledgment of the power differential between researcher and participant, as well as an attempt to minimize such hierarchies in the research process. Rather than extracting knowledge from passive “subjects,” feminist researchers conceptualize the people with whom they work as participants in the truest sense of the word, capable of sharing knowledge and making concrete contributions to the research process. In feminist participatory research, the investigator may go as far as to design her or his study in concert with her or his participants, tailoring the goals of the study to participants’ needs, and sharing the contents and/or ownership of the finished product with them.
Feminism permeates many progressive academic departments within traditional disciplines, but has also become an object of study itself. In the latter part of the 20th century, feminist academics organized across disciplines to create interdisciplinary women's studies programs and departments. Such departments are now commonplace on college campuses, although the contemporary trend is toward the development of departments devoted to gender studies or feminist studies, indicating a move away from a focus on women as subjects of inquiry, and toward a feminist approach of studying a broad variety of topics.
Because language shapes the way in which we think about the social and political world, many feminists are concerned with the ways that language can be used to reinforce or challenge power. In the latter 20th century, feminists developed a critique of language that they understood as demeaning women, as well as androcentric language that erased women's existence, such as use of the term men to stand in for people.
Whereas these earlier feminists have at times been accused of overpolicing language, more contemporary feminists have utilized an ethic of co-optation rather than censorship. For instance, rather than disallowing language or words such as “whore,” “spinster,” “slut,” and “bitch,” many contemporary feminists have co-opted these words, redefining them and utilizing them in a way that empowers rather than degrades women. A few examples of this co-optation of language is reflected in the work of editors and writers for print media such as Bitch, Spread Magazine: Illuminating the Sex Industry, and in the work of feminist and antiracist writer Inga Muscio, author of Cunt: A Declaration of Independence. Similarly, some members of contemporary size acceptance or body diversity movements, many of whom are aligned with feminism, have reclaimed the word fat, fashioning both terms and identities that celebrate rather than denigrate fatness.
Contemporary feminism and its related activism coincide with a dramatic shift in the theoretical and practical conceptualization of feminism and gender. Judith Butler and other queer theorists have been at the forefront of this shift. Whereas some early feminist theorists made essential the categories “women” and “men,” postmodern theorists have invigorated feminism by destabilizing these categories. For example, Butler's gender performances describe how gender organizes social relations and spaces. This and other related work, which focuses on the use of space, body comportment, and gender maneuvering/performance, marks a direct shift away from viewing gender as a fixed category. Nonetheless, although feminist writers such as Judith Butler have called for fluid, nonessentialist analyses of gender, other theorists and writers such as Peter Hennen have reminded us to remain cognizant of the body and the real, material consequences of gender inequality, issues that have often been lost in contemporary feminism's postmodern shuffle. For example, in his recent study Faeries, Bears, and Leathermen, Hennen found that in contrast with the aforementioned theoretical developments, his interviewees described themselves in very essentialist terms. Hennen concludes that although postmodern theories are useful and necessary, those writing about issues of gender need to be sensitive to how people continue to understand their own identities.
The postmodern turn in gender theory and constructions of the category “woman” have, at the same time, led to a proliferation of activism around gender-queer identities and practices. Both gender activists and theorists are redefining the category “woman” and exploding binaries of gender and sexuality. There are a number of contemporary examples of how these shifts in discourse are being realized in practice and everyday life. In the pornography industry, for example, queer porn has infiltrated the larger mainstream industry and continues to break gender and sexual boundaries that remain prevalent in mainstream porn. Other contemporary feminist activist engagements include the growing reproductive justice movement, global struggles for land and water rights, and movements promoting disability rights.
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