Feminism is now the rallying cry of the modern liberal. It is a term which is so inseparable from the leftist stigma that it pains the mind to think of it being separate. To be a feminist is to be for the welfare state, to support social democracy, to be against racial injustice, to be a supporter of multiculturalism, and much else. The feminist label, more so than any other in modern discourse has been subverted by the reigning political ideologies of our time. Due to its tremendous impact on our lives and its incredible success it is worthy of a full treatment here on PlatoShrugs.
Historical Relationships between Men and Women
To our modern knowledge, there are no known societies which were unambiguously matriarchal. There are some which have incorporated lineage via the female (Kendake in Ethiopia, potentially the Elamite civilization, potentially Scythia, and others), but these are the exceptions to the rule.
The most pressing question for the astute observer is, why?
The answer to this question has become an ideological one as anthropology has few answers. Those against feminism will frame the answer to fit their own conclusions (men being superior to women, men are natural xyz) and those for feminism will do the same (men repressed women, gatherer->hunter societal switching, etc). This answer is a key piece of ideological framing regarding the females place in the world. Like later political philosophers who attempt to derive a human’s “State of Nature” (that is, life without civilized society), the Feminist thinkers of our day ponder long and hard on why women lost so much power in the political world.
In some societies women and men lived in separate, but equally respected spheres of life. In others, men dominated and women are treated as property akin to cattle. From the first stratification of society through the 1700s, the plight of women didn’t change much, but something very important did.
That is, the ratio between the Farmer:Non Farmer. As time has gone on, we have moved from a workforce of around 90%+ farmers to 1% of the modern era. This impact of specialization, improved medical technology, and leisure has profound impacts on gender relationships for the world at large.
First Wave Feminism: The Industrial Revolution
The industrial revolution was a real turning point in human history. For much of our miserable existence a substantial portion of human labor was required to feed, clothe, and provide for much of the population. With the advent of machines, the productive capacity and (subsequently) material wealth of society exploded. Simultaneously, the rapid spread of Classical Liberal ideals (which included the equality of all men under god), the eradication of slavery, and religious doctrinal changes all culminated to support a general conclusion that women should be treated better.
The usage of the term ‘waves’ to indicate differing ‘phases’ of feminism can be attributed to Martha Lear writing in New York Times Magazine, 1968
With these pesky, freedom loving, equality driven ideals came the awakening and acceptance of women’s rights in a legal context. Primarily, equality of contract, suffrage, marriage, parenting, and property rights. The wave ended, after a lot of protests, campaigns, and hard work with the 19th amendment to the US constitution in 1919 gaining women the constitutional right to vote. Things went silent on the women’s rights front through the 1920, 30s, and 40s. The booming 20s followed by the great depression meant that people were struggling to eke out a living and public support for civil rights waned. With the 40s came mobilization for the war effort and greater participation of women in the workplace as the nation’s men were sent to Europe.
The call to duty was sounded as men were sent to war and women expected to do their part. With the end of the war and the subsequent involvement of women in the working roles traditionally used by men (factory work and welding), the scene was set for renewed effort on female rights.
Second Wave Feminism: Civil Rights
Post World War 2 America was both prosperous (kind of a given when half the industrialized planet in is ruins) and deeply segregated. While slavery was made illegal, segregation was not. During the same time that African Americans were staging protests and fighting for their legal rights women pressed the issue further to clean the slate of legal inequality based on gender.
While the first wave did decent work at making the law gender neutral, it did not address reproductive rights, workplace legal protections, domestic violence, and marital rape. The great liberal consensus from the 1950s-1960s came with the medical advancement known as the oral contraceptive pill. This allowed for women, for the first time in history to control their reproductive cycle. Including women in the political framework of the nation became the credo of the age.
The Kennedy administration made it a policy initiative to involve more women in the US government, filling important cabinet posts and bureaucratic positions with females. In 1967 there was an affirmative action right extended to women and from the 60s liberal consensus came the eventual tidal wave of the ‘reformed’ view of constitutional interpretation; the US Supreme Court prohibited laws against abortion as unconstitutional in 1973. The second wave of feminism ended with these legal victories around 1980s amid open questions within the movement regarding sexuality and pornography as well as a looming technological revolution on the horizon.
Third Wave: Societal Oppression
It is here that feminism takes a turn. Most laws in the United States now, with respect to the dichotomy gender view (male/female only, ignoring transgender) were gender neutral, but (as is claimed by feminists at the time) the interpretation of those laws was sexist. This is the transition between legal oppression to cultural oppression that the current ‘wave’ of feminism is attempting to combat through media, the internet, campaigns, and protest. Gender violence, reproductive rights, rape (on college campuses especially) are taking center stage as females once more stand up to convince others to treat women differently.
Amid this growing discontent with how females are culturally treated comes the merging of the feminist movement and the liberal movement within the United States. While feminism has never been a strictly conservative/liberal issue per-se, as the 1919 constitutional amendment was a bipartisan agreement and the 1960s saw little conservative political influence (so it’s difficult to say with certainty). The liberal political movement, influenced by more radical Marxist/Classical Liberal ideological viewpoints on absolute ‘tabla rasa’ equality (that is, the nature vs nurture argument on human behaviors) came with a natural confluence of feminist principals. Combine this with labor unions and communist support for the civil rights movement and female rights during the 60s; then these ideological alliances with the left seem natural.
The political alliance with leftism has now transformed feminism into a whole new venue of feminist framed cultural oppression. The arguments of race, social class, gender identity, homosexual oppression, transgender rights, and economic rights, once the subject of long papers written by ivory tower Classical Liberals (and Communists) have entered the discussion within the framework of feminism where before it was a separate and alien concept. And so through the use of the internet and media, feminism, like all political ideologies is changing and molding to the times; in an attempt to become relevant and convince more of their righteous zeal the history of feminism marches on and is unlikely to go away any time soon.