Feminism in the United States

An Illustrated History of U.S. Feminism

  • History Of Feminism
  • Important Figures
  • Women's Suffrage
  • Women & War
  • Laws & Womens Rights
  • Feminist Texts
  • American History
  • African American History
  • African History
  • Ancient History and Culture
  • Asian History
  • European History
  • Latin American History
  • Medieval & Renaissance History
  • Military History
  • The 20th Century
  • Ph.D., Religion and Society, Edith Cowan University
  • M.A., Humanities, California State University - Dominguez Hills
  • B.A., Liberal Arts, Excelsior College

There have been multiple feminisms representing the efforts of women to live to their full humanity in a world shaped by and for men, but not a capital-F feminism that has dominated the history of feminist thought.

Moreover, it tends to correspond with the goals of upper-class heterosexual White women who have traditionally been given and still tend to have, disproportionate power to spread their message. But the movement is much more than that, and it dates back centuries. 

1792 — Mary Wollstonecraft vs. The European Enlightenment

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

European political philosophy centered on a conflict between two great, wealthy men in the 18th century: Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) criticized the idea of natural rights as a rationale for violent revolution; Paine's The Rights of Man (1792) defended it. Both naturally focused on the relative rights of men.

English philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft beat Paine to the punch in her response to Burke. It was titled A Vindication of the Rights of Men  in 1790, but she parted ways with both of them in a second volume titled A Vindication of the Rights of Woman  in 1792. Although the book was technically written and circulated in Britain, it arguably represents the beginning of first-wave American feminism.

1848 — Radical Women Unite at Seneca Falls

Library of Congress

Wollstonecraft's book represented only the first widely-read presentation of American first-wave feminist philosophy, not the beginning of the American first-wave feminist movement itself.

Although some women—most notably U.S. First Lady Abigail Adams —would agree with her sentiments, what we think of as the first-wave feminist movement probably began at the Seneca Falls Convention of July 1848.

Prominent abolitionists and feminists of the era, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton , authored a Declaration of Sentiments  for women that was patterned after the Declaration of Independence. Presented at the Convention, it asserted fundamental rights often denied to women, including the right to vote.

1851 — Ain't I a Woman?

The 19th-century feminist movement had its roots in the abolitionist movement. It was, in fact, at a global abolitionists' meeting that the Seneca Falls organizers got their idea for a convention.

Still, despite their efforts, the central question of 19th-century feminism was whether it was acceptable to promote Black civil rights over women's rights.

This divide obviously leaves out Black women, whose basic rights were compromised both because they were Black and because they were women.

Sojourner Truth , an abolitionist and an early feminist, said in her famous 1851 speech, "I think that 'twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon."

1896 — The Hierarchy of Oppression

White men remained in control, partly because Black civil rights and women's rights were set against each other.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton complained about the prospect of Black voting rights in 1865.

"Now," she wrote, "it becomes a serious question whether we had better stand aside and see 'Sambo' walk in the kingdom first."

In 1896, a group of Black women, led by Mary Church Terrell  and including such luminaries as Harriet Tubman and Ida B. Wells-Barnett , was created out of a merger of smaller organizations.

But despite the efforts of the National Association of Colored Women and similar groups, the national feminist movement became identified primarily and enduringly as White and upper class.

1920 — America Becomes a Democracy (Sort Of)

As 4 million young men were drafted to serve as U.S. troops in World War I, women took over many jobs traditionally held by men in the United States.

The women's suffrage movement experienced a resurgence that dovetailed with the growing antiwar movement at the same time.

The result: Finally, some 72 years after Seneca Falls, the U.S. government ratified the 19th Amendment.

While Black suffrage was not to be fully established in the South until ​1965, and it continues to be challenged by voter intimidation tactics to this day, it would have been inaccurate to even describe the United States as a true representative democracy prior to 1920 because only about 40% of the population—White males—were allowed to elect representatives.

1942 — Rosie the Riveter

It's a sad fact of American history that our greatest civil rights victories came after our bloodiest wars.

The end of enslavement came about only after the Civil War. The 19th Amendment was born after World War I, and the women's liberation movement began only after World War II .

As 16 million American men went off to fight, women essentially took over the maintenance of the U.S. economy.

Some 6 million women were recruited to work in military factories, producing munitions and other military goods. They were symbolized by the War Department's "Rosie the Riveter" poster.

When the war was over, it became clear that American women could work just as hard and effectively as American men, and the second wave of American feminism was born.

1966 — National Organization for Women (NOW) Founded

Betty Friedan's book The Feminine Mystique , published in 1963, took on "the problem that has no name," the cultural gender roles, workforce regulations, government discrimination and everyday sexism that left women subjugated at home, at church, in the workforce, in educational institutions and even in the eyes of their government.

Friedan co-founded NOW in 1966, the first and still the largest major women's liberation organization. But there were early problems with NOW, most notably Friedan's opposition to lesbian inclusion, which she referred to in a 1969 speech as " the lavender menace ."

Friedan repented of her past heterosexism and embraced lesbian rights as a non-negotiable feminist goal in 1977. It has been central to NOW's mission ever since.

1972 —Unbought and Unbossed

Rep. Shirley Chisholm (Democrat-New York) was not the first woman to run for nomination for U.S. president with a major party. That was Sen. Margaret Chase Smith (Republican-Maine) in 1964. But Chisholm was the first to make a serious, hard run.

Her candidacy provided an opportunity for the women's liberation movement to organize around the first major-party radical feminist candidate for the nation's highest office.

Chisholm's campaign slogan, "Unbought and Unbossed," was more than a motto.

She alienated many with her radical vision of a more just society, but then she also befriended infamous segregationist George Wallace while he was in the hospital after being wounded by a would-be assassin in his own run for president against her in the Democratic primaries.

She was completely committed to her core values and she didn't care who she ticked off in the process.

1973 — Feminism vs. The Religious Right

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

The right of a woman to terminate her pregnancy has always been controversial, mostly because of religious concerns regarding the belief that embryos and fetuses are human beings.

A state-by-state abortion legalization movement achieved some success during the late 1960s and the early 1970s, but in most of the country, and most notably the so-called Bible Belt, abortion remained illegal.

This all changed with Roe v. Wade in 1973, angering social conservatives.

Soon the national press began to perceive the entire feminist movement as being concerned primarily with abortion, just as the emerging Religious Right appeared to be.

Abortion rights have remained the elephant in the room in any mainstream discussion of the feminist movement since 1973. 

1982 — A Revolution Deferred

National Archives

Originally written by Alice Paul in 1923 as a logical successor to the 19th Amendment, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) would have prohibited all gender-based discrimination at the federal level.

But Congress alternately ignored and opposed it until the amendment finally passed by overwhelming margins in 1972. It was quickly ratified by 35 states. Only 38 were needed.

But by the late 1970s, the Religious Right had successfully mounted opposition to the amendment based largely on opposition to abortion and women in the military. Five states rescinded ratification, and the amendment officially died in 1982. 

1993 — A New Generation

David Fenton. All rights reserved.

The 1980s were a depressing period for the American feminist movement. The Equal Rights Amendment was dead. The conservative and hyper-masculine rhetoric of the Reagan years dominated national discourse.

The Supreme Court began to drift incrementally to the right on important women's rights issues, and an aging generation of predominantly white, upper-class activists largely failed to address issues impacting women of color, low-income women, and women living outside the United States.

Feminist author Rebecca Walker—young, Southern, African American, Jewish and bisexual—coined the term "third-wave feminism" in 1993 to describe a new generation of young feminists working to create a more inclusive and comprehensive movement.

2004 — This is What 1.4 Million Feminists Look Like

D.B. King / Creative Commons

When NOW organized a March for Women's Lives in 1992, Roe was in danger. The march on D.C., with 750,000 present, took place on April 5.

Casey v. Planned Parenthood , the Supreme Court case that most observers believed would lead to a 5-4 majority striking down Roe , was scheduled for oral arguments on April 22. Justice Anthony Kennedy later defected from the expected 5-4 majority and saved Roe .

When a second March for Women's Lives was organized, it was led by a broader coalition that included LGBT rights groups and groups specifically focusing on the needs of immigrant women, indigenous women and women of color.

The turnout of 1.4 million set a D.C. protest record at that time and showed the power of the new, more comprehensive women's movement.

2017 — Women's March and #MeToo Movement

The Women's March on Washington marked the full first day of Donald Trump's presidency.

On January 21, 2017, more than 200,000 people rallied in Washington, D.C. to protest what they feared would be a Trump presidency that would endanger women's, civil, and human rights. Other rallies were held across the nation and around the world.

The #MeToo Movement began to pick up a following later in the year as a response to sexual assault allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. It focused on sexual assault and harassment in the workplace and elsewhere.

Social activist Tarana Burke first coined the term "Me Too" in 2006 in connection to sexual assault among women of color, but it gained popularity when actress Alyssa Milano added the social media hashtag in 2017.

  • Biography of Lucy Stone, Abolitionist and Women's Rights Reformer
  • An Overview of Third-Wave Feminism
  • 1970s Feminist Activities
  • Top 20 Influential Modern Feminist Theorists
  • A History of the Seneca Falls 1848 Women's Rights Convention
  • Women's Strike for Equality
  • Biography of Betty Friedan, Feminist, Writer, Activist
  • Feminist Organizations of the 1970s
  • Womanist: Definition and Examples
  • A Short History of Women's Equality Day
  • Biography of Susan B. Anthony, Women's Suffrage Activist
  • 15 Surprising Facts About Susan B. Anthony
  • A Guide to Women's Suffrage
  • Goals of the Feminist Movement
  • Key Events of United States Feminism During the 1960s
  • Liberal Feminism

Human Rights Careers

5 Essays About Feminism

On the surface, the definition of feminism is simple. It’s the belief that women should be politically, socially, and economically equal to men. Over the years, the movement expanded from a focus on voting rights to worker rights, reproductive rights, gender roles, and beyond. Modern feminism is moving to a more inclusive and intersectional place. Here are five essays about feminism that tackle topics like trans activism, progress, and privilege:

“Trickle-Down Feminism” – Sarah Jaffe

Feminists celebrate successful women who have seemingly smashed through the glass ceiling, but the reality is that most women are still under it. Even in fast-growing fields where women dominate (retail sales, food service, etc), women make less money than men. In this essay from Dissent Magazine, author Sarah Jaffe argues that when the fastest-growing fields are low-wage, it isn’t a victory for women. At the same time, it does present an opportunity to change the way we value service work. It isn’t enough to focus only on “equal pay for equal work” as that argument mostly focuses on jobs where someone can negotiate their salary. This essay explores how feminism can’t succeed if only the concerns of the wealthiest, most privileged women are prioritized.

Sarah Jaffe writes about organizing, social movements, and the economy with publications like Dissent, the Nation, Jacobin, and others. She is the former labor editor at Alternet.

“What No One Else Will Tell You About Feminism” – Lindy West

Written in Lindy West’s distinct voice, this essay provides a clear, condensed history of feminism’s different “waves.” The first wave focused on the right to vote, which established women as equal citizens. In the second wave, after WWII, women began taking on issues that couldn’t be legally-challenged, like gender roles. As the third wave began, the scope of feminism began to encompass others besides middle-class white women. Women should be allowed to define their womanhood for themselves. West also points out that “waves” may not even exist since history is a continuum. She concludes the essay by declaring if you believe all people are equal, you are a feminist.

Jezebel reprinted this essay with permission from How To Be A Person, The Stranger’s Guide to College by Lindy West, Dan Savage, Christopher Frizelle, and Bethany Jean Clement. Lindy West is an activist, comedian, and writer who focuses on topics like feminism, pop culture, and fat acceptance.

“Toward a Trans* Feminism” – Jack Halberstam

The history of transactivsm and feminism is messy. This essay begins with the author’s personal experience with gender and terms like trans*, which Halberstam prefers. The asterisk serves to “open the meaning,” allowing people to choose their categorization as they see fit. The main body of the essay focuses on the less-known history of feminists and trans* folks. He references essays from the 1970s and other literature that help paint a more complete picture. In current times, the tension between radical feminism and trans* feminism remains, but changes that are good for trans* women are good for everyone.

This essay was adapted from Trans*: A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variability by Jack Halberstam. Halberstam is the Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity, Gender Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California. He is also the author of several books.

“Rebecca Solnit: How Change Happens” – Rebecca Solnit

The world is changing. Rebecca Solnit describes this transformation as an assembly of ideas, visions, values, essays, books, protests, and more. It has many layers involving race, class, gender, power, climate, justice, etc, as well as many voices. This has led to more clarity about injustice. Solnit describes watching the transformation and how progress and “ wokeness ” are part of a historical process. Progress is hard work. Not exclusively about feminism, this essay takes a more intersectional look at how progress as a whole occurs.

“How Change Happens” was adapted from the introduction to Whose Story Is it? Rebecca Solnit is a writer, activist, and historian. She’s the author of over 20 books on art, politics, feminism, and more.

“Bad Feminist” extract – Roxane Gay

People are complicated and imperfect. In this excerpt from her book Bad Feminist: Essays , Roxane Gay explores her contradictions. The opening sentence is, “I am failing as a woman.” She goes on to describe how she wants to be independent, but also to be taken care of. She wants to be strong and in charge, but she also wants to surrender sometimes. For a long time, she denied that she was human and flawed. However, the work it took to deny her humanness is harder than accepting who she is. While Gay might be a “bad feminist,” she is also deeply committed to issues that are important to feminism. This is a must-read essay for any feminists who worry that they aren’t perfect.

Roxane Gay is a professor, speaker, editor, writer, and social commentator. She is the author of Bad Feminist , a New York Times bestseller, Hunger (a memoir), and works of fiction.

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What are the four waves of feminism? And what comes next?

feminism in the us essay

Professor, University of Wollongong

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In Western countries, feminist history is generally packaged as a story of “waves”. The so-called first wave lasted from the mid-19th century to 1920. The second wave spanned the 1960s to the early 1980s. The third wave began in the mid-1990s and lasted until the 2010s. Finally, some say we are experiencing a fourth wave, which began in the mid-2010s and continues now.

The first person to use “waves” was journalist Martha Weinman Lear, in her 1968 New York Times article, The Second Feminist Wave , demonstrating that the women’s liberation movement was another “new chapter in a grand history of women fighting together for their rights”. She was responding to anti-feminists’ framing of the movement as a “ bizarre historical aberration ”.

Some feminists criticise the usefulness of the metaphor. Where do feminists who preceded the first wave sit? For instance, Middle Ages feminist writer Christine de Pizan , or philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft , author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792).

Does the metaphor of a single wave overshadow the complex variety of feminist concerns and demands? And does this language exclude the non-West , for whom the “waves” story is meaningless?

Despite these concerns, countless feminists continue to use “waves” to explain their position in relation to previous generations.

feminism in the us essay

Read more: The Whitlam government gave us no-fault divorce, women's refuges and childcare. Australia needs another feminist revolution

The first wave: from 1848

The first wave of feminism refers to the campaign for the vote. It began in the United States in 1848 with the Seneca Falls Convention , where 300 gathered to debate Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s Declaration of Sentiments, outlining women’s inferior status and demanding suffrage – or, the right to vote.

It continued over a decade later, in 1866, in Britain, with the presentation of a suffrage petition to parliament.

This wave ended in 1920, when women were granted the right to vote in the US. (Limited women’s suffrage had been introduced in Britain two years earlier, in 1918.) First-wave activists believed once the vote had been won, women could use its power to enact other much-needed reforms, related to property ownership, education, employment and more.

feminism in the us essay

White leaders dominated the movement. They included longtime president of the the International Woman Suffrage Alliance Carrie Chapman Catt in the US, leader of the militant Women’s Social and Political Union Emmeline Pankhurst in the UK, and Catherine Helen Spence and Vida Goldstein in Australia.

This has tended to obscure the histories of non-white feminists like evangelist and social reformer Sojourner Truth and journalist, activist and researcher Ida B. Wells , who were fighting on multiple fronts – including anti-slavery and anti-lynching –  as well as feminism.

The second wave: from 1963

The second wave coincided with the publication of US feminist Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963. Friedan’s “ powerful treatise ” raised critical interest in issues that came to define the women’s liberation movement until the early 1980s, like workplace equality, birth control and abortion, and women’s education.

feminism in the us essay

Women came together in “consciousness-raising” groups to share their individual experiences of oppression. These discussions informed and motivated public agitation for gender equality and social change . Sexuality and gender-based violence were other prominent second-wave concerns.

Australian feminist Germaine Greer wrote The Female Eunuch , published in 1970, which urged women to “challenge the ties binding them to gender inequality and domestic servitude” – and to ignore repressive male authority by exploring their sexuality.

Read more: Friday essay: The Female Eunuch at 50, Germaine Greer's fearless, feminist masterpiece

Successful lobbying saw the establishment of refuges for women and children fleeing domestic violence and rape. In Australia, there were groundbreaking political appointments, including the world’s first Women’s Advisor to a national government ( Elizabeth Reid ). In 1977, a Royal Commission on Human Relationships examined families, gender and sexuality.

Amid these developments, in 1975, Anne Summers published Damned Whores and God’s Police , a scathing historical critique of women’s treatment in patriarchal Australia.

At the same time as they made advances, so-called women’s libbers managed to anger earlier feminists with their distinctive claims to radicalism. Tireless campaigner Ruby Rich , who was president of the Australian Federation of Women Voters from 1945 to 1948, responded by declaring the only difference was her generation had called their movement “ justice for women ”, not “liberation”.

feminism in the us essay

Like the first wave, mainstream second-wave activism proved largely irrelevant to non-white women, who faced oppression on intersecting gendered and racialised grounds. African American feminists produced their own critical texts, including bell hooks’ Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism in 1981 and Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider in 1984.

Read more: bell hooks will never leave us – she lives on through the truth of her words

The third wave: from 1992

The third wave was announced in the 1990s. The term is popularly attributed to Rebecca Walker, daughter of African American feminist activist and writer Alice Walker (author of The Color Purple ).

Aged 22, Rebecca proclaimed in a 1992 Ms. magazine article : “I am not a post-feminism feminist. I am the Third Wave.”

Third wavers didn’t think gender equality had been more or less achieved. But they did share post-feminists ’ belief that their foremothers’ concerns and demands were obsolete. They argued women’s experiences were now shaped by very different political, economic, technological and cultural conditions.

The third wave has been described as “an individualised feminism that can not exist without diversity, sex positivity and intersectionality”.

feminism in the us essay

Intersectionality, coined in 1989 by African American legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, recognises that people can experience intersecting layers of oppression due to race, gender, sexuality, class, ethnicity and more. Crenshaw notes this was a “lived experience” before it was a term.

In 2000, Aileen Moreton Robinson’s Talkin’ Up to the White Woman: Indigenous Women and Feminism expressed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women’s frustration that white feminism did not adequately address the legacies of dispossession, violence, racism, and sexism.

Certainly, the third wave accommodated kaleidoscopic views . Some scholars claimed it “grappled with fragmented interests and objectives” – or micropolitics. These included ongoing issues such as sexual harassment in the workplace and a scarcity of women in positions of power.

The third wave also gave birth to the Riot Grrrl movement and “girl power”. Feminist punk bands like Bikini Kill in the US, Pussy Riot in Russia and Australia’s Little Ugly Girls sang about issues like homophobia, sexual harassment, misogyny, racism, and female empowerment.

Riot Grrrl’s manifesto states “we are angry at a society that tells us Girl = Dumb, Girl = Bad, Girl = Weak”. “Girl power” was epitomised by Britain’s more sugary, phenomenally popular Spice Girls, who were accused of peddling “ ‘diluted feminism’ to the masses ”.

The fourth wave: 2013 to now

The fourth wave is epitomised by “ digital or online feminism ” which gained currency in about 2013 . This era is marked by mass online mobilisation. The fourth wave generation is connected via new communication technologies in ways that were not previously possible.

Online mobilisation has led to spectacular street demonstrations, including the #metoo movement. #Metoo was first founded by Black activist Tarana Burke in 2006, to support survivors of sexual abuse. The hashtag #metoo then went viral during the 2017 Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse scandal . It was used at least 19 million times on Twitter (now X) alone.

In January 2017, the Women’s March protested the inauguration of the decidedly misogynistic Donald Trump as US president. Approximately 500,000 women marched in Washington DC, with demonstrations held simultaneously in 81 nations on all continents of the globe, even Antarctica.

In 2021, the Women’s March4Justice saw some 110,000 women rallying at more than 200 events across Australian cities and towns, protesting workplace sexual harassment and violence against women, following high-profile cases like that of Brittany Higgins, revealing sexual misconduct in the Australian houses of parliament.

feminism in the us essay

Given the prevalence of online connection, it is not surprising fourth wave feminism has reached across geographic regions. The Global Fund for Women reports that #metoo transcends national borders. In China, it is, among other things, #米兔 (translated as “ rice bunny ”, pronounced as “mi tu”). In Nigeria, it’s #Sex4Grades . In Turkey, it’s # UykularınızKaçsın (“may you lose sleep”).

In an inversion of the traditional narrative of the Global North leading the Global South in terms of feminist “progress”, Argentina’s “ Green Wave ” has seen it decriminalise abortion, as has Colombia. Meanwhile, in 2022, the US Supreme Court overturned historic abortion legislation .

Whatever the nuances, the prevalence of such highly visible gender protests have led some feminists, like Red Chidgey , lecturer in Gender and Media at King’s College London, to declare that feminism has transformed from “a dirty word and publicly abandoned politics” to an ideology sporting “a new cool status”.

Read more: Friday essay: a sex-positive feminist takes up the 'unfinished revolution' her mother began – but it's complicated

Where to now?

How do we know when to pronounce the next “wave”? (Spoiler alert: I have no answer.) Should we even continue to use the term “waves”?

The “wave” framework was first used to demonstrate feminist continuity and solidarity. However, whether interpreted as disconnected chunks of feminist activity or connected periods of feminist activity and inactivity, represented by the crests and troughs of waves, some believe it encourages binary thinking that produces intergenerational antagonism .

Back in 1983, Australian writer and second-wave feminist Dale Spender, who died last year, confessed her fear that if each generation of women did not know they had robust histories of struggle and achievement behind them, they would labour under the illusion they’d have to develop feminism anew. Surely, this would be an overwhelming prospect.

What does this mean for “waves” in 2024 and beyond?

To build vigorous varieties of feminism going forward, we might reframe the “waves”. We need to let emerging generations of feminists know they are not living in an isolated moment, with the onerous job of starting afresh. Rather, they have the momentum created by generations upon generations of women to build on.

  • Germaine Greer
  • Women's suffrage
  • Intersectionality
  • Sojourner Truth
  • Catherine Helen Spence
  • Betty Friedan
  • Vida Goldstein
  • Alice Walker
  • Kimberle Crenshaw
  • Suffragists
  • Elizabeth Cady Stanton
  • Emmeline Pankhurst
  • Fourth-wave feminism

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Democracy Is Feminist

Women's Equality Day

A ugust 26, 2023 marks the 50th anniversary of Women’s Equality Day . Proposed in 1971 by Bella Abzug , the formidable feminist organizer and federal lawmaker from New York, and passed as a joint resolution by Congress in 1973, Women’s Equality Day recognizes the fight for women’s suffrage and hard won ratification of the 19th Amendment.

Around the time Women’s Equality Day was first envisioned, Abzug joined forces with other leaders and activists—Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisolm, and Fannie Lou Hamer among them—to form the National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC). Through both endeavors they sought to acknowledge that political representation belongs at the center of the quest for gender justice—and, according to the NWPC archives , that “legal, economic, and social equity would come about only when women were equally represented among the nation’s political decision-makers.”

Historically, women in the United States have participated voraciously in civic life, registering and voting at higher rates than men in every presidential election since 1980. Black women show up at the polls and in voter mobilization efforts in even greater numbers, with turnout rates of upward of 66% in 2020. In July 1972, Steinem wrote for the newly launched Ms . magazine, “Black women come out stronger on just about every feminist issue, whether it is voting for a woman candidate, ending violence and militarism, or believing that women are just as rational as men and have more human values.”

The same article by Steinem forecasted, “We’ve been delivering our votes [and] now women want something in return. Nineteen seventy-two is just the beginning …” And in many ways, it was. That year, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) handily passed the U.S. Senate and seemed destined for swift ratification. Chisolm’s public service—as the first Black Congresswoman, followed by her groundbreaking 1972 presidential campaign—altered the discourse about whether “White Male Only” remained a qualifier to lead the nation. And by January 1973, the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, affirming a constitutional right to abortion.

Read More: Women's Equality Day Is a Reminder That the Fight for Women’s Rights Didn’t End With the 19th Amendment

Fast forward half a century, and Vice President Kamala Harris shattered the White House glass ceiling. Women’s overall leadership on Capitol Hill has continued to climb, reaching an all-time high in the 118th Congress—just over 28% (149 members). In the House, women broke records in the 2022 midterms, with 124 now serving, 27 of whom are Black and 18 are Latin. Women now comprise nearly a third of all legislators and elected executives, including a record 12 serving as governor.

And still, the U.S. remains far from achieving fully representative governance compared to women’s actual population footprint; this is especially so for women of color. The U.S.  pales  in comparison to women’s political authority in much of the world, too, including among peer democracies.

As for the other advances on the 1972 agenda? The ERA remains unfinished business and is still not enshrined in the Constitution. And Roe was overturned on June 24, 2022 by the Supreme Court’s new conservative supermajority in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization .

Backlash to the ERA, and the very text of the Dobbs decision, crudely distort the principles undergirding Women’s Equality Day and the goals of the NWPC. Justice Samuel Alito, who authored the majority opinion for Dobbs , claimed women’s political advancement itself is an antidote to the Court’s reversal of a fundamental right. Of this, he wrote, “Women are not without electoral or political power. It is noteworthy that the percentage of women who register to vote and cast ballots is consistently higher than the percentage of men who do so.”

Yes, women are now doing exactly that: running for office on, and voting consistently, overwhelmingly, and successfully for abortion rights everywhere the issue has appeared on the ballot since Dobbs . But there are obvious flaws in Justice Alito’s appeal to women’s electoral and political power—and, for that matter, to the NWPC’s founding documents—suggesting gender parity alone should be a singular or even sufficient metric for achieving feminist goals.

It is exponentially hard to out-run and out-vote anti-democratic maneuvers like partisan gerrymandering, voter suppression—or, as we just saw in Ohio, an attempt to raise the threshold for winning a citizen-led ballot initiative as a way to stymie abortion rights. (The Ohio measure was soundly defeated on August 8 in a special election.) These are not examples of one-off transgressions or piecemeal degradation of our democratic systems, but rather deliberate and systemic mechanisms for defying the popular will. It is why decidedly anti-feminist policy outcomes persist, like book bans in the name of parental rights or the maddening inability to advance common sense gun safety measures. It is how 14 state legislatures succeeded in outlawing abortion since Dobbs , despite public polling in favor of abortion rights reaching record highs .

Women’s Equality Day was initially a way to express the belief that, as noted in public policy scholars Zoe Marks and Erica Chenoweth's 2023 article in Ms . , a democracy in which "half the population is subordinated—politically, socially, economically—is not a true democracy at all." 50 years later, we must be clear that women’s autonomy, well-being, and rights are inextricably tied to the integrity and durability of our democratic systems.

As we look ahead, two states , Michigan and Minnesota, offer hope. Both have committed to reforms that increase voter participation, fair representation, and direct democracy; in turn, both have seen feminist priorities thrive, from codifying reproductive care and establishing green energy goals, to expanding paid family leave and protecting trans youth.

As we trace the 50-year arc of Women’s Equality Day, among the lessons we might glean today: women’s voices and votes surely matter, transformative change is possible—and the fight for robust democracy is, at its core, a central and urgent feminist goal.

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Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Introduction to feminism, topics: what is feminism.

  • Introduction
  • What is Feminism?  
  • Historical Context
  • Normative and Descriptive Components
  • Feminism and the Diversity of Women
  • Feminism as Anti-Sexism
  • Topics in Feminism: Overview of the Sub-Entries

Bibliography

Works cited.

  • General Bibliography [under construction]
  • Topical Bibliographies [under construction]

Other Internet Resources

Related entries, i.  introduction, ii.  what is feminism, a.  historical context, b.  normative and descriptive components.

i) (Normative) Men and women are entitled to equal rights and respect. ii) (Descriptive) Women are currently disadvantaged with respect to rights and respect, compared with men.
Feminism is grounded on the belief that women are oppressed or disadvantaged by comparison with men, and that their oppression is in some way illegitimate or unjustified. Under the umbrella of this general characterization there are, however, many interpretations of women and their oppression, so that it is a mistake to think of feminism as a single philosophical doctrine, or as implying an agreed political program. (James 2000, 576)

C.  Feminism and the Diversity of Women

Feminism, as liberation struggle, must exist apart from and as a part of the larger struggle to eradicate domination in all its forms. We must understand that patriarchal domination shares an ideological foundation with racism and other forms of group oppression, and that there is no hope that it can be eradicated while these systems remain intact. This knowledge should consistently inform the direction of feminist theory and practice. (hooks 1989, 22)
Unlike many feminist comrades, I believe women and men must share a common understanding--a basic knowledge of what feminism is--if it is ever to be a powerful mass-based political movement. In Feminist Theory: from margin to center, I suggest that defining feminism broadly as "a movement to end sexism and sexist oppression" would enable us to have a common political goal…Sharing a common goal does not imply that women and men will not have radically divergent perspectives on how that goal might be reached. (hooks 1989, 23)
…no woman is subject to any form of oppression simply because she is a woman; which forms of oppression she is subject to depend on what "kind" of woman she is. In a world in which a woman might be subject to racism, classism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, if she is not so subject it is because of her race, class, religion, sexual orientation. So it can never be the case that the treatment of a woman has only to do with her gender and nothing to do with her class or race. (Spelman 1988, 52-3)

D.  Feminism as Anti-Sexism

 i) (Descriptive claim) Women, and those who appear to be women, are subjected to wrongs and/or injustice at least in part because they are or appear to be women. ii) (Normative claim) The wrongs/injustices in question in (i) ought not to occur and should be stopped when and where they do.

III.  Topics in Feminism: Overview of the Sub-Entries

  • Alexander, M. Jacqui and Lisa Albrecht, eds.  1998. The Third Wave: Feminist Perspectives on Racism.  New York: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press.
  • Anderson, Elizabeth.  1999a.  “What is the Point of Equality?”  Ethics 109(2): 287-337.
  • ______.  1999b.  "Reply” Brown Electronic Article Review Service, Jamie Dreier and David Estlund, editors, World Wide Web, (http://www.brown.edu/Departments/Philosophy/bears/homepage.html), Posted 12/22/99.
  • Anzaldúa, Gloria, ed. 1990. Making Face, Making Soul: Haciendo Caras.  San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books.
  • Baier, Annette C.  1994.  Moral Prejudices: Essays on Ethics.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Barrett, Michèle.  1991. The Politics of Truth: From Marx to Foucault. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Bartky, Sandra. 1990.  “Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power.” In her Femininity and Domination. New York: Routledge, 63-82.
  • Basu, Amrita. 1995. The Challenge of Local Feminisms: Women's Movements in Global Perspective.  Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  • Baumgardner, Jennifer and Amy Richards. 2000.  Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
  • Beauvoir, Simone de. 1974 (1952).  The Second Sex. Trans. and Ed. H. M. Parshley.  New York: Vintage Books.
  • Benhabib, Seyla.  1992.  Situating the Self: Gender, Community, and Postmodernism in Contemporary Ethics.   New York: Routledge.
  • Calhoun, Cheshire. 2000.  Feminism, the Family, and the Politics of the Closet: Lesbian and Gay Displacement.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • ______.  1989.  “Responsibility and Reproach.”  Ethics 99(2): 389-406.
  • Collins, Patricia Hill.  1990.  Black Feminist Thought. Boston, MA: Unwin Hyman.
  • Cott, Nancy.  1987.  The Grounding of Modern Feminism.  New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Crenshaw, Kimberlé. 1991. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.“ Stanford Law Review , 43(6): 1241-1299.
  • Crenshaw, Kimberlé, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller and Kendall Thomas. 1995.  “Introduction.” In Critical Race Theory, ed., Kimberle Crenshaw, et al. New York: The New Press, xiii-xxxii.Davis, Angela. 1983. Women, Race and Class.  New York: Random House.
  • Crow, Barbara.  2000.  Radical Feminism: A Documentary Reader.  New York: New York University Press.
  • Delmar, Rosalind.  2001. "What is Feminism?” In Theorizing Feminism, ed., Anne C. Hermann and Abigail J. Stewart.  Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 5-28.
  • Duplessis, Rachel Blau, and Ann Snitow, eds. 1998. The Feminist Memoir Project: Voices from Women's Liberation.  New York: Random House (Crown Publishing).
  • Dutt, M.  1998.  "Reclaiming a Human Rights Culture: Feminism of Difference and Alliance." In Talking Visions: Multicultural Feminism in a Transnational Age , ed., Ella Shohat. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 225-246.
  • Echols, Alice. 1990.  Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967-75.   Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Engels, Friedrich.  1972 (1845).  The Origin of The Family, Private Property, and the State.   New York: International Publishers.
  • Findlen, Barbara. 2001. Listen Up: Voices from the Next Feminist Generation, 2nd edition.  Seattle, WA: Seal Press.
  • Fine, Michelle and Adrienne Asch, eds. 1988. Women with Disabilities: Essays in Psychology, Culture, and Politics. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  • Fraser, Nancy and Linda Nicholson.  1990.  "Social Criticism Without Philosophy: An Encounter Between Feminism and Postmodernism." In Feminism/Postmodernism, ed., Linda Nicholson. New York: Routledge.
  • Friedan, Betty.  1963. The Feminine Mystique.   New York: Norton.
  • Frye, Marilyn.  1983. The Politics of Reality.  Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press.
  • Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. 1997.  Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Grewal, I. 1998.  "On the New Global Feminism and the Family of Nations: Dilemmas of Transnational Feminist Practice."  In Talking Visions: Multicultural Feminism in a Transnational Age, ed., Ella Shohat.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 501-530.
  • Hampton, Jean.  1993. “Feminist Contractarianism,” in Louise M. Antony and Charlotte Witt, eds. A Mind of One’s Own: Feminist Essays on Reason and Objectivity,  Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  • Haslanger, Sally. Forthcoming. “Oppressions: Racial and Other.”  In Racism, Philosophy and Mind: Philosophical Explanations of Racism and Its Implications, ed., Michael Levine and Tamas Pataki.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
  • Held, Virginia. 1993. Feminist Morality: Transforming Culture, Society, and Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Herrman, Anne C. and Abigail J. Stewart, eds. 1994.  Theorizing Feminism: Parallel Trends in the Humanities and Social Sciences.  Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  • Heywood, Leslie and Jennifer Drake, eds. 1997.  Third Wave Agenda: Being Feminist, Doing Feminism. 
  • Hillyer, Barbara. 1993.  Feminism and Disability. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.
  • Hoagland, Sarah L.  1989. Lesbian Ethics: Toward New Values.   Palo Alto, CA: Institute for Lesbian Studies.
  • Hooks, bell. 1989. Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black.  Boston: South End Press.
  • ______.  1984. Feminist Theory from Margin to Center.  Boston: South End Press.
  • ______. 1981.  Ain't I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism.   Boston: South End Press.
  • Hurtado, Aída.  1996.  The Color of Privilege: Three Blasphemies on Race and Feminism. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  • Jagger, Alison M.  1983.  Feminist Politics and Human Nature.  Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
  • James, Susan. 2000.  “Feminism in Philosophy of Mind: The Question of Personal Identity.” In The Cambridge Companion to Feminism in Philosophy, ed., Miranda Fricker and Jennifer Hornsby.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Kiss, Elizabeth. 1995.  "Feminism and Rights." Dissent 42(3): 342-347
  • Kittay, Eva Feder.  1999.  Love’s Labor: Essays on Women, Equality and Dependency. New York: Routledge.
  • Kymlicka, Will.  1989. Liberalism, Community and Culture. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Mackenzie, Catriona and Natalie Stoljar, eds.  2000.  Relational Autonomy: Feminist perspectives on Autonomy, Agency and the Social Self.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • MacKinnon, Catharine.  1989.  Towards a Feminist Theory of the State.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • ______.  1987. Feminism Unmodified.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Mohanty, Chandra, Ann Russo, and Lourdes Torres, eds.  1991.  Third  World Women and the Politics of Feminism.    Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Molyneux, Maxine and Nikki Craske, eds. 2001. Gender and the Politics of Rights and Democracy in Latin America. Basingstoke: Palgrave McMillan.
  • Moody-Adams, Michele. 1997.  Fieldwork in Familiar Places: Morality, Culture and Philosophy.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Moraga, Cherrie.  2000. "From a Long Line of Vendidas: Chicanas and Feminism." In her Loving in the War Years, 2nd edition.  Boston: South End Press.
  • Moraga, Cherrie and Gloria Anzaldúa, eds. 1981.  This Bridge Called My Back: Writings of Radical Women of Color. Watertown, MA: Persephone Press.
  • Narayan, Uma.  1997.  Dislocating Cultures: Identities, Traditions, and Third World Feminism.   New York: Routledge.
  • Nussbaum, Martha. 1995.  "Human Capabilities, Female Human Beings." In Women, Culture and Development : A Study of Human Capabilities, ed., Martha Nussbaum and Jonathan Glover.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 61-104.
  • _______.  1999.  Sex and Social Justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • O’Brien, Mary.  1979.  “Reproducing Marxist Man.”  In The Sexism of Social and Political Theory: Women and Reproduction from Plato to Nietzsche, ed., Lorenne M. G. Clark and Lynda Lange.  Toronto: Toronto University Press, 99-116.  Reprinted in (Tuana and Tong 1995: 91-103).
  • Ong, Aihwa.  1988. "Colonialism and Modernity: Feminist Re-presentation of Women in Non-Western Societies.” Inscriptions 3(4): 90. Also in (Herrman and Stewart 1994).
  • Okin, Susan Moller. 1989.  Justice, Gender, and the Family.  New York: Basic Books.
  • ______.  1979.  Women in Western Political Thought.   Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Pateman, Carole.  1988.  The Sexual Contract.    Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Reagon, Bernice Johnson. 1983. "Coalition Politics: Turning the Century." In: Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, ed. Barbara Smith. New York: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 356-368.
  • Robinson, Fiona.  1999.  Globalizing Care: Ethics, Feminist Theory, and International Affairs. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  • Rubin, Gayle.  1975.  “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the “Political Economy” of Sex.”  In Towards an Anthropology of Women , ed., Rayna Rapp Reiter.  New York: Monthly Review Press, 157-210.
  • Ruddick, Sara. 1989.  Maternal Thinking: Towards a Politics of Peace.  Boston: Beacon Press.
  • Schneir, Miriam, ed. 1994. Feminism in Our Time: The Essential Writings, World War II to the Present.  New York: Vintage Books.
  • ______.  1972.  Feminism: The Essential Historical Writings. New York: Vintage Books.
  • Scott, Joan W. 1988.  “Deconstructing Equality-Versus-Difference: or The Uses of Poststructuralist Theory for Feminism.” Feminist Studies 14 (1):  33-50.
  • Silvers, Anita, David Wasserman, Mary Mahowald. 1999.   Disability, Difference, Discrimination: Perspectives on Justice in Bioethics and Public Policy . Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield.
  • Simpson, J. A. and E. S. C. Weiner, ed., 1989. Oxford English Dictionary.   2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press. OED Online. Oxford University Press.  “feminism, n1” (1851).
  • Snitow, Ann.  1990.  “A Gender Diary.”  In Conflicts in Feminism, ed. M. Hirsch and E. Fox Keller.  New York: Routledge, 9-43.
  • Spelman, Elizabeth.  1988. The Inessential Woman.   Boston: Beacon Press.
  • Tanner, Leslie B.  1970  Voices From Women's Liberation.   New York:  New American Library (A Mentor Book).
  • Taylor, Vesta and Leila J. Rupp.  1996. "Lesbian Existence and the Women's Movement: Researching the 'Lavender Herring'."  In Feminism and Social Change , ed. Heidi Gottfried.  Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press.
  • Tong, Rosemarie.  1993.  Feminine and Feminist Ethics.   Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
  • Tuana, Nancy and Rosemarie Tong, eds. 1995.  Feminism and Philosophy. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  • Walker, Alice. 1990. “Definition of Womanist,” In Making Face, Making Soul: Haciendo Caras , ed., Gloria Anzaldúa.  San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 370.
  • Walker, Margaret Urban.  1998. Moral Understandings: A Feminist Study in Ethics. New York: Routledge.
  • ______, ed. 1999.  Mother Time: Women, Aging, and Ethics. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
  • Walker, Rebecca, ed. 1995. To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism.   New York: Random House (Anchor Books).
  • Ware, Cellestine.  1970.  Woman Power: The Movement for Women’s Liberation .  New York: Tower Publications.
  • Weisberg, D. Kelly, ed.  1993.  Feminist Legal Theory: Foundations.  Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  • Wendell, Susan. 1996. The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability. New York and London: Routledge.
  • Young, Iris. 1990a. "Humanism, Gynocentrism and Feminist Politics."  In Throwing Like A Girl. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 73-91.
  • Young, Iris. 1990b.  “Socialist Feminism and the Limits of Dual Systems Theory.”  In her Throwing Like a Girl and Other Essays in Feminist Philosophy and Social Theory . Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
  • ______.  1990c.  Justice and the Politics of Difference.   Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Zophy, Angela Howard. 1990.  "Feminism."  In The Handbook of American Women's History , ed., Angela Howard Zophy and Frances M. Kavenik.  New York: Routledge (Garland Reference Library of the Humanities).

General Bibliography

Topical bibliographies.

  • Feminist Theory Website
  • Race, Gender, and Affirmative Action Resource Page
  • Documents from the Women's Liberation Movement (Duke Univ. Archives)
  • Core Reading Lists in Women's Studies (Assn of College and Research Libraries, WS Section)
  • Feminist and Women's Journals
  • Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy
  • Feminist Internet Search Utilities
  • National Council for Research on Women (including links to centers for research on women and affiliate organizations, organized by research specialties)
  • Feminism and Class
  • Marxist, Socialist, and Materialist Feminisms
  • M-Fem (information page, discussion group, links, etc.)
  • WMST-L discussion of how to define “marxist feminism” Aug 1994)
  • Marxist/Materialist Feminism (Feminist Theory Website)
  • MatFem   (Information page, discussion group)
  • Feminist Economics
  • Feminist Economics (Feminist Theory Website)
  • International Association for Feminist Economics
  • Feminist Political Economy and the Law (2001 Conference Proceedings, York Univ.)
  • Journal for the International Association for Feminist Economics
  • Feminism and Disability
  • World Wide Web Review: Women and Disabilities Websites
  • Disability and Feminism Resource Page
  • Center for Research on Women with Disabilities (CROWD)
  • Interdisciplinary Bibliography on Disability in the Humanities (Part of the American Studies Crossroads Project)
  • Feminism and Human Rights, Global Feminism
  • World Wide Web Review: Websites on Women and Human Rights
  • International Gender Studies Resources (U.C. Berkeley)
  • Global Feminisms Research Resources (Vassar Library)
  • Global Feminism (Feminist Majority Foundation)
  • NOW and Global Feminism
  • United Nations Development Fund for Women
  • Global Issues Resources
  • Sisterhood is Global Institute (SIGI)
  • Feminism and Race/Ethnicity
  • General Resources
  • WMST-L discussion on “Women of Color and the Women’s Movement” (5 Parts) Sept/Oct 2000)
  • Women of Color Resources (Princeton U. Library)
  • Core Readings in Women's Studies: Women of Color (Assn. of College and Research Libraries, WS Section)
  • Women of Color Resource Sites
  • African-American/Black Feminisms and Womanism
  • African-American/Black/Womanist Feminism on the Web
  • Black Feminist and Womanist Identity Bibliography (Univ. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Library)
  • The Womanist Studies Consortium (Univ. of Georgia)
  • Black Feminist/Womanist Works: A Beginning List (WMST-L)
  • African-American Women Online Archival Collection (Duke U.)
  • Asian-American and Asian Feminisms
  • Asian American Feminism (Feminist Theory Website)
  • Asian-American Women Bibliography (Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe)
  • American Women's History: A Research Guide (Asian-American Women)
  • South Asian Women's Studies Bibliography (U.C. Berkeley)
  • Journal of South Asia Women's Studies
  • Chicana/Latina Feminisms
  • Bibliography on Chicana Feminism (Cal State, Long Beach Library)
  • Making Face, Making Soul: A Chicana Feminist Website
  • Defining Chicana Feminisms, In Their Own Words
  • CLNet's Chicana Studies Homepage (UCLA)
  • Chicana Related Bibliographies (CLNet)
  • American Indian, Native, Indigenous Feminisms
  • Native American Feminism (Feminist Theory Website)
  • Bibliography on American Indian Gender Roles and Relations
  • Bibliography on American Indian Feminism
  • Bibliography on American Indian Gay/Lesbian Topics
  • Links on Aboriginal Women and Feminism
  • Feminism, Sex, and Sexuality
  • 1970's Lesbian Feminism (Ohio State Univ., Women's Studies)
  • The Lesbian History Project
  • History of Sexuality Resources (Duke Special Collections)
  • Lesbian Studies Bibliography (Assn. of College and Research Libraries)
  • Lesbian Feminism/Lesbian Philosophy
  • Society for Lesbian and Gay Philosophy Internet Resources
  • QueerTheory.com
  • World Wide Web Review: Webs of Transgender

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Feminism: The Second Wave

feminism in the us essay

FEMINISM : The Second Wave

feminism in the us essay

The Second Wave

After the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920, which granted women the right to vote, the first wave of feminism slowed down significantly. Although many of these activists continued to fight for women’s rights, the next sustained feminist movement is believed to have started in the 1960s. Much like the first wave that developed during a period of social reform, the second wave also took place amidst other social and political movements.

feminism in the us essay

The Predecessor

In between the first and the second wave, French feminist author Simone de Beauvoir published a foundational book that set the tone for the next surge of women’s rights activism. Published in 1949, her book entitled “The Second Sex,” provided extensive definitions of womanhood and outlined how women have historically been treated as second to men. Originally published in France, “The Second Sex” quickly became a phenomenon and was published in the United States in 1953. Beauvoir was not only a feminist writer, but she was also considered a philosopher because her writings often answered complex and philosophical questions. In “The Second Sex,” she questions, “What is a woman?” Ultimately, she determined that “one is not born but becomes a woman.

feminism in the us essay

The Instigator

Ten years after “The Second Sex” was published in the United States, American feminist writer Betty Friedan helped ignite the second feminist wave with her book “The Feminine Mystique.” Released in 1963, Friedan builds on the foundation of Simone de Beauvoir’s work. However, Friedan not only employed philosophical thought to discuss feminism, she also incorporated oral histories and her personal experiences to address the issues many women were facing. Friedan first began by researching the role of women in society to see if other women shared her feelings of dissatisfaction and “malaise” as housewives. To her surprise, she was not alone, and her interviews became the source material for her first book.

feminism in the us essay

In the mid-1950s, Friedan found herself as a stay-at-home housewife after a long career as a journalist, writer, and activist. When she got married and had children, Friedan left her career and moved to the suburbs with her family. Even though she continued writing freelance, she soon realized that she was unhappy solely as a housewife. However, she felt the societal pressure to find ultimate happiness as a mother and a homemaker. In 1957 at her 15-year Smith College reunion, Friedan surveyed her classmates and found that they also were unhappy being confined to the home.

For the next five years, Friedan conducted interviews with white middle-class women who were grappling with their roles as housewives. She published her findings in “The Feminine Mystique,” and instantly became a household name. In her book she criticized the separate “sphere” of motherhood and homemaking that women were relegated to. In contrast, men were allowed to flourish in the “male sphere” of work, politics, and power. Friedan’s book encouraged women to step outside of their “sphere,” and fight gender oppression, which she called “the problem that has no name.”

feminism in the us essay

The Movement Begins

Friedan’s book sold over three million copies within the first three years and quickly fueled a resurgence of the feminist movement. Middle-class women across the country began to organize to advocate for women’s social and political equality. The same year “The Feminine Mystique” was published, President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act of 1963 into law. The new legislation stipulated that women could no longer be paid less than men for doing “comparable work” at the same job. This Act was the result of a group of women in the White House, lead by labor activist Esther Peterson. Peterson was appointed as the head of the Women's Bureau in the Department of Labor in 1961. She convinced President Kennedy to establish a Presidential Commission on the Status of Women to work towards achieving equality. The commission included revolutionary women such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Dorothy Height. After collaborating with the commission, Peterson submitted a draft of the Equal Pay Act to congress on behalf of the Kennedy administration.

“Public service announcement (PSA) informing viewers of their rights under the equal pay law.”

feminism in the us essay

Following the Equal Pay Act of 1963, two more legal victories propelled the fight for women’s rights forward. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Griswold v. Connecticut Supreme Court ruling of 1965 both secured rights for some feminists and encouraged them to continue to advocate for women’s equality.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prevented employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of race, religion, sex, or national origin. In addition to the Civil Rights Act, the Griswold v. Connecticut Supreme Court ruling of 1965 prevented anyone from limiting a woman’s access to contraception or other methods of birth control. This case would be used in the famous Roe v. Wade decision, protecting a woman’s right to have an abortion in 1973.

These legal victories gave some women more autonomy in both public and private life. However, many women of color were still disenfranchised.

feminism in the us essay

The Women's Liberation Movement

Early in the second wave, feminist writer Gloria Steinem gained national attention by going undercover as a Playboy Bunny. Her exposé called “A Bunny's Tale,” highlighted the sexism and low wages that women faced in these clubs. Steinem went on to become one of the most recognizable leaders of the second wave. She co-founded both “New York” and “Ms.” magazines and covered political issues ranging from abortion to rape. Steinem first spoke publicly in 1969 at an event to legalize abortion in New York State. Shortly afterwards, she began writing and publishing books that would influence a generation of feminists. Her publications accompanied a host of other feminist work that was published during the period that became the women’s liberation movement. Some of these books include; Kate Millett’s “Sexual Politics” in 1969, Juliet Mitchell’s “The Subjection of Women” in 1970, and Shulamith Firestone’s “The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution” in 1970.

feminism in the us essay

In 1972, Steinem teamed up with Betty Friedan and other activists such as Congresswoman Bella Abzug and Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm to form the National Women’s Political Caucus. This caucus was established to support gender equality and ensure proper women’s representation in political office. At the founding meeting, Steinem delivered a speech entitled “Address to the Women of America,” where she called for a women’s revolution.

That same year, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) proposed by Alice Paul in 1923 finally passed in Congress. Unfortunately, this amendment guaranteeing equal constitutional rights for women failed to be ratified in 38 states within seven years. Supporters of the ERA continue to fight for it’s ratification today.

feminism in the us essay

The Civil Rights Movement

When the second wave of feminism began, the Civil Rights Movement was already in full swing. After emancipation, African American men and women still had to fight against racism, violence, and segregation to exercise their basic human rights. In addition, even after the ratification of the 19th Amendment ensuring that both men and women were able to vote, African American men and women were still restricted from voting by Jim Crow laws, literacy tests, and grandfather-clauses. As the second surge of feminism grew, African American women were once again fighting for their rights as women, alongside their fight for freedom from racial oppression.

feminism in the us essay

In 1969, Frances M. Beal published “Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female,” detailing the experiences of African American women during the feminist movement. Her essay specifically noted the exploitation of black women in society and the different struggles between white and “non-white” feminists.

That same year, Betty Friedan stepped down as president of the organization she co-founded called the National Organization for Women (NOW). Although the organization was racially inclusive, the concerns of black women were frequently sidelined. For example, Friedan and some of the African American members clashed over Friedan’s use of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to advocate for more jobs for middle-class white women, when many African American men and women faced racially motivated job discrimination and lived below the poverty line. By the time Friedan stepped down in 1969, African American women had already started forming their own feminist organizations.

feminism in the us essay

By the 1970s, black women were convening as separate feminist organizations starting with the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO) in 1973. The Combahee River Collective formed in 1974 for a similar purpose, but they also focused on issues of sexuality that were often left out. Their statement notes, “we are committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression…” and the way those systems of oppression intersect.

As these women pursued their collective goals, revolutionary scholar and activist Angela Davis began publishing articles and books that would contribute to the foundation of the “Black Feminist” movement. She published an article on the harmful stereotypes of black women in society in 1972 and then followed that with her book entitled, “Women, Race & Class” in 1981. The Combahee River Collective and “Women, Race & Class” both provided a solid foundation for future feminists to study various forms of oppression.

feminism in the us essay

Rethinking Feminism

”Although the women’s movement motivated hundreds of women to write on the woman question, it failed to generate in-depth critical analyses of the black female experience.” --bell hooks in “Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism”

feminism in the us essay

Also writing in 1981, author Gloria Jean Watkins, known as “bell hooks,” published “Ain’t I A Woman? Black Women and Feminism.” Her book provides an analysis of the current movement and a critique of mainstream feminism for excluding the concerns of black women in their overall fight for equality. Instead, she provides an inclusive method for activism through black feminism. She states, “although the focus is on the black female, our struggle for liberation has significance only if it takes place within a feminist movement that has as its fundamental goal the liberation of all people.”

After her pioneering work, many feminist writings followed that addressed the concerns and activism of women of color. One of these books was “This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color” edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa in 1981. This work included several writings from black, Native American, Asian American, and Latina women feminists that advocated for their rights in the white-dominated feminist movement.

feminism in the us essay

Although many African American women identified with hooks’ writing, Alice Walker introduced a new variation of black feminism called “womanism.” Coined by Walker in her 1983 book “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose,” Walker introduces readers to womanism through a collection of personal and political essays. Developed from the African American cultural significance of the word “womanish,” Walker writes that a womanist is “committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female. Not a separatist, except periodically, for health.”

Womanism is closely aligned with black feminism and many people use the two terms interchangeably. Walker herself notes that the womanist is “a black feminist or feminist of color.” However, Walker also says: “Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.” With this analogy, Walker reminds her audience that there are many different forms and shades of feminism. Walker’s novel “The Color Purple” also became a film directed by Steven Spielberg, featuring Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg.

feminism in the us essay

The Gay Rights Movement

Women of color weren’t the only group fighting for their voice in the larger feminist movement. During the 1960s, the gay rights movement also gained momentum as participants advocated for equal rights and unbiased information about homosexuality. The first gay rights demonstrations were held in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. as early as 1965. However, the riots at the Stonewall bar in 1969 marked a shift in LGBTQ activism. Starting on June 28, 1969, customers of the Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village fought against targeted and frequent police raids.

feminism in the us essay

As the movement progressed, lesbian women had concerns that were not addressed by gay rights activism. Many of these women decided to leave the male leadership of that movement to form their own lesbian organizations. These women advocated for gay rights, as well as feminist rights within organizations like Betty Friedan’s National Organization for Women (NOW). Unfortunately, many of these mainstream feminists rejected their participation. Lesbian women protested their treatment, including a demonstration at the Second Congress to Unite Women in 1970. These women called themselves the “Radicalesbians” and they read their declaration called “The Woman-Identified Woman” to the attendees. The very next year, the NOW adopted a resolution recognizing lesbian rights, and in 1973 they established the NOW Task Force on Sexuality and Lesbianism. Simultaneously, Lesbians of color like Audre Lorde started writing about their particular experiences. Lorde published "Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches" in 1984.

feminism in the us essay

Bra Burning Women

The second wave of the feminist movement is not only known for the tensions between various streams of feminism. This wave is also heavily associated with the “bra-burning” protest of 1968. Although no bra-burning actually occurred, this myth continues to follow the women’s liberation movement. This rumor came from the 1968 Miss America Pageant protest in Atlantic City, New Jersey. On September 7, 1968 a few hundred women interrupted the live broadcast of the Miss America Pageant to protest beauty standards and the objectification of women. These women threw bras, high heels, Playboy magazines, and other symbolic feminine products into a “Freedom Trash Can.” Although the women did not actually ignite a fire, a reporter compared their actions to Vietnam war protesters that would burn their draft cards. This idea of bra-burning feminists followed the movement ever since and contributed to the stereotype of feminists as angry and “man-hating.”

feminism in the us essay

By the late 1970s, the second wave of feminism began to lose steam. As multiple sub-groups created new organizations for themselves, other debates within feminism grew. One of the key debates was over pornography and sexual activity. Many feminists decided between being “anti-porn feminists” or “sex-positive feminists.” These debates accelerated an already dwindling larger movement. By the early 1980s, the second wave came to a close and a large-scale feminist movement would not return for another decade.

Exhibit written and curated by Kerri Lee Alexander, NWHM Fellow 2018-2020

Davis, Angela Yvonne. Women, Race & Class. London: Womens Press, 1986.

D’Emilio, John. “After Stonewall.” Queer Cultures. Eds. Deborah Carlin and Jennifer DiGrazia. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2004. 3-35.

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013.

Gay, Roxane. “Fifty Years Ago, Protesters Took on the Miss America Pageant and Electrified the Feminist Movement.” Smithsonian.com, January 1, 2018. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/fifty-years-ago-protestors-took-on-miss-america-pageant-electrified-feminist-movement-180967504/.

hooks, bell. Aint I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. New York: Routledge, 2015. Pp. 12

Lee, Jennifer. “Feminism Has a Bra-Burning Myth Problem.” Time Magazine, June 12, 2014. https://time.com/2853184/feminism-has-a-bra-burning-myth-problem/.

Love, Barbara J. Feminists Who Changed America, 1963-1975. University of Illinois Press, 2006.

Morris, Catherine, Rujeko Hockley, Connie H. Choi, Carmen Hermo, and Stephanie Weissberg. We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-85: a Sourcebook. Brooklyn, NY: Brooklyn Museum, 2017.

Morris, Bonnie J. “History of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Social Movements.” American Psychological Association, 2009. https://www.apa.org/pi/lgbt/resources/history.

Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Motherss Gardens: Womanist Prose. San Diego: Harvest, 1984. Pp. xii

Essay on Feminism

500 words essay on feminism.

Feminism is a social and political movement that advocates for the rights of women on the grounds of equality of sexes. It does not deny the biological differences between the sexes but demands equality in opportunities. It covers everything from social and political to economic arenas. In fact, feminist campaigns have been a crucial part of history in women empowerment. The feminist campaigns of the twentieth century made the right to vote, public property, work and education possible. Thus, an essay on feminism will discuss its importance and impact.

essay on feminism

Importance of Feminism

Feminism is not just important for women but for every sex, gender, caste, creed and more. It empowers the people and society as a whole. A very common misconception is that only women can be feminists.

It is absolutely wrong but feminism does not just benefit women. It strives for equality of the sexes, not the superiority of women. Feminism takes the gender roles which have been around for many years and tries to deconstruct them.

This allows people to live freely and empower lives without getting tied down by traditional restrictions. In other words, it benefits women as well as men. For instance, while it advocates that women must be free to earn it also advocates that why should men be the sole breadwinner of the family? It tries to give freedom to all.

Most importantly, it is essential for young people to get involved in the feminist movement. This way, we can achieve faster results. It is no less than a dream to live in a world full of equality.

Thus, we must all look at our own cultures and communities for making this dream a reality. We have not yet reached the result but we are on the journey, so we must continue on this mission to achieve successful results.

Impact of Feminism

Feminism has had a life-changing impact on everyone, especially women. If we look at history, we see that it is what gave women the right to vote. It was no small feat but was achieved successfully by women.

Further, if we look at modern feminism, we see how feminism involves in life-altering campaigns. For instance, campaigns that support the abortion of unwanted pregnancy and reproductive rights allow women to have freedom of choice.

Moreover, feminism constantly questions patriarchy and strives to renounce gender roles. It allows men to be whoever they wish to be without getting judged. It is not taboo for men to cry anymore because they must be allowed to express themselves freely.

Similarly, it also helps the LGBTQ community greatly as it advocates for their right too. Feminism gives a place for everyone and it is best to practice intersectional feminism to understand everyone’s struggle.

Get the huge list of more than 500 Essay Topics and Ideas

Conclusion of the Essay on Feminism

The key message of feminism must be to highlight the choice in bringing personal meaning to feminism. It is to recognize other’s right for doing the same thing. The sad part is that despite feminism being a strong movement, there are still parts of the world where inequality and exploitation of women take places. Thus, we must all try to practice intersectional feminism.

FAQ of Essay on Feminism

Question 1: What are feminist beliefs?

Answer 1: Feminist beliefs are the desire for equality between the sexes. It is the belief that men and women must have equal rights and opportunities. Thus, it covers everything from social and political to economic equality.

Question 2: What started feminism?

Answer 2: The first wave of feminism occurred in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It emerged out of an environment of urban industrialism and liberal, socialist politics. This wave aimed to open up new doors for women with a focus on suffrage.

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Feminist Perspectives on Sex and Gender

Feminism is said to be the movement to end women’s oppression (hooks 2000, 26). One possible way to understand ‘woman’ in this claim is to take it as a sex term: ‘woman’ picks out human females and being a human female depends on various biological and anatomical features (like genitalia). Historically many feminists have understood ‘woman’ differently: not as a sex term, but as a gender term that depends on social and cultural factors (like social position). In so doing, they distinguished sex (being female or male) from gender (being a woman or a man), although most ordinary language users appear to treat the two interchangeably. In feminist philosophy, this distinction has generated a lively debate. Central questions include: What does it mean for gender to be distinct from sex, if anything at all? How should we understand the claim that gender depends on social and/or cultural factors? What does it mean to be gendered woman, man, or genderqueer? This entry outlines and discusses distinctly feminist debates on sex and gender considering both historical and more contemporary positions.

1.1 Biological determinism

1.2 gender terminology, 2.1 gender socialisation, 2.2 gender as feminine and masculine personality, 2.3 gender as feminine and masculine sexuality, 3.1.1 particularity argument, 3.1.2 normativity argument, 3.2 is sex classification solely a matter of biology, 3.3 are sex and gender distinct, 3.4 is the sex/gender distinction useful, 4.1.1 gendered social series, 4.1.2 resemblance nominalism, 4.2.1 social subordination and gender, 4.2.2 gender uniessentialism, 4.2.3 gender as positionality, 5. beyond the binary, 6. conclusion, other internet resources, related entries, 1. the sex/gender distinction..

The terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ mean different things to different feminist theorists and neither are easy or straightforward to characterise. Sketching out some feminist history of the terms provides a helpful starting point.

Most people ordinarily seem to think that sex and gender are coextensive: women are human females, men are human males. Many feminists have historically disagreed and have endorsed the sex/ gender distinction. Provisionally: ‘sex’ denotes human females and males depending on biological features (chromosomes, sex organs, hormones and other physical features); ‘gender’ denotes women and men depending on social factors (social role, position, behaviour or identity). The main feminist motivation for making this distinction was to counter biological determinism or the view that biology is destiny.

A typical example of a biological determinist view is that of Geddes and Thompson who, in 1889, argued that social, psychological and behavioural traits were caused by metabolic state. Women supposedly conserve energy (being ‘anabolic’) and this makes them passive, conservative, sluggish, stable and uninterested in politics. Men expend their surplus energy (being ‘katabolic’) and this makes them eager, energetic, passionate, variable and, thereby, interested in political and social matters. These biological ‘facts’ about metabolic states were used not only to explain behavioural differences between women and men but also to justify what our social and political arrangements ought to be. More specifically, they were used to argue for withholding from women political rights accorded to men because (according to Geddes and Thompson) “what was decided among the prehistoric Protozoa cannot be annulled by Act of Parliament” (quoted from Moi 1999, 18). It would be inappropriate to grant women political rights, as they are simply not suited to have those rights; it would also be futile since women (due to their biology) would simply not be interested in exercising their political rights. To counter this kind of biological determinism, feminists have argued that behavioural and psychological differences have social, rather than biological, causes. For instance, Simone de Beauvoir famously claimed that one is not born, but rather becomes a woman, and that “social discrimination produces in women moral and intellectual effects so profound that they appear to be caused by nature” (Beauvoir 1972 [original 1949], 18; for more, see the entry on Simone de Beauvoir ). Commonly observed behavioural traits associated with women and men, then, are not caused by anatomy or chromosomes. Rather, they are culturally learned or acquired.

Although biological determinism of the kind endorsed by Geddes and Thompson is nowadays uncommon, the idea that behavioural and psychological differences between women and men have biological causes has not disappeared. In the 1970s, sex differences were used to argue that women should not become airline pilots since they will be hormonally unstable once a month and, therefore, unable to perform their duties as well as men (Rogers 1999, 11). More recently, differences in male and female brains have been said to explain behavioural differences; in particular, the anatomy of corpus callosum, a bundle of nerves that connects the right and left cerebral hemispheres, is thought to be responsible for various psychological and behavioural differences. For instance, in 1992, a Time magazine article surveyed then prominent biological explanations of differences between women and men claiming that women’s thicker corpus callosums could explain what ‘women’s intuition’ is based on and impair women’s ability to perform some specialised visual-spatial skills, like reading maps (Gorman 1992). Anne Fausto-Sterling has questioned the idea that differences in corpus callosums cause behavioural and psychological differences. First, the corpus callosum is a highly variable piece of anatomy; as a result, generalisations about its size, shape and thickness that hold for women and men in general should be viewed with caution. Second, differences in adult human corpus callosums are not found in infants; this may suggest that physical brain differences actually develop as responses to differential treatment. Third, given that visual-spatial skills (like map reading) can be improved by practice, even if women and men’s corpus callosums differ, this does not make the resulting behavioural differences immutable. (Fausto-Sterling 2000b, chapter 5).

In order to distinguish biological differences from social/psychological ones and to talk about the latter, feminists appropriated the term ‘gender’. Psychologists writing on transsexuality were the first to employ gender terminology in this sense. Until the 1960s, ‘gender’ was often used to refer to masculine and feminine words, like le and la in French. However, in order to explain why some people felt that they were ‘trapped in the wrong bodies’, the psychologist Robert Stoller (1968) began using the terms ‘sex’ to pick out biological traits and ‘gender’ to pick out the amount of femininity and masculinity a person exhibited. Although (by and large) a person’s sex and gender complemented each other, separating out these terms seemed to make theoretical sense allowing Stoller to explain the phenomenon of transsexuality: transsexuals’ sex and gender simply don’t match.

Along with psychologists like Stoller, feminists found it useful to distinguish sex and gender. This enabled them to argue that many differences between women and men were socially produced and, therefore, changeable. Gayle Rubin (for instance) uses the phrase ‘sex/gender system’ in order to describe “a set of arrangements by which the biological raw material of human sex and procreation is shaped by human, social intervention” (1975, 165). Rubin employed this system to articulate that “part of social life which is the locus of the oppression of women” (1975, 159) describing gender as the “socially imposed division of the sexes” (1975, 179). Rubin’s thought was that although biological differences are fixed, gender differences are the oppressive results of social interventions that dictate how women and men should behave. Women are oppressed as women and “by having to be women” (Rubin 1975, 204). However, since gender is social, it is thought to be mutable and alterable by political and social reform that would ultimately bring an end to women’s subordination. Feminism should aim to create a “genderless (though not sexless) society, in which one’s sexual anatomy is irrelevant to who one is, what one does, and with whom one makes love” (Rubin 1975, 204).

In some earlier interpretations, like Rubin’s, sex and gender were thought to complement one another. The slogan ‘Gender is the social interpretation of sex’ captures this view. Nicholson calls this ‘the coat-rack view’ of gender: our sexed bodies are like coat racks and “provide the site upon which gender [is] constructed” (1994, 81). Gender conceived of as masculinity and femininity is superimposed upon the ‘coat-rack’ of sex as each society imposes on sexed bodies their cultural conceptions of how males and females should behave. This socially constructs gender differences – or the amount of femininity/masculinity of a person – upon our sexed bodies. That is, according to this interpretation, all humans are either male or female; their sex is fixed. But cultures interpret sexed bodies differently and project different norms on those bodies thereby creating feminine and masculine persons. Distinguishing sex and gender, however, also enables the two to come apart: they are separable in that one can be sexed male and yet be gendered a woman, or vice versa (Haslanger 2000b; Stoljar 1995).

So, this group of feminist arguments against biological determinism suggested that gender differences result from cultural practices and social expectations. Nowadays it is more common to denote this by saying that gender is socially constructed. This means that genders (women and men) and gendered traits (like being nurturing or ambitious) are the “intended or unintended product[s] of a social practice” (Haslanger 1995, 97). But which social practices construct gender, what social construction is and what being of a certain gender amounts to are major feminist controversies. There is no consensus on these issues. (See the entry on intersections between analytic and continental feminism for more on different ways to understand gender.)

2. Gender as socially constructed

One way to interpret Beauvoir’s claim that one is not born but rather becomes a woman is to take it as a claim about gender socialisation: females become women through a process whereby they acquire feminine traits and learn feminine behaviour. Masculinity and femininity are thought to be products of nurture or how individuals are brought up. They are causally constructed (Haslanger 1995, 98): social forces either have a causal role in bringing gendered individuals into existence or (to some substantial sense) shape the way we are qua women and men. And the mechanism of construction is social learning. For instance, Kate Millett takes gender differences to have “essentially cultural, rather than biological bases” that result from differential treatment (1971, 28–9). For her, gender is “the sum total of the parents’, the peers’, and the culture’s notions of what is appropriate to each gender by way of temperament, character, interests, status, worth, gesture, and expression” (Millett 1971, 31). Feminine and masculine gender-norms, however, are problematic in that gendered behaviour conveniently fits with and reinforces women’s subordination so that women are socialised into subordinate social roles: they learn to be passive, ignorant, docile, emotional helpmeets for men (Millett 1971, 26). However, since these roles are simply learned, we can create more equal societies by ‘unlearning’ social roles. That is, feminists should aim to diminish the influence of socialisation.

Social learning theorists hold that a huge array of different influences socialise us as women and men. This being the case, it is extremely difficult to counter gender socialisation. For instance, parents often unconsciously treat their female and male children differently. When parents have been asked to describe their 24- hour old infants, they have done so using gender-stereotypic language: boys are describes as strong, alert and coordinated and girls as tiny, soft and delicate. Parents’ treatment of their infants further reflects these descriptions whether they are aware of this or not (Renzetti & Curran 1992, 32). Some socialisation is more overt: children are often dressed in gender stereotypical clothes and colours (boys are dressed in blue, girls in pink) and parents tend to buy their children gender stereotypical toys. They also (intentionally or not) tend to reinforce certain ‘appropriate’ behaviours. While the precise form of gender socialization has changed since the onset of second-wave feminism, even today girls are discouraged from playing sports like football or from playing ‘rough and tumble’ games and are more likely than boys to be given dolls or cooking toys to play with; boys are told not to ‘cry like a baby’ and are more likely to be given masculine toys like trucks and guns (for more, see Kimmel 2000, 122–126). [ 1 ]

According to social learning theorists, children are also influenced by what they observe in the world around them. This, again, makes countering gender socialisation difficult. For one, children’s books have portrayed males and females in blatantly stereotypical ways: for instance, males as adventurers and leaders, and females as helpers and followers. One way to address gender stereotyping in children’s books has been to portray females in independent roles and males as non-aggressive and nurturing (Renzetti & Curran 1992, 35). Some publishers have attempted an alternative approach by making their characters, for instance, gender-neutral animals or genderless imaginary creatures (like TV’s Teletubbies). However, parents reading books with gender-neutral or genderless characters often undermine the publishers’ efforts by reading them to their children in ways that depict the characters as either feminine or masculine. According to Renzetti and Curran, parents labelled the overwhelming majority of gender-neutral characters masculine whereas those characters that fit feminine gender stereotypes (for instance, by being helpful and caring) were labelled feminine (1992, 35). Socialising influences like these are still thought to send implicit messages regarding how females and males should act and are expected to act shaping us into feminine and masculine persons.

Nancy Chodorow (1978; 1995) has criticised social learning theory as too simplistic to explain gender differences (see also Deaux & Major 1990; Gatens 1996). Instead, she holds that gender is a matter of having feminine and masculine personalities that develop in early infancy as responses to prevalent parenting practices. In particular, gendered personalities develop because women tend to be the primary caretakers of small children. Chodorow holds that because mothers (or other prominent females) tend to care for infants, infant male and female psychic development differs. Crudely put: the mother-daughter relationship differs from the mother-son relationship because mothers are more likely to identify with their daughters than their sons. This unconsciously prompts the mother to encourage her son to psychologically individuate himself from her thereby prompting him to develop well defined and rigid ego boundaries. However, the mother unconsciously discourages the daughter from individuating herself thereby prompting the daughter to develop flexible and blurry ego boundaries. Childhood gender socialisation further builds on and reinforces these unconsciously developed ego boundaries finally producing feminine and masculine persons (1995, 202–206). This perspective has its roots in Freudian psychoanalytic theory, although Chodorow’s approach differs in many ways from Freud’s.

Gendered personalities are supposedly manifested in common gender stereotypical behaviour. Take emotional dependency. Women are stereotypically more emotional and emotionally dependent upon others around them, supposedly finding it difficult to distinguish their own interests and wellbeing from the interests and wellbeing of their children and partners. This is said to be because of their blurry and (somewhat) confused ego boundaries: women find it hard to distinguish their own needs from the needs of those around them because they cannot sufficiently individuate themselves from those close to them. By contrast, men are stereotypically emotionally detached, preferring a career where dispassionate and distanced thinking are virtues. These traits are said to result from men’s well-defined ego boundaries that enable them to prioritise their own needs and interests sometimes at the expense of others’ needs and interests.

Chodorow thinks that these gender differences should and can be changed. Feminine and masculine personalities play a crucial role in women’s oppression since they make females overly attentive to the needs of others and males emotionally deficient. In order to correct the situation, both male and female parents should be equally involved in parenting (Chodorow 1995, 214). This would help in ensuring that children develop sufficiently individuated senses of selves without becoming overly detached, which in turn helps to eradicate common gender stereotypical behaviours.

Catharine MacKinnon develops her theory of gender as a theory of sexuality. Very roughly: the social meaning of sex (gender) is created by sexual objectification of women whereby women are viewed and treated as objects for satisfying men’s desires (MacKinnon 1989). Masculinity is defined as sexual dominance, femininity as sexual submissiveness: genders are “created through the eroticization of dominance and submission. The man/woman difference and the dominance/submission dynamic define each other. This is the social meaning of sex” (MacKinnon 1989, 113). For MacKinnon, gender is constitutively constructed : in defining genders (or masculinity and femininity) we must make reference to social factors (see Haslanger 1995, 98). In particular, we must make reference to the position one occupies in the sexualised dominance/submission dynamic: men occupy the sexually dominant position, women the sexually submissive one. As a result, genders are by definition hierarchical and this hierarchy is fundamentally tied to sexualised power relations. The notion of ‘gender equality’, then, does not make sense to MacKinnon. If sexuality ceased to be a manifestation of dominance, hierarchical genders (that are defined in terms of sexuality) would cease to exist.

So, gender difference for MacKinnon is not a matter of having a particular psychological orientation or behavioural pattern; rather, it is a function of sexuality that is hierarchal in patriarchal societies. This is not to say that men are naturally disposed to sexually objectify women or that women are naturally submissive. Instead, male and female sexualities are socially conditioned: men have been conditioned to find women’s subordination sexy and women have been conditioned to find a particular male version of female sexuality as erotic – one in which it is erotic to be sexually submissive. For MacKinnon, both female and male sexual desires are defined from a male point of view that is conditioned by pornography (MacKinnon 1989, chapter 7). Bluntly put: pornography portrays a false picture of ‘what women want’ suggesting that women in actual fact are and want to be submissive. This conditions men’s sexuality so that they view women’s submission as sexy. And male dominance enforces this male version of sexuality onto women, sometimes by force. MacKinnon’s thought is not that male dominance is a result of social learning (see 2.1.); rather, socialization is an expression of power. That is, socialized differences in masculine and feminine traits, behaviour, and roles are not responsible for power inequalities. Females and males (roughly put) are socialised differently because there are underlying power inequalities. As MacKinnon puts it, ‘dominance’ (power relations) is prior to ‘difference’ (traits, behaviour and roles) (see, MacKinnon 1989, chapter 12). MacKinnon, then, sees legal restrictions on pornography as paramount to ending women’s subordinate status that stems from their gender.

3. Problems with the sex/gender distinction

3.1 is gender uniform.

The positions outlined above share an underlying metaphysical perspective on gender: gender realism . [ 2 ] That is, women as a group are assumed to share some characteristic feature, experience, common condition or criterion that defines their gender and the possession of which makes some individuals women (as opposed to, say, men). All women are thought to differ from all men in this respect (or respects). For example, MacKinnon thought that being treated in sexually objectifying ways is the common condition that defines women’s gender and what women as women share. All women differ from all men in this respect. Further, pointing out females who are not sexually objectified does not provide a counterexample to MacKinnon’s view. Being sexually objectified is constitutive of being a woman; a female who escapes sexual objectification, then, would not count as a woman.

One may want to critique the three accounts outlined by rejecting the particular details of each account. (For instance, see Spelman [1988, chapter 4] for a critique of the details of Chodorow’s view.) A more thoroughgoing critique has been levelled at the general metaphysical perspective of gender realism that underlies these positions. It has come under sustained attack on two grounds: first, that it fails to take into account racial, cultural and class differences between women (particularity argument); second, that it posits a normative ideal of womanhood (normativity argument).

Elizabeth Spelman (1988) has influentially argued against gender realism with her particularity argument. Roughly: gender realists mistakenly assume that gender is constructed independently of race, class, ethnicity and nationality. If gender were separable from, for example, race and class in this manner, all women would experience womanhood in the same way. And this is clearly false. For instance, Harris (1993) and Stone (2007) criticise MacKinnon’s view, that sexual objectification is the common condition that defines women’s gender, for failing to take into account differences in women’s backgrounds that shape their sexuality. The history of racist oppression illustrates that during slavery black women were ‘hypersexualised’ and thought to be always sexually available whereas white women were thought to be pure and sexually virtuous. In fact, the rape of a black woman was thought to be impossible (Harris 1993). So, (the argument goes) sexual objectification cannot serve as the common condition for womanhood since it varies considerably depending on one’s race and class. [ 3 ]

For Spelman, the perspective of ‘white solipsism’ underlies gender realists’ mistake. They assumed that all women share some “golden nugget of womanness” (Spelman 1988, 159) and that the features constitutive of such a nugget are the same for all women regardless of their particular cultural backgrounds. Next, white Western middle-class feminists accounted for the shared features simply by reflecting on the cultural features that condition their gender as women thus supposing that “the womanness underneath the Black woman’s skin is a white woman’s, and deep down inside the Latina woman is an Anglo woman waiting to burst through an obscuring cultural shroud” (Spelman 1988, 13). In so doing, Spelman claims, white middle-class Western feminists passed off their particular view of gender as “a metaphysical truth” (1988, 180) thereby privileging some women while marginalising others. In failing to see the importance of race and class in gender construction, white middle-class Western feminists conflated “the condition of one group of women with the condition of all” (Spelman 1988, 3).

Betty Friedan’s (1963) well-known work is a case in point of white solipsism. [ 4 ] Friedan saw domesticity as the main vehicle of gender oppression and called upon women in general to find jobs outside the home. But she failed to realize that women from less privileged backgrounds, often poor and non-white, already worked outside the home to support their families. Friedan’s suggestion, then, was applicable only to a particular sub-group of women (white middle-class Western housewives). But it was mistakenly taken to apply to all women’s lives — a mistake that was generated by Friedan’s failure to take women’s racial and class differences into account (hooks 2000, 1–3).

Spelman further holds that since social conditioning creates femininity and societies (and sub-groups) that condition it differ from one another, femininity must be differently conditioned in different societies. For her, “females become not simply women but particular kinds of women” (Spelman 1988, 113): white working-class women, black middle-class women, poor Jewish women, wealthy aristocratic European women, and so on.

This line of thought has been extremely influential in feminist philosophy. For instance, Young holds that Spelman has definitively shown that gender realism is untenable (1997, 13). Mikkola (2006) argues that this isn’t so. The arguments Spelman makes do not undermine the idea that there is some characteristic feature, experience, common condition or criterion that defines women’s gender; they simply point out that some particular ways of cashing out what defines womanhood are misguided. So, although Spelman is right to reject those accounts that falsely take the feature that conditions white middle-class Western feminists’ gender to condition women’s gender in general, this leaves open the possibility that women qua women do share something that defines their gender. (See also Haslanger [2000a] for a discussion of why gender realism is not necessarily untenable, and Stoljar [2011] for a discussion of Mikkola’s critique of Spelman.)

Judith Butler critiques the sex/gender distinction on two grounds. They critique gender realism with their normativity argument (1999 [original 1990], chapter 1); they also hold that the sex/gender distinction is unintelligible (this will be discussed in section 3.3.). Butler’s normativity argument is not straightforwardly directed at the metaphysical perspective of gender realism, but rather at its political counterpart: identity politics. This is a form of political mobilization based on membership in some group (e.g. racial, ethnic, cultural, gender) and group membership is thought to be delimited by some common experiences, conditions or features that define the group (Heyes 2000, 58; see also the entry on Identity Politics ). Feminist identity politics, then, presupposes gender realism in that feminist politics is said to be mobilized around women as a group (or category) where membership in this group is fixed by some condition, experience or feature that women supposedly share and that defines their gender.

Butler’s normativity argument makes two claims. The first is akin to Spelman’s particularity argument: unitary gender notions fail to take differences amongst women into account thus failing to recognise “the multiplicity of cultural, social, and political intersections in which the concrete array of ‘women’ are constructed” (Butler 1999, 19–20). In their attempt to undercut biologically deterministic ways of defining what it means to be a woman, feminists inadvertently created new socially constructed accounts of supposedly shared femininity. Butler’s second claim is that such false gender realist accounts are normative. That is, in their attempt to fix feminism’s subject matter, feminists unwittingly defined the term ‘woman’ in a way that implies there is some correct way to be gendered a woman (Butler 1999, 5). That the definition of the term ‘woman’ is fixed supposedly “operates as a policing force which generates and legitimizes certain practices, experiences, etc., and curtails and delegitimizes others” (Nicholson 1998, 293). Following this line of thought, one could say that, for instance, Chodorow’s view of gender suggests that ‘real’ women have feminine personalities and that these are the women feminism should be concerned about. If one does not exhibit a distinctly feminine personality, the implication is that one is not ‘really’ a member of women’s category nor does one properly qualify for feminist political representation.

Butler’s second claim is based on their view that“[i]dentity categories [like that of women] are never merely descriptive, but always normative, and as such, exclusionary” (Butler 1991, 160). That is, the mistake of those feminists Butler critiques was not that they provided the incorrect definition of ‘woman’. Rather, (the argument goes) their mistake was to attempt to define the term ‘woman’ at all. Butler’s view is that ‘woman’ can never be defined in a way that does not prescribe some “unspoken normative requirements” (like having a feminine personality) that women should conform to (Butler 1999, 9). Butler takes this to be a feature of terms like ‘woman’ that purport to pick out (what they call) ‘identity categories’. They seem to assume that ‘woman’ can never be used in a non-ideological way (Moi 1999, 43) and that it will always encode conditions that are not satisfied by everyone we think of as women. Some explanation for this comes from Butler’s view that all processes of drawing categorical distinctions involve evaluative and normative commitments; these in turn involve the exercise of power and reflect the conditions of those who are socially powerful (Witt 1995).

In order to better understand Butler’s critique, consider their account of gender performativity. For them, standard feminist accounts take gendered individuals to have some essential properties qua gendered individuals or a gender core by virtue of which one is either a man or a woman. This view assumes that women and men, qua women and men, are bearers of various essential and accidental attributes where the former secure gendered persons’ persistence through time as so gendered. But according to Butler this view is false: (i) there are no such essential properties, and (ii) gender is an illusion maintained by prevalent power structures. First, feminists are said to think that genders are socially constructed in that they have the following essential attributes (Butler 1999, 24): women are females with feminine behavioural traits, being heterosexuals whose desire is directed at men; men are males with masculine behavioural traits, being heterosexuals whose desire is directed at women. These are the attributes necessary for gendered individuals and those that enable women and men to persist through time as women and men. Individuals have “intelligible genders” (Butler 1999, 23) if they exhibit this sequence of traits in a coherent manner (where sexual desire follows from sexual orientation that in turn follows from feminine/ masculine behaviours thought to follow from biological sex). Social forces in general deem individuals who exhibit in coherent gender sequences (like lesbians) to be doing their gender ‘wrong’ and they actively discourage such sequencing of traits, for instance, via name-calling and overt homophobic discrimination. Think back to what was said above: having a certain conception of what women are like that mirrors the conditions of socially powerful (white, middle-class, heterosexual, Western) women functions to marginalize and police those who do not fit this conception.

These gender cores, supposedly encoding the above traits, however, are nothing more than illusions created by ideals and practices that seek to render gender uniform through heterosexism, the view that heterosexuality is natural and homosexuality is deviant (Butler 1999, 42). Gender cores are constructed as if they somehow naturally belong to women and men thereby creating gender dimorphism or the belief that one must be either a masculine male or a feminine female. But gender dimorphism only serves a heterosexist social order by implying that since women and men are sharply opposed, it is natural to sexually desire the opposite sex or gender.

Further, being feminine and desiring men (for instance) are standardly assumed to be expressions of one’s gender as a woman. Butler denies this and holds that gender is really performative. It is not “a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts follow; rather, gender is … instituted … through a stylized repetition of [habitual] acts ” (Butler 1999, 179): through wearing certain gender-coded clothing, walking and sitting in certain gender-coded ways, styling one’s hair in gender-coded manner and so on. Gender is not something one is, it is something one does; it is a sequence of acts, a doing rather than a being. And repeatedly engaging in ‘feminising’ and ‘masculinising’ acts congeals gender thereby making people falsely think of gender as something they naturally are . Gender only comes into being through these gendering acts: a female who has sex with men does not express her gender as a woman. This activity (amongst others) makes her gendered a woman.

The constitutive acts that gender individuals create genders as “compelling illusion[s]” (Butler 1990, 271). Our gendered classification scheme is a strong pragmatic construction : social factors wholly determine our use of the scheme and the scheme fails to represent accurately any ‘facts of the matter’ (Haslanger 1995, 100). People think that there are true and real genders, and those deemed to be doing their gender ‘wrong’ are not socially sanctioned. But, genders are true and real only to the extent that they are performed (Butler 1990, 278–9). It does not make sense, then, to say of a male-to-female trans person that s/he is really a man who only appears to be a woman. Instead, males dressing up and acting in ways that are associated with femininity “show that [as Butler suggests] ‘being’ feminine is just a matter of doing certain activities” (Stone 2007, 64). As a result, the trans person’s gender is just as real or true as anyone else’s who is a ‘traditionally’ feminine female or masculine male (Butler 1990, 278). [ 5 ] Without heterosexism that compels people to engage in certain gendering acts, there would not be any genders at all. And ultimately the aim should be to abolish norms that compel people to act in these gendering ways.

For Butler, given that gender is performative, the appropriate response to feminist identity politics involves two things. First, feminists should understand ‘woman’ as open-ended and “a term in process, a becoming, a constructing that cannot rightfully be said to originate or end … it is open to intervention and resignification” (Butler 1999, 43). That is, feminists should not try to define ‘woman’ at all. Second, the category of women “ought not to be the foundation of feminist politics” (Butler 1999, 9). Rather, feminists should focus on providing an account of how power functions and shapes our understandings of womanhood not only in the society at large but also within the feminist movement.

Many people, including many feminists, have ordinarily taken sex ascriptions to be solely a matter of biology with no social or cultural dimension. It is commonplace to think that there are only two sexes and that biological sex classifications are utterly unproblematic. By contrast, some feminists have argued that sex classifications are not unproblematic and that they are not solely a matter of biology. In order to make sense of this, it is helpful to distinguish object- and idea-construction (see Haslanger 2003b for more): social forces can be said to construct certain kinds of objects (e.g. sexed bodies or gendered individuals) and certain kinds of ideas (e.g. sex or gender concepts). First, take the object-construction of sexed bodies. Secondary sex characteristics, or the physiological and biological features commonly associated with males and females, are affected by social practices. In some societies, females’ lower social status has meant that they have been fed less and so, the lack of nutrition has had the effect of making them smaller in size (Jaggar 1983, 37). Uniformity in muscular shape, size and strength within sex categories is not caused entirely by biological factors, but depends heavily on exercise opportunities: if males and females were allowed the same exercise opportunities and equal encouragement to exercise, it is thought that bodily dimorphism would diminish (Fausto-Sterling 1993a, 218). A number of medical phenomena involving bones (like osteoporosis) have social causes directly related to expectations about gender, women’s diet and their exercise opportunities (Fausto-Sterling 2005). These examples suggest that physiological features thought to be sex-specific traits not affected by social and cultural factors are, after all, to some extent products of social conditioning. Social conditioning, then, shapes our biology.

Second, take the idea-construction of sex concepts. Our concept of sex is said to be a product of social forces in the sense that what counts as sex is shaped by social meanings. Standardly, those with XX-chromosomes, ovaries that produce large egg cells, female genitalia, a relatively high proportion of ‘female’ hormones, and other secondary sex characteristics (relatively small body size, less body hair) count as biologically female. Those with XY-chromosomes, testes that produce small sperm cells, male genitalia, a relatively high proportion of ‘male’ hormones and other secondary sex traits (relatively large body size, significant amounts of body hair) count as male. This understanding is fairly recent. The prevalent scientific view from Ancient Greeks until the late 18 th century, did not consider female and male sexes to be distinct categories with specific traits; instead, a ‘one-sex model’ held that males and females were members of the same sex category. Females’ genitals were thought to be the same as males’ but simply directed inside the body; ovaries and testes (for instance) were referred to by the same term and whether the term referred to the former or the latter was made clear by the context (Laqueur 1990, 4). It was not until the late 1700s that scientists began to think of female and male anatomies as radically different moving away from the ‘one-sex model’ of a single sex spectrum to the (nowadays prevalent) ‘two-sex model’ of sexual dimorphism. (For an alternative view, see King 2013.)

Fausto-Sterling has argued that this ‘two-sex model’ isn’t straightforward either (1993b; 2000a; 2000b). Based on a meta-study of empirical medical research, she estimates that 1.7% of population fail to neatly fall within the usual sex classifications possessing various combinations of different sex characteristics (Fausto-Sterling 2000a, 20). In her earlier work, she claimed that intersex individuals make up (at least) three further sex classes: ‘herms’ who possess one testis and one ovary; ‘merms’ who possess testes, some aspects of female genitalia but no ovaries; and ‘ferms’ who have ovaries, some aspects of male genitalia but no testes (Fausto-Sterling 1993b, 21). (In her [2000a], Fausto-Sterling notes that these labels were put forward tongue–in–cheek.) Recognition of intersex people suggests that feminists (and society at large) are wrong to think that humans are either female or male.

To illustrate further the idea-construction of sex, consider the case of the athlete Maria Patiño. Patiño has female genitalia, has always considered herself to be female and was considered so by others. However, she was discovered to have XY chromosomes and was barred from competing in women’s sports (Fausto-Sterling 2000b, 1–3). Patiño’s genitalia were at odds with her chromosomes and the latter were taken to determine her sex. Patiño successfully fought to be recognised as a female athlete arguing that her chromosomes alone were not sufficient to not make her female. Intersex people, like Patiño, illustrate that our understandings of sex differ and suggest that there is no immediately obvious way to settle what sex amounts to purely biologically or scientifically. Deciding what sex is involves evaluative judgements that are influenced by social factors.

Insofar as our cultural conceptions affect our understandings of sex, feminists must be much more careful about sex classifications and rethink what sex amounts to (Stone 2007, chapter 1). More specifically, intersex people illustrate that sex traits associated with females and males need not always go together and that individuals can have some mixture of these traits. This suggests to Stone that sex is a cluster concept: it is sufficient to satisfy enough of the sex features that tend to cluster together in order to count as being of a particular sex. But, one need not satisfy all of those features or some arbitrarily chosen supposedly necessary sex feature, like chromosomes (Stone 2007, 44). This makes sex a matter of degree and sex classifications should take place on a spectrum: one can be more or less female/male but there is no sharp distinction between the two. Further, intersex people (along with trans people) are located at the centre of the sex spectrum and in many cases their sex will be indeterminate (Stone 2007).

More recently, Ayala and Vasilyeva (2015) have argued for an inclusive and extended conception of sex: just as certain tools can be seen to extend our minds beyond the limits of our brains (e.g. white canes), other tools (like dildos) can extend our sex beyond our bodily boundaries. This view aims to motivate the idea that what counts as sex should not be determined by looking inwards at genitalia or other anatomical features. In a different vein, Ásta (2018) argues that sex is a conferred social property. This follows her more general conferralist framework to analyse all social properties: properties that are conferred by others thereby generating a social status that consists in contextually specific constraints and enablements on individual behaviour. The general schema for conferred properties is as follows (Ásta 2018, 8):

Conferred property: what property is conferred. Who: who the subjects are. What: what attitude, state, or action of the subjects matter. When: under what conditions the conferral takes place. Base property: what the subjects are attempting to track (consciously or not), if anything.

With being of a certain sex (e.g. male, female) in mind, Ásta holds that it is a conferred property that merely aims to track physical features. Hence sex is a social – or in fact, an institutional – property rather than a natural one. The schema for sex goes as follows (72):

Conferred property: being female, male. Who: legal authorities, drawing on the expert opinion of doctors, other medical personnel. What: “the recording of a sex in official documents ... The judgment of the doctors (and others) as to what sex role might be the most fitting, given the biological characteristics present.” When: at birth or after surgery/ hormonal treatment. Base property: “the aim is to track as many sex-stereotypical characteristics as possible, and doctors perform surgery in cases where that might help bring the physical characteristics more in line with the stereotype of male and female.”

This (among other things) offers a debunking analysis of sex: it may appear to be a natural property, but on the conferralist analysis is better understood as a conferred legal status. Ásta holds that gender too is a conferred property, but contra the discussion in the following section, she does not think that this collapses the distinction between sex and gender: sex and gender are differently conferred albeit both satisfying the general schema noted above. Nonetheless, on the conferralist framework what underlies both sex and gender is the idea of social construction as social significance: sex-stereotypical characteristics are taken to be socially significant context specifically, whereby they become the basis for conferring sex onto individuals and this brings with it various constraints and enablements on individuals and their behaviour. This fits object- and idea-constructions introduced above, although offers a different general framework to analyse the matter at hand.

In addition to arguing against identity politics and for gender performativity, Butler holds that distinguishing biological sex from social gender is unintelligible. For them, both are socially constructed:

If the immutable character of sex is contested, perhaps this construct called ‘sex’ is as culturally constructed as gender; indeed, perhaps it was always already gender, with the consequence that the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be no distinction at all. (Butler 1999, 10–11)

(Butler is not alone in claiming that there are no tenable distinctions between nature/culture, biology/construction and sex/gender. See also: Antony 1998; Gatens 1996; Grosz 1994; Prokhovnik 1999.) Butler makes two different claims in the passage cited: that sex is a social construction, and that sex is gender. To unpack their view, consider the two claims in turn. First, the idea that sex is a social construct, for Butler, boils down to the view that our sexed bodies are also performative and, so, they have “no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute [their] reality” (1999, 173). Prima facie , this implausibly implies that female and male bodies do not have independent existence and that if gendering activities ceased, so would physical bodies. This is not Butler’s claim; rather, their position is that bodies viewed as the material foundations on which gender is constructed, are themselves constructed as if they provide such material foundations (Butler 1993). Cultural conceptions about gender figure in “the very apparatus of production whereby sexes themselves are established” (Butler 1999, 11).

For Butler, sexed bodies never exist outside social meanings and how we understand gender shapes how we understand sex (1999, 139). Sexed bodies are not empty matter on which gender is constructed and sex categories are not picked out on the basis of objective features of the world. Instead, our sexed bodies are themselves discursively constructed : they are the way they are, at least to a substantial extent, because of what is attributed to sexed bodies and how they are classified (for discursive construction, see Haslanger 1995, 99). Sex assignment (calling someone female or male) is normative (Butler 1993, 1). [ 6 ] When the doctor calls a newly born infant a girl or a boy, s/he is not making a descriptive claim, but a normative one. In fact, the doctor is performing an illocutionary speech act (see the entry on Speech Acts ). In effect, the doctor’s utterance makes infants into girls or boys. We, then, engage in activities that make it seem as if sexes naturally come in two and that being female or male is an objective feature of the world, rather than being a consequence of certain constitutive acts (that is, rather than being performative). And this is what Butler means in saying that physical bodies never exist outside cultural and social meanings, and that sex is as socially constructed as gender. They do not deny that physical bodies exist. But, they take our understanding of this existence to be a product of social conditioning: social conditioning makes the existence of physical bodies intelligible to us by discursively constructing sexed bodies through certain constitutive acts. (For a helpful introduction to Butler’s views, see Salih 2002.)

For Butler, sex assignment is always in some sense oppressive. Again, this appears to be because of Butler’s general suspicion of classification: sex classification can never be merely descriptive but always has a normative element reflecting evaluative claims of those who are powerful. Conducting a feminist genealogy of the body (or examining why sexed bodies are thought to come naturally as female and male), then, should ground feminist practice (Butler 1993, 28–9). Feminists should examine and uncover ways in which social construction and certain acts that constitute sex shape our understandings of sexed bodies, what kinds of meanings bodies acquire and which practices and illocutionary speech acts ‘make’ our bodies into sexes. Doing so enables feminists to identity how sexed bodies are socially constructed in order to resist such construction.

However, given what was said above, it is far from obvious what we should make of Butler’s claim that sex “was always already gender” (1999, 11). Stone (2007) takes this to mean that sex is gender but goes on to question it arguing that the social construction of both sex and gender does not make sex identical to gender. According to Stone, it would be more accurate for Butler to say that claims about sex imply gender norms. That is, many claims about sex traits (like ‘females are physically weaker than males’) actually carry implications about how women and men are expected to behave. To some extent the claim describes certain facts. But, it also implies that females are not expected to do much heavy lifting and that they would probably not be good at it. So, claims about sex are not identical to claims about gender; rather, they imply claims about gender norms (Stone 2007, 70).

Some feminists hold that the sex/gender distinction is not useful. For a start, it is thought to reflect politically problematic dualistic thinking that undercuts feminist aims: the distinction is taken to reflect and replicate androcentric oppositions between (for instance) mind/body, culture/nature and reason/emotion that have been used to justify women’s oppression (e.g. Grosz 1994; Prokhovnik 1999). The thought is that in oppositions like these, one term is always superior to the other and that the devalued term is usually associated with women (Lloyd 1993). For instance, human subjectivity and agency are identified with the mind but since women are usually identified with their bodies, they are devalued as human subjects and agents. The opposition between mind and body is said to further map on to other distinctions, like reason/emotion, culture/nature, rational/irrational, where one side of each distinction is devalued (one’s bodily features are usually valued less that one’s mind, rationality is usually valued more than irrationality) and women are associated with the devalued terms: they are thought to be closer to bodily features and nature than men, to be irrational, emotional and so on. This is said to be evident (for instance) in job interviews. Men are treated as gender-neutral persons and not asked whether they are planning to take time off to have a family. By contrast, that women face such queries illustrates that they are associated more closely than men with bodily features to do with procreation (Prokhovnik 1999, 126). The opposition between mind and body, then, is thought to map onto the opposition between men and women.

Now, the mind/body dualism is also said to map onto the sex/gender distinction (Grosz 1994; Prokhovnik 1999). The idea is that gender maps onto mind, sex onto body. Although not used by those endorsing this view, the basic idea can be summed by the slogan ‘Gender is between the ears, sex is between the legs’: the implication is that, while sex is immutable, gender is something individuals have control over – it is something we can alter and change through individual choices. However, since women are said to be more closely associated with biological features (and so, to map onto the body side of the mind/body distinction) and men are treated as gender-neutral persons (mapping onto the mind side), the implication is that “man equals gender, which is associated with mind and choice, freedom from body, autonomy, and with the public real; while woman equals sex, associated with the body, reproduction, ‘natural’ rhythms and the private realm” (Prokhovnik 1999, 103). This is said to render the sex/gender distinction inherently repressive and to drain it of any potential for emancipation: rather than facilitating gender role choice for women, it “actually functions to reinforce their association with body, sex, and involuntary ‘natural’ rhythms” (Prokhovnik 1999, 103). Contrary to what feminists like Rubin argued, the sex/gender distinction cannot be used as a theoretical tool that dissociates conceptions of womanhood from biological and reproductive features.

Moi has further argued that the sex/gender distinction is useless given certain theoretical goals (1999, chapter 1). This is not to say that it is utterly worthless; according to Moi, the sex/gender distinction worked well to show that the historically prevalent biological determinism was false. However, for her, the distinction does no useful work “when it comes to producing a good theory of subjectivity” (1999, 6) and “a concrete, historical understanding of what it means to be a woman (or a man) in a given society” (1999, 4–5). That is, the 1960s distinction understood sex as fixed by biology without any cultural or historical dimensions. This understanding, however, ignores lived experiences and embodiment as aspects of womanhood (and manhood) by separating sex from gender and insisting that womanhood is to do with the latter. Rather, embodiment must be included in one’s theory that tries to figure out what it is to be a woman (or a man).

Mikkola (2011) argues that the sex/gender distinction, which underlies views like Rubin’s and MacKinnon’s, has certain unintuitive and undesirable ontological commitments that render the distinction politically unhelpful. First, claiming that gender is socially constructed implies that the existence of women and men is a mind-dependent matter. This suggests that we can do away with women and men simply by altering some social practices, conventions or conditions on which gender depends (whatever those are). However, ordinary social agents find this unintuitive given that (ordinarily) sex and gender are not distinguished. Second, claiming that gender is a product of oppressive social forces suggests that doing away with women and men should be feminism’s political goal. But this harbours ontologically undesirable commitments since many ordinary social agents view their gender to be a source of positive value. So, feminism seems to want to do away with something that should not be done away with, which is unlikely to motivate social agents to act in ways that aim at gender justice. Given these problems, Mikkola argues that feminists should give up the distinction on practical political grounds.

Tomas Bogardus (2020) has argued in an even more radical sense against the sex/gender distinction: as things stand, he holds, feminist philosophers have merely assumed and asserted that the distinction exists, instead of having offered good arguments for the distinction. In other words, feminist philosophers allegedly have yet to offer good reasons to think that ‘woman’ does not simply pick out adult human females. Alex Byrne (2020) argues in a similar vein: the term ‘woman’ does not pick out a social kind as feminist philosophers have “assumed”. Instead, “women are adult human females–nothing more, and nothing less” (2020, 3801). Byrne offers six considerations to ground this AHF (adult, human, female) conception.

  • It reproduces the dictionary definition of ‘woman’.
  • One would expect English to have a word that picks out the category adult human female, and ‘woman’ is the only candidate.
  • AHF explains how we sometimes know that an individual is a woman, despite knowing nothing else relevant about her other than the fact that she is an adult human female.
  • AHF stands or falls with the analogous thesis for girls, which can be supported independently.
  • AHF predicts the correct verdict in cases of gender role reversal.
  • AHF is supported by the fact that ‘woman’ and ‘female’ are often appropriately used as stylistic variants of each other, even in hyperintensional contexts.

Robin Dembroff (2021) responds to Byrne and highlights various problems with Byrne’s argument. First, framing: Byrne assumes from the start that gender terms like ‘woman’ have a single invariant meaning thereby failing to discuss the possibility of terms like ‘woman’ having multiple meanings – something that is a familiar claim made by feminist theorists from various disciplines. Moreover, Byrne (according to Dembroff) assumes without argument that there is a single, universal category of woman – again, something that has been extensively discussed and critiqued by feminist philosophers and theorists. Second, Byrne’s conception of the ‘dominant’ meaning of woman is said to be cherry-picked and it ignores a wealth of contexts outside of philosophy (like the media and the law) where ‘woman’ has a meaning other than AHF . Third, Byrne’s own distinction between biological and social categories fails to establish what he intended to establish: namely, that ‘woman’ picks out a biological rather than a social kind. Hence, Dembroff holds, Byrne’s case fails by its own lights. Byrne (2021) responds to Dembroff’s critique.

Others such as ‘gender critical feminists’ also hold views about the sex/gender distinction in a spirit similar to Bogardus and Byrne. For example, Holly Lawford-Smith (2021) takes the prevalent sex/gender distinction, where ‘female’/‘male’ are used as sex terms and ‘woman’/’man’ as gender terms, not to be helpful. Instead, she takes all of these to be sex terms and holds that (the norms of) femininity/masculinity refer to gender normativity. Because much of the gender critical feminists’ discussion that philosophers have engaged in has taken place in social media, public fora, and other sources outside academic philosophy, this entry will not focus on these discussions.

4. Women as a group

The various critiques of the sex/gender distinction have called into question the viability of the category women . Feminism is the movement to end the oppression women as a group face. But, how should the category of women be understood if feminists accept the above arguments that gender construction is not uniform, that a sharp distinction between biological sex and social gender is false or (at least) not useful, and that various features associated with women play a role in what it is to be a woman, none of which are individually necessary and jointly sufficient (like a variety of social roles, positions, behaviours, traits, bodily features and experiences)? Feminists must be able to address cultural and social differences in gender construction if feminism is to be a genuinely inclusive movement and be careful not to posit commonalities that mask important ways in which women qua women differ. These concerns (among others) have generated a situation where (as Linda Alcoff puts it) feminists aim to speak and make political demands in the name of women, at the same time rejecting the idea that there is a unified category of women (2006, 152). If feminist critiques of the category women are successful, then what (if anything) binds women together, what is it to be a woman, and what kinds of demands can feminists make on behalf of women?

Many have found the fragmentation of the category of women problematic for political reasons (e.g. Alcoff 2006; Bach 2012; Benhabib 1992; Frye 1996; Haslanger 2000b; Heyes 2000; Martin 1994; Mikkola 2007; Stoljar 1995; Stone 2004; Tanesini 1996; Young 1997; Zack 2005). For instance, Young holds that accounts like Spelman’s reduce the category of women to a gerrymandered collection of individuals with nothing to bind them together (1997, 20). Black women differ from white women but members of both groups also differ from one another with respect to nationality, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation and economic position; that is, wealthy white women differ from working-class white women due to their economic and class positions. These sub-groups are themselves diverse: for instance, some working-class white women in Northern Ireland are starkly divided along religious lines. So if we accept Spelman’s position, we risk ending up with individual women and nothing to bind them together. And this is problematic: in order to respond to oppression of women in general, feminists must understand them as a category in some sense. Young writes that without doing so “it is not possible to conceptualize oppression as a systematic, structured, institutional process” (1997, 17). Some, then, take the articulation of an inclusive category of women to be the prerequisite for effective feminist politics and a rich literature has emerged that aims to conceptualise women as a group or a collective (e.g. Alcoff 2006; Ásta 2011; Frye 1996; 2011; Haslanger 2000b; Heyes 2000; Stoljar 1995, 2011; Young 1997; Zack 2005). Articulations of this category can be divided into those that are: (a) gender nominalist — positions that deny there is something women qua women share and that seek to unify women’s social kind by appealing to something external to women; and (b) gender realist — positions that take there to be something women qua women share (although these realist positions differ significantly from those outlined in Section 2). Below we will review some influential gender nominalist and gender realist positions. Before doing so, it is worth noting that not everyone is convinced that attempts to articulate an inclusive category of women can succeed or that worries about what it is to be a woman are in need of being resolved. Mikkola (2016) argues that feminist politics need not rely on overcoming (what she calls) the ‘gender controversy’: that feminists must settle the meaning of gender concepts and articulate a way to ground women’s social kind membership. As she sees it, disputes about ‘what it is to be a woman’ have become theoretically bankrupt and intractable, which has generated an analytical impasse that looks unsurpassable. Instead, Mikkola argues for giving up the quest, which in any case in her view poses no serious political obstacles.

Elizabeth Barnes (2020) responds to the need to offer an inclusive conception of gender somewhat differently, although she endorses the need for feminism to be inclusive particularly of trans people. Barnes holds that typically philosophical theories of gender aim to offer an account of what it is to be a woman (or man, genderqueer, etc.), where such an account is presumed to provide necessary and sufficient conditions for being a woman or an account of our gender terms’ extensions. But, she holds, it is a mistake to expect our theories of gender to do so. For Barnes, a project that offers a metaphysics of gender “should be understood as the project of theorizing what it is —if anything— about the social world that ultimately explains gender” (2020, 706). This project is not equivalent to one that aims to define gender terms or elucidate the application conditions for natural language gender terms though.

4.1 Gender nominalism

Iris Young argues that unless there is “some sense in which ‘woman’ is the name of a social collective [that feminism represents], there is nothing specific to feminist politics” (1997, 13). In order to make the category women intelligible, she argues that women make up a series: a particular kind of social collective “whose members are unified passively by the objects their actions are oriented around and/or by the objectified results of the material effects of the actions of the other” (Young 1997, 23). A series is distinct from a group in that, whereas members of groups are thought to self-consciously share certain goals, projects, traits and/ or self-conceptions, members of series pursue their own individual ends without necessarily having anything at all in common. Young holds that women are not bound together by a shared feature or experience (or set of features and experiences) since she takes Spelman’s particularity argument to have established definitely that no such feature exists (1997, 13; see also: Frye 1996; Heyes 2000). Instead, women’s category is unified by certain practico-inert realities or the ways in which women’s lives and their actions are oriented around certain objects and everyday realities (Young 1997, 23–4). For example, bus commuters make up a series unified through their individual actions being organised around the same practico-inert objects of the bus and the practice of public transport. Women make up a series unified through women’s lives and actions being organised around certain practico-inert objects and realities that position them as women .

Young identifies two broad groups of such practico-inert objects and realities. First, phenomena associated with female bodies (physical facts), biological processes that take place in female bodies (menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth) and social rules associated with these biological processes (social rules of menstruation, for instance). Second, gender-coded objects and practices: pronouns, verbal and visual representations of gender, gender-coded artefacts and social spaces, clothes, cosmetics, tools and furniture. So, women make up a series since their lives and actions are organised around female bodies and certain gender-coded objects. Their series is bound together passively and the unity is “not one that arises from the individuals called women” (Young 1997, 32).

Although Young’s proposal purports to be a response to Spelman’s worries, Stone has questioned whether it is, after all, susceptible to the particularity argument: ultimately, on Young’s view, something women as women share (their practico-inert realities) binds them together (Stone 2004).

Natalie Stoljar holds that unless the category of women is unified, feminist action on behalf of women cannot be justified (1995, 282). Stoljar too is persuaded by the thought that women qua women do not share anything unitary. This prompts her to argue for resemblance nominalism. This is the view that a certain kind of resemblance relation holds between entities of a particular type (for more on resemblance nominalism, see Armstrong 1989, 39–58). Stoljar is not alone in arguing for resemblance relations to make sense of women as a category; others have also done so, usually appealing to Wittgenstein’s ‘family resemblance’ relations (Alcoff 1988; Green & Radford Curry 1991; Heyes 2000; Munro 2006). Stoljar relies more on Price’s resemblance nominalism whereby x is a member of some type F only if x resembles some paradigm or exemplar of F sufficiently closely (Price 1953, 20). For instance, the type of red entities is unified by some chosen red paradigms so that only those entities that sufficiently resemble the paradigms count as red. The type (or category) of women, then, is unified by some chosen woman paradigms so that those who sufficiently resemble the woman paradigms count as women (Stoljar 1995, 284).

Semantic considerations about the concept woman suggest to Stoljar that resemblance nominalism should be endorsed (Stoljar 2000, 28). It seems unlikely that the concept is applied on the basis of some single social feature all and only women possess. By contrast, woman is a cluster concept and our attributions of womanhood pick out “different arrangements of features in different individuals” (Stoljar 2000, 27). More specifically, they pick out the following clusters of features: (a) Female sex; (b) Phenomenological features: menstruation, female sexual experience, child-birth, breast-feeding, fear of walking on the streets at night or fear of rape; (c) Certain roles: wearing typically female clothing, being oppressed on the basis of one’s sex or undertaking care-work; (d) Gender attribution: “calling oneself a woman, being called a woman” (Stoljar 1995, 283–4). For Stoljar, attributions of womanhood are to do with a variety of traits and experiences: those that feminists have historically termed ‘gender traits’ (like social, behavioural, psychological traits) and those termed ‘sex traits’. Nonetheless, she holds that since the concept woman applies to (at least some) trans persons, one can be a woman without being female (Stoljar 1995, 282).

The cluster concept woman does not, however, straightforwardly provide the criterion for picking out the category of women. Rather, the four clusters of features that the concept picks out help single out woman paradigms that in turn help single out the category of women. First, any individual who possesses a feature from at least three of the four clusters mentioned will count as an exemplar of the category. For instance, an African-American with primary and secondary female sex characteristics, who describes herself as a woman and is oppressed on the basis of her sex, along with a white European hermaphrodite brought up ‘as a girl’, who engages in female roles and has female phenomenological features despite lacking female sex characteristics, will count as woman paradigms (Stoljar 1995, 284). [ 7 ] Second, any individual who resembles “any of the paradigms sufficiently closely (on Price’s account, as closely as [the paradigms] resemble each other) will be a member of the resemblance class ‘woman’” (Stoljar 1995, 284). That is, what delimits membership in the category of women is that one resembles sufficiently a woman paradigm.

4.2 Neo-gender realism

In a series of articles collected in her 2012 book, Sally Haslanger argues for a way to define the concept woman that is politically useful, serving as a tool in feminist fights against sexism, and that shows woman to be a social (not a biological) notion. More specifically, Haslanger argues that gender is a matter of occupying either a subordinate or a privileged social position. In some articles, Haslanger is arguing for a revisionary analysis of the concept woman (2000b; 2003a; 2003b). Elsewhere she suggests that her analysis may not be that revisionary after all (2005; 2006). Consider the former argument first. Haslanger’s analysis is, in her terms, ameliorative: it aims to elucidate which gender concepts best help feminists achieve their legitimate purposes thereby elucidating those concepts feminists should be using (Haslanger 2000b, 33). [ 8 ] Now, feminists need gender terminology in order to fight sexist injustices (Haslanger 2000b, 36). In particular, they need gender terms to identify, explain and talk about persistent social inequalities between males and females. Haslanger’s analysis of gender begins with the recognition that females and males differ in two respects: physically and in their social positions. Societies in general tend to “privilege individuals with male bodies” (Haslanger 2000b, 38) so that the social positions they subsequently occupy are better than the social positions of those with female bodies. And this generates persistent sexist injustices. With this in mind, Haslanger specifies how she understands genders:

S is a woman iff [by definition] S is systematically subordinated along some dimension (economic, political, legal, social, etc.), and S is ‘marked’ as a target for this treatment by observed or imagined bodily features presumed to be evidence of a female’s biological role in reproduction.
S is a man iff [by definition] S is systematically privileged along some dimension (economic, political, legal, social, etc.), and S is ‘marked’ as a target for this treatment by observed or imagined bodily features presumed to be evidence of a male’s biological role in reproduction. (2003a, 6–7)

These are constitutive of being a woman and a man: what makes calling S a woman apt, is that S is oppressed on sex-marked grounds; what makes calling S a man apt, is that S is privileged on sex-marked grounds.

Haslanger’s ameliorative analysis is counterintuitive in that females who are not sex-marked for oppression, do not count as women. At least arguably, the Queen of England is not oppressed on sex-marked grounds and so, would not count as a woman on Haslanger’s definition. And, similarly, all males who are not privileged would not count as men. This might suggest that Haslanger’s analysis should be rejected in that it does not capture what language users have in mind when applying gender terms. However, Haslanger argues that this is not a reason to reject the definitions, which she takes to be revisionary: they are not meant to capture our intuitive gender terms. In response, Mikkola (2009) has argued that revisionary analyses of gender concepts, like Haslanger’s, are both politically unhelpful and philosophically unnecessary.

Note also that Haslanger’s proposal is eliminativist: gender justice would eradicate gender, since it would abolish those sexist social structures responsible for sex-marked oppression and privilege. If sexist oppression were to cease, women and men would no longer exist (although there would still be males and females). Not all feminists endorse such an eliminativist view though. Stone holds that Haslanger does not leave any room for positively revaluing what it is to be a woman: since Haslanger defines woman in terms of subordination,

any woman who challenges her subordinate status must by definition be challenging her status as a woman, even if she does not intend to … positive change to our gender norms would involve getting rid of the (necessarily subordinate) feminine gender. (Stone 2007, 160)

But according to Stone this is not only undesirable – one should be able to challenge subordination without having to challenge one’s status as a woman. It is also false: “because norms of femininity can be and constantly are being revised, women can be women without thereby being subordinate” (Stone 2007, 162; Mikkola [2016] too argues that Haslanger’s eliminativism is troublesome).

Theodore Bach holds that Haslanger’s eliminativism is undesirable on other grounds, and that Haslanger’s position faces another more serious problem. Feminism faces the following worries (among others):

Representation problem : “if there is no real group of ‘women’, then it is incoherent to make moral claims and advance political policies on behalf of women” (Bach 2012, 234). Commonality problems : (1) There is no feature that all women cross-culturally and transhistorically share. (2) Delimiting women’s social kind with the help of some essential property privileges those who possess it, and marginalizes those who do not (Bach 2012, 235).

According to Bach, Haslanger’s strategy to resolve these problems appeals to ‘social objectivism’. First, we define women “according to a suitably abstract relational property” (Bach 2012, 236), which avoids the commonality problems. Second, Haslanger employs “an ontologically thin notion of ‘objectivity’” (Bach 2012, 236) that answers the representation problem. Haslanger’s solution (Bach holds) is specifically to argue that women make up an objective type because women are objectively similar to one another, and not simply classified together given our background conceptual schemes. Bach claims though that Haslanger’s account is not objective enough, and we should on political grounds “provide a stronger ontological characterization of the genders men and women according to which they are natural kinds with explanatory essences” (Bach 2012, 238). He thus proposes that women make up a natural kind with a historical essence:

The essential property of women, in virtue of which an individual is a member of the kind ‘women,’ is participation in a lineage of women. In order to exemplify this relational property, an individual must be a reproduction of ancestral women, in which case she must have undergone the ontogenetic processes through which a historical gender system replicates women. (Bach 2012, 271)

In short, one is not a woman due to shared surface properties with other women (like occupying a subordinate social position). Rather, one is a woman because one has the right history: one has undergone the ubiquitous ontogenetic process of gender socialization. Thinking about gender in this way supposedly provides a stronger kind unity than Haslanger’s that simply appeals to shared surface properties.

Not everyone agrees; Mikkola (2020) argues that Bach’s metaphysical picture has internal tensions that render it puzzling and that Bach’s metaphysics does not provide good responses to the commonality and presentation problems. The historically essentialist view also has anti-trans implications. After all, trans women who have not undergone female gender socialization won’t count as women on his view (Mikkola [2016, 2020] develops this line of critique in more detail). More worryingly, trans women will count as men contrary to their self-identification. Both Bettcher (2013) and Jenkins (2016) consider the importance of gender self-identification. Bettcher argues that there is more than one ‘correct’ way to understand womanhood: at the very least, the dominant (mainstream), and the resistant (trans) conceptions. Dominant views like that of Bach’s tend to erase trans people’s experiences and to marginalize trans women within feminist movements. Rather than trans women having to defend their self-identifying claims, these claims should be taken at face value right from the start. And so, Bettcher holds, “in analyzing the meaning of terms such as ‘woman,’ it is inappropriate to dismiss alternative ways in which those terms are actually used in trans subcultures; such usage needs to be taken into consideration as part of the analysis” (2013, 235).

Specifically with Haslanger in mind and in a similar vein, Jenkins (2016) discusses how Haslanger’s revisionary approach unduly excludes some trans women from women’s social kind. On Jenkins’s view, Haslanger’s ameliorative methodology in fact yields more than one satisfying target concept: one that “corresponds to Haslanger’s proposed concept and captures the sense of gender as an imposed social class”; another that “captures the sense of gender as a lived identity” (Jenkins 2016, 397). The latter of these allows us to include trans women into women’s social kind, who on Haslanger’s social class approach to gender would inappropriately have been excluded. (See Andler 2017 for the view that Jenkins’s purportedly inclusive conception of gender is still not fully inclusive. Jenkins 2018 responds to this charge and develops the notion of gender identity still further.)

In addition to her revisionary argument, Haslanger has suggested that her ameliorative analysis of woman may not be as revisionary as it first seems (2005, 2006). Although successful in their reference fixing, ordinary language users do not always know precisely what they are talking about. Our language use may be skewed by oppressive ideologies that can “mislead us about the content of our own thoughts” (Haslanger 2005, 12). Although her gender terminology is not intuitive, this could simply be because oppressive ideologies mislead us about the meanings of our gender terms. Our everyday gender terminology might mean something utterly different from what we think it means; and we could be entirely ignorant of this. Perhaps Haslanger’s analysis, then, has captured our everyday gender vocabulary revealing to us the terms that we actually employ: we may be applying ‘woman’ in our everyday language on the basis of sex-marked subordination whether we take ourselves to be doing so or not. If this is so, Haslanger’s gender terminology is not radically revisionist.

Saul (2006) argues that, despite it being possible that we unknowingly apply ‘woman’ on the basis of social subordination, it is extremely difficult to show that this is the case. This would require showing that the gender terminology we in fact employ is Haslanger’s proposed gender terminology. But discovering the grounds on which we apply everyday gender terms is extremely difficult precisely because they are applied in various and idiosyncratic ways (Saul 2006, 129). Haslanger, then, needs to do more in order to show that her analysis is non-revisionary.

Charlotte Witt (2011a; 2011b) argues for a particular sort of gender essentialism, which Witt terms ‘uniessentialism’. Her motivation and starting point is the following: many ordinary social agents report gender being essential to them and claim that they would be a different person were they of a different sex/gender. Uniessentialism attempts to understand and articulate this. However, Witt’s work departs in important respects from the earlier (so-called) essentialist or gender realist positions discussed in Section 2: Witt does not posit some essential property of womanhood of the kind discussed above, which failed to take women’s differences into account. Further, uniessentialism differs significantly from those position developed in response to the problem of how we should conceive of women’s social kind. It is not about solving the standard dispute between gender nominalists and gender realists, or about articulating some supposedly shared property that binds women together and provides a theoretical ground for feminist political solidarity. Rather, uniessentialism aims to make good the widely held belief that gender is constitutive of who we are. [ 9 ]

Uniessentialism is a sort of individual essentialism. Traditionally philosophers distinguish between kind and individual essentialisms: the former examines what binds members of a kind together and what do all members of some kind have in common qua members of that kind. The latter asks: what makes an individual the individual it is. We can further distinguish two sorts of individual essentialisms: Kripkean identity essentialism and Aristotelian uniessentialism. The former asks: what makes an individual that individual? The latter, however, asks a slightly different question: what explains the unity of individuals? What explains that an individual entity exists over and above the sum total of its constituent parts? (The standard feminist debate over gender nominalism and gender realism has largely been about kind essentialism. Being about individual essentialism, Witt’s uniessentialism departs in an important way from the standard debate.) From the two individual essentialisms, Witt endorses the Aristotelian one. On this view, certain functional essences have a unifying role: these essences are responsible for the fact that material parts constitute a new individual, rather than just a lump of stuff or a collection of particles. Witt’s example is of a house: the essential house-functional property (what the entity is for, what its purpose is) unifies the different material parts of a house so that there is a house, and not just a collection of house-constituting particles (2011a, 6). Gender (being a woman/a man) functions in a similar fashion and provides “the principle of normative unity” that organizes, unifies and determines the roles of social individuals (Witt 2011a, 73). Due to this, gender is a uniessential property of social individuals.

It is important to clarify the notions of gender and social individuality that Witt employs. First, gender is a social position that “cluster[s] around the engendering function … women conceive and bear … men beget” (Witt 2011a, 40). These are women and men’s socially mediated reproductive functions (Witt 2011a, 29) and they differ from the biological function of reproduction, which roughly corresponds to sex on the standard sex/gender distinction. Witt writes: “to be a woman is to be recognized to have a particular function in engendering, to be a man is to be recognized to have a different function in engendering” (2011a, 39). Second, Witt distinguishes persons (those who possess self-consciousness), human beings (those who are biologically human) and social individuals (those who occupy social positions synchronically and diachronically). These ontological categories are not equivalent in that they possess different persistence and identity conditions. Social individuals are bound by social normativity, human beings by biological normativity. These normativities differ in two respects: first, social norms differ from one culture to the next whereas biological norms do not; second, unlike biological normativity, social normativity requires “the recognition by others that an agent is both responsive to and evaluable under a social norm” (Witt 2011a, 19). Thus, being a social individual is not equivalent to being a human being. Further, Witt takes personhood to be defined in terms of intrinsic psychological states of self-awareness and self-consciousness. However, social individuality is defined in terms of the extrinsic feature of occupying a social position, which depends for its existence on a social world. So, the two are not equivalent: personhood is essentially about intrinsic features and could exist without a social world, whereas social individuality is essentially about extrinsic features that could not exist without a social world.

Witt’s gender essentialist argument crucially pertains to social individuals , not to persons or human beings: saying that persons or human beings are gendered would be a category mistake. But why is gender essential to social individuals? For Witt, social individuals are those who occupy positions in social reality. Further, “social positions have norms or social roles associated with them; a social role is what an individual who occupies a given social position is responsive to and evaluable under” (Witt 2011a, 59). However, qua social individuals, we occupy multiple social positions at once and over time: we can be women, mothers, immigrants, sisters, academics, wives, community organisers and team-sport coaches synchronically and diachronically. Now, the issue for Witt is what unifies these positions so that a social individual is constituted. After all, a bundle of social position occupancies does not make for an individual (just as a bundle of properties like being white , cube-shaped and sweet do not make for a sugar cube). For Witt, this unifying role is undertaken by gender (being a woman or a man): it is

a pervasive and fundamental social position that unifies and determines all other social positions both synchronically and diachronically. It unifies them not physically, but by providing a principle of normative unity. (2011a, 19–20)

By ‘normative unity’, Witt means the following: given our social roles and social position occupancies, we are responsive to various sets of social norms. These norms are “complex patterns of behaviour and practices that constitute what one ought to do in a situation given one’s social position(s) and one’s social context” (Witt 2011a, 82). The sets of norms can conflict: the norms of motherhood can (and do) conflict with the norms of being an academic philosopher. However, in order for this conflict to exist, the norms must be binding on a single social individual. Witt, then, asks: what explains the existence and unity of the social individual who is subject to conflicting social norms? The answer is gender.

Gender is not just a social role that unifies social individuals. Witt takes it to be the social role — as she puts it, it is the mega social role that unifies social agents. First, gender is a mega social role if it satisfies two conditions (and Witt claims that it does): (1) if it provides the principle of synchronic and diachronic unity of social individuals, and (2) if it inflects and defines a broad range of other social roles. Gender satisfies the first in usually being a life-long social position: a social individual persists just as long as their gendered social position persists. Further, Witt maintains, trans people are not counterexamples to this claim: transitioning entails that the old social individual has ceased to exist and a new one has come into being. And this is consistent with the same person persisting and undergoing social individual change via transitioning. Gender satisfies the second condition too. It inflects other social roles, like being a parent or a professional. The expectations attached to these social roles differ depending on the agent’s gender, since gender imposes different social norms to govern the execution of the further social roles. Now, gender — as opposed to some other social category, like race — is not just a mega social role; it is the unifying mega social role. Cross-cultural and trans-historical considerations support this view. Witt claims that patriarchy is a social universal (2011a, 98). By contrast, racial categorisation varies historically and cross-culturally, and racial oppression is not a universal feature of human cultures. Thus, gender has a better claim to being the social role that is uniessential to social individuals. This account of gender essentialism not only explains social agents’ connectedness to their gender, but it also provides a helpful way to conceive of women’s agency — something that is central to feminist politics.

Linda Alcoff holds that feminism faces an identity crisis: the category of women is feminism’s starting point, but various critiques about gender have fragmented the category and it is not clear how feminists should understand what it is to be a woman (2006, chapter 5). In response, Alcoff develops an account of gender as positionality whereby “gender is, among other things, a position one occupies and from which one can act politically” (2006, 148). In particular, she takes one’s social position to foster the development of specifically gendered identities (or self-conceptions): “The very subjectivity (or subjective experience of being a woman) and the very identity of women are constituted by women’s position” (Alcoff 2006, 148). Alcoff holds that there is an objective basis for distinguishing individuals on the grounds of (actual or expected) reproductive roles:

Women and men are differentiated by virtue of their different relationship of possibility to biological reproduction, with biological reproduction referring to conceiving, giving birth, and breast-feeding, involving one’s body . (Alcoff 2006, 172, italics in original)

The thought is that those standardly classified as biologically female, although they may not actually be able to reproduce, will encounter “a different set of practices, expectations, and feelings in regard to reproduction” than those standardly classified as male (Alcoff 2006, 172). Further, this differential relation to the possibility of reproduction is used as the basis for many cultural and social phenomena that position women and men: it can be

the basis of a variety of social segregations, it can engender the development of differential forms of embodiment experienced throughout life, and it can generate a wide variety of affective responses, from pride, delight, shame, guilt, regret, or great relief from having successfully avoided reproduction. (Alcoff 2006, 172)

Reproduction, then, is an objective basis for distinguishing individuals that takes on a cultural dimension in that it positions women and men differently: depending on the kind of body one has, one’s lived experience will differ. And this fosters the construction of gendered social identities: one’s role in reproduction helps configure how one is socially positioned and this conditions the development of specifically gendered social identities.

Since women are socially positioned in various different contexts, “there is no gender essence all women share” (Alcoff 2006, 147–8). Nonetheless, Alcoff acknowledges that her account is akin to the original 1960s sex/gender distinction insofar as sex difference (understood in terms of the objective division of reproductive labour) provides the foundation for certain cultural arrangements (the development of a gendered social identity). But, with the benefit of hindsight

we can see that maintaining a distinction between the objective category of sexed identity and the varied and culturally contingent practices of gender does not presume an absolute distinction of the old-fashioned sort between culture and a reified nature. (Alcoff 2006, 175)

That is, her view avoids the implausible claim that sex is exclusively to do with nature and gender with culture. Rather, the distinction on the basis of reproductive possibilities shapes and is shaped by the sorts of cultural and social phenomena (like varieties of social segregation) these possibilities gives rise to. For instance, technological interventions can alter sex differences illustrating that this is the case (Alcoff 2006, 175). Women’s specifically gendered social identities that are constituted by their context dependent positions, then, provide the starting point for feminist politics.

Recently Robin Dembroff (2020) has argued that existing metaphysical accounts of gender fail to address non-binary gender identities. This generates two concerns. First, metaphysical accounts of gender (like the ones outlined in previous sections) are insufficient for capturing those who reject binary gender categorisation where people are either men or women. In so doing, these accounts are not satisfying as explanations of gender understood in a more expansive sense that goes beyond the binary. Second, the failure to understand non-binary gender identities contributes to a form of epistemic injustice called ‘hermeneutical injustice’: it feeds into a collective failure to comprehend and analyse concepts and practices that undergird non-binary classification schemes, thereby impeding on one’s ability to fully understand themselves. To overcome these problems, Dembroff suggests an account of genderqueer that they call ‘critical gender kind’:

a kind whose members collectively destabilize one or more elements of dominant gender ideology. Genderqueer, on my proposed model, is a category whose members collectively destabilize the binary axis, or the idea that the only possible genders are the exclusive and exhaustive kinds men and women. (2020, 2)

Note that Dembroff’s position is not to be confused with ‘gender critical feminist’ positions like those noted above, which are critical of the prevalent feminist focus on gender, as opposed to sex, kinds. Dembroff understands genderqueer as a gender kind, but one that is critical of dominant binary understandings of gender.

Dembroff identifies two modes of destabilising the gender binary: principled and existential. Principled destabilising “stems from or otherwise expresses individuals’ social or political commitments regarding gender norms, practices, and structures”, while existential destabilising “stems from or otherwise expresses individuals’ felt or desired gender roles, embodiment, and/or categorization” (2020, 13). These modes are not mutually exclusive, and they can help us understand the difference between allies and members of genderqueer kinds: “While both resist dominant gender ideology, members of [genderqueer] kinds resist (at least in part) due to felt or desired gender categorization that deviates from dominant expectations, norms, and assumptions” (2020, 14). These modes of destabilisation also enable us to formulate an understanding of non-critical gender kinds that binary understandings of women and men’s kinds exemplify. Dembroff defines these kinds as follows:

For a given kind X , X is a non-critical gender kind relative to a given society iff X ’s members collectively restabilize one or more elements of the dominant gender ideology in that society. (2020, 14)

Dembroff’s understanding of critical and non-critical gender kinds importantly makes gender kind membership something more and other than a mere psychological phenomenon. To engage in collectively destabilising or restabilising dominant gender normativity and ideology, we need more than mere attitudes or mental states – resisting or maintaining such normativity requires action as well. In so doing, Dembroff puts their position forward as an alternative to two existing internalist positions about gender. First, to Jennifer McKitrick’s (2015) view whereby gender is dispositional: in a context where someone is disposed to behave in ways that would be taken by others to be indicative of (e.g.) womanhood, the person has a woman’s gender identity. Second, to Jenkin’s (2016, 2018) position that takes an individual’s gender identity to be dependent on which gender-specific norms the person experiences as being relevant to them. On this view, someone is a woman if the person experiences norms associated with women to be relevant to the person in the particular social context that they are in. Neither of these positions well-captures non-binary identities, Dembroff argues, which motivates the account of genderqueer identities as critical gender kinds.

As Dembroff acknowledges, substantive philosophical work on non-binary gender identities is still developing. However, it is important to note that analytic philosophers are beginning to engage in gender metaphysics that goes beyond the binary.

This entry first looked at feminist objections to biological determinism and the claim that gender is socially constructed. Next, it examined feminist critiques of prevalent understandings of gender and sex, and the distinction itself. In response to these concerns, the entry looked at how a unified women’s category could be articulated for feminist political purposes. This illustrated that gender metaphysics — or what it is to be a woman or a man or a genderqueer person — is still very much a live issue. And although contemporary feminist philosophical debates have questioned some of the tenets and details of the original 1960s sex/gender distinction, most still hold onto the view that gender is about social factors and that it is (in some sense) distinct from biological sex. The jury is still out on what the best, the most useful, or (even) the correct definition of gender is.

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Beauvoir, Simone de | feminist philosophy, approaches: intersections between analytic and continental philosophy | feminist philosophy, topics: perspectives on reproduction and the family | feminist philosophy, topics: perspectives on the self | homosexuality | identity politics | speech acts

Acknowledgments

I am very grateful to Tuukka Asplund, Jenny Saul, Alison Stone and Nancy Tuana for their extremely helpful and detailed comments when writing this entry.

Copyright © 2022 by Mari Mikkola < m . mikkola @ uva . nl >

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By: History.com Editors

Updated: April 8, 2022 | Original: February 28, 2019

feminism in the us essay

Feminism, a belief in the political, economic and cultural equality of women, has roots in the earliest eras of human civilization. It is typically separated into three waves: first wave feminism, dealing with property rights and the right to vote; second wave feminism, focusing on equality and anti-discrimination, and third wave feminism, which started in the 1990s as a backlash to the second wave’s perceived privileging of white, straight women. 

From Ancient Greece to the fight for women’s suffrage to women’s marches and the #MeToo movement, the history of feminism is as long as it is fascinating. 

Early Feminists 

In his classic Republic , Plato advocated that women possess “natural capacities” equal to men for governing and defending ancient Greece . Not everyone agreed with Plato; when the women of ancient Rome staged a massive protest over the Oppian Law, which restricted women’s access to gold and other goods, Roman consul Marcus Porcius Cato argued, “As soon as they begin to be your equals, they will have become your superiors!” (Despite Cato’s fears, the law was repealed.)

In The Book of the City of Ladies , 15th-century writer Christine de Pizan protested misogyny and the role of women in the Middle Ages . Years later, during the Enlightenment , writers and philosophers like Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and Mary Wollstonecraft , author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman , argued vigorously for greater equality for women.

READ MORE: Milestones in U.S. Women's History

Abigail Adams, first lady to President John Adams, specifically saw access to education, property and the ballot as critical to women’s equality. In letters to her husband John Adams , Abigail Adams warned, “If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice.”

The “Rebellion” that Adams threatened began in the 19th century, as calls for greater freedom for women joined with voices demanding the end of slavery . Indeed, many women leaders of the abolitionist movement found an unsettling irony in advocating for African Americans rights that they themselves could not enjoy.

First Wave Feminism: Women’s Suffrage and The Seneca Falls Convention

At the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention , abolitionists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott boldly proclaimed in their now-famous Declaration of Sentiments that “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal.” Controversially, the feminists demanded “their sacred right to the elective franchise,” or the right to vote.

Many attendees thought voting rights for women were beyond the pale, but were swayed when Frederick Douglass argued that he could not accept the right to vote as a Black man if women could not also claim that right. When the resolution passed, the women’s suffrage movement began in earnest, and dominated much of feminism for several decades.

READ MORE:  American Women's Suffrage Came Down to One Man's Vote

The 19th Amendment: Women’s Right to Vote

Slowly, suffragettes began to claim some successes: In 1893, New Zealand became the first sovereign state giving women the right to vote, followed by Australia in 1902 and Finland in 1906. In a limited victory, the United Kingdom granted suffrage to women over 30 in 1918.

In the United States, women’s participation in World War I proved to many that they were deserving of equal representation. In 1920, thanks largely to the work of suffragists like Susan B. Anthony and Carrie Chapman Catt , the 19th Amendment passed. American women finally earned the right to vote. With these rights secured, feminists embarked on what some scholars refer to as the “second wave” of feminism.

Women And Work

Women began to enter the workplace in greater numbers following the Great Depression , when many male breadwinners lost their jobs, forcing women to find “ women’s work ” in lower paying but more stable careers like housework, teaching and secretarial roles.

During World War II , many women actively participated in the military or found work in industries previously reserved for men, making Rosie the Riveter a feminist icon. Following the civil rights movement , women sought greater participation in the workplace, with equal pay at the forefront of their efforts

The Equal Pay Act of 1963 was among the first efforts to confront this still-relevant issue.

Second Wave Feminism: Women's Liberation

But cultural obstacles remained, and with the 1963 publication of The Feminine Mystique , Betty Friedan —who later co-founded the National Organization for Women —argued that women were still relegated to unfulfilling roles in homemaking and child care. By this time, many people had started referring to feminism as “women’s liberation.” In 1971, feminist Gloria Steinem joined Betty Friedan and Bella Abzug in founding the National Women’s Political Caucus. Steinem’s Ms. Magazine became the first magazine to feature feminism as a subject on its cover in 1976.

The Equal Rights Amendment , which sought legal equality for women and banned discrimination on the basis of sex, was passed by Congress in 1972 (but, following a conservative backlash, was never ratified by enough states to become law). One year later, feminists celebrated the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade , the landmark ruling that guaranteed a woman’s right to choose an abortion.

READ MORE: Why the Fight Over the Equal Rights Amendment Has Lasted Nearly a Century

Third Wave Feminism: Who Benefits From the Feminist Movement?

Critics have argued that the benefits of the feminist movement , especially the second wave, are largely limited to white, college-educated women, and that feminism has failed to address the concerns of women of color, lesbians, immigrants and religious minorities. Even in the 19th century, Sojourner Truth lamented racial distinctions in women’s status in a speech before the 1851 Ohio Women's Rights Convention. She was later quoted as saying:

In fact, contemporaneous reports of Truth’s speech did not include the words “Ain’t I a Woman?” and quoted Truth in standard English. The distortion of Truth's words in later years reflected the false belief that as a formerly enslaved woman, Truth would have had a Southern accent. Truth was, in fact, a New Yorker.

#MeToo and Women’s Marches

By the 2010s, feminists pointed to prominent cases of sexual assault and “rape culture” as emblematic of the work still to be done in combating misogyny and ensuring women have equal rights. The #MeToo movement gained new prominence in October 2017, when the New York Times published a damning investigation into allegations of sexual harassment made against influential film producer Harvey Weinstein. Many more women came forward with allegations against other powerful men—including President Donald Trump.

On January 21, 2017, the first full day of Trump’s presidency, hundreds of thousands of people joined the Women’s March on Washington in D.C., a massive protest aimed at the new administration and the perceived threat it represented to reproductive, civil and human rights. It was not limited to Washington: Over 3 million people in cities around the world held simultaneous demonstrations, providing feminists with a high-profile platforms for advocating on behalf of full rights for all women worldwide.

Women in World History Curriculum Women's history, feminist history,  Making History , The Institute of Historical Research A Brief History of Feminism, Oxford Dictionaries   Four Waves of Feminism, Pacific Magazine, Pacific University

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Women, the Game Is Rigged. It’s Time We Stop Playing by the Rules.

feminism in the us essay

By Lux Alptraum

Ms. Alptraum is the author of “Faking It: The Lies Women Tell About Sex — and the Truths They Reveal.”

For most of the 21st century, the feminism that has been in fashion has leaned heavily on the idea of women’s empowerment. Glossy, celebrity-driven rhetoric , peppered with slogans like “nevertheless, she persisted” and reassurances that “girl, you got this,” suggests that if women display competence and strength — or even just “ the confidence of a mediocre white man ” — we will eventually earn equality.

This type of feminism has taken several forms — Lean In, the Women’s March, the girlboss and hashtag feminism, just to name a few iterations. But the ultimate promise has remained the same: If we work within the system, the system will reward us. If we hustle hard enough, vote hard enough, carry ourselves with enough confidence, show that the data is on our side and bravely share uncomfortable truths, we’ll be able to break through.

Adherents of empowerment feminism can point to many successes: In 2022, more than a quarter of the seats in Congress , almost a third of the seats in state legislatures, nearly half of the seats on the Supreme Court and, yes, the vice president’s office are all occupied by women. The list of female chief executives leading Fortune 500 companies continues to grow (though it remains abysmal). And as the #MeToo movement has made clear, when women speak up in great enough numbers, we’re able to topple some of our abusers — even incredibly powerful ones, like the once untouchable film mogul Harvey Weinstein.

And yet as we stand amid the metaphorical shards of all those shattered glass ceilings, it’s hard to ignore the fact that empowerment feminism hasn’t really delivered on its promises.

Women may be represented in Congress and on the Supreme Court in record numbers, but we still lost the constitutional right to abortion. Other policies feminists have advocated, such as universal child care, have stalled in Congress. #MeToo may have outed plenty of big-name abusers, but many still remain in power, and some of the accused — Johnny Depp and Marilyn Manson most notably — have turned the tables on their accusers, using the court system to sue for defamation (Mr. Depp successfully). As the rights women had come to take for granted evaporate, it’s hard not to feel a sense of betrayal. Where did we go wrong?

Perhaps the fault isn’t in ourselves but in our strategy. Fundamentally, empowerment feminism requires a system that’s operating in good faith, one that rewards our hustle, respects our confidence and values honesty and truth. In a rigged system — one that attempts to discredit women and girls, that forces us to jump through unnecessary hoops and is more interested in discouraging us than in listening to what we have to say — working within the system no longer makes sense. We can’t power-pose our way to a safe abortion in Texas. So what’s the point of playing by the rules when it feels like they are written to ensure we wind up losing?

What if, instead of empowerment feminism, we embraced a feminism of disempowerment? Rather than seeking the approval and validation of an unjust system, what if we rejected the system’s legitimacy and worked from there? What strengths might we be able to tap into if we recognized that the game is rigged and gave up on trying to “win” it?

It’s hardly a new idea. Indeed, for many marginalized groups throughout history, strategically working outside the system has been the best or only path to progress. In America, the civil rights and L.G.B.T.Q. liberation movements would hardly have found success if they’d simply stayed within the lines and asked nicely for their freedom. Colonized people around the globe have only been able to expel their oppressors by refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the systems that subjugated them.

These tactics, often dismissed in mainstream feminism as unappealingly militant, are a far cry from the empowerment touted on Instagram and Pinterest boards — a version of feminism that systemic racism and inequality left many women out of.

I first began thinking about how feminists might reject palatable, socially acceptable protests and strategies when I spoke with the artist Emma Sulkowicz, who is best known for her performance piece “Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight),” in which she carried a mattress around the Columbia University campus in protest of the school’s handling of her allegation that she was raped by a classmate.

It was Ms. Sulkowicz, known for a protest that was intentionally ugly, discomforting and inconvenient, who suggested “disempowerment” to me as an alternative mind-set for feminist engagement. In her search for justice, she’d repeatedly hit dead ends. The police had seemed dismissive and Columbia cleared the student whom she said raped her of responsibility. Though going public had garnered her a number of supporters, it had also exposed her to harassment and cruelty. She’d gone through the proper channels, and yet she felt she’d still been let down. Clearly she believed the system wasn’t serving her — so what was the point of engaging with it?

The feminism of disempowerment is not limited to art projects or academic theory — it has real-world applications, too. There’s no shortage of examples of feminists who’ve opted for social-boundary-breaking or even illegal solutions when going through established channels didn’t work — particularly when it comes to matters of sexual health and safety. Some of these activists have rejected the officially sanctioned modes of justice in favor of an unconventional alternative. American rape crisis centers, for example, have been working with victims since the early 1970s, providing support regardless of whether a survivor chooses to involve the police in their case. Others have ventured into legally grayer areas: Vigilante groups such as India’s pink-sari-clad Gulabi Gang , for example, wield sticks against abusers and rapists .

Abortion-rights advocates have also turned to these kinds of guerrilla tactics: In the years before the right to legal abortion was established in Roe v. Wade, a group of women known as the Jane Collective provided safe abortions, performing an estimated 11,000 procedures in the pre-Roe era. Then there were the Brazilian women who realized that the ulcer medication misoprostol could safely terminate a pregnancy and became pioneers of self-managed abortion . And mifepristone, the other drug often used in medicated abortion, owes its presence in the United States in part to Leona Benten, a feminist whose decision to bring a single dose into the country sparked a controversy (and a Supreme Court vote) months before President Bill Clinton asked the Food and Drug Administration to re-evaluate its import ban on the medication . Many of those who venture outside the box do so at great risk to themselves and their families — whether those risks are physical, emotional or legal.

For more established players, the potential gains that come with disempowerment strategies may not feel worth sacrificing the benefits that come with staying within the lines. As abortion access has been curtailed, the mainstream, well-funded organizations that many associate with abortion access have been limited by their legal obligations and commitment to the system. Taking too bold a stance could put their existing clinics and patients at great risk — which seems to be why Planned Parenthood of Montana pre-emptively cut off access to abortion pills for some out-of-state clients .

In contrast, scrappy websites like plancpills.org and mayday.health have refused to be bound by those rules. Sometimes operating completely outside of the regulated medical system, they spread information about how abortion pills offer a way to safely terminate a pregnancy and how to obtain these pills, whether through official channels or other, more illicit means.

In other countries where abortion is heavily restricted or illegal, feminist activists have gone even further. Abortion accompaniment networks, which can be found around the world, including throughout Latin America and in parts of Africa, operate outside of official medical channels. But they have still managed to help countless people, with some groups successfully aiding safe medication abortions well into the second trimester of pregnancy.

None of this is to say that the feminism of disempowerment is an ideal, or first line, strategy. It is always better when we’re able to secure our wins through established channels, when our rights are recognized through all levels of society — and certainly, voting remains a crucial tool in our toolbox.

But the feminism of disempowerment is a reminder that even when the system is rigged against us, no one can take away our truth, our personhood, our autonomy.

Lux Alptraum ( @luxalptraum ) is the author of “Faking It: The Lies Women Tell About Sex — and the Truths They Reveal” and the host of the Audible Original podcast “Say You’re Sorry” and the second season of the podcast “Tabloid,” from New York Magazine and Luminary.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips . And here’s our email: [email protected] .

Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook , Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram .

Feminism in the Past and Nowadays Essay

Introduction, liberal feminism, radical feminism, works cited.

The feminist movement is spread all over the world, and more and more people are sharing their values. In the context of the modern era, the position of women has changed. Discrimination based on gender is slowly vanishing from our reality, though it is still an issue in emerging countries. The patriarchal type of relations has almost disappeared, and household duties are usually shared by family members. Such positive changes would be impossible without the influence of passionate women, who stand for their rights. Although the feminist movement is still making a huge impact on global society, some of its aspects have changed throughout time, and this paper is focused on observing the present-day agenda in comparison with previous goals and achievements of feminism.

Liberal Feminism

The definition of liberal feminism is the following: “a particular approach to achieving equality between men and women that emphasizes the power of an individual person to alter discriminatory practices against women” (“Liberal Feminism: Definition & Theory” par. 2). In other words, it is based on the idea that in a democratic system women can create an equal society where law and men respect them. It should be noted that democratic institutions have developed significantly, so nowadays women have more opportunities for action. However, every movement has different directions, and liberal feminism can be addressed from two points of view: middle-class and working-class feminism.

Middle-class Feminism

The division by class here is for a reason. A famous activist bell hook claims that in the US middle-class white women had more opportunities to fight for their interests than women from other class and race (hooks 6). It means that privileged women had access to media, universities, and other public institutions, unlike others, so they could easier address the large audience.

The problems that middle-class feminists were highlighting mostly concerned about their isolation and inequality in the labor market. “The Feminine Mystique” by Betty Friedan, which illustrated the sad truth about the life goals of women, provoked a massive reaction and protest. Friedan disagreed with the nationwide promotion of early marriages and family as the only goal for women and revealed the problem of never questioning. It was torturing women, who did not even realize their true state of mind (Friedan 54). Hence, the movement became focused on highlighting women’s individuality and abilities to make an impact in society along with men.

Working-class Feminism

The status of working-class women was always vulnerable and open to debate. Firstly, as workers, they had to face the dehumanizing nature of labor and suffered from poverty daily. Furthermore, they were suspicious about middle-class women’s attempts to get a place at the labor market and knew that this liberation movement threatened their jobs (hooks 98). Therefore, the main struggle for them was to get decently paid and to avoid total discrimination.

All in all, liberal feminism was reflected in massive protests and public speeches, which finally reached many of its primary goals. In 1920 American women finally obtained the right to vote. Later, it became possible for women to work in the same positions as men. Today’s feminism missions would be much more complicated without this progress. Gender discrimination at work is gradually vanishing, and women keep raising awareness about it in order to eliminate it completely. Erasing these inequalities contributes to making a healthy society, where people respect each other and value work of the others.

Another school of feminism is called radical and focuses on fighting against male violence and patriarchy. Challenging the patriarchy means dealing with male dominance at home and at work (Mackay 4). Unfortunately, men’s supremacy has been a feature of every community for a long time. Hence, the concepts of radical feminism are interconnected with ideas of the liberal school, as male supremacy was always one of the major concerns for all women.

Radicals stress the topic of rape and violence. This is a critical issue that has always been hard to discuss. Women had never been eager to share their traumatic experiences and to combat violence at home until some brave activists began the public protest. It caused a tidal wave of disagreement, and it is noteworthy that women living in civilized countries can feel safe nowadays. Law protects them and brings confidence to millions of women across the world.

However, there are still many countries where the state does not protect from violence. It happens because of the reluctance of members of these societies to make a change. Possibly, they underestimate the features of healthy societies, and it results in indifference.

Modern feminism would not have been what it is without influencers and activists from the past. Literature, music, and other cultural ways of transferring a message helped feminists to widespread their ideas and beliefs. Second-wave feminism was the period when the movement was at its peak, so most of the remarkable works concerning the position of women in society were created at this time. Along with authors who discussed basic women’s rights, like bell hooks, others promoted the topics which had never been talked about before. For example, Erica Jong developed a theme of female sexuality in her novel “Fear of Flying” published in 1973. It was a provocative subject for those days, but it was time for the society to reconsider conservative views and accept the natural causes of the phenomenon.

Another outstanding example in modern feminism is Alice Walker, a writer who coined the term “womanism.” It was meant to symbolize all women, including the black ones, as “feminism” did not usually encompass them. According to Walker, “womanism” is a philosophy of women who love their gender, which also addresses all issues mentioned above (Junior 16). Although the opposite term “misogyny” has been popular lately, there are still many proponents of Walker’s views.

In the context of education, the feminist movement became a global appeal for critical thinking and overviewing the common concepts of the position of women. Women started asking themselves, and they finally realized that their opinion and self-respect matter. It is important that the ideas of feminism gave a sense of community to women, and this sense of participation brought power and confidence to many of them. Women became capable of debating openly over controversial topics. This is how the slogan “the personal is political” occurred – it addressed the connection between the self and political reality. It was one of the first steps in discussing the subject of political consciousness among women, and it seems especially important today when we finally see women-politicians, women-presidents.

To sum up, the contemporary feminist movement has progressed to the state of a global and powerful philosophy which helps women worldwide. Fashion claims that the future is feminine, men join the movement and support active women, and this would never be true without the founders and previous activists, who were first to declare women’s rights. Besides, today’s agenda has become more diversified, and feminists’ concerns are not only about women but also about global development in general. Thus, the efforts of the first feminists were not useless, and future generations can rely on modern activists.

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique . W.W. Norton and Co, 1963

Hooks, bell. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center . Routledge, 2014.

Jong, Erica. Fear of Flying . Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973.

Junior, Nyasha. An Introduction to Womanist Biblical Interpretation . Presbyterian Publishing Corp, 2015.

Mackay, Finn. Radical Feminism: Feminist Activism in Movement. Springer, 2015.

“Liberal Feminism: Definition & Theory.” Web.

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Feminism Essay: How to Write a Powerful Paper on Women’s Rights

A feminism essay or paper takes an in-depth look at what the word means, how women have been historically treated and the work still to be done toward equality.

A feminist essay can examine women’s rights from the perspective of several different disciplines, such as gender studies, history and sociology.

Regardless of your topic, writing a feminist essay requires you to be well informed on the topic and knowledgeable about your resources, so you can provide accurate facts and persuasive arguments to support your ideas.

Read on for a step-by-step breakdown of how to write a strong essay about feminism.

Define the topic for your feminism essay

To define your topic, first, start with defining feminism and its many facets.

Feminism is defined as the political, economic and social equality of all genders; however, it has come to mean much more than that.

For instance, there are now intersectional feminists who study issues related to race and sexual orientation alongside those related to gender.

feminism essay

There are also two waves of feminism.

First Wave feminism focused mainly on women’s suffrage, voting rights and reproductive rights while Second Wave feminism encompassed these topics while adding societal changes like workplace discrimination and rape culture.

Feminist movements often focus on specific marginalized groups such as trans people, Black Lives Matter activists and queer folks.

To help you narrow down your definition of feminism and decide which topics will best suit your needs, ask yourself a few questions.

What is my definition of feminism? What issue would I like to explore? Is this issue restricted to gender? What does my definition allow me to explore? What does my definition limit me from exploring?

Once you answer these questions, you’ll know which area best suits your topic and what information should go into each paragraph.

Researching the Topic For your feminism essay

This step is perhaps the most important part of writing a powerful feminist essay.

You need to gather facts and statistics about your topic, but don’t stop there!

Find articles, essays and interviews with experts in the field to get perspectives that are both traditional and outside the box.

Sometimes looking up just one source can change your entire understanding of something; always try to read multiple perspectives before making any conclusions.

Additionally, pay attention to sources because not all are created equal.

Some may be biased, some may contain factual inaccuracies and some may not even use credible sources at all.

The only way to tell if a resource is credible or not is by evaluating the author’s credentials (e.g., their academic background), whether they cite their sources properly and the opinions of other scholars in the field.

If a scholarly article was published in a peer-reviewed journal, chances are good that the writer’s statements are based on sound evidence and expert opinion.

However, if the article was published elsewhere, do your research to make sure the writer is qualified and can back up their claims.

Create an outline for your Feminism paper

An outline for your Feminine paper should have the following parts: introduction, argument, conclusion, and bibliography.

The introduction should be a brief overview of what you are going to be talking about in the essay.

Arguments should consist of your points as they relate to feminism. The conclusion should summarize your points and draw conclusions from them.

The bibliography is where you will list all sources used in the paper.

Remember the outline is not necessarily set in stone – feel free to change it if you want.

For example, if you think that two paragraphs would work better than one paragraph then by all means do so.

A good Feminine essay outline should not be detailed; instead, it is meant to highlight the topics which are going to be covered in the essay.

You can also use subheadings within your body paragraphs to help make things clearer or give more information when necessary.

Remember, there are no right or wrong ways to create an outline, just what works best for you!

Writing Your feminist essay Argument

There are many ways to structure your argument depending on the nature of your topic and style of the essay.

It is important to remember that a solid introduction and conclusion are the foundation of your essay, and without them, you won’t be able to establish your thesis.

In the introduction, you want to give your reader a broad idea of what you’re going to be discussing in the essay and why it matters.

Remember, though, that introductions are short- keep your brief.

An effective feminism essay argues in favour of women’s rights while providing examples of how women are currently disadvantaged.

A simple essay may argue that feminism is necessary to fight against gender inequality, while a more complex essay might argue that feminism is necessary in order to dismantle patriarchy.

Be sure to address your topic, include examples, and provide a thesis statement in your introduction and conclusion.

The body of the essay about feminism will be divided into three paragraphs.

The first should cover the definition of feminism and provide context for the following paragraphs.

The second paragraph should introduce an example of how women are currently being disadvantaged, while the third paragraph will discuss solutions to these problems.

For example, in the first paragraph, you could talk about the definition of feminism and mention that it includes fighting for gender equality.

The second paragraph could mention some issue like male violence against women and child marriage that is happening around the world. The third paragraph could then be dedicated to possible solutions to these problems.

For example, you could talk about campaigns like HeForShe and UN Women’s call to end violence against women and girls.

It is important to know that when you are citing resources, you must also include a bibliography as well as citations within the text of your paper so readers know where they can find more information.

Hitting the Right Tone

Once you’ve written your essay, take a few moments to reflect on your tone.

This is the final check to make sure that your paper is being communicated in the appropriate manner.

One easy way to determine your tone is to ask yourself who you are talking to and what they already know about the subject.

For instance, someone who has never heard of feminism would be reading this article from a very different perspective than someone who has spent years studying feminist theory.

The former may have a lot of questions about the topic and its implications, while the latter is likely to be more familiar and comfortable with the language.

This means that you’ll have to approach your writing in two different ways, tailoring your argument to your audience’s level of knowledge.

Think carefully about whether or not you’re using too much jargon or speaking too broadly, and make adjustments accordingly. You want to strike the right balance between accessible and academic writing. When people start reading your essay, their minds should light up with understanding; if they don’t understand something immediately, you need to find a way to explain it more clearly or change your word choice.

Tips for Writing a College Feminism Essay

Write strong introductions and conclusions

The introduction of the feminist essay should be informative, yet concise.

This is your chance to inform the reader of your thoughts and reasoning.

Do not feel obligated to present every detail, just enough to tell the story you wish to share.

Give an explanation of what you plan to say in the rest of your essay.

Next, conclude by bringing back your point one last time and summarizing the main points of your argument.

This is your opportunity to touch on the importance of feminism and remind the reader of what you’re trying to accomplish.

Consider your tone

It is essential to consider the tone of your essay, which refers to the attitude that a writer takes towards their subject. Tones are usually classified in terms of formal and informal or objective and subjective.

The formal tone is more reserved, with less personal input on the author’s part.

This tone is often seen in research papers and thesis papers.

The informal tone, on the other hand, is more conversational and casual. This tone is found in blogs, news articles, and editorials.

The formal tone is typically preferred in scholarly essays due to the seriousness of the subject matter.

However, both styles can be used effectively depending on your purpose and intended audience.

If you use the wrong tone in your essay it might sound preachy or off-putting to your readers.

Keep sentences simple, clear and concise

One important element of your essay is sentence structure.

Avoid unnecessarily complicated or difficult sentences. Your writing will be much easier to read if you keep things straightforward and concise.

There are times when complex sentences are appropriate, but only when it serves your purpose.

Generally speaking, simpler sentences are better as they help readers connect better with what you’re trying to say.

A feminism essay’s sentences should be as direct and clear as possible. Using short, to-the-point sentences helps the reader better understand your point of view.

This doesn’t mean you should avoid using long sentences occasionally, just be mindful of what you’re saying.

Too many big words or sentences that are too complicated won’t make your essay more credible.

In general, you want to convey your ideas in a clear and engaging manner. Make it easy on your reader!

Use the active voice and descriptive verbs

It’s a good idea to mix the active voice with passive sentences, especially when you’re telling a story or describing events.

Active voice, in essence, is where the subject of the sentence is doing the action that is expressed in the verb.

Passive voice, on the other hand, places more emphasis on what happens to someone or something rather than who does it.

Feminist papers should be written in an active voice because it focuses on what the subject is doing rather than what is happening to them.

This is crucial for avoiding ambiguity and confusing language.

Use concrete language

One way to improve your writing style is by using specific language and examples.

Concrete language relates more closely to objects, actions, and details that people can see or experience.

For example, instead of saying I wanted, try I wanted.

Specifics are always better than vague statements that may cause misunderstanding.

In feminist writing, the focus is on the woman and how she has to break down barriers in order to succeed.

As a result, language should be specific and accurate.

Address counterarguments

One of the goals of a persuasive feminist essay is to convince the reader that your position is correct.

This means you must acknowledge any valid arguments against your viewpoint and provide a response. This response could include evidence, logical explanations, or qualifications.

You also need to show that you’ve considered all aspects of your topic before making any claims about it. This is necessary in order to present a fair and balanced perspective on the subject.

Provide sources

One of the most common mistakes in an essay is not citing your sources.

Citing your sources is one way to back up what you are arguing or stating.

It gives credibility to your argument while demonstrating that you are informed about the topic.

One important way you need to cite your sources is by listing them at the end of your essay.

Doing so also allows readers who are interested in knowing more about your topic easy access to relevant information.

It’s true that some writers prefer to use footnotes, but it is generally accepted that the referencing system used at the end of your paper is the preferred method.

Avoid sexist language

Sexist language refers to words and phrases used primarily to refer to either women or men.

Examples of sexism include referring to a group of men as gentlemen, calling women sweethearts, or asking someone when they’re going to start a family.

Avoid these types of language in your writing because it is offensive and dismissive. Instead, replace gendered language with gender-neutral terms.

This will help to create a less biased and therefore, more effective essay.

A few ideas of gender-neutral terms to use in place of feminine language include driver, employee, human being, and student.

The tone and language you choose should be a reflection of your intended audience. To do this, you have to know what your audience is looking for.

Men are typically more interested in facts, figures, and straight talk whereas women are more receptive to emotional stories that make the point.

This means that if you’re writing a feminist essay on a political issue such as health care, you might want to take the latter approach. This strategy is more likely to lead to a successful essay.

Proofread, proofread, proofread!

Once you’re sure your paper has addressed all of these points and that it is perfect, it’s time to proofread your essay.

This step will help you ensure that there are no typographical or grammatical errors.

Even one typo can take away from what you’re saying and ultimately detract from your argument.

To check for mistakes, print out your essay then read it aloud to yourself, using different voices for different parts of the writing if possible.

This will help you catch any misspellings, misuse of punctuation and other mistakes that can otherwise be difficult to spot.

Next, ask a friend or colleague to proofread your essay for you.

Their opinion is often more objective than yours and this way you can be confident that your essay is the best it can be.

Feminine essay topics Examples

Essay topics for a feminist essay can be based on a wide range of issues.

For example, how feminism is perceived in America, the impact of feminism on male and female relationships, or the role of feminism in politics.

Here is a list of a few essay topics that a writer might consider, in order to write a powerful paper on the rights of women:

  • What is your opinion of feminism and its effect on society?
  • What does feminism mean to you?
  • What is the feminist movement today, and where is it headed?
  • Do feminists fight only for the rights of females, or are they working to protect everyone’s rights?
  • Why is it important for girls to embrace feminism?
  • How has feminism helped you personally?
  • Why is it important for boys to become feminists too?
  • When did you first become aware of the feminist movement, and why was this moment so significant to you?
  • You’ve said that feminism is about fighting for the rights of both males and females. Could you elaborate on what this entails?
  • In your own experience, which types of struggles have been the most challenging to overcome, and which ones have been the easiest?
  • Explain the importance of feminism to a woman’s daily life.
  • Explain the importance of feminism to a man’s daily life.
  • Would you like to live in a world without any form of discrimination?
  • Which is more important – personal happiness, or fighting for the rights of others?
  • In your opinion, is achieving equal rights worth the struggle?
  • If someone asked you to define feminism in just one sentence, what would you say?
  • What advice do you have for young people who want to know how to get involved with the feminist movement?
  • Discuss some ways that men can support their wives’ goals and dreams.
  • Is sexism against men an issue as well as sexism against women?
  • What are some long-term goals of the feminist movement, such as equality at home and work, or improved health care access?
  • Who should we thank for getting us this far in the feminist movement, and what do we need to thank them for?
  • What does feminism mean to you, and how has it impacted your life?

Writing a Feminine essay Final remarks

Feminine papers are usually focused on specific aspects of feminism, and arguments for the rights of women.

Topics for a feminine paper could include the effect of feminism on American culture, the significance of feminism to female relationships, and the role feminism plays in politics.

There is a wide variety of different feminist essay topics so writers can choose whichever topic suits them best.

Whether readers are interested in looking at how feminism is portrayed in popular culture, the effects of feminism on femininity and masculinity, or exploring ways to join the movement themselves there will be something here for every type of audience member.

Finally, always follow your professor’s specific instructions for writing this kind of paper.

Some professors may ask students to discuss ideas from readings in class, while other instructors may require students to use certain resources.

It is a good idea to follow the guidelines of the instructor because if not, the student may end up receiving a lower grade for violating these instructions

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Home — Essay Samples — Social Issues — Gender Equality — Essay On Feminism In Society

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Essay on Feminism in Society

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Published: Mar 19, 2024

Words: 1481 | Pages: 3 | 8 min read

Table of contents

I. introduction, ii. history of feminism, iii. feminism in the workplace, iv. feminism in politics, v. feminism in media and pop culture, vi. feminism in education, vii. criticisms of feminism, viii. conclusion.

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feminism in the us essay

Feminist Film Theory: An Introductory Reading List

Evolving from the analysis of representations of women in film, feminist film theory asks questions about identity, sexuality, and the politics of spectatorship.

Director Julie Dash poses for the movie "Daughters of the Dust," circa 1991

Not unlike the emergence of feminist theory and criticism in the domains of art and literature, the women’s movement of the late 1960s and 1970s sparked a focused interrogation of images of women in film and of women’s participation in film production.  The 1970s witnessed the authorship of massively influential texts by writers such as Claire Johnston, Molly Haskell, and Laura Mulvey in the United Kingdom and the United States, and psychoanalysis was a reigning method of inquiry, though Marxism and semiotics also informed the field.

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Feminist film theory has provoked debates about the representations of female bodies, sexuality, and femininity on screen while posing questions concerning identity, desire, and the politics of spectatorship, among other topics. Crucially, an increasing amount of attention has been paid by theorists to intersectionality, as scholars investigate the presence and absence of marginalized and oppressed film subjects and producers. This reading list surveys a dozen articles, presented chronologically, as a starting point for readers interested in the lines of inquiry that have fueled the field over the last fifty years.

Laura Mulvey, “ Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema ,” Screen 16, no. 3 (1975): 6–18.

To put it most simply, Mulvey’s 1975 essay is nothing short of iconic. A cornerstone of psychoanalytic feminist film theory, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” describes the ways in which women are displayed on screen for the pleasure of the male spectator. Many of the essays listed below engage explicitly with Mulvey’s essay and the notion of the male gaze, illustrating what Corrin Columpar (2002, see below) describes as a “near compulsive return” to this pioneering work. But even Mulvey herself would later push back on some of her most provocative claims , including her positioning of the spectator as male, as well as her omission of female protagonists.

“ Feminism and Film: Critical Approaches ,” Camera Obscura 1, no. 1 (1976): 3–10.

Established in 1976, Camera Obscura was (and remains) a groundbreaking venue for feminist film studies. This introductory essay to the first issue contextualizes the necessity of such a journal in a scholarly and cultural environment in which there is a true “need” for the feminist study of film. Camera Obscura was, in part, an American response to the wave of British contributions to the field, often published in the journal Screen (the home of Mulvey’s essay). The editors spend much of this essay unpacking the camera obscura, an image projection device, as a metaphor for feminist film theory, as it functions as a symbol of contradiction that “emphasizes the points of convergence of ideology and representation, of ideology as representation.”

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Michelle Criton, Julia Lesage, Judith Mayne, B. Ruby Rich, and Anna Marie Taylor, “ Women and Film: A Discussion of Feminist Aesthetics ,” New German Critique no. 13 (1978): 83–107.

What makes film an enticing object of study for feminists in the first place? As Criton et al. attest, the answers lie in the social rather than individual or private dimensions of film as well as in its accessibility and synthesis of “art, life, politics, sex, etc.” The conversation featured here provides a glimpse into contemporary conversations about the work of Claire Johnston and Laura Mulvey and psychoanalysis as a shaping force of early feminist film theory. Additionally, they consider how a feminist filmmaking aesthetic can reveal and critique the ideologies that underpin the oppression of women.

Judith Mayne, “ Feminist Film Theory and Criticism ,” Signs 11, no. 1 (1985): 81–100.

Acknowledging the profound impact of “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Mayne surveys the development of feminist film theory, including both its historical contexts and its fixations upon psychoanalysis and the notions of spectacle and the gaze. Mayne outlines how contradiction—variously construed—is “ the central issue in feminist film theory and criticism” (emphasis added). Additionally, the author calls into question the historiography of women’s cinema, noting the “risk of romanticizing women’s exclusion from the actual production of films.” She urges scholars to, certainly, continue the necessary exploration of forgotten and understudied female filmmakers but to also open up the conception of women’s cinema to include not just the work of female directors but also their peripheral roles as critics and audience members.

Jane Gaines, “ White Privilege and Looking Relations: Race and Gender in Feminist Film Theory ,” Cultural Critique , no. 4 (1986): 59–79.

What, Gaines asks, are the limitations of feminist theory’s early fixation on gender at the expense of nuanced understandings of race, class, and sexuality? While feminist theory may, in its earliest years, have opened up possibilities for interrogating the gendered politics of spectatorship, it was largely exclusionary of diverse perspectives, including, as Gaines notes, lesbians and women of color. In doing so, “feminist theory has helped to reinforce white middle-class [normative] values, and to the extent that it works to keep women from seeing other structures of oppression, it functions ideologically.” Through an analysis of the 1975 film Mahogany and informed by black feminist theorists and writers such as bell hooks, Mayne argues that psychoanalysis ultimately results in erroneous readings of films about race.

Noël Carroll, “ The Image of Women in Film: A Defense of a Paradigm ,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 48, no. 4 (1990): 349–60.

Carroll theorizes why psychoanalysis was so attractive to feminists in the 1970s and 1980s: by providing a theoretical framework, he argues, psychoanalysis was a means to “incorporate” and “organize” the “scattered insights of the image of women in film approach.” Taking issue with Mulvey’s perspective on voyeurism, Carroll positions the image approach, or the study of the image of women in film—in this case with an emphasis on theories of emotion— as a “rival research program” to psychoanalysis. He argues that paradigm scenarios, or cases in which emotions are learned behavioral responses, influence spectatorship and how audiences respond emotionally to women on screen.

Karen Hollinger, “ Theorizing Mainstream Female Spectatorship: The Case of the Popular Lesbian Film ,” Cinema Journal 37, no. 2 (1998): 3–17.

Hollinger surveys theoretical responses to lesbian subjectivity and the female spectatorship of popular lesbian film narratives. She articulates the subversive power of the lesbian look as a challenge to Mulvey’s notion of the male gaze, asserting its potential to empower female spectators as agents of desire.

Corinn Columpar, “ The Gaze As Theoretical Touchstone: The Intersection of Film Studies, Feminist Theory, and Postcolonial Theory ,” Women’s Studies Quarterly 30, no. 1/2 (2002): 25–44.

The male gaze is not, as Columpar articulates, the sole tool “in the contemporary feminist film critic’s box”: so are the ethnographic and colonial gazes, brought to film theory from postcolonial studies. Columpar reiterates that the early fixation upon gender and the male gaze “failed to account for other key determinants of social power and position.” Interdisciplinary perspectives, such as those informed by postcolonial theory, are better equipped to unpack “issues of racial and national difference and acknowledge the role that race and ethnicity play in looking relations.”

Janell Hobson, “ Viewing in the Dark: Toward a Black Feminist Approach to Film ,” Women’s Studies Quarterly 30, no. 1/2 (2002): 45–59.

Hobson illuminates the absence and/or disembodied presence of Black female bodies in Hollywood cinema. She argues that the invisibility of Black women’s bodies on screen was a defense mechanism against the disruption of “whites as beautiful, as the norm.” By turning away from the gaze and toward the sound of Black women’s disembodied voices in speech and song, viewers are better equipped to recognize how their voices are “used in mainstream cinema by way of supporting and defining the normalized (white) male body,” therefore “ensur[ing] the identity of white masculinity.”

E. Ann Kaplan, “ Global Feminisms and the State of Feminist Film Theory ,” Signs 30, no. 1 (2004): 1236–48.

Kaplan reflects on her trajectory as a pioneering feminist film theorist, illuminating her shift from cinema’s depictions of the “oppressions of white Western women” to the study of trauma in global and indigenous cinema. Importantly, she notes that in her earlier research, she failed to “confront the really tough questions of my own positionality.” In doing so, she invites readers to consider the ethics of witnessing and white, Western feminist participation in the development of multicultural approaches.

Jane M. Gaines, “ Film History and the Two Presents of Feminist Film Theory ,” Cinema Journal 44, no. 1 (2004): 113–19.

It may come as a surprise to many that, internationally speaking, women were indeed undertaking various forms of creative labor in the world of film production during the silent era, including screenwriting, producing, directing, etc. The question, then, is not just “why these women were forgotten” but also “why we forgot them.” Gaines considers the “historical turn” in feminist film studies, arguing that scholars must be mindful of how they narrativize and rewrite the rediscovered facts of women’s work in cinema.

Sangita Gopal, “ Feminism and the Big Picture: Conversations ,” Cinema Journal 57, no. 2 (2018): 131–36.

In this fascinating article, Gopal synthesizes responses to a series of questions posed to film scholars regarding feminist theory, praxis, and pedagogy, as well as feminism as “an unfinished project” and feminist media studies as a “boundless” field. Where theory is concerned, Gopal usefully highlights Lingzhen Wang’s and Priya Jaikumar’s suggestions for more explicitly linking and situating feminist media studies within “the big picture.” Notably, Jaikumar ponders the possibilities of feminism creating a framework such that “it is not possible to ask a question if it is absent of a politics.”

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May 2024 Reads for the Rest of Us

The Feminist Know-It-All : You know her. You can’t stand her. Good thing she’s not here! Instead, this column by gender and women’s studies librarian Karla Strand will amplify stories of the creation, access, use and preservation of knowledge by women and girls around the world; share innovative projects and initiatives that focus on information, literacies, libraries and more; and, of course, talk about all of the books.

Each month , I provide Ms. readers with a list of new books being published by writers from historically excluded groups.

The aims of these lists are threefold:

  • I want to do my part in the disruption of what has been the acceptable “norm” in the book world for far too long—white, cis, heterosexual, male;
  • I want to amplify indie publishers and amazing works by writers who are women, Black, Indigenous, Latinx, APIA/AAPI, international, queer, trans, nonbinary, disabled, fat, immigrant, Muslim, neurodivergent, sex-positive or of other historically marginalized identities—you know, the rest of us; and
  • I want to challenge and encourage you all to buy, borrow and read them! 

Fellow feminist readers, 

It’s been a rough few months—years?—for many of us. We are overworked, underappreciated and anxious about the precarious state of the world. How does one think about anything other than one’s role in saving the world and rescuing humanity from our own destruction? How do we maintain hope and strength in the face of such violence and fear?

There’s truth in the adage that we must each find our own way through the darkness to the light. That said, there is also strength in numbers and resilience in collective care. There are times to spend in solitude, in meditation or reading a good book. There are also times for collective resistance—and we’ve experienced many of those times since 2020, friends. 

Recently, to fight off my own hopelessness, I’ve been heeding the call to action and helping organize support for amazing young people in my area doing courageous work in the world. I’ve had to reallocate time and energy for this work, I’ve lost some sleep, and I’ve been late for some deadlines. (Sorry!) 

But I am a better person for it. For the little I’ve given, I have received a burst of inspiration, a boost in creativity, a surge of meaning and renewed hope for a world guided by the next generation.

I hope you, too, will find the joy and camaraderie of collective action, be that through a march, mutual aid or a book club. We all have roles to play and strengths to offer. We work hard, and when we tire, our peers will be there to take over, as you will do for them when they need it. That’s the power of community. 

So answer the call, get in there, do your best. Then rest, read and revitalize before relieving someone else. The 24 books on my list this month are certain to help you to strategize, reenergize and mobilize. 

Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a book that I was going to include in this month’s list before I realized it actually came out last month… ope! (That’s Midwestern for “oops.”) So I’m including Crip Spacetime by Margaret Price (Duke University Press) here because it is a wonderfully accessible and necessary book, especially for those of us who’ve spent any time in academia. You’ll find its entry below. 

Black Meme: A History of The Images That Make Us

By Legacy Russell ( @ellerustle ). Verso. 192 pages. Out now.

Writer and curator Legacy Russell’s latest thought-provoking book forges a strong connection between Black imagery from 1900 on to the development of contemporary digital culture, as well as to our understanding of culture, race, gender, violence and more. 

Breathe: Journeys to Healthy Binding

By Maia Kobabe ( @redgoldsparks ) and Sarah Peitzmeier ( @SarahPeitzmeier ). Dutton Books for Young Readers. 64 pages. Out now.

This is the informative graphic guide to chest binding that we’ve been waiting for. Maia Kobabe, the author of Gender Queer , and University of Michigan professor Sarah Peitzmeier talked with 25 people about binding and created this colorful volume for people of any age. 

The Brides of High Hill

By Nghi Vo ( @NghiVoWriting ). Tordotcom. 128 pages. Out now.

Nghi Vo’s latest entry in The Singing Hills Cycle is number five and is just as intriguing and special as the previous four. Imaginative, kaleidoscopic and captivating, this is one of my favorite series. Read them in order or not, but read them. 

Captive: New Short Fiction from Africa

Edited by Helen Moffett ( @heckitty ) and Rachel Zadok. Catalyst Press. 458 pages. Out now.

This dynamic anthology from Short Story Day Africa features some of the brightest new writers across Africa and the diaspora. Creative and candid, sharp and speculative, the stories in this collection represent Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, Lesotho, Nigeria, Zambia and more.  

Crip Spacetime: Access, Failure, and Accountability in Academic Life

By Margaret Price ( @PriceMargaret ). Duke University Press. 240 pages. Out now.  

In this necessary volume, Margaret Price details the results of a study she conducted on the daily experiences of academics with disabilities. After collecting over 300 interviews and surveys, Price calls for universities to learn from disabled academics and adopt their models of collective accountability and care.  

Feminism Against Cisness

Edited by Emma Heaney ( @riislover667 ). Duke University Press Books. 280 pages. Out now.

In this slim but significant volume, contributors disrupt normative narratives of assigned sex as determinative of sexed experience, with specific attention paid to intersections of racism, sexism and classism. It features outstanding essays by Marquis Bey, Grace Lavery, Jules Gill-Peterson and others.  

How It Works Out: A Novel

By Myriam Lacroix ( @myriamontheoutside ). The Overlook Press. 240 pages. Out now.

Tegan and Sara Quin called this one “a delightfully bizarre and unabashedly queer revelation.” Indeed, Myriam Lacroix’s sad and hilarious debut is about love, possibilities, and queerness, with a pinch of body horror. 

Not a River: A Novel

By Selva Almada ( @selva.almada ). Graywolf Press. 104 pages. Out now.  

Mystery surrounds an unnamed South American river in this dreamlike novella. It’s where a man drowned and where his friends struggle to reel in a stingray before just shooting it. Dark and atmospheric, Almada’s latest grapples with violence, masculinity and memory.

One Second at a Time: My Story of Pain and Reclamation

By Diane Morrisseau with Elisabeth Brannigan . Purich Publishing. 180 pages. Out now.

Diane Morrisseau has overcome a lifetime of abuse, from her time in a residential school to a violent husband of 18 years. The cause of the most trauma remains the colonial systems that maintain oppression and refuse to protect her. In spite of it all, she’s been able to use her experiences to help other women heal.

Troubled Waters

By Mary Annaïse Heglar ( @mary.heglar ). Harper Muse. 336 pages. Out now.

With themes of climate change, loss, secrets and struggle, Troubled Waters is a powerful statement about the strength of family in overcoming demons, past and present. Based on her own family’s history, Heglar offers an emotional narrative that encourages reflection and demands resistance.

Unbuild Walls: Why Immigrant Justice Needs Abolition  

By Silky Shah ( @silkys13 ). Haymarket Books. 256 pages. Out now. 

In Unbuild Walls , organizer Silky Shah provides an exceptional explanation of how systems of immigration and incarceration are intimately connected and ultimately feed one another’s oppressive aims. Shah argues that we can achieve true liberation by embracing an abolitionist framework, and she provides the tools to do so.

Rebel Girl: My Life as a Feminist Punk  

By Kathleen Hanna ( @mskathleenhanna ). Ecco. 336 pages. Out May 14.

If you are a third-wave feminist like me, you probably wanted to be Kathleen Hanna at some point in your life. In her candid memoir, the unapologetic singer of Bikini Kill shares her journey from a challenging childhood through her first shows to love, Lyme disease and Le Tigre. I double dare ya to miss this one. 

Written by Layla Martinez ( @lay_martinezvicente ). Translated by Sophie Hughes and Annie McDermott ( @annielmcd ). Two Lines Press. 144 pages. Out May 14.

This debut horror is based on the author’s grandmother’s stories of Franco and the Spanish Civil War. Eerie and original, Woodworm is a haunted house ghost story exploring themes of misogyny, classism and intergenerational trauma. 

American Diva: Extraordinary, Unruly, Fabulous  

By Deborah Paredez ( @debparedez ). W. W. Norton & Company. 256 pages. Out May 21.

Part memoir and part diva cultural history, Deborah Paredez’s latest book blew me away. When I finished reading it, I wiped my tears and immediately watched Nadine Sierra’s 2022 Met performance of the “ Mad Scene ” in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor —and you should, too.  

Cactus Country: A Boyhood Memoir  

By Zoë Bossiere ( @zoebossiere ). Abrams Press. 272 pages. Out May 21.

As Zoë Bossiere found out, coming of age in a Tucson trailer park is not easy, especially when examining one’s gender, sexuality and identity. In the desert, Bossiere grappled with gender roles, embodiment, violence, racism and more, learning that even in the harshest of conditions, there is beauty and bounty to be found.

Exhibit: A Novel 

By R. O. Kwon ( @ro.kwon ). Riverhead Books. 224 pages. Out May 21.

From the bestselling author of The Incendiaries comes this remarkable story that grapples with Korean womanhood, expectations, art, ambition, desire and the familial curse Jin tempts through it all. In her version of a ghost story, Kwon is masterful in writing the art of temptation, the electricity of desire and the intimacy of obsession.   

Fang Si-Chi’s First Love Paradise: A Novel  

Written by Yi-Han Lin. Translated by Jenna Tang . HarperVia.

Referred to as “the most influential book of Taiwan’s #MeToo movement,” this heartbreaking yet powerful story of a girl sexually abused by her teacher is based on the author’s own tragic experiences. For Yi-Han Lin, society at large is the real perpetrator of violence in this, her only published work. Readers should be aware of explicit content including minors.    

The Resilience Myth: New Thinking on Grit, Strength, and Growth After Trauma

By Soraya Chemaly ( @ragebecomesher ). Atria/One Signal Publishers. 304 pages. Out May 21.

The indomitable Soraya Chemaly deconstructs the myth of individual resilience in her robust follow-up to Rage Becomes Her . While we are fed narratives of bootstraps and rugged individualism, Chemaly reminds us through research and real life that true resilience is actually based on collective care, interdependence, shared vulnerability, dynamic flexibility and love. 

The Story Game  

By Shze-Hui Tjoa ( @shzehui ). Tin House Books. 272 pages. Out May 21. 

Shze-Hui Tjoa has written a remarkable memoir that is as tender and heartfelt as it is candid and raw. Written as conversations and stories between sisters, the inventive form is poignant and captivating in its depth and patiently unravels the complexities of childhood trauma and harm.

Undue Burden: Life and Death Decisions in Post-Roe America

By Shefali Luthra ( @shefali.luthra ). Doubleday. 368 pages. Out May 21.

National health policy expert Shefali Luthra is clear: Abortion is a basic human right, and with the Dobbs decision in 2022, the U.S. was launched into a national healthcare crisis. In Undue Burden , Luthra examines the history of abortion in the U.S., how we got here and, most importantly, what it looks like to seek and receive an abortion post- Roe.  

I’m a Fool to Want You: Stories

Written by Camila Sosa Villada ( @camilaomara ). Translated by Kit Maude. Other Press. 256 pages. Out May 28.

From the author of Bad Girls , one of my favorite books of 2022, comes this collection of short stories that are just as imaginative, captivating and titillating as the debut. Centering on themes of gender, sex work, love and justice, Villada continues to shine a light on lives so often hidden in the dark.

Medicine Wheel for the Planet: A Journey Toward Personal and Ecological Healing

By Jennifer Grenz (Nlaka’pamux mixed ancestry) ( @jennifer_grenz ). University of Minnesota Press. 280 pages. Out May 28.

In her compelling new book, ecologist and scholar Jennifer Grenz bridges the gap between Western and Indigenous knowledges and epistemologies to provide a new perspective on how we can collectively and meaningfully heal and protect the Earth.

Poverty for Profit: How Corporations Get Rich off America’s Poor 

By Anne Kim ( @Anne_S_Kim ). The New Press. 352 pages. Out May 28.

Anne S. Kim’s latest expose expertly disrupts the “corporate poverty complex” that continues to profit from poor families across the nation. Kim examines how industries exploit weak government social policies and systemic oppression to make millions—while leaving the most vulnerable behind. 

A Witch’s Guide to Burning  

By Aminder Dhaliwal ( @aminder_d ). Drawn and Quarterly. 400 pages. Out May 28.

Singe was a witch dedicated to keeping her community safe—until she was burned at the stake. But with a rain and a little help from some friends, Singe may just save her magic after all. This delightful graphic novel puts burnout and self-care in a whole new light that you won’t want to miss.

The Best Autistic and Autistic-Coded Characters in Animation

‘Easy Beauty’: A Memoir of Motherhood and Disability

The Tradwife’s Catch-22

U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms . has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms . today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you . For as little as $5 each month , you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms . Studios events and podcasts . We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity .

About Karla J. Strand

You may also like:, ‘dare to be fabulous’ essay collection: 30 remarkable women on embracing our true selves.

feminism in the us essay

Roxane Gay's “Bad Feminist” Celebrates 10th Anniversary With a New Pink Cover (Exclusive)

The new edition of the essay collection features an updated foreword and a pink cover

Roxane Gay is celebrating 10 years of being a bad feminist.

The author's essay collection Bad Feminist will celebrate its 10-year anniversary with the release of a special edition featuring a brand-new pink cover.

“Pink is my favorite color. I used to say my favorite color was black to be  cool , but it is pink—all shades of pink," Gay, 49, said in a statement shared with PEOPLE. "If I have an accessory, it is probably pink."

Along with the new cover, the anniversary edition of Bad Feminist will feature an updated introduction from the renowned cultural critic that "puts the collection in context of the current state of our culture and reflects on the impact the book had on her career," HarperCollins said in a statement.

The special edition of Bad Feminist will be released on Aug. 6, 2024, exactly 10 years after the release date of the iconic book.

Never miss a story — sign up for PEOPLE's free daily newsletter to stay up-to-date on the best of what PEOPLE has to offer, from celebrity news to compelling human interest stories.

The book features essays about current affairs and feminism, interweaving the author's cultural criticism with personal stories to help readers understand modern feminism and define the polarizing term for themselves. The original collection cemented Gay's status as a trailblazer, selling more than 500,000 copies across all formats.

"When I wrote the essays in Bad Feminist, I hoped to start an interesting conversation about feminism and the culture we consume, the culture of which we are a part," Gay said. "That said conversation continues, a decade later, is thrilling and unexpected. I look forward to seeing how this conversation evolves over the next decade and beyond."

The new edition of Bad Feminist will come out Aug. 6, and is available for preorder now, wherever books are sold.

For more People news, make sure to sign up for our newsletter!

Read the original article on People .

Harper Perennial; Reginald Cunningham Roxanne Gay, author of 'Bad Feminist'

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  1. Feminism in the United States

    Feminism is aimed at defining, establishing, and defending a state of equal political, economic, cultural, and social rights for women. It has had a massive influence on American politics. [1] [2] Feminism in the United States is often divided chronologically into first-wave, second-wave, third-wave, and fourth-wave feminism.

  2. History of Feminism in the United States

    1920 — America Becomes a Democracy (Sort Of) Library of Congress. As 4 million young men were drafted to serve as U.S. troops in World War I, women took over many jobs traditionally held by men in the United States. The women's suffrage movement experienced a resurgence that dovetailed with the growing antiwar movement at the same time.

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    5 Essays About Feminism. On the surface, the definition of feminism is simple. It's the belief that women should be politically, socially, and economically equal to men. Over the years, the movement expanded from a focus on voting rights to worker rights, reproductive rights, gender roles, and beyond. Modern feminism is moving to a more ...

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    In 18th-century England Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman became a seminal work of English-language feminist philosophy. Feminism in the United States had a number of prominent activists during the mid- to late-19th century. Notable mainstream activists included Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony.

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    The first wave: from 1848. The first wave of feminism refers to the campaign for the vote. It began in the United States in 1848 with the Seneca Falls Convention, where 300 gathered to debate ...

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    However, there is a flawed stance many of us take when perceiving the movement, such that we become removed from its core values and goals. The biggest issue in the way we see modern feminism is that we often conflate it with the feminist movement from the '60s. The term is a little outdated and often associated with bra burning and man-hate.

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    Feminist Jurisprudence: An Overview Feminist jurisprudence is a philosophy of law based on the political, economic, and social equality of sexes. This essay defines the three major schools of thought within feminism and how they influence today's debates on sexual and domestic violence, inequality in the workplace, and gender based discrimination.

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    By Jennifer Weiss-Wolf. August 25, 2023 7:00 AM EDT. Weiss-Wolf is a contributor to 50 YEARS OF Ms. THE BEST OF THE PATHFINDING MAGAZINE THAT IGNITED A REVOLUTION out on Sept. 19, 2023. She serves ...

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    Important topics for feminist theory and politics include: the body, class and work, disability, the family, globalization, human rights, popular culture, race and racism, reproduction, science, the self, sex work, and sexuality. Extended discussion of these topics is included in the sub-entries. Introduction.

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    500 Words Essay On Feminism. Feminism is a social and political movement that advocates for the rights of women on the grounds of equality of sexes. It does not deny the biological differences between the sexes but demands equality in opportunities. It covers everything from social and political to economic arenas.

  13. Feminism and Race in the United States

    Feminism and Race in the United States. This article traces the history of U.S. mainstream feminist thought from an essentialist notion of womanhood based on the normative model of middle-class white women's experiences, to a recognition that women are, in fact, quite diverse and see themselves differently. It begins with the question of the ...

  14. Feminist Perspectives on Sex and Gender

    Feminist Perspectives on Sex and Gender. First published Mon May 12, 2008; substantive revision Tue Jan 18, 2022. Feminism is said to be the movement to end women's oppression (hooks 2000, 26). One possible way to understand 'woman' in this claim is to take it as a sex term: 'woman' picks out human females and being a human female ...

  15. LibGuides: Women's Studies: Essential Writings of Feminism

    Feminism: The Essential Historical Writings by Miriam Schneir. Call Number: HQ 1154 .S29 1994. ISBN: 0679753818. Publication Date: 1994. Included are more than forty selections, coveting 150 years of writings on women's struggle for freedom -- from the American Revolution to the first decades of the twentieth century.

  16. Feminism's Long History

    Feminism, a belief in the political, economic and cultural equality of women, has roots in the earliest eras of human civilization. It is typically separated into three waves: first wave feminism ...

  17. Women, the Game Is Rigged. It's Time We Stop Playing by the Rules

    It's Time We Stop Playing by the Rules. Ms. Alptraum is the author of "Faking It: The Lies Women Tell About Sex — and the Truths They Reveal.". For most of the 21st century, the feminism ...

  18. Feminism in the Past and Nowadays

    Liberal Feminism. The definition of liberal feminism is the following: "a particular approach to achieving equality between men and women that emphasizes the power of an individual person to alter discriminatory practices against women" ("Liberal Feminism: Definition & Theory" par. 2). In other words, it is based on the idea that in a ...

  19. Feminism In The United States

    Murray states that "the current worldwide human rights movement is the "mainstreaming" of the feminist movement…feminists can take pride in that idea, while at the same time knowing that women's rights are fragile and continue to be challenged around the world (258).". Feminism is a movement fighting for the social, cultural ...

  20. The Feminism Essay: Definition and Significance in 500 Words

    Feminism is a social and political movement that voices out for the rights of women. The biological difference between genders has nothing to do with feminism. This movement calls for equality in terms of opportunities available to women. Opportunities cover social, political, and economic sectors. Feminism is not a gender-specific movement; it ...

  21. Feminism Essay: How to Write a Powerful Paper on Women's Rights

    A feminism essay or paper takes an in-depth look at what the word means, how women have been historically treated and the work still to be done toward equality. A feminist essay can examine women's rights from the perspective of several different disciplines, such as gender studies, history and sociology. Regardless of your topic, writing.

  22. Essay on Feminism in Society

    Feminism, a term that may conjure up a myriad of emotions and opinions, is a powerful movement that has been shaping society for centuries. At its core, feminism is the belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. It is a movement that advocates for the rights of women and challenges the patriarchal structures that have ...

  23. Feminist Film Theory: An Introductory Reading List

    Feminist film theory has provoked debates about the representations of female bodies, sexuality, and femininity on screen while posing questions concerning identity, desire, and the politics of spectatorship, among other topics. Crucially, an increasing amount of attention has been paid by theorists to intersectionality, as scholars investigate ...

  24. PDF FEMINISM, A MISUNDERSTOOD CONCEPT TODAY

    To better understand what feminism truly stands for, it is necessary to look at where it all started. First-wave feminism started during the nineteenth century in US and UK. The feminists of that time were focused on gaining voting rights and property rights for women. However, with the onset of World War I, feminism escalated into other spheres.

  25. May 2024 Reads for the Rest of Us

    May 2024 Reads for the Rest of Us. 5/10/2024 by Karla J. Strand. The Feminist Know-It-All: You know her. You can't stand her. Good thing she's not here! Instead, this column by gender and women's studies librarian Karla Strand will amplify stories of the creation, access, use and preservation of knowledge by women and girls around the ...

  26. Roxane Gay's "Bad Feminist" Celebrates 10th Anniversary With ...

    The author's essay collection Bad Feminist will celebrate its 10-year anniversary with the release of a special edition featuring a brand-new pink cover. "Pink is my favorite color. I used to ...