This story first appeared on Eyra Magazine on December 29, 2020.
If you’ve lived on planet earth, you’re bound to have come across different opinions on different things in and around the conversations you’ve had with people. And one of the things you’d definitely have had conflicted opinions on is feminism as a concept. A lot of people are hesitant to openly identify as feminists. And that’s usually because of a bunch of reasons. Either you think it’s against men, or you think it’s stupid, or you think all feminists are angry all the time, or you think it’s something else that I can’t possibly fathom as I write this article. Amidst all of that confusion, welcome to this crash course on feminism.
Every one of us has, at least once in our lives, come across that dumb misogynist who doesn’t know what he’s going on about, and if you’d like to tell him exactly where he’s got his fundas wrong, then this article is designed to help you. Or, you think you’re clueless (trust me I’ve been there) and would like to be better informed, then this article is for you.
In this article, I’d like to go into some of the core beliefs that make up a feminist opinion, and try and demystify the history of feminism, the different types of feminism and what makes each of them different, and if, at the end, you can’t bracket yourself under any category, then there’s nothing stopping you from making one of your own.
The first thing I’d like to say, to start things off, is that if you think women have a right to be heard, if women need to be respected and treated as human beings, then you’re a feminist. It’s as simple as that. The complications arise when you read deeper into feminist theory. But before that, here’s a small bit on feminist history.
There was once a time, when women sat inside the house and could do nothing they really wanted to. If you picked up Virginia Woolf’s, A Room of One’s Own and leafed through the first few pages, she talks about women not getting to write the way she did unless they came from privilege; or, how she had to go visit the library before it opened because she wasn’t allowed there; or, how she had to walk on the grass instead of the paved pathway (she preferred the grass though). It was a time when women couldn’t work, all they could do was sit at home and make babies, heck, they didn’t even have the right to vote, let alone the right to drive a car or smoke a cigarette.
Books like Woolf’s were instrumental in pushing for what is famously known as the first wave of feminism. This was when women all over the world, starting from the Suffragettes in England, led by Emmeline Pankhurst and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), agreed to protest for their rights, and succeeded. This was replicated all over the world, and by the time the mid-20th century passed, most women had got these basic rights – the right to vote, to work, etc. This put them in a better position in society, and eventually set the stage for the second wave.
By this time, in the late 1960s and 70s, women were angry at the world, because institutional change had not guaranteed them social acceptance. This led to a lot of radical movements, largely led by Betty Friedan and a bunch of other women. These women got up and owned the whole ‘she’s high maintenance‘ sexist moniker, and took to the streets. There was a lot of poetry written, pamphlets and zines circulated, along with a lot of mass mobilisation; women explored their own bodies, came to terms with their sexuality, and tried to understand themselves better as individuals. Uppity Women Unite, National Ogle Day, Lavender Menace, and a bunch of other radical movements defined this wave, but what went wrong was that these movements were so fast paced and so quick that they ignored a lot of other communities within women itself.
For example, while the entirety of the movement was screaming about using birth control pills, encouraging women in these groups to do so as well, the black rights movement, which was trying to promote their own population made it really hard for women of that community to fit in because they were torn between two different movements. Or when it came to poor white women, or lesbian women. This was the primary difference between this wave and the next one.
When Kimberle Crenshaw came along and wrote about intersectionality, the third wave took on a more intersectional angle, criticised the second wave and everything wrong with it, and tried to set things right. Most of today’s stereotypes about the feminist movement probably are a result of the mistakes of the second wave, but ironically, if it wasn’t for that wave, feminism wouldn’t be where it is today. We could say that the world is in the third wave right now. Recognising savarna feminism, and persecuted women from minority communities, being more receptive to their rights, this is the feminism that we need to talk about right now.
While the first two waves allowed women to be able to run magazines like this one and talk fearlessly about their rights, the next wave started to talk about the rights of women from already persecuted communities.
Okay, so now that we’ve gone through the history, here are some different mindsets and types of feminism:
Egalitarian Feminists are those peeps that want the same rights as men, equal pay, equal participation and equal consideration – they see women exactly as capable as men are, and put themselves in a position that allows for them to make such demands. They believe, especially because the world is turning more and more intellectual, there aren’t any differences between men and women, and they don’t want special rights, they just want the exact same ones that men have.
Difference Feminists, on the other hand, believe men and women are biologically different, so it’s impossible to compare them. They believe women must celebrate how they’re different, rather than try to fit into the same societies that the men in their lives belong to. These are fundamental conceptual mindset differences between the different types.
Liberal Feminists are those feminists that are egalitarian in their approach to feminism. They don’t think sexual or biological differences are a metric for societal development and institutional perception. They think it’s extremely stereotypical to label all women as weak and all men as strong, and this works in either direction. These feminists, while not being against men, are against the existence of a male dominant status quo, and try to restructure and reorganise it to be more egalitarian.
Conservative Feminists, on the other hand, can belong to either egalitarian or difference mindsets, but one thing they agree on is that it isn’t worth the time or effort to oppose the patriarchy, or to change the existing status quo. They believe in existing familial structure, respect femininity and motherhood.
A better way to understand these two types of feminists would be by the Sabarimalai Judgement, for example. While a liberal feminist would be for allowing women access to the Ayyappa Temple, a conservative feminist wouldn’t, because they think there’s a cultural and customary justification for it; something that liberal feminists vehemently oppose as these cultural sources, according to them, were written amidst a patriarchal structure that oppressed these women.
Thirdly, there are Radical Feminists, who are exactly like the liberal feminists, except for the fact that while liberal feminists accept the patriarchy and try to cause structural change from within it, radical feminists reject the patriarchal notion, and try to abolish it entirely. This is a more evolved and modern perception of radical feminism. Another older definition of this could be in the reference to the second wave where women were radical in the sense that they rejected men, and tried to push the scales in their favour instead. Today this isn’t the accepted definition, though.
Now apart from these, we’ve got various other types, for example Socialist Feminists, who give a lot of regard to the social and economic factors in society, they have belief in governmental intervention to balance the scales. They are against private property, against capitalism, and prioritise class politics over sexual politics. While most modern feminists disagree with them, they are an important type of feminism among many others.
So which one are you?
Here’s some further reading you could do, and even if you didn’t have the time to read entire books, go check out the Wikipedia pages and acquaint yourself because some of these books or movies that have truly transformed institutional and societal perception of women in society today.
- Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights to Women
- Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique
- Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s Declaration of Sentiments
- Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex
- Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (yeah I already mentioned this up there)
- Kimberle Crenshaw’s writing in general (super relevant to feminism today)
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists (I wrote a review of this a while back, do check it out here)
- Also, here’s an amazing documentary about the Second Wave – “She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry”
- And also, a movie very ahead of its time, “Salt Of The Earth (1954)”