Feminism is a movement to end oppression, especially as it relates to sexism. Feminism can be taken up in many contexts such as sport and exercise, where theorists and practitioners engage with feminist theory, feminist activism, feminist politics, feminist education, feminist class, race, or gender struggle, and global feminism to varying degrees. In this entry, common myths about feminists are explored. This is followed by a discussion of feminist history, theory, and advocacy and some concluding remarks.
Common Myths Surrounding Feminists
Several myths abound related to those who take up feminism and feminist theory. These include (a) feminists are aggressive; (b) feminists hate men; (c) feminists do not wear make-up, are not feminine, are manly, or are ugly; (d) all feminists are lesbian; (e) feminists have no sense of humor; (f) feminists want to take over the world; (g) feminists are obsessed with gender; and (h) we live in a postfeminist age now—we don’t need feminism anymore.
In terms of the myth that feminists are aggressive, since the late 1800s, feminists—including some men—have been advocating for equal rights for women in a peaceful and nonviolent way. In fact, the feminist movement is one of the few social movements where there is virtually no documented violence related to protests calling for this type of social change. Regarding the myth that feminists hate men, there are plenty of men who stand side-by-side with women who are involved in feminist movements because they are also disturbed by patriarchy’s effect on their lives and on the lives of their mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, female best friends, cousins, and so on. When people say that they think feminists do not wear make-up, are not feminine, are manly or are ugly, what they are referring to is traditional notions of heterosexual beauty in a society, which includes (for women) applying foundation, eye shadow, eye liner, mascara, rouge, and other cosmetics, in an effort to fit what is defined as heterosexually beautiful or sexy for women. Those who do not want to wear make-up are seen as ugly; the next leap that most people make is that because they are not interested in wearing make-up or looking feminine, they are not heterosexual. The myth that all feminists are lesbian is related to this leap; however, not all feminists are lesbian just like not all women (regardless of sexual orientation) are political. While it is true that many lesbian and bisexual women were a part of the early feminist movement, it was partially because they themselves had already wrestled with pushing against rigid sexual, gender, class, race, and political categories. There is also the belief that feminists have no sense of humor. This may be because those who advocate feminism do not laugh at jokes made at the expense of women. If they are not laughing when others are, they may be perceived as having no sense of humor; in reality, however, they probably do not find it humorous when women are made fun of. The notion that feminists want to take over the world often comes from the fear (by some) that men will be replaced in positions of power, including in the economic, educational, governmental, and political sectors. While it is true that liberal feminists fight for an equal percentage of men and women in these contexts, according to recent research, it is also true that successful corporations must have at least one third of their management (e.g., those in power) represented by minority workers, including women. The perception that feminists are obsessed with gender appears related to the fact that feminists are concerned with gender oppression. This is because, in most societies, males are valued over females and masculine interests are privileged over feminine interests. Those who are in the marginalized positions in society are acutely aware of the differences that are highlighted in often taken-for-granted daily encounters. Finally, the myth that we live in a postfeminist age now and we don’t need feminism anymore appears most prevalent in young women who have grown up in a post–Title IX era. Interestingly, these women are usually college age and may not have experienced sexism in the workplace because they have not yet entered the workforce full time.
Brief History of Feminism, Feminist Theory, and Advocacy
Most researchers agree that there are at least three major waves of feminist movement: (1) from the mid-1800s through 1930; (2) during the 1960s and 1970s; and (3) post-1970s. Feminism actually began as a campaign for women to get the vote. During the first wave in mid-1800s, women advocated for the right to vote first in England, then in France, and then in the United States. In the United States in 1837, Mount Holyoke—the first of the seven sister colleges—was founded. This was followed in 1850 by the suffragette movement in the United Kingdom. However, neither England nor the United States was one of the first countries to grant women voting rights; it was New Zealand in 1893, Australia in 1902, the United States in 1920, and the United Kingdom in 1928.
There was a lull in feminist movement in the United States between the first two waves (between 1930 and 1960). This was because men were coming home from World War II in the 1940s and taking back the jobs they once held in factories and other work settings. During the war, these jobs were filled by women participating in the war effort (e.g., working in factories which manufactured parts for the war). However, once the men returned, women were expected to go back into the home, become housewives, and start families.
During the second wave (roughly 1960–1980), the focus was on women taking control of their own bodies, relationships, sexuality, health, and vitality and gaining equality in the workforce. Researchers utilized major feminist theories, including liberal, critical, Marxist, radical, socialist, and ecofeminism, as well as feminist epistemology, empiricism, standpoint theory, and postmodernism. In 1963, Betty Friedan—a wife and mother— wrote a groundbreaking book called The Feminine Mystique, which described how “unfulfilled” she was, limited to just those two roles. Friedan and 27 others founded the National Organization for Women (N.O.W.) in 1966. Major theoretical debates were framed around Marxism (e.g., social class issues). In 1970, Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex was published at the same time that organized marches, demonstrations, bra burnings, and consciousness-raising sessions began. In 1972, Gloria Steinem started Ms. Magazine. Third-wave feminism began post-1980. The focus during this wave was on redefining the feminist movement, especially to include younger women and direct advocacy. While researchers continued to utilize major feminist theories (e.g., liberal, critical, Marxist, radical, socialist, and ecofeminism), many incorporated a hybrid of theorizing that reflected their beliefs about the ways women know what they know (feminist epistemology), how to include women more fully in the scientific process (feminist empiricism), the fact that each woman—particularly those women who have multiple marginal identities—has a unique story to tell (feminist standpoint theory), and a shattering of what was once taken-for-granted notions about truth and the structure of gendered identity (feminist postmodernism).
Feminism has had at least three distinct waves and has been described as a movement to end sexist oppression. While myths about feminists abound, those who advocate feminism have succeeded in calling attention to gender inequity in the workplace as well as in other contexts such as sport and exercise.
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