Share |

Understanding Feminism(s)


Feminism.  Is there just one or are they many?


We will begin by drawing our attention to the title of this essay which employs the plural to refer to feminism. Thus, at the beginning itself we seek to establish that there is no one history of feminism. Indeed, the unfolding of the history of feminism alerts us to the idea that women all over the world have very different experiences and realities to contend with. No one narration can presume to encapsulate the experience of all women all over the world. In other words a universal history of feminism is not possible nor is it desirable.


If we must have a broad definition of feminism then it can best be described as a challenge to the oppression and marginalization that women face in their diverse contexts, since these contexts are different, obviously the experiences are different and hence the feminist challenge to these experiences would also be different. What we could do at best is to plot the broad contours of the attempts that women the world over have made to challenge and change the oppression that they are faced with. Again, a word of caution, it would not be possible for us to look at all such attempts, we will have to make choices and thereby exclude many. But if you find this account of the histories of feminism interesting we are sure that you will explore further and witness startling differences as well as amazing similarities.


But, before we embark upon the history of feminism, we need to spend some time clarifying certain fundamental issues. For instance, how do we define feminism? Does anyone who is concerned with women’s issues in general and women’s oppression in particular qualify to be described as a feminist? This is an issue that divides scholars and activists alike.


It is impossible to define feminism in terms of a core set of concepts. Women in the distant past have sometimes very courageously questioned the social structures that oppressed them, does that make it an instance of feminist resistance (for instance Mira Bai). There are many instances of women‘s initiatives and actions from our times that we would hesitate to describe as feminist (the kar sevikas who assisted in the demolition of the Babri Masjid by organizing food and nursing care).


There is clearly a kind of consciousness that imbues feminism and a specific historical context that made it possible for feminism to emerge. By familiarizing ourselves with some of the currents in the history of feminism, we hope to acquire some kind of clarity on the question of what is feminism and then its varied history.


Feminism as a term emerged long after women started questioning their inferior status and demanding a change in that. Should all theories and actions intend to “improve” women’s position intentionally or unintentionally be seen as feminist?  Or is feminism to be understood as a body of thought and action that has its own distinctive history, practice and ideas? We would be more comfortable with the latter position and of course we hasten to add that there is no one history of feminist practice or idea.


For centuries, women’s voices and struggles have not been heard or recorded. Thus there is not much access to what women thought, but the fact is that women have always thought about their lives and tried to resist their subordination. Women were not seen as political creatures for most part of history, their lives were seen as confined to the home and the hearth. Thus not much is known about the political views or aspirations of women, as women’s voices in general were not considered worthy of record (much less their political voices which were thought to be non-existent). But, the fact is that in the rich corpus of oral history including poems, folktales etc, women’s attempts to understand, explain ridicule and challenge the basis of their lives maybe glimpsed.


 Early Feminism and the limits of Enlightenment


With the broad sweeping changes that Europe begins to experience around the 14th century a new way of being and thinking is inaugurated. As you know, feudalism was on its way out, and new ways of organizing the economy emerged. Trade, in the wake of navigational advances became the fulcrum around which society, economy and indeed the polity came to be organized. The state needed to be less amorphous, more centralized, a standing well organized army became the need of the hour as the new class of mercantile capitalists asked for guaranteed law and order on their trade routes. A centralized state that could organize and generate revenue became the order of the day. Old feudal ties began to weaken, and new ways of organizing social, familial and religious life gradually emerged. New questions about the individual and the state and society came to be asked; indeed the idea of the individual itself was new. Women were also obviously affected by these changes and feminism maybe broadly defined as a specific response to the challenges and opportunities that “modernity” brought in its wake albeit like most things unequally for women.


By the second half of the 17th century, the distinction between the public and the private came to be etched rather sharply in England. The nature of agriculture changed and a growing army of wage laborers very different from the earlier family based system of production became the order of the day. Thus, for the first time a distinction between the public world of employment and the private world of the home emerges.


Women who were up until now partners in work, found themselves squeezed out of work, economic activities that were carried out from homesteads now increasingly shifted to new locales outside the home. Aristocratic women who partnered their husbands in the management of their estates were increasingly restricted to the running of the household. A host of economic and demographic factors created a situation where women began to look at marriage as the only viable solution to their economic insecurities.


For the first time, the distinction between the public and the private became sharp, and women’s role in this new divide became a matter of contention. Such a distinction was unheard of in earlier societies, and hence the question of women’s sphere and role was not a very pertinent question. The beginnings of capitalist modernity create a new kind of social and economic organization relegating women to the private sphere with adverse impact on women. Thus to ask questions about women’s role and life, and to either  reject or challenge the public-private divide, is in some sense characteristic of the feminist articulation. And this is what makes feminism “modern”.


England was in the throes of economic changes and political unrest, obviously these changes affected men and women, but women’s voices typically were unheard, and we literally have to ferret out voices of the likes of Mary Astell (1661-1731), who employed the newly emerging liberal discourse in a classic way to examine the impact of these advances on the lives of women. In a way her arguments lay down the foundation of the classic liberal feminist question. If all human beings have rationality and therefore are deserving of freedom of choice and autonomy, how come women are kept out of this charmed circle?


Ironically, through many politically conservative arguments (she does not expect political rights for women, and enjoins married women to accept their husbands as a monarch, much like the sovereign state in the private sphere) Mary Astell concludes that women should think of life, work and learning without men in secular nunneries. Sadly however, Mary Astell was written out of public memory of the history of 18th century England.  


Mary Astell was not a solitary voice in the wilderness; there were many other women who articulated similar concerns, indicating that women had begun to think of themselves as a group, with similar quests in search of similar answers.  However, these women stopped short of challenging the existing social and economic arrangements that marginalized women. They definitely did not challenge the existing norms of division of labor, nor did they have any coherent political programme for an extension of rights to women. Most of these women belonged to the upper echelons of society and addressed other women like them, so in the end they were socially and politically conservative, but they did take cognizance of the fact that women as a group are battling certain unresolved issues and they more often than not thought of education and opportunities as the solution.


The 18th century has a mixed record to report in Europe, with the early years being somewhat hostile to feminist consciousness as represented by the “bluestockings”.  Hannah More who is a good representative of this group argued that women are endowed with sensibility rather than reason, and that they are best suited to pursue domestic roles which however would be performed well with exposure to education. Despite the fact that these women are not close to what we may describe as feminist ideas the fact is that the existence of a group of women engaged in intellectual discussions was enough of a challenge to the prevailing notions of womanhood.


By the second half of the 18th century, the American and the French Revolution unleashed people’s political energies and created the context for interrogation of all accepted norms, and structures in society. It was truly revolutionary times. On both sides of the Atlantic, women began to question the basis of their inequality. On the one hand, philosophers of the revolution spoke eloquently about freedom and rights of men, grounding it in the fundamental and universal faculty of reason, but on the other hand, they not only failed to extend this possibility towards women they actually argued that such an extension is not possible because women are fundamentally different and do not possess reason and therefore are not deserving of freedom!


The best known challenge to this came from Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women published in 1792. Once again, she was not the only one to articulate this challenge, many others in France (Concdorcet) and elsewhere, notably in Germany (von Hippel) and the United States of America (Abigail Adams) echoed similar sentiments.


You would be interested to know of women’s role and dramatic instances of participation in the French Revolution (women in Pairs demanding bread, the tricoteuses knitting under the guillotine have passed into the legend of the French Revolution) that sparked the fire of women’s desire for liberty and equality. Their role, typically, was never read as part of the main script of the Revolution but it laid enough of a firm foundation for women later on in France and elsewhere to draw inspiration from.


Interestingly, in the initial days of the Revolution women’s clubs and women’s cries for change were encouraged, but as the movement gathered momentum, all this was brought to an abrupt end. Women’s voices were gagged, in fact some of the most prominent spokeswomen were imprisoned or put to death, but all this was not before igniting among women in France and elsewhere a passion for freedom and dignity.  Many believed that of all the evils that the French Revolution unleashed, women speaking out must surely be the worst and the most dreaded!


Coming two years after the Revolution, Mary Wollstonecraft’s book seemed like an extension of the “unruly women of the French Revolution”. Thus it seemed like a book steeped in revolutionary fervor.  She was writing at a time when industrialization had gathered steam but not enough to provide women with well paying positions for women. The only options existing for women were rather low-paying jobs in appalling conditions. Middle class women continued to be economically dependent on marriage and husbands, which by now had become very stifling given the complete separation of the private and the public.


Mary Wollstonecraft’s basic argument was an extension of the liberal principles to women, of universal reason leading to autonomy and freedom and equality for women. She sought to demonstrate that “feminine vanity” was a social construct and not a natural attribute, that, women if given education and exposure could become rational, free-thinking individuals. She insisted that women too must be in a position to freely choose their actions; this added a radical twist to her arguments.


The conviction about equal ability to reason is extended by Wollstonecraft unlike Mary Astell to a demand for equal rights. This clear political programme for equal rights articulated by Mary Wollstonecraft thus took the nascent feminist consciousness in a clearly political direction. A road map for change was presented, and in a sense, this could be seen as the earliest feminist call, for it had within it a concrete demand for political change. From here to the demand for suffrage was not a very long distance, at least in terms of ideas. Wollstonecraft presented ideas that were converted into concrete political strategies by later feminists.


Mary Wollstonecraft rejected the public-private divide on which the liberal worldview was based, but this did not take her very far because despite arguing against a devaluation of the private sphere, the fact remained that the domestic work was unpaid and not recognized as work. It is this that later feminists have identified as the reason for the perpetuation of women’s economic dependence on the institution of marriage.   


Carole Pateman has suggested that the problem with Mary Wollstonecraft like with most other liberal feminists is the underlying dilemma of claiming citizenship for women on gender-neutral grounds at the same as recognizing their specific qualities and roles within a framework that allowed to women to become full citizens only by being like men.


The Seneca Falls Convention


By the middle of the nineteenth century, the ant-slavery discourse was gathering ground in USA. This became an ideal context for women to examine their lives along the matrix of freedom and dignity. America was experiencing a churning and it was not long before issues of gender came to be talked of in the same breath as race. You would notice that the parallel between the two systems of marginalization are very similar. To make matters more complicated, white women who questioned their unequal lives often compared their position to that of black slaves. This overlooked the marginalization faced by black women who were oppressed not only by the system of slavery but also by the men of their own race. This is not to give you the impression that all white women opposed slavery, but many white women did take an active part in the anti-slavery campaign only to find themselves completely ignored in the anti-slavery convention held in 1840 in London. This embittered women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton who had been active members of the anti-slavery movement in the USA. The momentous Seneca FallsConvention of 1848 was an attempt to deal with this rejection. This is considered a landmark event in the history of feminism because this is the first ever women’s rights convention which Stanton described as “the inauguration of a rebellion such as the world had never seen”. If we set aside the slightly dramatic assessment of the Convention by Stanton we would notice that it was basically asking for the principles of liberal republicanism to be extended to women and it itself was not all that revolutionary.


The Convention continued to be plagued by the same dilemmas that were faced nearly a century ago by Mary Wollstonecraft- the recognition of women as a distinctive group was accompanied by a strong denial of any significance of this distinctness! Of course the women who came together at the Convention seemed not to be aware of the fact that appeals to reason and principles of justice would not persuade men to voluntarily part with their privileged position in society. The Convention did not think it pertinent to challenge the understanding of women and their role in the family and the household. Despite these limitations there is no denying the tremendous significance of the Seneca Falls Convention in any history of feminism that is being written.


Both in England and in America socialist groups sought to expose the limitations of capitalism and critiqued it’s inherently unequal nature. Many women too were part of such groups and by the mid-nineteenth century were soon disillusioned by the unquestioned acceptance of patriarchy by their fellow-men. Slyvia Pankhurst was amongst the first to challenge the male domination of socialist politics. She saw a clear link between the expansion of working class rights and the emancipation of women. She advocated collectivization of house work and the replacement of marriage that was likened to economic bondage with relationships based on free love.


Meanwhile in the colonized world too women were questioning the basis of their oppression, colonialism however was the most formative influence in this interrogation. By the mid-19th century, in India for example, women’s education, the campaign against Sati and widow remarriage remained the most significant. The influence of colonial politics and the apprehension cultural hegemony often meant that women’s quest for freedom and opportunity got entangled with concerns for community identity and autonomy. More often than not it was women that were seen as the preservers of tradition and identity through the many archaic traditions and practices that they were expected to follow.


By the end of the 19th century women like Pandita Ramabai had challenged the existing construction of womanhood and spearheaded a campaign for women’s rights. Tarabai Shinde wrote very passionately about the innate power and resilience that a woman possesses while not really departing from the path of tradition laid down for her. The social reform movement led by names such as Raja Rammohun Roy and Ishwar Chandra Vidya Sagar raised questions of women’s role in the Indian society, Indian women responded with enthusiasm taking to the new opportunities and education, soon however the anxiety over community identity and colonial designs to wipe it clean began to assert themselves. By the late 19th century women in India had taken to education in a small but sure way, and even set up groups and associations to further the cause of women’s rights and opportunities.



Cycles, Typewriters and the Vote!


In Britain by this time, much like in America religious ideals of womanly virtues were intermingling uneasily with ideas of equality and rights for women. Rights were often demanded in order to become like men, and at other times to realize the sex-specific roles ordained for women. Thus we can say that there was a great deal of contradiction within Victorian feminism, of which John Stuart Mill is a good illustration.


Organized feminism came to America before it came to England, but by 1869, when Mill published his Subjection of Women there were many feminist writers engaged with issues of equality and opportunity for women in England as well. Amongst them was Harriet Taylor who wrote the Enfranchisement of Women. (John Stuart Mill you would be interested to know was Harriet Taylor’s husband)


Mill argued rather forcefully that women’s subjugation, far from being natural was a consequence of force and should be rejected as relic from the barbaric past. He reiterated the belief that men and women both possessed reason and should therefore be given the same kind of education and opportunities. Despite making strong pleas for women’s equality and education Mill finally concludes with the rather surprising assumption that rational women would willingly choose a life of dedication to a husband and the tedious task of home management.In the practical conduct of life he subscribed to the idea of separate spheres for men and women!


He suggested that an arrangement where men earned outside the house and women managed the household affairs was by far the most sensible division of labor. Under these circumstances he argues that a married woman should not go out to earn a living thus neglecting her family and children. He obviously assumed that it is only women who are suited to perform household duties and the thought of men taking on this responsibility wholly or even partially never occurred to him. Thus a married woman would continue to be dependent on her husband especially economically. However her potential to earn outside the home in Mill’s suggestion made her worthy of respect and dignity. He like many other feminists in England made impassioned pleas for legal and political rights for women, thus moving forward from the 17th and early  18th century where although women were recognized as a group with grievances, no organized effort to secure them rights was initiated, indeed there was no talk of rights at all.



By the end of the nineteenth century most of the demands made by the earlier feminists had been fulfilled. Opportunities might not have been equal but education for women had opened up in big way. Of course we need to remind ourselves of the sex-specific nature of this education that were satisfied with producing educated mothers and wives and not necessarily women who could take charge of their own lives. There was also some significant legal reform endowing women with rights such as ownership of property for married women as well a degree of protection against violence within marriage.


On the ground level, women were beginning to change and by the late 19th century many books and newspapers began to project her as free-thinking and economically independent. These projections were never fully complimentary, and in fact were often tinged with ridicule and sarcasm. This indicated that women had begun to challenge existing norms and that explains the ridicule.


The humble bicycle and the typewriter changed women’s lives specially in America. Cycles freed women from the need to be chaperoned, and this led to an almost epidemic of young women cycling. This “revolt of daughters” that now had education was further facilitated by new kinds of employment opportunities, that of the office secretary who could type and of course school teaching.


Women began to organize themselves into public associations and clubs on the one hand, and their growing numbers in the organized work force meant their involvement in trade union activities. We must however not exaggerate the numbers involved.


Thus when we take stock we see that by the end of the 19th century, women were no longer completely kept out of public life and growing educational and employment opportunities that had earlier been the keen demand were now extended to the right to vote. The focus in the coming years came to be on ‘votes for women’. While there was apparent unity around the slogan, there were diverse ideologies that led to this slogan, some coming from a position of equality with men and others focusing the difference, this remains one of the fault lines in contemporary feminism as well.


Issues of race and class divided the movement, many women in America were not sure about extending suffrage to black people, whereas in England some women saw the property qualification for franchise as an effective class strategy to block working classes from public bodies and decision making. Of course many white middle class women campaigners did not subscribe to these rather restricted ideas on suffrage.


 Meanwhile, Marxism with its vast body of theoretical work and insights attracted many women, who questioned some of its basic assumptions and tried to broaden its scope. Nadezhda Krupskaya as early as 1903, in the surge towards the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia argued for greater participation by women in the work force. She sought a recasting of roles for men and women, and suggested that boys should also be taught the basic housekeeping skills. Lenin however while agreeing with his wife Krupskaya did not prioritize women’s issues. In fact he treated issues of sex and marriage as frivolous distractions that the revolution could do without.


It was Alexandra Kollontai who began from a conventional Marxist position of faith in the Revolution’s ability to address all wrongs but finally moved to a radical critique of socialist practices that marginalized women. She fought for separate women’s wings within the party and kept insisting on the need to forefront women’s issues. After the 1917 Revolution, Kollontai became the first woman in modern history to hold a cabinet position. She laid the foundations for emancipated womanhood in the Soviet Union by initiating laws that gave women full legal independence within marriage. It was her initiative that saw abortion being legalized, she introduced equal pay for equal work and among many other revolutionary features she banned illegitimacy as a legal category.


The outbreak of the First World War however changed everything rapidly, the economy was in ruins and the country itself was fighting for survival, under such circumstances there was not much support for Kollontai’s ideas of revolution from below which would have necessitated resources being set aside for common childcare and women’s education etc. This led to her being discredited and finally shunted out of the central decision making bodies to far away Norway on a rather insignificant diplomatic mission. Thus the flicker of radical hope that women in Soviet Union had was snuffed out. The statist pro-women policies of later years were a far cry from Kollontai’s vision. She sought a complete restructuring of the basic social, familial and sexual organization of the Soviet society, but by the end of the War the ideas of the Communist Party were rather tame on these issues, indeed such a reconstruction was not even considered.


Elsewhere in the western world, by the beginning of the First World War in 1914, vote had been extended to women in many parts of the world. New Zealand in 1894 pioneered this to be followed soon by Australia, Finland and Norway. Many other European countries extended suffrage just after the First World War, and some even moved towards universal adult franchise. This however should not lead us to conclude that the world at that time was full of feminist politicians, on the contrary political expediency, the need for political stability and the need to counter new immigrant populations were all factors that influenced the extension of franchise.  Of course the consistent campaign by women remains the single most significant reason. And the extension of franchise to women must remain one of the biggest victories of the feminist movement.


Women’s participation in the vote however did not bring about the kind of qualitative changes that had been talked of, nor did it bring about drastic changes in their lives. It was also clear that women do not vote as a group, class, race or religious affiliation were factors in the casting of vote just as it was for men.


The vote and after


As a consequence of sustained campaigning, women in Europe and America were able to expand the range of rights they possessed. Women continued to organize and participate in public activity, although in contrast with the years of the suffragette movement the post-vote years seemed rather silent.


New kinds of issues and ideological battles within feminist understanding of what needs to be done next came up. Two conflicting positions that continue to plague the feminist movement to this day began to be articulated clearly around this time-on the one hand, the demand to be treated to just like men, and on the other hand, the claim that women’s specific qualities and roles should be accorded special recognition support.


The two positions may be characterized as the ‘equal rights’ vs. welfare feminism, the former focusing on the question of the woman as an individual and the latter recognizing the sex-group identity of women. Welfare feminism facilitated a shift within feminism that had up until now been seen as basically a middle class woman’s desire for greater freedom towards another dimension- that of the working class mother who now emerged as the new symbol of oppressed womanhood.


In general, we can surmise that another approach to understanding women’s oppression that was prepared to take a more collectivist stand emerged.  This also implied a greater acceptance of interventionist strategies if need be.


By the end of the Second World War, women in most of the western world had made considerable advancements and consolidated the gains of the earlier struggles. Welfare feminism grew in the inter-war years and women made rapid strides. The compulsions of the war years were such that an unprecedented numbers of women joined the workforce. Although this was seen as a temporary measure, the fact is that the need to restructure the economy after the war meant that women continued to find paid employment not only of the kind earmarked for them, but even highly skilled, highly paid and high status jobs came their way.In the post-war years thus the campaign for equal pay for equal work gathered momentum


The increasing number of women who worked outside the house gave rise to new kinds of issues; the demands on their labor were always at loggerheads with the cult of domesticity. While appliances had made housework easier, the fact is that standards of housekeeping and childcare touched virtually impossible heights. This was in addition to the guilt that women felt at having to leave the children while at work. The overall improvement in incomes and standards of living, the explosion in the variety of household appliances and the shrinking family size all made housework seem less tedious than before. Childcare became the central focus for women, and staying at home minus the earlier drudgery of housework looked the  ideal life that women could aspire for, of course a minority were free to choose careers and work,  that of course was seen as an alternative to marriage and motherhood. It now seemed that feminism was redundant because all the demands made by women in earlier contexts had been met with.


But the truth was that despite the formal equality that had been achieved women still remained on the margins, they had less chances of getting a highly paid job and they were discriminated against in most public contexts. The promise of a feminist future remained unfulfilled. The struggle to translate this dream into reality left many women tired and anxious.


There was a deceptive calm that prevailed in the post war years, but underlying this calm was turbulence of unfulfilled and dissatisfied women who just were not able to enjoy the supposed joys of the post-war prosperity. In America, it seemed the American dream was actually a nightmare as far as women were concerned.


In the other super power of the times, the Soviet structures were rapidly ossifying; the Communist party became a pale shadow of its earlier revolutionary self. It was argued that the ‘woman question’ is a product of capitalist patriarchy; hence Communist societies do not need to worry about these issues, as the revolution settles all such contradictions.


For women in the colonized countries, the inter-war years were crucial because it exposed the weaknesses of colonial powers. This was also a time of intense political mobilization and organization in countries like India. Women were drawn to the anti-colonial movement, in India women became enthusiastic participants in the Gandhi led Congress movement and even in the Communist party that had begun mobilizing peasants and workers.



The Second Wave or Is It Waves?


The complacency of the post war years meant that young women who were growing up had no occasion to hear of any feminist campaigns or movements that preceded them. It was in this context that the almost iconic book The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir published in 1949 opened the floodgates in a manner of speaking. Her famous observation that a woman is not born but rather becomes one stirred women’s imagination everywhere.


She demonstrated the ways in which apparently non-political areas of life such as family were determined by the wider power structures of a society. The project of her book was to demonstrate the artificial nature of womanhood and consequently a rejection of the same. She believed that a woman would have to overcome her biology in search of freedom. This is in sharp contrast with the later radical feminist positions that have sought to celebrate a woman’s body.


Simone de Beauvoir argued that an individual alone is responsible for the life that she crafts out and leads- there are no predetermined structures or constraints. Thus in contrast with the psychoanalytical approach as well as the cruder variety of Marxism, existentialist feminism suggested that an individual has to take total responsibility for her life and in fact has total freedom to do so. For Sartre, who initiated this philosophical outlook, the sex of the potentially free individual was insignificant, but not so for de Beauvoir.


Although de Beauvoir seems to be stressing on individual struggles and individual transformation, the fact is that by the late 1960s she began to identify herself as a feminist and was in the forefront of many feminist movements in France, especially the campaigns to legalize abortion. These movements in France and elsewhere came after the deceptive lull we spoke of earlier and have often been referred to as second wave feminism. It began essentially in America as a liberal protest mounted against the American society’s inability to deliver the promises made to women in the earlier decades. By the 1960s there was some re-thinking going on within Soviet Union as well, given the spirit of de-Stalinization. Elsewhere in the world as well, 1960s was a period of political resurgence, the New Left movement and the civil rights campaigns in Europe and America along with the vigor of the student protests in France led to a close re-examination of the basic tenets of socialism.



One of the strongest voices of discontent in this phase is Betty Freidan’s who in her book theFeminine Mystique suggested that despite the advance made in education and employment, the bulk of American women were expected to live life vicariously through their husbands and children. The tremendous explosion in the things that could be bought, possessed and consumed led only to bleak despair which however a woman dare not express for she had to conform to the stereotype of the happy and fulfilled suburban wife and mother. This ‘problem with no name’ led women to depression and mental health issues. The book was received very enthusiastically, ironically this was a time when the actual numbers of women in the workforce was steadily going up and demands for equal pay were being asserted rather vociferously. (You must have noticed how some of the issues that women had been raising now for nearly three decades, for example equal pay for equal work just refused to go away.)


 Betty Freidan published her book in 1963 and by mid 1960s, President Kennedy had already set up a commission to look into the condition of women in America and the Equal Pay Act had also been passed, while we don’t suggest a direct causal link, but it is evident that the storm of protest and expression of unhappiness and a sense of entrapment that women felt were responsible for these initiatives and changes introduced by the American government. However the tardy and somewhat incomplete implementation of these new legislations by the administration angered women across America who got together and set up the National Organization for Women (NOW) which quite obviously had Betty Freidan as its first President.


Another strong current that emerged during this period suggested that socialism is inseparable from the feminist agenda. One of the most significant debates that exploded centre stage was the around the issue of domestic labor. It was generally agreed upon that housework done by women does not simply represent a personal service to individual man, but that it serves the interests of the capitalist economy by reproducing and maintaining a workforce in a cheap and efficient way. This implies that male supremacy within the household is a result not just of a personal patriarchal dispensation but is embedded in the economic structures of the society itself.


Socialist feminists like Maria Mies have argued that just as capitalism within the west depends on exploiting women’s unpaid domestic labor, unpaid labor by third world women and especially peasant women, subsidizes the international capitalist economy.This insight is truly revolutionary given the fact that in most third world countries we often hear of the redundancy of feminism because of its western origin, but socialist feminist ideas actually help us to establish the nature of exploitation experienced by poor women in the countries of the south and its inextricable links with global capitalism.


Meanwhile elsewhere in the newly-independent states like India, the first couple of decades after independence there was a relative lull as far the women’s movement was concerned. The promises made by the post-independent sovereign state were too tempting to be discounted and it seemed for a while that the real culprit is only colonialism and with the end of colonialism, women’s lives would see a dramatic turnaround. However by the end of the 1960s it was clear that such a turn around was far from reality. Peasant and Adivasi women, women workers and city educated women all began to feel uncomfortable and restless about the unfulfilled promises and the growing exploitation and violence faced by women in India. The Shahada and Dhulia movement are but some of the instances of poor women of India coming together to raise questions of their livelihood, wages and violence. Women participated in and organized anti-price agitations very successfully.


Socialist feminist  on the other end, argued against Engel’s view that women entering the labor market would automatically take them towards freedom. Rather they have argued that it might reinforce their oppression in other ways, given the fact that they join the labor market from a position of disadvantage. Socialist feminist insights have helped us to understand that the dynamics of hierarchy within the labor market in capitalism are influenced greatly by the relationship between men and women in a given society. This explanation has added a significant new dimension to our understanding of patriarchy and the nature of the economy. Capitalism thrives on the exploitative possibilities offered by a large reserve army labor and this is exactly what women provide, this in turn is legitimized by the view of women not being primary breadwinners but of being homemakers (this is the argument used as you know to justify lower wages to women). A deeper understanding and analysis of the alienating nature of sexuality and motherhood under capitalist patriarchy make socialist feminist explanations of women’s lives rather attractive.


 In America however it was NOW and Freidan that came to epitomize equal rights feminism and its impact has been felt across the globe including in India. By the end of the 1970s decade well paid senior positions were increasingly opening up for women, at least in Europe and America. In fact the full time housewives whose nameless problems Freidan had so famously theorized about were almost extinct in the western world. However despite these advances the fact remains that women even in the western world continue to battle against many kinds of inequalities, and remain economically and professionally rather vulnerable. Women continue to congregate in the most poorly paid and insecure jobs and even those have been opened up not so much in response to the feminist campaigns as in deference to economic constraints that require cheap labor.


1960s saw feminism moving ahead in yet another direction, the insights of radical feminism have added a unique dimension to feminism. While some women reviewed socialist ideas other moved away from both equal rights perspectives as well as socialist ideas. They argued that neither was able to address the root cause of women’s oppression.


Radical feminism proceeds from the assumption that in order to understand the fundamental nature and reasons for women’s oppression a move away from received theoretical paradigms was necessary. Thus radical feminist perspective claims to be entirely based on the insights and lived experiences of women. The second crucial argument is that women’s oppression is the fundamental oppression on which other forms of domination and control are resting. It follows that women as a group thus are united by a common cause and their interests can never be reconciled with that of men. In fact so strong is this common cause that race, class or ethnicity can be easily overcome in the pursuit of this common sisterhood. Hence also the assumption that women can seek to change the world only by sharing their personal experiences and not be endless theoretical speculation. Finally the idea that gave our times the catchy feminist slogan of ‘personal is political’- this slogan rests on the argument that politics is not confined as traditionally understood to the public sphere, but is very much a part of the personal sphere as well, spheres as sacrosanct as the family and the domain of sexuality.


By the 1970s these new ideas were reflected in Kate Millet’s classic Sexual Politics and Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex among many others. It was the formers book that is credited with the popularization of the idea of patriarchy as used by feminists the world over today. Her rather simple but forcefully stated argument was that in all societies the relationship between men and women is based on power and this makes the relationship political in nature. She gave a dramatic twist to her explanations when she proclaimed that all history has been a history of men oppressing women, albeit in different forms in different contexts, thus whether it is American women dying in illegal abortion facilities, or Indian women committing sati or African women undergoing clitorodectomy or indeed Chinese women that were subjected to foot binding, are all united across time and space by a single factor -patriarchy. Radical feminism while being very attractive has also been criticized for being ahistorical, essentialist and Universalist. Later radical feminists have responded rather creatively to these allegations.


Thanks to radical feminist insights it is possible today to understand and theorize issues such as domestic violence, pornography, sexual violence of all kinds including within the house. Radical feminism has opened up a space for debates on motherhood reproductive technology and of course on heterosexuality. In the process feminism can now go to places that were hitherto sealed off as personal, the personal has truly become political. Issues such as dowry, rape and violence came to dominate the campaigns at this time.


In the south Asian subcontinent, the 1970s was a period of great turbulence and disturbance. The national emergency was imposed in 1975 in India, post-emergency many women’s groups that began to self-consciously describe themselves as feminists. Most of these groups had moved away from the established political parties and were looking to writing history on their own.


The Backlash

By the end of the 1980s there was strong feeling in America that equality between sexes had been achieved, and in fact women were now in a position of advantage as compared with men. This became the theme song of the anti-feminist backlash that fed into the ideology of the New Right. Feminism came to be held responsible for all the ills of the American society. Susan Fluid has captured the nuances of these arguments in her well known book Backlash: The Undeclared War against Women.


In the nineties decade feminism of the equal rights variety (liberal) consciously tried to move away from the oppressed woman image to that of  a woman with initiative and agency. Significantly the political import of coercive sex and the need to act politically against it is increasingly acknowledged by liberal feminists. It is no longer pushed into the private sphere where it is treated as a mere personal matter. Moving away from the earlier demand of joining men in the workplace, the demand now is for a restructuring of the workplace itself to make it more compatible with family life. Parallel to this a greater involvement by men in the domestic sphere is sought. The shift is worth noticing, whereas in the 1960s and 1970s the focus was entirely on the public sphere, by the nineties there is a realization that the public cannot be changed without addressing the private. This shift is not only politically significant; it is also a fundamental challenge to the class liberal idea of the dichotomy between the public and the private.


 Thus many equal rights feminists have moved away from some of their key liberal positions and have acknowledged the shared nature of apparently isolated individual private experience. This has led them to ask for substantial changes in the manner in which the private domain itself is organized, specially the whole issue of care and responsibility within the family, and yet another significant departure is their asking for state intervention in the private sphere of life as well.


The Story Today


In the post-1980s world of feminism, a lot of discussion has centered around the question of is there a fundamental form of oppression? The next question has been who can speak for whom? Can the category of ‘women’ hold ground in the context of the differences that have now been highlighted? In fact, today many feints would agree that, opening up feminist field to differences has permitted us to place women in a matrix of oppression and privilege, where no one is a permanent occupant of either of the two positions. This approach challenges the idea of permanent contradictions and frozen hierarchies. It also suggests that different forms of oppression intersect at different historical points and indeed there is no hierarchy of oppressions rendering one more significant than the other. This insight has led to women from different backgrounds questioning the validity of what seemed like essentially the outpourings of white women from the west.


One of the strongest challenges has come from black women in America and to some extent Britain. The general mood of Islamophobia that seems to have gripped the world is ironically also the context for a great deal of discussion on what has been described as Islamic feminism. Closer home is the articulation by Dalit feminists and the serious charge that feminism in India is guilty of being Brahminical in its orientation. Able bodied feminists have been rightly told repeatedly about the completely different experience of womanhood by women with disabilities, and thus the encounter of women with disabilities of a world characterized by patriarchy is substantially different from that of able bodied women.


Angela Davis is of the opinion that a feminism that begins with the experiences of white middle class women would have very little room in it for the experiences of black women. After all a key aspect of white women’s privilege is to talk of themselves as though they are indeed talking about all women, and if there are some women whose experiences and struggles that don’t fit it, ten they are seen as marginal. This is very similar to upper caste feminists in India who it has been pointed out by Dalit feminists are guilty of the same lapse. Of course the whole discourse on black feminism has been challenged as being not sufficiently sensitive to the differences among black women, for example black women in America do benefit from the exploitation of the labor of black women in Africa. In other words there is a warning against using the term black women in an essentializing or universalizing way.


The end of the 1980s saw an increasing concern within feminism to understand sexuality not just in terms of sexual violence but also as desire and pleasure and take it beyond the pale of heteronormativity.  The issue of sexuality with a different focus and the greater acceptance of lesbian, gay and bisexual issues within the fold of feminism have come to characterize the 1990s.


Post-Modernist Turn in the history of Feminism


Yet another dimension to the feminist discourse has been provided by post-modernism. Post-modernism since the late 1980s has been relentlessly questioning binaries of all sorts, it has doubted the possibility of certitude and finiteness in the pursuit of knowledge as well rejecting the idea of an objectivity based on rationality. Most of these ideas sit very comfortably within the fold of feminism, for the latter has accused existing norms of reason and objectivity of being partial and based on male reason.


By the end of the 1980s decade, it was obvious to women’s groups that there was no uncomplicated “woman” as the subject of feminist politics or of the pursuit of gender justice in India or anywhere else for that matter. Nivedita Menon has argued that these developments have brought the realization that “women” as a readymade subject of feminist politics does not exist, instead women are located within a grid of identities ranging from caste, class, religion among other possible identities. She argues that people are mobilized along the grid of multiple identities, at different times and in different political conditions, different identities are fore grounded. In other words, just because many women have come together it does not imply that they have indeed come together as “women”, they could have gathered together because they are upper caste or because they are Tamil. Subject hood, to put it differently has to be the conscious result of deliberate political mobilization and it is only when women are consciously thinking about their lives as women in the context of the inequality and marginality they experience and seek political solutions to this that they could become subjects of feminist history.


The Universal (for example to only talk of women as if no differences exist among women would be the use of a universal category) needs to be critiqued, for it more often than not tends to become undemocratic, hiding within it all kinds of differences and discrimination. But we need to remind ourselves that often the specific also tends to become universalizing, and then it needs to be challenged (in the section on Black feminism we saw how the term Black itself which is supposedly specific, universalizes the experiences of Black women that is so completely diverse, Black women in America versus Black women in Africa and so on). In other words there really cannot be permanent and frozen identities. It is admission of this conflict and tension that will generate a more democratic feminist history and politics where no category, not even Dalit feminist, would be seen as final and finished. The unmarked woman can no longer be the ideal subject of feminism.


The impact of these new arguments is that it is no longer common to hear of feminist sisterhoods as it is to hear of feminist solidarities, bell hooks, for instance, has argued that sisterhood suggests similarity and thus leads to the inevitable trap of homogenization whereas, solidarity suggests the possibility of various kinds of diverse oppressions coming together, indeed even men that are oppressed could join this solidarity.



However, some feminists have today woken up to the pitfalls of walking all the way with post-modernism, for it could create a new set of issues. Post-modernism stresses on differences and shifting subjectivities, not to forget the contracted nature of social groups. This has profound implications for feminist politics, because on whose behalf would feminists now mobilize for it is no longer possible to talk of women in any meaningful way since all identities are fluid and all social groups constructs. This renders the possibility of collective politics of the old style irrelevant. In response to these fears, others, like Judith Squires in her book Gender and Political Theory have talked about the possibility of forging strategic sisterhoods, while constantly keeping in mind the power relations that created particular identities.


Nivedita Menon in her book Recovering Subversion has argued that it is possible for feminist politics to employ both the strategies of deconstruction and interrogation of the identity of woman thereby exposing the constructed nature of identities, and at other times in order to engage in radical politics of subversion it would be desirable to employ the strategy of invoking an identity. Thus “women” as an identity may be deconstructed when faced with a conservative agenda (women don’t do this is a statement you often hear, you could turn around and ask which women, of what class, which community in what time period etc.) and at other times faced with the need for progressive political mobilization it should be possible to invoke “women”.


This account of the history of feminisms has had to make some choices and address certain issues in certain contexts, but we are sure that this gives you a glimpse of the vast terrain of feminism and that you would explore further on your own.