The word feminism originated from the French word “feminisime” in the nineteenth century. Interestingly, it was used either as a medical term to describe the feminisation of male body or to describe women with masculine traits. According to Jaggar(1983), a sociologist, when the word ‘feminism’ was used in the early part of the twentieth century, it was used only to a particular group of women: ‘the group stressed the uniqueness of women, their mystical experience of motherhood and their special purity’. Later, it came to be known as a political stance of someone committed to changing the social position of women. The term since then is used for the one who believes that women are subjugated because of their gender and that women deserve formal equality in the eyes of the law.
Feminist writers and activists, who existed long before the term ‘feminism’ came into common parlance, imagined a world where women could live to realize their potential as individuals. For doing this, they conceptualized the ideas regarding femininity and women’s rights which were dubbed as informal and illegitimate in some ways. However, for modern feminists, it became important to make feminist ideas legitimate by circulating their ideas as widely as possible and inviting the contributions and responses of other women too.
Since the 1980s, it has become common to use plural form when it comes to feminism in order to signify the fact that although the feminists share the same and the basic commitment that female oppression must come to an end, yet variations can be observed in terms of their philosophical and political base. There is no denying the fact that richness of feminists’ legacy stems from this diversity and heterogeneity of positions. All feminists having varied philosophical and ideological inclinations agree that women suffer social and material inequities simply because of their biological identity and they are committed to change this position but there are various methods and means to bring a change in women’s position in a society. This heterogeneity of positions makes feminism a term rather unwieldy and overburdened with meanings. Most feminists regard this homogeneity as a sign of healthy debate, though some detractors see it as a sign of feminism’s inbuilt weakness. Feminists, however, have always emerged from different cultures and political perspectives.
Though feminism can be used to reflect a personal political or social position, there are dominant strands/groups that make up the modern feminist thought as we see it today. Liberal feminism originates from liberal thought dominant in Western society since the Enlightenment and stresses that women’s subordinate position can be addressed through political processes. For liberals, the main battle is for having access to education. According to Mary Wollstonecraft, if men and women are educated equally, they will get equal access to society. Democracy, according to Liberals, is naturally adaptable to equality for both sexes. Moreover, the liberal feminists would accept, albeit in limited terms, the fact that women and men might well be suited to the separate spheres of homes and workplace and lobby for the greater recognition of housework and caring. It is important to note that ‘Wages for Housework’ debate in the 1970s emerged mainly from this position.
Socialist or Marxist feminists think that the changes in the position of women can be brought by overthrowing industrial capitalism and changing relations of the workers with the means of production. Revolution, according to socialist feminism, is the only solution. In common with the liberal feminism, socialist feminism, because of its links to Marxist thought, suggests a necessary link with men and an acceptance that men are part of any movement aimed at bringing change in the position of women in the society.
Radical feminism emphasizes that man as part of the problem should also be part of the solution, though radical feminism is mainly associated with separatism and man-hating. Radical feminists largely emerged from civil rights political groupings. They formed the women’s liberation movement in order to allow a space for the consideration of women’s apprehension outside the confines of male-oriented knowledge and politics. Their belief that women-centred policies could only be devised by women led to the policy of separatism.
In feminist groupings, there were representatives from women of colour, working class women and lesbian/bisexual women. They became disenchanted by the ways in which their involvement in the movement rendered their own identities invisible. Different feminist groupings could not make joint efforts to attain the rights of women because of their political and ideological perspectives.
The historical development of feminism is generally divided into several key periods. Some of these periods are characterized by a relative absence of feminist thought and others by the sustained growth of feminist criticism and activism. This pattern of rise and fall of feminism over time led to ‘wave analogy’. The wave analogy namely first, second and third wave feminism, will be discussed in the subsequent articles.