Feminism is characterised by the belief that gender is the most significant division in society, and a desire to overthrow any disadvantage conferred due to sex. Feminism is seen as having emerged and occurred in three distinct ‘waves’:

  1. First wave (1850s-1940s) concentrated on removing formal forms of inequality, such as unequal voting rights
  2. Second wave (1960s-1980s) recognised that the removal of legal and political inequalities had not removed other forms of injustice and unfair treatment of women, so attempted to politicise women’s personal lives as well
  3. Third wave (1990s) was concerned with the experiences of different groups of women, recognising that traditionally, feminism tended to reflect the concerns and interests of white middle-class women

It has been suggested that feminism has entered a fourth wave, which is a reaction against inequality if media portrayals of women, and issues arising from the expansion of social media, such as online misogyny.

Feminism, figure 1

Core ideas and principles

Sex and gender: Historically, it was believed that gender differences in society are natural; that women and men fulfil different roles in society that nature designed them to do. A women’s physical design means that she is suited to a subordinate and domestic life. This idea is that ‘biology is destiny’. However, feminists argue that women and men adopt certain roles, such as the child-carer and the breadwinner, because it is expected of them, not because it is a natural function. In reality, domestic responsibilities could be undertaken by the husband or shared.

Feminists have traditionally challenged the idea of ‘biology as destiny’ by claiming there is sharp distinction between sex and gender. Sex refers to the fixed biological difference between men and women. The most important fixed differences are clearly anatomy and the ability to reproduce. Gender is a cultural or socialised term. It refers to the different roles that society attributes to men and women. These differences are imposed on people through the stereotypes of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’, ‘femininity’ being characterised by a passive, subordinate role. Simone de Beauvoir claimed, ‘women are made, not born’. Feminists argue that gender differences in people are created by a society that is dominated by patriarchy and that biological differences do not fix gender. They claim that there is no necessary link between the two.

Many feminists believe that human nature is androgynous (neither ‘masculine’ nor ‘feminine’). All human beings inherit the genetics of both their mother and father and therefore have the capacity for both male and female traits. They accept that sexual differences but insist that they have no social/political significance. Women and men should not be judged by their sex but as individual people. The goal for many feminists is therefore to achieve genderless ‘personhood’. Highlighting the difference between sex and gender is vital for feminists. Not only can they try end stereotyping that causes the oppression of women but also try to break down learned gender roles and social expectations.

‘Difference feminists’ disagree with other feminists, suggesting that there is a natural/essential difference between men and women. This ‘essentialist’ perspective suggests that cultural differences do reflect biological differences and that these differences reflect different characteristics.