Research Paper


Feminism: How Did It Become What It Is Today?

Throughout history, there have been a lot of different movements of all different types of people. Our country is always changing, and seems to never have the same credentials as it had in the past. With this ever-changing cycle that America has, feminism is just another one of these movements. Some may say that women will never be happy, but is this the case, or do women still have unequal treatment? And how is feminism different today compared to the early years of the United States of America?

What exactly is feminism? The dictionary defines it as the doctrine advocating social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men. Before feminism had even been officially started, those individuals who advocated for women’s rights were labeled as Protofeminism. Muhammad was one of the first persons on Earth to fight for women’s rights while he preached about equality for women in marriage, divorce and inheritance (Drawing the Line, 265-67).  The topic of women’s rights has been around since the beginning of mankind. So, why is it that they still don’t have equal rights? It is a topic that is constantly ignored, sideswiped, and overlooked in the American society.

The first act of feminism was seen in the 18th century. A European political philosophy was centered on a conflict between two men. These men were Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. Both of their works focused on the relative rights of men. An English philosopher named Mary Wollstonecraft responded to Burke and beat Paine with her work titled “A Vindication of the Rights of Men.” After that book, she wrote a second volume named “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.” Even though this book was published in England, it has been said that it represents the first thoughts of American feminism (Feminism in the United States). To me it seems silly that such an impractical little novel is the thing that sparked feminism to grow in the United States.

Others have said that there is a different wave that started the feminist movement. The first wave is during the 18th to the early 20th centuries. This was called the suffrage movement. In Virginia Woolf’s book “A Room of One’s Own,” she describes many of the ideas of the First Wave of feminism (Wikipedia).  The argument of the book is “women are simultaneously victims of themselves as well as victims of men and are upholders of society by acting as mirrors to men” (Humm, 1992, 22). This sounds a lot like what feminists might say today about how females and males are constructed within society. It just shows how there will always be a struggle for females to have the same credibility as males do in all aspects of life, especially the work world.

During the First Wave, the biggest struggle for females was the fight for women’s suffrage. The legislature explicitly denied representation and they were said to be second-class citizens. It took a long time to become a priority, but eventually it became a dominant issue. After the French Revolution, the founding of the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women was introduced in 1793 (Enfranchising Women).

During the early twentieth century, the Edwardian era was present. Women had more employment opportunities, more active, and had more relaxed clothing restrictions. The rights were dominated because of the political reform and increasing votes for women. In 1903, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was formed. They are the best-known women suffrage group, and pushed for women’s voting rights (Wikipedia). Slowly, the suffragettes became more and more vigorous. They would smash shop windows, bang on doors, and heckle. Eventually, it worsened to hunger strikes, risky force feeding and the notorious Prisoners Act 1913 which allowed women to be released when their illness or injury became dangerously acute, but officers couldn’t arrest and charge the women once they recovered (Wikipedia). By 1918, the right for women to vote became a dominant topic, and the Representation of the People Act 1918 enacted in February allowed women over the age of 30 to vote (Wikipedia).

The Second wave was from the 1960s to the 1980s. It was known as the postwar period. It was concerned with laws and culture of gender inequality. The difference between the first wave and the second was the second began to adjust the ideas to American culture that had been established in the first. Simone de Beauvoir is associated with this wave because of her idea of women as “the other.” She talked about their sexuality along with the writings of Virginia Woolf (Wikipedia). World War two was a huge help for women, since all the men were away at war, more jobs were made available for females. At the end of the war, many of the gains were taken away (Wikipedia). In the 1960’s, feminism was fueled by the social, cultural, and political climate of that decade. More women were in higher education, and there was academic women’s studies courses and departments and other fields such as politics, sociology, history and literature (Cott, 809).

The third wave is seen as constant failures of the second wave. It began in the early 1990s. It seeks to challenge or avoid what it deems the second wave’s essentialist definitions of femininity. According to them, they over-emphasized the experiences of upper middle class white women. Minority females were more in the spotlight. Also queer sexuality, reproductive rights, and international feminism were all major topics during the third wave (Wikipedia).

In today’s society, feminism is often referred to “post-feminism.” It is a time period where the focus seems to be mainly on the work world, and how females are treated unequally to men. My mother is a great example of this. I interviewed her about her work history, and it was interesting to hear how all her decisions were based on how she would be treated. She was always told that this was a “man’s world,” and that she gave up working at a large CPA firm because she knew that it would be much harder for her to rise to any high-ranking position because she is a female. I also interviewed another female in the work world, who preferred to be unnamed, and she accused Ernst and Young of sexual harassment and unfair conduct simply because she was a female just a few years prior.

According to the U.S. Census bureau, as part of the Current Population Survey, it was obvious that males made over $10,000 more dollars a year than females. Why do women settle for this, even though we have been suffering since the beginning?  Women have fought so hard to be an equal to the male race, but always seem to fail.

So, why is it in today’s culture that feminists are viewed as “femi-nazis”? It is obvious to me now that there is no straight answer. Maybe due to the second wave feminists are viewed as bra-burning savages who break windows and go on hunger strikes; or maybe it’s because some people only focus on the radical feminists that are around today that give feminists a bad reputation.

Since there is no clear-cut answer for this question, I believe that it is safe to say that feminism is an ever-changing idea that will hopefully be accepted one day into society. Perhaps if it was given a different name or perhaps women would actually stand up for themselves like their ancestors did, women would be taken more seriously. Until that moment happens, I hope to lead this country into doing so.

Work Cited

Head, Tom. "History of Feminism in the United States." Guide. Web. 1 Feb. 2010.

Humm, Maggie (ed). 1992. Modern Feminisms. New York: Columbia University Press.

"Feminist Movement." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Wikipedia Foundation, Inc., Web. 1 Feb. 2010.

"Topics in Feminism." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 7 Feb. 2003. Web. 4 Feb. 2010. <>.

Botting, Eileen H, Houser, Sarah L., '"Drawing the Line of Equality": Hannah Mather Crocker on Women's Rights' in American Political Science Review (2006), 100: 265-27.

"Feminism | Definition of Feminism at" | Find the Meanings and Definitions of Words at Web. 4 Feb. 2010. <>.

Enfranchising Women: The Politics of Women's Suffrage in Europe 1789-1945. Trinity & All Saints College, University of Leeds.

Cott, Nancy F. "What's In a Name? The Limits of ‘Social Feminism’; or, Expanding the Vocabulary of Women's History". Journal of American History 76 (December 1989): 809–829.

"United States - Population Finder -." American FactFinder. Web. 4 Feb. 2010. <>.