Feminism’s History & Agendas

Feminism’s History & Agendas


Feminism is a movement committed to the social, economic, and political equality of the sexes – a concept whose origins were uniquely a product of Western thought. Throughout most of world history, women’s lives everywhere were tightly circumscribed, characterized by a much narrower range of choices and privileges than were the lives of men. Females were confined largely to the domestic sphere, while public life was exclusively the domain of males. With the philosophical advances of the Enlightenment – the 17th- and 18th-century Western intellectual movement that celebrated the power of reason and, by extension, mankind’s ability to change the status quo for the better – the first seeds of what would eventually become modern feminism were sown.

Enlightenment philosophers initially ignored gender-related inequities and focused exclusively on issues of social class and caste. Female intellectuals of the Enlightenment such as the playwright Olympe de Gouges sought to bring public attention to the plight of women. In 1791 de Gouges published Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne (Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the [Female] Citizen), which boldly asserted that women ought to be regarded as men’s equals in terms of intellect, talents, and overall competence. A year later, the Englishwoman Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, the seminal English-language feminist tract claiming that women deserved to be given the same opportunities as men in the realms of education, work, and politics.

The success of the 19th-century movement to abolish slavery encouraged feminists to pursue their own agendas with an attitude of hope and confidence. Along with their counterparts in Europe, “suffragettes” worked to include women’s rights in the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which forbade disenfranchisement on the basis of race. But not until 1920 would women be granted the right to vote in the United States.

Once the goal of suffrage had been achieved, the feminist movement fell into a protracted lull both in Europe and the United States, splintering into various factions focused on such issues as education, maternal and infant health care, voter-registration drives, and protective labor legislation for women. Then the Great Depression and World War II put a temporary halt to feminist activism all over the world.

A so-called “second wave” of feminism, heavily influenced by the revolutionary spirit of the civil-rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement, arose in the 1960s and 1970s. Feminist activists during this period organized demonstrations on behalf of such concerns as the removal of sex stereotypes from children’s books, the creation of Women’s Studies departments at colleges and universities, paid maternity leave, financial assistance for childcare, abortion rights, and pay equity in the workplace.

Legislatively, the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which was amended to ban employment discrimination on the basis of sex) represented early victories for the second wave, whose genesis can be traced to the 1963 publication of the onetime Communist activist Betty Friedan‘s The Feminine Mystique. An instant bestseller, the book asserted that American women lived in “a comfortable concentration camp” and were victimized not only by many forms of discrimination, but also by the socially transmitted message that they could find a sense of identity and fulfillment solely by living vicariously through their husbands and children. In October 1966 Friedan co-founded the National Organization for Women (NOW), which grew into the largest organization of feminist activists in America. The feminist movement that Friedan helped create in the 1960s and ’70s characterized American society as racist, sexist, patriarchal, and irredeemably discriminatory against women and minorities. To address these problems, the movement proposed to entirely restructure the country’s social and economic institutions – from the family to the workplace to the school to the marketplace.

As it evolved, feminism by the 1980s embraced affirmative action, or race- and gender-based preferences and quotas, in employment and education. It espoused such measures as the right to taxpayer-funded abortion-on-demand; federally financed and regulated daycare; “comparable worth” laws to codify government wage fixing; and federally mandated parental-leave benefits (forcing employers to skew worker benefits in favor of women). The common thread running through each of these measures was a preference for expanded government control over private life and the private sector.

By the 1990s, the radical feminist movement had begun to founder. Formerly powerful centers of opinion such as Ms. Magazine lost readership. Female college students dismissed older feminists as inflexible and passé and ridiculed their anti-male rhetoric. Meanwhile, other forms of feminism emerged to challenge the intellectual monopoly of the radical feminist establishment, notably women who considered themselves “equity feminists” as opposed to “gender feminists.” While pushing hard for initiatives that would guarantee women equal access to business and educational opportunities, these “equity feminists” also supported women who chose to stay home and raise children, ridiculed the Marxism of their more radical sisters, and (noting the advances in biological research) rejected the notion that there were no essential differences between males and females.

Acknowledging the existence of more than one legitimate definition of feminism, this so-called “third wave” feminism rejects the second wave’s “essentialism” which posited a universal female identity and an inflexible female worldview.

No figure has been more significant in the history of feminism than the late Betty Friedan. A longtime member of the Communist Left, Friedan in 1940 endorsed the Popular Front strategy of starting idealistic movements in order to lure well-meaning people into advocating Communist objectives. From 1942-43, Friedan was a member of the Young Communist League. In 1944 she sought to join the American Communist Party but was turned down because, according to her FBI files, “there already were too many intellectuals in the labor movement.” From 1943-1952, Friedan worked as a journalist for Communist-controlled media.

Friedan is generally credited with having started the “second wave” of feminism by authoring the 1963 book The Feminine Mystique, which held that women as a class were victimized not only by many forms of discrimination, but also by the socially transmitted message that they could find a sense of identity and fulfillment solely by living vicariously through their husbands and children – while sublimating their own aspirations to be something other than wives and mothers.

Another significant figure in the feminist movement was the late Andrea Dworkin, a longtime member of NOW. Maintaining that rape and the subjugation of women formed the basis for most human cultures, Dworkin urged women not only to fight back against their male oppressors, but actually to form their own, gender-exclusive nation-state. She characterized all heterosexual sex as the equivalent of rape; she wished to “destroy patriarchal power at its source, the family, [and] in its most hideous form, the national state”; she called marriage “a legal license to rape”; and she asserted that “the hurting of women is … basic to the sexual pleasure of men,” whom she described as “rapists, batterers, plunderers, killers.”

Patricia Ireland, NOW’s longest-serving (1991-2001) president, was among feminism’s most dominant personalities during that period. Her radical roots, however, dated back to an earlier time. Indeed, in the late 1970s Ireland developed a strong affinity for the regime of Cuba’s Communist dictator Fidel Castro. (Another Castro sympathizer, Socialist Workers Party member Pat Silverthorn, would later become Ireland’s lesbian lover.) In the 1980s, Ireland participated in numerous pro-communist rallies. She also took part in a Miami Free Speech Coalition demonstration against U.S. aid to the anti-communist Contra rebels in Nicaragua.

NOW’s president from 2001 to 2009 was Kim Gandy, who dismisses the notion that marriage is necessarily beneficial to women, especially poor women. “I think promoting marriage as a goal in and of itself is misguided,” she says. “The marriage movement is giving women the message that a bad husband and father is better than none at all. Single moms are being demonized. NOW is committed to exposing and organizing against this deliberate return to the days of unchallenged male control.”

The following excerpt from a text titled “Radical/Cultural Feminism and Marxist/Socialist Feminism,” published by Chungnam National University, offers further insights into feminism and its history:

Radical feminism focuses on patriarchy as a system of power that organizes society into a complex of relationships producing what radical feminists claim is a “male supremacy” that oppresses women. Radical feminism aims to challenge and to overthrow patriarchy by opposing standard gender roles and what they see as male oppression of women, and calls for a radical reordering of society.

Early radical feminism, arising within second-wave feminism in the 1960s, typically viewed patriarchy as a “transhistorical phenomenon” prior to or deeper than other sources of oppression, “not only the oldest and most universal form of domination but the primary form” and the model for all others. Later politics derived from radical feminism ranged from cultural feminism to more syncretic politics that placed issues of class, economics, etc. on a par with patriarchy as sources of oppression.

The term “radical” in radical feminism (from Latin, meaning root) is used as an adjective meaning of or pertaining to the root or going to the root. Radical feminists locate the root cause of women’s oppression in patriarchal gender relations, as opposed to legal systems (liberal feminism) or class conflict (socialist feminism and Marxist feminism).

In the United States, radical feminism developed as a response to some of the perceived failings of both New Left organizations such as the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and liberal-feminist organizations such as the National Organization for Women (NOW). Initially concentrated mainly in big cities (like New York, Chicago, Boston, and Washington, DC) and on the West Coast, radical feminist groups spread across the country rapidly from 1968 to 1972.

As a form of practice, radical feminists introduced the use of consciousness-raising groups (CR groups). These groups brought together intellectuals, workers and middle-class women in developed Western countries to discuss their experiences. During these discussions, women noted a shared and repressive system regardless of their political affiliation or social class. Based on these discussions, the women drew the conclusion that ending patriarchy was the most necessary step towards a truly free society. These consciousness-raising sessions allowed early radical feminists to develop a political ideology based on common experiences women faced with male supremacy. Consciousness raising was extensively used in sub-units of the National Organization For Women during the 1970s.

Radical feminism describes sexual oppression (patriarchy) as the fundamental form of oppression and the primary oppression for women; men as a group are considered to be the beneficiaries of this social system of male supremacy (patriarchy). Radical feminism offers a real challenge to, and a rejection of, the liberal orientation towards the public world of men. Indeed it gives a positive value to womanhood rather than supporting a notion of assimilating women into arenas of activity associated with men. Radical feminism pays attention to women’s oppression as women in a social order dominated by men. According to this approach, the distinguishing character of women’s oppression is their oppression as women, not as members of other groups such as their social class. Hence, the explanation for women’s oppression is seen as lying in sexual oppression. Women are oppressed because of their sex.

The notion of shared oppression is intimately connected with a strong emphasis on the sisterhood of women and encourages some degree of separatism from men. Furthermore, this identification with women and rejection of male dominance involves both a critique of the existing organization of heterosexuality as prioritizing men, and a recognition of lesbianism as a challenge to that priority. Radical feminism stresses that in a social order dominated by men the process of changing sexual oppression must, as a political necessity, involve a focus on women. And because radical feminism recommends putting women first, making them the primary concern, this approach is inclined to accord lesbianism an honored place as a form of mutual recognition between women.

Radical feminism’s strong interest in recovering or discovering positive elements in femininity (asserting in essence that it is good to be a woman and to form bonds with other women), in combination with its location of men as the beneficiaries of sexual power relations, results in a relatively sharp division drawn between men and women. Radical feminists usually present a historically continuous, clear-cut difference between men and women. Sometimes, this is argued to be the result of an ontological (essential, intrinsic, innate) difference. However, other radical feminist writers note that male domination is a social structure and not the consequence of some in-built male propensity, even if motivations towards mastery are typically male. In other words, feminists in this tradition see a difference between men and women as inevitable (given by nature) or at least as so established historically that it is very deeply embedded.

Since radical feminist thinkers consider sexual oppression to be profoundly entrenched, frequently depicting it as the original form of coercive power, they also present the social and political changes required to overthrow the system of male domination as far-reaching. Radical feminism generally advocates a revolutionary model of social change. However, the proposed revolutionary change in the organization of power relations between the sexes is not described in terms of a single cataclysmic moment, but rather as the consequence of the cumulative effect of many small-scale actions.

Additional Resources:

Radical/Cultural Feminism and Marxist/Socialist Feminism
By CNU.ac

Marxist Feminism’s Ruined Lives
By Mallory Millett
September 2, 2014

The Marxist Roots of Feminism
By Spyridon Mitsotakis
August 29, 2011

You’ve Lost Your Way, Baby: How Organized Feminism Has Made Itself Irrelevant
By Catherine Seipp
October 2002

What’s Wrong and What’s Right with Contemporary Feminism?
Lecture by Christina Hoff Sommers
November 19, 2008

The Myths of Feminism 
By Nicholas Davidson
May 31, 1989

Liberalism and Victimhood
By Dennis Prager
June 3, 2008

Four Legacies of Feminism
By Dennis Prager
November 1, 2011

The New ‘Gender Gap’
By Bruce Bawer
April 3, 2013

Feminism and Intelligence
By Dennis Prager
May 16, 2017


New DOJ Data On Sexual Assaults: College Students Are Actually Less Likely To Be Victimized
By The Federalist Staff
December 11, 2014

Rape And Sexual Assault Among College-Age Females, 1995-2013
By Sofi Sinozich and Lynn Langton
December 11, 2014

Persistent Myths in Feminist Scholarship
By Christina Hoff Sommers
June 29, 2009

Are One in Five Women Raped at College? (Video)
By Caroline Kitchens
April 2016


The War Against Boys
By Christina Hoff Sommers
May 2000


How the Schools Shortchange Boys
By Gerry Garibaldi
Summer 2006

Where Are the Men?
By Phyllis Schlafly
December 1, 2009


Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?
By Christina Hoff Sommers
March/April 2008

Baseless Bias and the New Second Sex
By Christina Hoff Sommers
June 10, 2009

The Gender-Equity Hammer Comes Out
By Christina Hoff Sommers
April 24, 2008


The Subjection of Islamic Women
By Christina Hoff Sommers
May 11, 2007

The Feminist Deception
By Caroline Glick
December 15, 2010


Ben Shapiro Explains the Real History of Feminism
By Ben Shapiro
July 16, 2022

The Top Five Feminist Myths of All Time
By Christina Hoff Sommers

Women Are Winning the War on Women
By Ben Shapiro
October 22, 2014

How Big Government Hurts Women
By Carrie Lukas (Prager University)

Title IX: When a Good Law Turns Bad
By Betsy DeVos (Prager University)

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