Talking Points: A Brief Primer on Modern-Day Feminism

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In 1963, Betty Friedan was a married mother of three living in the suburbs. On paper, her life looked perfect, but she still felt restless and unfulfilled. At that point, Friedan had spent five years collecting data from college graduates about their education, experience, and levels of satisfaction, and began to notice interesting trends in the responses she got from women.

Over time, she uncovered the “problem that has no name” and named it: The Feminine Mystique. The problem was one of pervasive unhappiness with women’s role in life, and Friedan came to challenge the notion that the only place for a woman was in the home, being servile to her husband and children until the day she died.

Her book, The Feminine Mystique, sparked a feminist revolution in the hundreds of thousands of housewives who came across it, who were thrilled and encouraged to finally have a label to put to those unsettled feelings of personal dissatisfaction. All things being equal, it is not enough for women to be confined to the home, they argued. You can choose the life of a housewife, but the operative word here is choose. It turns out the majority of women want to be much, much more than stay-at-home moms. They want to be editors, professors, doctors, models, authors, marine biologists, astronauts, sign-language interpreters, engineers, quantum physicists, and heads of state.

When Friedan published her controversial book, she had no idea that she was sparking the second wave of feminism, one that moved away from the first wave’s sole interest in political rights to encapsulate a woman’s experience in every sphere of life. While the progenitors of feminism marched for the right to vote, the second wave in the 60s, 70s, and 80s was more concerned with equal pay, maternity leave, reproductive rights, and other important social issues.

Up From Under Women Unite 1960s Feminist Protest
Photo: Courtesy of HFS Collective

While second-wave feminism built its foundation on destroying the patriarchy, it had a rather large blind spot. The patriarchy is defined as a social structure in which a majority of men hold dominant positions of power over women. In a fight for equality, feminism tried to reroute this structure to make it more equitable, but that didn’t apply to everyone. Indeed, both first- and second-wave feminism had a huge problem of omitting minorities from the equation.

Instead of fighting for equal rights for all, it became a fight for equal rights for predominantly white women. Minorities weren’t even considered in the grand scheme of things. While Gloria Naylor’s pithy definition of feminism as “the radical notion that women are people” sums it all up in a neat little package, the reality has been that feminism is “the radical notion that (only white) women are people”.

Therefore, a new wave of feminism became necessary, one that understood that the fight was for all of sisterhood – not just a select and privileged majority. It also had to address the complexities of gender and race, and how the overlap tended to result in heightened discrimination against women of color. Thus, intersectionality was born, a term that addresses the fact that women as a tribe “all face vulnerabilities that reflect the intersections of racism, sexism, class oppression… able-ism and more,” as defined by civil rights advocate Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw.

As the woman who coined the term “intersectionality”, Crenshaw happens to be amply good at defining and defending it. Modern-day feminism is for everyone: women of color, disabled women, women with mental health issues, single mothers, the immigrant woman, the female refugee without a home, the plus-size woman, even men – literally anyone and everyone who faces systemic oppression is called to arms.

halima aden
Modest model Halima Aden | Photo: Courtesy of CR Fashion Book

Even as progress is made in leaps and bounds, globalization has linked us in ways that continue to reveal – quite literally on a daily basis – crimes against women that go unabated. For no other reason than being biologically female, women are oppressed the world over. They are paid less for doing the exact same job as their male counterparts, globally make up the majority of unpaid labor, and are denied adequate health care even in first-world countries like the United States.

While we’re defining the modern feminist, let’s also mention what feminists are not: we are not man-hating. In fact, we need men as allies in our fight for equality. Remember, intersectional feminism has room for everyone.

They’re also more likely to be sexually assaulted and harassed than men, and shamed and ridiculed when they are assaulted – the list goes on ad nauseum. In her TED Talk, blogger Courtney E. Martin of Feministing illustrates this point succinctly, calling the modern era a “horrible and beautiful time” because even though there has been a shift in consciousness, misogyny remains a systemic and deep-seated social issue.

Fortunately, as a completely inclusive movement, the third wave of feminism looks a lot different from the first and second – it also has legs, meaning major celebrities like Beyoncé and Jennifer Lawrence proudly wear their feminist badges. Modern feminism is officially mainstream, and we’re here for it. As for what it actually does, the list is huge, and it’s aided by the social-media networking that raises awareness at lightning speed.

If you’re a self-declared feminist, chances are that you’ve participated in consciousness-raising posts on social media or your blog, donated money to the victims of bullying or sexual harassment, participated in protest movements, helped get misogynistic merchandise pulled from the shelves, purchased products that declare or support your beliefs, and worked to change institutions from the inside out.

Nowadays, even the lazy, armchair feminist can help the cause from the comfort of her phone or by using her purchasing power to fund the charities and movements she believes in. While we’re defining the modern feminist, let’s also mention what feminists are not: we are not man-hating. In fact, we need men as allies in our fight for equality. Remember, intersectional feminism has room for everyone.

We are not intolerant of other belief systems, but we are willing to work with anyone and everyone to make an equitable and just future for women a global reality. We are not “shrill” for asking for equality. Instead, we feel that it is a basic human right. In the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Dior’s campaign in honor of her heroism, “We should all be feminists.”

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