Feminism broadly refers to the theories and movements for women’s rights and liberation. Feminists argue that the modern society favors men’s perspectives and interests, therefore treating women and girls unfairly.
The feminist movement can be divided into four waves, starting with the first wave in the nineteenth century and evolving into the forth wave in our current society (Rampton, 2015).
Similarly, the modern feminist theory is divided into multiple branches, each with their own area of focus. Feminist theories include socialist feminism, liberal feminism, and radical feminism.
Each of these theories have a different view about the causes of gender inequality and the agenda for obtaining women’s rights and liberation (Epure, 2014).
Despite its different waves, branches, and variations within, feminism continues to be an influential social force in social theory and politics today.
The following examples demonstrate key ongoing causes of feminist movements.
- The Right to Vote – In the earlier forms of democracy, only male citizens had the right to vote. As a result, demands for women’s right to vote, also known as the suffragette movement, was the origin of the modern feminism in the West. While property-owner women and those from colonized territories started to gain the right to vote in the 1800’s, New Zealand was the first independent country where all adult women started to vote (Daley & Nolan, 1994).
- Equal Access to Education – Women and girls face multiple barriers in access to education across the globe. In several Western countries, women are underrepresented in STEM fields due to discrimination and gender bias. In some other countries, women and girls face barriers in access to secondary education due to socioeconomic and political reasons. For example, in Afghanistan, secondary education for girls has been banned since the Taliban came to power in August 2021 (Unterhalter, 2022).
- The Right to Choose What to Wear – Women and girls have been facing legal, social, and religious restrictions on what to wear. Until the 1930s women in the United states were not allowed to wear tight and short swimsuits, and bikinis were unacceptable in parts of Europe until the 1960s (“Women being arrested,” 2021). Since 1979, women in Iran have been forced to comply with the mandatory Islamic dress code, including wearing headscarves and long coats (Zahedi, 2007). At the same time, many Muslim feminists argue for the right to wear headscarves in places like France and Quebec where those rights are curtailed.
- The Right to Own Property – Until the nineteenth century, married women were not allowed to be property owners. These restrictions included obtaining inheritance and owning land (Geddes & Tennyson, 2013).
- The Right to be Employed – Women have been facing legal and socio economic barriers against being employed and choosing their occupations. In Iran, women are banned from choosing occupations where they would perform as legal authorities (Moghadam, 2004).
- The Right to Run for Public Office – Until 1910, women were not allowed to run for public office in Portugal (Bonvin, 2016). In Iran the ban against women running for presidency still continues in practice, since 1979 (Moghadam, 2004).
- The Right to Parental Leave – Parental leave, which is also known as maternity leave, is an important right for women and gender equality. Currently in almost every country, women have the right to have a parental leave and return to their work after a period of time. However, the fact that a majority of countries give parental leave only to mothers raises criticism from the feminist movement as it shows the lack of gender equality in undertaking parental responsibilities (Lewis & Giullari, 2005).
- Breaking the Glass Ceiling – The glass ceiling refers to invisible barriers against upward mobility of women in workplaces. While women are a significant portion of the workforce, managerial positions tend to be dominated by men. Feminists challenge systemic discrimination and bias which create and sustain the glass ceiling (Williams, 2013).
- Equal Pay for Equal Work – Despite being a part of the workforce, women tend to be paid less than their male coworkers for the same work that they do. This global phenomenon is often referred to as the gender wage gap (Weichselbaumer & Winter‐Ebmer, 2005).
- The Right to Drive – Bertha Benz, the business partner and spouse of Karl Benz, was the first woman who drove an automobile for long distances in 1988 (Volti, 2006). However, by the 1910s, women drivers were still seen as unique or strange. Women started to be seen as possible buyers and owners of automobiles in the United States only in the 1930s (Parlin & Bremier, 2017). In Saudi Arabia, women obtained the right to drive their own cars in 2018, after decades of feminist protests (Khalil & Storie, 2021).
- The Right to Divorce – Women suffer from unequal divorce laws and their implications. In many countries across different continents, women face legal and social restrictions that prohibit them from having a divorce, or to keep full property rights or children’s custody after being divorced. For example, in the Philippines and Saudi Arabia women are not allowed to initiate a divorce, while in Iran and China the rights of divorced women are restricted (World Justice Project, 2020).
- The right to reproduction – Having legal access to safe reproductive surgery is one of the main demands of the feminist movements across the globe. Restrictions on reproductive rights depends on a range of factors such as duration of pregnancy and cause of pregnancy. By 2022, 24 countries in the World and 15 states in the United States severely restrict reproductive rights, including those in instances posing health risks (Davis, 2022).
- Accessing Feminine Hygiene Products – Despite their necessity, feminine hygiene products add a significant cost to the budget of women and girls. Similarly, other products that are specifically tailored for women are subject to pink tax, which refer to the unfairly higher costs of these items (Lafferty, 2019).
- Being Safe from Gender-based Violence – Women and girls across the globe experience harrasment and abuse at rates unmatched by other demographic groups. Sexual abuse has numerous physical, social and psychological effects on survivors which can be long-lasting. In 2010s, women started to use social media through #MeToo campaign to expose those who have abused them (Strauss Swanson & Szymanski, 2020).
- The Right to Live – Femicide, or murders against girls and women, is a global problem. Women across the world experience intimate partner violence, including being murdered by men that they know. Femicide is a significant issue particularly in Latin America and Turkey, where feminists fight for more efficient legal protection (Atuk, 2020).
First Wave Feminism started in the late nineteenth century and continued until the early twentieth century.
First wave feminists were focused on increasing women’s rights and opportunities, especially through obtaining the right to vote (Rampton, 2015).
This wave of feminism was powerful in industrialised Western countries, among middle and upper class white women (Rampton, 2015).
Second Wave Feminism was dominant between 1960s and mid-1990s, in a time period where other social movement such as Vietnam War Protests were also powerful (Rampton, 2015).
This wave mainly focused on sexuality and reproductive rights, in addition to developing the feminist theory more (Rampton, 2015).
Unlike the first wave, second wave feminists went beyond white middle class women, and included international solidarity.
3. Third Wave
Third wave feminism was dominant between mid-90’s until early 2010s.
Third wave feminists were influenced both by post-modernism and the emergence of the internet.
Unlike the first two waves that saw sexualization of women as a sign of oppression, third wave feminists embraced feminine sexual symbols (Rampton, 2015).
4. Fourth Wave
Fourth wave feminism is the most recent wave of the feminist movement that started in early 2010s (Rampton, 2015).
Fourth wave feminists are influenced by intersectionality, which draws attention to the intersections of race, sexual orientation, class and other identities with gender (Rampton, 2015).
Fourth wave feminists challenge homophobia and transphobia as a part of their intersectional perspective.
This movement also uses the power of social media, through movements such as #MeToo to target sexual harrasment and assaults.
More in our series on Gender Studies
Theories and movements that fight for women’s rights and liberation are broadly referred to as feminism.
Feminism is diverse both in terms of its theory and movements, including four different waves starting from nineteenth century and continuing up to today.
Throughout the world, feminists have been flighting for a variety of causes in different times of the history.
Feminist causes range from the right to vote or divorce to the right to be safe from sexual harrasment and abuse.
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Davis, M. F. (2022). The state of abortion rights in the US. International Journal of Gynecology & Obstetrics, 159(1), 324-329.
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Zahedi, A. (2007). Contested meaning of the veil and political ideologies of Iranian regimes. Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, 3(3), 75-98.