Before understanding what feminism means and what kind of role it has in world history it is important to clarify definite aspects of its development and find out its influence on today’s society.
“Feminism is a collection of movements and ideologies aimed at defining, establishing, and defending equal political, economic, and social rights for women” (“Feminism,” n.d.). In a broad sense it is women’s aspiration towards equality with men in all spheres of society. In a narrow sense it is the women’s movement, which has a goal to eliminate discrimination against them.
The first demands for equality were put forward by women during the American Revolutionary War. Abigail Smith Adams was considered to be the first American woman, fighting for women’s significance in society. She is very famous thanks to her phrase in 1776: “We are not going to obey the laws in the adoption of which we did not participate, and the government that does not represent our interests” (“Feminism,” n.d.). Feminists and historians identified three stages in the development of the women’s movement.
The second half of 19th century is the period when an organized women’s movement started. In 1848, the Declaration of Sentiments, which raised important issues such as women’s equality in the rights of property, marriage, and free choice of profession was adopted. Partly it was a great merit of Elizabeth Stanton.
In 1860, after an appeal by Elizabeth Stanton, the Legislature of New York accepted the act, which guaranteed any woman the right to keep money she earned and equal right to share custody of the children with her husband.
Emmeline Pankhurst was one of the founders of the movement for women’s right to vote in elections (to have suffrage). That is why the first wave of women fighting for their freedom is called the suffrage campaign movement. In 1903 Pankhurst formed an organization to protect the public and the political rights of women – Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), which for years combined 5000 members.
When members of this organization were subjected to arrests and imprisonment for trivial manifestations of supporting the movement, many of them decided to express their protest by hunger strike. The result of the hunger strike could be seen in the undermined health of participants. And this fact was noticed. Under pressure from the WSPU the English Parliament passed a series of laws aimed at improving the status of women and which gave the women the right to vote in local elections.
The second stage of feminism involved the ideas and actions associated with the women’s liberation movement, which began to develop in the 1960s and advocated for legal and social equality for both women and men. If the first wave was focused on issues such as the right to vote, the second concentrated on issues of equality – such as the elimination of discrimination. The emergence of the third stage refers to the 1990s and it is existing now.
For many years women have been considered to be the secondary figure. It was traditionally thought that the essence of a woman was determined through a series of negative characteristics. The woman was considered a defective and dependent creature, lower than men, limited and weak, and who was supposed to serve man and be useful to him. Women’s subordination also was fixed in religious thought: woman is essentially a secondary creature, as man-made from Adam’s rib. In the sphere of ethics, feminist thought was oriented on the statement that the main subject of such ethics was the man.
But the feminist movement has led to various changes in Western society. The vast majority of the population in Western countries now do not see anything unnatural in women’s right to vote, to choose their own spouse (or not to choose any), to own land – all that would have seemed incredible a hundred years ago. Also, the use of the word “humanity” is now preferable in the English language, because it goes back to the gender neutral word “human.” Women now have more freedom to choose opening opportunities for themselves. Instead of shifting responsibility for the upbringing and care for children exclusively on mothers, many fathers have become more actively involved in this process, understanding that it is their responsibility too. In liberal branches of Protestant Christianity, women may be members of the clergy. Moreover, they can become priests and choristers.
The fact of intensification of the women’s movement contributed to the formulation of a number of serious theoretical and philosophical problems. That is why the result of women’s significance is expressed in the emergence of special academic research on the topic of women, entailing the establishment of departments of universities, centers, and programs specializing in this subject. “The close relationship between contemporary feminist politics and historical practice means that women’s history is still able to excite enthusiasm and is constantly changing, developing new areas to research and new concepts and approaches with which to analyse them” (Women’s History, n.d.). When Alice Schwarzer a representative of the German feminism, was asked about the role of feminism today, she answered: “Today, the world is open to women! And women have access to all areas of public life. We have reached this great success thanks to our persistence and struggle for justice. But nevertheless, these results should be protected every day” (“Feminism, gender, science. Conversation with Alice Schwarzer,” 2011).