Does Feminism Have an Image Problem?

By Valeria Raggi.

This article analyses the origins and history of feminism and its related theory as essential factors in order to comprehend its problems and clarify what it means today.

The 2018 Women’s March in Washington DC, USA (Source: NPR)

As protests around the globe challenge patriarchal norms, as the #MeToo and Time’s Up mAs protests around the globe challenge patriarchal norms, as the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements continue to grow, and as record numbers of women run for office, feminism has reached a degree of cultural meaning it has not had for long. It is today an important object of cultural discourse. However, feminism has led to very confusing conversations and received many critiques since not everybody is familiar with or agrees on the meaning of feminism.

What images come to mind when you see the word feminism? Would you define yourself as a feminist? The word itself often brings negative stereotypes:

You’re a feminist? then you hate men, you are always angry, you hate bras, you are influenced by Western ideas, you don’t wear make-up, you don’t shave, and so many more…

Understanding the origins and history of feminism is essential to comprehend its problems and clarify what it means today.

Even though some terms such as equality have been around since the beginning of the Even though some terms such as equality have been around since the beginning of the Western world, feminism was coined as a term in France, feminisme, around the end of the 1800s by the socialist philosopher Charles Fourier. However, Fourier did not strive to achieve total equality between the sexes because, at that time, the two sexes were seen as too excessively different from a biological point of view to be treated in the same way. The term, successively, came into popular usage in the 1960s and 1970s, when women’s liberationists started to be called feminists.

Feminism’s History and its Waves

Feminism can be divided into three waves. The first wave, occurring in the late 19th and Feminism can be divided into three waves. The first wave, occurring in the late 19th and early 20th century, refers to the West’s movements that promoted the right to vote, equal contract and property rights for women, such as the suffragettes’ movements. By the 1960s-1980s a second wave began, focusing on the workplace, family and sexual reproductive health rights, with its slogan being ‘the Personal is Political’ and with Simone De Beauvoir as one of its main figures. Then, a third wave of feminism started in the early 1990s, seeking to challenge the too narrow definition of feminism as a women-only fight.

Women’s Right Demonstration, Boston, 1971 (Source: Vox)

In the previous waves, the term feminist became less accepted by the population due to the many variants of feminism: the ego-cultural, the radical, the liberal, the socialist, the separatist, the ecofeminism and the list continues…

The third wave, however, adopted positive connections and relationships between women and men and tried to include diversity’s problems and diverse people.

Intellectually, the third wave was rooted in the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw and Judith Butler. Kimberlé Crenshaw, a scholar of gender and race theory, coined the term intersectionality, seeing women’s lives as intersectional and showing how race, ethnicity, class, religion, gender, and nationality differently intersect and oppress women. Judith Butler, moreover, claimed that gender and sex are distinct and that gender is performative. Crenshaw and Butler’s words would come to be at the base of the transgender rights movement’s fight, as an important part of the intersectional feminism.

Nowadays, there is still a huge debate whether we are in the fourth wave of feminism due to the large use of social media, and online activism as a central part of the feminist discourse and debate. In 2013, the thought of a fourth wave of feminism was spread around enough that Kira Cochrane wrote in the Guardian ‘What’s happening now feels like something new again’.

Feminist Saudi street art by Saffaa (Source: ABC)

Even though the wave metaphor can be reductive as each wave of feminism did not have a single unified agenda, it is a good tool in order to comprehend the rich history and complex picture of feminism and to explain why it can have an image problem, as there is not a single interpretation of feminism. Feminism is a socio-political and philosophical view about the relationships between men, women and power, thus it can have different meanings and forms. However, overall as we briefly saw, feminism is an ongoing effort to reverse patriarchy and reach equality between genders.

Conclusion

Many people misinterpret feminism as a female fight for dominance over men, that has never been its agenda, and even though it started as a women-only fight, nowadays it is much more. Feminism developed in a wide range of ideologies and political and social movements that share a common goal: to define, establish and achieve political, economic, personal, and social equality of sexes. In 2014, a short essay by the bestselling and prize-winning Author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, entitle ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ brilliantly and concisely recaps what it means to be feminist today. Adichie does not use the language of warfare and does not seek to criticise men or set one sex against the other. She claims that society as a whole must change if equality is to be achieved. Feminism is a fight for the bruised men and sexualised girls, a fight for women forced into dependency through unfair and discriminatory salaries, a fight for people of colour, for LGBTQ+ people and other minorities, feminism is a fight for all.


Valeria is an IDS MA Development Studies student from Italy. She has worked in the UK, India, Brazil and Italy for NGOs and Institutions. She has experience in women’s empowerment projects and community participatory approaches. She is passionate about gender, sexuality and refugees issues.


Valeria is an IDS MA Development Studies student from Italy. She has worked in the UK, India, Brazil and Italy for NGOs and Institutions. She has experience in women’s empowerment projects and community participatory approaches. She is passionate about gender, sexuality and refugees issues.


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