Bem(1993), in her ground breaking theoretical work, The Lenses of Gender: Transforming the Debate on Sexual Inequality deplores the essentialist definition of gender that treats the differences between men and women as almost in born, if not divine.

She is one of the many feminists who advance a call for action against such mystifying notion of gender so as to debunk the much coveted ‘religious’ idea “that both male-female differences and male dominance are natural, instead of being viewed as socially constructed as Judith Butler argues. Bem’s, in my view, is a summation of what feminism is all about. And I am investing all my efforts in this beginning to explain what feminism is about.

I understand that a lot of ink has been spilt in the varied attempts to explain(read define) what feminism is! There is a large possibility, among the non-initiate, to think that this text is duplicating the same effort, once again, and be seen as irrelevant and redundant. However, I am compelled to attempt a definition by the logic that a book  about feminist literary criticism and theory, and of introductory level as this one, must start with an attempt to define, repetitive as it may seem, what this concept, feminism, means.

Indeed, in the part of the world where feminism is still viewed as an anti-society, anti-religion, and anti-local culture or anti-marriage ideology, and a foreign culture infiltration bent on making women rebellious and abdicated their “natural”” domestic and nurturant roles; or which is seen as that ideology rallying together all women who have failed in their heterosexual marriages, romantic relationships, or who are not sexually desirable themselves(by their looks);or is seen as an ideology rallying a band of frustrated and disillusioned women who yearn for marriage but are not engaged as yet. Or where feminists are seen as those women who are big headed, working against the definition of being a women as defined by religion and other dominant patriarchal ideas, and made more so western ideologies and, finally, made so by their elitist well paid employed jobs, articulating borrowed(Western) gender ideologies.

Feminist history can be divided into three waves: The first wave, occurring in the 19th and early 20th   century, was mainly concerned with women’s right to vote. The second wave, at its height in the 1960s and 1970s,refers to the women’s liberation movement for equal legal and social rights. The third wave, beginning in the 1990s,refers to a continuation of, and a reaction to, second wave feminism.

First-wave feminism: Promoted equal contract and property rights for women, opposing ownership of married women by their husbands. By the late 19th century, feminist activism was primarily focused on the right to vote. American first wave-feminism ended with passage of the 19th  Amendment to the US Constitution in 1919,granting women voting rights.

Second-wave feminism of the 1960s-1980s focused on issues of equality and discrimination. The second-wave slogan, “The personal is Political,” identified women’s cultural and political inequalities as inextricably linked and encouraged women to understand how their personal lives reflected sexist power structures. Betty Friedan was a key player in second-wave feminism. In 1963,her book The Feminine Mystique criticized the idea that women could find fulfillment only through childrearing and homemaking.

According to Friedan’s New York obituary, her book “ignited the contemporary women’s movement in 1963 and as result permanently transformed the social fabric of the {….} countries around the world” and “is widely regarded as one of the most influential non fiction books of the 20th  century. ”Friedan hypothesizes that women are victims of the false beliefs requiring them to find identity in their lives through husbands and children. This cause women to lose their own identities in that of their family.

Third-wave feminism began in the early 1990s,responding to perceived failures of the second wave and to the backlash against second-wave initiatives. This ideology seeks to challenge the definitions of femininity that grew out of the ideas of the second wave, arguing that the second wave over-emphasized experiences of upper-middle-class white women. The third-wave sees women’s lives as intersectional, demonstrating how race, ethnicity, class, religion, gender, and nationality are all significant factors when discussing feminism. It examines issues related to women’s lives on an international basis. Written By: Sally Ann Drucker Betty Friedan: The Three Waves of Feminism(2018)

A study of the definitions of feminism below, however is indicative of one of one predicament, the difficulty to derive a definitive, all embracing statement of what feminism is. Offen (1988) says inside and out side the academia the world “feminism” still evokes “controversy and to arouse a visceral response {….}”.

One of the reasons is that over the years of women struggle for gender equality, or for women emancipation from patriarchy, to be more precise, feminism as an ideology has received varied interpretations depending on the branch of feminism or academic discipline, or philosophical standpoint from which one defines it.

Yasmine Ergas (1994) says the difficulty in delivering an all-embracing definition of feminism, one that would adequately “guide us through the complex terrain of contemporary feminists politics” is due to the amorphous nature of the feminist movements itself. That through actual practice and various feminist’s mutually contesting discourses feminism then “indicates historically varying sets of theories and practice centered upon the constitution and empowerment of female subjects,” but also added to this are the cultural, personal experiences-otherwise and ethnic identity. Thus, explains Frank(1994): “It is a mistake, infact, to talk about feminist criticism as it were a single, codified critical methodology. In reality, there are number of feminist criticisms covering a broad spectrum from sociological, prescriptive, and polemical to the formalists, rarefied, and aesthetic.” Offen (1988) warns that a definition of feminism that does not consider experiences of women in other cultures will always remain inadequate, for, in the words of Donelson (1999), “to succeed, the feminist movement must incorporate the diverse perspectives of all women.” Women, on which the feminist theorizing is all about, are a product of varied histories, economic system, ethnic and cultural settings and experiences, class and racial systems. In fact they are located at complex cross-sections which make each categories of women a unique element in the equation, inviting a separate definition.

I thought it as only a matter of convenience that I don’t deal with the history, and polemical discussions which feminism is famous for.

Thus I will proceed, in this section, to present a few definitions that I consider representatives of the various strands of Western feminism as compiled by Kramarae and Treichler (1985) in their A feminist Dictionary, and by other feminist thinkers. You will find, however, that there are a lot of overlapping in terms of ideas of, and approaches to defining, feminism.

  1. There are definitions that try to generally explain what feminism stands for, like this one which defines feminism as:

This definition, a part from seeking the liberation of the women from male violence, prompts readers to let go the ingrained notion that being a man or women is a natural endowment rather than an outcome of socialization. John Kelly insists that feminism is about countering irrational essentialist conception of our behaviors, which are sometimes more reinforced by pseudo-scientific propaganda and even more so by religious teaching.

  1. Other definitions put forward more clearly the objectives and goals of the separatist radical feminist movement. Definitions below attempt to indicate that strand of feminism which emerged in 1960s.For radicals feminism;

The assumption advanced by these two definitions is that all men benefit from patriarchy and share/command equal power among them. Such a blanket view of men fails to recognize the differences that exist between man. Men differ in financial power/class, in ethnicity or race, in mental abilities and physical appearances and those more powerful than rest decide the account and kinds of privileges’ each can access.

Estelle Disch(2000), for instances, says that “no one is simply a man or a women.” She says all individuals live in intersections of factors that tend to make a person different from the other. So each time one talks of man or women they should ask: “which men? Which women? ” in order to avoid unwarranted generalizations as if all men or all women embody identical traits just because they belong to a category. Bem concretizes this observation by saying that, “not all males in U.S. have power, of course, and the term male power should thus be construed narrowly as the power historically held by rich, white, heterosexual men. For it is they who originally set up and now primarily sustain the cultural discourses and social institutions{…..} it is thus not women alone are disadvantages by the organization……”


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