At the conclusion of one of my speeches advocating for women’s rights as human rights, a young woman scoffed at my use of the word feminist saying, “That ‘f’ word, ‘feminist’ is so passé. We’re beyond that now.”
Are we? Really? This young woman needed some ‘womansplaining’ about the definition of a feminist.
To be a feminist is to acknowledge that women are people who deserve the same social, economic, and political rights and opportunities equal to all other people on this earth. To be a feminist is about acknowledging fair and equal recognition to all sexes in this world. To be a feminist is to understand that equality is not just a woman’s issue, it is a global human rights issue.
There is long history in this much feared “f” word. It began with the women’s suffrage movement that started with the Seneca Falls Convention, the first Women’s Rights Convention of 1848. The first wave of feminism gained momentum after 15,000 working women of the garment district marched through New York City in 1908 demanding shorter hours, better pay and voting rights. As a result, National Women’s Day was decided upon in 1910, but the tradition of celebrating it wasn’t observed until 1914. Which is not surprising considering it took over 42 years for the US Congress to finally ratify in 1920 an amendment that was introduced in 1878 proposing a woman’s right to vote. This year we celebrate it’s 100th anniversary.
In the early 1960’s through the 1980’s a second wave of feminism unfolded amid the anti-war and civil rights movements and brought about many of the entitlements previously denied women. Among those were the Equal Pay Act of 1963, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which banned discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin and religion in employment), the founding of the National Organization for Women (NOW) at the Third National Conference of Commissions on the Status of Women in 1966, legalized birth control, and Roe v Wade, (protecting a woman’s right to choose). These women courageously lead and empowered others to create and build a sane, soulful culture beyond today. They did not relegate their abilities to simply secure a better life for themselves, but put the vision of a better world above their own personal journeys, and in doing so secured a better life for millions. It wasn’t until 1975, when the United Nations drew global attention to women’s concerns declaring it the Year of the Woman which marked a turning point in policy directives. The first UN International World Conference in Mexico City was held to focus solely on women’s issues and claimed March 8 as the UN Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace in 1977.
Their plight continued into the third-wave of feminism, which began in the late 80’s/ early 1990s. We lived those momentous times when Anita Hill accused Clarence Thomas, a man nominated to the United States Supreme Court, of sexual harassment in 1991. Her case did not win, but alerted women to the legal rights and protections that had been obtained by first- and second-wave feminists. Feminism also saw many new triumphs for women–astronauts, prime ministers, secretary of states, attorney generals, scientists, athletes, and Girl Power burst onto our radar with the Spice Girls. Feminist icons such as Madonna, Queen Latifah, Angelina Jolie, Emma Watson, Beyoncé, and Lady Gaga, as well as fictional characters such as Buffy and Mulan hit the stage to actualize change, to gain power and equality within their own cultures and their own communities and with their own voices. The use of internet and technology became instrumental in enhancing the movement.
Today, the fourth-wave of feminism is characterized by a focus on the empowerment of women and the use of Internet tools, however, this phase was incubated in academia with women’s centers and gender studies becoming a staple of universities around the world. This wave furthers the agenda by calling for equal pay for equal work, for bodily autonomy, and justice against assault and harassment with campaigns that include #Time’sUp, #Now, and #MeToo movements.
Many from a younger generation may feel that ‘all the battles have been won for women’ while feminists from the 1970’s know only too well the longevity and ingrained complexity of patriarchy and women’s plight. Fifty two years ago, we landed on the moon; 40 years ago we eradicated small pox; 30 years ago we created B2 Bombers and seedless watermelons; in the last decade we discovered new human ancestors; and just last year, we photographed a black hole for the first time. The world has made unprecedented advances in science and technology, yet achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls remains the greatest human rights challenge in our world, and the unfinished business of the century.
The unfortunate fact remains– women still are not paid equally to that of their male counterparts, women still are not present in equal numbers in business or politics, and globally, women’s education, health and violence against them is worse than that of men. I would love to see the day when feminism becomes a passé word wrapped in the history of our progress, but until then, I am deeply committed to the issues important to the movement. I have strong opinions about misogyny, institutional sexism that puts women at a disadvantage, the inequity in pay, the cult of beauty and thinness, labeling a woman for her looks, the attacks on reproductive freedom, violence against women, and so on. I am as committed to fighting for equality as I am committed to disrupting the notion that feminism is passé.
Be educated. Know your facts. Speak up for gender equality. Be feminist.