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What Feminism Is and What Feminism Isn’t

Infographic with the words: "Feminism Is: Gender Equality, Freedom to Choose, Equal Pay, Women's Rights, Equal Opportunities."
Feminism Is: Gender Equality, Freedom to Choose, Equal Pay, Women’s Rights, Equal Opportunities

If there’s one social movement that has been continually misunderstood, it’s feminism. The misinformation and misconceptions on what feminism is and isn’t no doubt make it hard to discern truth from fiction. We’re continuing Women’s History Month with a quick history lesson, and a discussion about the myths that are perpetuated in the United States and beyond.

We’ve all heard the rhetoric. Man-hating. PC Police. Bra-burning. Feminazi (yikes). Feminism has been branded by many as a movement of misandry rather than a fight against misogyny. It’s true that a loud minority has twisted public perception, but that’s all it is — a very loud, very small minority. They don’t represent feminism or feminists. Yet the actions and words of this minority have left many reluctant to identify as feminists because they don’t want to be associated with what they think feminism is about.

So let’s take some time today to learn a little about feminism and break down some of the myths.

A Quick History of Feminism in the United States

The history of feminism in the US can be broken down into different eras, called waves. You’ve probably heard about them. Each of these waves focused on specific goals. Each new wave built on the foundations laid by previous generations of feminists, gradually pushing us to become a more equal society.

First Wave Feminism

The first wave goes all the way back to the 1830’s and lasted through the early 1900’s. This is the probably the most famous wave for an important reason — it fought to secure women’s right to vote. It also pushed for equal contract and property rights.

Second Wave

From the 1960’s through the 1980’s, second wave feminists focused on the workplace, sexuality, family, and reproductive rights. Achievements during this time period are still relevant — and hotly debated — today. Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion in the US, was passed in January 1973.

Third Wave

The most recent wave of feminism happened throughout the 1990’s and 2000’s. Fixing the wage gap was (and still is) a primary focus. Reproductive rights remained an important issue as the legality of abortion became a common campaign platform.

Fourth Wave?

Depending on who you ask, we might still be in the third wave. Others may say that the 2010’s marked the beginning of the fourth wave. Some issues, like the fight for reproductive rights and body autonomy, are still relevant and happening today. There’s also new developments and additions to the docket.

Today’s advocates continue the push against antiquated gender norms. Fighting rape culture and body shaming are important points. The #MeToo movement of the past few years has been one of the defining moments of the fourth wave.

However, there are misconceptions to fight every step of the way. Today, we see many people distancing themselves from the term “feminist.” Even people who, when surveyed, find their ideals align with feminist ideals. But with so much misinformation flying around, how do we even know what feminist ideals are?

Well, let’s look into them.

What Is Feminism?

Let’s start with the basic, dictionary definition.

The advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes.

Oxford Languages

There it is. Equal rights, equal treatment, equal society. Of course, a simple definition may be hard to imagine in practice, so let’s explore what feminism is and what it is not.

What Feminism Is and Isn’t

Feminism is fighting outdated gender norms.

For too long, in both the US and in South Asia, women have been expected to occupy certain roles in society. Every wave of feminism has pushed the boundaries on what is socially acceptable for women to do. However, some believe that those boundaries are pushed at the expense of men or other women. That said…

Feminism isn’t shaming other women.

Many think that feminists look down on women for occupying more traditional roles. Try Googling “feminist + housewife.” You’ll find pages of articles explaining why the two aren’t incompatible. Yes, a big part of feminism is challenging gender norms. But the fight against gender norms isn’t for shaming women who are more “feminine” by cultural standards. It’s part of a larger fight, which is…

Feminism is the right to choose.

For the majority of history in the US and South Asia, women haven’t had the freedom of choice. The fight against gender norms is the fight for freedom of choice. This is why feminism is not about shaming women who are more traditionally “feminine.” For example, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being a housewife. The problem is when there is no choice in the matter. That’s why “Feminist housewife” isn’t an oxymoron. It’s the choice for women to occupy whatever role makes them happiest. However, some can feel threatened by changing gender roles because of a certain misconception about feminism…

Feminism isn’t the belief that women are or should be superior to men.

Furthermore, being a feminist doesn’t mean hating men. Many men (and women) have a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to the word “feminist” because they feel it sounds anti-men. You’ve probably heard people identify as “equalists” instead for this reason. But that’s based on a misconception. It’s these misconceptions that lead people to believe “feminism” has negative connotations. But remember…

Feminism is counter-cultural.

You may be hesitant to identify as a feminist because you feel that the word carries some negative associations. However, it’s important to remember a few things. First, feminism is about equality and no more. It’s not about changing the power balance of society to favor women. Identifying as a feminist doesn’t mean hating men, shaming women, or uprooting tradition (except for the ones that perpetuate harmful gender roles). It simply means you believe men and women are equal.

Second, feminism is counter-cultural. What social movement isn’t? When you associate yourself with a movement, there is opposition from people who disagree. You may hear people recite some of the misconceptions we’ve just discussed. That’s the challenge of being part of a movement.

What Is Feminism to You?

We’d love to know! What does feminism mean to you? What does it take to be a feminist? Let’s end it today with words from our community!

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Click here to check out our Women’s Programs.

Visit Vox for a more in-depth look at the history of feminism in the US.

Learn more about Roe v. Wade from Planned Parenthood here.

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