28/05/2011 13:08

One of the first important expressions of the movement was Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). The 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, convened by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and others, called for full legal equality with men, including full educational opportunity and equal compensation; thereafter the woman suffrage movement began to gather momentum. It faced particularly stiff resistance in the United Kingdom and the United States, where women gained the right to vote in 1918 and 1920, respectively. By mid-century a second wave of feminism emerged to address the limited nature of women's participation in the workplace and prevailing notions that tended to confine women to the home. A third wave of feminism arose in the late 20th century and was notable for challenging middle-class white feminists and for broadening feminism's goals to encompass equal rights for all people regardless of race, creed, economic or educational status, physical appearance or ability, or sexual preference. See also Equal Rights Amendment; women's liberation movement.

Social movement that seeks equal rights for women. Widespread concern for women's rights dates from the Enlightenment




The most far-reaching social development of modern times is the revolt of women against sexual servitude (Margaret Sanger, 1920).

While feminism takes many forms and cannot be characterized in any seamless way, it nonetheless encompasses the struggles of women to secure their economic and political agency. From the Women's Suffrage Movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to the Women's Liberation Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, feminism is typically associated with particular historical moments when a coalition of women succeeds in bringing issues of gender equality, sexual oppression, and sex discrimination into the public arena. Whether it takes the form of an explicit demand for the vote (as did the Suffrage Movements) or a more generalized demand for women's freedom (as did the Women's Liberation Movement), feminism is invariably engaged in resistance to prevailing notions of women's ‘nature’.

In the nineteenth century, the ideological ascendancy of science and medicine joined the spread of industrialization to promote the ‘sexual division of labour’ based on the assumption that ‘biology is destiny’. Women's fixed role as caregivers was ideologically determined by their biological capacity to bear children. Associated with that biological capacity was a host of psychological attributes — passivity, dependence, moodiness — which further reinforced a growing emphasis on the gendered separation of the domestic and the public spheres. The qualities requisite to economic or political success were linked to biologically based notions of masculinity and femininity, according to which men's bodies and minds are naturally suited to positions of power and women's are naturally suited to positions of subordination. While the resistance to this view of sexual difference varies historically and culturally, it is against this backdrop that modern and contemporary feminism must be understood.


Not surprisingly, feminism often consolidates into a political movement as a result of women's participation in other radical, reformist, or revolutionary activities. For example, women were active in the anti-slavery movements of the nineteenth century. Yet, at a World Anti-Slavery Convention held in London in 1840, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were forced to sit in the gallery because the convention's organizers had determined that women could not be delegates. Eight years later, Mott and Stanton convened the Seneca Falls Women's Rights Convention, which adopted a platform explicitly revising the US Declaration of Independence to accord women the same guarantees that it granted to men. (‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal …’) In addition, it specified a set of grievances regarding the usurping by men of women's political, legal, and economic autonomy. It would not be the last time that the hypocrisy of demanding rights for some while denying them to others would initiate a women's movement. Women's experience as coffee-makers, typists, and sexual attendants to men in the anti-war and civil rights movements of the 1960s similarly activated both the demand for women's full participation in the public sphere and denunciation of masculine sexual prerogatives.

The Women's Liberation Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, the backdrop to contemporary feminism, is characterized by two intersecting trajectories. On the one hand, in spite of the liberalization of non-marital sex (occasioned in part by the wide distribution of the birth control pill), women remained men's sexual subordinates. Feminists challenged ‘sexist’ images of women in popular culture and in the pornography industry in relation to a growing understanding of women's ‘political subordination under patriarchy’. Women's bodies, then, became the ground on which the struggle for liberation was waged. On the other hand, a connection was made between women's ‘consciousness’ and their sexual subordination. While feminists like Margaret Sanger had long before identified women's complicity in perpetuating their own subordination, the concept of ‘consciousness raising’ as an instrument of liberation emerged only in this later period. Consciousness raising, a collective activity of mutual support and critique, encouraged individual women to see the ways in which their habits of thought conformed to a particular set of ideological presuppositions about women's nature and women's roles — why am I supposed to wash the dishes, change the diapers, watch soap commercials, stay within the budget, and worry about cellulite, while he earns the money, fattens happily, determines when we will have sex, and metes out judicious punishment to the children when he returns from his important work in the real world?

Though this characterization of consciousness raising might appear a parody of the concerns of middle-class married women, the fact that such women were drawn into the movement in large numbers was crucial to the widespread recognition that women were no longer content to sit on the sidelines of political/public life. The slogan ‘the personal is political’ captured the Movement's insistence that what goes on behind the closed doors of the domestic sphere has everything to do with what goes on outside it. On this basis, despite serious differences among feminists as to whether the goal was equality with men or freedom from them, a broad agenda for change could be articulated. The women's health movement demanded everything from an increase in the number of women doctors, to access to abortion and contraception, to freedom from sterilization abuse, to a full understanding and celebration of women's bodies in feminist terms. (Our Bodies/Ourselves, still the principal women's health handbook, was first published in 1971) More generally, women demanded ready access to the political arena, to economic self-sufficiency, to childcare, to freedom from male violence, to divorce, and to workplaces free from sexual harassment.


While feminism must be seen as an activist demand for political and economic reform, it has always been informed by serious reflection on the nature of sexual difference and the mechanisms by means of which sexual difference is enmeshed in, even created out of, relations of power and oppression. Mary Wollstonecraft (A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792), John Stuart Mill (The Subjection of Women, 1869), Margaret Sanger (Women and the New Race, 1920), Simone de Beauvoir (The Second Sex, 1949), Betty Friedan (The Feminine Mystique, 1974), and bell hooks (Ain't I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism, 1981) are among the many feminists who have endeavoured to understand the causes and forms of women's oppression, and to reconceptualize sexual difference. Contemporary feminism has achieved more systematic interventions into the arenas that authorize representations of sexual difference, in large part because feminists have secured a greater presence in academia (and in elite domains of business, politics, medicine, science, and the mass media). For example, feminist historians have unmasked the assumption that history is determined by great wars and great men, and have succeeded in drawing attention to the ways in which women's work has significantly affected historical developments. Feminist scholars have demonstrated the extent to which male bias has determined the normative assumptions of the social, natural, and behavioural sciences. In the arts, literary and artistic canons are no longer restricted to the work of men.

Though feminism's relation to other struggles for political liberation has always been an element of its self-understanding, this has become particularly salient in recent years as feminism is increasingly exposed as beholden to a pernicious set of assumptions about class, race, sexuality, ethnicity, and nationality. Feminism has been challenged to re-think the centrality of a unified and singular woman's identity to its political aspirations, since that identity too often comes at the expense of other, equally significant forms of identification. For example, African-American women's identity is constructed in relation to the history of slavery in which white women were complicit. The institutionalized racism that persists in spite of legal reforms continues to ensure white women's relatively greater access to those who uphold multiple systems of domination and subordination, namely, white men. Adding class as a factor further complicates the feminist agenda, for upper-class white women have considerable economic and social power over lower-class men and women, irrespective of race or ethnicity.

The feminist programme has been unsettled as well by the claim that, however unwittingly, it privileges heterosexuality as a normative feature of women's identity. According to this view, for example, the focus on abortion and contraception as the principal items on the feminist reproductive freedom agenda has too often ignored the realities of lesbian (and gay male) sexuality. Lesbian and gay procreation face challenges very different but, it is argued, equally compelling as those faced by women who wish to resist the heterosexual reproductive paradigm.

Whatever its fragmentation, within those arenas where it has a relatively secure footing, feminism can be credited with effecting profound changes in the ideological construction of womanhood, not only in the US and Europe, but more globally. The issue of women's autonomy in relation to reproduction and to work, and the issue of women's health more generally, have found themselves on the global political stage. Feminism continues in its struggle to establish itself as the ground for women's political, economic, and cultural ascendancy in the face of its own internal debates about the significance of differences among women.

Feminism is a relatively recent term for the politics of equal rights for women. It came into use in English only in the 1890s, and many languages do not have this noun at all. It is also a system of critique and has as its central focus the concept of patriarchy, which can be described as a system of male authority, which oppresses women through its social, political, and economic institutions. Feminism is therefore a critique of patriarchy, on the one hand, and an ideology committed to women's emancipation on the other. At the heart of feminist social and political analysis is the challenging of the public/private divide in politics, which has historically denied women access to the public political space and therefore representation of their interests. Starting from a point of unity—‘sisterhood is global’—feminism today is an ideology with many practitioners that have situated themselves on various theoretical intersections—Marxist feminists, anarchist feminists, radical feminists, liberal feminists. Feminism, however, is not only a critique or an extension of, traditional ideologies but has also made a significant contribution of its own in the field of theory and praxis. Feminist methodology, which arose from a tradition of ‘consciousness raising’ in the women's movement and by drawing upon women's subject experience to extend the boundaries of theory has, for example, found an important place in the field of methodological analysis. Issues such as race, sexuality, class, and ethnicity have served to disperse the idea of an essential ‘woman’ in which all women would recognize as themselves. Critiques of first- and second-wave Western feminism by black and Third World women, and lesbian groups, have introduced a diversity of approaches to appear within the feminist discourse. This tendency has been further reinforced by feminism's encounters with post-structuralism and post-modernism. Feminism today is not simply an ideology but a growing academic discipline. While this is making issues of gender accessible to women in education in a systematic way, its incorporation into academic curricula is also causing concern among many women who see the cutting edge of feminism—its political activism—being blunted in this process.

Jewish feminism is a fairly recent development, though some of its adherents would maintain that its roots extend far back in Jewish history. Mostly it is characterized by an increase in women's access to Jewish learning and involvement in public Jewish life---a turn of events that women could achieve in the past only under unusual circumstances or with great difficulty. Examples of women's leadership are evident in the Bible and Midrash.Rabbinic commentaries maintain that Sarah, the wife of Abraham, converted the women of her area to monotheism while Abraham converted the men. Sarah ran her household with wisdom and great strength, to the point where even God counseled Abraham to obey her when she insisted that he send away Hagar, his second wife, and her son Ishmael for the good of her own son Isaac. Other examples of biblical Jewish women leaders are the prophetess Miriam, sister of Moses and Aaron, who led the Jewish women in song at the Sea of Reeds; the five daughters of Zelophehad, who insisted on receiving their own share of the Promised Land since their late father had no son to inherit (Num. 27:1-8); Deborah, a judge of Israel before the monarchy, who also led the Israelites in song after a military victory; the prophetess Hulda, a contemporary of Jeremiah, whom the king consulted for guidance when the nation faced great danger (II Kings 22:14); and Queen Esther, who engineered the salvation of the Jewish people from within the harem of the King of the Persian Empire. Jewish leadership was not the province of individual women alone, however, but at times belonged to the entire community of Jewish women. During the Jewish people's sojourn as slaves in Egypt, the traditional commentaries tell us, the Israelite women brought about the redemption by strengthening the men's resolve and continuing to bear children despite their adverse circumstances. The Midrash relates that in the desert after leaving Egypt, those same women withheld their jewelry from the making of the Golden Calf and refused to have any part in its worship. As a reward for their loyalty to God, they received the New Moon festival, Rosh Ḥodesh, as a partial holiday during which they are exempt from performing certain kinds of work. Yet early commentators were ambivalent on the question of Jewish women's leadership. They maintained that it was unseemly for women to put themselves forward, and cited the "ugly" names of two Jewish women leaders as proof of this: Deborah ("bee") and Hulda ("weasel"). Even though structured Jewish learning in talmudic times was restricted to men, the Talmud contains examples of women who took leadership roles as scholars or in community involvement. Beruryah, daughter of R. Hanina ben Teradyon and wife of R. Meir, was said to have been able to learn 300 laws in one day, and her legal opinions are cited with respect. A later commentary casts aspersions upon her virtue, but the Talmud itself mentions nothing that could damage her reputation. From that time to the present in both the European and Oriental diasporas, there were Jewish women who ran businesses and institutions of Jewish learning and excelled in scholarship. But mostly they seem to be isolated examples, unusual in their communities, and certainly not part of any movement. There were some women who served as rebbes or scholars in the Ḥasidic movement, but they were usually the wives or daughters of acknowledged Ḥasidic leaders and so less vulnerable to criticism. One exception was Hanna Rachel Werbermacher (1805-1892), known as the Maid of Ludmir, a woman who acted for all intents and purposes as a Ḥasidic rebbe. She eventually emigrated to Palestine. The rise of the feminist movement in the United States after World War II gave American Jewish women room to question their role not only as women but as Jews. They studied, wrote essays, and published books, and some created innovative rituals for Jewish holidays and Rosh Ḥodesh celebrations. More and more women began to take on the performance of those commandments from which Jewish law exempts women, such as regular prayer and the wearing of prayer shawls and phylacteries. They rejected the talmudic dictum that women should not learn Jewish subjects in depth and began to study the sources themselves. Some, particularly in the Reform and Reconstructionist movements, became cantors and rabbis. But even the so-called progressive movements resisted increased women's public involvement. It was not until the 1980s that the Conservative ovement agreed to allow women to be counted as part of a Minyan, and the argument over whether to ordain women as rabbis nearly caused a schism there. Yet as women's learning increased, so did their refusal to accept so-called "traditional" rationales for restricting their learning and public activity. On finding, for example, that there is a talmudic precedent for women to read the Torah in synagogue, many women insisted on their right to do so, whether in separate women's prayer groups or in progressive synagogues. In 1988, a group of women led by Rivka Haut, an Orthodox Jewish woman from New York, held a women's prayer service at the Western Wall that included reading from a Torah scroll. Even though Jewish law allows women to worship as a group and read from a Torah scroll, this caused a furor among the ultra-Orthodox worshipers at the Wall, who resorted to violence in order to prevent the group from continuing its prayers. Such was the beginning of Women of the Wall, a group that is still fighting today in the Israeli courts and the Knesset for women's halakhic rights at the Western Wall. In the movement now known as Orthodox feminism, Jewish women walk a thin line between tradition and innovation. Still, in recent years, high-level Jewish learning under Orthodox auspices has become available to Jewish women at institutions such as Drisha in New York and Matan in Israel. Organizations such as the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance and Edah provide support and resources to Jewish women who wish to strengthen their learning and involvement in Jewish life without compromising their religious observance. Women "congregational interns" are beginning to serve Orthodox congregations in the United States and share rabbinic responsibilities; a women's yeshiva in Jerusalem trains women to answer questions on complicated family-purity issues; and several women are studying with Orthodox rabbis for potential rabbinic ordination. Women's groups throughout the Jewish spectrum have reclaimed Ṛosh Hodesh as a women's festival and celebrate it in groups that meet regularly each month. Jewish women's prayer groups, in which women refrain from reciting those parts of the service which are recited only by a minyan, have sprung up in many parts of the Jewish world, including Israel, the United States, Great Britain, and Australia. More and more Orthodox synagogues are allowing women to dance with the Torah and have separate aliyot on the Simḥat Torah festival, and at least one ultra-Orthodox rabbi gave a woman in his community permission to attend such a service. Some prayer groups such as the Leader Minyan in Jerusalem---an Orthodox minyan with separate sections for men and women---have reinstituted women's aliyot to the Torah in a traditional minyan setting. There are those who fear such changes and maintain that they are harmful to the Jewish community. But there are many who believe that Jewish women's heightened learning and involvement can bring only benefit and is indeed an indication that the longed-for Final Redemption is at hand.

Feminism In France has shared many features familiar to the anglophone world through the feminist movements in the United Kingdom and the USA: on the one hand, the desire and the struggle to attain equal rights for women; on the other, involvement with political movements that contested the republican state and believed that women's oppression would only end with the end of patriarchy.

The specificity of French feminism derives from the intellectual as well as the political climate in which it has developed. Most particularly, in the late 20th c. the dominance of Marxism, psychoanalysis, and Post-Structuralism in intellectual discourse has shaped contemporary French feminist theory as it is generally understood outside France. The aspects of French feminism which parallel those with which anglophone readers are familiar in their own countries—its political struggles, its work in sociology, political science, and history—tend to be ignored (and untranslated) while the aspects which are exciting in their unfamiliarity are stressed (see below, Section 4). The resultant paradox is that, while feminist theory is marginalized (if not ignored completely) in French intellectual life today, its impact on academic life outside France is highly significant.

1.      Origins

The first manifestations of feminism in France were as part of an intellectual debate. Beginning with the Querelle des Femmes in the 13th c., the debate was originally theological, concerning the nature of ‘Woman’: women's inferiority was held to be proved through arguments based in theology, medicine, and law. This proof was challenged, and debates followed concerning the relative virtues and vices of the sexes, with women defended most notably by Christine de Pizan, sometimes called the first feminist. These debates continued for four centuries.

In the 16th-18th c. individual women (and some men) spoke out in favour of women's emancipation or women's excellence (Louise Labé, Mademoiselle de Gournay), but their words had few literary or political echoes. It has been argued that the women associated with preciosity could be thought of as feminists. Ridiculed or despised for their excessive attention to the niceties of language, they represented a threat to patriarchy precisely because their challenge to the current use of language symbolized an attack on male values. The 17th-c. philosopher Poulain de la Barre questioned the inequality between men and women and concluded that, as women had the same potential for rational thought as men, their inferior status was created socially and was not justifiable; women should be given the same opportunities for advancement and fulfilment as men. His argument remained without concrete effect.

The most influential Enlightenment philosophers did not espouse feminism, but Hélvetius and Condorcet did advance the notion of the equality of the sexes and suggest that no rational argument could justify the continued subordination of women. (Some historians of French feminism consider that Poulain de la Barre and Condorcet between them provided the theoretical framework to which women were to refer throughout the 19th c.) Furthermore, in spite of the fact that the Enlightenment was not especially enlightened as far as women were concerned, it did bring some changes, in that the 18th-c. emphasis on (male) individualism gave women a model and a language for their own struggle.

2.      Revolution to World War II

It was during the Revolution that women came to political action in France. They demonstrated alongside men and also separately; they filled the cahiers de doléances with demands; they formed women's political clubs (women not being permitted to join or speak in most of the men's clubs). After 1793 the women's clubs were closed down, and women were literally sent back to the home. In 1792 Olympe de Gouges published the celebrated Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne, and other women equally made their mark as activists (Etta Palme d'Aelders, Pauline Léon, Claire Lacombe). The male revolutionaries were not favourable to these separate actions and ideas; nor was Napoleon, and his Code Civil of 1804 reinforced women's subordination to the father or husband.

In spite of this, the early 19th c. saw the beginning of sustained political activity by and on behalf of women. They formed a fundamental part of the Saint-Simonian and Fourierist socialist movements (Claire Démar, Suzanne Voilquin) in the 1830s, with their desire to found new societies with different relationships between the sexes. Even within these movements, however, some of these politically active women were marginalized by their ‘unfeminine’ behaviour and/or by their unacceptably radical ideas (Flora Tristan, Pauline Roland). Saint-Simonian women also set up their own newspapers and spoke about the specific oppression of women, as a distinct form of oppression, as well as linking it with that of the working class. When, in 1848, universal male suffrage was introduced [see Republics, 2], women's subordination was felt even more strongly. As in previous periods of revolution, women's clubs and newspapers had been started after the February Days, only to be suppressed in June. Jeanne Deroin, a working-class feminist inspired by Utopian socialism, did not give up, but presented herself as a candidate in the 1849 legislative elections in the name of republican integrity—liberty, equality, and fraternity for all. Her candidacy was not admitted because she was a woman.

In the Second Empire, particularly in its later, more liberal, period, women sought to improve their rights within the context of the existing French state. The distinction between two types of feminism (one contesting the bourgeois republic, the other working to improve women's lives and extend women's rights within it) was, possibly artificially, asserted by women involved in the nascent socialist movement. The type of feminism thought of as liberal humanist feminism had its focus on legislative reform: demands such as improved educational opportunities for women, the right to divorce, and other reforms of the Code Civil—protection for women workers, concern for the moral welfare of working-class women—as well as the first calls for female suffrage, continued into the Republican decades of the 1870s and 1880s (Maria Desraismes, André Léo, Marguerite Durand). It is possible to trace the achievements of this liberal humanist feminism via a chronology of legislation and of pioneering actions. Some women identified themselves, at least briefly, as both socialist and feminist (Hubertine Auclert, Madeleine Pelletier), while for others, class politics always came first (Louise Michel, Louise Saumoneau). The relationship between the two areas of struggle has never been simple.

In the 20th c. suffrage became far more central to feminist concerns (Jane Misme, Cécile Brunschvicg), as did the question of peace (Hélène Brion) and, influenced by the neo-Malthusians and following the 1920 laws on contraception and abortion, the issue of birth control (Nelly Roussel, Madeline Pelletier).

The influence of feminism on socialism, or the effect of socialist feminism on women's lives and status, is harder to gauge as it cannot be judged by concrete achievement. The struggle of socialist women meant that they engaged with the Republic, which oppressed them as workers and as women, with the theory of Marx, which ignores gender, and with the misogyny of their socialist brothers. This multiple struggle continues within all the parties of the Left on the level of theory and in daily practice.

3.      Since World War II

Post-war ‘women's rights’ feminism in France grew partly out of the pre-war campaigns, although with the granting of female suffrage (1944) different issues came to the fore. Frenchwomen voted for the first time in April 1945, and the principle of equal pay for men and women was asserted in the 1946 Décret Croizat. The 1950s seemed to be dormant as far as feminism was concerned, but in fact the ground for later achievements was being prepared. However, there was no self-defined feminist movement to lead any campaigns or to build on the foundations provided for feminist analysis by Simone de Beauvoir's Le Deuxième Sexe (1949).

The 1960s brought a rise in women's participation in the labour market, increased levels of schooling for girls, and a significant number of reforms brought about primarily through women's pressure-groups. Reform of the marriage laws (1965) and the liberalization of the laws on contraception (1967) were the most far-reaching of these. The presidency of Valéry Giscard d'Estaing (1974-81) is often characterized as a period during which society became more open and tolerant, and during which women's rights made progress. In 1974 a secretary for the condition of women (Françoise Giroud) was appointed, made a frustrated attempt to improve women's situation, and resigned after two years; but also in 1974 the law legalizing abortion subject to certain conditions was brought to parliament by minister of health Simone Veil, and became law in 1975. Divorce by mutual consent also became possible (1974).

After the Socialist victory of 1981, Yvette Roudy became the first minister for women's rights in France and continued a tradition of issue-based feminism within the broader challenge of changing ‘les mentalités’. The Ministry also developed new sets of priorities, some of which caused havoc and provoked outraged opposition: the law on professional equality (1983); commissions to reform language practices and to change images of women in school-books; the attempt to enact an anti-sexist law. Other issues, still relatively taboo—such as sexual harassment and domestic violence—were raised publicly for the first time.

This ‘women's rights’ feminism made great progress in the 1980s, but still faced problems: equality may have been achieved in law, but it remained mainly theoretical, and the implementation and monitoring of legislation was not always possible. Women still formed a tiny part of the political, intellectual, and business élites in France, while providing the majority of the low-paid, unskilled workers and of the unemployed. Abolished during the 1986-8 period of political ‘cohabitation’, the Ministry for Women's Rights was not replaced at such a high level after the return to power of a Socialist government in 1988. Under prime minister Michel Rocard there was a junior minister responsible for women's rights (Michèle André); being without the status, the prestige, the budget of a full minister, she remained fairly low key. The appointment in 1991 of Édith Cresson as France's first woman prime minister was accompanied, however, by an increase in the number of women in high-level political positions.

4.      The MLF

After May 1968 a different form of feminism was born, known as the Mouvement de Libération des Femmes (MLF). Sharing in the upheaval of ideas of the May movement, while experiencing marginalization within the movement itself, MLF feminists decided to form women-only consciousness-raising groups, in order to understand women's oppression, identify the oppressors, and seek collective solutions. These feminisms (for they were many) broke from a ‘women's rights’ focus, condemning participation in politics as ‘reformist’, whereas the new—or second-wave—feminisms were considered to be ‘revolutionary’. Some of the MLF feminisms gave priority to the relation between women's oppression and class oppression (tendance lutte des classes); others suggested a complete separatism and development of a woman-centred existence (Psych et Po, short for Psychanalyse et Politique [see Des Femmes]). Seeking acceptance into a male-dominated and male-defined world was no longer the goal; it was replaced by a direct challenge to so-called male values, a revaluing of feminine specificity, a challenge to the foundations of knowledge as well as to the corner-stones of society (the family, heterosexuality).

MLF feminists engaged in political action mainly as pressure-groups, preferring to remain outside party politics. The most successful mobilizing campaign of the earliest post-'68 years was for the legalization of abortion, but a whole range of initiatives began, from a number of feminist journals to communes and courses. Feminism claimed that the personal was political and that this had to be demonstrated in women's lives.

Contemporary feminist thinking is reflected in—and indeed gave rise to—a rich textual production. Women write about their own lives and about women's lives in general (Ernaux, Rochefort, Letessier, Cardinal, Leclerc); there has been important and innovative theoretical work concerned with gender and class, psychoanalysis and language, epistemology, history (Guillaumin, Delphy, Irigaray, Cixous, Le Dœuff, Kristeva, Fraisse, Fauré, Perrot); there has been experimentation within fiction (Duras, Chawaf, Cixous) and theatre; Beauvoir has been read and reread, admired and criticized, while remaining present as activist as well as figurehead until her death in 1986. Feminism is concerned with the production of woman-centred theory, and feminist scholars took issue with the male masters dominant in the 1970s—Freud, Lacan, Structuralists and Post-Structuralists. The intellectual exploration associated specifically with French feminism in recent years has concerned the Lacanian positing of woman as unknowable, indefinable ‘other’, a view challenged by those who seek to discover a non-patriarchal feminine identity and a post-patriarchal existence for women in the late 20th c.

While Lacan posited ‘woman’ as unknowable, as inevitably ‘other’ and excluded from the symbolic, feminist theoreticians have suggested ways of undermining the phallocentric and logocentric symbolic order which positions woman in this way. Key concepts connected with ‘the feminine’ for Luce Irigaray and Hélène Cixous, for instance, are multiplicity (which operates at both the sexual and the discursive level) and alterity, which suggests a femininity that is something else, different—but different on its own terms. Challenging the supremacy of the Phallus and the Logos might be achieved through the multiplicity and the alterity inherent in female sexuality, through language, and through writing [see Écriture Féminine]. The subversion of notions surrounding the subject, identity, and meaning—notions introduced by male philosophers—has been used by feminists (although the theoreticians named here and usually identified as ‘French feminists’ would not necessarily accept the label) to imagine a post-phallocentric, post-logocentric world of alterity which does not always consider the feminine in relation to the (superior) masculine and does not keep women subordinate to men.

The approach to social life, philosophy, and ethics that commits itself to correcting biases leading to the subordination of women or the disparagement of women's particular experience and of the voices women bring to discussion. Contemporary feminist ethics is sensitive to the gender bias that may be implicit in philosophical theories (for instance, philosophers' lists of virtues may be typically ‘manly’ or culturally masculine), and in social structures, legal and political procedures, and the general culture. One controversial claim (influentially made in Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development, 1982) is that women approach practical reasoning from a different perspective from that of men. The difference includes emphasis on community, caring, and bonding with particular individuals, in place of abstract impartiality. It is controversial whether or not this is a real difference, and if so whether it arises from innate differences in male and female psychology, or whether the different values reflect the way men and women have been taught to form different aspirations and ideals.

Feminist epistemology has asked whether different ways of knowing, for instance with different criteria of justification, and different emphases on logic and imagination, characterize male and female attempts to understand the world. Such concerns include awareness of the ‘masculine’ self-image, itself a socially variable and potentially distorting picture of what thought and action should be. A particular target of much feminist epistemology is a Kantian or Enlightenment conception of rationality, which is seen as a device for claiming mastery and control, and for refusing to acknowledge differing perspectives and different relations to life and nature. Although extreme claims have been made, such as that logic is a phallic and patriarchal device for coercing other people, it is still unclear how capacities, training, and culturally reinforced aspirations, work together in explaining how people acquire knowledge. Again there is a spectrum of concern, from the highly theoretical to the relatively practical. In this latter area particular attention is given to the institutional biases that stand in the way of equal opportunities in science and other academic pursuits, or the ideologies that stand in the way of women seeing themselves as leading contributors to various disciplines. However, to more radical feminists such concerns merely exhibit women wanting for themselves the same power and rights over others that men have claimed, and failing to confront the real problem, which is how to live without such asymmetrical powers and rights.

1.      An ideology which opposes misogynous ideologies and practices.

2.      A social movement which confronts the sex-class system.

3.      A theory concerned with the nature of women's oppression and subordination to men.

4.      A socio-political theory and practice that aims to free all women from male supremacy and exploitation, and demands equal rights for women.

Feminism in Russia first developed during the 1850s, following the disastrous Crimean War and the accession of Alexander II. At a time of political ferment over the nation's future, an intense debate arose within educated society over the dependent status of women and inherited assumptions about their capacities and their roles. The idea of women's emancipation was readily linked to peasant emancipation, plans for which were being publicly debated during these years. If one section of the population - enserfed peasants - could be liberated, why not women too, half the human race? Many activists in the women's movement over the next half - century pinpointed the 1850s and 1860s as the moment when women first challenged their own subordinate legal status, inferior education, exclusion from all but menial paid employment, and vulnerability to sexual exploitation, as well as the complex web of convention and sanction that restricted their everyday lives. A number of women writers - and some radical male writers - had already addressed these themes a generation earlier, but always as individuals. It was only during the 1850s that a women's movement, dedicated to change, could coalesce.

Unlike women in many western countries, Russian upper - and middle - class women kept their property upon marriage and were not forced into financial dependence on their husbands. However, even propertied women were disadvantaged by inferior inheritance rights; despite their financial autonomy, the law required that they obey their husbands and live in the marital home unless given formal permission to leave. In an abusive marriage a woman could apply to the courts for legal separation, but this was a tortuous process and available only to the relatively well - to - do. The vast majority of Russian women in this period were peasants; before 1861 many were serfs. Even after peasant emancipation their status in the family was subordinate, particularly as young women. They were valued in the village for their ability to work - in the fields and in the household - and to produce and raise children. Few had time to think about the possibilities of an alternative life or about their own lack of rights or status. It was feminists and female radicals who first set out to improve women's personal rights and establish their legal and actual autonomy, though the prevailing social conservatism on gender issues and the extreme limitations on political campaigning impeded any meaningful legislative change until the last years of tsarist rule.

Feminist ideas in Russia were inspired not only by social and political change at home, but equally by the emerging women's movement in the West (particularly North America, Britain, and France) in this period. Russian feminists established lasting contacts with their western counterparts and read western literature on the "woman question." Most considered themselves "westernizers" rather than "slavophiles" in the contemporary political - cultural controversy over Russia and its future. The word "feminism" itself was rarely used in Russia or elsewhere, and even when it gained wider currency toward the end of the century, it most often had a pejorative connotation, both for conservative and radical opponents of reformist women's movements, and for feminists too. Before 1905 they called themselves "activists in the women's movement" (deyatelnitsy zhenskogo dvizheniya). During the 1905 Revolution, when the movement was politicized, the most uncompromising became "equal - righters" (ravnopravki), emphasizing the struggle for social equality overall, not just for women. After 1917 feminist activists either emigrated or were silenced, and for the entire Soviet period feminism was branded a "bourgeois deviation."


Like feminists, revolutionary women and men espoused sexual equality. But they fiercely rejected feminism, insisting that women's liberation must be part of a wider social revolution. Feminists, they claimed, based their appeal to women by driving a wedge between men and women of the oppressed classes struggling for their rights. Feminists denied the radical claim that they were motivated only by their own "selfish" ends, and saw themselves working for Russia's "renewal" and "regeneration," for the betterment of the whole population.

Although a socialist women's movement developed in Russia (as elsewhere) around 1900, both populist and Marxist revolutionary groups were antagonistic to separate work among women, and only well after 1900 was it possible for Bolshevik women (such as Alexandra Kollontai, Inessa Armand, and Nadezhdaya Krupskaya, Lenin's wife) to address women's issues specifically within their party organization. Though dubbed a "Bolshevik feminist" by later western historians, Kollontai herself was one of the most outspoken critics of reformist feminism - and the very concept of feminism - before and after 1917.

Disagreements between feminist reformers and radicals were present from the beginning. At first these conflicts were more over lifestyle than politics. Reformers observed existing social codes (dress, comportment, family obligations, respectability). Many, though not all, came from well-to-do gentry backgrounds and had no need to earn a living. Radicals, often of gentry origin too, were in conscious revolt against family and social propriety. They wore cropped hair and simple, unadorned clothing, smoked in public, and called themselves "nihilists" (nigilistki). Whether in financial need or not (many were), nihilists joined urban "communes," or set up their own. For a few years there was some contact (including individual friendships) between nihilists and feminists, focusing on attempts to set up an employment bureau for women and cooperative workshops providing employment and essential skills for themselves and other women. This collaboration foundered during the mid-1860s; within a few years many nihilist women had moved into illegal populist groups whose aim was the liberation of the "Russian people," the narod. In their own estimation, by the early 1870s the radicals had left the "woman question" behind.

Feminist Campaigning

The reformers were dedicated to working within the system. They raised petitions, lobbied ministers, and exploited personal connections to reach influential figures, many of them already sympathetic to feminist ideas. Of necessity, they focused on philanthropy and higher education. Philanthropy was the one form of public activity then open to women, an acknowledged extension of their "caring" role within the family. It aimed both to encourage self-sufficiency in the beneficiaries and to give their organizers practical experience of public administration. Feminist philanthropists ran their enterprises, as far as was possible, democratically and with minimal regulation. Most successful was a Society to Provide Cheap Lodgings (founded in 1861 and by 1880 a major charity) in St. Petersburg. Another society provided refuges for poor women. A major feminist preoccupation, particularly important in a rapidly urbanizing society, was to provide poorer women with alternatives to prostitution.

Campaigns for higher education were a new departure, but still within a familiar realm - woman as educator of her children - a role that became increasingly important in Russia's drive to "modernize." Feminists received support from individual professors and even university administrations. Persistent lobbying of government led to permission for public lectures for women (1869), then preparatory courses and finally university - level courses (1872 in Moscow), all existing on public goodwill, organization, and funding. Medical courses (for "learned midwives") were opened to women in St Petersburg (1872), extended to full medical courses in 1876. In 1878 the first Higher Courses for Women opened in St. Petersburg, followed by Moscow, Kiev, and Kazan. Though outside the university system, with no rights to state service and rank as given to men, these courses were effectively women's universities. Feminist campaigners also provided financial resources to students needing assistance, setting up a charity to raise money for the Higher Courses in 1878.

The campaign for higher education and specialist training was critically important for radical women too. Radicals' increasing identification with "the people" inspired them to train for professions that could be of direct use, principally teaching and medicine. During the early 1870s dozens of radical women (along with nonpolitical women in search of professional education not then available in Russia) went abroad to study, especially to Zurich, where the university was willing to admit them. Some radicals completed their training; others were drawn into Russian émigré political circles, abandoned their studies, and soon returned to Russia as active revolutionaries.

Feminism - like all reform movements in Russia during the 1870s - suffered in the increasingly repressive political environment. All independent initiatives, legal or illegal, came under suspicion: these included a feminist publishing cooperative founded during the mid-1860s, fundraising activities, proposals to form women's groups, and so forth. Alexander II's assassination in 1881 brought further misfortune. Several of the terrorist leaders were women, former nigilistki, and in the wholesale assault on liberalism following the murder, feminists were tarred with the same brush. The reaction after 1881 proved almost fatal. Expansion of higher education was halted; some courses were closed. Feminists ceased campaigning, and all avenues for action were barred. Only during the mid-1890s could feminists begin to regroup, but under strict supervision, and always limited by law to education and philanthropy.


Before 1900 Russian feminism had no overt political agenda. For some activists this was a matter of choice, for many others a frustrating restriction. In several, though not all, western countries women's suffrage had been a focal point of feminist aspirations since the 1850s and 1860s. When rural zemstvos and municipal dumas were set up in Russia in the 1860s, propertied women received limited proxy rights to vote for the assemblies' representatives, but legal political activity - by either gender - was not permitted. Indeed, no national legislature existed before 1906, when the tsar was forced by revolutionary upheaval to create the State Duma. It was during the build up of this opposition movement, from the early 1900s, that Russian feminism began to address political issues, not only women's suffrage, but calls for civil rights and equality before the law for all citizens.

After Bloody Sunday (January 9, 1905), feminist activists began to organize, linking their cause with that of the liberal and moderate socialist Liberation Movement. Besides existing women's societies, such as the Russian Women's Mutual Philanthropic Society (Russkoye zhenskoye vzaimno - blagotvoritelnoye obshchestvo, established in 1895), new organizations sprang up. Most directly political was the All-Russian Union of Equal Rights for Women (Vserossysky soyuz ravnopraviya zhenshchin), dedicated to a wide program of social and political reform, including universal suffrage without distinction of gender, religion, or nationality. It quickly affiliated itself with the Union of Unions (Soyuz soyuzov). Feminist support for the Liberation Movement was unmatched by the movement's support for women's political rights, and much of the union's propaganda during 1905 was directed as much at the liberal opposition as at the government. Unlike the latter, however, many liberals were gradually persuaded by the feminist claim, and support increased significantly in the years of reaction that followed. The government refused to consider women's suffrage at any point.

The women's union - though itself overwhelmingly middle-class and professional - was greatly encouraged by women's participation in workers' strikes during the mid-1890s and, particularly, women's involvement in working-class action in 1904 and 1905. After 1905, however, feminists were increasingly challenged by revolutionary socialists in a competition to "win" working - class women to their cause. Prominent Bolsheviks such as Kollontai had finally convinced their party leaders of working - class women's revolutionary potential. During the last years of tsarist rule, when the labor movement overall was becoming increasingly active, Kollontai and her comrades benefited from the feminists' failure to make any headway in the mass organization of women, a failure exacerbated after the outbreak of World War I by the feminists' stalwart support for the war effort. It was the Bolsheviks, not the feminists, who capitalized on the war's catastrophic impact on the lives of working - class women and men.

With the outbreak of the February Revolution of 1917, the feminist campaign resumed, and initial opposition from the Provisional Government was easily overcome. In the electoral law for the Constituent Assembly, women were fully enfranchised. Before it was swept away by the Bolsheviks, the Provisional Government initiated several projects to give women equal opportunities and pay in public services, and full rights to practice as lawyers. It also proposed to transform the higher courses into women's universities; in the event, the courses were fully incorporated into existing universities by the Bolsheviks in 1918.

During the 1920s, with "bourgeois feminism" silenced, women's liberation was sponsored by the Bolsheviks, under a special Women's Department of the Communist Party (Zhenotdel). In 1930 the Zhenotdel was abruptly dismantled and the "woman question" prematurely declared "solved."

Feminism, movement for the political, social, and educational equality of women with men; the movement has occurred mainly in Europe and the United States. It has its roots in the humanism of the 18th cent. and in the Industrial Revolution. Feminist issues range from access to employment, education, child care, contraception, and abortion, to equality in the workplace, changing family roles, redress for sexual harassment in the workplace, and the need for equal political representation.

Women traditionally had been regarded as inferior to men physically and intellectually. Both law and theology had ordered their subjection. Women could not possess property in their own names, engage in business, or control the disposal of their children or even of their own persons. Although Mary Astell and others had pleaded earlier for larger opportunities for women, the first feminist document was Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792). In the French Revolution, women's republican clubs demanded that liberty, equality, and fraternity be applied regardless of sex, but this movement was extinguished for the time by the Code Napoléon.

In North America, although Abigail Adams and Mercy Otis Warren pressed for the inclusion of women's emancipation in the Constitution, the feminist movement really dates from 1848, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Coffin Mott, and others, in a women's convention at Seneca Falls, N.Y., issued a declaration of independence for women, demanding full legal equality, full educational and commercial opportunity, equal compensation, the right to collect wages, and the right to vote. Led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan Brownell Anthony, the movement spread rapidly and soon extended to Europe.

Little by little, women's demands for higher education, entrance into trades and professions, married women's rights to property, and the right to vote were conceded. In the United States after woman suffrage was won in 1920, women were divided on the question of equal standing with men (advocated by the National Woman's party) versus some protective legislation; various forms of protective legislation had been enacted i