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  Feminism is variously defined as ‘advocacy of the right of women to equality with men in all spheres of life’ and ‘women\'s struggle’ to gain that right. The distinction reflects its dual nature: it is at once a sociopolitical theory and a social movement. Feminists have used many different methods to enable the vision of equality to be realized, and feminists do not always agree on the causes for women\'s oppression. Consequently, many contemporary feminists prefer to use the plural ‘feminisms’ to reflect the different perspectives that must, necessarily, be given voice.

In both theory and practice, women\'s resistance to male domination may well predate the formation of fully-articulated, or fully-acknowledged, ideology and practice; many feminists argue that ‘women\'s history’ has always been present, but is invisible in the history books of patriarchy. Conventionally, however, feminism as a movement is traced back to the late 18th century in Europe, immediately following the French Revolution. Taking their inspiration from the Revolutionary ideals, several women\'s clubs were formed in Paris and other cities to promote women\'s rights. Political programmes were elaborated calling for equal rights in education, employment and government. The reception was hostile and the clubs were dissolved by government decree. (This hostility set the pattern for the treatment of women\'s movements in all countries, in succeeding generations.)

In the 19th century, it was in the USA that feminism developed most, becoming a model for women\'s movements in other countries. American feminists were closely involved with groups committed to the abolition of slavery and to temperance. Perhaps such activity was one reason why comparatively few gains were made in this period in improving women\'s own social or political position. In Europe, a petition signed by 1,500 women was presented to the British Parliament in 1866, demanding full voting rights for women. It was ignored, and in response the organizers set up the National Society for Women\'s Suffrage, which for the rest of the century continued to struggle for full voting rights. By the early 20th century marches and demonstrations were standard throughout Europe and the USA, and by the end of the 1920s, voting rights were achieved in many countries, though by no means all.

At this stage it became clear that the question of equality was far more wide-ranging than voting-rights. One of the key texts for modern feminism, Mary Wollstonecraft\'s Vindication of the Rights of Woman, had put the issue clearly as long ago as 1792, and in the 1920s feminists such as Vera Brittain and Virginia Woolf began exploring and campaigning on the ideas it raised. Wollstonecraft had said that oppression was not primarily a matter of laws and exclusions; it was custom and attitude, arose in the home, and imposed femininity on women (a process she described as a woman being made ‘the toy’ of a man). Woolf and Brittain wrote of women\'s need for employment and financial independence, and other writers and activists of the period fought for equal pay, child care and reproductive rights. The time was ripe: the experience of European women in World War I, running homes and businesses, working in factories and down mines, making decisions and engaging in activities formerly reserved for men, had raised a huge popular hunger for such equality once the war was over and the men came home. A movement that had until then been predominantly middle class and educated now found new roots among women of all types and in all areas. The work was still chiefly in the Western world, though there were stirrings of feminist revolt in some Islamic countries (in Egypt, the campaign for women to be allowed to choose whether or not to wear the veil—an important symbol of equality—was won at this time), and in Japan (where suffrage societies were founded on the Western model).

During the 1920s and 1930s, many feminists still assumed that legislation, economic independence and a political voice would end women\'s oppression in all its aspects. But experience proved otherwise, and consequently, in the 1960s, feminist writers (again, initially, in the UK and the US) broadened the critical domain, considering it necessary to look at the construction of gender and sexuality for the reasons and also the solution of women\'s oppression. Julia Kristeva in her essay ‘Women\'s Time’ divides feminism into three stages. Early feminism demanded equal access to the ‘symbolic’ (the place in which meanings are assigned) order. In post-1960s feminism, women rejected the male symbolic order in the name of difference—this form of radical feminism highlighted and celebrated femininity. Tori Moi argues that the project of radical feminism must continue to counteract patriarchy, but metaphysical gender identities must be deconstructed so that radical feminism does not become an inverted sexism.

Feminism has used many different critical methodologies to identify and challenge women\'s oppression. By looking at the diverse methodologies used by feminism it is possible to form a skeletal picture of what feminism means for contemporary women. During the 1960s, Consciousness Raising groups gave feminism a very powerful tool for using women\'s experience as the cornerstone for theoretical discourse. Feminists pointed out that patriarchal academic discourse had neglected to include the experience of women as it was considered banal and not ‘objective’. In order to counteract this patriarchal denial of women\'s experience feminists used the phrase ‘the personal is political’ to show that no element of experience is outside of ideological discourse. On the basis of consciousness raising feminists were able to theorize why women were excluded or written out of academic thought. Juliet Mitchell, for example, reassessing the Freudian view of femininity, argued that it was better not to reject Freud\'s view as patriarchal, but to use Freud\'s texts as a means of measuring how patriarchy worked to construct femininity as negative and passive. It is through the critical use of such theories that feminism has greatly contributed to the recent impact of postmodernist thought. Some feminists have rejected what they call the ‘tools of the father’ and radical feminists have aimed at re-conceptualizing theory from a female perspective. Radical feminism is characterized by the theoretical practice of uncovering what is taken to be ‘natural’ and making visible the patriarchal investments that lurk within.

As well as measuring and identifying patriarchal structures many feminisms have formulated strategies and campaigns for combating patriarchy and oppression. Such strategies depend on what particular feminists believe to be the main vehicles of oppression. Radical feminists have thought that ‘separatism’ enabled women to withdraw from male-dominated institutions, both to flourish outside the male domain and to articulate, through withdrawal, women\'s dissatisfaction with the patriarchal status quo. Some feminists have argued that the only way to escape partriarchy is to reject heterosexuality and take on a lesbian identity. Others have devised strategies for highlighting women\'s position in relation to cultural phenomena, developing strategies for reclamation and acknowledgement of women\'s cultural output which had been, and often still are, buried under male control of the institutions of cultural production. Books have been devoted to women as spectators of films, books and art. Some feminists have looked at the way in which popular culture can be read in a subversive way, for example, Hollywood films of the 1940s and 1950s made specifically with a female audience in mind. Feminist publishers have republished forgotten or unpublished novels by women as well as providing the means by which contemporary feminist texts can be published. Many film-makers and writers have been introducing into the cultural agenda the notion that women, as well as men, have sexualities. Feminist thought has also become an important critical tool for diverse academic subjects as well as within specific women\'s studies courses. Despite claims that we in the West now live in a ‘postfeminist’ society feminism still has many indispensable questions to ask.

‘Postfeminism’ is a term used to suggest that the project of feminism has ended, either because it has been completed or because it has failed and is no longer valid. Contemporary feminists strongly disagree with either of these arguments and most would see ‘postfeminism’ as a term that has been imposed upon feminism from patriarchal sources. Many contemporary feminists set out to assess and challenge what has been termed the ‘backlash’ against femininsm.

Susan Faludi\'s book Backlash: The Undeclared War (1992), for example, documents the way in which the fight for equal rights for women has throughout history been subject to ‘fits and starts’. Faludi puts forward the example of US magazines in the 1920s, which claimed that young women were not interested in feminism. Similar arbitrary statements have appeared in contemporary magazines. By placing modern notions of ‘postfeminism’ within a historical framework in this way, Faludi is able to identify patterns of ‘masculinity in crisis’ produced by patriarchal fears that arise during peaks of feminism. She also describes the ways in which disagreements and rivalries within the strands of feminism have often been exploited and used to support the patriarchy\'s backlash.

Tania Modleski addresses and challenges postfeminism by arguing that within academic work there seems to be an increasing assumption that the goals of feminism have been achieved. She argues that the recent rise of gender studies and the study of masculinity is, once again, emphasizing male issues at the expense of feminism. Modleski also suggests that within critical theory many theorists do not adequately differentiate between feminism and feminization (that is, patriarchal construction of femininity). For her, and for other feminists, these factors are the effect of patriarchy\'s defensive attempt to incorporate female power. She also believes that recent postfeminists play with gender, in particular differences are negated, and this will ‘lead us back into our “pregendered” past where there was only the universal subject: man.’ DA TK BO\'L

See also class; power; social construction of reality; social stratification; sociology of knowledge; typifications.Further reading H. Eisenstein, Contemporary Feminist Thought; , A. Oakley, Housewife; , Gayle Rubin, Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality.



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