What is Feminism?
The Mary Tyler Moore Statue
It is fitting to begin a tour about the struggle for women's rights at the Mary Tyler Moore statue. Moore was both a real actress (1936-2017) and the title character in The Mary Tyler Moore Show, a popular sitcom set in Minneapolis that ran between 1970 and 1977, the heyday of "second-wave" feminism. Audiences fell in love with Moore's character, a spunky independent woman trying to "make it on [her] own," as the theme song intoned. Winning 29 Emmys, the show gently challenged women's traditional roles in marriage and family. At the same time, political activists were continuing the fight for gender equality and opportunity begun a century earlier.
It wasn't easy to be a woman in the nineteenth century. Regardless of race or class background, women were understood to be socially, politically, and intellectually inferior to men. Their lives were shaped by the ideology of “separate spheres,” which promoted the view that women were naturally weaker and less intellectually astute than men. Because of this value system, women lacked basic property and custody rights, had little access to education, were barred from most respectable jobs, and were labeled harlots if they spoke in public. Health care was dismally poor, and many women died in childbirth. Black women faced even more daunting challenges, with racism and sexism deeply interwoven into the fabric of their daily lives.
Demands for women’s rights and freedoms can be traced back to the eighteenth century American and French Revolutions. Early emancipation efforts focused on gaining women’s rights to attend college, enter professions, own property, and obtain divorce. By the latter half of the nineteenth century, the vote became the preeminent goal. It was a symbol of freedom, the tool with which women hoped to address the other inequities.
Though the ideology of feminism is distinct from the suffrage movement, the two are intrinsically linked. The woman movement fought for the advancement of women and "woman suffrage", as they referred to it in the 19th century. The purposeful and consistent use of the singular woman symbolized unity of the female sex. However, this terminology soon became antiquated and a new language emerged to discuss women’s rights. By the 1890s, British women were using the term “feminism” as an umbrella for efforts to emancipate women. American women began to adopt the term a few decades later.
Early twentieth century feminists asserted the equality of the sexes while acknowledging the differences between them. They maintained that the role of women is socially constructed and not determined by nature. Furthermore, they believed in the shared consciousness and experience of women, allowing suffragists to find community and galvanize women across the nation.
Since the suffrage movement, feminism has developed and changed. In the 1960s and 70s, so-called “second wave” feminists fought for a broad range of cultural and political freedoms, including reproductive rights and equal pay. In the 1990s, a third wave of feminism focused on the intersection of race, ethnicity, class, and sexual identity with gender. The fourth wave of feminism, in play right now, is distinguished in part by its use of technology as a weapon against injustice toward women (#metoo).