How did feminism evolve?


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Molly: Hey, and welcome to the podcast. This is Molly.

Cristen: And I'm Cristen.

Molly: If all goes according to plan, our last podcast dealt with feminism, and how feminism is kind of a confusing topic these days. No one really knows what a feminist looks like, what feminists stand for. Today we are gonna kind of go into the history of feminism to kind of explain how things got so confusing.

Cristen: In the last podcast we focused a lot on what it is today, so we're gonna go back to one of the first movements that probably comes to mind when you think about feminism, and that is the Suffrage Movement, when American women campaigned to get to vote. The Suffrage Movement was born out of anti-slavery and temperance movements of the time because women were barred from participating in a lot of the social organizations that were pushing for the evolution of slavery and temperance, and in 1840, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott tried to go to the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, but the men who were running the event said they could not participate because they were women, and that got them angry.

Molly: It got them angry, and you know, this was one of the first times that women kind of got angry about that. At the time, women had very little control over their lives. They were having 7 children, weren't going to college or university, so the abolition movement really provided the first chance for them to kind of get out of the home, and when they were rejected from that as well, they had to do something about it. So Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott organized the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848.

Cristen: Right, and at the Seneca Falls Convention, they penned the Declaration of Sentiments. This is the first document outlining the need for equality among men and women in the United States, including voting rights, and from there the Suffrage Movement really starts to take shape.

Molly: But we should know that these are just movements that are taking place in the United States. These were sort of the first actions in the United States that could be considered feminism, but the idea of feminism is actually borrowed from Europe.

Cristen: In France, the idea of male and female equality really took shape during the French Revolution, and from there we borrow the term feminism, which came to the United States and was in use by around 1910, but not all suffragettes would actually label themselves feminists because at the time, there were two distinct things, suffragettes were fighting specifically for the right to vote, no more, no less, whereas feminism included equal rights across the board, financial independence, and transforming the relationship between the sexes. It was a far more revolutionary idea.

Molly: So that's the idea, that kind of, from what I understand Cristen, goes dormant after the women get the right to vote, and kind of stays dormant until the 1960s.

Cristen: Right because you have splintering among groups of suffragettes who aren't comfortable with fighting for more feminist agendas, if you will, and it wasn't really until after World War II, with the Women's Liberation Movement that you have the next large scale organized feminist movement. Not to say that during the World Wars, women weren't doing a lot of things. You know, we have women since the GIs were off fighting; a lot of women were leaving the home, and working in larger numbers than ever before. Educational opportunities were opening up for women, and that all led up to the 1960s and the Women's Lib Movement.

Molly: Rosie the Riveter.

Cristen: Yes.

Molly: Brings us to the 1960s. Our next big movement, the Women's Liberation movement, and the issues at this time are basically domesticity, employment, education, and sexuality right?

Cristen: Right because after World War II, all the men came home from war, and it was the revival of the cult of domesticity. You have the rise of household consumerism, and all these highly educated women who were feeling trapped at home. Molly: So what we have out of that feeling of being trapped, there was a prominent book we discussed in the last podcast the Feminine Mystique, and the Author Betty Friedan, and other prominent feminists come together to form the National Organization for Women, or NOW, and this probably one of the most famous feminist organizations.Cristen: Yeah, and this was comprised largely of older college educated, predominantly white women. Th ere were some men involved in it as well, but it seemed like in the beginning it really catered to middle and upper class women. Molly: Right, and they were pushing for access to the birth control pill, abortion rights, equal employment opportunity, reduction of domestic violence, and they started holding feminist conferences. It sort of, I guess probably what we all think of as the glory days of feminism. Cristen: While all of this is going on, younger people are also getting energized because of the civil rights movement, and more radical protests against the Viet Nam War, and it's among this younger set of feminists that you have more radical splinter groups that aren't necessarily associated with the National Organization for Women who are protesting more in your face about women's rights, sexual freedom, and all of that, and one of the most prominent events associated with that is the protest by the New York radical women against the 1968 Miss America Pageant, and this is really where the idea of feminists being bra burners comes to light.Molly: Yeah, so this is a really interesting story. It's 1968, the Miss America Pageant, and along the Atlantic City boardwalk, the New York Radical Women's Organization throws this big protest where you throw everything that represents submissive females into a bucket. So we have bras.Cristen: We have kitchen utensils.Molly: Playboy, and all sorts of things that just spell out the fact that women have been enslaved by men, to use a radical word.Cristen: Right, and they were planning to light this on fire as a symbol of them getting rid of all of these things that were holding them back, but the Atlantic City Police weren't too keen on a giant fire on the boardwalk, so the never ended up doing it, and not a single bra was burned that day, but somehow the media got word of what was going on, and the next day it was feminists are bra burners, they're taking off their bras, and burning them, but it never happened.Molly: It never happened. Equal rights never rose like a phoenix from the ashes of burning bras, but this is just the first of many splinter groups that come out of this 1960s, 1970s movement.Cristen: Now as you mentioned Molly, the National Organization for Women was focused a lot on these older, college educated, predominantly white women, and black feminists at the time, some of them felt marginalized by this movement because they felt like the issues that white feminists were focusing on didn't take into account the working class, and minority women, and you have to remember that at the same time you have the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement going on as well, and I think a lot of black women at the time felt very conflicted about where they should place their allegiance because it's either - you know, you have more male-led black power movement, but then you have white female led women's lib movement, what do you do, so out of that comes black feminism.Molly: Right, and I think the interesting thing came sort of around the same time was this idea of womanism. I think we mentioned this in the last podcast as a term coined by Alice Walker, who wrote The Color Purple, and it was to sort of bridge the gap between white feminism and black feminism where we could all just be women in this society, look at the problem holistically instead of just looking at things that are unique to the suffered parts, not seeing the forest for the trees. Cristen: Right, and I think as we also mentioned in the last podcast, black and white feminists worked together on a lot of different feminist issues, but it was through black feminism that you have the rise of organizations such as the National Black Feminist Organization and the National Alliance of Black Feminists that really focused on what feminism means for black women, and the issues surrounding them. Molly: So as we just mentioned, one of the things that got thrown into those big buckets they wanted to put on fire in Atlantic City were Playboy Magazines, and that kind of leads us into the next sort of movement in feminism.Cristen: Right. Molly is referring to the Feminist Sex Wars, one of the platforms of second wave feminism was combating sexual violence, and anti-porn feminism that arose in the late 1970s perceived pornography as a form of sexual violence against women. One of the quotes from anti-porn feminist Robin Morgan was 'pornography is the theory, rape is the practice', and so anti-porn feminists wanted to outlaw all pornography because they felt it was a violation to women's bodies.Molly: Yeah, and they really just saw all sex, all heterosexual intercourse as a form of male domination. It must be totally altered in a way that it is not harmful to women, and you know, that's one thing, but that sort of didn't sit well with everyone, especially women who thought that what feminism should stand for be equal rights in an act such as sex. It wasn't about outlawing sex just because the man might enjoy it, it was about making sexual freedom, and sexual pleasure available to all. So in response to the anti-porn feminist, you've got the sex positive feminist or pro-sex feminism that kind of comes out of this movement in the late 1970s to dominate the early 1980s.Cristen: And among these feminists you have people such as Betty Dodson and Gail Rubin who really wanted to reclaim sexual intercourse as something that a woman could enjoy, and today, sex-positive feminism has evolved outside of the bedroom to include also the sex industry including porn and prostitution. Molly: Right, sex-positive feminists would just say that prostitutes are earning a living, that there's nothing wrong with it, they're not being degraded, it was their choice. That would be sort of how a pro-sex feminist would view that choice.Cristen: Yeah, they can take it as a form of personal empowerment because they are financially supporting themselves.Molly: Exactly. Now, the last sort of evolution of feminism we are gonna talk about only brings us up to the early '90s, but it's probably one of the most famous movements to come out recently, and that's the Riot Girls. Cristen: This was happening specifically in Olympia, Washington, and Washington D.C., and grew out from that. In the early '90s, you have the daughters of second wave feminists who might be feeling a little lost. Their mother's brand of feminism might not be seeming quite as relevant to them because now the pill has been around for a while, Rovie Wade has been around for a while, but you still have a lot of issues such as rape and sexual violence that are still affecting women's lives, so what do you do with it? Molly: What these women did, these daughters of the second wave feminists, they find a way to blend together music, art and consciousness into sort of a unique brand of feminism. They take to these male-dominating music scenes, where all of these bands are fronted by male front guys, and start forming their own bands, and publicizing themselves and ideas with these homemade magazines called Zines. In essence, all they are communicating is this sort of do it yourself punk rock values that encompass what they consider the new feminist ideas. Cristen: Right, Riot Grrrls was very Grass Roots. Two of the bands that really helped promote the Riot Grrrl Movement were Bikini Kill and Bratmobile, and this was actually Allison Wolfe and Molly Neuman, who were the front leaders of Bratmobile who started the Zine called Riot Grrrl that the movement borrowed from. Molly: And it's very gritty, it's do it yourself, but what they were doing was facilitating these weekly meetings to discuss what they thought were the issues such as rape, racism and body image. They wanted to talk about sexuality very frankly, and reclaim these negative stereotypes about who owns a woman's body.Cristen: And the interesting t hing about Riot Girls is that they never wanted it to become a mainstream movement like Women's Lib. In 1992, when the national news outlets picked up on the trend, and started writing huge cover stories on it, the Riot Girls declared a media blackout because they didn't want it to dilute the effect of this pretty powerful Grass Roots Movement. Molly: Right. So, yeah.Cristen: That brings us up to today.Molly: Right, so where are we today? Before we came, Cristen was showing me with her savvy web skills, all of the places that feminism can be found on line, which is really kind of where, like most things, the movement has moved. Cristen: I would say that the blog community is really one of the primary places for feminist communities right now. You've got blogs such as "Feministing" and "Broadsheet on Salon" that are really powerful forums for feminists today to talk about pertinent issues.Molly: I think one of the problems with the web is because everyone has access to it, and everyone can sort of put their own brand of feminism up. That's sort of what leads to confusion about what the term means, which is what we were discussing the last time. So that can either be a good thing, or a bad thing, depending on how you look at it. You know, if you've got a keyboard and an internet connection, you can put your own brand of what feminism means to you on the web. Cristen: On the flip side of that, one of the debates that has been raging, I'd say in the past few years is whether or not feminism really exists anymore, and whether or not it's even a useful term.Molly: Yeah because as you can just tell from today, we had about five Movements, none of which really subscribe to the same theories or ideas. Cristen: Right, but I will tell you Molly, I was scrolling through Feministing today before we started recording, and I just noticed that the resounding theme I think of all the conversations with feminists today, and I think it will always be this way, is the idea of choice, even though women might take different perspectives on it, and want to tackle choice from different angles, at the end of the day, I think that's what feminism is really all about, whether that's choice dealing with the pill, abortion, sexual violence or workplace equality, all of that has to do with the single issue of choice.Molly: Okay, that's a good note to end on, so if you want to learn more about feminism, you can exercise your choice to go read How Feminism Works and also Top Five Feminist Movements, both articles written by our very own Cristen. They are all over at www.HowStuffWorks.com. If you have a question or comment for Cristen or me, just E-mail us at MomStuff@HowStuffWorks.com.

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