Feminism for Beginners

Two similes used by Mary Wollstonecraft. Feminism, the movement for women’s equality, has as one of its early taproots a book written by Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1799) titled, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and in the fourth chapter of that book are two especially thought-stimulating similes: (1) women, historically, have been like “the feathered race” confined to cages; and (2) women are treated by men as “smiling flowers.”

Women are like birds in cages. Likening women’s lives spent in their homes to birds held in cages, Wollstonecraft puts her first simile this way: “Confined then in cages like the feathered race, they have nothing to do but to plume themselves, and stalk with mock majesty from perch to perch” (para. 11).

Much is implied here. The caged bird is an object of display, not a subject that freely acts in the world; as such, it fails to exercise and develop what is most basic to its nature as a bird, its wings. Likewise, a woman’s most basic nature is, like that of men, her reason. And so Wollstonecraft writes this: “The power of generalizing ideas, of drawing comprehensive conclusions from individual observations, is the only acquirement, for an immortal being, that really deserves the name of knowledge. […] This power has not only been denied to women; but writers have insisted that it is inconsistent, with a few exceptions, with their sexual character” (para. 5-6). In other words, reason is the power to conceptualize (to map; to categorize; to analogize; to name and frame the world), and so the traditional and practical education of girls for (conventional) women’s work is simply not sufficient for Wollstonecraft. Absent intellectual education—training in such things as historical analysis, close reading, critical thinking, naming and framing—a woman’s most basic nature as a human being goes undeveloped. She is like a bird absent the use of her wings.

“Smiling flowers.” Contra the prevailing view of her male contemporaries, Wollstonecraft asserts that women are not “smiling flowers” meant by God or nature to focus primarily upon adornment and pleasure (as opposed to intellectual work and action). To reduce women to “smiling flowers” robs “the whole sex of its dignity” (para. 4). In a note to chapter four, she homes-in on one of her contemporaries, the female poet Anna Barbauld, wondering how she could write, as a woman herself, such female-degrading lines as these:

‘Pleasure’s the portion of th’ inferiour kind;

But glory, virtue, Heaven for man design’d.’

And (comparing men to trees; women to flowers):

To loftier forms are rougher tasks assign’d;

The sheltering oak resists the stormy wind,

The tougher yew repels invading foes,

And the tall pine for future navies grows;

But this soft family, to cares unknown,

Were born for pleasure and delight ALONE.

Gay without toil, and lovely without art,

They spring to CHEER the sense, and GLAD the heart,

Nor blush, my fair, to own you copy these;

Your BEST, your SWEETEST empire is—to PLEASE.’

Wollstonecraft’s retort to Barbauld is: “So the men tell us; but virtue must be acquired by rough toils, and useful struggles with worldly cares.

So this is Wollstonecraft’s two chief theses: (1) women throughout history have been infantilized by men, and thereby blocked in their human development; and (2) virtues, such as reason and courage, have been checked in women by a lack of opportunities to exercise them out in the world.

For Wollstonecraft, then, the problem of women’s inequality is twofold: (1) women are treated as means to men’s ends rather than as ends for themselves; and (2) by intellectual education, habits, and social opportunity men tend to develop their human wings—their powers of reason, imagination, choice, and action—while women tend not to. It is Wollstonecraft’s intellectual battle against some of the sexist commonplaces and assumptions of her time that helps initiate feminism.

Why no female Shakespeares? A hundred and thirty years after A Vindication of the Rights of Women, the novelist Virginia Woolf, in her nonfiction book, A Room of One’s Own, asks why there have been no female Shakespeares. As response, Woolf adopts Wollstonecraft’s framing of the obstacles facing women—and women with intellectual and creative ambitions, in particular—arguing that the world has yet to produce a female Shakespeare because women are simply not socialized to intellectual production; they are not equally educated with men; nor do they, as a matter of common habit, withdraw from their traditional work roles into “rooms of their own” (places of solitude where original and creative thoughts can actually come to them).

Women also do not tend to take, as men characteristically do, the products of their creative solitude out into the world in agonistic competition. While, for example, Shakespeare left Stratford for the city of London to make his mark as a dramatist, had he a sister, she would have stayed home—and been expected to stay home.

Woolf’s manner of writing about women’s issues is thus very much akin to Wollstonecraft’s: it is representative of what has come to be known as “first-wave feminism”—the wave of feminism started by early feminist writers like Wollstonecraft and that was chiefly characterized by 18th century Anglo-French Enlightenment assumptions about the supreme value of masculine modes and styles of reasoning, creative production, and worldly action.

Moving beyond Wollstonecraft and Woolf. If, in the 18th century, Wollstonecraft was focused on improving female education (“the first step to form a being advancing gradually towards perfection”); and 19th century feminists (such as John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor) were focused on civil rights and economic equality for women; and feminists in the first half of the 20th century were focused on voting rights and the paucity of “female Shakespeares,” it was women after World War II who initiated what has come to be known as “second-wave feminism,” complicating first-wave feminist assumptions.

No woman is an island. In first-wave feminism, it was enough to argue for women’s legal equality with men in terms of the vote, access to education, property rights, and the freedom to choose whether or not to work in or outside the home. Beyond this, the general premise was that the gender chips must fall where they may. A minority of superior women would rise to the occasion of their hard-won equality and freedom, but the majority would no doubt continue to choose traditional roles for themselves (wife, mother, and homemaker as opposed to, say, politician, scientist, dramatist, or factory worker).

Second-wave feminism noticed the good aspects of first-wave feminism (as a movement for simple legal equality and access), and advanced it, but it also noticed the bad, and brought relentlessly to the foreground of consciousness the fact that women are not islands, either psychologically or socially (they are not free-floating thinkers absent material needs, emotions, inner conflicts, an unconscious, and a body; they are not free of the social collective; they are not free of history). And so, in spite of certain legal victories, patriarchy-dominated assumptions about reason, social arrangements, institutions, and history persist. And these assumptions are all too frequently rigged against women, setting them at odds with one another, putting them in double binds, and placing them generally at serious disadvantages in relation to men.

Follow structures to their radicals (their roots). Second-wave feminism, then, focused on the structures underlying relations, which are often structures of domination, and how those structures function in time and space to bind women materially and psychologically in spite of legal equality. Second-wave feminism shifted emphasis from the bourgeois liberal sorts of “rational actor” concerns of Wollstonecraft, Mill, and Woolf, and toward historical, sociological, and psychological analysis; i.e of the sorts of analysis practiced by structuralist thinkers like Karl Marx (proposing class struggle as the underlying dynamic structure of history) and Sigmund Freud (proposing the id, ego, and superego as the underlying dynamic structure of the psyche). Depending on context, second-wave feminists both deployed and critiqued the arguments of such male thinkers, and became associated with various schools of thought (“Marxist feminists,” “psychoanalytic feminists,” “existentialist feminists,” etc.). Second-wave feminists thus sought to identify and understand the systems of thought and culture sustaining sexism and patriarchy (rule by men), and their critiques became increasingly radical, attempting to locate the most fundamental roots of women’s oppression (from the Late Latin radicalis, root).

Woman as Other to man’s Absolute. An example of a feminist author proposing a psychological structure at work in the functioning of sexism is Simone de Beauvoir in her book, The Second Sex. This groundbreaking text initiated second-wave feminism, and, when it first appeared, it was placed by the Vatican on its list of Forbidden Books to Catholics. In the book, Beauvoir argues that men, psychologically, position themselves as the norm—the normative subjects—of existence, at human life’s center, with women placed at its margins, unequal to men in essence, a supplement to men and defined in relation to men. Man is essence, woman is shadow and inessential; man is indispensable to the definition of what it means to be human, woman dispensable. He is essential, she is difference. Woman “is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential, as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute—she is the Other.” (Think of Eve in relation to Adam in the Bible, how Adam was made first, and not Eve; and how Eve is said to have been taken from Adam—from Adam’s rib.)

The politics of reproduction, not production. An example of a second-wave feminist author making use of Marxist modes of structural analysis is Shulamith Firestone. In her book, The Dialectic of Sex (1970), she argues that while the struggle between the rich and middle classes vs. the working poor and unemployed is indeed a driving force of history—the dialectical struggle of classes in thesis, antithesis, and synthesis—it is not, as Marx thought, the ur-struggle (the first struggle; the beginning of all struggles). That distinction goes, by Firestone’s reckoning, to the divergence of interests between male and female, the first class division. Before there was the politics of production—Who shall control the factories; the means of economic production?—there was the politics of reproduction—Who shall control women’s bodies; the means of biological reproduction?

Firestone’s claim is that men have always attempted to set the terms of female reproduction and that it is “the first division of labor” that “developed into the [broader] class system.” And so she writes that a feminist analysis of history “seeks the ultimate cause and the great moving power of all historical events in the dialectic of sex: the division of society into two distinct biological classes for procreative reproduction, and the struggles of these classes with one another; in the changes in the modes of marriage, reproduction and child care created by these struggles; […]” (quoted in Tong’s Feminist Thought, 73).

Alienation. Another example where Marxist thought influences second-wave feminist thought is in its emphasis on the concept of alienation (estrangement from one’s deepest nature or purposes, or from others). Marx derived this concept from the philosophy of Friedrich Hegel, who believed in ultimate Truth; that we are heading toward it; and that—because we haven’t reached it yet—we are all estranged from it. Human history, for Hegel, is a seemingly endless, uneasy, and unstable dialectic (argumentative, agonistic) movement, on an upward-spiraling (metaphorical) staircase, toward ultimate Truth, one step following the other, where a thesis (an assertion of will or an idea) encounters an antithesis (a counter assertion or contradiction) that leads to a synthesis (a fresh consensus which becomes the new thesis for facing new resistances, and so on).

Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectic. For Hegel, partial truth, being unstable, not the whole truth, gives way in time to greater truth—to greater revelations of reality through time—and this process results in winners and losers all along the way. Hegel called this ongoing historical interaction of winners and losers the Master-Slave dialectic. In the struggle for existence, will it be your will and ideas that prevail or will you be in the service of other wills, of other ideas? Will you be a master or a slave?

Alienation and labor. In Hegel’s dialectic, the masters rule people—their will and ideas prevail over the bodies and minds of others—while the slaves rule matter—their will and ideas are applied to shaping material existence on behalf of their masters (hoeing a field for agriculture; building a factory for the slaughter of pigs; making a printing press for the publications of the masters). For Hegel, this state of affairs is ironic because the masters, by being able to set others to work for them, find that they are alienated from a key aspect of their own natures—their physical-laboring selves. They have outsourced this aspect of their lives to others. The masters therefore live in gilded cages not made with their own hands—not of their own making—and so not really fulfilling their existence as human beings, which is, in part, to interact with the resistances to life offered by the material world. To live separated from the process of physical labor—and experience only the end-products of the physical labor of others—is ultimately unsatisfying, alienating.

By contrast, the everyday worker—the master’s employee or slave—discovers a substitute satisfaction in being a loser. Though not a master of other people, he—the male pronoun is always used by Hegel and so will be retained in this summary of his thought—may find himself a skilled master of a tool, a machine, or a process that shapes material nature in some satisfying way, leading to a rediscovery of his own inner power, his “being for itself.” In thought and physical labor directed to a triumph over a material problem, the slave rediscovers an inner strength that the master does not enjoy. The master, in deriving pleasure from material things by setting others to labor for him on his behalf, is actually alienated from the material world (one step removed). The slave, however, finds in the shaping of material reality (rather than people), dignity and self-knowledge: “[I]n fashioning the thing [as opposed to persons], he becomes aware that being-for-itself belongs to him, that he himself exists essentially and actually in his own right” (546).

This is the satisfaction of mastery, and it is an idea of Hegel’s that Marx seized upon, asserting that capitalism, in its ever finer divisions of labor in the name of efficiency, alienates both workers (producers) and the bourgeoisie (consumers) from full enjoyment of what is actually produced, undercutting the dignity that Hegel accorded to losers in the Master-Slave dialectic. The producers (the workers) don’t enjoy the fruits of their labor and the consumers (the masters) don’t enjoy the satisfactions of material mastery.

Second-wave feminism and alienation. Taking his cue from Hegel, Marx foregrounded alienation in relation to labor (and what to do about it), and second-wave feminists make this important as well, but they also ask how women might live less alienated lives generally. In religion, for example, conceiving God as a father as opposed to a mother can be alienating for women, and so there are some second-wave feminists interested in doing away with God altogether (adopting atheism as a metaphysical stance). Other feminists are interested in reviving such things as Goddess-centered pagan cult-practices to reconnect with their spirituality in a non-patriarchal way.

And living in an industrial, urban, and consumer civilization can alienate one from nature—from “Mother Nature”—and so there are some feminists interested in reducing this form of alienation through living environmentally-friendly lifestyles and engaging in environmental activism (“eco-feminism”). Living in a heterosexist society—one that frowns upon homosexuality—can also be alienating for lesbians, both socially and by discouraging them from being in contact with their most inner desires—and so this stands in need of correction.

Still other feminists take a cue from Marx’s associate, Friedrich Engels, to focus on the exploitative hierarchies in marriage and the alienating and unequal divisions of labor there. The husband, wrote Engels, “is the bourgeois and the wife represents the proletariat” (quoted in Tong 48). Betty Freidan, in her now classic book of second-wave feminism, The Feminine Mystique (196), writes of the malaise and depression that can accompany the stay-at-home wife (“the problem that has no name”). For Friedan, the mystifications and idealizations that accompany the feminine ideal (strong and nurturing mother, sexy lover, quiet-follower) place women in alienating double binds. In The Feminine Mystique, Friedan recommends as partial remedy work outside the home.

A key element of second-wave feminism, then, is to find ways for women to live lives that are not psychologically alienated (from themselves, their families, their work, their communities, the environment, the fate of others) and so to flourish in accord with their deepest—most essential—natures (however that might be conceptualized). Second-wave feminism thus evolved beyond first-wave feminist aspirations of education opportunity, individual rights, equality, and voting, and toward an attempt at inner harmony: “[T]o create the kind of world in which women will experience themselves as whole persons, as integrated rather than fragmented, or splintered, beings” (Tong 45).

Second-wave feminist politics. Thinking about how men attempt to control women’s bodies and the means of reproduction (and thereby control women), and how alienation functions within patriarchy, led to second-wave feminist politics surrounding such matters as women in the workplace, pornography, images of women in media and religion, motherhood, abortion, the patriarchal (male-dominated) family, lesbianism, reproductive technologies, equal pay for equal work, maternity leave, body-politics, body image, rape, anorexia, women in combat, spousal abuse, women in film, and prostitution. Some key American figures in second wave feminism who addressed such issues included the poet Adrienne Rich, the essayist Andrea Dworkin, and science fiction writers Margaret Atwood and Marge Piercy.

Poststructuralist, post-essentialist feminism. First-wave feminism brought to the foreground of consciousness women’s essential rationality and equality; second-wave feminism, that no woman is an island.

What of third-wave feminism?

Third-wave feminism brings to consciousness the gaps in feminist theory and structures themselves; that feminist women can overgeneralize about their own natures as women, and in adopting alternative structures to patriarchy (intellectual and social), they can (ironically) lead themselves, inadvertently, into new and subtle forms of structural and intellectual oppression and emotional double binds. Thus, if patriarchy must be resisted, so must an over-structured and essentialist feminism. This is third-wave feminism in a nutshell. It is post-structuralist and post-essentialist, and while it embraces and advances key second-wave feminist concerns into the 21st century, it also complicates them (as second-wave feminism complicated first-wave feminism).

In third-wave feminism, the best and most natural way of living and being in the world as a woman has no obviously easy or right answer; it is an open question. Third-wave feminism is a feminism emphasizing greater tolerance for experimentation and diversity within feminism itself, calling into question (for example) whether female sex workers (either in prostitution or pornography) are of necessity tragic victims of oppression, and whether one’s sense of inner freedom needs to line-up with an outsider’s analysis of one’s objective freedom. Third-wave feminism is open, for instance, to the question of appropriate clothing choices for women (whether or not a woman wearing a burka is really oppressed if she chooses it; whether a woman “dressed slutty” is of necessity not really a feminist).

Thus third-wave feminism is (metaphorically) a rebellion of daughters—the daughters of second-wave feminist mothers. The women who came of age with second-wave feminist concerns already in the cultural air are trying to work out and assert their own individuality and autonomy—what feminism means for them. Third-wave feminism’s openness to diversity and nuance within feminism itself can thus be read as a sign of the success and maturity of feminism—or of its contemporary stall (or even derailment).

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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