At the risk of sounding like the dictionary, a feminist is someone who “believes in the ideologies and values of feminism.” So what are we talking about? Much like many ideologies, the history of feminism is best illustrated through a number of waves:
1. “We are Smart Enough”
This first wave began when women were trying to prove that they are not lacking in intelligence and deserve the right to vote and own property. This was revolutionary in its time, since women were technically considered the property of men — so how could property own property? Thanks to the due process of the 14th amendment (yes, the same one that legalized abortion), we learned that citizens of the US cannot be deprived of life, liberty or property. While this clause was to offer Black men these freedoms, women realized that they needed to be considered.
2. “We are Just as Good as Men”
The second wave of feminism began in the 1960’s in the Women’s Liberation Movement. In the throes of civil rights movements, women took up charge and recognized and asserted that being considered “intelligent enough to vote” was not enough. Women had already begun competing with men in academia and were trying to establish themselves as professionals. Now women were fighting for equal pay in the work place (still a struggle), reproductive rights (to obtain education about sex and contraception, to gain affordable and accessible contraception, abortion, etc.) and other inequalities that were very creatively considered by people who refused to acknowledge women’s strengths.
This was a confusing time for women and this particular ideology perpetuated a lot of internalized misogyny among women. There was pressure to compete with men by being “not female” by avoiding things that are traditionally female roles and characteristics — such as choosing to be wives and mothers over being a career woman, or choosing to be emotionally connected to people they have sex with (like the perception that men are absolutely casual about sex).
We are Better Than Men
This was never part of the second wave of feminism. It was a farce created by those who desired to keep strict gender roles and to discourage women from identifying as feminists and fighting for women’s rights. This aspect of feminism is embedded in our culture, creating gender wars and jokes depicting men as silly and stupid and women as strong and domineering and insinuating that feminists are all hairy, angry, and man-hating lesbians, continuing to pin men and women up against each other.
3. “Feminism is Not Just for Women”
The third and final wave established that feminism is about respect for all genders. This may be confusing because the Fem in feminist indicates female – maybe it is simply an extension of the process of gender rights? Third-wave feminists have gained an understanding that women can be effeminate and still be feminists, that they can be mothers and wives without having a career and continue to be feminists, and that casual sex is not a necessity to hold that identity.
Another aspect recognizes that strict gender roles do not just hurt women but also hurt men. All genders are different, with strengths and weaknesses that are all valuable. Highlighting one gender’s strengths as most valuable, and assigning those strengths as standards to all people identified within that gender, hurts everyone and holds us back as a society (i.e., men who are not masculine are “less than” men – Nancys, sissies, ‘like a girl,’ and women are the established “less than” gender).
On a personal note, it was quite difficult for me to differentiate between the societal depiction of a feminist as an “angry, man-hating lesbian” who holds herself above men and the truth. I have been fortunate to meet feminists – male, female, androgynous, gender-queer, gender-neutral, trans, etc. – who helped me. Hopefully, this clarifies things.