While Feminism never disappeared from the collective consciousness, its manifestation has ebbed and flowed in four unique waves. Each wave served an absolutely vital purpose in improving life for women by advocating for social, economic, political and cultural equality.
Feminism in its earliest form rose from the dormant embers of 1900 years of inequality and oppression. Women’s social duties and responsibilities were not treated as equal to those of men: they worked longer hours for smaller wages, held no agency for those meagre earnings and were denied self-ownership because they were represented by their husbands and fathers. Its pioneers, the Suffragettes, challenged patriarchal power as it was, in this way, institutionalised in law and government. University professor and author of several essays on American culture, feminism and gender politics, Christine Stansell, once poignantly expressed the complex circumstance of early feminism.
“Such challenges do not arise simply from a collective sense of sisterhood; they do not grow automatically from women’s everyday relations with each other. They involve a conscious organisation, collective changes in consciousness, and a shared set of ideas about the nature of power and how to seize it.”
They had no other choice: either they do something or forever be owned by, and inferior to, men, subject to laws they had no part in making or enforcing. In the utter absence of power, women banded together to develop strategies for change and advancement, with a focus on obtaining the right to vote. To do this required action above and beyond themselves, those men and those employers: they had to change the policy that upheld legislated inequality.
Emboldened by their dissatisfaction with their societal position, women – mothers, wives, workers and scholars – launched peaceful demonstrations and political protests for equal pay, self-ownership and voting rights. Their messages fell on deaf ears, and their punishment into hands desperately clinging to their privileged position. Suffragettes were beaten during protests, fired by their bosses, abused by their disapproving husbands and estranged from their children, for whom men were the sole legal custodians. They garnered negative publicity by staging happenings of public nuisance, ignoring the laws that ignored them, and were subsequently imprisoned in endless attempts to silence them.
Their battle was eventually won, but at great cost and with great sacrifice: women lost their families, jobs, freedom and even lives in the fight for these fundamental rights.
Just because we now enjoy social, economic and political equality does not mean that the driving purpose of feminism is redundant, nor its principles stuck in those decades in which women were victims of patriarchal mistreatment.
Feminism is Not Degrading | Self-Victimisation
Referring to the plight of the Suffragettes is a way of contextualising the social, economic and political rights that we now take for granted. The fight for equal rights was a war, and holding those who fought the battle – or suffered oppression before it was won – in living memory shouldn’t be frowned upon. Feminism does not decree that without it, you wouldn’t be able to get a job, it embodies the beliefs, actions and sacrifices made by others before you which are the reason that you can get a job. Feminism is not about what a disadvantage it is to be a woman: it is about leaving all remnants of disadvantage behind and addressing areas of society in which this progress – whether due to bureaucratic complexity, corrupt management or lacking information/education – lags.
Feminism is Not Redundant
Aside from the fact that there are still countries in which women are equally as oppressed – or worse so – as the Suffragettes, there are many reasons why Feminism is still a positive, relevant and important movement.
I’d like to put this into perspective, but I have long struggled to express my frustration with the ‘women are equal now, get over it’ logic (with which I believe many of the video’s stars are familiar). Lost for words, I turned to more primal communicative tools: a black Biro, some coloured felt pens and a piece of paper:
To say that, in less than one-twentieth of the time in recorded history, almost 2000 years of oppression can be resolved and forgotten, seems preposterously ignorant of the bigger picture here. Can colonising races, having destroyed the culture and livelihoods of indigenous people of their acquired lands in a mere fraction of their existence, declare the score even by outlawing racial discrimination and granting rights to the formerly persecuted some decades ago? No. The score is not even: the colonised and the colonising are not born on equal footing. Resolution to any degree requires a doctrine of equity rather than equality, whereby consideration of the significant, continuing financial, cultural, social and ethical difficulties faced by disenfranchised indigenous people.
In a similar way, thousands of years of inequality have left remnants in our social and cultural consciousnesses which perpetuate the values of patriarchy. They are so deeply entrenched in our society and collective psyche that we are often not aware of their operating in our homes, workplaces, governments and everyday interactions. The biological designation of child-bearing to women continues to hinder their career trajectory due to management strategies in the recruitment and return to work stages, and parental leave legislation sustains a salary (and superannuation) gap which undermines the tenet of equal-pay-for-equal-work policy to which many cling as a comprehensive solution. And, though targets are being ardently worked towards by our businesses and governments, women remain largely unrepresented in management and policy-making positions.
This is the purpose of contemporary feminism: addressing and removing those remnants of inequality that imply women should be a certain way, do certain things, choose a certain lifestyle and limit us by doing so. Women, as well as men, should be, do and choose of their own will. But for their choices to be made free of these inhibiting stigmas, as are those of men, there is much still to be changed, and much to be understood.