Feminist Traditions | History


Where does feminism come from? A short history of ideas

The beginnings of the women’s movement
Human rights and citizen’s rights for women too
In 1791, during the French Enlightenment, Olympe de Gouges demanded human rights and civil rights for women. At this point they were still only granted to men. Later in the 19th and 20th century, similar early feminist ideas inspired women’s movements in numerous countries to push for the right to education, paid employment, and social equality. As a result, we owe various social and political rights for women, such as the right to vote, to the commitment of these women’s rights activists.

Autonomous women’s movements
The personal is political
Against the backdrop of the 1960s student protests and new social movements, new women’s movements developed in many countries around the globe. At this time, autonomous feminists began organising independently of men and outside existing organisations. They criticised women’s continued discrimination despite formal political equality. It became apparent that rights alone would not ensure equality: dominance was inherent to gender relations and reflected the structure of society and its institutions as a whole. This understanding led feminists to analyse the sources of structural discrimination against women and fight for changes to the patriarchal model of society, and to social understandings. They deployed a gender perspective to study areas of the social which had previously been interpreted as private: the family, sexuality, the body and psychology. In addition, they rejected traditional ways of life and instead developed their own independent (autonomous) ways of living and working.

From difference to deconstruction
The second sex?
In the 1970s and 1980s, and in Italy in particular, a position inspired by psychoanalysis arose which argued that because women had been historically excluded from power and dominant values, women's values were different from those embodied by men. In the light of new academic and historical understandings difference feminism, as this perspective came to be known, became untenable and it has since lost its importance. It was further weakened by deconstructivist feminism in the 1990s which denied that sexual identities were in any way ‘natural’, and instead demonstrated that gender is culturally constructed and formed by language. This approach which was represented in particular by Judith Butler, was not directed at politics, but more towards a complete change in our concepts of gender (gender trouble).

Criticising racism, ethnocentricity and homophobia
Inequality between women
Feminist theories which focus on power relations – which are currently represented in many universities – led to discussions about the inequalities which exist between women. Racist, ethnocentric and homophobic discrimination or social and cultural discrimination by women (and men) demonstrates that not all women have the same interests and that some women even profit from existing injustice. This understanding led it to become clear that the emancipation of women alone could not solve the problem of social injustice. This led to the development of the term ‘the matrix of domination’ to describe the way in which many factors which cause inequality are linked to each other.

Third-wave feminism
From alpha girls to pop feminism
‘Alpha girls’, pop feminists, and third-wave feminists were predominantly younger women from the feminist movement. At the turn of the twenty-first century, they called for women not only to struggle against injustice, but instead to affirm their rights with confidence. This understanding was based on ideas linked to gender democracy, such as gender mainstreaming in Europe. Yet far from making feminism obsolete, it has led to new developments and a lively debate between the many and varied feminist positions.

Developing concepts, and plurality
From Intersectionality to Queer Theory
New theoretical and practical feminist concepts are being integrated into a post-colonial critique of unquestioned Western and white assumptions and lifestyles. Queer theory, for example, is a critique of the heteronormativity of fixed gender identities based around the norm of heterosexuality. Recent feminist debates have concentrated on how gender discrimination is interwoven with categories such as race, class, sexuality, nationality and age. Concepts such as intersectionality and diversity help to ensure that gender discrimination is not viewed in isolation, but instead is tackled together with other forms and dimensions of discrimination and domination.