How to Define Feminism – History & Core Concepts

Introduction and Definition

In this article, we will discuss how to define feminism. Today, feminism has gained an increasingly important place in social and political conversations. However, since feminism is associated with a range of social movements and ideologies, it can sometimes be hard to define.

At its core, feminism aims at establishing the political, social and economic equality of the genders. It argues that, throughout history, society has prioritized the male point of view. And it has led to females becoming second-class citizens in society. As the social ideology termed “Feminism”, it started in the US and the UK in the 19th century. Since then it has increasingly become a global movement and has taken on many different forms.

How to Define Feminism
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History and Core Concepts

In order to define feminism, we must look at its history as well. We usually divide the history and development of feminism into four “Waves”. Each of these waves is associated with different forms of women’s liberation from social, economic and political inequality, interpersonal and familial inequality and male violence against women.

First Wave (19th and early 20th C.)

The first wave of the feminist movement was during the 19th and early 20th centuries in the US and the UK. In the mid to late 19th century, the movement focused on marriage, parenting and property rights for women. And it established women’s right to custody over their children and securing property for married women. While in the next century, the movement focused on women’s political power. In Britain, this became the “Suffragette Movement” which achieved the granting of the right to vote for women in 1918 for the first time in democratic history.

Second Wave (the 1960s)

While economic and political equality was beginning to emerge in the 20th century, many societies still lacked significant rights for women. For instance, women did not gain the right to vote in Switzerland until 1971. In the same way, women in France did not receive the right to work without their husband’s permission until 1965. During this period feminists began to tackle these as well as other issues that they saw as obstacles to gender equality. These values emerged as the second wave of the feminist movement. And it focused on gender discrimination against women in every aspect of social life.

Moving beyond economic and political rights, this movement tackled gender inequality, injustice and discrimination in the personal and social lives of women. It has also included the gender pay gap, educational discrimination, unpaid domestic labour, gender violence, domestic abuse and marital rape.

In fact, the slogan, “The Personal is Political” became popular during the Second Wave. Because this movement argued that political gender discrimination in society manifests as personal discrimination in the everyday lives of individual women. This movement also argues that all discrimination against women is part of a larger structure of cultural and historical male domination termed as “Patriarchy”.

Third Wave (the 1990s)

The third wave of the feminist movement started in the 1990s. It focused mainly on a critique of the values of second-wave feminism. It challenged previous definitions of femininity and masculinity. And it argued that gender was unrelated to whether a person was male or female. This critique emerged out of “Gender Theory”, a field in the social sciences that argued that gender and gender roles were socially conditioned and were not based in biology. We more commonly know this as “Post-Structuralist” view. In this view, feminism tried to move beyond the social structures of gender and sexuality.

This movement also tried to move beyond upper-class, white feminism. And it argued that the feminism of different women would be different in nature. It would depend upon the racial, ethnic or class group of the women. We know this view by the name “Intersectionality”. It tries to understand how gender intersects with race, ethnicity, class and sexuality.

Fourth Wave (the 2010s to present)

The fourth wave of the feminist movement refers to the most recent re-emergence of feminist values. This emergence has occurred in popular culture through social media. The focus of the fourth wave is justice for women against the oppression of male violence, sexual harassment, campus sexual assault and rape culture.

We can observe this movement through technology. Because the major conversations of this movement are taking place on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr. Various recent scandals have been used to drive this movement. Some of the most infamous scandals include the 2012 Delhi gang-rape, the Bill Cosby allegations and the Harvey Weinstein allegations. We commonly associate the Me-too Movement with the fourth wave.


Overall, it may be safe to say that since its emergence in the 19th century to the present day, feminism has been used as an umbrella term to cover many different movements that fall under it. Feminism is by no means a single idea and there are surely feminists that disagree with the viewpoints of other feminists.

Furthermore, we can also regard feminism as a group of theories. These theories are related to, but separate from, people who fight for gender equality in their everyday lives. At its core, we can define feminism as a movement aiming at uplifting the women around the world. Thus, promoting the women to the position of first-class citizens. And it is something we can all get behind for the future prosperity of society.

So, this is how you can define feminism along with its brief history and core concepts. Feel free to leave your comments below.

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