Thursday, 14 February 2008

Twenty-first Century Feminism

What behaviour counts as feminism is a contentious issue, especially if you are a historian trying to evaluate and classify the behaviour of women in the past. There is considerable debate over whether women’s organisations, who are not overtly feminist, but who work towards helping women or promoting their rights are feminist organisations. It becomes even more complex when we consider movements such as the Women’s Cooperative Guild or phenomena such as the professionalisation of nursing. If a phenomenon raises women’s self-esteem and teaches, or trains, them to be independent and autonomous individuals, but does so within a restricted, feminine sphere, is it feminist?

Very simplistically, we could posit that there are two types of feminism. The first hopes to broaden or widen women’s sphere through utilising present power structures. The second challenges those power structures. As a radical feminist, I think we should be doing the latter.

As a teacher of history, I often ask my students whether they believe women should vote; have equal pay; have equality of employment. If they say yes, I respond ‘you are a feminist’. But it occurs to me, if we live in a society where those things have been incorporated into the current power structures, can we still count belief in them as feminist activity? If feminism is about challenging power structures, is it enough to believe women should have their present rights, or do we need to demand more to be feminist?

As historians, if we only accept challenges to power structures as feminism, how do we classify all those other behaviours that support and empower women?

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