Updated: Dec 14, 2020
50% of our population is in a constant struggle for equal recognition and rights.
Beginning in the mid-1800s, the women’s struggle for equality has become a fight commonly accepted as the ‘norm’ of our world.
Feminism is the advocacy of women’s rights to achieve equality between the sexes. A definition which continues to grow as feminism rapidly evolves.
The feminist movement originated from a very narrow, specific group of wealthy and privileged females in the 1800s. It was sparked by Lily Maxwell in 1876, who became the first woman to cast her vote, from the Suffragist movement, in Manchester.
However, her vote was later ruled to be illegal in court, even though her vote would have been legal if she were male due to her owning property.
The ruling acted as a catalyst for the movement, inspiring many middle-class women (who qualified to vote under the same conditions) to challenge and question the requirements which had to be met to cast a vote. The first wave of feminism had begun.
The Evolution of Feminism
The principle of feminism is constantly changing and evolving. Although it mainly aims to establish equality between the sexes in all realms of life, throughout history its main objectives have changed and grown with the wants of society.
The first wave focused on women’s right to vote and began to introduce the concept of self-sufficiency.
The second wave transformed feminism into the Women’s Liberation Movement, introducing freedom values to society.
The final wave implemented the idea of complete gender equality, dismissing gender roles that have restricted social mobility and modernisation.
The rise of feminism in the UK began with the women’s suffrage movement in the 1800s, which focused on gaining women’s right to vote, leading to the rise of the Suffragettes and the Suffragists.
These two groups spent decades campaigning for change in parliament, to provide women with the right to vote. Although both groups sought similar objectives, the approaches they took were very different.
The Suffragettes used violence and civil disobedience to project their intentions to Parliament. The group is most known for the many hunger strikes which they carried out, alongside the death of Emily Wilding Davison.
The Suffragists aimed to use considerably less disruptive methods by seeking law reform through legal means, their most famous members being the Pankhurst mother Emily and her daughter Christabel.
1928 Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act: Legalised voting for all women over the age of 21, regardless of whether they owned property or not.
With World War I and World War II introducing the idea of women being the main household providers, many began to enter the workforce. By the end of WWI, there were 1 million in employment, producing 80% of weapons and shells for the war effort. The 1960s and 1970s saw liberal principles and perspectives being highly integrated into society.
The second wave of feminism is mainly characterised by the Women’s Liberation Movement, which aimed to free women from the conservative and restrictive principles that had previously been held over them.
Concepts such as sexual liberation and freedom helped women to become empowered, allowing them control of their own bodies with the passing of the Abortion Act in 1967. The wave’s focus also began to turn towards issues of equality and discrimination that affect women.
This led to the passing of the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act which ensured that an employer could no longer discriminate on grounds of sex.
1961 Introduction of the Pill: For the first time in history, women were able to access their own form of contraception.
Third wave feminism is the most relevant and applicable of all the waves, and we should question whether we are still in this wave.
Seeking complete gender equality sees the wave beginning to criticise the previous focus of white, upper-class women. The focus has now expanded, aiming to resolve all issues that affect women not just the principle of gender inequality.
Although these are not new concepts for feminist groups to be involved in, the shift from entirely female issues to whole issues of discrimination has allowed many groups to become more accessible and inclusive.
So, is feminism still relevant today?
We now need to ask whether feminism is still needed in the UK, as women begin to access power roles, such as Theresa May being Prime Minister. This would suggest a step in the right direction for the growth of female leadership in male-dominated spheres.
However, with the gender pay gap, employment inequality and under-representation continuing to exist, we are yet to enter a post-feminist society.
It is still common, even in 2020, for women to experience discrimination and restricted opportunities due to employers believing women are not as dedicated and hardworking as a result of benefits such as maternity leave.
Many women, such as Mary Beard, are calling for an entire revision of the structure of society in order to liberate women from the restrictive, patriarchal society that currently exists.
Florence Given also addresses how women need to move away from the standard that have been set by men and move towards a world which allows all to live comfortably, without judgement or prejudice from society.
Interested in gender issues? Explore our Feminism & Gender Issues section.