It’s International Women’s Day but what does it mean to reclaim our Feminist Agenda?

A Cause for Celebration

International Women’s Day is:

‘A global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating women’s equality’.

This day is celebrated globally by women and women’s organisations, most notably the Feminist Movement. Historically, feminism is both a complex movement and a dynamic idea that aims to serve an intricate and nuanced world. Factors such as class, sexuality, race and nationality all impact experiences of gender. For this reason, feminism has different meanings for different people throughout the world.

As we celebrate another International Women’s Day it is useful to examine what feminism has meant throughout history and what it means today. Specifically, whether it fulfils its original role of a social equalizer.

A Brief History of Feminism

British Feminism began in the late 19th Century with the fight for women’s enfranchisement. This early feminism centred on the legal aspects of enabling women to be seen as equal to men in the eyes of the law. Early feminists fought for the right to vote, arguing that without it they were viewed as less than people, both within the eyes of the law and wider society. Partial enfranchisement was achieved in 1918, and women were fully enfranchised by 1928. However, enfranchisement had not achieved equality, and so Second-Wave Feminism developed. This type of feminism shifted the fight from the legal to the political, by questioning ‘sexual politics’ — a term coined by Kate Millet. Her 1970 book of the same name posited the idea that the relationship between the sexes is a political issue revolving around the dominance of one group over another. Feminist issues of the day included the power structure of the family, abortion, the sexual division of labour, rape, and domestic violence.

Over the decades, we have moved beyond the question of gender politics to the politics of the individual. Third-Wave Feminism (and beyond) is difficult to pinpoint. However, its lack of clarity is perhaps a characteristic feature. The Third Wave is an under-theorised movement. In many ways, it has rejected the academic aspects that made its predecessors into a popular cultural phenomenon. Mainstream Third-Wave Feminism is undoubtedly linked to the rich legacy of earlier feminist ideas, but it’s also a reflection of their perceived limitations for activists. The general view was that by embracing the political, the movement was too prescriptive and alienated ‘ordinary’ women by making them feel guilty about enjoying such things as cosmetics and fashion, as well as heterosexuality and pornography.

This led to movements such as ‘Lipstick Feminism’ or ‘Choice Feminism’, remnants of which influence present feminist thinking. These maintain that women’s individual choices are inherently feminist in virtue of being made by them — even if they are influenced by patriarchal systems. The depoliticization and individualism of feminism in order to reclaim femininity and sexuality resulted in a loss of serious political critique in mainstream feminism. Important literature, such as Kimberlé Crenshaw’s Principle of Intersectionality in 1989 (arguably a core principle of Fourth-Wave Feminism) was still being published at the time, but these academic theories were not seen as essential in the feminist movement. Third-Wave Feminism also had to deal with the idea of Post-Feminism. This argued, unconvincingly, that by the end of the 20th Century feminism had achieved its main goal of equality. For those women who were not white, middle/upper class, affluent, straight or cisgender, this was simply not true.

What is 21st Century Feminism?

One important question to ask is whether feminism is still relevant? One issue is that there is ongoing disagreement as to whether we are in the Fourth-Wave of feminism. Those who argue that this is the fourth wave, maintain that it’s characterised by a more global form of activism owing to our increased usage of the internet. Recent movements such as ‘Me Too’ are key examples of this.

In some ways, the move of activism to social media platforms is positive. More people than ever before can now share their stories, give support, educate, and have their voices heard. However, it remains contentious whether social media activism is capable of creating real and lasting change. The algorithms are designed to connect us with like-minded individuals, making them simultaneously a powerful force for collective action as well as increasingly polarised viewpoints that can be weaponised and misused. We must ask whether feminism is still the powerful, academic and political movement that some insist it should be; or is it being reduced to a slogan within stories that are shared and forgotten?

There is no one answer to what feminism is today, nor has there ever been. Experiences of feminism are, as they always were, deeply individual and unique. The biggest problem with asking if feminism is still relevant is that this presumes there is one singular, united, and universally accepted movement that is ‘Feminism’. Too often, the idea of a singular experience of feminism excludes the most marginalised victims of intersecting oppression. In truth, feminism is unique to each person in the same way that one’s experience of gender and gender oppression may differ. To pretend otherwise is to commit a fallacy or be dishonest.

Feminism is an imperfect and complicated movement. As Lola Olufemi argues in Feminism, Interrupted:

‘feminism does not promise us easy answers. It promises us the hard work of seeing each other for all that we are: including our faults, oversights and the ways we fail one another’.

Ultimately, feminism is a movement that we create. It’s hard work, struggle, and conviction. It is not a body outside of ourselves, but rather the work of feminists as a collective. If we fight to make meaningful change, feminism fights too. If we can sit at the intersection of oppression and fight with those shouting for their experiences to be known, then feminism sits with us at that same intersection. Feminism is as nuanced, as intersectional, and as relevant as we make it.

So as we celebrate International Women’s Day, it is worth reflecting on where we were, and where we are now. It’s not just about posting on social media, but truly taking ownership of our Feminist Agenda in a way that makes it relevant for us: All of Us.

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