Feminism in the New Millennium
Classic Philosophical Questions Part 7 - Social and Political Philosophy
Rosemary Tong, from "A Millennial Feminist Vision"
Kem Stone - 31 March 2008
In addition to the power of government and law enforcement, political freedom can be limited in many other
ways. Social oppression, particularly gender discrimination, has historically denied half of the world’s population
the same freedoms that have been enjoyed by the other half. Only recently have women formed political
organisations for the purpose of fixing these circumstances, but a great deal of progress has been made in a very
short amount of time. The feminist movement, however, has never had a consistent ideology or goal, and
according to Rosemarie Tong has undergone three distinct waves, each rejecting some of the ideals of the
previous waves and building upon others. Tong’s article examines these three waves and the philosophical ideals
underlying each, from the first wave of feminism in the mid-nineteenth century, through the second wave in the
1960s and finally the current wave that began in the 1990s. She makes no arguments but only presents the
historical facts, so this exposition will read more like a high school history report than a philosophical analysis,
though I will offer my opinions regarding feminist ideology at the conclusion.
Tong attributes the first wave of U.S. feminism to nineteenth-century liberal thinkers such as Mary Wollstonecraft,
John Stuart Mill, and Harriet Taylor Mill. “According to Wollstonecraft, since men and women have the same
capacities for rationality and morality, the key to developing these capacities equally in both sexes is to provide all
individuals with the same education in the sciences and humanities” (448). Calling for equal access to education
for men and women was a necessary first-step towards ending gender inequality, but Wollstonecraft did not go
very far beyond this. She did not call for women to work in the public world, nor did she call for the right to
vote. Other feminists of the time period, such as Sarah and Angelina Grimké, pointed to male-dominated
institutions such as the Christian Church as perpetuators of female inferiority, keeping men in the role of leaders
and women as followers.
The ideals of first-wave feminism came to their full expression during a conference of 300 women in Seneca Falls,
New York in 1848, during which a Declaration of Sentiments and twelve resolutions were produced. “The
twelve resolutions emphasized women’s rights to express themselves in public, to speak out on the burning issues
of the day, especially ‘in regard to the great subjects of morals and religion,’ which women were thought to be
more qualified to address than men” (448). The Declaration of Sentiments was more of a condemnation of the
unfair treatment given to women by the men of society than a call for actual political changes. They did not even
include Susan B. Anthony’s proposal for women’s suffrage among the twelve resolutions, seeing this as a radical
proposal that would possibly alienate men who would otherwise be sympathetic to their cause.
While women’s suffrage was too much for nineteenth-century feminists, it was not enough for the women of the
second wave of U.S. feminism, who believed that even with the right to vote women would never be equal to men
without the same educational, occupational, and professional opportunities. Second-wave feminism, which arose
during the Civil Rights Movement, was sensitive to the ways in which gender-based discrimination was similar to
race-based discrimination. The movement culminated in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which included the Title VII
provision to prohibit discrimination in the workplace on the basis of gender as well as race, colour, or religion.
However, courts were reluctant to enforce this provision, and the result was the formation of the National
Organization for Women (NOW) with an agenda seen by some as revolutionary and by others as too moderate.
Among those who found NOW’s proposals too moderate were “radical libertarian feminists” whose main focus
tended to be on sexual freedom. They attacked the belief that women were evil for engaging in sex for its own
sake, and demanded liberation from all such social mores. But they also went much farther, even to attempt to
relieve women of the burden of reproduction, believing that artificial reproduction through technology would
eliminate the natural disadvantage women had because of their susceptibility to pregnancy. These views were
seen as too extreme by mainstream American society, and were ultimately rejected by the feminist movement.
One of the biggest fears of mainstream Americans as well as more moderate feminists was the idea championed
by radical libertarian feminists such as Shulamith Firestone of gender androgyny. “Firestone claimed that as soon
as men and women were truly free to engage in polymorphous, perverse sex, it would no longer be necessary for
men to display only masculine identities and behaviours and for women to display only feminine ones. Freed from
their gender roles at the level of biology (that is, reproduction), women would no longer have to be passive,
receptive, and vulnerable, sending out ‘signals’ to men to dominate, possess, and penetrate them to keep the
wheels of human procreation spinning” (450). Ultimately, the brave new world that Firestone envisioned turned
out to be too brave for most people.
Many radical cultural feminists believed that artificial reproduction would have the opposite effect—that it would
disempower women rather than giving them more freedom. The ability to bring new life into the world through
their bodies, these feminists believed, was the ultimate source of their power and they did not want to give it up.
Furthermore, they rejected the idea that gender androgyny was appealing and instead tried to affirm women’s
essential “femaleness”, saying that women should not try to be like men but to be more like women, “emphasising
the values and virtues culturally associated with women including ‘interdependence, community, connection,
sharing, emotion, body, trust, absence of hierarchy, nature, immanence, process, joy, peace and life’ and de-
emphasising the values and virtues culturally associated with men including ‘independence, autonomy, intellect,
will, wariness, hierarchy, domination, culture, transcendence, product, ascetism, war and death’” (451).
Yet in the end, women could not agree on these values either. Many women did not feel oppressed by men, nor
did they share the values that the radical cultural feminists believed were the essence of femininity. “They claimed
that the radical-cultural feminist construct, Woman, did not represent all women, but only a certain kind of
women—namely, Woman in the image and likeness of the women (radical cultural feminists) who had created
her” (451). Rather than eliminate Patriarchy to replace it with Matriarchy, most women demanded only that the
sexes be equal in society. They rejected the idea of a female “essence” and pointed out that there were more
differences among women in society than there were similarities.
The third wave of U.S. feminism grew out of this reaction to the false construction of woman’s “nature”, and
beginning by acknowledging differences among women of different races, classes, and cultures, sought to
understand the connections between gender oppression and other forms of human oppression. These were self-
critical feminists seeking to combine the best ideas of second-wave feminism with black feminism, working-class
feminism, and other culturally specific movements. Yet now by focussing so much on women’s differences, the
movement began to lose sight of any common ground shared among all women, and it started to become unclear
exactly what feminist ideology was anymore. “In an attempt to remedy this growing problem in feminist thought,
de Lauretis suggested that when a woman (or man) becomes a feminist, she (or he) deliberately assumes a
position or perspective termed ‘gender’ from which first ‘to interpret or (re)construct values and meanings’ and
then to force alliances aimed at increasing all women’s freedom and well-being” (452). Third wave feminism
therefore became characterised by taking a gender-oriented approach to everything from political and social
institutions to art and literature.
Third wave feminists have usually been fairly pessimistic about lofty ideals of “sisterhood” among all women of the
world, yet remain committed to the idea that women from different backgrounds can come together and work for
each others’ interests. Elizabeth Spelman offers several suggestions for getting to know women of different
backgrounds, including reading books, taking classes, and going to conferences, but above all to imagine and
tolerate their lifestyles. Many third wave feminists caution First-World women that they may not be able to forge
any real friendships with women of the Third-World, but that political friendship is all that is necessary. Women
must honestly acknowledge each others’ differences and then advance towards the goals they share in common.
Most importantly, women who are better off because of their social or economic status must be prepared to make
sacrifices for the sake of those women who are in a disadvantaged position.
The third wave feminists Vandana Shiva and Maria Mies believe that the greatest divide among people in the
world is not among men and women but among the people who have too much and the people who have too
little. It is wrong to resolve this state of affairs by the “have nots” waging war against the “haves”, and it is
impossible to resolve it by the “haves” attempting to help the “have nots” join the class of “haves” because not
everyone can have everything in equal measure. “A third way to overcome the gap between the haves and the
have nots is, then, for First-World people to honestly confront the fact that their luxurious lifestyle is partially
subsidised by a host of Third-World people who lead a Spartan lifestyle. Mies, Shiva, and other multicultural and
global feminists urge privileged feminists, most of whom live in the First World, but some of whom live in the Third
World, to voluntarily give up at least some of their excesses so that the basic needs of underprivileged women can
be met” (454). The third wave of feminism has shifted the blame for most women’s suffering from men and male-
dominated institutions to the entire global state of affairs in which the gap between wealthy and poor allows
millions of women from underprivileged classes and countries to suffer.
Tong concludes by looking at the contrasts between the key documents of the different waves of feminism to
show how the movement has changed. The 1848 Declaration of Sentiments was primarily an expression of
women’s feelings of frustration over being excluded from the public sphere. Although frustration was expressed
for the “sexual double-standard”, it was faulted not for depriving women of sexual freedom but for failing to
restrict men to the same degree. Its primary messages were “(1) that men and women are created equal; (2) that
it is the role of Government to help women as well as men secure their inalienable rights as human beings; and (3)
that it is the responsibility of an oppressed group—in this case women—to refuse allegiance to any Government
which denies them what it grants to the non-oppressed group—in this case men” (455).
By contrast, the Bill of Rights drafted by the National Organization for Women identified women’s childbearing
ability as the central cause of gender inequality, and sought to increase women’s sexual and reproductive freedom,
particularly in terms of abortion and contraception rights, as well as maternity leave policies in the workplace.
“The dominant messages of NOW’s Bill of Rights were: (1) that legislation can prevent the subordination of U.S.
women to U.S. men; and (2) that what U.S. women want, more than anything, is equal opportunity to compete
against men in the so-called public world” (455). Yet in their desire to produce a Bill of Rights that would be
acceptable to mainstream America, NOW focussed almost exclusively on these public issues ignoring the private
realm, thus earning for women the right to work a double-day, both in the business world and at home where the
responsibilities of cooking, cleaning, and caring for the children remained hers.
The 1995 Beijing Declaration went beyond the language of “equal rights opportunities” and acknowledged the
great differences among women while focussing on specific plans to remedy the ills of social inequality. It focuses
not on individual rights but on the collective needs of women around the world. Its goals are to achieve for
everyone what Mies and Shiva have termed a “subsistence lifestyle”, meaning access for all people to fulfilling their
basic needs. There are ten steps to be taken in order to work towards achieving this goal, such as producing and
using only as much as what is needed without going to excess for the sake of pure profit, replacing representative
democracy with participatory democracy, breaking the boundaries between science and spirituality, treating
natural resources as community goods rather than private possessions, and so on. These goals are clearly wide-
ranging and go well beyond the scope of feminism as it is traditionally understood, and one need not be a feminist
to agree with and work towards their realisation.
Third wave feminists are encouraged to understand that at least in the United States women have more freedom
than at any other time or place in the world. They have a great deal of power, and as such they risk losing sight of
the plight of less fortunate women and becoming absorbed in selfishness. Many see the television character Ally
McBeal as a representation of this kind of postfeminist egoism. “The reason why it is not yet time to bid adieu to
feminism is precisely the fact that so many pseudo-feminists like Ally McBeal have emerged on the scene.
Admittedly, part of eliminating gender oppression is breaking into the ‘boy’s club,’ as well as being as sexual as
one desires, but this is only part of it….Feminism is about justice, but it is also about caring—caring enough to
make some sacrifices in one’s own life so that women across the United States and around the globe, particularly
women who may not be of one’s own race or class, may experience more of life’s opportunities” (457). Many of
the results of first and second wave feminism have actually become obstacles for the goals of third wave feminism.
As inconsistent as its goals may be, I believe it is important that a feminist movement of some kind should always
exist. Without women calling for equal rights or for a better standard of living for women around the world, men
in power will almost certainly abuse their social position and keep women subjugated. Equality between the sexes
must be continually strived for, though I believe that true equality can never be completely realised as unlike race,
there really are natural differences between men and women that no amount of social engineering can nullify.
Generally speaking, women have less strength than men, so the military and police force will always be male-
dominated institutions. Women bear children and men do not, so women will always have to be prepared for
pregnancy to interfere with their careers. However, natural inequality does not preclude political equality, and
feminism plays a necessary role by preventing men from using their natural advantages to perpetuate their
artificially constructed ones.
Each wave of feminism has brought with it progressive ideals that remain important today. First-wave feminists
were right to call men to task for stripping women of their dignity and denying them the right to an equal
education. Second-wave feminists were right to demand equal professional opportunities, though some went too
far in calling for the abolition of traditional gender roles through artificial reproduction. Third-wave feminists
corrected this by discarding the idea that men and women should be so equal as to be androgynous, and
acknowledged not only the perpetual differences between men and women but even between women of different
social and cultural backgrounds. Third-wave feminism is on a very good track by calling for sacrifices from the
privileged to reduce the suffering of the underprivileged, a goal which transcends gender issues altogether. To call
upon those of us in wealthy nations to sacrifice some of our luxuries so that those in poor nations can at least live a
subsistence lifestyle should be a universal cause not just for feminists but for all of humanity. At the heart of this
feminism are the ethics of sympathy and justice, both of which are necessary for the advancement of human