DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N022-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved October 03, 2022, from

1. Feminism and feminisms

While there have been, throughout the history of philosophy, writers who challenge the sexual stereotype and offer different pictures of women, their works do not contribute to a single story. It can therefore be misleading to assimilate them too quickly to the philosophical literature and political campaigns which initiated later feminist movements, or to contemporary feminist positions. Only at the end of the eighteenth century did a stream of philosophical arguments aimed at the emancipation of women begin to gather force. Only at the end of the nineteenth century did the term la féminisme appear, put into circulation after the fact in France during the 1890s, and rapidly taken up in the rest of Europe and then in America. The label ‘feminist’ thus arose out of, and was in many ways continuous with, the sequence of diverse campaigns for female emancipation fought throughout the nineteenth century – campaigns for the vote, for access to education and the professions, for the right of married women to own property and have custody of their children, for the abolition of laws about female prostitution which assumed the double standard. While the character and success of these movements varied from country to country (for example, women’s suffrage was introduced in New Zealand in 1893, Finland in 1906 and Britain in 1918) they all drew upon, and generated, arguments about the nature and capacities of women and the character of their oppression, and entertained, explicitly or implicitly, images of what a better condition would be like. Many of the most influential philosophical defences of women’s emancipation dating from this period were in fact written by people involved in political work – to name only two, John Stuart Mill, the author of The Subjection of Women, proposed to the British parliament in 1867 an amendment to the Reform Bill designed to give votes to women, while Emily Davies, author of The Higher Education of Women, was the foundress of Girton College, Cambridge, the first women’s college of higher education in England.

We have no difficulty in retrospectively classifying works such as these as feminist, although this is not a description their authors would have used, because they contain analyses of women’s oppression and proposals for overcoming it which mesh easily with analyses and proposals later regarded as central to the feminist cause. However, there are also significant divergences between feminist writers, past as well as present. Different interpretations of the disadvantages to which women are subject, allied to different conceptions of what would constitute an improvement, gave rise to distinctive and sometimes irreconcilable feminisms. Compare, for example, the broadly liberal view that the oppression of women consists in their lack of political equality with men and can be alleviated by giving women and men the same political rights, with the separatist view that women’s oppression lies principally in their sexual subordination to men and can only be overcome in societies that are, as far as possible, exclusively female. As these examples indicate, there are many feminisms, each with a history of its own.

Historians are bound to select their material in the light of the kind or kinds of feminism that concern them, and to work with interpretations that are used to distinguish texts and movements that qualify as feminist from those that are merely about women. To pursue the examples already discussed, historians whose interest in feminism focuses on the quest for equality between the sexes may identify certain writers as feminists avant la lettre. For example, they may include in their canon Poulain de la Barre, author of De L’Égalité des deux sexes (1673), or Mary Wollstonecraft. By contrast, a history of feminism understood as the quest for a separate society of women is more likely to pick out Mary Astell’s proposal that ladies should retire from the society of men who debar them from realizing the natural desire to advance and perfect their being, or Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s utopia Herland about an isolated society of women who are able to have children without male assistance. As long as there is more than one interpretation of feminism, feminism will not have a unified history.

Citing this article:
James, Susan. Feminism and feminisms. Feminism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N022-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2022 Routledge.

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