Feminism and equality

Feminism typically refers to gender equality especially with respect to rights for female humans,[1] even though many feminist movements and ideologies differ on exactly which claims and strategies are vital and justifiable to achieve equality.

However, equality, while supported by most feminists, is not universally seen as the required result of the feminist movement, even by feminists. Some consider it feminist to increase the rights of women from an origin that is less than man's without obtaining full equality.[2][3][4] Their premise is that some gain of power is better than nothing. At the other end of the continuum, a minority of feminists have argued that women should set up at least one women-led society and some institutions.[5][6][7]

Freedom is sought by those among feminists who believe that equality is undesirable or irrelevant, although some equate gaining an amount of freedom equal to that of men to the pursuit of equality, thus joining those who claim equality as central to feminism.[8][9]

Agreement on definition

According to Tilburg University women's studies chair Tineke M. Willemsen, "[i]t is hardly even possible to give a definition of feminism that every feminist will agree with."[10] Bronwyn Winter has criticized resistance to defining feminism for specialists and nonspecialists, a resistance "so widespread as to appear to be the dominant feminist theoretical position: a sort of 'non-position'."[11] However, definitions have been offered in feminist literature and practice.


Examples of organizations in the U.S. seeking equality are the National Women's Political Caucus (NWPC) and the National Organization for Women (NOW) and, historically, the National Woman's Party (NWP). NOW, at its first national conference, in 1967, called for equality, e.g., "Equal Rights Constitutional Amendment", "Equal and Unsegregated Education", "Equal Job Training Opportunities", "equal employment opportunity [to] be guaranteed to all women, as well as men", "the right of women to be educated to their full potential equally with men ... eliminating all discrimination and segregation by sex", and "the right of women in poverty to secure job training, housing, and family allowances on equal terms with men".[12] Victoria Woodhull ran in the 1872 election to be President of the U.S., asserting a right to equality.[13][14] Nesta Helen Webster, a political conservative in the U.K. early in the 20th century, implied the genders might be equal[15] and believed that there had been "women's supremacy ... [in] pre-revolutionary France, when powerful women never attempted to compete directly with men, but instead drew strength from other areas where they excelled, in particular, 'the power of organisation and the power of inspiration.'"[15]

Much of the literature defines feminism as being about equal rights for women or equality between the sexes.[16][17][18][19][20][21][22][23][24][25][26][27][28][29][30][31][32][33][34][35][36]

Using different language, Riane Eisler, "re-examining human society from a gender-holistic perspective", "propose[d] ... two basic models of society", "[t]he first ... [being] the dominator model, ... what is popularly termed either patriarchy or matriarchy—the ranking of one half of humanity over the other" and "[t]he second, in which social relations are primarily based on the principle of linking rather than ranking, may best be described as the partnership model. In this model—beginning with the most fundamental difference in our species, between male and female—diversity is not equated with either inferiority or superiority."[37] "[T]he problem is not men as a sex, but men and women as they must be socialized in a dominator system."[38] She advocated for a gylany, a partnership linking the two genders, in lieu of the present and historical androcracy.[39]

Of historical interest, Plato, according to Elaine Hoffman Baruch, around 394 B.C., while believing that men ultimately would excel, argued that women should be equal with men politically, socially, sexually, educationally, and in military combat and should be able to enter the highest class of society, that most gender differences could not be explained by biology (Plato being one of the earliest published thinkers to say so), and that a system of child care would free women to participate in society.[40]

Some radical feminists critiqued equality, denying that "equality in an unjust society was worth fighting for."[41]

Ambiguous on equality

"Feminism makes claims for a rebalancing between women and men of the social, economic, and political power within a given society, on behalf of both sexes in the name of their common humanity, but with respect for their differences."[42] When feminism and related words began being widely used in the 1890s in Europe and the Western Hemisphere and continuing into modern times, the terms' relationship to equality was often unclear. "Then, as now, many parties used the terms polemically, as epithets, rather than analytically; then, as now, the words were not used by everyone to mean the same thing. And, as the study of their history reveals, they referred far more often to the 'rights of women' than to 'rights equal to those of men.' This is a subtle but profound distinction. Even then the vocabulary of feminism connoted a far broader sociopolitical critique, a critique that was woman-centered and woman-celebratory in its onslaught on male privilege."[43]

Feminist author bell hooks wrote, "Masses of people think that feminism is always and only about women seeking to be equal to men.... The feminism they hear about the most is portrayed by women who are primarily committed to gender equality — equal pay for equal work, and sometimes women and men sharing household chores and parenting."[44] "[F]eminism is a movement to end sexist oppression."[45]

Deborah Siegel "use[s] the term ["feminism"] in a general sense to refer to the philosophy powering a movement to eradicate sexism and better women's lives."[46]

Genders (usually distinguished from sexes) are counted as other than two in some feminist utopian literature, according to Karin Schönpflug, analyzing works by Gabriel de Foigny (1676), Ursula K. Le Guin (1969), Samuel R. Delany (1976), Donna Haraway (1980), and Alkeline van Lenning (1995).[47]

Ascending toward equality

Feminism in practice can be exhausting and expensive and other needs may compete for personal and organizational resources. Pragmatism may encourage seeking lesser goals, such as having more power than without feminism while not trying to seek full equality.

According to Alice Echols, "Carol Hanisch ... argued that looking pretty and acting dumb were survival strategies which women should continue to use until such time as the 'power of unity' could replace them."[48]

One feminist leader, Ann Snitow, speculated that difference feminism became preferred over gender equality so that "men might be more responsive".[4]

In the late 18th century in Britain, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman of "[a]sserting the rights which women in common with men ought to contend for".[49] "Let it not be concluded that I wish to invert the order of things; I have already granted, that, from the constitution of their bodies, men seem to be designed by Providence to attain a greater degree of virtue. I speak collectively of the whole sex; but I see not the shadow of a reason to conclude that their virtues should differ in respect to their nature."[50] "I ... would fain convince reasonable men of the importance of some of my remarks, and prevail on them to weigh dispassionately the whole tenor of my observations.—I appeal to their understandings; and, as a fellow-creature, claim, in the name of my sex, some interest in their hearts. I entreat them to assist to emancipate their companion, to make her a help meet for them! [¶] Would men but generously snap our chains, and be content with rational fellowship instead of slavish obedience, they would find us more observant daughters, more affectionate sisters, more faithful wives, more reasonable mothers—in a word, better citizens."[51]


According to Diane Davis, radical feminisms "tend to be interested in female privilege rather than equality."[52] Spiritual feminism and ecofeminism, according to Prof. Davis, are interested less in equity than in finding ways to flip the ["masculine/feminine"] binary privilege"[53] to place "the 'feminine' ... on top (so to speak)."[53] Some authors of utopian fiction wrote about "ideal worlds in which women's positions are better than men's".[54]

A minority of feminists have called for the existence of one or possibly more societies in which women would govern women and men.[55][56][57][58][59][6][7] Some scholars have reported that some such societies existed,[60][61][62][63][64][65][66] although not without dispute as to their existence.[67][68][69][70][71][72][73][74] According to Cynthia Eller, feminist spirituality stated a belief in "female equality or superiority"[75] in the past and the future while not in the present[75] and some adherents debated "female supremacy versus equality of power relations between the sexes"[76] in prehistory.[76] In the 20th century, however, few feminists created any organization to develop a concept or plan for such a society.[77]

Freedom, apart from equality

Difference feminism is based on the assumption that women and men are different, that for women to be equal to men means to be like men, which is not desirable.[9] Instead of equality, difference feminism is based on women having freedom.[8]

In 1916, Charlotte Perkins Gilman argued for feminism without calling for "equality". Favoring women's "freedom"[9] and "full[ness]",[9] she wrote, "[f]eminism ... is the social awakening of the women of all the world. It is that great movement ... which is changing the centre of gravity in human life..... It is the movement for ... [among other goals] [women's] full economic independence..... [A]nti-feminists [speak] ... in their frantic fear of freedom for women."[9] She wrote of essential differences between women and men, including in motherhood and fatherhood,[9] and that "[f]eminists are women, plus: plus full human endowment and activity."[9]


  1. Oxford English Dictionary (online), as accessed September 22, 2013, entry feminism, noun (Full entry), sense 3.
  2. Wollstonecraft (2009), p. 158
  3. Echols (1989), pp. 144
  4. 1 2 Echols (1989), pp. 289, citing Snitow, Ann, Retrenchment vs. Transformation: The Politics of the Anti-Pornography Movement, in Caught Looking: Feminism, Pornography and Censorship (N.Y.: Caught Looking, 1986), pp. 11–12.
  5. Andrea Dworkin: "Take No Prisoners", in The Guardian, May 13, 2000, as accessed September 6, 2010.
  6. 1 2 Spender, Dale, For the Record: The Making and Meaning of Feminist Knowledge (London: The Women's Press, 1985 (ISBN 0-7043-2862-3)), p. 151 (on institutions) but see p. 214 (antibureaucratic).
  7. 1 2 Chesler, Phyllis, Women and Madness (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1972 (ISBN 0-385-02671-4)), pp. 298-299.
  8. 1 2 Zerilli (2005), passim, esp. p. 96 & nn. 11–15
  9. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Gilman, Charlotte Perkins, What is "Feminism"?, in The Sunday Herald, Sep. 3, 1916, [§] Magazine, p. [7] [of §], of The Boston Herald (Boston, Mass.).
  10. Willemsen, Tineke M., Feminism and Utopias: An Introduction, in Lenning, Alkeline van, Marrie Bekker, & Ine Vanwesenbeeck, eds., Feminist Utopias: In a Postmodern Era (Tilburg Univ. Press, 1997 (ISBN 90-361-9747-3)), p. 5.
  11. Winter, Bronwyn, Who Counts (or Doesn't Count) What as Feminist Theory?: An Exercise in Dictionary Use, in Feminist Theory, vol. 1, no. 1 (April, 2000), as accessed Apr. 5, 2012 (possibly via different URL), p. 106 (internal single quotation marks so in original) (DOI 10.1177/14647000022229092).
  12. NOW (National Organization for Women) Bill of Rights, in Morgan, Robin, ed., Sisterhood is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings From the Women's Liberation Movement (N.Y.: Random House, 1st ed. 1970), pp. 512–513 (§ Historical Documents) ("[a]dopted at NOW's first national conference, Washington, D.C., 1967", per id., p. 512).
  13. Gabriel, Mary, Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria Woodhull, Uncensored (Chapel Hill, N.Car.: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1st ed. 1998 (ISBN 1-56512-132-5)), passim, esp. pp. 54–57 & nn..
  14. Underhill, Lois Beachy, The Woman Who Ran for President: The Many Lives of Victoria Woodhull (Bridgehampton, N.Y.: Bridge Works, 1st ed. 1995 (ISBN 1-882593-10-3)), passim, esp. ch. 8.
  15. 1 2 Lee, Martha F., Nesta Webster: The Voice of Conspiracy, in Journal of Women's History, vol. 17, no. 3 (Fall, 2005), p. 81 ff.
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  23. Wheeler, Marjorie Spruill (1995). One woman, one vote: rediscovering the woman suffrage movement. NewSage Press. ISBN 9780939165261.
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  37. Eisler (1987), p. xvii
  38. Eisler (1987), p. 185
  39. Eisler (1987), pp. 185–203, 205–214
  40. Schönpflug (2008), pp. 159–160, citing Rohrlich, R. & Elaine Hoffman Baruch, Women in Search of Utopia: Mavericks and Mythmakers (N.Y.: Schocken Books, 1984), and Plato, The Republic (ca. 394 B.C.).
  41. Echols (1989), p. 139
  42. Offen (1988), pp. 151–152
  43. Offen (1988), p. 128
  44. hooks (2000), pp. 1–2
  45. hooks (2000), p. 6
  46. Siegel, Deborah, Sisterhood, Interrupted: From Radical Women to Grrls Gone Wild (N.Y.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007 (ISBN 978-1-4039-8204-9)), p. 15.
  47. Schönpflug (2008), pp. 23–25
  48. Echols (1989), p. 144
  49. Wollstonecraft (2009), p. 203
  50. Wollstonecraft (2009), p. 29
  51. Wollstonecraft (2009), p. 158 (italicization so in original)
  52. Davis (2000), p. 139
  53. 1 2 Davis (2000), pp. 145–146
  54. Schönpflug (2008), p. 18
  55. Zerilli (2005), p. 101
  56. Take No Prisoners, in The Guardian, May 13, 2000, as accessed Sep. 6, 2010.
  57. Ouma, Veronica A., Dworkin's Scapegoating, in Palestine Solidarity Review (PSR), Fall 2005, as accessed Oct. 21, 2010.
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  66. The Cambridge Ancient History (1975).
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  68. Goldberg, Steven, The Inevitability of Patriarchy (Wm. Morrow, 1973).
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  70. Davis, Philip G., Goddess Unmasked (1998).
  71. Eller, Cynthia, The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory (2000) (prof., Montclair State Univ.).
  72. Bamberger, Joan, The Myth of Matriarchy: Why Men Rule in Primitive Society, in Rosaldo, M, & L Lamphere, Women, Culture, and Society (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Univ. Press, 1974), pp. 263–280.
  73. Cynthia Eller, The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won't Give Women a Future, (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001).
  74. Encyclopædia Britannica (2007), entry Matriarchy (describing this view as "consensus", listing matriarchy as a hypothetical social system).
  75. 1 2 Eller (1991), p. 282
  76. 1 2 Eller (1991), p. 283
  77. Echols (1989), pp. 183–184


  • Davis, Debra Diane (2000). Breaking Up [at] Totality: A Rhetoric of Laughter. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press. ISBN 0-8093-2228-5. 
  • Echols, Alice (1989). Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America 1967–1975. American Culture series. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 0-8166-1787-2. 
  • Eisler, Riane (1987). The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future. HarperCollins. ISBN 0-06-250287-5. 
  • Eller, Cynthia (1991). "Relativizing the patriarchy: the sacred history of the feminist spirituality movement". History of Religions. 30 (3): 279–295. JSTOR 1062958. 
  • hooks, bell (2000). Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. Cambridge, MA: South End Press. ISBN 0-89608-628-3. 
  • Offen, Karen (1988). "Defining feminism: a comparative historical approach". Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 14 (1): 119–157. JSTOR 3174664. 
  • Schönpflug, Karin (2008). Feminism, Economics and Utopia: Time Travelling Through Paradigms. London: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-41784-6. 
  • Wollstonecraft, Mary (2009). "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman". In Deidre Shauna Lynch. Mary Wollstonecraft: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: An Authoritative Text Backgrounds and Contexts Criticism. Norton Critical Editions. New York, NY: W. W. Norton. ISBN 978-0-393-92974-4. 
  • Zerilli, Linda M. G. (2005). Feminism and the Abyss of Freedom. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-98133-9. 
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