The fundamental goals of feminism are classically defined as “advocating social, political, legal, and economic rights for women equal to those of men.” However, history shows that every society dictates a specific idea as to what a person must believe in to earn his or her title as a feminist. Not all individuals who have contributed to female empowerment have been captured in the term “feminist.” As we close out Women’s History Month, 31 days focused on influential females who have empowered other women throughout time, let us examine how dissenters of the feminist agenda contributed to the empowerment of women.
Not all women embraced the first wave of feminism, a movement devoted to suffrage and obtaining property rights in the early 1900s. In fact, many women actively campaigned against a woman’s right to vote.
As Mrs. John Martin, a noted anti-suffragist from New York, stated in 1914: “We are not merely against feminism, but for the family. We cannot reconcile feminism and the family. We hope to hear the sound of women’s feet, walking away from the factory and back to the home.”
Many women spoke, marched, and supported the anti-suffrage movement expressing their discontent with the possible change.
In second-wave feminism, which focused on furthering political and social equality for women in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, many women publicly rebuked the label of and ideology behind feminism. In 1972, conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly founded a political action group called the Eagle Forum to combat the encroaching “feminist agenda” and the passing of the Equal Rights Amendment. Many women worked alongside Schlafly, campaigning and advocating that women were already revered and equal in American society.
Both the anti-suffragists and Eagle Forum, groups who are typically considered “anti-feminist,” were fighting for what they considered to be true equality for women. They believed that through adherence to traditional gender roles, men and women were equal in their separate spheres. Anti-suffragists believed that men voted on behalf of their family unit. Thus, a woman’s right to vote was frivolous, since a husband always considered what was best for his wife when voting.
Anti-feminists in the second wave believed returning to traditional gender roles would allow women to have equal power in their roles separate from men.
These women eschewed the agenda, ideology and label of feminism. However, the opportunity to think and express one’s ideas in a public forum as a woman is empowering, even if these ideas do not fit the traditional feminist ideology. Many mainstream feminists see the aforementioned women as detrimental to the feminist movement and an inconsequential part of the movement’s history.
However, having these women express their opinions in a public forum shows women are capable of diverse thoughts and conceptualizations – that women are not the same everywhere. This fundamentally proves women are what the feminist movement has been fighting for through each wave: humans equal to men. The vocal opposition of women toward an agenda aimed at female empowerment proves that like men, women can be members of different political parties, different ideological groups, and have different opinions on what equality looks like.
Different people’s concepts of women’s empowerment may not fit within the traditional notion of feminism. However, we all have parts to play in promoting gender equality, regardless of our individual views on traditional feminist ideas.
As you begin the new month, strive to promote women’s empowerment and allow women to express their individuality. Respect women’s intellectual and ideological diversity. Those are feminist actions.
Ryan E. Morris, MSW is the YWCA of Richmond’s Community Outreach Specialist. She combines her passions for youth development and violence prevention working on teen outreach programming. In her role, Ryan works to create public education opportunities for the YWCA to spread awareness and eradicate violence. She is instrumental in training the YWCA’s advocacy volunteers and leads the YWCA’s Teen Dating Violence Prevention program, holding workshops at area middle and high schools to teach students about healthy relationships and bullying.
Ryan graduated from the College of William and Mary with a degree in Women’s Studies, and from Virginia Commonwealth University with her Master of Social Work. When she is not at the YWCA, Ryan enjoys running, knitting and rock climbing.
The YWCA of Richmond is a nonprofit organization serving women, men, children and families in Richmond and Chesterfield. If you or a loved one are experiencing violence, you may call the Greater Richmond Regional Hotline at (804) 612-6126 for free, 24/7 assistance and guidance to the resources you need.