The Rising of Feminism in West

More on Portrayal of Women in Literary World

Women have remained a ‘mute ‘ community  in all around world. Gender discrimination can be seen almost everywhere. Males are always portrayed as ‘productive’ , ‘political’ ‘public’ and ‘rational’ , women always have been generally described as ‘non-political’, ‘non-productive’, ‘private’ and ‘emotional’ . In this article we can study women’s position in the west since the Greek period. Not only that but the time, tenor and language of the emergence of feminist consciousness in western history. A very brief review of their social position ,as well as of the writings of some of important philosophers of those times, would make the way to the subsequent course of this study. This study will help to show the reasons due to which feminist voice was very weak and almost quiet in those ages.
History in the west is not very vocal about position of women. Womanhood and homemaking are not treated as significant activities. Women were regarded as passive individuals . It was believed that family life must be major concern for women and they are incapable of great things so they must not have place in history. Unfortunately,  this bias prevailed throughout the course of history. The Greek society which was following matrilineal system turned into patrilineal system due to this thinking. The Greeks regarded women as inferior to men in every sphere like social, political or legal. In the Pandora myth the poet Hesiod depicts women as the root of all evil and a source of human misery. The Biblical Eve was held responsible for the fall of human race and for original sin. Aristotle considered females as nothing but only incomplete males and used the examples to show how feminine part of humanity was degraded in Greek society.  Thomas Brown pointed out, “ Man is the  whole world and the breath of God, women the Rib and crooked piece of man. “
In Greek society woman gradually became a prisoner at home. They could attend wedding, funerals, religious ceremony or a short friendly visit to neighbour but their prime role was to look after house hold and to bear children. Wives and daughters were not allowed to watch Olympic games simply because the participants did not wear clothes. They could take part only in chariot racing.  Women could not own property or could not cast their votes. They had no say in functioning of state though as a part of their duty they were expected to play important role at funerals.
In ancient Greece women were divided in three class. First those who remained at home and their prime duty was home making. It was rule for them that they could not go out of the house except religious ceremonies. Second, comprise of concubines, widows, poor women and the girls who were left in their infancy  to die by their parents and prostitutes . The third was higher class whose women were educated and therefore allowed to accompany males to intellectual discussion and social gatherings. There was wide rift between rich women and poor women. Wives and daughters from rich class received protection and poor were left for exploitation by all strata of society.
Aristotle believed and he wrote in his Politics that husband should keep not only his children but his wife under control. He believed slaves are naturally meant to be ruled by men and so women are meant to be ruled by men otherwise the ‘natural’ order would be violated.
“Man is full in movement, creative in politics, business and culture. Woman, on the other hand, is passive. She stays at home, as is her nature, waiting to formed by the active male principle….Man consequently plays a major part in reproduction; the woman is merely the passive incubator of his seed.”
The Roman society was brutal, slave-based society in which emancipated woman was rarity not only that society was ruled by ‘superior’ man over ‘inferior’ woman. At the time when Rome fell, and at the beginning of the Middle Age, Christianity gained a strong grip on Europe, women’s position deteriorated further. This was done on the basis of Biblical interpretations which supported inferiority of women by placing all the blame on Eve for the ‘Fall’ of humanity. Rules were hardened for marriage and divorce. This was the most brutal period in history for women. If a woman remained unmarried or married but could not become mother she was treated as a Witch.  In the feudal system of this period, the Lords were allowed to test the virginity of new bride on the wedding night. At marriage, the bride would be given in exchange for a dowry of money or jewellery and in some places as a  custom she has to kneel down in front of her husband to accept man’s absolute power over her.
Philosophers, theologians, jurist, doctors, moralists and educators have been tireless in their efforts to fix the norms relating to the true functions and proper behavior of women. In Pagan and Christian ideology Rome emphasized that the young women remained virgins and serve as models of feminine modesty and chastity. With all these discriminations and imposed rules made history of women a tale of silent and powerless part of humanity. When women started aspiring for freedom they were given freedom to write but only for private consumption. They  were allowed for religious writings only from areas of writing on science, history and philosophy, women were totally excluded. Fortunately, some committed thinkers and reformers were emerged on the scene and raised their voice against such suppression of women and that is how started the feminist movement in all over the world.
Western Feminist Movement 
The origins of the Western Feminist movement can be traced back to medieval times. From the 15th century itself women’s voices were beginning to be heard. For the first time , French woman Christine de Pisan  wrote about women’s right and duties. Her writing created a buzz In society. Still the power related analysis remained untouched. Yet influenced and inspired by this debates , a significant number of women challenged set rules and roles of women in 17th century.  Of these Aphra Benn and Mary Astell have been outstanding. Due to this movement, the old system of family-based domestic industry was gradually declining, creating a sharp distinction between the public world of employment and the private world of homely occupation. By the early 18th century, feminist consciousness grew even bolder as many women were dissatisfied with their subordinate position in society. Feminist of these times believed only education and exercise of reason can make women independent of men. American and French revolution were two important factors which advocated the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity and were inspired by deep faith in man’s independent power of reason.
However there was a deep paradox. On one hand there was a wave of new thinking and at the same time, there was a wide spread consensus among the philosophers that the Enlightenment principle of rational individualism could not be extended to women who, by their very own nature incapable of being generally or essentially rational. This thought prevailed in writings of Voltaire, Diderot, Montesquieau and Rousseau. They wrote, women are creature of emotions and passion so they could be good wives and mothers but they are biologically unsuited to work in public sphere. All these ideas were challenged by the end of 18th century. One of those  who took a lead was Mary Wollstoncraft. She and other liberal feminist faced severe criticism from the Utopian socialist who claimed that feminist approach failed to give any thought to the non-sexual forms of oppression that existed in society. They argue that within a competitive capitalist society, the mere acquisition of equal rights, as advocated by feminist in  question, would not suffice; the stress should be on abolition of private property, which would automatically provide for economic and legal independence to women. However, ideas of Utopian socialists were not much supported by people in general. It was liberal ideas which dominated the feminist movement for the coming decades. John Stuart Mill, the father of contemporary liberalism gave most powerful thrust to the first wave of liberal feminism.  His epoch-making work, The Subjection of Women (1869), written with Hariet Taylor, proved to be a watershed in liberal feminist history. In USA  the same powerful push to American feminist movement was provided by Elizabeth Cady. It was a sequel to her efforts, along with those of Lucretia Mott that the first ever women’s convention – the Seneca Falls Convention – was held in 1848. It was event of momentous significance, for it was signed by as many as 68 women and 32 men and it boldly declared “ All men and women created equal”.   
As a result of this awakening most of the demands of earliest feminist were met by the end of the 19th Century.  In the fields of education, employment and legal affair, etc. ample facilities were provided to women in both England and America.  It is also true that these reforms had made women more autonomous and independent in many ways.  Yet they continued to suffer from two major disabilities.  First the education structure was geared more to the needs of men than to those of women.  As they were being educated only in traditional skills.  Secondly, they were not given rights to vote.  As a revolt against this background, suffrage campaigns began to take shape in the 20th century and by 1945 many countries had granted women the right to vote.  The first country in the world to do this (in 1894) was New Zealand.  This was shortly followed by Australia.  In Europe, Finland and Norway both enfranchised women in 1914 and most other countries did so shortly after First World War.  In 1960s, the feminist movement received a quite a new momentum primarily as an after – effect of the publication of Simone De Beauvoir’s ‘Second Sex’ in 1949.  With the missionary Zeal of Simone De Beauvoir, that regular and impassioned dialogues and debate began taking place on the major direction of Women’s emancipation.
Concept of Feminism:  From Liberal Feminism to Post Modern Feminism.
For the proper understanding of the political orientation of feminism; Alison M. Jaggar has recommended four distinct approaches: Liberal Feminism, Marxist / Socialist Feminism, Radical Feminism and Post Modern Feminism.
Liberal Feminism:
Liberal Feminism is based on the simple premise that both man and woman are born equal and are gifted with the same rational facilities, and that, therefore, women should not be denied equality of opportunity for pursuit of all these activities which are open to men.  What here receives special emphasis may be listed thus: legal & political rights, education, employment, political participation and full legal equality for women.  Liberal feminism was accused of being ambivalent, for whereas on the one hand, it agreed to state intervention for protecting individual rights on the other hand, it pleaded for maximum individual autonomy.  They allege that liberalism is based on an incomplete understanding of human nature and motivation, and is marred by utter indifference to and even devaluation of women’s experiences and society’s reproductive needs.  The equal rights theory can, no doubt, provide a starting point for future struggles but it fails to provide insights into society’s complex power structure and public-private relationship.
Marxist Feminism:
This approach believes that the inferior position of women is due essentially to the class structure of the society.  Society is divided in two clear classes viz., the bourgeois and the proletariat.  The bourgeois class coerces the proletariat necessarily; and that in such a class based society most women and men will inevitably remain oppressed until the capitalist economic system is replaced by a classless society.  According to, Frederick Engels, one of the best known Marxists, the control of property by men of wealth naturally strengthened their position within the family.  And acquisition of private property by men naturally tended to make them dominate woman in the family, because she becomes dependent upon men.  Within the family he is the bourgeois and the wife represent proletariat.
Socialist Feminism:
Marxism provided ideological assistance to quite a few socialists.  Yet they also differed from Marxism in the following ways:
  1. They refuse to attribute every ill to the class structure of the society and therefore
  2.  they favour gradual and piecemeal social reforms, instead of a revolutionary attempt to do away with the class structure in the radical sweep.  The prominent anarchist-socialist feminist of America was Emma Goldman.  She laid emphasis on value of human individuality, trust, freedom and cooperation.  Goldman sought emancipation of woman not through class struggle or political concessions but through attainment of autonomy by discovering her own true self.  She wrote:
“To give off one’s self boundlessly, in order to find one’s self richer, deeper, better……[this] alone can fill the emptiness, and transform the tragedy of woman’s emancipation into joy, limitless joy”.
However, this new wave of socialist feminism was also criticized on two main grounds:
  1. It could not be liberate itself from the rigidity of economic determinism and that,
  2. Its methodology and world view were both determined by a male-centered approach.
Radical Feminism:
Quite differently from the three main stand of feminism, namely, liberalism, Marxism and Socialism; there emerged yet another stream of thought: Radical Feminism.  It argued that the Marxist and Liberal positions both ignored the ubiquity of male power.  This new school of thought rejected the liberal claim that the cause of women’s oppression lay only in their being bereft of political or civil rights and also the classical Marxist belief that women were oppressed because of class cleft society.  Johnson remarks “………[one] of the basic tenets of Radical Feminism is that any woman….has more in common with any other woman – regardless of class, race, age ethnic group, nationality – than any woman has with any man.”  These ideas found dtailed expression in quite a few works that came out in 1970s.  Some of these may be listed thus: Kate Milllet’s Sexual Politics, Shulamith Firestone’s ‘The dialectic of Sex’ and Germaine Greer’s ‘The female Eunuch’ etc.  The feminists were criticized around three interrelated points: 1) The view in question fails to explain the complex origin of power. 2) Radical Feminism are a bit too categorical in their claim when they view man only as the enemy of the woman. 3) In their over enthusiasm to project wrongs done by men over the centuries, the radical feminists have erred in projecting women as passive victims in every case of man – woman conflict.  The truth indeed is that the radical feminists have erred in talking of universal domination of womanhood, as if oppression of women were an identical phenomenon everywhere.  It covers only the experiences of white middle-class women and not at all the very different problems faced by the working class and the third world women.
Postmodern Feminism:
The Postmodern Feminist school challenged the basic premises of all the three strands of thought we have so far dealt with – the liberal, Marxist and Radical Feminists – on the ground that they have all based themselves on meta – narratives which were moer a matter of hearsay than a true picture of actual state of things.  The postmodern feminists on other hand focused on local and specific facts and on historically accurate analysis, and with one regard to the varying spatio-temporal and cultural context of situations and happenings.  In general, they called for the recognition and celebration of difference (s) and stressed the importance of renewed attention to dissident voices have been silenced forcibly.  Three popular exponents of this school of thought are Julia Kristena, Helence Cixous and Luce Irigray.  They all alike emphasize the need to explore the intricate relationship between language, sexuality and power and to develop non-phallocentric ways of thinking.
This historical survey has presented us with clear picture of development of feminist theory in the west.  It should now be obvious that by 1970s feminist theory had emerged as a strong interdisciplinary subject which posed a major challenge to all the traditional categories of thought employed in the various disciplines of humanities and social sciences.


Reference Books
Main source : Theorizing Feminism by Chandrakala Padia

  1. See C. W. Eliot (ed.), Harvard Classics, Vol. 3, New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1937, p. 323
  2. However, it must be pointed out here that most of the Greek women did not do their housework themselves, rather they got it done by the female slaves.
  3. See Marliyn B. Arthur, “Early Greece: The Origins of Western Attitude towards Women”, in John Peradotto and J. P. Sullivan (eds.), Women in Ancient World: The Arethusa Papers, Albany: Suny, 1984.
  4. R. Eisler, David Loye and Karl Norgaard, Women, Men and Quality of Life, Pacific Grove, CA: Centre for Partnership Studies, 1995, p. 123.
  5. Rhoda Unger and Mary Crawford, Woman and Gender: A Feminist Psychology, New York: McGraw Hill, 1992, p. 503
  6. See M. Angela Lucas, Women in Middle Ages: Religion, Marriage and Letters, New York: St. Martin’s, 1983, p. 85.
  7. Ibid., p. 87.
  8. See Denise Lardner Carmody, Women and Religions, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1989, pp. 175 – 76.
  9. Ibid., p. 516.
  10. See L. Johnson, “Social Feminism”, in Suneja Gunew (ed.), Feminist Knowledge: Critique and Construct, London and New York: Routledge, 1990, p. 310.
  11. See Marianne H. Marchand and Jane L. Parpat, Feminism Post Modernism, Development, London: Routledge, 1995.
  12. Rosemary Tong, Feminist Thought: A Comprehensive Introduction, London: Unwin Hyman, 1989, p. 233.

Ansuya Mehta
Assistant Professor in English,
Gujarat Arts & Commerce College (Eve),