Introducing Feminism

Published: 1992

Authors: Susan Watkins, Marisa Rueda and Marta Rodriguez

Bios correct as of 1992.

Susan Alice Watkins is a free-lance writer living in London. She joined her first consciousness-raising group in Oxford in 1973 and since then has been involved in abortion campaigns, women’s trade union groups, nursery and toddlers’ groups and the peace movement.

Marisa Rueda born in Buenos Aires, has lived in London since 1974 working as a community artist dedicated to human rights. Her sculpture has been widely exhibited in women’s group and solo exhibitions. Marisa dedicates this book to her daughter Cristina

Marta Rodriguez born in Buenos Aires, has lived in London since 1974 working as a free-lance designer for the voluntary and community sectors. She has been involved in women’s action groups and Latin American human rights and solidarity work, exhibiting in Argentina and travelling twice to Nicaragua.


Feminism is about challenging the division of labour in the world that puts men in charge of the public sphere – work, sports, wars, government – while women slave away unpaid in the home, carrying the whole burden of family life.

The infamous double-standard that has historically plagued male-female relationships did not escape her [poet Sor Juana Ines] notice and she described it with deadly accuracy:

Accusing women wrongly,
You are very foolish men,
If you do not see you cause
The very thing you condemn

…the spread of manufacturing industries and bigger cities began separating work from home, men’s work from women’s, and creating for the first time the idea of the male “breadwinner” and the economically dependent “housewife”.

Of the chief enlightenment philosophers [of the mid-18th century] was Jean-Jaques Rousseau…he attacked all the social injustices – but typically he overlooked one. In Emile (1762), his seminal work on education, this is what Rousseau wrote…

“Men and women are made for each other, but their mutual dependence is not equal. We could survive without them better than they could without us. They are dependent on our feelings, on the price we put on their merits, on the value we set on their attractions and on their virtues. Thus women’s entire education should be planned in relation to men. To please men, to be useful to them, to win their love and respect, to raise them as children, to care for them as adults, counsel and console them, make their lives sweet and pleasant.”

Mary [Wollstonecraft] sat down to write her own famous 300-page appeal, A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), in which for the first time Enlightenment ideas were applied to the situation of women.

Mary has put her finger exactly on the chief obstacle that had prevented women from taking action to achieve equality – domestic tyranny!

Her demands for an end to the double standards of male and female behaviour, for women’s rights to independent work, education, civil and political life still form the basis of feminism today.

One group in Paris that sympathized with the Jacobins was the Citoyennes Républicaines Révolutionnaires (Revolutionary Republic Women Citizens). They wore a uniform of red and white striped pantaloons and red “liberty bonnets” and carried arms in their demonstrations. They called for women’s right to vote and to hold the highest civilian and military posts in the new Republic.

…in the United Statez it was the movement against slavery that gave women, black and white, the opportunity to organize politically against their own oppression.

Harriet became one of the most famous “conductors” on the Railroad, bringing over 300 slaves to freedom through unimaginable risks. Most of the runaways were young men, but Harriet brought out women with babies and little children too.

The two women [Susan Anthony and Elizabeth Stanton] shared the childcare and the housekeeping, snatching moments to read and write.

From their [Susan and Elizabeth] dreams and hard work came the inspiration for the entire US women’s rights movement of the last century.

Most working women at the time [UK mid-19th century] were domestic servants, policed by their employers. Their hours were longer and their pay far lower than factory workers.

But it would take three generations of British feminists to win the most basic civil rights for women – the right to an education, to keep their own earnings and to vote.

In The Subjection of Women (1869), Mill argued that men and women are fundamentally equal. Only the eneormous differences in their upbringing and education accounted for their seemingly different abilities.

In the 1870s and 80s, another sort of feminism began to focus on the gaping division between the wife of pure lady-like virtue and the socially outcast prostitute. Only a strong-minded woman of great courage would dare suggest that no difference really existed between them, except for an economic one that made wives and prostitutes sexually available to men on an apparently “different” basis.

The 1870s and 80s also saw the rise of “social purity” feminism, based on Evangelical principles which identified alcohol, violence and sexual excess as the masculine evils threatening women inside the family.

Pandita Ramabai (1858 – 1922), one of he foremost Sanskrit scholars of her generation, wrote a feminist study of Hinduism, Women’s Religious Law.

…she travelled the country founding a series of women’s organizations, Mahila Samaj, and was one of an influential group of feminists inside the Indian National Congress.

In Indonesia, Raden Ajen Kartini (1879 – 1904), daughter of a high official, spoke out against polygyny, forced marriage and colonial oppression, and argued for women’s right to education. She started a girls’ school of 120 students – but died tragically in childbirth at the age of 25.

In Japan, pioneering feminist Kishida Toshiko (1863 – 1901) led 19th century campaigns for women’s rights and suffrage.

In China, Tan Junying founded the Chinese Suffragette Society in Beijing in 1911 and led women’s demonstrations to picket national Assembly meetings.

An early socialist feminist was Flora Tristan (1803 – 44) the illegitimate daughter of a Spanish Peruvian father and French mother…she discovered the ancient craft unions, the compagnonnages, which inspired her most influential work, The Workers’ Union (1843).

Engels’ book, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884) used ethnographic and historical evidence to show that women’s social position had not always been inferior.

Very few of the extraordinary reforms achieved by communist feminists survived the Stalinist backlash of the 1930s, although the verbal commitment to women’s suffrage remaied.

As te Geat Depression of the 30s deepened, jobs grew fewer and were bitterly contested. Women were resented for “stealing” men’s work.

Suddenly, the rules changed. In the US, 7 million women went to work for the first time, as men marched off to fight. Women took up jobs they “couldn’t do”…

Overnight, governments found money for day-care centres a nurseries.

At the end of the war, 4 out of 5 women in the US wanted to keep their jobs in peacetime. Men thought different. Job segregation returned with a vengeance. In the 50s women were constantly brainwashed by ads, movies and vulgarized psychoanalysis to stay home and be happy housewives.

The Black Civil Rights movement began in 1955 when one brave woman, Rosa Parks, sat down in a “whites only” bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama.

Leading Black Panthers were gunned down in their beds. Black Panther women in prison were giving birth under armed guard, their babies immediately snatched from them.

A women’s group at a History Workshop meeting at Ruskin Trade Union College, Oxford, decided to call the first conference on women’s liberation in 1970 – the real beginning of the British women’s movement.

Radical feminists: we radical feminists see the problem as patriarchy – a whole system of male power over women.

Socialist feminists: …We socialist feminists see the problem as a combination of male domination and class exploitation – our fight is against both!

Liberal feminists: The problem is simply one of prejudice – the system needs to be corrected, not overturned.

But for centuries men have also used sex to punish women. [rape]

Porn is a symptom, not a cause of women’s oppression…

Between 1973 and 1976 alone, 3,406 Native American women were sterilized in the US.

Pregnant women need practical and emotional support – not moralizing – whether they decide they want to terminate a pregnancy or carry on with it.

For centuries we’ve been ghettoized into jobs that duplicate our work in the family…

And wha’s the result? Women make up half the world’s population, perform two-thirds of its work-hours, recieve one-tenth of the world’s income and own less than one-hundredth of its property. (UN Report, 1980)

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