(redirected from Womens' rights)
Also found in: Dictionary, Thesaurus, Medical.


movement for the political, social, and educational equality of women with men; the movement has occurred mainly in Europe and the United States. It has its roots in the humanism of the 18th cent. and in the Industrial Revolution. Feminist issues range from access to employment, education, child care, contraception, and abortion, to equality in the workplace, changing family roles, redress for sexual harassment in the workplace, and the need for equal political representation.

For the political aspects of feminism, see woman suffragewoman suffrage,
the right of women to vote. Throughout the latter part of the 19th cent. the issue of women's voting rights was an important phase of feminism. In the United States

It was first seriously proposed in the United States at Seneca Falls, N.Y.
..... Click the link for more information.


Women traditionally had been regarded as inferior to men physically and intellectually. Both law and theology had ordered their subjection. Women could not possess property in their own names, engage in business, or control the disposal of their children or even of their own persons. Although Mary AstellAstell, Mary
, 1666–1731, English author and feminist. Her Serious Proposal to the Ladies (2 parts, 1694–97) offered a scheme for a women's college, an idea far in advance of the time.
..... Click the link for more information.
 and others had pleaded earlier for larger opportunities for women, the first feminist document was Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792). In the French Revolution, women's republican clubs demanded that liberty, equality, and fraternity be applied regardless of sex, but this movement was extinguished for the time by the Code Napoléon.

In North America, although Abigail Adams and Mercy Otis Warren pressed for the inclusion of women's emancipation in the Constitution, the feminist movement really dates from 1848, when Elizabeth Cady StantonStanton, Elizabeth Cady,
1815–1902, American reformer, a leader of the woman-suffrage movement, b. Johnstown, N.Y. She was educated at the Troy Female Seminary (now Emma Willard School) in Troy, N.Y.
..... Click the link for more information.
, Lucretia Coffin MottMott, Lucretia Coffin,
1793–1880, American feminist and reformer, b. Nantucket, Mass. She moved (1804) with her family to Boston and later (1809) to Philadelphia. A Quaker, she studied and taught at a Friends school near Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
..... Click the link for more information.
, and others, in a women's convention at Seneca Falls, N.Y., issued a declaration of independence for women, demanding full legal equality, full educational and commercial opportunity, equal compensation, the right to collect wages, and the right to vote. Led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan Brownell AnthonyAnthony, Susan Brownell,
1820–1906, American reformer and leader of the woman-suffrage movement, b. Adams, Mass.; daughter of Daniel Anthony, Quaker abolitionist. From the age of 17, when she was a teacher in rural New York state, she agitated for equal pay for women
..... Click the link for more information.
, the movement spread rapidly and soon extended to Europe.

Little by little, women's demands for higher education, entrance into trades and professions, married women's rights to property, and the right to vote were conceded. In the United States after woman suffrage was won in 1920, women were divided on the question of equal standing with men (advocated by the National Woman's party) versus some protective legislation; various forms of protective legislation had been enacted in the 19th cent., e.g., limiting the number of hours women could work per week and excluding women from certain high-risk occupations.

In 1946 the UN Commission on the Status of Women was established to secure equal political rights, economic rights, and educational opportunities for women throughout the world. In the 1960s feminism experienced a rebirth, especially in the United States. The National Organization for WomenNational Organization for Women
(NOW), group founded (1966) to support "full equality for women in America in a truly equal partnership with men." Its founder and first president was feminist leader Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique (1963).
..... Click the link for more information.
 (NOW), formed in 1966, had over 400 local chapters by the early 1970s. NOW, the National Women's Political Caucus, and other groups pressed for such changes as abortion rights, federally supported child care centers, equal pay for women, the occupational upgrading of women, the removal of all legal and social barriers to education, political influence, and economic power for women.

With the leadership of women such as Bella AbzugAbzug, Bella Savitsky
, 1920–98, U.S. politician, b. New York City. A lawyer and a Democrat, she helped found Women Strike for Peace (1961) and the reformist New Democratic Coalition (1968). Elected to the U.S.
..... Click the link for more information.
, Betty FriedanFriedan, Betty Naomi
, 1921–2006, American social reformer and feminist, b. Peoria, Ill. as Bettye Goldstein, educated at Smith College (B.A., 1942) and the Univ. of California at Berkeley.
..... Click the link for more information.
, and Gloria SteinemSteinem, Gloria
, 1934–, American journalist and feminist, b. Toledo, Ohio, grad. Smith College (B.A., 1956). Steinem gained prominence as a spokeswoman for women's rights in articles, lectures, and television appearances.
..... Click the link for more information.
, the Equal Rights Amendment was pushed through Congress in 1972, but by 1982 it fell short of ratification. While Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibited discrimination based on sex, the Roe v. WadeRoe v. Wade,
case decided in 1973 by the U.S. Supreme Court. Along with Doe v. Bolton, this decision legalized abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy.
..... Click the link for more information.
 court decision, legalizing abortion, energized an antiabortion, antifeminist backlash. Nevertheless, the movement begun in the 1960s resulted in a large number of women moving into the workplace (59.8% of civilian women over age 16 were working in 1997, compared to 37.7% in 1960) and in broad changes in society.


See J. S. Mill, The Subjection of Women (1867); S. de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (tr. 1952, repr. 1968); B. Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (1963); G. Greer, The Female Eunuch (1970); K. Millett, Sexual Politics (1970); J. Hole and E. Levine, Rebirth of Feminism (1971); E. Janeway, Man's World, Woman's Place (1971); J. B. Elshtain, The Family in Political Thought (1982); D. Spender, ed., Feminist Theorists (1984); J. S. Chafetz and A. B. Dworkin, Female Revolt (1986); A. C. Rich, Of Woman Born (1986); H. L. Moore, Feminism and Anthropology (1988); B. Aptheker, Tapestries of Life: Women's Work, Women's Consciousness (1989); N. F. Cott, Grounding of Modern Feminism (1989); A. Ferguson, Blood at the Root (1989); W. L. O'Neill, Feminism in America (1989); D. E. Smith, The Everyday World as Problematic (1989); S. L. Bartky, Femininity and Domination (1990); M. Jacobs et al. Body/Politics: Women and the Discourses of Science (1990); S. Ganew, A Reader in Feminist Knowledge (1991); E. Cunningham, The Return of The Goddess: A Divine Comedy (1992); B. S. Anderson, Joyous Greetings: The First International Women's Movement, 1830–1860 (2000); R. Rosen, The World Split Open: How the Modern Women's Movement Changed America (2000); G. Collins, When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present (2009).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2013, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved. www.cc.columbia.edu/cu/cup/


  1. a holistic theory concerned with the nature of women's global oppression and subordination to men.
  2. a sociopolitical theory and practice which aims to free all women from male supremacy and exploitation.
  3. a social movement encompassing strategic confrontations with the sex-class system.
  4. an ideology which stands in dialectical opposition to all misogynous ideologies and practices. See also POST-FEMINISM.
Feminism has a long history and can, arguably, be traced back to the 15th century (Kelly, 1982), and women's resistance to subordination certainly predates the emergence of feminism as a fully articulated ideology and practice (Rowbotham, 1972). The roots of modern feminist thought are conventionally traced back to the late 18th century and to the works of Mary Wollstonecraft. Since the 19th century there have been numerous manifestations of feminist activity followed by periods of relative invisibility The ‘first wave’ of feminism is frequently located between the mid-19th century and the early 20th century. The ‘second wave’ has been identified with the re-emergence of feminism in the late 1960s and has persisted as a social movement into the present. There have, however, been many ‘waves’ and Sarah (1982) has criticized the idea of ‘first’ and ‘second waves’ as ethnocentric.

Whereas feminism in the late 1960s was concerned with understanding and documenting an oppression believed to be commonly experienced by all women, much contemporary feminist writing emphasizes the diversity of women's relationship not only to the male social order but also to each other. It is more accurate, therefore, to talk of feminisms than feminism. Sebestyen (1978) charted over ten political tendencies within feminism, ranging from a liberal, equal rights position to a female supremacist strand. Palmer (1989) listed the following tendencies – academic feminism, cultural feminism, lesbian feminism, liberal feminism, psychoanalytic feminism, political lesbianism, radical feminism and socialist feminism. Furthermore, black feminism has been concerned with the implicit and explicit racism within feminist thought and has stressed the particular issues concerning the lives of black women (Lorde, 1979). The original four demands of the ‘second wave’ – equal pay now, equal education and opportunities, free contraception, abortion on demand and free 24-hour nurseries – have been identified as the primary concerns of white, Western women. Access to food, fuel and water are the primary needs of many THIRD WORLD women. Feminism has been identified with white women's culture, and many black women favour the term ‘womanist’ (Walker, 1983). Ecofeminism suggests that an end to the oppression of women is bound up with ecological values, and that women should be centrally concerned with ending the exploitation of the ecosystem (Collard, 1988). Ecofeminism has been particularly strong within radical feminism and within the GREEN MOVEMENT.

Case (1988) has followed the convention of distinguishing between two major theoretical divisions within feminism, namely, radical feminism and materialist (socialist) feminism. The former is characterized by the belief that PATRIARCHY is the major and universal cause of women's oppression, and that the power invested in men is the root problem. Radical feminism, the predominant form of feminism in the US, has fostered the notion of an exclusively women's culture, together with a belief in the need to organize separately from men. Materialist (socialist) feminism is critical of the essentialism implicit in radical feminism and the ahistorical approach to patriarchy. Materialist feminism has its roots in MARXISM and prioritizes SOCIAL CLASS as the factor determining the situation of women within CAPITALISM. This approach is therefore concerned with the interaction between the dialectic of class and GENDER. Not without theoretical problems, Hartmann (1979) has characterized the ‘marriage’ between Marxism and feminism as an unhappy one. The division between radical feminists, who wish to organize separately from men, and materialist feminists who seek solidarity with 'S upportive’ men, continues unresolved.

Academic feminism has made an impact on the teaching and research carried out in many academic institutions. WOMEN'S STUDIES courses have been concerned with revising and challenging a wide variety of academic disciplines including sociology, history and English literature. Academic feminism has been concerned to criticize the ‘sex-blind’ nature of academic knowledge. Within sociology there has been a growing literature on the position of women in society and the development of a specifically feminist research methodology (Stanley and Wise, 1983).

Whilst there is no single ideological position uniting all feminists, most would accept that the subordination of women to men is the result of socioeconomic factors and not the effect of biological determinism. Hence, there is a commonly held belief that major social change culminating in women's liberation is possible. At present, feminism remains a vital and visible social movement, particularly successful in the area of cultural creativity Despite media references to the Post-Feminist Era, the continuing social inequality of women and its eradication remains at the core of feminism in all its forms. See also MATRIARCHY.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a women’s movement to obtain equal rights with men within bourgeois society. It arose in the 18th century, first in North America during the War of Independence (1775–83) and then in France during the French Revolution. Feminist organizations appeared in several countries in the second half of the 19th century and in the early 20th century. In 1888 the International Council of Women was created, and in 1904, the International Women Suffrage Alliance (now the International Alliance of Women—Equal Rights—Equal Responsibilities). The All-Russian Union for Women’s Equality (founded 1905) subsequently joined the International Women Suffrage Alliance.

During World War I (1914–18) feminists everywhere ceased their activities, resuming them after the war. The Joint Standing Committee of Women’s International Organizations was founded in 1925 (renamed the Liaison Committee of Women’s International Organisations in 1934). In the 1920’s the movement for equal rights for women spread to a number of Asian countries, including Turkey and China. During World War II (1939–45) many feminist organizations ceased to exist and did not become reestablished until 1946 or later. After the war, national feminist organizations appeared in Africa as well.

Feminist organizations generally do not concern themselves with pressing problems of the day, limiting their efforts to women’s emancipation. Since World War II they have been increasingly concerned with the implementation of laws dealing with women’s right to vote and other political rights, as well as with the elimination of existing discrimination. Some feminist groups do concern themselves with general social problems. The aim of the Women’s International Democratic Federation and its national branches is to work together with all women’s organizations, including the feminist ones, that seek to protect the rights of women and children and eliminate the threat of war, fascism, and reaction.

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


See also Equality.
Alving, Mrs.
feminist; unconventional widow. [Nor. Lit.: Ghosts]
Bates, Belinda
intellectual and amiable advocate of women’s rights. [Br. Lit.: “The Haunted House” in Fyfe, 16]
Bloomer, Amelia
(1818–1894) dress reformer; designed bloomers. [Am. Hist.: Flexner, 391]
female intellectual; advocates nontraditional feminine talents. [Western Folklore: Brewer Dictionary, 127]
Bostonians, The
suffragists for lost causes, vulnerable to romance. [Am. Lit.: The Bostonians]
Chancellor, Olive
devotes her life to preaching women’s rights. [Am. Lit: Henry James The Bostonians]
Doll’s House, A
drama on the theme of women’s rights. [Nor. Lit.: A Doll’s House]
Equal Rights Amendment
forbids discrimination against women. [Am. Hist.: Flexner, 397]
Findlay, Maude
militant, outspoken women’s libber. [TV: “Maude” in Terrace, II, 79–80]
Lucy Stoners
league of feminists. [Am. Hist.: NCE, 2628]
Athenian exhorts fellow women to continence for peace. [Gk. Lit.: Lysistrata]
the magazine for the liberated woman. [Am. Culture: Misc.]
feminist group working for social and political change. [Am. Hist.: NCE, 1886]
rebellious heroine; leaves stultifying marriage. [Nor. Lit.: A Doll’s House]
Peel, Emma
early media manifestation of self-sufficient woman. [TV: “The Avengers” in Terrace, I, 71–73]
Virginia Slims
cigarette trademark marketed to “independent women.” “You’ve come a long way, baby,” as slogan. [Trademarks: Crowley Trade, 630]
Wisk, Miss
lady with a mission. [Br. Lit.: Bleak House]
Women’s Liberation Movement
appellation of modern day women’s rights advocacy. [Am. Hist.: Flexner, 396]
Wonder Woman
female comic strip heroine to offset Superman; she does everything a man can do and more. [Comics: Horn, 480]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


a doctrine or movement that advocates equal rights for women
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005