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Feminism - A Dirty Word?

By Ria Carmichael
YWCA Victoria member and student on placement

Feminism is defined in the dictionary as “the belief that women should be allowed the same rights, power and opportunities as men”, but with the evolution of feminism the word itself has become entangled with the mainly negative connotations that are stereotypically assigned to it.

When asked to think about what a feminist is, it’s common for people to describe the stereotype - the hairy-legged, ball-busting, unfeminine, lesbian, man-hater. I think it’s a sad state of affairs that these attitudes exist. So I have to ask myself: Does feminism still exist? Is there even still a need for feminism or is it irrelevant to today’s young women?  And has the message of equality for women been lost?

Let’s take a short look at the history of feminism: The first major feminist movement began in the 1890s and led to the right to vote being granted to women in some of the British colonies (New Zealand and South Australia). This was followed by the wider-spread women’s suffrage movement which ended with the right to vote and run for office being granted to most women over 21 years of age in the UK, the USA, France and many other countries. This was dubbed the “first wave” of feminism. The 1960s brought the “second wave” of feminism.

First wave feminism was characterized by campaigns that addressed issues other than suffrage, including the broader issues of sexuality and inequality (personal and political), reproductive rights and ending discrimination. This era saw great progress being made towards equality for women and gave rise to many subgroups of feminists and many strong feminist leaders. However, with this came dissent between groups over ideological beliefs surrounding feminism (particularly in regards to sexuality) and this detracted from the real messages behind the movement and somewhat slowed progress in reaching the intended goals.

Many people believe that second wave feminism is to blame for the unhelpful feminist stereotype which more often than not is thrust upon those still fighting for the cause. The fact that this stereotype (and consequently the word feminism) appears to have lead to some young women turning their back on or immediately dismissing the notion, is sad. It steals legitimacy from feminism - it is a kick in the backside for all of those before us (and those still enduring) that fought so hard for the equality of and empowerment of women. This brings us to what is called the “third wave” of feminism.

Although the second wave of feminism was largely successful in reaching their goals, the third wave of feminism is seen as a continuation of this movement, adding to the achievements of the second wave. Third wave feminism is viewed as the manifestation of the feminist struggle in today’s world. It is viewed as an all-encompassing wave of feminism, working towards gender, racial, economic and social justice.

Ok, so enough with the history lesson! Although, I do think that we need to have an understanding of the evolution of feminism to be able to understand what it means for us in this day and age. In short, feminism STILL exists today, and there is STILL a great need for it. I think a lot of people use the second wave of feminism as a justification to turn a blind eye to inequality for women today. “The feminist revolution already happened, we’re equal now, end of story.”

Unfortunately not! All we have to do is look at the facts:  In Australia an 18% pay gap still exists between men and women, women hold only 36% of senior executive positions and only 12% of management jobs in the private sector, women hold only 34% of all seats on federal government-controlled boards, there are still states in Australia where it is illegal for a woman to have the right to choose to terminate a problem pregnancy, sexual discrimination, objectification of women, gendered violence and sexual assault against women- ALL STILL EXIST.  There is still a lot to work towards. There is still a need to campaign for the rights of women in Australia and around the world.

To conclude: Feminism is still needed in today’s society to campaign for and uphold the rights of women. It certainly is not irrelevant for the young women of today, nor is it irrelevant to anyone in our society. If anyone thinks that feminism has gone away or that there is no need for it anymore, they are SO wrong. It is alive and well and if you’re in any doubt of that whatsoever, all you need to do is have a chat to some of the women here at YWCA Victoria, take a look at the blog of one of these ladies, feminaust.org, or read some of the accounts of other young feminists like thefbomb.org. All I can say is that the message of equality for women is still alive and strong, especially in these places!