Let’s first address the question ‘why do we need feminism?’ An acquaintance once summed it up this way, ‘When we compare the lives of men and women they are so different that the difference is worth talking about.’ Proceeding from the assumption that differences between men and women’s lives are worthy of our consideration, evaluation and discussion, what do we do when inequalities, inequities, and discrimination against women are positively identified? Feminism is not only a theoretical lens that provides a language and framework to describe discrimination and oppression, but also has goals to eliminate them. For this article I define feminism as the range of political movements, ideologies, and social movements sharing a common goal to define, establish, and achieve equal political, economic, personal, and social rights for women. I focus on the ways feminist activism brought about improvement in women’s lives and the direct effects of feminism itself. There are indirect effects too, as men benefit from feminist activism as well.
Although the concept of ‘waves’ itself is constantly debated in terms of utility, we can identify time periods of feminist activities and their aims. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Western European and American – primarily white, economically well-off women, engaged in what was to be called First Wave Feminism in response to, primarily, white women’s civil and political disadvantages. These activists worked to transform their societies into ones that agreed girls and women should (inter alia): be educated and have access to higher education, keep their own earnings, be able to vote and have legal personhood under the law after marriage. In short, First Wave Feminism did much to establish the basis of women’s personhood in law.
Second Wave Feminism expanded the scope of activism from women’s legal standing to their daily lives. American feminists pointed out that ‘the personal was political’, an example being their efforts to criminalize marital rape from the 1970s through to the 1990s. Historically women’s bodies were viewed as their husband’s property; therefore, it was assumed wives could not be raped by their husbands. Feminists challenged and help overturn those outdate views. However, Second Wave feminism was still predominately of, by, and for white women.
Whereas the First and Second Waves were primarily focused on the public and private spheres of life, Third Wave Feminism is a form of self-critique. Yes, even feminism is not above feminist critique. This wave is often dated to the 1990s, when women of color sought to construct and negotiate a space to consider race in feminist thought; these activists pointed out that Second Wave Feminism had been framed as and focused on the concerns of white women. This critique requires feminists reckon not only with discrimination or oppression for majority population women, but identify the ways in which minority women’s experience are worse because they face additional forms of oppression or discrimination in addition to sexism or misogyny.
Feminist critique can encompass every part of women’s lives, it has the flexibility to be a framework for many different issues that contemporary feminists face; that there is not a global feminist ‘to do’ list which we have all rank-ordered and are working our way through. Instead, what issues contemporary feminists consider most pressing are issues that matter to them.
In my view, the two most decisive factors in determining what any feminist might consider their most pressing issues are 1) location and 2) personal interest. Location has two subcategories: geographical location and social location. Regarding geography, it is simply true that it is easier to identify openly as a feminist than in others. In societies where women do not share all the same benefits of the laws and rights as men (Saudi Arabia is commonly cited, and for good reason), the most pressing issues are those that mirror First Wave and Second Wave feminist concerns. Woman as legal persons (independent of any male relative), their bodily autonomy, their ability to attain economic independence; these are understandably the most domestic pressing issues facing feminists in such countries and are of concern to feminists globally as well.
In terms of social location, ‘Miles law’ states that “where you stand depends on where you sit.” (Durbin, 2019) Miles, a Truman administration bureaucrat, used the phrase to describe the reality that actors pursue policies that benefit the organizations they represent, rather than national or collective interests. By being open to the problems women experience, the scope of feminism expands as well. Third Wavers embrace the idea that all women’s concerns are relevant to feminism, hence the need to discuss the intersections of oppression women face. For instance, American Black women 'are 2 to 6 times more likely to die from complications of pregnancy than white women, depending on where they live.’ These are understandably the most pressing issues in their lives, and their activism might well be informed by their lived experiences. Finally, personal interest drives what any feminist considers a pressing issue. It might come from lived experience, being a survivor of rape, sexual assault or domestic violence, or from the experience of friends/family.
Whatever issue a feminist considers pressing can be considered, in my opinion, the most pressing contemporaneous issue. That is not a weakness either, it is a strength. The form this strength takes is exemplified in the first (and subsequent) Women’s Marches. In January 2017, millions of women and men gathered to take part in the Women’s March. I traveled to D.C. to participate and every issue under the sun was represented: Black Lives Matter, protecting Obamacare, immigrant women’s rights, the environment, and LGBT rights. We came together because they are all issues women, and feminist women, care about. The Women’s March was not weakened because it did not center around one, well-defined political goal. Instead, what the marches did was gather together people who care about these issues to meet, to learn about new issues, and to expand their understanding of the world. Feminism has the flexibility to work with other social justice frameworks in tandem, to bring people together to identify and remedy the discrimination and/or oppressions women face. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said it well in a letter to her Democratic colleagues in November, 2018: ‘Our diversity is our strength and our unity is our power.’ The same sentiment can be applied to feminism. It’s through its diverse feminist activists that many pressing contemporary problems can be addressed at the same time - if we support each other.