The Development of Modern Feminist Thought: A Summary

By Saarang Narayan
2016, Vol. 8 No. 02 | pg. 1/2 |

Who is a woman? What does it mean to be a woman? Is she a mother-daughter-wife-sister? Or is she more than that? What is her role in society and how does it play out in various institutions? Does she really face oppression? If so, how? Is Feminism really an answer to her problems? And does she need emancipation? Who will bring about this emancipation and how?

These are certain basic questions that need to be asked again and again in every epoch. The patriarchal superstructure has adapted to the various material changes in the last 5000-6000 years. But a marked change has been seen in the last couple of decades, as the market has incorporated the agenda of feminism in itself. A formal denial of patriarchy is now part of the dominant discourse. But one must be weary and unmask the patriarchal vestiges that still survive in it. It is in this light that one should ask the above question again.

This paper looks to trace three broad themes in the scholarship of feminism: the conceptualization of women as a socio-political category, the various ideas of women’s oppression, and the idea of emancipation. In particular, the work of four influential scholars—Mary Wollstonecraft, Friedrich Engels, Emma Goldman and Simone de Beauvoir—is used to provide a brief summary of the subject and its development. Each provides foundational ideas in the scholarship of feminism, in addition to representing the shifting discourse in the two major waves of feminism in modern history. Excerpts of the writings of each of the aforementioned scholars are examined from Alice S. Rossi’s Feminist Papers: from Adams to de Beauvoir1.

Mary Wollstonecraft and the False System of Education

Mary Wollstonecraft was a British feminist author, writing during the French Revolution. Her book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) came as a response to the report in France’s National Assembly by Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord’s. The report argued for a mere domestic education for women, along the beliefs of the French philosophes that women must derive virtue from their relations with men. In critique, Wollstonecraft “did for woman what Rousseau tried to do for the natural man and Paine for the rights of man.”2

She postulates that education formalizes patriarchy. Wollstonecraft points out that the female is naturally inferior to the male in terms of strength. However, a “false system of education” deprives women of their right to virtue3, by not allowing them “sufficient strength of mind”4. They are “rendered…insignificant objects of desire”5 through false-education which begins right from their childhood as they are “taught by the example of their mothers” characteristics like “cunning…shortness of temper…outward obedience…”6

She thus develops the idea of an oppressed woman, equating her with a soldier. She writes that

Soldiers, as well as women, practice the minor virtues with punctilious politeness…[the difference between them] arises from the superior advantage of liberty, which enables the former to see more life…They were taught to please and they only live to please.7

Thus, Wollstonecraft attacks Rousseau openly; who argues that obedience is the grand lesson of virtue for women. She finds emancipation in non-private and non-domestic education. Her idea of a perfect education is one that is an “exercise of understanding…to strengthen the mind and form the heart”8. This mind would end blind obedience (to patriarchy).9

Wollstonecraft’s liberated woman would be one who exercises virtue, not sourcing it through her male counterparts, but on her own. She would be rid of all “epithets of weakness”10, ‘manners’ and ‘elegance’, which are inferior to virtue.11 And only thus can an ideal world be created, one where Truth is the same for both man and woman and the principles that govern their duties are uniform.12

Friedrich Engels and Class Oppression

Wollstonecraft was arguably the first feminist, in the modern sense of the word. It is natural that her explanations and ideas would have certain loopholes and/or vestiges of the patriarchal past she was trying to come out of. This does not mean that her theories proved to be worthless. The later feminists based their ideas upon her arguments, especially in the 19th century. One of them was Friedrich Engels.

In his book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), Engels brings, for the first time, class dynamics into gender relations. He adds to Marx’s idea of class antagonism in marriage that

The first class opposition…coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in monogamous marriage, and the first class oppression coincides with that of the female sex by the male.13

Elaborating on when this antagonism first appeared, Engels traces it back to the beginning of settled agriculture. It is here that the notion of private property originated, leading to social organization on the basis of monogamous marriage. This monogamous marriage, he further states, led to the unconditional slavery of woman, with the main purpose being to produce children of “undisputed paternity…because these children are later to come into their father’s property as his natural heirs.”14

And thus, monogamy turned into perpetual prostitutional slavery for women, who subsequently became adulterous, whereas the man gave himself to hetaerism.15 Although monogamous marriage has always been contractual, it is determined by either families or by class.16

True choice,17 as Engels puts it, is only exercised amongst the Proletarian class. Sexual love is the norm amongst workers; both parties are more or less equal. They are free from inequalities of wealth as both sexes work as breadwinners. Also, because neither owns any property, the notion of inheritance stands void.18

Thus, a Social Revolution, Proletarian in nature, can achieve equality of sexes. Full freedom of marriage can only be established through the abolition of capitalist production and private property. Although he hints that the real nature of monogamy would come out after the Revolution, he declares that it will only be determined by a generation that has grown up without knowing private property and unequal contracts of marriage ties.19

Engels20 and his ideas inspired the wave of feminism across the globe in the 19th and early 20th centuries. However, there were certain problems that arose within the same.

Emma Goldman’s Idea of False Emancipation

Emma Goldman wrote her essay The Tragedy of Woman’s Emancipation in 1906. By this time, feminism had gained a stronghold in politics. However, the First Wave of Feminism was nearing its twilight. Goldman highlighted its problems and for being a non-conformist to the movement in her time, she was denounced by many. However, her analyses proved to be instrumental a few decades later.

Goldman rejects the movement saying that emancipation of women turned into a new form of oppression. She argued that the movement had been reduced to “a battle of the sexes” and stood “for a reckless life of lust and sin, regardless of society, religion and morality.” Its scope was too narrow to permit “boundless love and ecstasy…deep emotion of the true woman…in freedom.”21 It merely involved a formal emancipation; only the overt shackles had been broken by it, further creating newer, inner shackles.

Thus, she argues, the emancipated woman is an artificial being22. She has been robbed of her essence, emptied her soul and not allowed the inner fetters to be broken.23 She is not trained to overcome her historical restraints. Thus, she is unable to match the male counterpart.

The only solution to these problems is for the woman to

…defy them all, to stand firmly on her own ground and to insist upon her own unrestricted freedom, to listen to the voice of her nature, whether it call for life’s greatest treasure, love for a man, or her most glorious privilege, the right to give birth to a child, she cannot call herself emancipated.24

Thus, women need to emancipate themselves from emancipation, as Goldman puts it25.

Goldman acknowledges that the position of the working girl is far better than her higher-class counterpart; as the latter is plagued by a hollow, dull, restless and incomplete life. Thus, emancipation should assure all humans the right to love with the right to be loved.26

Goldman proved to be instrumental in pointing out the loopholes in First Wave Feminism. She was highly influential in the Second Wave, as many feminists now broadened the idea of Woman, her oppression and her emancipation.

Simone de Beuvoir’s Second Sex

The Second Wave of Feminism began in the post-modern era and Simone de Beauvoir was one of Europe’s leading feminists.27 She was politically very active and was closely associated with Jean-Paul Sartre. Her book The Second Sex is full of details of her private life, which she had no hesitation in making public.

She shifted the discourse into new directions, arguing that the conceptualization of women was in itself patriarchal. They were defined (as subjects, Other) with relation to men (as the One, Absolute).28 This has not allowed women their emancipation. This is because women have been unable to break their relationship with men; they have no separate consciousness, shared past, history or religion.29 Men have further tried to prove how women are subordinate through the means of philosophy, law, religion, literature and science.30

Thus, she gave newer perspectives in conceptualizing women. For her, the oppressed woman “makes herself a thing” and tries to make “herself prey to reduce man to her carnal passivity” in which she occupies herself perpetually. Au contraire, the emancipated woman is one who wishes “to be active, a taker and refuses the passivity man means to impose on her”; all of which are “masculine values”31

She points out that this emancipation failed to happen as both sexes failed to recognise each other as peers. The women dream to perpetuate their submission (by seeking salvation through passivity) and men, their identification (of themselves as superiors, through a devaluation of femininity). Women are, since childhood, taught to praise lofty values of love, devotion, submission; they are deterred of taking charge of their own life, thus allowing themselves to be reliant upon their father, lover, brother, husband and so on.

Thus, in saying so, she rejects the idea that the nature of women is a universal given. She is just one step away from Judith Butler (who argues that gender is ‘performative’) in saying that the woman is constructed. Thus, a social evolution is the only means through which woman can shed their old skin and cut her own new clothes.32

Both love and sex can be great tools of transcendence to emancipation as Simone de Beauvoir argues. It is key for the adolescent, the teen to explore these freely, if contingency is to translate into transcendence33. Thus,

[Both sexes] have the same essential need for one another; and they can gain from their liberty the same glory. If they were to taste it, they would…[give up] fallacious privileges, and fraternity between them could then come into existence.34

Of the future, Simone de Beauvoir elucidates that one must not try to define it today. It is up to the imagination of those who live in the tomorrow to determine it. She claims that it will be novel; but not without love, happiness, poetry, dreams.35

Suggested Reading from Inquiries Journal

The purpose of this research is to identify trends and themes that reflect feminist values in American women’s magazines throughout history. The goal is to show that feminism was an frequently discussed topic in American... MORE»
Sex work has long been criticized and stigmatized in our society. While many members of society view sex work as immoral and degrading to women, I argue that sex work is essentially just work, and that it is not necessarily harmful to women. Under circumstances in which sex work is accepted and regulated in society, in which the... MORE»
Near the end of 2015, in the midst of recent presidential and congressional debates, House Republicans proposed a bill to defund Planned Parenthood, blocking all of the organization’s federal funding, after the release... MORE»
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novella Herland explores a separatist feminist utopia. Published in 1915, Herland begins when three men – a womanizer, a Southern gentleman fixated on woman as domestic angels, and a narrator who represents a neutral opinion – stumble upon a land inhabited only by females. This nation, dubbed ‘Herland,’... MORE»
Submit to Inquiries Journal, Get a Decision in 10-Days

Inquiries Journal provides undergraduate and graduate students around the world a platform for the wide dissemination of academic work over a range of core disciplines.

Representing the work of students from hundreds of institutions around the globe, Inquiries Journal's large database of academic articles is completely free. Learn more | Blog | Submit

Follow IJ

Latest in Women's & Gender Studies

2022, Vol. 14 No. 10
The label of ‘science’ or ‘biology’ can become somewhat of a trump-card in excluding trans people from civil rights, because many scientific (and pseudo-scientific) opinions are weaponized during transgender rights debates... Read Article »
2022, Vol. 14 No. 09
Perceptions of menstruation as a taboo subject have historically characterized Western and non-Western societies alike and persist today, both perpetuating harmful cultural understandings of women’s abilities and normalizing institutional... Read Article »
2022, Vol. 14 No. 03
Using content analysis, this article focuses on the portrayal of female prisoners in the first two seasons of the Netflix show Orange is the New Black (OITNB). There are two main findings. First, the word "lesbian" frequently signals homophobia... Read Article »
2020, Vol. 12 No. 11
This paper investigates the convoluted societal processes to which the individual is exposed from an early age in order to form and acquire their sense of identity, and aims at dismantling these very processes by exhibiting their flimsy and unsubstantiated... Read Article »
2020, Vol. 12 No. 10
Centuries of subjugation under Spanish and American colonial rule have embedded an idealistic view of white beauty in the minds of Filipinos. It continues to be deeply rooted in Philippine culture due to the constant exposure of Filipina bodies... Read Article »
2020, Vol. 12 No. 10
This paper explores the woman’s body as a site of sanctity and disgust in the film Rosemary’s Baby. The character of Rosemary Woodhouse is depicted as a pure, virtuous, and feminine figure. She is positioned against other corrupted,... Read Article »
2020, Vol. 12 No. 10
Conversations about the gender expression of young children are often characterized by confusion, as parents, educators, and even child psychologists have a hard time determining where exactly children’s strong gendered beliefs and behaviors... Read Article »

What are you looking for?


Writing a Graduate School Personal Statement
How to Use Regression Analysis Effectively
7 Big Differences Between College and Graduate School