The period of activism in the early 20th century around securing the vote for women has been called the first wave of the feminist movement. The second wave refers to the activism beginning in the 1960s.
The second wave is associated with the publication of books like Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, with consciousness-raising groups, campaigning around wages for housework, abortion rights, sexual harassment, domestic violence, childcare and many other issues and with the slogan ‘the personal is political’. Second wave feminists had a huge impact on education.

They distinguished between sex (the biological differences between men and women) and gender (the social and cultural differences). This was an important theoretical move, which allowed for the investigation of sociological explanations for girls’ educational results and choices. Second wave feminists had different approaches.

Liberal feminists emphasised the parts played by sex-role socialisation, stereotyping and discrimination. They worked to eliminate the barriers to female achievement in mathematics and other subjects. However, with a philosophy based on individual autonomy they were ill-equipped to deal with the issue of how women’s choices ambush their equality. This is perhaps behind their reluctance to pursue their agenda into further and higher education, where it is perceived that choices and not constraints are operating.

Socialist feminists focused on the reproduction of the classed and gendered relations of production and reproduction, while radical feminists pointed to the male dominance of knowledge and the sexual politics of schooling. Because socialist and radical feminists added theorisations of ideology and power to the liberal feminist analysis, both socialist and radical feminists were interested in the social construction of choices. Importantly patriarchy, “the combination of social, economic and cultural systems which ensures male supremacy” (Coote & Campbell, 1982, p.32) was introduced as an underlying factor.

However, black feminists called attention to the neglect of race in second wave feminism. They focused on how race, class and gender intersect and questioned what, if anything, all women have in common. More recently, poststructuralist feminists have built on this work, to question more earlier feminist assumptions. Above all, they have asked whether it’s possible to make a distinction between sex and gender. After all, if gender is so different from sex, why are there only two genders and why do women become feminine and men become masculine? Bodies don’t fall naturally into two opposite sexes. The fact that we think they do is because of how society not biology works.

Many refer to our contemporary moment as feminism’s third wave, others call it ‘post-feminist’. Recent work has pointed to contradictions in an apparent societal embrace of feminist language in the West (such as choice, female empowerment, and sexual freedom) and the return of regressive, sexist and anti-feminist language, images and practices. Therefore, claims that feminism has achieved its goals mask the continued presence of gender inequality (McRobbie, 2008)

Research has explored the rejection or ‘repudiation’ of feminism among some young women (Scharff, 2012), and drawn attention to how class, race and other social categories intersect with gender to shape young women’s views on the relevance of feminism to their lives. However, despite claims that feminism is over as a social movement and that young women don’t care about feminism, the last few years has seen a resurgence of feminist ideas in the mainstream Western populist media and politics (see for example, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard speak out against sexism in the Australian parliament). There has also been a resurgence in forms of feminist activism and protest, such as international Slut Walk marches, and campaigning organizations such as UK Feminista and Object.

The current focus on boys’ underachievement in many countries means we often ignore the problems girls have within the education system. With women still earning a fraction of what men earn (despite their increasing success at school and entry into all levels of the education system) and disproportionately responsible for unpaid work, it is clear that we still need feminism (Ringrose, 2012).

There is already some exciting and important work going on between universities and schools to introduce young women to feminist ideas and support discussion on issues ranging from domestic violence, body image and ‘sexualisation’. The books and websites below document feminisms old and new, point to contemporary gender issues and provide teaching resources for those wanting to bring feminist ideas into the classroom.

Useful Links

BBC archive on second wave feminism: This collection of television and radio programmes remembers some of the major feminist thinkers of 1970s second wave feminism and highlights the issues they addressed and attitudes they contested.

The f word: contemporary UK feminism: The F-Word is an online magazine dedicated to talking about and sharing ideas on contemporary UK feminism.

UK Feminista: UK Feminista is a feminist campaigning organisation and a link to other campaigning organisations. Their purpose is to end the continuing inequalities between women and men.

Amnesty International Resources on Women’s Rights: Amnesty resources explore gender-based violence (violence directed against a woman because she is a woman, or violence that affects women disproportionately and also look at the struggle for women’s rights and celebrate female human rights defenders.

MsG Resources for introducing feminism into the school curriculum: The US-based Miss G Project for Equity in Education is a grassroots young feminist organisation working to combat all forms of oppression in and through education, including sexism, homophobia, racism and classism.

Equals: Equals is a partnership of leading charities in the UK that have come together to step-up the call to demand a more equal world.

Further Reading

Gill, R. and C. Scharff, Eds. (2011). New femininities: postfeminism, neoliberalism and subjectivity. Basingstoke, Palgrave. This collection of papers looks at contemporary femininities and feminisms, engaging with issues from America’s Next Top Model, social networking, Tweens and Skaters.

Howard, M. and S. Tibballs (2003) Talking equality: what men and women think about equality in Britain today. London, Equal Opportunities Commission: A report, drawing on a small number of focus groups, looking at how a variety of women feel about feminism.

Lingard, B., & Douglas, B. (1999) Men engaging feminisms: pro-feminism, backlashes and schooling. Buckingham, Open University Press: This book is about men’s responses to feminist reforms in schooling. It documents the various masculinity politics which have emerged and analyses their effects.

McRobbie, A. (2008) The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change. London, Sage: McRobbie asks what is left of feminism. Her depressing answer involves her in theoretical analyses of popular culture from Bridget Jones to pornography.

Redfern, C. and Aune, K. (2010) Reclaiming the F Word: The New Feminist Movement. London, Zed Books: In this book, Redfern and Aune map the contemporary feminist movement and its relevance to society.

Ringrose, J. (2012) Post-Feminist Education? Girls and the sexual politics of schooling. London: Routledge. This new book explores how ‘postfeminist’ ideas have entered the classroom and education policy and practice. Theoretically rich but grounded in research with young girls, this is an important and comelling read.

Scharff, C. (2012). Repudiating Feminism: Young Women in a neoliberal world. Farnham, Ashgate. This book draws on interviews with young British and German woman to explore how they view feminism and variously identify and disidentify with feminist ideas. It engages with ideas of postfeminism as theorised by authors like Angela McRobbie.

Tong, R. (1998) Feminist thought: a more comprehensive introduction. London, Routledge: Not an easy read but this is an excellent overview of feminist thinking, outlining liberal, radical (libertarian and cultural), and Marxist-socialist schools of feminism, and psychoanalytic, existentialist, postmodern, multicultural and global feminism and ecofeminism.

Weiner, G. (1994) Feminisms in education: an introduction. Buckingham, Open University Press: In this book, Gaby Weiner presents an overview of developments in feminist educational thinking and practice in Britain. The book is very reader and the author relates feminist thinking and practice to her own autobiographical experiences and to a variety of teacher and policy gender initiatives.

Wolf, N. (various editions and publishers) The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women: Wolf documents the role of the make-up, fashion, diet and plastic surgery industries in making women attempt to live an impossible standard of beauty.

Page author: Heather Mendick and Kim Allen

Updated: 15th January 2013

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