Lacey Bartlett, Sarah Cohen, Katie Barber, Abby Feyerabend
Fem·i·nism | ˈfeməˌnizəm
Advocacy of equality of the sexes and the establishment of the political, social, and economic rights of the female sex; the movement associated with this.
The issue of rights for women became increasingly prominent during the French and American Revolutions in the late 18th century, with regards especially to property rights, the marriage relationship, and the right to vote. In Britain, it was not until the emergence of the suffragette movement in the late 19th cent. that there was significant political change. Women’s suffrage was a movement to fight for women’s rights to vote. Women were banned to vote in Britain after two acts were passed, the 1832 Reform Act and the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act. It wasn’t until 1918 when the Representation of the People Act was passed, that women who fit the property qualifications were allowed to vote. ‘First wave’ feminism focused on suffrage and legal matters regarding gender equality in voting and property rights. A ‘second wave’ of feminism arose in the 1960s in the United States, focused on a wider range of issues including family, sexuality, the workplace, and reproductive rights. A more diverse ‘third wave’ arose in the 1980s and 1990s, as a reaction against the perceived lack of focus on class and race issues in earlier movements.
In 1991, Anita Hill, an African American woman, testified that she was sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas, who was nominated for the Supreme Court of the United States. In front of an all-white, all-male, Senate Judiciary Committee, Hill said, “So I write this as a plea to all women, especially women of my generation: Let Thomas’ confirmation serve to remind you, as it did me, that the fight is far from over. Let this dismissal of a woman’s experience move you to anger. Turn that outrage into political power. Do not vote for them unless they work for us. Do not have sex with them, do not break bread with them, do not nurture them if they don’t prioritize our freedom to control our bodies and our lives. I am not a post-feminism feminist. I am the Third Wave.” According to The New York Times, “Judge Thomas forcefully denied the accusations, claiming they played into the stereotypes of black men.” This quote exemplifies ‘third wave’ feminism because Hill is bringing attention to the lack of support that women had during this time period.
The word ‘Feminism’ originated as the Latin word femina, which meant woman. In French, it was used in a medical term as féminisme (1871 or earlier). Catalan feminisme (c1910), Spanish feminismo (1898 or earlier), Portuguese feminismo (1905), Italian femminismo (1896).
Feminism in The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts
Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior is chock-full of examples of feminism. It is a novel made up of “talk-stories” that tell of vastly different women—crazy, silenced, and powerful women. Kingston uses these stories of empowerment and disempowerment to analyze her own life. Ultimately, they allow her to tell the story of how old Chinese traditions and expectations of women affected how she was raised. In the end, Kingston defies being labeled as a traditional Chinese woman and embraces her identity as a first generation Chinese-American.
It is important to express that it is not only the men in the story who are oppressive. Rather, it is the power that men and women give to traditional patriarchal views and expectations of women. Kingston writes, “When we Chinese girls listened to the adults talk-story, we learned that we failed if we grew up to be but wives or slaves. We could be heroines, swordswomen… Perhaps women were once so dangerous that they had to have their feet bound” (19). This quote shows that society has taught women they must become wives or slaves, or else they have not really become a woman. This knowledge is passed down to Kingston from her mother through a talk-story, demonstrating how older generations valued societal expectations and made sure to teach younger generations to succumb to them.
Most of the stories told to Kingston are cautious tales intended to warn her about the punishments for deviating from the expectations placed on women. In the chapter No Name Woman, Kingston tells the reader about how her aunt was raped by a man who was from her home village in China. She became pregnant with his baby. Kingston writes, “Women in the old China did not choose. Some man had commanded her to lie with him and be his secret evil. I wonder whether he masked himself when he joined the raid on her family… His demand must have surprised, then terrified her. She obeyed him; she always did as she was told” (6). Women didn’t have a choice when things happened to them. Women’s voices were insignificant, and therefore they had to accept things as they came. After Kingston’s mother tells her this story of her long-forgotten aunt, her mother tells her, “Don’t let your father know that I told you. He denies her. Now that you have started to menstruate, what happened to her could happen to you. Don’t humiliate us. You wouldn’t like to be forgotten as if you had never been born. The villagers are watchful” (5). In this quote, Kingston’s mother isn’t saying this to Kingston for her own sake, but rather for her and the family’s. She is warning Kingston to be obedient, to ensure that she doesn’t ruin the family name as her aunt did.
In this novel, feminism is often shown in the comparison between men and women. An example of this is when Kingston writes, “Mothers who love their children take them along. It was probably a girl; there is some hope of forgiveness for boys” (15). Kingston is talking about how her aunt drowned herself and her baby in the family well. She is pointing out that had the baby been a boy, things might’ve been different. Boys could be forgiven, but girls seemed to be a curse to the family. The aunt has brought shame to her family for having a baby with a man who isn’t her husband. She kills herself and her baby due to being forced to succumb to the idea that women are inferior. This quote reveals to readers that boys were the superior gender within these patriarchal societies of Old China.
The stories that Kingston’s mother tells her are to warn her about the obstacles she may face in life. Each story tells of the difficulty that women faced in the eyes of equality. Becoming a woman in traditional Chinese culture consisted of becoming a slave, a housewife, or essentially a mute. Instead of taking these stories as something to learn from, Kingston takes them as limitations and believes that her mother is trying to stifle her. In the end, it’s these very stories that empower her.
Feminism in A Raisin in the Sun
The play A Raisin in the Sun, by Lorraine Hansberry, shows the life of an African American family during a time of segregation. This play tells the story of the Younger family who lives in the Southside of Chicago in the 1950s. Everyone in the family is trying to overcome adversities in order to achieve their dreams. Throughout this play, there are many examples of feminism, especially related to Beneatha’s character. When the play opens the Younger family is impatiently waiting for an insurance check to arrive, as each has their own ideas of what to do with it, and as the play progresses, they clash over their rivaling dreams.
Beneatha wants to use the insurance money to pay for medical school. She is a college student who doesn’t want to assimilate to the stereotypes of black women at the time. Women during this time period were always nurses when they entered the medical field. However, Beneatha wants to become a doctor. She refuses to let her gender hold her back from her dreams. When even her own family tells her that she should just marry a rich man instead, she still refuses to listen. She says, “Listen, I’m going to be a doctor. I’m not worried about who I am going to marry yet—if I ever get married” (50). Although she has little support, she wants to follow her dreams and refuses to be held back by a man.
When feminists are trying to express their beliefs, they often need to face those with conflicting views. Beneatha’s boyfriend George says, “I want you to cut it out, see—The moody stuff, I mean. I don’t like it. You’re a nice-looking girl… all over. That’s all you need, honey, forget the atmosphere. Guys aren’t going to go for the atmosphere—they’re going to go for what they see. Be glad for that. Drop the Garbo routine. It doesn’t go with you”(96). George believes that women are supposed to be housewives, as many women of the time were. However, Beneatha wants more for her life. She wants to pursue a career and will not let gender inequality hold her back. This makes Beneatha a feminist because she doesn’t want to follow stereotypical gender roles.
There is a general tendency in literature to standardize all black women’s experiences and disregard their ethnic diversity. In the eyes of many people, Beneatha is just a pretty face. She decides to cut her hair to demonstrate that she is against conformity and assimilation. When George Murchison asks her, “What have you done to your head—I mean your hair,” Beneatha responds with, “Nothing—except cut it off” (80). By cutting her hair, she attempts to prove that there is more to women than just their appearance. In a study conducted by Vanessa King and Dieynaba Niabaly, it was found that African women altered their hair mostly due to community and media influences, while African American women altered their hair primarily because of their family’s opinions. Beneatha, although an African American woman, alters her hair simply because she wants to connect to her heritage. In summation, A Raisin in the Sun wonderfully speaks to the concepts of African American beauty and identity, and as Robert Nemiroff states, also revolutionizes black women’s consciousness.
In today’s society, feminism has progressed drastically. During the revolutionary period, women’s rights were a large focus. This need for equality has been further amplified in today’s society. Throughout history, women have fought for issues such as voting and marriage equality, and have found success. However, women still need to fight. They are still not considered to be equal in society regarding certain issues such as equality in the workplace. Women only make around seventy-five to eighty cents to the dollar that every man makes, regardless of the fact that they do the same work.
It is important to understand this term in literature because understanding the term will help bring about change. Feminism is often overlooked and shot down in today’s society due to the fact that conditions have improved for women. However, they have not improved enough, and understanding the term will help bring about equality in today’s society.
Hansberry, Lorraine A. A Raisin in the Sun: Lorraine Hansberry. GMC Distribution, 2007.
Jacobs, Julia. “Anita Hill’s Testimony and Other Key Moments From the Clarence Thomas Hearings.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 20 Sept. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/09/20/us/politics/anita-hill-testimony-clarence-thomas.html.
“John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute.” Race and Ethnicity in Advertising | John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute, fhi.duke.edu/highlights/riot-grrls-and-maker-culture-zine-publishing-event.
King, Vanessa and Niabaly, Dieynaba (2013) ” e Politics of Black Womens’ Hair,” Journal of Undergraduate Research at Minnesota State University, Mankato: Vol. 13, Article 4.
Kingston, M. H. The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. Random House, 1976.