From Suffrage to Sisterhood: What Does “Feminism” Actually Mean?

International Women’s Day (March 8th) is an opportunity to celebrate the amazing women in our lives. It’s also a time to remember how far women have come over the course of American history, and the inspiring women who made it happen. From the suffragist movement of the 1800s to the Women’s March on Washington in 2017, women have used the enduring power of language to blaze trails for generations to come. Here’s a look a just a few of the memorable words that have been used over time.

Early Inspiration: Enlightened Equality

Early feminism was heavily influenced by the Enlightenment in Europe during the late 1700s. The movement focused on human reason and equality for all, and ultimately inspired the American and French Revolutions. Think of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Of course, that whole all men are created equal thing didn’t apply to women or people of color at the time. That was a problem, and a great source of tension for early feminism.

In the UK, Mary Wollstonecraft, an early feminist, tried to address that tension by writing and publishing A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792. The book called for women to be educated on the same level as their male peers. It made the then-radical claim that women should be treated with human respect and dignity, and not just viewed as daughters, wives, and mothers. A vindication is a “defense or justification.” At that time, the idea that women had a right to be treated as equal to men was such a new idea that there needed to be an entire book justifying it.

The word feminism, itself, was first coined by a French philosopher named Charles Fourier (as féminisme) in 1837. It originally referred to “feminine qualities or character,” but that sense isn’t used any more. Toward the end of the century, the word came to refer to equal rights for women, and became inextricably linked to the suffragist movement.

Women’s Suffrage: Political Mirroring

The Seneca Falls Convention in July 1848 was the official beginning of the American Women’s Suffrage movement, which many believe was also the beginning of feminism in the United States. Around 300 women and men came together from across the country to discuss the status of women in the United States. Together, they wrote the Declaration of Sentiments, which opened with these words:

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Sound familiar? By purposefully mirroring the language of the Declaration of Independence, the writers compared the injustice of women’s status with the injustice faced by the American colonies in 1776. The document called out laws that denied women any rights to property or their own wages. It pointed out women’s lack of access to education or professional careers. Most famously, it called for women to be given the right to vote (i.e. suffrage).

Many leaders of the movement were also abolitionists. Frederick Douglass had attended the Seneca Falls Convention, and Sojourner Truth gave an impassioned speech at the Women’s Convention in Ohio, called “Ain’t I a Woman?” In it, she pointed out that despite the popular argument of the time that voting rights would make women less feminine, she had, during her time as a slave, already endured the same level of backbreaking labor and mistreatment as any of the male slaves.

For the next several decades, women across the country participated in marches, rallies, and protests for women’s suffrage. The Woman Suffrage Parade of 1913 was the first and most significant march for the cause. On the day before President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration (which women weren’t allowed to attend), thousands of suffragists marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC. The signs they carried largely focused on themes of motherhood, Christian scripture, and democracy (i.e. the failure of democracy in not recognizing women). Parade might sound like a weird word for a protest march, but this one had all of the trappings we usually think of: banners, floats, performances, people in costumes, passionate speeches….as a matter of fact, you could probably even say it was an inspiration for 2017’s Women’s March on Washington.

This spirit of protest continued in the form of the Silent Sentinels, who picketed silently in front of the White House six days a week between 1917 and 1919. A sentinel is “a person or thing that watches or stands as if watching,” and these women’s constant presence were a daily reminder to President Wilson that the women of America had their eye on him. The banners they carried addressed the president directly: “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?” They even used Wilson’s own quotes against him: “We shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts—for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments.”

In 1872, Susan B. Anthony was arrested for trying to vote. During her trial, she argued that as a citizen of the United States, she had a constitutionally protected right to vote. The court ruled that citizenship didn’t equal voting rights. Almost fifty years later, In 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment was passed. It just says, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

Women’s Liberation: Equality and Sisterhood

The second wave of feminism stretched from the early 1960s all the way to the 1980s. That means it coincided with the time when TV was emerging as a platform for bringing awareness to causes like the Civil Rights movement and protests against the Vietnam War. Furthermore, the Kinsey reports (which were the first to study human sexuality from an academic standpoint) were published in 1948 and 1953. These reports meant that by the 1960s the strict taboo of talking about sex and sexuality was starting to fade, thanks to its new status as a scientific topic. This opened the door for Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, which became a national bestseller in 1963.

The second-wave feminist movement is better known as the Women’s Movement or Women’s Liberation. In this sense, liberation is “the act or fact of gaining equal rights or full social or economic opportunities for a particular group.” In 1961, President Kennedy’s Presidential Commission on the Status of Women found that American women had far fewer rights or economic opportunities than men. They were paid less for the same jobs, they could be harassed by their coworkers without repercussions for the harassers, and they could be fired or denied a job for becoming pregnant. Domestic violence was an unaddressed issue at home, and it was very hard to divorce, especially if there were children in the picture. In many states, women couldn’t even get a credit card or own property without her husband’s approval. All of that is just scratching the surface.

Women’s Liberation activists fought for equality at home and in the workplace, and the language they introduced was a big part of that. Women started using the ambiguous Ms., rather than Miss or Mrs., to hide their marital status (the way Mr. already did for men). This was also the time when the terms sexism and sexual harassment were coined. Both were intended to highlight the similarities between discrimination against women and racism. As they fought to defy traditional gender roles, they introduced the idea of using fewer gendered pronouns at work, in the media, and in advertising.

A lot of the legislation of these decades focused on the aspect of equality: the Equal Pay Act, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Equal Credit opportunity, etc. This is because a lot of it affected both women and people of color (connected to the fight for civil rights). The Women’s Strike for Equality in 1970 was another reflection of this fight. Tens of thousands of women gathered in New York City to march for equal opportunities at work, in politics, and socially. A slogan from the era that encapsulates a lot of this was “The personal is political.”

Progress happened during the Women’s Movement largely because groups of women organized under common causes and supported each other. Another slogan from the era that survives to present day is “Sisterhood is powerful.” Sisterhood, in this case, is “an organization of women with a common interest, as for social, charitable, business, or political purposes.” It’s also “congenial relationship or companionship among women; mutual female esteem, concern, support, etc.”

Third-Wave Feminism: Intersectionality

Today, we live in the era of third-wave feminism. This generation is much more focused on the intersections of gender, race, sexuality, and income inequality. The third wave started some time in the 1990s with the rise of the Riot Grrrl movement and Anita Hill’s very public sexual harassment case against incoming Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. This era continues the work of Women’s Liberation, while also breaking new ground for future generations.

There is a catch, though. Women’s Liberation featured a lot of conflict among different groups with different priorities. As a result, third-wave feminism is also somewhat splintered. The language of today’s feminism is constantly subject to debate, because not every group can agree what is or isn’t okay. At the same time, the lines between these groups are starting to blur. Intersectionality is “the theory that the overlap of various social identities, as race, gender, sexuality, and class, contributes to the specific type of systemic oppression and discrimination experienced by an individual.” It’s a concept that’s becoming increasingly more important as we start to broach questions of what it means to be both a person of color and a woman. What does it mean to also be LGBT? What if someone is also low-income? With the rights of transgender and nonbinary people increasingly under scrutiny, some even ask what it means to be a woman at all, or how these groups fit into today’s feminism. If the women’s movements of the past have taught us anything, it’s that political change happens only after social change happens first, and language can be a major force in driving that change.