The history of feminism dates back to the 19th century and continues through present day. Feminism can be broken down into three distinct sections: first-wave, second-wave, and third-wave.
It should be noted that the terms “suffragette” and “feminist” refer to different movements, particularly in the early 1900s. Suffragists aimed to make it possible for women to vote in elections, but reinforced the notion that women should remain domestic (caring for the home, family, and community). Feminists, on the other hand, not only supported suffrage, but also were advocates for women to be entitled to the “same level of participation, economic independence, and social and sexual freedoms as men,” (Finn, 2012).
First-wave feminism refers to the feminist movement of the 19th and early 20th century. At this time, women had little control over their lives. Generally, they were housewives who were uneducated and possessed no property or economic rights. Feminists of the time (mostly middle-class white women) focused on the legal disabilities of women, especially women’s suffrage. The first wave began at the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, in which Elizabeth Cady Stanton drafted the Seneca Falls Declaration. The Declaration outlined the feminist’s political strategies and philosophies.
The first-wave was fueled by The Second Great Awakening, which allowed women to have more leadership roles in society, and the abolition and temperance movements. Women were generally excluded from these movements, prompting suffragists to demand women’s suffrage. However, not all suffragists considered themselves feminists; they were eager for the right to vote, but not in favor of gender equality. Suffragists and feminists had their first success when New York passed the Married Women’s Property Act in 1860, which legalized property ownership for women. They also had success when Congress ratified the 19th Amendment in 1920, allowing women the right to vote.
The feminists’ message during first-wave feminism was primarily spread through newspaper and other printed media such as pamphlets and bulletins.
Second-wave feminism began in the 1960s and ran through the 1980s. At this time, women were making social and political gains and radical views were on the rise in society. This wave broadened feminist discussion from suffrage to a wide variety of issues such as domestic violence, rape, the workplace, sexuality, reproductive rights, etc., drawing in women of different races. The second-wave came alongside the civil rights and anti-war movement of the 1960s, which consistently attempted to give a voice to the minority, a positive for women. However, these movements also took away from the focus on feminism and gave more attention to Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Vietnam War than women’s rights. Feminists attempted to draw attention by forming women-only organizations, such as the National Organization for Women (NOW), and publishing papers that advocated women’s equality, such as “The BITCH Manifesto.” The major legislative focus of the wave was on the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which guaranteed social equality regardless of sex. The ERA made it to Congress for ratification, but failed to be ratified. The second-wave is said to have ended in the early 1980s with the discussion of sexuality and pornography, issues that were discussed during the third wave. With more advanced technology in the second wave, feminists used newspapers, television, radio, and published papers to spread their message.
Prior to 1960, both men and women accepted the reality of traditional gender and family roles. But, when the second-wave feminism began, women challenged these roles both at home and at work. (Beck, 1998). Betty Friedan’s 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, has been said to have spurred the second-wave movement due to its discussion of the unhappiness of (white, middle-class) women “with their limited gender roles and their sense of isolation in the suburban nuclear family,” (Mendes, 2011).
It was also during this period (around the 1960s and 1970s) that women’s portrayal on television was changing, in part due to the eventual release of “female sexual and political energy,” (Douglas, 1994). Before this time, women's sexuality could be considered a "taboo" topic, creating for a revolutionary change in the portrayal of women on television. Examples of these different female roles include but are not limited to: Morticia Addams (The Addams Family), Samantha Stevens (Bewitched), and Mary Richards (The Mary Tyler Moore show). All of the aforementioned women were either magical in some way and/or a strong female character, which differed from the more stereotypical-housewife roles from the 1950s. In addition, many roles in this era portrayed the woman as independent, thus not needing or seeking out a man.
Third-wave feminism started beginning in the early 1990s and continues into the present. This movement grew as a response of the supposed failures and criticism of the second-wave movement. The goals of the movement were broadened from the second wave to focus on ideas such as lesbian theory, abolishing gender roles and stereotypes, and defending sex work, pornography, and sex-positivity. The movement has a focus on lesbian and African American women as distinct from traditional feminists, and it has weakened many traditional concepts, such as those notions of gender, heteronormativity, and “universal womanhood.” Third-wave feminism depends mostly on social media to spread its goals. Social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook are consistently covered in feminist messages, and hashtag campaigns are steadily spread to convey feminist ideas (#heforshe, #yesallwomen, #whyistayed). Many television shows also feature dominant, strong women and encourage the idea that women are equal to men (Nashville, Orange Is the New Black, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer).
Press (2011) wrote that third-wave feminism focuses more on women’s sexual freedom, which has come a long way since the time of second-wave feminism. Disparities such as the “orgasm gap” still exist (Armstrong, England & Fogarty, 2010), which describes the sexual inequalities between men and women involving sexual gratification. The media also continues to oppose the existence of women’s sexual freedom, noted with the continued use of the word “slut” as well as the emphasized importance of virginity, which is often displayed in popular culture.
Though hardcopy newspapers do not carry the readership they once did, they played a historically important role in the circulation of feminist ideas within Western societies. Newspapers were the dominant form of mass media throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, beginning to decline only after the proliferation of radio and television news. Feminist newspaper allowed women and their group interests to voice their opinion to a larger audience with more consistency and accuracy than word of mouth, helping lay the groundwork for organized movements to take hold. Throughout the 1800s, several feminist newspapers were started with varying degrees of success. The German Feminist newspaper founded by Mathilde Franziska Anneke, Frauenzeitung, managed to produce a single issue. In contrast, Louise Otto-Peters's Frauen-Zeitung, a weekly German Feminist newspaper, lasted from April 1849 to at least the middle of 1852. The readership and lifespan of feminist newspapers varies widely, but there are several examples that should be noted for their contributions to the cause of feminism through this form of mass media.
La Voix des Femmes (English:The Voice of Women) was founded by Eugénie Niboyet and remained in print from 1848 to 1852. It was the first French feminist daily newspaper and enjoyed great success. Its decline was due to the rise of conservatism under Napoleon.
La Fronde (English: The Sling) was another French feminist daily newspaper created by Marguerite Durand. It ran from December 9, 1897 to March 1905. It was run and written solely by women. It notably achieved a readership of 50,000 in Paris, before financial problems led to its closure.
A group of women from the Kreuzberg Women’s Centre created the German feminist newspaper Courage in 1976. The paper published many articles on taboo subjects that were issues for feminists, such as abortion, sexual violence, and forced prostitution. The newspaper declared bankruptcy in 1984 because of the loss of readership due to negative coverage from male press and competing feminist papers.
The Revolution was an American weekly newspaper created by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton as a reaction to the National Woman Suffrage Association’s call to put women’s suffrage on hold, in order to deal with the issue of African American male suffrage. The establishment of the newspaper in January 1868 helped keep the women’s suffrage movement alive during the post-civil war era. However, Anthony’s ideological commitments, including her opposition to “quack medicine” and “Restellism”, limited available income for the newspaper. Bankruptcy was declared in 1870, and Anthony shouldered the $10,000 debt.
The Independent Women’s Forum (IWF) published the Media Directory of Women Experts as a way of providing journalists with names of women that could give conservative opinions on topics.
Though most journalists aim to create an objective view of their subjects, feminism has long been portrayed in a negative light. A study by Lind and Saio (2006) revealed that feminists rarely appear in the media and are often demonized. They are often portrayed as different from “regular” women, and are not associated with day-to-day activities, but rather, public activities and events. Feminists are also not often portrayed as victims and are more frequently associated with the women’s movement and their goals compared to regular women (meaning if a woman isn't a labeled "feminist" she isn't often associated with the movement, despite being female). Creedon (1993) wrote, “feminists are constantly framed as deviant sexually, a bunch of man-haters out to destroy ‘family values.’” In the media, the term “feminism” is often opposed to the term “family,” leading to the idea that feminists can’t be family women. This negative portrayal over the decades has led many young women rejecting the idea of feminism, in part due to feminists being labeled as “man bashers.” Other labels associated with feminism include: “bubblehead,” “Amazons,” “angries,” “radical,” and “hairy,” (Jones, 1992).
Davis (1991) wrote in her book, Moving the Mountain: The Women’s Movement in America, that the media coverage on the feminist movement wasn’t necessarily negative, as it was the media that spotlighted the movement in 1969. In addition, Davis notes that the media is the source that publicized the movement’s issues, heroines, and activities and allowed the movement to reach individuals it may have not otherwise.
In recent years, social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have led to widespread discussion on issues ranging from domestic abuse to street harassment, catcalling and abortion. In 2012, Feminists in Turkey created Facebook groups to organize and mobilize protests and marches against legislation of a nationwide abortion ban. Feminists in other parts of the European Union began to take notice and promoted the issue in their respective Facebook groups and the legislation was eventually dropped from the legislative agenda.
In the wake of the Ray Rice domestic abuse scandal, in which video evidence showed the Baltimore Ravens running back knocking his then fiancee, Janay Palmer, unconscious, writer Beverly Gooden started the Twitter hashtag #WhyIStayed. This hashtag highlighted personal experiences of herself and other women who stayed in abusive relationships. This quickly spawned subsequent hashtags including “#WhyILeft” which many used to describe the final incident of abuse or reason for leaving.
In 2013, The Representation Project created a mobile app called #NotBuyingIt which allows users to connect with each other and quickly tweet or otherwise engage sexist media ranging from advertisements to soundbites and quotes from public figures. It is often used during football season where Super Bowl ads are notoriously deemed sexist. In the aftermath of the University of California- Santa Barbara shootings, thousands of women across the internet began tweeting experiences of sexism experienced in their daily lives with the hashtag #YesAllWomen. In June 2014, as a response to the US Supreme court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, there were thousands of tweets containing #HobbyLobby, #JoinTheDissent and #NotMyBossBusiness expressing emotions ranging from disdain to rage at the Supreme Court’s decision to allow employers not to cover certain contraceptives on a religious basis. According to Matthew Slutsky at Change.org, social media has opened the forums on these issues to not only feminists and other activists, but to anyone who wants to discuss them.
In addition, celebrities such as Emma Watson have also taken a pro-feminist stance through social media. In 2014, the UN Women's Ambassador stated," I am from Britain and think it is right that as a woman I am paid the same as my male counterparts. I think it is right that I should be able to make decisions about my own body. I think it is right that women be involved on my behalf in the policies and decision-making of my country. I think it is right that socially I am afforded the same respect as men. But sadly I can say that there is no one country in the world where all women can expect to receive these rights." Her speech also goes into depth about the negative connotation the word feminist has because of social media and how we as a society can take a stand for gender equality.