“I myself have never been able to find out precisely
what feminism is: I only know that people call me a
feminist whenever I express sentiments that
differentiate me from a doormat.”
― Rebecca West
Unlike any other “isms” Feminism does not have a
theoretical conceptual base. The term “Feminism” is
derived from the Latin word.
However a broad definition of feminism is “an
awareness of women’s oppression and exploitation in
society, at work and within the family and conscious
action by men and women in changing the situation.
Evolution of the concept of feminism:
Feminism meant one thing in the 17th century and
meant something else in the 19 & 20th centuries. For
the former feminist, the struggle was fought for the
democratic rights of women, it included the Rights to
education & employment, right to own property, the
right to vote – the right to enter parliament. On the
whole they fought for legal reforms; the struggles were
essential outside home and family.
Today the feminist have gone beyond mere reforms to end
discrimination. They work more towards their
emancipation. Feminism therefore now includes the
struggle against women’s subordination to the male within
the home, against their exploitation by the family, their
continuing low status at work & in burden in production
In essence the present day feminism is a struggle for the
achievement of women’s equality, dignity & freedom of
choice to control their life and bodies within and outside
Feminist consciousness arose in Asia during the early 20th
century. These voices demanded widow remarriage, ban on
polygamy, and ban of sati, purdah and demand for legal
emancipation. In the earliest agitator for women’s rights were
men. Although women today are becoming economically
independent and are educationally & occupationally mobile, we
can still compare their emotional world to that of Sita.
A siege has been laid on women they have been captured by the
very institution which attempt to safeguard the life and interest
namely family, marriage, educational institution, employment
establishment, police outfits, legal machinery, etc.
Whether it is child marriage, infanticide, feticide,
wife-battering, sati, widowhood, bigamy, polygamy,
sexual harassment (eve-teasing), physical torture,
mental cruelty, rape (by strangers, police, army,
paramilitary), dowry extortion, dowry murders. Pre-
marital and post-marital suicide – all these forms of
oppressions of Indian women manifest in the
decadent, capitalist, consumerist, corrupt, casteist,
communal, criminal and patriarchal society.
Theories of Feminism
Social scientist and women activist both accept that
women are not biologically inferior and her lower
status to man is man-made. However their approach to
the cause of women’s liberation differs. These
approaches have resulted in the formulation of
They all maintain that the social inequalities between
man and women as creation of socio- cultural
tradition. These theories have inspired several women
liberal movement all over the world.
Moderate or Liberal Feminism or Individual
The inferior position of women according to the
supporters of this theory is due to cultural and
psychological factor. J.S. Mill one of the earliest
thinkers of this school championed the cause of
feminism. He was a liberal and individualistic thinker.
His book “Subjection of Women” (1861) has become a
landmark in the History of women’s movement.
According to him the inferiority of women in the
domains of mental and intellectual production were
not natural but artificial.
The Historical origin of Liberal feminism goes back to the
18th century “The enlightenment period of western Europe” –
it was the age of reason. The thinkers of this period
touched upon the nature and the role of women. An
important aspect of liberal feminism was individualism, by
which it was meant that individual possess the freedom to
do what one wishes without interference of others.
Mary Wollstonecraft as a liberal thinker is well known for
her ardent support for women’s cause. Her work was
known as “A Vindication of the rights of women” (1791).
Her basic idea is that “Women are first and foremost
human beings and not sexual beings” women are rational
creatures. They are capable of governing themselves by
In “The feminine mystique” (1963) by Betty Friedan
one of the founders of the liberal women’s movement
in USA analyses the cause of the traditional male,
female division of labor. She says if they are equal why
one role fix for man and other for women. Such
fixation which is social makes one superior or inferior.
“Each suburban wife struggles with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for
groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children,
chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night- she was afraid to
ask even of herself the silent question-- 'Is this all?”
― Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique
Gandhi also took some of similar approach towards
women’s problems. He strongly criticized excessive
subordination of the wife to the husband. He said that
women should enjoy equal status with man. Sex
discrimination keeps half the population unproductive
therefore women should be brought out from the four
walls of the house.
The liberal feminism which flourished in 1960s did not
provide more insight into the roots of women’s inferior
status. However the feminist began to extend the concept
of equality beyond the earlier emphasis on formal equality
in the civil and political sphere. Liberal feminism argued
for equal rights for women but accepted the existing social
order as valid and advocated for the improvement of social
customs, institutions, and laws. Without altering the social
structure particularly in family. They also subscribed to the
hope and accumulation of reforms will transform society,
but radical restructuring is not necessary.
Radical feminism is an offshoot of moderate feminism.
The radical feminist believes that the women’s
subjection is due to sexual aggression by men.
Male supremacy is the oldest, the most basic form of
domination, all other forms of exploitation and
oppression. (Racism, Capitalism, Imperialism, etc) are
extension of male supremacy.
Radical feminist also argued that the History of the
world was not the struggle of the classes but it was a
struggle between men and women.
For radical feminist – The roots of subordination lies
in the biological family.
Radical feminist main plea is not only the removal of
sex distinctions but the removal of men in their life –
sexual preferences, control over one’s body, free sex
experience and collective child care are some of the
action programs outlined by the radical feminist.
The radical feminist argue that women have always
been economically exploited for them marriage turns
to be a contract where by sex and service (house work)
are provided by women to men in return for support.
The same thing happened in the feudal society where
the lord provided security to the slaves in return for
their services. Women and slaves are equivalent due to
Similarly virginity is held important and essential for
the female only.
When a woman marries the custom requires her to
change the title from “miss” to “mrs’. All this she has to
do in order to proclaim her belonging to a man –
which implies that she has no independent existence
of her own.
Her income is regarded as part of husband’s income.
Moreover when both partners earn it is a wife who is
expected to take care of the domestic work such as
cooking and housekeeping.
In the west the radical feminism adopted novel protest
methods to draw the attention of the male oppressors.
In the 1970 an army of women marched through the
New York streets and placed what they thought
“freedom trash cans” at important points. In this they
threw their cosmetics and false eyelashes.
Through this they wanted to show that women cannot
be considered as sex objects. They also shouted slogans
“marriage if legalized rape”.
In India the Delhi University girls students formed a
society called “Power” – Progressive Organisation for
Women’s Equal Rights. The posters reading “we are not
chapathi making machines” were pasted on the walls of
Among the radical feminist the very aggressive group
formed societies whose chief aim was not only
liberation of women but also the annihilation of men.
Valarie Solanas was given 3 years imprisonment for
shooting men. She also started a society called SCUM
(Society for Cutting Up Men).
Another such society was called WITCH (Women’s
International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell). In UK
the feminist picketed the Miss World contest and
carried banners displaying – “miss used, “miss
conception” and “miss guided”.
Man being the enemy of the radical feminist, they
stood to put an end to the subordination and they
seem to be no place for men in their life.
Socialist or Marxist Feminism :
Another approach to the status of women is Historical
materialism or Socialist feminism. All to this approach
the root cause of the lower status of women lies in the
The family is the result of the private property in the
means of production therefore complete equality of
women is possible when private property in the means
of production is abolished.
The concept of private property brought a basic change
in the family.
“Men are from Earth, women are from Earth. Deal
― George Carlin
In a capitalist society, family relations are reduced to
more money relations. Karl Marx and Engels observed
that by abolishing private means of production the
family system will be abolished this is the only way in
which the status of women can be raised.
Feminist within the socialist fold have been struggling
to come to grips with the reality of gender oppression
According to socialist view power is derived from sex
and class and this is manifested materially and
ideologically in patriarchy and class relations. The
major task is to discover the interdependence of class
It would be necessary to organize struggle
simultaneously against capitalism and patriarchy.
Patriarchal system cannot vanish by nearly abolishing
A struggle against patriarchal is a struggle against the
present structure of the family system dominated by
The liberation of women would not be complete
without a change in the patriarchal social system and
all the social values that go with them.
The socialist feminist have also raised the whole
debate of domestic work. They argue that women’s
oppression is based on unpaid house work.
Child bearing, child care and house work are material
activities resulting in products.
Like radical feminist the socialist feminist are not anti-
man. But they believe in collaborating with men if the
latter support their cause.
“Feminism has never been about getting a job for
one woman. It's about making life more fair for
women everywhere. It's not about a piece of the
existing pie; there are too many of us for that.
It's about baking a new pie.”
These 3 main approaches have been used for
understanding women’s subordinate status and also
for evolving strategies to establish women’s equality.
In India feminism and nationalism was closely inter-
linked. The women’s movement in India had none of
the man-women antagonism characteristic of women’s
movement of the west.
In the Indian context the dominant approach has been
liberal feminism, moreover Indian women could not
come out of their homes to fight oppression because it
is the family that is a sole supportive institution.
Hence it is not possible for many women to leave the
security of the family.
“A woman without a man is like a fish without a
― Gloria Steinem
Indian feminism is entirely different from western
feminism. Indian women in the absence of economic
independence have to depend solely on the family.
While in the west 50 to 5 % of the women are
employed and those who are unemployed get benefits
from social welfare schemes provided by the state.
Hence they have an alternative if they decide to come
out of oppressive family situations.
Moreover the higher level of education of the women in
the west makes them more confident to struggle against
social odds while in Asia the high level of illiteracy, sheer
struggle for survival, make women extremely helpless to
fight against oppression with the family.
This is one of the major reasons why Indian feminist had
to confine their struggle mainly to issues like rape, dowry,
murder, sexism in the media, etc.,
The feminists seek the removal of all forms of inequality,
domination and oppression through the creation of a just,
social and economic order, in the home, nationally and