Research point: Feminism

First, feminism in a nutshell, courtesy of observational Tweeter Miranda Keeling:

There may be various definitions of feminism but I am drawn to the simplicity of that offered by bell hooks: “Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” (hooks 2000)

I like that it is described as a movement rather than a position or opinion, implying continual progress until the end is met. The need for such a movement – self-evident to many, a mystery to the less enlightened – is the fundamental and centuries-old nature of (most) societies as patriarchies. The OED defines patriarchy as: A system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it.” (OED)

Accepting the following two statements justifies the existence of feminism:

  • We do live in a patriarchy
  • Females and males should be treated equally

With the simplicity of this it becomes clear that, to quote the title of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s e-book, “We Should All Be Feminists” (Adichie 2014).

Unfortunately, the domination of the patriarchy has led to feminism being largely discredited and marginalised to the extent that many women decry the label. Isn’t it really simply about ending equality, not having one gender dominate the other? I also like Caitlin Moran’s equality-based definition in How To Be A Woman:

“What is feminism? Simply the belief that women should be as free as men, however nuts, dim, deluded, badly dressed, fat, receding, lazy and smug they might be. Are you a feminist? Hahaha. Of course you are.” (Moran 2011)

History of feminism

As noted in the course handbook there are three generally accepted phases of western feminism (although some spectators see a fourth emerging…):

First wave

  • Mid/late 1800s to 1930s in most western nations
  • Quite narrow in focus: predominantly aimed at women being allowed to vote in political elections, e.g. the Suffragette Movement in UK led in stages to women aged 21 and over being given the vote in 1928
    • Other countries worked more slowly, for example France only gave women he vote in 1944 and Switzerland held out until a mind-boggling 1971
  • Not noted for artistic representations, which were probably seen as something of a luxury whilst women were fighting for something as basic as a political voice

Second wave

  • 1960s-1980s, predominately in USA and western Europe
  • Seeking to end discrimination in a wider sense than just voting rights, e.g. divorce law, abortion, domestic violence and marital rape, sexual exploitation, career opportunities, pay inequality
    • Some parallels with other anti-discrimination-based movements e.g. American civil right movement
    • Sometimes referred to as “Women’s Lib”, though this became a derogatory term
  • Feminism becomes a theme in art and media over this phase, most notably writing (e.g. Germaine Greer, Erica Jong, Simone de Beauvoir) but extending into other art forms, e.g. Judy Chicago, Yoko Ono, Louise Bourgeois

Third wave

  • 1990s–2010s (or ongoing, depending on who you ask)
  • A reaction against the perceived limitations of the second wave (that it was dominated by the heterosexual, white, middle-class point of view; that it was absolutist and alienating)
  • More inclusive of minorities (ethic, sexual orientation)
  • More focused on social and behavioural change, less so on legal change
  • Typified by writers such as bell hooks, Rebecca Walker and Eve Ensler (The Vagina Monologues, 1996)
  • Artists: Cindy Sherman, Frida Kahlo, the Guerrilla Girls, the Riot Grrrl movement

Fourth wave?

  • Is this a new wave, or an evolution of the third wave…?
  • Those who believe in a fourth wave point to the changes brought by digital technology, especially the virality of social media for campaigning (e.g. Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism)
    • However it can be argued that the aims are broadly the same as the third wave, it’s just the communication platform that is new
  • Notable contemporary voices: Caitlin Moran, Caroline Criado-Perez, Laura Bates, Emma Watson

Art and feminism

The second and third waves present identifiable examples of feminist art. Wells summarises the key aspects of art-feminism under three headings:

  • Women as subjects
    • Examining and in some cases subverting the exploitation inherent in the use of the (often nude) female as the subject of art, under the gaze the male artist and audience
  • Women as artists, historic
    • Rediscovering the previously disregarded or marginalised contributions of women to art over the centuries
  • Women as artists, contemporary
    • Asserting the right for greater representation of female artists in art galleries, schools and media

(Wells 2009: 293)

Women as subjects

The first point around the gaze is worthy of a whole book, or several. The history of art is to a significant degree the history of men painting women, often naked. As Wells puts it:

“It was argued that the term ‘nude’, central to the visual arts tradition, lent a guise of respectability to the practice of naked women being objectified for fantasy libidinous gratification” (Wells 2009: 293)

John Berger devotes a chapter of Ways of Seeing to the female nude and the male gaze, matter-of-factly explaining how a man sees himself as an absolute “presence”, while a woman sees herself relative to how others see her: “Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another” (Berger 1972) – it implies the female definition as one or more roles in the patriarchy: mother, daughter, sister, wife, lover, etc.

Elisabeth Bronfen wrote a whole book (Over Her Dead Body) on the subject of how dead women specifically have been depicted in art – it’s been a horrifyingly common trope over the centuries. The double representation of the beautiful female body and death may speak volumes about the male egos (and/or insecurities) of the artists. Bronfen posits that the use of dead female a subject is telling of a whole culture: “… [C]ulture uses art to dream the deaths of beautiful women” (Bronwen 1992: xi)

Berger and Bronfen provide only two examples of how entrenched and symbolism-heavy the depiction of women in art has been for centuries. Feminism’s attempts to redress the balance has made but a tiny fraction of the progress needed.

Women as artists

It’s interesting to note that the latter pair of points in Wells, around women as artists, doesn’t specifically mean that their work is inherently feminist in content and intent; being a female artist doesn’t necessarily mean being a Feminist Artist in a direct, deliberate way. Being a female artist and getting as much opportunity, attention, praise, criticism, money,  fame etc as a male artist is however an intrinsically feminist act, even if your subject matter is entirely apolitical. Go as far back as Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-79): her subject matter (generally portraiture) held no gendered messages – the very fact that she was a successful photographer was her contribution to feminism.

Wells also notes that the second-wave push for more female representation in art coincided with the parallel push for photography to be taken more seriously as art (Wells 2009: 293) – so it is no surprise that many women over this period chose photography as their medium.

I will look at specific practitioners in subsequent research posts.


Adichie, C.N. (2014) We Should All Be Feminists (Kindle e-book edition). London: Fourth Estate (downloaded 20/03/2016)

Berger, J. (1972) Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin.

Bronfen, E. (1992) Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

hooks, b. (2000) Feminism Is For Everybody: Passionate Politics. Abingdon: Routledge.

Moran, C. (2011) How To Be A Woman. London: Random House.

Wells, L. (2009) Photography: a Critical Introduction (4th ed). Abingdon: Routledge. (accessed 30/03/2016) (accessed 30/03/2016) (accessed 30/03/2016) (accessed 30/03/2016)


4 thoughts on “Research point: Feminism

  1. Catherine 30 March 2016 / 16:05

    The ‘nutshell’ tweet is a great one as a starting point for discussion.


  2. Kate 06 April 2016 / 11:20

    Nice summary. I was trying to explain feminism to my daughter, using the example of someone being more for doing the same job because they were a boy, despite having the same education, training, skills and experience. She gave me the same look of disbelief that we got when we tried to answer where babies come from…


  3. Kate 06 April 2016 / 11:21

    someone being *paid* more
    that should say…


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