by Ashley Sanders
Belmont English Professor Caresse John began her seminar, “Feminism: Who Needs It?” with a couple of questions – the first question, “Do you believe that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities?” drew every hand in the room up into the air. The second question, “Do you believe that men and women are equal in our society?” was met with silence. These answers confirmed the progress that has been made by the feminist movement and highlighted the fact that there is still work to be done.
Dr. John did a brief history of the feminist movement as a whole, beginning with pre-first wave women. There is a lot we don’t know about the lives of women in this time because their stories have been erased or were never told. We do know that they were allowed very little education; they could not have a job, they had no legal or civil identity, or authority. They were at the total mercy of the men in their lives.
The first wave of feminism began with the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 where 300 people gathered and signed the Declaration of Sentiments: where every “he” in the Declaration of Independence was replaced with “she.” The goals of this convention were women’s invisibility in law and government and the right to vote. There were a few things standing in the way of progress after the convention. The first, there was no national organization in place to keep up communication after the convention. During the civil war, women worked for abolition. After helping to earn black men the right to vote, women’s own right to vote became the main fight of the movement. Every year beginning in 1878, Congress denied women’s proposal for suffrage until finally granting women the right to vote in 1920.
In the time between earning the right to vote and the second wave, America went through the Great Depression, fought in WWII and saw the beginnings of the Cold War. The second wave of feminism began with the Women’s Strike for Equality in 1970 led by Betty Friedan. After achieving the goals of the first wave, the second wave focused on women’s issues big and small dealing with standards of beauty, multiplicity of female experience, reproductive rights and sexual violence. During this wave, the phrase: “The Personal is Political” was coined.
Finally, Dr. John discussed where we are today. The feminist movement has made great strides. We are now living in a time when it’s cool to be a woman; She showed videos of famous feminists, Beyoncé, Taylor Swift and Emma Watson. These days, “feminism is the fluoride in the water”: it’s everywhere and it’s good for you. We have grown up in that. But there is still a ways to go. We still live in a culture where women are slut-shamed, men cannot cry and BIC makes pens for women. Now to be a feminist means more than just believing that men and women should be equal, it means doing something about it. It means caring enough about the experience of both women and men to try to make it better. Because as Dr. John said, “At its core, feminism is about compassion, all of us being human beings.”