A Brief History of Feminism and its impact on Modern India

Feminism in its most basic sense is referred to as ideologies, theories, movements which aim and talk about equality for women with respect to other genders in terms of social, political and economic aspects. It aims at acknowledging women as a gender when it comes to giving opportunities and rights. Feminism can be said as a movement (feminist movement) which talks about the need of treating human beings equally irrespective of the gender while acknowledging the certain distinct needs of women. (1)  with equality, feminism also includes certain distinctive rights that should be given to women because of their biological system which men do not have. This includes reproductive rights, abortion rights, maternity leave etc.

The reason behind its existence is the fact that women are not being treated equally as compared to other genders especially males in society in various ways depending upon the dynamics of society.

Shivam Goel from Institute of Law, Nirma University, Ahmedabad

The emergence of feminism at a global level

Every country in history has its own time and situation that led to the origination of feminism, but the discussion on the rights of women by Political Philosophers has been going on from the ancient period. Most of the philosophers had a misogynist view on women like Thomas Aquinas’s view of women as a misbegotten male (2), misogynist perspective of Machiavelli[1] , Rousseau’s ideology of women to be weaker sex (3), Aristotle’s perspective of superior-subordinate relation between men and women respectively (4) etc.  However, it was Plato and Mill who had a positive attitude towards women and their rights. Where Plato thought of human should to be sexless and wanted equal access to education and politics for men and women (5), Mill argued on human development which was irrespective of gender (6).

Though Oxford Dictionary incorporated the word ‘Feminist’ in 1852 and ‘Feminism’ in 1895, the term feminism is said to be derived by a French Philosopher, Charles Fourier as ‘féminisme’ in 1837 which was meant as women’s freedom[2].[3]

There have been many movements, protests and actions taken for women rights in history but the evolution of ‘feminism’ per se started in the late14th and early15th century where, along with Plato supporting equality for women, a French philosopher, Christine de Pizan in her book The City of Ladies stood up against misogynist society in the middle ages (7).  This move gave a head start to the supporter of the feminist movement and subsequently, Pizan’s work was Laura Cereta who published the volume of letters of problems faced by women in terms of denial of education and problems faced by women post-marriage[4].

Years after the protection of women’s right became a phase in itself where philosophers and writers talked about women’s rights, 18th century (the Enlightenment period (1685-1815)) turned the fights and protests for women rights into a movement and an ideology. At first, this period started with reforms which were restricted to caste and social wedge and didn’t incorporate gender-based equality as a result of which declaration of right and citizens were drafted in France in 1789 which didn’t bother to include the rights of women. This draft aimed at liberty and basic rights and laws governing France and yet didn’t acknowledge the equal need for liberty, equality and rights for women as well. (8) However, this heat was taken up by many French Philosophers and Thinkers who argues against it furiously for the cause. These included Mary Wollstonecraft, who was the author of ‘The Vindication of the Rights of Women’, the Duchess of Newcastle- upon- Tyne and Abigail Adams, First lady to President John Adams (9). She especially warned the President to fulfil the need of women i.e. equality and access to education, property etc. this led to the ‘abolition movement’ by women and other supporters and demanded their right to slavery.

All this led to the establishment of Feminism and thus, the start of First Wave of Feminism.

Waves of Feminism

Waves of feminism are the periods which aimed at different objectives according to the need of society and the plausibility of that objective. There have been 2 waves of feminism in the past and the third wave is continued. However, the emergence of the fourth wave is a debatable issue as it has taken a pro-feminism and a pseudo feminism orientation.

The first wave of feminism

This wave started in the late 19th century and early 20th century with the beginning of Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 where approx. 300 people rallied for the cause of rights of women[5]. Further, Elizabeth Cady Stanton drafted the Seneca Falls Declaration which was a manifesto containing their political strategies in which it was quoted that “we hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal” (10). This wave focused on the legal suffrage i.e. legal right to vote and was also called as the Suffrage Movement (11).  

This movement was considered as the aim of feminism for several decades and after more than 40 years, finally, the protests and the hardships faced by the people in the patriarchal society all over the world started succeeding around the globe. In 1893, New Zealand gave the right to vote to women. The same was in Australia and Finland in 1902 and 1906 respectively. After this success, two major countries i.e. United Kingdom (UK) and United State of America (USA) were left to give suffrage rights to women out of which UK gave suffrage rights to women above 30 years of age in 1918 and USA passed the 19 Amendment which gave suffrage rights to women after their outstanding contribution in  World War I. (11)

Second Wave of Feminism

One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” is written in the book The Second Sex, published in the year 1949 by Simone De Beauvoir during World War II. This war can be said to be the biggest trigger that6 led to the second wave of feminism as it is because of this war that women got an opportunity to join the labour force and thus, occupation as most of the working force of men was at war fighting for their nation. Also, not only at the time of war, but after the war ended, many countries which got devastated because of the impact of war needed more employees and forced to run its economy and help people which gave the platform for women to join the paid jobs[6]. This time enabled both, the women and the society including the government to recognize4 and acknowledge the abilities of women which cannot be compared less to men.

The another and the immediate cause which led to the next wave was the oppression faced by women after the first wave of feminism in the 1920s. because the first wave was only restricted to the very basic right one can have in a democratic state or any form of government where elections take place is suffrage. But there were a lot of other discrimination happening in terms of race of women, their social exploitation in terms of employment opportunities, social ills like domestic violence, prostitution and objectification of women.

Other than these 2 core reasons, the influence of feminist philosophers and such quotes continuously impacted society. Along with the book and the writer mentioned above, other books were released in 1963 with the name of ‘The Feminine Mystique’ by Betty Friedan. in her book, she mainly focused on the domestic issues that women of that society were facing as those were the root causes and initial stage of problems faced by women.[7]

 These reasons and motives led to struggles and as a result of which a National Organization for Women was formed in 1960 and subsequently it paved the way to the Equal Pay Act, 1963. This aim removed the deterrence of women to not to join paid occupations because of unequal pay. To conclude, this wave aimed at but not restricted to securing civil rights and for women and extended to reproductive rights abortion laws etc.  

All these problems faced by women and the continuous struggle of people for change mushroomed the situation which in a patriarchal society, was politicized a lot. In the essay “The Personal is Political” written in 1970 by Carol Hanisch, he argued about the need for politicizing personal problems which are the only solution in a patriarchal society.

As compared to the earlier wave, this wave took broader traction and unlike the participation of white females in an earlier wave, this wave could be seen in women from marginalized backgrounds as well who wanted more radical change and the end of patriarchal society as well.[8]

This is the reason that this wave was bifurcated into two, equal rights feminism and radical feminism. Equal rights feminism took the legislative stand and comprised white women in general with good background whereas the radical feminists of this wave cam from all the sections of society and questioned the society and the then status quo at large including questions on the patriarchal society. (12)

As a result of this wave, the Equal Rights Amendment was passed in US Senate on March 22, 1972 (13) followed by the landmark judgement of Roe V Wade in 1973 which gave women, the right to choose abortion.

However, this wave of feminism was still considered to be led by white women who didn’t recognize the other oppression faced by women like racial biases and minority status. This led to the wedge between white female feminist and black female feminists as for the late, white female feminists were as much oppressor as white men when it comes to racial discrimination. (14)

Third Wave of Feminism

 The third wave of feminism aimed at continuing the issues and objectives which were left incomplete in the second wave. The protestors in this wave were Generation Xers which means people born in and around the 1960s and initiated the wave in mid-1990s. these people gained a lot from the rights provided to them by the second wave feminists (15). Where the second wave achieved political, legal and economic rights, this wave aimed more at liberty and all the other oppressions faced by women in a patriarchal society. They aimed to restructure the society from its roots in terms of evading sexist, racist and classist structure enrooted in the society. (16)

What differentiated this wave from the previous two was its outreach in pop culture and media, it aimed at liberty and removing the gender norms and expectations of societies from different genders. Women empowerment and the presence of women at a different platform where the thought of this wave which was more practical and targeted the social norms. In the statement of Pinkfloor, they quoted “it’s possible to have a push-up bra and brain at the same time” (17)

Feminism in India: Unaffected by Feminism of the West

From the beginning of Feminism and the continuous discussion of women rights and status in society, it is safe to say that we have come a long way if it is taken into a global perspective.

However, it is important to understand that the term feminism and the growth of the feminist movement along with its results have always been a thing of the western world. There was a very less impact of feminism and the movement in other countries where women stood for their rights, which also wasn’t related to the movement and the emergence of feminism but was a direct reaction to the oppression faced them in society they live in. the western culture has no part to play in feminism and feminist movement in India and that is why it has its own 3 phases of evolution of feminism. (18)

The reason behind the difference in the feminists’ movements in India and the western culture can be directed to the dynamics of society India was in. there may be similarity in the ultimate goals of what both feminists seek, but because of diversity and the economic, social and political status of Indian society led to the difference in approach to seeking equal rights.

India has seen many feminist icons or leaders who tried to deal with deep enrooted patriarchal society in their way. For example- Sampat Pal Devi’s Gulabi Gang who used to beat people who oppress women etc. the First Phase of the Emergence of Feminism in India was led under the influence of colonial rule in India and then talk about modernity from 1850-1915. It is interesting to know that the feminism in India was started by men and later joined by women when the protests again ‘Sati pratha’ started. These protests marked the start of feminism and feminists in India. (19) with the abolition of the practice, women fought for the rights concerning widow remarriage, the abolition of child marriage, rights in property etc. the role of women ruling large empires like Rani Lakshmi bai etc. also help[ed in the growth of women empowerment in India in the first phase. However, this phase took a major set back when the nationalist movement started in India under which people denied the colonial reforms in gender which all took place in the name of modernization.

In the second phase (1915-1947), feminist angle took a major leap but was hindered by the spirit of nationalism during the period of independence and the nationalist movements over took feminism. However, Gandhi helped women in showing their abilities in society by giving them the platform to join satyagraha and civil disobedience movements (20). Along with it, many only women organizations emerged such as the National Federation of Indian women and All India Women’s Conference which worked with Mahatma Gandhi in and around the 1930s. these organizations focused on developing an education system for women and strategies for women who were working

In the third phase which was post-independence of India in 1947, the organizations mentioned above formed placed themselves in the women’s wing of the communist party of India in 1954. Women, in India, by that time had placed themselves in a position to work. However, societal issues in terms of unequal pay etc.[9] at last Indira Gandhi became the first women Prime Minister of Independent India and stayed for three consecutive terms. Later in the name of reproductive rights, India witnessed the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971 which talked about abortion laws. There have been many changes and implementations in these phases other than the important one mentioned as well.

India – Dystopian State of Feminism

The rush in achieving objectives of waves of feminism

As the country and the world has already seen multiple narratives of feminism from time to time which ultimately aimed at securing a common objective which describes feminism but differs in approaches towards that objective. However, the feminism or the aim of achieving gender and social equality which every wave brought with it came up with a rush and eagerness to be accomplished which somehow has lacked the completion of that wave.

Though the first wave targeting suffrage achieved its objective, it was the second and the third wave which cannot be said to be achieved in the status quo.  While we talk about the objective of feminism and its achievements, it is still farfetched in Indian society. The abortion laws in India from 1971 have always been oriented towards the protection of medical practitioners instead of giving the right to abortion to women. Also, the abortion laws do not give the right to women and the final opinion is rested upon medical practitioners only. (21) even after almost 50 years, the act still stands unchanged. Also, when it comes to the autonomy of reproductive system to women, apart from the abortion laws, social evils like marital rape still go unnoticed and even if does, the husband is charged with the offence of cruelty which is very minute as compared to the mental stigma that the action arises in the mind of women. Not only this, the sexual harassment of women at workplace Act enacted in 2013 while the wave of feminism started in the 1960s.

Is Feminism unaffected in our developing country?

India being a developing country where a huge percentage of people are poor suffers daily from the social evils that women were facing decades back in terms of child marriage, illiteracy, child mortality rate and female infanticide etc. (*). women in India still earns 34% less than males in India(22)

There may have been many laws which prevent gender inequality but today also, feticide and infanticide cases are at peak even after implementation of parental diagnose technique act, 994 which prohibits sex determination during pregnancy.

These are the statistical data and aspects of gender inequality ills in the country but the social ills which cannot be calculated like the preconceived assumption of women to be a housewife or the norms of fashion and way of speech in society still go unnoticed.

One of the major reasons which lead to the failure of feminism as an ideology is the label, expectations and the assumptions that are imposed on genders in society. If a person is a male, he is expected to earn money, stay strong, show superiority amongst others, not do errands of the house etc. and if the person is female, she is expected to be sympathetic, caring, a good cook, the one who can do all sort of housework’s and take care of kids and husband etc. all this happens because the men in the Indian society are placed at a pedestal before they enter the world where they are expected to hold certain authorities and duties for which they demand respect and this process leads to the natural creation of superior-subordinate relationships between gender.

The need for change in the modern concepts of Feminism

Today, in the modern and well aware society in general, people are going wrong in two directions, one which is mentioned above i.e. the label that they carry and other is becoming pro-feminist which is making them pseudo feminists. Due to the passage of time and the struggle of gender equality from centuries, people have now taken a different angle and perspective towards feminism and instead of promoting gender inequality, has set a prejudice against men. This means that today people have gone pro-female and anything happens to women anywhere blames the men behind it. one of the recent issues that can be related to this topic is ‘Bois locker room’. Here, a female created a fake account in the name of a boy and started objectifying women and abusing her peers with other boys and then leaked their conversation on social media, and the people without even thinking blamed the boys and started criticizing them. This resulted in mental injury to those boys and their family because of the action of that girl who created the fake account. However, when this issue gained the attention of the authorities they found out the fake account was made by the girl who leaked the conversation.

Therefore, today where there’s a need for removing label and expectations from people, there’s also a need to stop this pseudo feminism and create a balanced society with gender equality.

For this, all the genders should be given equal opportunities irrespective of the gender and the right to choose should be rested upon them. This will lead to a more democratic and balanced society as people then have equality. This will result in people making decisions irrespective of gender and based on work. With giving a platform to women, there’s also a need for giving the choice to men as well in terms of what they want. That is to say, if a girl should be given the option to be a housewife or an earning woman, men should also be giving the platform to choose between becoming an earning member or not. This can only be possible if the labels imposed on genders will be removed.

Feminism and feminism movement has been a big and important concept and theory of society which has changed the society a lot, but there’s a need of change in this society as well and people need to take a balance step towards approaching gender equality.


[1] Clarke, M. (2005). On the Woman Question in Machiavelli. The Review of Politics, 67(2), 229-255. Retrieved May 26, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/25046410

[2] Goldstein, L. (1982). Early Feminist Themes in French Utopian Socialism: The St.-Simonians and Fourier. Journal of the History of Ideas, 43(1), 91-108. DOI:10.2307/2709162

[3] Wikipedia contributors. (2020, April 23). Feminism. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 18:20, May 26, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Feminism&oldid=952621214

[4] Cereta, Laura .” Encyclopedia of World Biography. Retrieved May 23, 2020, from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/cereta-laura

[5] (2013, 10). The three waves of feminism StudyMode.com Retrieved 10,2013, from https://www.studymode.com/essays/The-Three-Waves-Of-Feminism-40078504.html

[6] Laughlin, Kathleen A., and Jacqueline L. Castledine. Breaking the Wave: Women, Their Organizations, and Feminism, 1945-1985. New York: Routledge, 2011, 4.

[7] Ryan, Barbara. Feminism and the Women’s Movement: Dynamics of Change in Social Movement Ideology, and Activism. New York: Routledge, 1992, 42.

[8] LeGates, Marlene. In Their Time: A History of Feminism in Western Society, New York: Routledge, 2001, 352-357.

[9] Wikipedia contributors. (2020, May 27). Wayback Machine. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 12:14, May 27, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Wayback_Machine&oldid=959147656.


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