Feminism: A Very Short Introduction by Margaret Walters

feminism cover imageSummary: A short history of the feminist movement, primarily focusing on first and second-wave feminism within England, with a follow-up chapter on feminism in other geographical areas.

Because women’s role in the church has been an active conversation lately, I have been thinking about feminism. A tweet (there were several in the same vein) suggested that part of the issue with the discussion today is that feminism has changed the discussion. Today all except a few want to assert that women are equal, but roles are different. Historically the church fathers, until recently, were influenced by Greek thought that understood women as flawed men or lesser creations. Feminism has changed the terms so that even though hard patriarchalists continue to exist and have influence, most will at least say women are equal in value and Imago Dei.

The book opens with a chapter on the religious roots of feminism starting in the middle ages. And then following is a chapter on secular approaches to feminism. This is followed by a chapter on 18th-century women writers. And then two chapters on the 19th century.

Because voting rights were so central to the women’s rights movement, there were two chapters on voting rights. The last three chapters are about first-wave feminism in the 20th century. Then second-wave feminism in the late 20th century. And then, a chapter on feminists worldwide lightly touches on the critiques of first and second-wave feminism. The afterward lightly touches on continued changes to feminism. Kaitlyn Schiess has a good video on her Getting Schooled series, Feminism 101, that covers similar material in about 40 minutes.

One of the problems of the early feminist movement is that it also agreed to hierarchy as a default cultural assumption. Sojourner Truth’s famous Aint I a Woman speech raised concerns about how White women sought to make suffrage (voting rights) a competition between White women and Black men. In the book, which is primarily about English feminism, there are examples of educated White English women being offended that lower-class men, immigrants, and criminals were allowed to vote but educated, land-owning women were not allowed to vote. This is a hierarchical argument that voting is based on the worth of the voter, not on inherent dignity.

At least part of the movement toward universal suffrage of men is that part of what drove women’s suffrage. But the suffrage movement started being taken more seriously as photography became more widely used. The sexism of women being the “weaker sex” was part of what suffragettes used to raise awareness. Images of privileged women being carried by police due to women’s demonstrations raised objections. But even that gave way to violence and vandalism to express frustration when non-violent demonstrations did not work. At least three castles, several churches, a significant library, and many homes were destroyed by arson as part of the protests in England.

One of the aspects that I did not know is that consciousness-raising was coined by feminist groups in the late 1960s. I was aware of the other origin because, at the same time, Critical consciousness, conscientization or consciousness-raising was coined by Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed (written in 1967 and translated into English in 1970).

Overall this is a helpful, quick introduction to feminism. But because it was published in 2006, it is limited because the 3rd and 4th wave of feminists were too new or after its publication. And I think that the critique I saw in several reviews about the early parts of the book being too oriented on mini-biographies is true. I think there is value in learning about early feminists, but the format of such reliance on those biographical sketches feels a bit like “great man” history.

I also think that the focus on England as a geographical source of the story (a reasonable limitation given the size of the book) makes it harder to discuss the critiques of CRT about intersectionality, which isn’t even mentioned in the book. Every Very Short Introduction has to make difficult choices about what to include, and the focus on England, first and second-wave feminism, and then a short global survey was a reasonable choice. Still, I want a follow-up book to expand the focus.

Feminism: A Very Short Introduction by Margaret Walters Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audible.com Audiobook

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