The feminist movement advocates for social, political, economic, and cultural equality for women and men. While many traditionally view the feminist movement as divided into three waves, with the first one originating from the protests for property and voting rights at the end of the 19th century in Europe and North American, we can trace feminist theory back to the root of civilization.
I don’t know at which point in my life I stumbled upon this quote from ancient Roman consul Marcus Porcius Cato that, now rediscovered, still gives me chills. Referring to women, he said: “As soon as they begin to be your equals, they will have become your superiors!”
For me this sentence gives me, on one side, pride: Pride of seeing recognized that women are not “your superiors” only because they are not granted equality, but could very well be. But on the other side, it also makes me sad: Sad because this was not a sentence spurred out with the intent of showing the hypocrisy of Roman legislators, but with the intent of discouraging them from lifting the Oppian Law, which restricted women’s access to gold and other goods.
During the Middle Ages and later the Enlightenment - categorisations which are also the product of a Western school of thought and do not take very much in consideration non-European events at the time - the condition of women was criticised by feminist intellectuals in European countries and several women advocated for gender equality. One figure that I will always remember is Mary Wollstonecraft, English writer of the 18th century. Wollstonecraft was author of “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,” and yet, I only heard her mentioned during high-school because she was mother of the much more known Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein (conceived right here in Geneva!) rather than for her advocacy. Now, while I have nothing against Mary Shelley and very much admire her work, it is interesting to note how women actively advocating for women’s rights are easily left out of school books, or, that when remembered, their advocacy is not remarked upon. The systemic inequalities to which women have been subjected for decades in most dominant cultures around the world, have been masked with different arguments related to ‘natural differences’, ‘cultural differences’, or simply ‘custom’ for thousands of years. Separation between women and men, and domination of the latter over the former, has been entrenched in all social, political, economic and cultural spheres of life. In an article from 1989, feminist scholar bell hooks states “[Contemporary feminists] point to the insistence on difference as that factor which becomes the occasion for separation and domination and suggest that differentiation of status between females and males globally is an indication that patriarchal domination of the planet is the root of the problem.” In my reading, hooks affirms that patriarchal domination is not just a problem for women, but the source of greater global problems. This led women to put feminism at the top of their agenda, in every aspect of life.
The three feminist waves that emerged at the end of the 19th century were focused on the acquisition of property and voting rights for women. Why? Because the economic subordination to their husbands was a huge constraint standing in the way of women’s emancipation, who until this point needed always be economically dependent on man. The Suffragette movement is a wonderful example of feminist advocacy and solidarity which - by way of hard-fought battles - led to the inclusion of women in the universal suffrage in most countries of the world. It was one of the very first times such a broad coalition of women from different social stratas came together under one banner and, more or less slowly, spread all around the globe. The movement brought to the creation of one of the first transnational feminist alliances, the International Women Suffrage Alliance, which has been a precursor of the strong transnationalisim feminist advocacy achieved today.
Following this first moment, the second wave is often referred to as “feminist liberation” or “women’s liberation movement” which adovacated for women’s equality in the workplace and female sexual liberation with advocacy for divorce, abortion, and safe contraception characterising the movement.
Finally, the third wave feminist is the one which emerged at the beginning of the 21st century, shedding a light on the western-white-centric approach that the feminist movement was characterised by, it demanded space for the voices of black women, and was a key impetus in allowing us to arrive at what we call intersectional feminism today. Intersectional feminism takes into account all the different intersecting identities a person possess and warns about falling into essentialist arguments stating that all women are the same.
What is important to highlight here, apart from the different movements and the evolution of feminism over time, is that there is no one feminism. Feminists are varieagated and feminism is a differentiated movement with several sub-ideologies, such as: liberal feminism, marxist and socialist feminism, eco-feminism, cultural feminism and others.
Here at the Young People’s Working Group for the IHEID EQUALS-EU Innovation Camp, what do we mean by feminism? Most importantly, we wish to be taught through the experiences, research, and voices of those around us, particularly in moments such as our upcoming Innovation Camp. Today, we are most excited by the claim for political, economic, social, and cultural equality for all women adopting an intersectional look. This means that we listen to and value all types of feminism, even if different from our own. We recognize that we, as individuals, have all different experiences informed by the different identities we embody: I am female, heterosexual, italian, student, young, living in Switzerland, unmarried, and so on. All these different experiences intersect for the creation of a unique identity which influences how we see and perceive the world and ourselves, as well as how we are perceived by the world. Following this logic, we believe that the application of a feminist lens to international law and policy means recognizing each person’s individual and unique experience and widen our ears to listen to all voices. As stated above in the quote from bell hooks, patriarchy and male domination are not just a problem for women but one for the world. Adopting a feminist eye in international law and policy means recognising these patterns of harmful domination of “male” and “female” entities, which can also be States or peoples, and reflect upon them with the eye of intersectionality.
This blog is written by the Graduate Institute, Geneva’s YPWG group, or those invited to write for the blog by the YPWG. Content is not reviewed by, and is independent from the central EQUALS-EU project.