Feminism is a collection of movements and ideologies aimed at defining, establishing, and defending equal political, economic, and social rights for women.This includes seeking to establish equal opportunities for women in education and employment. A feminist advocates or supports the rights and equality of women.
Feminist theory, which emerged from these feminist movements, aims to understand the nature of gender inequality by examining women’s social roles and lived experience; it has developed theories in a variety of disciplines in order to respond to issues such as the social construction of sex and gender. Some of the earlier forms of feminism have been criticized for taking into account only white, middle-class, educated perspectives. This led to the creation of ethnically specific or multiculturalist forms of feminism.
Feminist activists campaign for women’s rights – such as in contract law, property, and voting – while also promoting bodily integrity, autonomy, and reproductive rights for women. Feminist campaigns have changed societies, particularly in the West, by achieving women’s suffrage, gender neutrality in English, equal pay for women, reproductive rights for women (including access to contraceptives and abortion), and the right to enter into contracts and own property. Feminists have worked to protect women and girls from domestic violence, sexual harassment, and sexual assault. They have also advocated for workplace rights, including maternity leave, and against forms of discrimination against women. Feminism is mainly focused on women’s issues, but because feminism seeks gender equality, bell hooks and other feminists have argued that men’s liberation is a necessary part of feminism, and that men are also harmed by sexism and gender roles.
Feminist theory is the extension of feminism into theoretical or philosophical fields. It encompasses work in a variety of disciplines, including anthropology, sociology, economics, women’s studies, literary criticism,art history, psychoanalysis and philosophy. Feminist theory aims to understand gender inequality and focuses on gender politics, power relations, and sexuality. While providing a critique of these social and political relations, much of feminist theory also focuses on the promotion of women’s rights and interests. Themes explored in feminist theory include discrimination, stereotyping, objectification (especially sexual objectification), oppression, and patriarchy.
In the field of literary criticism, Elaine Showalter describes the development of feminist theory as having three phases. The first she calls “feminist critique”, in which the feminist reader examines the ideologies behind literary phenomena. The second Showalter calls “gynocriticism”, in which the “woman is producer of textual meaning”. The last phase she calls “gender theory”, in which the “ideological inscription and the literary effects of the sex/gender system are explored”.
This was paralled in the 1970s by French feminists, who developed the concept of écriture féminine (which translates as female, or feminine writing). Helene Cixous argues that writing and philosophy are phallocentric and along with other French feminists such as Luce Irigaray emphasize “writing from the body” as a subversive exercise. The work of the feminist psychoanalyst and philosopher, Julia Kristeva, has influenced feminist theory in general and feminist literary criticism in particular. However, as the scholar Elizabeth Wright points out, “none of these French feminists align themselves with the feminist movement as it appeared in the Anglophone world”.