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The Growth of Feminist Ideology Previous Next
Digital History ID 3343


Feminists subscribe to no single doctrine or set of goals. All are united, however, by a belief that women have historically occupied a subordinate position in politics, education, and the economic system. Modern feminist thought traces its roots to a book,The Second Sex, published by a famous French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir in 1949. The book traced the assumptions, customs, educational practices, jokes, laws, and modes of speech that socialize young women to believe that they are inferior beings.

A decade and a half later, Betty Friedan made another important contribution to the development of feminist ideology. In The Feminine Mystique, she analyzed and criticized the role of educators, psychologists, sociologists, and the mass media in conditioning women to believe that they could only find fulfillment as housewives and mothers. By requiring women to subordinate their own individual aspirations to the welfare of their husbands and children, the "feminine mystique" prevented women from achieving self-fulfillment and inevitably left women unhappy.

In the years following the publication of The Feminine Mystique, feminists developed a large body of literature analyzing the economic, psychological, and social roots of female subordination. It was not until 1970, however, that the more radical feminist writings reached the broader reading public with the publication of Shulamith Firestone's The Dialectic of Sex, Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch, and Kate Millett's Sexual Politics. These books argued that gender distinctions structure virtually every aspect of individual lives, not only in such areas as law and employment, but also in personal relationships, language, literature, religion, and an individual's internalized self-perceptions. Even more controversially, these works attributed female oppression to men and an ideology of male supremacy. "Women have very little idea how much men hate them," declared Greer. As examples of misogyny these authors cited pornography, grotesque portrayals of women in literature, sexual harassment, wife abuse, and rape.

Since 1970, feminist theory has exploded into many different directions. Today, there are more than 30 national feminist news and opinion magazines along with an additional 20 academic journals dealing with women's issues. Women's historians, feminist literary and film critics, and physical and social scientists have begun to take insights derived from feminism and to ask new questions about women's historical experience, the sex and status differences between women and men, sex role socialization, economic and legal discrimination, and the depiction of women in literature.

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