Many philosophers and thinkers have defined and described Feminism in many different ways. There are different perspectives on Feminism. There has been a gradual shift in the way its meaning has been explained and understood over the years. However, most of the times, feminism has been defined in terms of being related to social and political movement and as a struggle to ensure the right to equality for women (Easton, 2012). Feminism, as an idea existed from early times but it took the form of a theory and movement during the 19th century. No matter what the definitions are or will be, feminism has always voiced and stood up for the well-being of women. The word “feminism” was initially used in France in the late 19th century during the political movement. The word “feminism” is rooted in the French word “feminisme” (Easton, 2012).
History of Feminism
Talking about the history of feminism, it takes us back to the times when feminism, as a theory had not developed but there were struggles and issues about gender and discrimination and it was claimed that women should receive equal rights and opportunities as men. In official manner, the term “feminism” came into use towards the end of the 19th century in Paris. The history of feminism can be divided into three phases which are called waves of feminism:
First Wave Feminism
Second Wave Feminism
First Wave Feminism
During the late 19th and early 20th century, there were some feminist activities which are referred to as the first wave of feminism. There movements were seen in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and the Netherlands. This wave corresponded to the struggle for women’s suffrage, which was achieved by the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, after which, women got the right to vote.
Second Wave Feminism
After the achievement of the goal in 1920, the second wave of feminism began. The second wave of feminism advocated for equal rights in workplace, and at home (Easton, 2012). According to Mackay (2014), the demands of the second feminist wave were as follows: equal pay, equal access to education and job opportunities, free access to contraceptives and abortion, free nurseries operating twenty-four hours, financial and legal independence, the end to discrimination based on sexual orientation and freedom from threat and sexual violence
According to Kinser (2004), the third wave of feminism emerged as an intersecting point of racism and feminism. This term was first used in the mid-1980s and was coined by Rebecca Walker (Snyder-Hall, 2010). Further, it is stated that it aims to give a new dimension to the idea of feminism and avoid the ongoing clash over sexual issues. It aims to be respectful regarding the choice and desire of women. These feminists criticize the second wave of feminists as being rigid and judgmental. It is of the opinion that women don’t share a common gender identity as stated by other feminists. We are currently living in the third wave of feminism. It focuses mostly on women’s identity and political and social status (Easton, 2012). The third wave of feminism is greatly influenced by the ideas and principles of postmodernism. It accepts the reality that there are multiple perspectives and definitions of feminism.
Different Feminist Perspectives
Postmodern feminism is influenced by the post-structuralism and postmodern philosophy. It has connections with both feminism and postmodernism. Postmodern feminism rejects the idea of universal “women” and universal “a woman’s suffering”. According to postmodern feminism, it is wrong to generalize that all women, regardless of their color, race, ethnicity, class and sexual orientation belong to the universal single category “women”. It emphasizes on differences and diversity (Sands ; Nuccio, 1992). Not all women suffer in the same degree and not all women are oppressed. There are particular “women” and therefore, problems and sufferings are also particular. A single assumption doesn’t apply to all women. Postmodern feminism deconstructs the established notions of hierarchies and binary opposites and aims to reconstruct them. It acknowledges that there are multiple perspectives and thus, multiple meanings (Latting, 1995).
As the name implies, liberal feminism is rooted in liberalism. Like other perspectives of feminism, liberal feminism also supports the claim for equality, opportunity, and freedom. In particular, it advocates the equality of legal rights for women. It also demands to put an end to sex-based discrimination. Some of its commitments are- equal access to legal rights, right to equal opportunity, recognition of women as individuals and not just on the basis of their relation to other male counterparts and equal access to education (Wendell, 1987). Liberal feminism also stands against gender stereotyping (Kensinger, 1997).
Revolutionary feminism is a British school of feminism which started in 1977.it was founded by Sheila Jeffreys, a feminist activist and academic (Mackay, 2014). Revolutionary feminism shares some ideas with radical feminism as both emphasize the importance of autonomous women-only space. However, revolutionary feminism focused much of its attention on violence against women. Revolutionary feminists considered violence against women as a keystone of oppression exercised by men.
Radical feminism, in its original sense, barely exists today. Radical feminism began in order to end the supremacy of men in all social and economic fields. Radical feminists were the first ones to demand equality in household work, childcare, emotional and sexual needs. It helped to transform women’s consciousness. However, despite its strong advocacies, radical feminism collapsed and gave way to cultural feminism by 1975 (Willis, 1984). It was inspired by the Marxist philosophy which viewed society as a structured system. It assumed that women share a common experience of oppression and discrimination due to their undermined position in a patriarchal society (Snyders-Hall, 2010).
Marxist feminism borrows the Marxist philosophy of class, hierarchy, and oppression. The Marxist feminist is of the view that it is impossible for women to gain equal opportunity in a class-based society where the wealth produced ends up in the hands of the powerful, the men. In support of Engle’s opinion, they claim that the reason behind oppression is the introduction of private property. It advocates a socialist system in the society where women do not have to be economically dependent on men and hence, women will gain economic freedom (Tong, 2013).
Though feminism has received considerable credit for contributing to the field of theory and practice, there have been some claims against it too. Aboriginal women reject the notion of feminism that focuses more on gender equality. More important issues than for them are to gain freedom from colonization, racism and economic disparity (Denis, 2013). Feminism has also been criticized for ignoring the influence of race, class, color, ethnicity and sexual orientation in women’s experiences. Other feminist theories claim that it is wrong to generalize “women’s experience’ (Hunter, 1996). According to Motta et al. (2011), feminist movements and activities have become institutionalized. Feminism has become more of a profession than a social movement. Critics see an urgent need to broaden the practice area of feminism. According to research in social psychology, feminism portrays a stereotypical view of women and gender. It is also claimed that media representation of feminist ideas is negative and sexist (Jaworska & Krishnamurthy, 2012).
FEMINIST PRACTICE IN SOCIAL WORK
As mentioned by Dominelli & Mcleod (1989), feminist social work started with feminist social action which was carried out by women who worked with other women in the communities and across. The aim of feminist social practice is to understand the sufferings of women which are often untold. It is claimed that the sufferings of women are rooted in their social position as women.
Dominelli (2002) defines feminist social work as follows:
“Feminist social work is a form of social work practice that takes women’s experience of the world as the starting point of its analysis and by focusing on the links between a woman’s position in society and her individual predicament, responds to her specific needs, creates egalitarian relations in ‘client’-worker interactions and addresses structural inequalities. Meeting women’s particular needs in a holistic manner and dealing with the complexities of their lives, including the numerous tensions and diverse forms of oppression impacting upon them, is an integral part of feminist social work. Its focus on the interdependent nature of social relations ensures that it also addresses the needs of those that women interact with- men, children and other women.”
According to Walker & Thompson (1995), feminists have been struggling a great deal in order to put the feminist principles into practice. Feminist pedagogy is considered to be the first and the most common field to practice feminist principles (Collins, 1986). Teaching feminism and its principles is the way by which its ideas will spread in the society and community. It is a way of creating awareness in the society about the situation of women and condition of women and the different forms of violence and oppression they have been facing in the society. Apart from this, there are other important areas where feminist practice can be used. According to Orme (2009), as cited in Payne (2014), there are four main areas of feminist social work:
Women’s different voice
Working with diversity
If we talk about social work practice, a feminist perspective is not only helpful but imperative as well. The reason being that in many societies, the clients are women and even the number of female social workers is more than that of male social workers. Applying a feminist perspective in social work practice will help to better understand the position of women and hence, deal with the issues of oppression and violence (Payne, 2014). As mentioned earlier, the focus of feminist practice in on women and their status in family and society. It also focuses on constructing the private relationships of women based on equality. Talking about the present scenario, domestic violence is one such issue which has attracted feminist practitioners. Violence against women is rampant in communities of all classes, race, religion, age and national boundaries but it is through feminist activism initiated by women’s organizations that it started receiving attention worldwide (WHO, 2001). According to Alcoff (2012), sexual violence against women was one of the important issues raised during the second wave of feminism. The second wave feminists defined rape as a cultural and political problem and not just an individual or private issue. Among the seven demands of the Second-wave Feminism was women’s freedom from sexual coercion or violence. Revolutionary Feminism also exercised its activism against violence exercised on women as it was claimed as the keystone of oppression imposed on women (Mackay, 2014).
A more important issue in the field of social work is the ways in which feminist perspectives can be applied in social work practice so as to deal with issues of violence against women and other gender issues. Payne (2014) suggests some ideas to practice feminist principles in the field of social work.
Creating awareness is the first and the foremost activity that needs to be practiced. Feminist pedagogy works effectively to spread awareness. Also, community-based awareness programs can be initiated to help people of all gender understand about violence against women and another gender, class, and oppression related issues.
Reflexivity was initially used as a tool for research. Gradually, was adopted as an element of practice. Reflexivity is a constructive approach where social work practitioners reflect upon actions, events or contexts which provide them with the insight to make choices further. It is also helpful for creating new knowledge. It is particularly important while dealing with clients. It is also considered as a self-critical approach (D’cruz et al. 2007)
Engaging in conversation or dialogue can be an effective way to deal with clients in social work practice. Face-to-face meetings and conversations among women clients help to understand their situation and gather information about the culture and background they come from. It is essential to know this as many problems are rooted in culture. Also, being women, they have some common experiences to share with each other.
Identifying the identity of the clients is very crucial in solving their problems. Often, the violence and oppression is rooted or stems from the culture or group they belong to. Locating and understanding the identity of clients to a certain group makes it easy to understand their position.
Putting feminist theory into practice requires skills and strategies. First and foremost, feminist social workers should be well aware of the position of women in the society. They need to understand that the main objective of feminist practice is to understand the client. Feminist practitioners should respect diversity and differences and should never be judgmental. They ought to be good listeners too. They should understand that clients are the expert on their own experiences and thus there should be no hierarchical relation between the client and the social worker. The client should be given enough time and space to speak out their story.
Though the feminist social practice has been reaping significant results in the field of social work, it has been facing some criticisms as well. Critics are of the view that feminist practice is isolating the issues of women by excluding men from it. Limiting its concern just for female issues have made feminism invisible and thus it has failed to create general theories of feminist practice (Payne, 2014). For example, when a sexual violence case is being dealt with, a man is involved there. As social workers, it is their duty to listen to the other party and provide counseling to the victimizer. Critics also reject the feminist claim that women are the only caregivers in a family. Feminists completely ignore the fact that men too have been performing a caring role effectively in intimate relationships. Also, the feminist practice has been criticized for just focusing on the issues of women and they have failed to consider the overall social justice and have lagged behind in mutual development of both men and women (Payne, 2014).
CASE STUDY ON DOMESTIC VIOLENCE:
Katherine lived in a violent marriage for years. She was very naive at first and did not know people like him existed. He used to harm her physically, threw things at her, yelled, abused and called her names. He said to people that he could not stand “wife bashers”. He would tell Katherine that he didn’t want his children to play with so and so children because they were a bad influence. He tried to isolate Katherine and the kids from all those who loved them. Any new people who met them would go through character assassinations by him. Life for her was continuous hell, fear, and horror and he always blamed the children or Katherine for his violent activities. Things got the lot worse towards the end. He would threaten to run them all off the road in a car and kill them. The violence became a daily occurrence, if not, several episodes a day. Katherine tried to cope with the situation by trying to keep him happy so that he wouldn’t be violent. He started believing that it was her fault. She cried a lot when he wasn’t home. She lost all her belief in herself. She was totally isolated and spoke to none about what was happening with her. She tried to hide it from the world. When his violence became much worse with each passing day, she contacted a Domestic Violence Center. She was given few counseling sessions along with violence recovery course and self-confidence course. The social workers listened to her story and supported her in every possible way. She also had a chance to meet other clients who were victims of domestic violence and sharing her story gave her a sort of relief. The case was filed in the Family Court through the Domestic Violence Center and the Court ordered absolute no contact for him with Katherine and her kids. It was a big turning point in her healing.
After meeting with the social workers from the Domestic Violence Center,
Katherine received a sense of support and protection.
She started feeling safe.
She could finally put herself and her children in a safe position.
She realized that she had to speak up against the violence earlier.
The abovementioned case example:
shows how feminist practice helps the victims of violence
proves that feminist social workers value and respect their clients’ needs
shows that feminist practitioners are capable of developing an egalitarian relationship with their clients
shows how feminist workers help to create consciousness in women
The crux of feminism and feminist practice has always been women, of all ages, class, race, religion, and culture. It aims at providing justice to the victimized and oppressed women. It works across all sectors where there is involvement of women. Though there are numerous criticisms of feminism and feminist practice being stereotypical. Undoubtedly, every theory has its weaknesses and limitations. And in order to overcome these limitations, theories are revised time and again. In regard to feminism too, flaws do exist but in the end, all that matters is the outcome. It is evident that feminist practice has made considerable contributions in the field of domestic violence and helped in the healing process of the victims of violence. In order to correct the weaknesses, new perspectives of feminism are developing and more are yet to develop. Society changes, and along with it, the condition and position of women in the society also changes. The condition and status of women around the world have improved way better than years back and we cannot stop giving credit to the feminist activists and feminist social practitioners. Feminist practice has made significant contribution to social work practice by recognizing and understanding the position of women (Payne, 2014).