The ways in which feminism has been defined, described and understood are varied. There has been a gradual shift in the way its meaning has been explained and understood over the years. However, most commonly, feminism has been defined as a social and political movement and as a struggle for 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. Whatever the definitions might be, feminism has always advocated for the rights of women. The word “feminism” was first used in France in the late 19th century during the political turmoil. The word “feminism” is derived from the French word “feminisme” (Easton, 2012).
History of Feminism
If we trace 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 related to gender and claims were made for equal opportunities for women. Officially, the term “feminism” came into use towards the end of the 19th century in Paris. The history of feminism can be studied in three phases which are often called waves of feminism: First wave Feminism, Second wave Feminism and Third wave Feminism.
First wave Feminism
The first wave of feminism is referred to the period of feminist activity in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and the Netherlands during the 19th and early 20th century. This wave corresponded to the struggle for women’s suffrage, which was achieved by the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, which granted women, the right to vote.
Second wave Feminism
After the goal of the first wave of feminism was achieved in 1920, the second wave of feminism started. The second wave of feminism advocated for greater equality in workplace, education and at home (Easton, 2012). The second wave of feminism had the following demands: equal pay, equal right to education and job opportunities, free access to contraceptives and abortion, free nurseries operating twenty four hours, financial and legal independence, end to discrimination based on sexual orientation and freedom from threat and sexual violence (Mackay, 2014).
Third wave Feminism
According to Kinser (2004), the third wave of feminism emerged from the intersection 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 seeks to renew the idea of feminism and avoid the ongoing clash over sexual issues. It aims to be respectful towards the choice and desire of women. These feminists criticize the second wave of feminists as being rigid and judgmental. It acknowledges that women don’t share a common gender identity as stated by other feminists. We are currently living the third wave of feminism. It focuses more on women’s identity and position in the politics (Easton, 2012). The third wave of feminism is influenced to a great extent by the postmodern thought. It accepts the reality that there are multiple perspectives and definitions of feminism.
Different Feminist Perspectives
Postmodern feminism is greatly influenced by the post structuralism and postmodern philosophy. It has its link 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 colour, 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 on 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 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. Marxist feminist are 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, colour, 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 about women and gender. It is also claimed that media representation of feminist ideas are 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 only way by which its ideas will get a broad coverage in the society and community. It is a way of creating awareness in the society about the situation and condition of women and their struggles and oppression 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 the experience of women and their roles in private and public life. It also focuses on reconstructing the private relationships or women based on equality. Talking about the present scenario, one of the most important areas for feminist social practice is domestic violence. 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).
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 work effectively to spread awareness. Also, community-based awareness programs can be initiated to help people of all gender understand about violence against women and other gender, class and oppression related issues.
Reflexivity was initially used 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, identities have a connection with the violence or oppression. 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 should bear in mind that the prime 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 of 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 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 women’s issues by excluding men from it. Limiting its concern just for female issues has 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 care givers in family. Feminists completely ignore the fact that men too have been performing a caring role effectively in intimate relationships. Also feminist practice has been criticized for ignoring issues related to men and they have failed to take the opportunity to work for the benefit 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 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 ways. 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. Her 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 victimized women
proves that feminist social workers value and respect their clients’ needs
shows that feminist practitioners are capable of developing egalitarian relation 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 in providing justice to the victimized and oppressed women. It works across all sectors where women are involved. Though there have been several criticisms about 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 of feminism too, flaws do exist but ultimately, all what matters is the outcome. And it is evident that feminist practice has made considerable contributions in the field of domestic violence and helped to relocate the victims of violence. In order to correct the weaknesses, new perspectives of feminism are arising and more are yet to develop. Society changes, and so does the condition and position of women in the society. 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 perspective has significantly contributed to social work practice by addressing and responding to the position of women (Payne, 2014).