Taylor Gilliam is currently a resident in Indiana where she works as a high school English teacher. Gilliam was born in Michigan but obtained her Bachelor’s in Indiana. She studied, English and philosophy during her undergrad. Taylor has studied abroad in Spain and has taken courses at Oxford. She is a long time advocate for women and desires everyone to have a place at the table.
My mother says feminism like a dirty word.
My mother says gender roles have dictated her life.
My mother says women have to take responsibility for using their sexuality to fuel the dynamic men created.
My mother says feminism means women wanting to be treated equally in economic, social, and marital situations.
My mother says, “I know that it’s frustrating to get my opinions about these things, and my answers can be contradictory and confusing. But . . . I’ve never been asked to consider my opinion on these subjects.”
I realize my mother does not have a frame of reference for my questions about her understanding of feminism and gender injustice.
Where to begin?
Despite the many facets and intersections that play into American feminism and the women’s rights movement in the United States, I dare to assert one universality: to be an ideal American woman is to self-contradict. An American woman must be strong, but weak enough to be saved. She must be confident enough to be surprising, but not enough for self-definition. She must be an individual, but only until there is a man who will allow her to define herself in relation to him. She must be smart enough to play the game, but not enough to win. She must reflect and embody the resolution, the independence, and the implacability that, supposedly, characterizes the American. Yet, her words must be gentle, her behavior passive, her loyalty blind and steadfast, and her beauty maintained to the tastes of his world. All this, lest she be stripped of her womanhood.
No wonder she rebelled…
A history of American feminism is often categorized into four “waves.”
First-wave feminism arose in America in the mid 19th century and into the 20th, and it was deeply involved with the Abolitionist Movement. Across class, race, and age, American women were denied the vote, educational opportunities were dismal and few, working conditions were deplorable, and the voice of a woman was hardly a voice at all. Thanks to the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft, heroines of this era rallied with other movements promoting labor reform, racial equality, and moral transformation across the United States. The first wave was, largely, a woman’s cry for women among a larger call for recognition and equality for all minority citizens. It was a subset of a social movement that was, at its core, intent upon moral reformation, and in this, it had prominent ties to Christianity. This cry was spearheaded, however, almost exclusively by white, upper middle-class women—a focus of change in the coming waves.
What are typically considered the great successes of the first wave are the right for women to vote and for women to hold and administer property. Yet, these are encompassed in a grander achievement: taking the first steps in mobilizing, learning, and banding together for change, claiming an agency that had long been denied.
Though catalyzed by the end of World War II and the societal adaptation to the large population of male veterans returning from war, second-wave feminism materialized in the 1960s. The tone of American feminism shifted enough to call for a new label. Similar to the first, this was occurring alongside and interwoven with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Yet, the underlying method of thought behind the movement was rooted more in unity, the shared experience of the American woman, and the enlightenment that was called for in order to spark social change, rather than purifying society’s morals.
Women were allowed to vote. On paper, things were better, though not perfect. There were still institutionalized inequalities to take up arms against: a large pay gap was still present, women were not permitted in certain positions of authority, labor policies were regrettable, and reproductive rights were few. Second-wave feminism also extended to addressing the systemic issues present within American culture: domestic violence, sexual assault and harassment, and implicit social and economic hindrances in education and politics.
Though the faces and voices of the movement were still predominantly white, educated, middle-class women, the unidimensional demographic of the first-wave propelled a new awareness of the elements of race, sexual identity, and social class that intersected with the disadvantages that came with being a woman. There was an intentionality of inclusion and participation that eventually would lead to the intersectional trajectory of feminism within the third wave.
Notable accomplishments of the second wave are the Equal Pay Act of 1963, access to oral contraception, and Title VII of the Civil Rights act of 1964 which prohibited discrimination and segregation in schools, work places, and public places—all of which contributed to the admission of participation of women in professional environments.
Third and Fourth Waves
Usually considered to begin in the mid 1990s, the third wave came to the fore as changing times demanded new focus for the movement. The world became unprecedentedly steeped in media. A progressing emphasis on intersectionality within feminism for women of racial and sexual minorities overturned the second-wave supposition of shared experience as the mobilizing element for social change. Instead, it asserted the power in personal testimony: an acknowledgement of radical diversity and identity among women. By denying universality, third-wave feminists were refusing the narrative of confinement inside the “feminine,” and therefore, claiming individuality and self-definition that could not be reduced to a concept.
The current wave, fourth-wave feminism, is said to have begun around 2012, again, with a drastic shift in culture calling for new methods and new concerns for the American woman: the age of social media and, as time continued, Trump’s America. While reinforcing the inclusion and intersectionality of the third wave, the fourth wave is mobilizing for change within representation in mainstream media and advertisement, and attacking racist and sexist objectifications of women, pernicious expectations of behavior professionally, socially, and sexually, and the unscrupulous rhetoric in both written and verbal rhetoric within social and political spheres. Prominently, the #MeToo movement encapsulates the fourth-wave mission to ensure just legislative action for and raise awareness of the problem of sexual assault in America.
The first time I remember calling myself a feminist I was sixteen years old. Seven years later, I find myself continually struck by the elements of my world that are dictated by my being a woman. My personhood is almost incessantly reduced to my body. In order to survive professionally, I have had to submit to the ideal of my inferiority more than once. Though my vote counts, sometimes my voice still does not.
It is these experiences among those that I see of my sister, my friends, my mother, and the young high school girls I teach that confirm the worth in a month dedicated to the past and future of women in America. The road has been long and arduous, and the steps of the women that have taken it invaluable. Women’s History Month is not only a reminder of all that has been achieved, but a recognition of all the work that is still to be done. It is a time for grateful remembrance and fervorous resolution to continue what was started before us.
This March, I remember marches. I remember the marches of women who gave me the ability to check a box at a voting poll. I remember the marches of women who ensured that I was able to sit in the same classrooms and apply to the same colleges as my brother. I remember the marches of women who secured my decisive power over my own body. And, I remember that, though feet are sore, we are still marching…