Through the waves of women’s liberation

3 4,206

Review of the recently published book – The Periodic Table of Feminism by UK based journalist Marisa Bate.

Author Marisa Bate


he notable work of Marisa Bate ‘The Periodic Table of Feminism’ ( Pop Press: 2018) is about feminist liberation struggles which have emerged at different stages in different parts of the world, the leaders of such struggles and the art forms which have promoted such endeavours. Bate discusses how feminist organizations with diverse political, social and philosophical notions have brought about revolutionary changes in women’s life. A journalist by profession, Bate contributes regularly to the ‘Guardian’ and ‘The Pool’.

Bate introduces about 130 leading feminists who have played leadership roles in different feminist movements by classifying women’s liberation movements historically into four waves. The first wave of women’s liberation began as a struggle for women’s voting rights. In the second wave, it developed into a movement against the domination of men over women and patriarchal values.  In the third wave, feminist movements provided leadership to the struggles against the harassment and discriminatory treatment being inflicted on Transgenders. Bate says that in the current fourth wave, feminism comprehensively exposes all forms of masculine domination, both open and hidden.

“Bate argues that feminism has never been a single dimensional movement. Feminism grew up through continuous engagements with different ideologies and strategies. Bate has clearly delineated the diversity within the feminist movement.”

The book begins by introducing ten proto feminists who lived during the period from 16th to 18th century. Among others whom Bate introduces are British feminists  Bathusa Makin, Mary Astell and Aphra Behn, French feminist Olympe de Gouges  who fought against slavery, Japanese feminist  Toshiko Kishida,  Chinese feminist Ching Shih who organized the sexual workers and Queen Singa, the African Queen and the ruler of  Angola.

Movements fighting for women’s right to franchise came up in Europe against the background of industrialisation and liberal thinking. Simultaneously, struggles for eight hours maximum working time, right to education and child care also began. The book ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ written by Mary Wollstone Craft (1759- 1797) became the foundational writing in respect of feminist ideas. This book played a vital role in initiating women’s franchise movements. Bate introduces several important women leaders who were put to great suffering in the fight for women’s right to vote. Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) who declared that she would rather be a rebel than a slave worked under the organization ‘Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU)’ founded by her. Emily Wilding Davison (1872-1913), who was stamped to death by soldiers’ horses while hiding to avoid participation in British census fought for women’s right for franchise in many countries. Bate also introduces a host of feminist leaders including Henrietta Dugdale (1827-1918) of Australia, Kate Shepherd of New Zealand (1847-1934), Emily Murphy (1868-1933) of Canada and Aletta Jacobs (1854-1929) of Netherlands and the different strategies they adopted in their struggles for women’s rights.

“The movements for the health care rights of women also came up during the same period. Maria Theresa Ferrari (1887-1956) of Argentina mounted a campaign in Latin American countries for women’s right to health care. Bates specially mentions the contributions made by the vanguard female doctors like Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910) and Elizabeth Garret Anderson (1836-1917) and Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) who pioneered the family planning movement.”

Women’s march in New Delhi, India against rising violence

Even though Alexandra Kollontai (1872-1952), a member of Lenin’s cabinet was critical of feminist movements which she characterized as a liberal bourgeois dogma, but opposed male chauvinism in the household and legalized abortion and homo sexuality. Clara Zetkin (1857-1933), who was a German Marxist and member of the Social Democratic Party criticized feminism as a bourgeoisie dogma of the upper and middle classes, but played a key role in declaring 8th of March as International Women’s Day.

Bate has also recorded key women’s mass demonstrations in the history of women’s movement. What started as an International Women’s Day march in Petrograd 8th of March 1917 became the beginning of the Russian Revolution. As women filled the streets, men joined them. By the end of the afternoon, 100,000 workers had come out on strike.  In another historic event led by Clara Lemlich and the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, 20,000 women mostly Jewish women walked out of the shirtwaist garment factories in New York on 24th November 1909 and the strike lasted for four months. In the women’s march in Pretoria on 9 August, 1956 thousands of marched on the union buildings singing that ‘you strike a woman, you strike a rock.’ In 1978 about one lakh women marched for ratification of the people Equal Rights Amendment in Washington DC, organised by the National Organisation of Women. The big demonstration held in Delhi against gang rape of a young girl in 2013 has also been recorded by Bate. In March 2017 the day after Donald Trump assumed office as the President of the United States of America 673 marches took place on all seven continents against the anti-women statements by Trump.

The second wave witnessed struggles for women’s right to self determination and for financial and legal right. The term ‘Women’s Liberation Movement’ was coined during this period. Important contributions during this period include  books like ‘Our Bodies Ourselves’ penned by Boston Women’s Group by deconstructing women’s body, the ‘Second Sex’ by the French feminist  theoretician  Simone De Beauvoir (1908-1986), ‘The Feminine Mystique’ by Betty Friedman (1921-2006), ‘Sexual Politics’ of Kate Millett (1934-2017) and ‘The Dialectic of Sex: The case for Feminist Revolution’ by Shulamith Firestone (1945-2012) of Canada who is known as the feminist of the feminists

“The Feminism’s Third Wave came largely from a group of women who rejected grand narratives, neat categorisation and a singular notion of what feminism should do and how it should look and yet believed there still existed the need for feminist movement.”

HeForShe Campaign poster by UN featuring Emma Watson

During this period questions relating to women’s sexuality and Transgender issues came up for discussion. It was American feminist Rebecca Walker’s (1969) article- ‘Becoming the Third Wave’ in Ms Magazine that inaugurated the third wave feminist period. Rebecca could rejuvenate the feminist movement which was getting weakened after the second wave. The leaders of the third wave were TV anchor Oprah Winfrey (1954-), Judith Butler (1956-), author of ‘Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity’ and Eve Ensler (1953-) who wrote the famous book  ‘The Vagina Monologue’.

Bate thinks that the feminist movement is currently passing through the Fourth Wave period which began in 2011. Feminist thinkers of the fourth generation do not consider individual aberrations as responsible for gender discrimination. It is due to the special patriarchal powers conferred on men by certain structural weaknesses in society. The ‘HeForShe’ movement  which present men as allies  and not enemies, started by Emma Watson (1990-) who became famous by enacting the role of Hermione Granger in Harry Potter films,  Jude Kelley’s (1954-) ‘Being A Man Festival’ in London which critically evaluate male sexuality etc. are characteristic of this period. The fourth wave of feminism is advancing fast by making use of the possibilities in social networking. The ‘Gender is not Uniform campaign aimed at supporting gender diversity in schools through inclusive uniforms and challenging transphobia and begun by Amani Alkhat for fighting for the rights of Muslim girls also belong to the fourth wave.

Marisa Bate’s ‘The Periodic Table of Feminism’ is a must read for all those who are interested in feminist theory and those who want to know the history and present day developments of the feminist movement. This well written book can be used as a hand book on feminism.

The Periodic Table of Feminism, Author: Marisa Bate; Published by: Pop Press, March 2018; Pages: 208; Price: £9.9.