Inclusivity vs. Unification: can feminism ever strike the balance?

Today’s feminist movement appears to be an ever increasingly complex, confusing and fragmented cause to which swathes of modern women and men voluntarily oppose themselves.

Why? Because mainstream feminism in the past and in many strains today, simply can’t encompass the full diversity of gender-related opinion and experience whilst maintaining reasonable unity.

How can a movement which is based, in its rawest form, on a simple, fundamental belief that all people are equal, not represent the rights of black or transgender women with the same vigour that it does those of white women?

How can feminism be accepted in a 21st Century liberal society if it doesn’t fight against the oppressive constructs men are forced to operate within too?

And how can it achieve either of these goals if it is constantly weakened by inconsistencies, rifts and disagreements amongst its own supporters?

It can’t. And it is exactly this stalemate situation which continues to paralyse the progression of feminism beyond its current status as little more than an ill-defined dirty word.

A consistent failure to address the full diversity of gender issues is where the fundamental problem has laid in the past and still lies now to a certain extent – in short, the feminist movement has never been fully inclusive.

Yet, the more diversity-orientated neo-feminism of today finds itself facing a unique identity crisis, unfamiliar to the two waves before it, in which the movement itself is unclear over where it stands and what it aims to achieve – a problem that is proving to be just as damaging as the exclusivity it works to combat.

For the gender equality cause to make significant further progress, this needs to change. A balance needs to be struck somewhere or else feminism and the issues it fights for (which are most certainly not dead) will remain stagnant.

For the purposes of this article, I will refer (unless stated otherwise) to the evolution of British and/or North American feminism to explore this issue over time.

White, middle class and propertied – the first wave of feminism

In studying the first wave of women’s rights activism – more commonly known as the suffrage movement – it is sometimes overlooked that the likes of John Stuart Mill, Emmeline Pankhurst and Millicent Fawcett were all white, middle-class people fighting for a more equal legal status for white, middle-class women.

At this time, there was virtually no mention of extending such rights to black/ethnic minority women or men (who were actively overlooked at the time in British-ruled South Africa)  and far less activism in favour of the rights of the working-class female population. This pattern was mirrored in US 19th century feminism, which was also characterised as a “privileged white women’s movement” even on a “grass roots level” where “white female workers insisted on segregation by race in the workplace [1].”

Quite simply, if you wanted political status and personal autonomy in the late 19th/early 20th Century, you needed to be propertied, white (and a man) – a precedent that many historians argue both the NUWSS (suffragists) and WSPU (suffragettes) didn’t challenge beyond granting such rights to women in the same position.

This was certainly the case in the beginning, when both militant and non-militant groups were largely dominated by upper/middle class women like the Pankhursts.

Of course, there exists much historical debate surrounding the hierarchical and arguably elitist structure of the two leading organisations, which some see as a major factor in an apparent lack of cross-class unity. However, working class women and men faced a plethora of further barriers to full involvement in the movement too, including ” worries and considerations which the middle class women would not have had, for example, issues of family and housework, and more importantly, the risk to their paid employment if they went to prison.” [2]

Admittedly, whilst not always true, it is often easier to take small steps forward and gradually move towards a more radical goal. This way, the risk of being branded unacceptably radical or of facing counter-revolution is reduced considerably and the chance of success increased.

To this end, one could argue that the suffrage movement was pragmatic in its approach and reasonably claim that this caution was key to its steady progress.

Initial legislation in 1918 was moderate and exclusive, but it paved the way for universal adult suffrage 10 years later – a definite success and credit to the cause.

And this political right now exists in almost every state in the world. But that doesn’t mean the cause has ended and it certainly doesn’t mean its approach was or is inclusive.

Hegemony, discrimination and a strange sort of unity – the second wave of feminism

Following a lull in campaigning activities during the post-war period, the feminist flame was reignited in the 1960s in the US, in a backlash “against the renewed domesticity of women after World War II” [3]. This started a movement which saw the likes of Germaine Greer and Betty Friedan lead a campaign for the social, personal and sexual liberation of women, in a society which still treated the female population as second-class citizens.

Amongst the issues raised was the treatment of women in work, at home and in law – including legislation regarding divorce, custody and rape.

It was radical and new. It challenged the traditional and grossly unequal position women had within society, especially in the private sphere. But, unfortunately, with this radicalism didn’t come a much greater commitment to inclusivity. Whilst black women, in both the US and UK were present in many of the prominent second-wave organisations, the campaign was once again headed by a largely white, middle class female demographic.

This, so-called ‘hegemonic feminism’ [4] is what led in part to the emergence of almost entirely separate groups fighting for equal rights for black/ethnic minority women during the 1960s and 1970s.

In short, as suggested in the Racism Review [5], a large part of “the trouble with white feminism, including some scholarship about the second wave, is that it places white women at the centre, as the universal example of ‘all women’ when in fact, we are a global minority of women on the planet.”

And the exclusion, deliberate or otherwise, didn’t end there. Not only was there a, perhaps naive and accidental, failure to account for the position of working class/non-white women but also an active expression of hatred for homosexual and  transsexual women within the movement.  This narrow-mindedness is particularly striking in ‘The Whole Woman’, written by leading second wave figure, Germaine Greer.

Within the work she stated that “gender reassignment is an exorcism of the mother. When a man decides to spend his life impersonating his mother (like Norman Bates in Psycho)it is as if he murders her and gets away with it, proving at a stroke that there was nothing to her… When he forces his way into the few private spaces women may enjoy and shouts down their objections, and bombards the women who will not accept him with threats and hate mail, he does as rapists have always done.”[6]

It’s hard to imagine a more shocking expression of the intolerant views that continued to run through the second wave and the ideas it trumped.

To add to this overt exclusivity, many have also argued that second-wave feminism was largely “an elitist and dictatorial ‘club'”[7], even for the women who fell into its target category. In many ways, this did appear to be the case – as Giddens notes in Modernity and Self-Identity [8], followers of the movement were in effect forced to accept certain values such as the belief that the ‘personal is the political’.

To be part of this ‘club’, many women found themselves forced to dress, act and be a certain way to such an extent that diversity in circumstance and outlook was overlooked in favour of an oversimplified presentation of the gender equality movement.

As stated by Joubert in Second and Third Wave feminists: the battle of generations [9] “The largely white, cissexual, and upper-middle class female members of the cause tried to apply their ideas to women who were not in the same situation as them” which led to the perception that western feminism of the 1960s was highly exclusive.

Yet, many proponents of the second wave would argue that a focus on gender issues above all else was fundamental in the maintenance of a strong set of core values which propelled the movement forward. In other words, yes it was narrow-minded and lacking in tolerance, but at least itself and others knew that and as such the movement boasted a far stronger sense of direction than the feminism(s) of today.

Inclusive, fragmented and somewhat directionless – the third-wave of feminism

It is this balance between inclusivity and unification which many strands of third-wave feminism continue to grapple with. Crucially, the feminists of the 21st Century do, in general, aspire to create a “more open and inclusive feminism” [10], but, akin to the struggles of multiculturalism, women’s rights campaigners find themselves continually forced to define where diversity ends and unity begins. With this tension in mind, it seems that today’s feminist ideology is more confused and divisive than ever before.

Diane Richardson, Professor of Sociology & Social Policy at Newcastle University, argued that post-1990s feminist activity is “characterised as more popularist, more inclusive, more willing to embrace power, more tolerant in crossing political boundaries, a feminism that belongs to men as well as women, conservatives as well as socialists”. [11]

Indeed, the resurgence occurred largely as a response to the shortfalls of second wave feminism in acknowledging and including non-white, non-heterosexual and non-middle class women as well as men. This was a genuine step in the right direction, but still left a long way to go.

Above all, they face the challenge of reconciling wide-ranging opinions on matters such as pornography, prostitution and sex work – stances previously more strictly dictated within mainstream second wave feminism. Certainly, in this way, neo-feminism (third wave) is markedly more accepting/inclusive, but to the detriment of its unity.

And that goes without the mention of rather more radical and exclusive strands of modern thought such as trans-exclusionary radical feminism [12] and separatist feminism, which continue to operate on a foundation of discrimination and division. It is these minor schisms which often give feminism its bad name and warped image as a group of whingeing man-haters rather than a progressive force for gender equality.

In support of inclusivity is where, from a liberal Western perspective at least, the mainstream movement aspires to be situated, but how this can be realistically achieved is very hard to discern.

In emphasising choice and diversity, neo-feminism is suffering a situation where the ideology is almost indefinable because the differences and divides are so diverse that shared core values don’t seem to exist. With an absence of a unifying goal, the movement loses its way and its purpose/relevance is placed under question.

On the other hand, in emphasising cohesiveness and unity, the third wave of feminism risks repeating the mistakes of its 1960s/70s predecessors. In other words, enforcing a particular vision/set of values and behaviours to which all members must adhere, based on the experiences of a very small proportion of the female population.

The irony is that despite this firmer commitment to inclusivity, the latest wave of feminism has managed to retain and supersede the ideology’s uncanny ability to divide and fragment rather than unify.

Whilst the gender equality movement of today seems in many ways more tolerant and self-conscious by appealing to the rights and choice of both women and men, the unfortunate absence of any clear goals has left far too many people wondering where things can go from here.

And I, for one, am amongst them.


[1] – Can third wave feminism be inclusive? 2015. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 19 July 2015].

[2] – Working-class Suffragettes – MissJones4History. 2015. Working-class Suffragettes – MissJones4History. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 19 July 2015].

[3] – Second-wave feminism – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 2015. Second-wave feminism – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 19 July 2015].

[4] – Multiracial Feminism: Recasting the Chronology of Second Wave Feminism. 2002. Becky Thompson. [Accessed 17 July 2015]

[5] – The Second Wave: Trouble with White Feminism – . 2015. The Second Wave: Trouble with White Feminism – [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 19 July 2015].

[6] – Rereading the Second Wave: why feminism needs to respect its elders. 2015. Rereading the Second Wave: why feminism needs to respect its elders. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 19 July 2015].

[7] – Stéphanie Genz, 2009. Postfeminism. 1 Edition. Edinburgh University Press.

[8] Stéphanie Genz, 2009. Postfeminism. 1 Edition. Edinburgh University Press, citing Anthony Giddens, 1991. Modernity and Self-identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age. Edition. Polity Press..

[9] – Second and Third wave feminists: the battle of generations By: Jeanne-Marie Joubert | Wetlands Magazine. 2015. Second and Third wave feminists: the battle of generations By: Jeanne-Marie Joubert | Wetlands Magazine. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 19 July 2015].

[10] – Second and Third wave feminists: the battle of generations By: Jeanne-Marie Joubert | Wetlands Magazine. 2015. Second and Third wave feminists: the battle of generations By: Jeanne-Marie Joubert | Wetlands Magazine. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 19 July 2015].

[11] – Diane Richardson, 2000. Rethinking Sexuality (Published in Association with Theory, Culture & Society). 1 Edition. SAGE Publications Ltd.

[12] – Trans-exclusionary radical feminism – RationalWiki. 2015. Trans-exclusionary radical feminism – RationalWiki. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 19 July 2015].



One thought on “Inclusivity vs. Unification: can feminism ever strike the balance?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s