What is a feminist?

Feminism is simply the quest for the equality of the sexes, yet it provokes strong reactions. Discover the history of the term and find out how the WLM developed and tackled some of the most fundamental feminist questions, such as what it means to be a woman.

Ellen Malos talks about belonging to a movement

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘a feminist’ simply as ‘An advocate or supporter of the rights and equality of women’. Yet the term ‘feminist’ has always been contentious. This is partly because it connotes militancy and an ‘anti-men’ stance, but also because it has come to be associated with elite groups of women.

The first recorded use of the word ‘feminist’ in English is from 1852, when a conservative (indeed, pro-slavery) American magazine, the Debow's Review, used it as an insult: ‘Our attention has happened to fall upon Mrs. E.O. Smith, who is, we are informed, among the most moderate of the feminist reformers!’ The term, however, soon gained international currency in the 19th-century women’s rights movements – French féministe (1872, used as an adjective), Catalan feminista (c. 1910), Spanish feminista (1902), Portuguese feminista (1909) and Italian femminista (1897) are all early examples.

Some women hesitate to identify themselves as feminists, despite having a commitment to equal rights in principle. The Fawcett Society’s ongoing t-shirt campaign ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ (featuring, among others, comedian Bill Bailey, physicist Brian Cox and artist Tracey Emin) is an attempt to strip the word of its narrow connotations and remind people that the actual meaning of feminism is a commitment to equal rights, opportunities and choices for people of all genders. At the same time, there is no doubt that the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM), which this website and oral history document and celebrate, was a radical expression of long-standing campaigns for equal pay, parliamentary representation and the like. The WLM tried to bring a deeper analysis and a new lifestyle with it.

Ursula Owen talks about the reinvention of women's movements

The Women’s Liberation Movement then and now

Mary Stott, who founded the influential Guardian Women’s Page in 1957, defined the Women’s Liberation Movement as a ‘search for an identity’ and a ‘protest at being typecast by sex from birth to death’. It grew out of, and was influenced by, anti-colonial politics, trade union activism, the new left, the campaign for civil rights, the peace movement, and the American and European student movements.

The recent WLM@40 conference at Ruskin college celebrated the 40th anniversary of the first National Women’s Liberation Movement Conference in 1970. The event included the following: a craft and bitch workshop, discussions by Women Against Fundamentalism about transnational feminism, the tradition of feminist youth work, women and technology, and young women’s feminisms. Keynote speakers included Beatrix Campbell, Gail Lewis, Kristin Aune and Catherine Redfern. Sheila Rowbotham, one of the original organisers, talked of the profound influence that working-class trade union women activists had on her original politicisation, including at the now legendary Ford factory in Dagenham in 1968. She also reinvigorated a sense of excitement in women at discovering themselves as political subjects. Rowbotham’s article Women's Liberation and the New Politics, first published in 1969, is often seen as the first manifesto of the UK WLM, and remains visionary today:

The so-called women's question is a whole people question. It is not simply that our situation can only be fundamentally changed by the total transformation of all existing social relations, but also because without us any such transformation can only be partial and consequently soon distorted. The creation of a new woman of necessity demands the creation of a new man.

The article was republished in Michelene Wandor’s pioneering collection, The Body Politic: Women's Liberation in Britain (London: Stage 1, 1972). It is now digitally available as one of an online collection of groundbreaking feminist texts from all over Europe, at the Fragen Project, hosted by the Aletta Archive.

Amrit Wilson talks about interviewing women for her book Finding a Voice: Asian Women in Britain

The life-cycle of a movement

Like all social movements, the WLM had a life and momentum of its own. What started as a series of small groups and intellectual challenges had, by the mid-1970s, grown into a mass national and international movement. As the decade came to a close, however, a combination of internal and external factors contributed to the end of the 1970s moment of activism, and of what could be seen as a unified movement with national conferences, demonstrations and campaigns. Externally the political culture of Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Regan in the USA created an environment that celebrated the individual rather than the collective, and the market in favour of the state.

At the same time, as the WLM had developed and grown, and as different campaigns had spread, the many voices in the movement began to diverge. Internal divisions between radical and socialist feminists emerged; in several parts of this website, you can hear the voices of women who were evolving distinct movements of their own. It would be wrong, however, to overplay these internal differences as inevitably corrosive. As historian Eve Setch stated in 2002: ‘It was constantly evolving, and it was never clearly divided into two opposing sides… the changes and challenges it went through were a part of its development, not its demise.’ The Face of Metropolitan Feminism: The London Women's Liberation Workshop, 1969–79 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

Despite this demise of the WLM as a cohesive social movement in the 1980s, its effects continued to be felt in specific campaigns, including Greenham Common, black and Scottish feminism, sexual rights and children’s rights groups, and in the new manifestations of feminism that emerged in the 1990s. Natasha Walter’s book, The New Feminism (London: Virago Press, 1998), for some signified a watering down of earlier visions and for others suggested a more ‘middle of the road’ approach that was easier for the majority to identify with. In her latest book Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism (London: Virago Press, 2010), she returns to some of the arguments of the 1970s. She ‘confesses’ that in today’s Britain, where pink is the regime for girls, and biology seems to have returned as ‘destiny’, we need to consider the politics of sexuality and intimacy anew.

Stella Dadzie talks about the black feminist movement

Sue O'Sullivan describes having mixed feelings about campaigns

Beyond the Women’s Liberation Movement

The WLM raised the most difficult and delicate questions of identity (what is a woman, and what does she want?); it built on the politics of experience (consciousness-raising as a basis for thought and action). Deeply felt within the WLM in the 1970s, these questions and the issues they raise are still debated today. Questions of difference and of what it means to be a woman or man are as relevant today as they were in the 1900s, 1920s and 1970s. Contemporary debates about transgender identities and queer movements, and concern about the sexualisation of children and young girls all interweave with feminism. Feminism is also being reshaped by the global discourse on human rights and an increased focus on state interventions. This means new opportunities for women who can use ideas of universal human rights to make claims as governments wrestle and negotiate with each other over how to govern in the age of multi-national capitalism.

The popular face of contemporary feminism in the UK includes journalists, writers, authors, comedians and artists, including the art collective the Guerilla Girls, stand-ups such as Josie Long and Shappi Khorsandi, and newspaper columnists Laurie Penny, Zoe Williams and Caitlin Moran among many others. Moran’s popular book How to be a Woman (London: Ebury Press, 2012) has fun challenging those women who do not identify with feminism. She writes, ‘The more women argue, loudly, against feminism, the more they both prove it exists and that they enjoy its hard-won privileges.’

You can hear Caitlin Moran's opinion about why feminism remains important.

Rowena Arshad talks about choosing her own identity

Banner credit: Miss World protest photograph © W Breeze / Stringer / Getty Images

  • Sisterhood and After Research Team
  • This article was researched and written by the Sisterhood and After Research Team, who are experts in the history of contemporary feminism and narrative life methods. The team included Abi Barber, Dr Polly Russell, Dr Margaretta Jolly, Dr Rachel Cohen, Dr Freya Johnson-Ross and Dr Lucy Delap. Further information about the team and project is available in the About the project section.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.