Feminism affects all of us, but most of all it impacts the rights of women and girls. At its core, feminism is about all genders having equal rights, opportunities, and treatment.
The movement has its roots right in the earliest eras of human civilization, working to prioritize the political, economic, and cultural equality of women across every society for thousands of years.
Let's take a closer look at feminism: what feminism is, why it's important, and how the empowerment of women and girls contributes to everything from ending poverty, to strengthening human rights, to tackling the climate emergency.
What Is Feminism?
Bodily autonomy, employment equality, fair wages, property ownership, education, and legal, marital, and parental rights are all issues considered by the movement. That’s because feminism prioritizes the need for all women and girls to have opportunities in life that are equal to those of men and boys.
It also means challenging and dismantling the existing systems of inequality and discrimination based on gender, and acknowledges that women have been historically marginalized and denied opportunities simply because of being women.
Feminism recognizes that all individuals must be treated with equal respect and dignity. The movement is diverse and evolving, encompassing a wide range of perspectives, theories, and approaches.
Scholars, activists, and theorists from around the world have helped build feminism into what we know it as today, yet within the movement the word “feminism” can mean vastly different things to different people.
Feminism has been characterized by three main phases throughout its history, including a second wave, a radical movement, and an intersectional movement.
In the feminist movement, equality does not mean exalting women over men or ignoring other marginalized groups' experiences and struggles. It’s about a more just and equitable society for all individuals, regardless of their gender identity.
Why Is Feminism Important?
There are so many examples you can point to when it comes to demonstrating that women and girls are not yet equal to men and boys in our societies, and the detrimental effect this is having not just on women and girls, but on all of us.
Women-owned businesses receive less than 1% of global procurement spending. Meanwhile, the gender pay gap too remains deeply entrenched, with the UN reporting in September 2023 that for each dollar men earn in labor income globally, women earn just 51 cents. Women also spend three times as many hours on unpaid domestic and care work as men (and that was pre-pandemic, it's believed to have increased since).
Women also have worse health outcomes than men, particularly when it comes to areas that are more unique to women, such as maternal and menstrual health. Pregnancy and childbirth cause over 800 entirely preventable deaths per day, for example.
All of these issues are solvable with the right level of attention, amplifcation, and investment — and that's what feminism works to achieve.
What's key to note is that empowering women and achieving gender equality has huge benefits for society as a whole. Gender equality helps ensure families and communities are healthier, better educated, and safer; on a national and global level, it helps reduce poverty and instability.
Closing the gender gap in employment and entrepreneurship leads to increased productivity, innovation, and economic growth. And when more women are represented in the labor market, economies thrive.
Providing girls with access to education has a transformative effect, improving health and well-being outcomes, promoting agency over one's life, and in some cases preventing child marriage and other gender-based violence.
Urgent progress is still needed to advance gender equality; but it’s important to recognize that addressing the barriers women and girls face is essential for creating a more inclusive and prosperous world for everyone.
What Is Intersectional Feminism?
Intersectional feminism is about acknowledging the interplay between gender and other forms of discrimination.
When women experience sexism, they may also experience racism, ableism, ageism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, and religious persecution, for example.
These intersecting identities overlap with one another, creating multiple levels of inequality.
Inclusivity is a core part of feminism, particularly what's referred to as the "fourth wave of feminism", which began around the early 2010s (we'll come back to this in a moment). While intersectionality has recently taken on more space in public discussions about feminism, however, it's not new.
What Has Feminism Achieved So Far?
Generations of hard work have resulted in significant progress being made in addressing gender inequality, with improvements for women's human rights across education, health care, employment opportunities, political decision-making, and more. Feminism and its achievements can largely be broken down into waves.
The first wave of feminism came around the late 19th century — although not the first time feminist ideals were expressed, this was a time that feminism became a more consolidated movement particularly in the western world. It focused largely on legal issues, with the right to vote being a big one. New Zealand was the first country to enshrine universal woman suffrage, in 1893. Women's right to vote in the United States came with the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Earlier wave feminists also pushed for equal access to education, reproductive rights, and more opportunities in the workforce.
With the second wave of the 1960s and 70s, the women's movement continued its work, focusing largely on issues of equality and discrimination. This included campaigning for rights like equal pay, legal equality, and reproductive freedom, while traditional gender and family roles were questioned. A big win for reproductive rights in the US came with Roe v. Wade in 1973 — although, as we've seen with the reversal of Roe v. Wade in 2022, even hard won rights can remain fragile.
The third wave of feminism, going into the 90s, saw women with greater rights and power — with an overarching rejection of any rules about what women should be. While many inequalities continued to exist across all areas of society, women had a greater opportunity to embrace all aspects of their identities, with greater individuality and freedom. Third wave feminism also brought with it a greater awareness of intersectionality, with Kimberlé Crenshaw coining the phrase "intersectionality" in 1989.
What’s Next for Feminism?
Known as fourth-wave feminism (although some argue that the current period is merely a continuation of third wave feminism), this current wave of feminism includes recent events, like the #MeToo movement and the 2017 Women's March. It addresses the marginalization experienced by women of color, placing a strong emphasis on inclusivity, intersectionality, and recognizing and advocating for the rights of transgender women.
The woman's body has always been at the center of feminist struggles. For example, periods and menstruation are often surrounded by shame and embarrassment — an issue that also drives what's known as period poverty in countries around the world. Today 500 million women and girls still don’t have what they need to manage their periods safely and hygienically.
Sadly, since the UN Global Goals were adopted in 2015 — with Global Goal 5 working towards gender equality — little progress has been made on gender equality. The UN said in 2022 that, without investment, it’ll still take almost another 300 years to achieve gender equality.
In fact, in countries as diverse as Afghanistan and the US, women and girls now have fewer rights than their mothers and grandmothers.
How Can Global Citizens Help?
If you believe in global gender equality for women, girls, and everyone everywhere — you’re a feminist. And you can make a meaningful impact in supporting gender equality initiatives that promote feminism worldwide.
Gender bias undermines the very fabric of our social structure and diminishes the value of each and every one of us. Empowering women and girls is not only crucial for their well-being but for the betterment of our entire society. Yet despite the progress made, no country has achieved full gender equality.
Feminism isn't just about human rights; it's also about human potential. When we deny women equal rights, we deny half of the global population the opportunity to fully live their lives — meaning that achieving gender equality, and prioritizing feminism, means helping everyone around the world.
Together, we can challenge prejudice, work towards equal rights, and foster respect for all through feminism.
Globally, every country needs to invest more in women and girls in order to achieve gender equality. You can join Global Citizens around the world in calling on world leaders to take urgent action and deliver investment to achieve the UN's Global Goal for gender equality. Join us in taking action for gender equality here, or download the Global Citizen app.