Feminism And Its Three Waves Of Women Empowerment

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What is feminism? Feminism is a social movement and ideology that speaks out against inequality in order to achieve equal rights between male and female. There are three waves of feminism. The first wave was from the late 19th to early 20th century when women fought for the right to vote. Subsequently, the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote, was implemented in 1920. The second wave was around 1960-1970s when women fought for equal pay, reproductive rights, and freedom from violence. In 1973, the Supreme court approved of abortion rights under the 14th amendment. The third wave began from the 1990s and is still ongoing to the present day. This wave still fights for some of what the second wave fought for with more consideration towards race, ethnicity, and sexual identity. There may be some confusion as to exactly how women are treated unequally compared to male. To give a few examples, women earn less than men in the same jobs and positions, there has always been less representation of women in top fields and roles, and many women live in fear and have experienced physical or sexual violence by the hands of men.

Understanding the rule of law is indispensable to seeing how feminism works in American society through legal procedures and the way they affect one another. It is generally understood that law is a legal system pillared by seemingly logic-driven, stable proposals. And according to the Feminist Philosophy of Law: “appearance or illusion of coherence (in law) is maintained by requirements of consistency, including following precedent, treating like cases alike, and maintaining judicial impartiality,” which is argued by feminists to perpetuate discrimination by reinforcing a law that may have been discriminatory from the start and existing power relationships. With this knowledge, it’s easier to understand why certain laws and cases seem to be unvictorious for female rights. The law needs feminism on its side and feminism needs the law on its side as well.

One great victory for all the feminists out there was the Roe v. Wade case: the case regarding female reproductive rights. Jane Roe (the appellant) had filed against Henry Wade (the appellee) and received certiorari during 1971-1973. The result of this case gave women autonomy over pregnancy during their first trimester, because the court ruled that the right to abortion was under the right to privacy stated in the 14th amendment. This decision was made with the help of a prior case, Griswold vs. Connecticut, which confirmed the right to privacy for medical procedures. Although legal precedent has the danger of perpetuating discrimination, in this case, it had moved feminists one step closer to the goal of equality. Before abortion was legalized, according to official reports in 1965, illegal abortion had caused ⅙ of pregnancy-related deaths. This was a problem especially for low-income women because the only way of having an abortion at that time was a dangerous self-procedure. The benefits of legal abortion were not just better female rights, it allowed women to have safe procedures and prevented deaths from dangerous self-procedures. Unfortunately, in this day and age, this success for feminism may become a loss with recent conservatives being appointed in Senate for a lifetime, causing Roe v. Wade to be in danger of being overturned.

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Another topic within feminism that is often discussed is pregnancy discrimination. Feminists believe women should be treated equally as other workers who are able to work or unable to work in similar cases. In some cases, it may be argued that the cost of pregnancy is higher than other disability benefits, but in reality, other disability benefits may be allowed for a similar cost of funding, which proves that funding is not the entirety of the issue. Justice Brennan states that there is “a double standard for disability compensation (Neuwirth 39)”, which points out the real issue behind this pregnancy discrimination. What he means is that women are not getting equal compensation for all disabilities that men are receiving. Why is it that “virtually all disabling conditions without regard to cost, voluntariness, uniqueness, predictability, or ‘normalcy’ of the disability (Neuwirth 39)” are compensated and yet pregnancy is the only disability that isn’t? Unfortunately, women are losing their jobs once pregnant and losing legal remedy, which the courts have not reinforced.

The Supreme Court also plays a role in discrimination even though they are supposed to help relieve and prevent discrimination. Under the 14th amendment, the Supreme Court has to review all kinds of discrimination, although it does not do so well, which will be mentioned later. Even when the court does review different forms of discrimination under the 14th amendment, ironically, it does so in a discriminatory way. Compared to religious and race discrimination, sex discrimination is reviewed with a lower standard, which is considered as “immediate scrutiny,” while the other two are reviewed with “strict scrutiny.” This means that the Supreme Court is holding perpetrators of sex discrimination to a lower standard than perpetrators of religious and race discrimination. Also, the court does not believe that systemic bias is sex discrimination unless proven that there was intent in doing so. According to Equal Means Equal, “Indifference to inequality and subconscious bias had the same or more impactful on women as intentional discrimination, but the 14th Amendment has not effectively addressed this harm (Neuwirth 10)” As a result of this belief of the court, required intent has left women with no legal recourse under the 14th amendment for many forms of discrimination, like unequal pay for equal work. Another example of the Supreme Court perpetuating sex discrimination is the fact that although the 14th Amendment guarantees equal protection of the laws, the court has endorsed a law that treats unmarried men and women citizens differently to granting citizenship to their children who were born outside the country. What is understood from these examples is that sex discrimination does not only happen because of individual cases, but they also happen because the law and government are not doing what it takes to stop it; they are the ones that are also letting it happen.

For all this discrimination, there seems to be one major solution that feminists hope to achieve: The Equal Rights Amendment. Putting the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) into place has been a long and hard battle for feminists dating back from 1923 when it was first introduced to Congress by Representative Daniel Anthony, the nephew of suffragist Susan B. Anthony. While it has been a continuous battle with no success thus far, feminists still persevere with the end goal of putting in place this amendment that addresses all forms of discrimination for all women. The power of ERA becomes especially apparent in comparison to individual laws addressing discrimination (Equal Pay Act of 1963, Civil Rights Act of 1964, Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, etc.) which only pertain to specific cases of discrimination, do not include all women, and has the risk of being repealed more easily than an amendment would. Individual laws are repealed by a simple congressional vote, while an amendment is only repealed by creating another amendment counteracting it: a hard and long process that is almost never executed. To the critics who may say that amending the Constitution is longer and more complicated than creating laws through federal legislation: in the long run, implementing the ERA will be an easier and quicker solution than to get Congress to create each specific legislation for every form of discrimination occurring in separate settings (workplace, school, home, community) each time it gets brought up in court. It’s worthy to note that the court also has to enforce each and every legislation as well. Some may still question whether it is needed in the presence of the 14th amendment, which states that all states cannot stop any kind of person from being equally protected under all laws. While this amendment may seem to be addressing all forms of discrimination and does say so, it has not done much to prevent sex discrimination in reality. The reason being that the Supreme Court applies this amendment in a discriminatory way (mentioned earlier) and that the way this amendment was originally interpreted was meant more for race discrimination. It is helpful to keep in mind that the 14th amendment was amended right after the civil war and was a response to slavery. The amendment can also only oversee state action and not private action when so much discrimination is through private actions of individuals. All those individual laws and the 14th amendment have been helpful in some ways; however, they both pale in comparison to the comprehensiveness, inclusivity, resistance, and power that the Equal Rights Amendment offers. Feminists also believe enforcing the ERA would bring about more public understanding and support that all men and women should be treated equally in rights. 

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