Feminism and Identity

Authored by: Ann Branaman

Routledge Handbook of Identity Studies

Print publication date:  June  2011
Online publication date:  April  2012

Print ISBN: 9780415555586
eBook ISBN: 9780203869710
Adobe ISBN: 9781135196516

10.4324/9780203869710.ch2

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Abstract

In a basic sense, identity has always been a central issue for feminism. The nature of its significance and the degree of its centrality, however, has varied across each of the three “waves” of feminism and among the many different feminist perspectives that have developed over the latter part of the twentieth century. The primary, nearly exclusive, focus of first-wave feminism in North America and Europe was equal rights for women; the identity issue at the heart of early feminist struggle, if we could name it as such with a concept that had yet to be developed in any of the senses commonly meant by contemporary scholars, was the matter of women’s identity as human and, therefore, their claim to human rights. Fundamental to this issue was the question of women’s sameness to or difference from men. This question entered into the nineteenth-century struggle for equal rights, as it would again with the emergence of second-wave feminism in the latter part of the twentieth century. Many nineteenth-century feminists focused on men’s and women’s common humanity and, while they advocated women’s development of virtues conventionally exclusive to men, argued that this common human identity warranted the extension of human rights to women; other feminists of the era argued that women were as fully human as men, although they emphasized women’s distinctive (and, in some respects, superior) traits and abilities and used these as an argument for why women should be entrusted with responsibility equal to men’s in matters of politics and property. But while debate about human nature and natural differences between men and women surrounded the struggle over women’s rights in the nineteenth century, a self-conscious feminist interest in “identity” would not emerge until the 1970s. At this time, the concept of “identity” emerged as central to the social sciences and humanities; feminism was one of several social movements that contributed to the rise of identity studies.

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