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Feminism demands and enables a personal response to modern challenges

By Tony Smith - posted Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Most baby boomers spent the bulk of their lives in the second half of the twentieth century. Those decades saw many momentous events and developments, including the cold war and nuclear arms races, rapid decolonisation of the southern continents, a population explosion, environmental catastrophes and numerous wars.

Western societies experienced the introduction of television and computers, rise of youth politics, easy availability of cars, development of a generation gap, cures for many diseases, normalisation of high levels of debt, better contraception and decline of religious allegiance.

Australian values were influenced by debates over the American alliance, large scale immigration, the challenges of an ethnically diverse population, changes in manufacturing and primary industries, awareness of the dispossession of Indigenous people and the fragility of the natural environment, social mobility and the weakening of the two party political system.


These developments forced nation-states, social institutions and ultimately individuals to respond. In some cases, the responses proved radical. The period saw the rise of slogans such as multi-lateralism, economic restructuring, liberalisation, multi-culturalism and aspirational classes.

While powerful forces pushed society in directions certain to further advantage elites, individuals used a number of ideologies to assess new developments and imagine alternatives. To the established explanations of socialism and capitalism were added new left theories, the counter culture, environmentalism, civil rights and anti-militarism.

From about 1970, many women began to feel the need for a critique of their oppression that included their positions in these broader social movements. They felt the need for an explanation of their subjugation in supposedly liberating social movements.

The so-called second-wave of the women's movement, distinguished a need for a campaign for women's liberation not just within broader movements, but sometimes from the oppression they experienced within those movements.

This did not always involve separatism. Indeed other progressive social movements that encouraged a feminist critique were invigorated. Without feminist insights, the peace movements of the 1980s for example, struggled to escape the strange logic of the nuclear doctrine of mutually assured destruction. Male leaders benefited greatly when they were able to come down out of their heads into their hearts.

Ideologies such as feminism perform a variety of functions. They give followers methods for interpreting the world, provide a means of assessing the ethical value of policies and empower people to take personal actions. The better an ideology does these things, the better it will survive.


Both the women's movement and feminist thought have an immediate appeal to women by explaining the causes of oppression and making them determined to pursue their rights.

In order to survive as long as it has however, feminism needed to go beyond a binary distinction between male oppressors and female victims. The women's movement had to show men that patriarchal structures oppressed them as well, and encourages men to realise that they would be freer if they shunned the worst features of sexism and masculinism.

At a personal level, men and women came to understand the limitations placed on them by the social roles they were assigned. Men were traditionally warriors and breadwinners while women bore children and served men domestically. While this arrangement still suits many people, its limitations have become clear.

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About the Author

Dr Tony Smith is a writer living in country New South Wales. He holds a PhD in political science and has had articles and reviews published in various newspapers, periodicals and journals. He contributed a poem 'Evil equations' to an anthology of anti-war poems delivered to the Prime Minister on the eve of war.

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