There is no question that feminism has been one of the most important social movements for the past century. The movement has endured to bring about progressive transformations towards the goal of achieving equality amongst genders.
The Oxford Advanced Learner’s dictionary defines feminism as “a belief in the principle that women should have the same rights as men” and a feminist as “a supporter of feminism”. This definition is important in ensuring that the context of this article is not misconstrued with the myriad other, often false, definitions alluded to the feminism movement.
As an ideology, feminism has gone through several phases, often referred to as waves. These waves identified the overriding issues or themes if you will that guided feminist agenda in any given period. There are four conventional waves in feminism separated by time periods.
The first wave (19th and early 20th century)
In this period, feminism was focused on addressing legal inequalities for women most notably, women’s suffrage. The goal in this period was to achieve full voting rights for women regardless of their age, race, marital status or social standing. In addition to voting rights, first wave feminism addressed the right of women to own property and have full agency over their own bodies as well as to overcome workplace discrimination.
The second wave ((1960s–1980s)
Second-wave feminism discourse was directed towards issues of cultural inequalities, gender norms, and the role of women in society. There was a lot of work around the sexist nature of power distribution and how female personal lives had been politicized as a consequence.
The third wave (1990s–2000s)
Third wave feminism responded to some of the perceived failures of the second wave. Third-wave feminism opposed the perceived “essentialist” definitions of femininity as put forward by the second wave, which to them, over-emphasized the experiences of upper middle class white women.
Fourth Wave (2008 to now)
This wave is focused on sexual inequality as manifested in harassment, body-shaming, online misogyny and assault. It looks at the intersectionality of feminism and technology especially social media technology for communication, online petitioning and organizing.
The fourth wave is the point at which I kick off my discourse on the trichotomy of female representation in contemporary narratives of feminism and central to this discussion is the use of social media in the dissemination and distribution of information that relates to the feminist movement.
It seems evident that most of the discourse and the fight for representation so far in the fourth and part of the third wave have been entirely outward facing. At this point, I am inclined towards more inward facing explorations to the core actor within feminist agenda – the female.
How does fourth wave rhetoric see or regard the female? This for me is an important question because I think the answers therein will define what the next phase of feminist activity will look like.
I think feminist narrative today struggles in the way that it fundamentally sees women. Yes, women are capable, must have agency and access to opportunities but fundamentally, it struggles in the process and outcome of those ideals. In my review of online conversations, I have identified three main representations of females in today’s feminist communication. I have designated these as the Fighter, the Princess, and the Matriarch representation.
Is the female a fighter? Does she demand for a seat at the table and is she to break down doors to get into the room?
Is the female a princess? Should men open the door for her and usher her to the seat?
Is the female a matriarch? Does she raze down the room where the men are and sit on the ashes with her cohorts?
If these three categories were to be shaped into a theoretical framework, we could use them to broadly classify the different discourse of online feminists as we see them today.
The Fighter female category proposes that women take up their space without apologies or handouts. However, like all other similar movements, the process will be slow. It thrives on merit and zero discrimination environments which realistically are not absolutely guaranteed in human governed systems.
The Princess female category visualizes the fastest means to actualizing equality. However, it does not essentially represent any long term change to gendered power dynamics. It represents a handout state which still entrenches patriarchy at many levels. It does not ensure merit based process but quota systems that grant you a seat at the table because you happen to be female and not because you deserve it.
The Matriarch female representation visualizes an outcome that does not represent gender equality but gender dominance. It flips the script and allows females dominant representation and males as minors which will likely birth another movement. This is reaching far into the future but essentially, that is the outcome that the matriarch female will produce if pushed to logical conclusion.
These trichotomy of representation presents a confusion to many activists, social commentators, social feminists, and opponents of the feminism movement but this confusion should not exist. On the whole, we still struggle to identify people by the narratives they share and are quick to generalize, lumping them into groups that they clearly have no interest in belonging to.
There are fighter feminists, there are princess feminists and there are matriarch feminists. We should take care not to lump the fighter with the princess or the matriarch and vice versa. The utopia envisioned by each in its futuristic projection of female representation is quite different and discussions should be had on those individual strains. At this point, I guess I should also mention that there are females who want nothing to do with feminism or gender equality as well.
I have attempted here a sort of rendering that looks at the representation of the female as a primary actor in feminist narrative in relation to technology, communication and outcomes. This first attempt might be rough but it provides a rough roadmap to aid in the navigation of online discussions around feminism and gender.
Zainab Haruna is the founder of Decipher Solutions, a not for profit that works to support education and job creation efforts in Nigeria. She tweets from @Zennyharry.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of Nigerian Diary