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Charles Fourier: The man who coined the term ‘feminism’

Deutsche Welle

2022 04 07
https://www.dw.com/en/charles-fourier-the-man-who-coined-the-term-feminism/a-61379159

One would not be far wrong to say that Francois Marie Charles Fourier was quite the radical for his time.

Born 250 years ago, on April 7, 1772, in Besancon, France, Charles Fourier was the son of a businessman who didn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps but instead wanted to become an engineer. However, this field of education back then was open only to the sons of France’s noblemen.

Later when he became a philosopher and utopian socialist, he was said to have expressed relief for having opted not to pursue engineering as it would have consumed too much of his time and distracted him from his true calling: to help humanity.

Among the causes he furthered was the equal treatment of women, and Fourier is credited with having given the cause its name —”feminisme” — in 1837.

  • Famous feminists and the struggle for equality

    Olympe de Gouges (1748-1793)

    The French revolutionary was a pioneer in the struggle for women’s rights. In 1791, Olympe de Gouges wrote a “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen” in response to the 1789 declaration of human and civil rights, which didn’t take women into account. In her text, she wrote that women are born free and are equal to men in all of their rights.

  • Famous feminists and the struggle for equality

    Sojourner Truth (1797-1883)

    Activist Sojourner Truth made a connection between the rights of slaves in the United States and those of women. She campaigned for both the abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage. Her speech “And ain’t I a woman?” which she held at a women’s rights convention in Ohio in 1851, went down in the history books.

  • Famous feminists and the struggle for equality

    Louise Otto-Peters (1819-1895)

    Louise Otto-Peters is considered the founder of the German women’s rights movement. In 1843, she became famous for saying, “The participation of women in the interests of the state is not a right, but a duty.” Otto-Peters co-founded Germany’s first feminist organization, the Allgemeiner Deutscher Frauenverein, in 1865.

  • Famous feminists and the struggle for equality

    Hedwig Dohm (1831-1919)

    In 1874, she wrote “The Scientific Emancipation of Women.” Hedwig Dohm called for women’s suffrage and unrestricted access to universities, making her a radical pioneer of the German feminist movement. According to her motto “Human rights know no gender,” Dohm demanded equality across the board.

  • Famous feminists and the struggle for equality

    Emily Davison (1872-1913)

    British sufragette Emily Davison was arrested eight times. The activist sometimes resorted to violent protests in her campaign for women’s rights. She was a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union, which was founded in 1903. Its motto was, “Deeds, not words.” Ultimately, Davison died a martyr. In an effort to draw attention to her cause during a horse race, she was trampled to death.

  • Famous feminists and the struggle for equality

    Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1968)

    Simone de Beauvoir’s 1949 work “The Second Sex” is a milestone of feminist literature. In it, she famously wrote, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” Well ahead of her time, she was among the first to assert the thesis that gender is not a biological fact.

  • Famous feminists and the struggle for equality

    Betty Friedan (1921-2006)

    In her work “The Feminine Mystique,” Betty Friedan criticized the reduction of women to mothers and housewives. It was published in 1963 and she became an activist in the American feminist movement. In 1966, she and 27 other women founded the National Organization for Women. She would go on to spend her life fighting for gender equality.

  • Famous feminists and the struggle for equality

    Alice Schwarzer (*1942)

    In fall 1975, Alice Schwarzer released her book “The Little Difference and Its Huge Consequences,” in which she analyzes sex as a power play between men and women. It became a bestseller, making Schwarzer the best-known and most divisive feminist in Germany. She has been publishing “Emma” since 1977.

  • Famous feminists and the struggle for equality

    Judith Butler (*1956)

    The deconstruction of gender is the central theme of Judith Butler’s work “Gender Trouble” from 1990. Her thesis is that both our learned gender and our biological sex are socially construed and our gender identity is a performance. The American philosopher became a pioneer of feminist theory in the 1990s.

  • Famous feminists and the struggle for equality

    Mozn Hassan (*1979)

    Mozn Hassan and her organization Nazra for Feminist Studies have fought for women’s rights in Egypt since 2007. During the Arab Spring, Nazra made sure that sexual harassment became a statutory offense. In 2016, the feminist activist Hassan received the Right Livelihood Award — also known as the Alternative Nobel Prize — for her work.

  • Famous feminists and the struggle for equality

    Laurie Penny (*1986)

    Laurie Penny of Britain is considered one of the most significant feminists of our time. Her works “Meat Market” and “Unspeakable Things” criticize the sexualization and sexual suppression of women and the idea of romantic love. Penny works as a columnist and journalist for “The Guardian,” “the Independent,” “New Statesman” and others.

  • Famous feminists and the struggle for equality

    Margarete Stokowski (*1986)

    She is also known as the “German Laurie Penny.” Margarete Stokowski’s debut book “Untenrum frei” (“Free down below”) discusses power, mechanisms of sexual suppression, gender roles assigned be society and how small freedoms relate to larger liberties. The “Spiegel” columnist’s main thesis is that we can’t be free at the top if we’re not free down below — and vice versa.

    Author: Lina Friedrich (kbm)

Fourier perceived the institution of marriage in France back then as oppressive towards women. He also argued that women should be given equal access to important work based on skill and aptitude rather than on account of gender.

“Social progress and changes of historical period take place in proportion to the advance of women toward liberty, and social decline occurs as a result of the diminution of the liberty of women,” he said.
“Feminism” and its offshoot, “feminist,” would in turn spur various global feminist actions through the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, which historians often refer to as “waves of feminism.”

London | Sufragetten 1910 | Feminismus

The suffragette movement in London in the early 20th century rallied to grant women voting rights

The first involved the women’s suffrage movements of the 19th and early-20th centuries, advocating women’s right to vote, while the second wave that began in the 1960s, dealt with the women’s liberation movement, which rallied for legal and social equality for women.

The third wave took place in or around 1992 and focused more on individuality and diversity.

And the fourth wave is said to have begun around 2012, with social media being used to highlight and fight sexual harassment, violence against women and rape culture, leading up to the viral Me Too movement.

While inroads have been made, much remains to be done on feminist issues such as reproductive health choices, equality in education and employment, gender pay gaps, sexual harassment, violence against women, and rape culture.

New York | Demonstration der Women's Liberation Movement | Feminismus

Participants at a Women’s Liberation Movement demonstration in New York in 1970

The terms “feminism” and “feminist” have been both embraced and shunned — the latter by even some women themselves — for the varied and sometimes negative implications that they have carried over time.

Undoubtedly the length and breadth of “feminism” will keep evolving over time. For example, present-day activists are advocating for a broad-based feminism that doesn’t just address the concerns of  white women.

Searching for a definition

For a term that was first coined in 1837, “feminism” was surprisingly chosen as Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year for 2017.

Defined as “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes,” it was the top searched word that year, seeing a 70% increase from 2016.

Washington Women's March Trump Proteste

Women’s March against the Trump presidency in Washington DC

This came on the heels of the global Women’s March and revelations about producer Harvey Weinstein‘s alleged sexual harassment of women in Hollywood.

The Women’s March meanwhile were demonstrations that were held worldwide on January 21, 2017, supporting gender equality, civil rights, and other issues that were expected to face challenges under then newly inaugurated US President Donald Trump.

Feminist theorists themselves have long debated the scope of the word’s definition.

One of the pithier definitions comes from American writer and feminist activist Marie Shear, who wrote in 1986 that ”Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.”

Who is a feminist?

According to award-winning Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “We Should All Be Feminists”: This was the title of her now classic TED Talk of 2012 that spurred a global conversation about feminism.

The talk was adapted into an bestselling essay. Sweden gave every 16-year-old in the country a copy of the book to read in 2015.

Adichie’s famous line also made its mark on music and fashion.

Singer Beyonce sampled her speech in her 2013 single “Flawless,” unleashing further debate on the term. Designer Maria Grazia Chiuri debuted her collection for Christian Dior’s 2017 spring line that featured a T-shirt emblazoned with this statement.

Although it might meanwhile seem like a commonplace to hear women say they are feminists, even former German Chancellor Angela Merkel long avoided using the title to describe herself.

At the Women20 Summit in Berlin in 2017, Merkel, seated alongside then-IMF chief Christine Lagarde and Ivanka Trump, was asked if she was a feminist. The response of the then world’s most powerful woman was awkward: “To be honest, the history of feminism is one with which I have common ground but also differences, and I don’t want to embellish myself with a title I don’t have.”

Later, at one of the final events of her chancellorship in Germany in 2021, at talk with Adichie, Merkel was asked the question again. 

The Nigerian author whooped with delight when the German chancellor quoted her line: Referring to her previous reticence to come out as a feminist, Merkel said, “I was a bit shyer when I said it. But it’s more thought-out now. And in that sense, I can say that we should all be feminists.”