Picture: SAHistoryOnline

by Alex Kinmont

You’ve probably heard the term ‘Femi-nazi’. Maybe you’ve even sniggered at it, because all you can picture is an angry woman with extra short bangs, a nose ring and lots of tattoos. So how did such an important movement earn such a bad rep?

Féminisme” was first coined in 1837 by French philosopher Charles Fourier to mean advocacy of women’s rights. Today, feminism is “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes” according to Merriam-Webster.

Feminism is equality, not the superiority of women.

So how did it start, where is it now and why are so many people still confused about it?

The first step towards change is altering the legislature. To change the rules paves the way for changing the attitude.

The first wave of feminism in the late 19th and early 20th century won women the right to vote, marking the start of the fight for gender equality. Although the suffragettes focused on white women’s rights without paying any attention to intersections such as race or sexuality, it is still seen as the first formal political movement for gender equality.

The mid to late 20th century which followed was a time of dramatic social change. In the wake of World War 2 and in the context of the Cold War, world-wide social unrest was at an all-time high.

The fight for racial justice was perhaps most prominent. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress were fighting the Apartheid Government and in America, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X of the Civil Rights Movement were speaking out against Jim Crow laws.


There was also an anti-war movement fighting for peace. Student protesters loudly voiced their disapproval of America being at war in Vietnam, as the Cold War threat of mutually assured nuclear destruction hovered over the northern hemisphere.

In such an equality-driven context, women were not to be left out. The second wave of feminism focused on freedom of sexuality and reproductive rights. In America, women fought for the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution which would guarantee equality regardless of sex.

Although criticised as being the white woman’s fight, as the racial concerns of women of colour were sidelined, the progress made here was a big step nonetheless.

At the same time in South Africa, 1956 marked the year when 20 thousand women marched to the Union buildings in Pretoria to protest restrictive pass laws which were affecting their families. This event happened 63 years ago today, on the 9 August.

Women were rising and they were gaining momentum.

The second step towards change is to fix attitudes. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique criticised society for teaching women that their place is at home. Changing the laws is one thing; to then change people’s minds is entirely different. The power of individuals and society as a whole must never be underestimated.

Where a law may say one thing, society can still say another.

The third wave of feminism came in the early 90s, focusing now on changing social hierarchy. Women subverted once oppressive terms and behaviours. Stilettos and cleavage and the term ‘bitch’ became badges of honour. Women were rebelling against society’s rules.

The fourth wave of feminism is online and now. Claiming a voice and changing attitudes is at the heart of the digital revolution. #MeToo is a world-wide movement encouraging women to speak out against assault and harassment. The power of the internet has powered the wave, providing the platform to effectively have your say and find community.

Modern day feminism is digital and bold. It is continuing the fight against systemic sexism. This time, it becomes intersectional feminism, noting that women of colour and LGBT+ women have deeper grievances that require recognition and support.


From microaggressions like mansplaining (when men talk over women and explain something to them without being asked to) to violent aggressions like sexual harassment and assault, women are not yet in the clear. Gender-based violence is one of South Africa’s biggest issues; three women everyday are murdered by their intimate partners.

As a global reference, a 2018 study on Women in the Workplace by McKinsey & Company found that in the workplace alone, half of women have been sexually harassed.

Outside the business world, there are still countries where women can’t drive. Even in America today, the ‘Leader of the Free World’, there is a war on women’s bodies as their reproductive freedom is being debated and taken away state by state.

Modern day feminism, the fourth digital wave, is a continuation of a noble fight. So why is it that so many people actually find online feminism annoying?

The true definition of feminism has been lost. Due to feminism having part of the word “feminine” in it, many people who see it flash on their social media disregard is as only caring about women and saying that women are superior.

We are also in an age of fast, digital information. As with any group or community, there are always extremists – and boy does the internet and its never-ending competition for attention love a good extremist story. The world sees the over-the-top feminist screaming about the evilness of men and how women are God, and decides that feminism is just sexism.

There are those who are fail to realise that ‘feminism’ means equality between genders, not the ‘betterness’ of one gender. We must be mindful of what we see on social media and know that for every story reported, there are a thousand unreported stories. We must not generalise an entire culture, race or religion based on a few extremist stories that we see on our timelines.

Feminism is a movement which has been growing throughout the past century. It was, and always has been, about women’s advocacy. Feminism is the fight to achieve achieve equal, not superior, rights.