A look back at the multifaceted history of forms of feminism should prompt reflection and analysis on the ideological and political foundations of institutions and thereby allow them to have a clearer and more effective position for their strategies and operations.

A demonstration for International Women's Day in Barcelona in March 2019. Photo by Paul Barrena / AFP
A demonstration for International Women's Day in Barcelona in March 2019. Photo by Paul Barrena / AFP

The feminist commitment of international, national, public and private institutions is part of a history of aspirations, steps forward and steps back, controversy, caricatures, resistance, stereotypes and instrumentalization. There can therefore be nothing neutral about the term “feminism”, especially when it is employed in the singular. However, a look back at the multifaceted history of forms of feminism should lead to reflection and analysis on the ideological and political foundations of these institutions and allow them to have a clearer and more effective position for their strategies and operations.


“Waves” of feminism in recent history

It is generally accepted to refer to several “waves” of feminism. The first, at the turn of the 20th century, saw the struggles of women focus on the formal recognition of the equality of fundamental rights (right to property, vote and eligibility, right to education), without fundamentally challenging gender-based social roles.

The second, which had its heyday in the 1960s-1970s, turned the private sphere into a public matter and women having control over their own bodies through contraception and abortion into a public policy issue aiming at questioning and deconstructing gender relations.

The third wave, which started in the 1980s, highlighted the multifaceted oppression of women within gender, ethnic, racial and disabled minorities through a radical criticism of a pseudo identity of “women” and a controversial challenge of patriarchal norms and values.



The fourth more recent wave focuses on the highly publicized denunciation of forms of harassment and a systemic culture of rape in public places – on the street, on university campuses, in public transport, in the workplace –, as well as in the media and on digital social networks.

These various “feminist waves” aim to question an essentialist conception of women, as feminist conceptual spaces and activism are in fact made up of a wide variety of movements.


Wide variety of feminist movements

Liberal feminism calls for the achievement of equality before the law between women and men through legislative and sociopolitical developments, without necessarily conducting a systemic analysis of male domination.

In contrast to this universalist vision, differentialist feminism asserts the difference in nature between men and woman, which involves recognizing the specific circumstances of women in terms of intimacy, desire, their relationship with their body and the different experience they have of equality.

Radical feminism aims to fundamentally challenge patriarchal systems of domination and the resulting male violence on which they are based. It intends to free women from the assignments that shackle them in terms of maternity, family, sexuality, domestic work and professional constraints.

Materialist feminism draws on Marxism to demonstrate that the economic exploitation of women and the invisibility of domestic work and care constitute the foundation of capitalism’s social organization. It criticizes neoliberalism, which is portrayed as an exacerbation of the relegation of women to a position of inferiority and vulnerability: job insecurity, wage discrimination, harassment and violence in the workplace.



Sex-positive feminism marks a break, in particular by upholding the sexual freedom of women outside conservative systems and values and the economic and political reappropriation of prostitution as work recognized as being socialized sex. In contrast, abolitionist feminism considers prostitution as an ultimate anthropological expression of violence against women.

Intersectional feminism aims to demonstrate that various forms of “situational” discrimination (racial, social, ethnic, age, disability) revolve around gender to strengthen the relations of domination suffered by women. It criticizes universalist feminism for which the subordination of women is a universal phenomenon and the best universal weapon remains the fight for women’s rights, in particular in terms of health and sexual and reproductive rights.

Decolonial feminism challenges the Western universalist critique of patriarchy, including it in economic and social structures that are still very much marked by colonialization and imperialism and showing how many societies have remained structurally racist and sexist. Afrofeminism, by explicitly linking the issues of racism and sexism, aims to distance itself from the Western feminist struggles which largely dominated the structuring of the international agenda between the 1970s and the turn of the 21st century.

Ecofeminism develops a notion linking the status and living conditions of women with the issues of preserving natural resources and biodiversity via a combined critique of the mutually reinforcing patriarchal system and neoliberal capitalist system.


Feminist institutionalism: between accommodation and transformation

This overview of the main stream of feminist thinking makes us aware of the diversity, convergence, but also the sometimes irreconcilable oppositions, of the philosophical and ideological systems of the women and men who adhere to them.

It is increasingly clear that gender inequalities are no longer legally, socially, economically, politically and morally based. However, the traditional patriarchal systems, which justify and maintain them, remain the dominant models.

Beyond the often fantasized or instrumental objectivation of feminism, what are the possible agendas for institutions that claim to be feminist and cannot do without prior reflection on their conceptual basis? And in other words, does it involve status quo, reformist, emancipatory or transformative agendas?

The methodological tool of cognitive dissonance makes it possible to categorize two types of positioning for organizations in general.

  1. Accommodation

It involves a minimum commitment to gender equality issues, on the grounds that there have already been fights on behalf of gender and that they have already been exceeded as women have already obtained equal rights with men. This positioning can be summed up by the question “What more do they want?”. Consequently, instead of opening up a prospect for an innovative social contract that mainstreams gender, the status quo, while easing dissonant tensions, makes it effectively impossible to really develop towards concrete conditions of equality.

Accommodation goes as far as theoretically accepting the discourse of the deconstruction of stereotypes and injunctions of gender and domination processes, but stops short of a concrete link with modalities for individual and collective change other than the affirmation/strengthening of political, civil and professional rights.

  1. Transformation

Committing to and supporting a transformative feminist agenda, by and within institutions, requires public policies and legal changes that will bring about and/or support significant societal changes and take into account all the dimensions of feminist movements, including the most contradictory or controversial. Based on the categories of adaptation and mitigation of the fight against climate change, it is possible to outline some concrete prospects for commitments beyond the speeches and declarations of intent.


“Catch-up” transformations: between quota policies and penalization measures

Based on a realistic approach to curb gender inequalities, the interventions of feminist institutions seek to reduce (as far as possible in given societies) centuries-old phenomena of domination: “prohibited” occupations, trafficking in women and commodification of their bodies, prostitution and all forms of gender-based violence. They strive to combat them by all possible means, ranging from quota policies, positive discrimination and parity to the criminalization of the clients of prostitutes and acts of mutilation.


Radical transformations: between the effectiveness of financing and support for the diversity of feminism

With a view to mitigation, for institutions and organizations that set out to transform gender relations, it involves:

  • Moving beyond the performative illusion of declarations and ensuring that they materialize in the interventions and effectiveness of financing;
  • Making a firm commitment to feminizing structures, effectively rebalancing relations of power and knowledge and recalibrating decision-making mechanisms;
  • Ensuring there is an effective visibility of women in areas where they have been excluded (art, politics, culture, economy and all types of public spaces in general);
  • Changing the stereotyped visions that men have of women (and of themselves!), which all have one thing in common: the devaluation of women and its corollary: the justification of gender inequalities.

Consequently, institutions that declare themselves to be feminist engage in a truly political combat. Beyond the circumstances and potential exploitation, this combat should be based on taking into account all the trends in the feminist struggles and the broadest possible support, in particular financial, for their necessary and complementary mobilization.



The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.

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