This study guide explores different feminist movements, focusing on movements from the Global South.
This study guide was made collaboratively with the contribution of many younger and older feminists active in movements and the Beijing+25 process. Read about our contributors on the About page. Explore all 7 sections at your own pace!
Welcome to the Feminist Movements study guide.
Feminist movements are diverse, multi-issue and hold many types of people. There is no singular definition of “feminism” but there are some shared values such as democratic decision-making, collective power over individual leadership, intersectionality, and understanding the root causes of inequality. Despite what some histories state, feminism did not originate in the US or Europe. Movements for bodily autonomy, living free of violence, reproductive justice and other fundamental struggles for gender and sexual rights have always been led by Global South feminists. Today, movements are facing enormous backlash due to a resurgence of fundamentalisms across economic, religious, racial/ethnic and political lines.
According to AWID’s research, only 1% of all gender equality funding goes to feminist organizations, and even less to young feminist and informal collectives and groups. Despite this, older and younger feminists are charging forward in strategic, creative and innovative ways – shaping formal policy as well as shifting the deep structures of gender inequality as they play out in our families, communities, relationships and even our own hearts. The “front line” of feminism, in other words, is everywhere and that’s why being a feminist can start anywhere.
This study guide starts with video dialogues featuring younger and older feminists followed by key concepts, examples of movements & advocacy, a toolbox and quiz. An e-certificate is available if you ace the quiz!
Note: The Feminist Action Lab is meant to be a starting point, not a comprehensive guide. Content updated June 2021.
To achieve gender justice, we need to learn from our histories and also embrace new feminist tactics and possibilities. Kenyan politician and feminist Martha Karua and Xenia Kellner, co-founder of Young Feminist Europe discuss intergenerational feminism. Read more about Martha and Xenia on the About Page.
“Intersectionality” may be one of the most important ideas to have emerged from feminist movements in recent times. Black feminist and legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw first coined the term in 1989 to describe how different characteristics like race, age, class, gender, sexual orientation etc., are linked in how people experience oppression, power and privilege. This matters because by using an intersectional lens, we can address inequality at its roots rather than one branch at a time.
Take for example voting rights for women in the US. Women in the US successfully won the legal right to vote in 1920. The movement was led by white, Black and many women of color however despite this so-called gendered victory, racist legal systems like the Jim Crow Laws continued to bar Black women (and all people of color) from voting. It wasn’t until 1965, a full 45 years later, that ALL women were granted the right to vote thanks to the civil rights movement. In this example, overlapping oppressions based on gender and race created compound discrimination against Black women in the US. Racism, sexism, homophobia, classism and other forms of oppression continue to be barriers, operating all at once, to people’s ability to access their full political rights even today. With an intersectional lens, feminists can avoid falling into the trap of incomplete or exclusionary movements that benefit only a few. Instead, having an intersectional analysis and vision for social change can ensure that no one is left behind.
The black feminist scholar Audre Lorde famously said, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” In this same vein, our intersecting and overlapping identities, rather than dividing or categorizing us, can build deeper inter-linkages between our shared oppressions and create shared calls for full and equal rights.
You can watch Kimberle Crenshaw define the concept of “intersectionality” in her own words in the following video.
Source: National Association of Independent Schools.
Patriarchy is an unequal system of power where men hold dominant positions in public and private spheres, subordinating women and gender diverse people, as well as other men who do not fit ideal standards of “masculinity”. Patriarchal power plays out in our social, cultural, political, economic systems and institutions as well as in our everyday relationships. Because it is so present in how our world is organized, legal advocacy is only one way of addressing this inequality. Feminists challenge unequal power structures as well as unequal power relations by shifting culture and the many ‘invisible’ ways we think and act out gender inequality.
“Matriarchy” is not the opposite or solution to patriarchy. Feminists instead support gender equality where all people, regardless of their gender and sexual orientation have equal rights and power.
Understanding power is a critical part of being feminist. There are many forms of power that define our world and our activism. Feminist movements generaly support collective power, or power that is not focused on individuals or exceptionalism (for example, the idea that leadership means being the loudest or most charismatic person in a group) and instead shared and redistributed. Power is also essential for analyzing inequality in the world, as well as within our movements. We can exercise power over, have power under, power with, or power in different relationships and contexts. Visibilizing power is generally a tool to address inequality rather than assuming relationships or systems as neutral.
For a deeper look at concepts of power as they relate to feminist movements, check out feminist activist and scholar Srilatha Batliwala’s publication “ALL ABOUT POWER” (CREA 2019).
Note: Feminism did not originate in the US or Europe. People in the Global South have been leading movements on sexual and gender rights in their own countries and communities for centuries! Many have not received the same historical recognition as their European and US counterparts. Even racial, sexual, ethnic and caste minorities within a particular country (for example Dalit feminists in India or Black women in the US) have long been overshadowed or silenced because of “hegemonic” narratives (or the amplification of stories of those who hold dominant power in society). Decolonizing feminism as well as challenging mainstream feminist narratives that exclude the histories of marginalized people is central to movements and practicing a justice lens.
For the purposes of this study guide, we have chosen not to focus on the various “waves” of mainstream feminism or the specific differences between liberal, marxist or radical feminist movements. For a quick overview of different waves and types of feminism, check out JASS’ Worksheet from their resource on movement building, the We-Rise Toolkit.
In 1985 the feminist scholar Gayle Rubin coined the term the ‘Charmed Circle’ (see illustration below). The Charmed Circle is part of what Rubin describes as ‘sexual hierarchy’ – or how society considers some types of sex and sexuality as “good”, “normal” and “accetable” while others as “bad”, “abnormal” and “unacceptable”.
For example, heteronormativity – or sex between married men and women for the purposes for having children, is not only highly accepted in all societies but is also legally protected and incentivized. This type of sex is in the center of the charmed circle. When we think of sexual violence against a heterosexual woman by any person who is not her husband – society also recognizes this form of violence as the gravest of forms.
Now let’s flip the script. As the circle expands, forms of sex and sexuality which are not between a man and women, which is outside of marriage, and not for the purposes of reproduction are looked down upon. As a result these people generally have less legal protection and even social sympathy. This is how patriarchy as a structure is biased against those who don’t fit it’s ideals. GBV against those who are marginalized are less widely recognized, and in certain societies actually accepted. This further interacts with race, caste, class etc.
The charmed circle and sexual hierarchy are feminist tools of analysis that help reveal the deep social, cultural and political power inequalities that keep people from accessing their full rights. It also helps us identify when narratives of an “ideal victim” are used – for example when survivors of sexual violence are blamed or questioned because of their percieved promiscuity, profession, marital status (being outliers of the charmed circle) etc. The “ideal victim” and resulting victim-blaming falsely promotes the idea that some people ‘deserve’ less protection than others.
4. SOGIESC, Yogyakarta and Sexual and Gender Diversity (SGD)
In many advocacy spaces you will encounter the language of ‘SOGIESC’ or Sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and sex characteristics (you can review a useful list of terminologies on SOGIESC here from Parlimentarians for Global Action).
Human rights abuses and discrimination against LGBTQI communities are widespread, including being criminalized in many countries (see the Action Coalition leader ILGA’s map of countries criminalizing homosexuality here).
Advocacy around SOGIESC has shaped feminist movements in many ways, including challenging sexual binaries (i.e. cis gender, men/women) and how feminist spaces can sometimes reinforce this rather than uphold sexual and gender diversity. A significant human rights platform to push for the recognition of SOGIESC was the 2006 Yogyakarta Principles, a document created by key LGBTQI experts and advocates.
In 2021, some feminists are recognising even the limitations in using LGBTI/SOGIESC terminology, and moving towards a discourse of Sexual and Gender Diversity (SGD). SGD aims to challenge the heteronormative understanding of sex, gender and sexuality while centering an intersectional and political approach to LGBTI/SOGIESC. In the SGD approach, feminism is not a ‘women’s issue’. Everything including SRHR, GBV, economic and political participation – all are issues relevant to all genders and all sexualities, with an imperative of centering diverse lived realities.
5. Trans Exclusionary Feminism
Transphobia, hate speech and discrimination against transgender people are unfortunatley widespread in our world today. Despite being enshrined in global human rights mechanisms, there is a growing set of special interest groups and conservatives promoting “gender ideology” – or a type of fundimentalist narrative defining who can be a “real boy” or “real girl”. Contemporary feminists movements (sometimes referred to as “fourth wave feminism”) however strive for intersectional and radically inclusive movements that include trans and gender diverse people.
As a young activist in gender equality, it is important to identify and question feminist groups who actively exclude or practice transphobia. This rising minority is popularly referred to as “TERFS” or Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists. Both states and non-state groups are embracing these ideas which can result in laws criminalising young people’s sexuality, curbing trans gender rights, and resulting in a closing civic space.
The GEF Action Coalition leader CREA has created a series of videos on gender ideology and how this thinking is endangering the human rights space, including the United Nations. Here is one of ther videos from feminist activist Sonia Correa elaborating on this troubling trend.
6. The Right to Pleasure?
The act of sex is often talked about in terms of violence and rarely in terms of pleasure. For example, how often do we hear that women and girls need to be ‘protected’ from sex rather than “enjoy” and embrace their sexual autonomy? Attitudes like protection vary based on different communities. For example people with disabilities are often overwhelmingly stereotyped as a-sexual or hyper-sexual and in need of ‘protection’. On the other hand, transgender people and sex workers are often seen as hyper-sexual and not having the ability to consent or revoke consent, and thus can never be “violated”.
Feminists are fighting these frameworks and demanding that consent, sexual autonomy and the right to pleasure be as much a part of gender equality as living free of GBV. One does not have to undermine the other! Feminist narratives around pleasure and wellbeing are not as simple as you would expect! Even our advocacy around pleasure is contested, missing in advocacy spaces, or actively avoided. Here is a poem by Priya Malik called “The Right to Pleasure” to help illustrate this concept.
Trigger warning – this video mentions forms of GBV.
7. Collective Power versus Individual Leadership
Feminist movements address a myriad of issues from child marriage to public spending to female genetile mutiliation (FGM). A movement approach is one in which a group of people share some common analysis on power and the root causes of inequality. Based on this, they are able to create an agenda and strategy for influencing and demanding social justice. Because feminism identifies systems change and justice over individual solutions to social problems (with the assumption that it is not individual perpetrators but a complex web of power and oppression that create the conditions for inequality) – the change that feminists seek are often bottom-up, long-term and “radical” (which means addressing the “root” causes).
Feminist movements believe that collective power, that is created through intentionally inclusive and intersectional leadership and voice, while seemingly difficult to measure or replicate, is what leads to transformative change in societies. In this way, feminist movement building holds both the processes and the goals it tries to address as critical to its work.
Feminist movements and gender transformative approaches are one of many. The charity model is a common approach in international development. The charity model is not necessarily participatory or centered in inclusion and voice. In this model, “do-gooders”and individuals act on behalf of different people and social issues (often without the consent or meaningful participation with communities experiencing those issues). This often takes place in the form of “interventions” or “projects”, rather than long-term processes seeking justice and rights.
The charity model is not easily compatible with feminist approaches or analysis and many feminists actively challenge it. It’s important to be able to tell the difference between movement approaches and project or charity models in our advocacy work!
8. Wellbeing & Sustainability
Young feminists are building movements using very different processes, tools and approaches than older generations. One important contribution younger feminists are championing is the importance of wellbeing and self-care. Though there is no authoritative consensus on what constitutes ‘self-care’ but feminists are considering its many dimensions including the individual needs as activists, experiences as marginalized people, as well as collective care and community wellbeing.
A common way of thinking sometimes prevalent in older activists is one of guilt and responsibility (Cruz et al 2020) – where many feminists, though facing external pressure themselves while also being exposed to oppression or violence, feel the need to ‘soldier-on’ and perform their duties to defend human rights. With greater recognition of “burn out”, psychological trauma, generational trauma, and mental health in general – today’s feminist movements are rethinking what long-term sustainabilty and health of feminist movements can look like without ‘burning out’.
Young feminists are building stronger, healthier movements that are able to center self-care and community care. This is slowly taking root in everyday working practices, values statements, and as political strategy for social change! FRIDA the world’s first young feminist fund is an example of feminist organization focussed on practicing wellbeing and self-care. Check out their principles for working and Self-Care Guide here!
How did you become a feminist?
In this video, young feminist and Beijing+25 Youth Task Force Member Anika Jane Dorothy shares her journey in feminism along with how she found her power in gender equality work.
Feminist social movements are in every country. Despite how history is often taught, feminism did not originate in the US or Europe. There are many feminisms and feminist perspectives with some of the most powerful and transformational movements being in the Global South.
Starting points for exploring the history of feminist movements
- The forgotten origins of “Women’s Rights are Human Rights: Without the ingenuity of feminists from the Global South and networks of committed activists on every continent, we would never have heard the phrase: “Women’s Rights are Human Rights. (OpenGlobalRights)
- Resurj is a Global South-led transnational feminist alliance committed to fostering stronger communities by building trust, nurturing solidarity, and sharing power.
- AWID is a global, feminist, membership, movement-support organization working to achieve gender justice and women’s human rights worldwide.
- JASS’s Dialogue; Dialogue 7: Is Global South Feminism The Antidote to Rising Authoritarianism?
- Feminist Rebels in the Global South (Verso Books)
The Beijing Platform For Action & Generation Equality Forum
The Beijing Declaration is a defining document addressing gender equality. In 1995 the Declaration was a result of over 30,000 activists globally coming together and advocating for the rights of women and girls during the Fourth World Conference on Women, in Beijing China. It produced ‘12 critical areas of concern’ and became a non-legally binding global policy platform for gender equality that continues to be active today. The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) is an annual conference and the official monitoring and implementation body on the Beijing Declaration, governed by UN Women. Though ground breaking, marginalized groups such as LGBTIQ groups, women with disabilities and sex workers were not included in the original drafting and negotiation process and have since been advocating to be included fully as constituencies for the realization of the commitments.
Today, the 2021 Generation Equality Forum (GEF) hosted by the Governments of Mexico and France is a conference aiming to accelerate what was started in 1995. The GEF has 6 major “Action Coalitions” (AC) or a group of government, UN agency, private sector and civil society/feminist organizations leading a 5 year advocacy process on Feminist Movements and Leadership. Some key tools and the AC on Feminist Movements and Leadership has provided so far include:
- A Blueprint for Action on Feminist Movements and Leadership
- A Global Acceleration Plan for Gender Equality that includes 4 “Game-Changing” Advocacy Targets on Feminist Movements and Leadership
- A Commitment Making Platform to track your government’s, private sector stakeholders and civil society commitments. This platform will also be a way for your organization to sign up as a commitment maker and engage in longer term advocacy with ACs.
Youth Power at the GEF
Power within UN spaces is an active and contested process. Young feminists and youth-led organizations have the right to be equal partners and decision-makers at advocacy spaces like the GEF.
Whether or not the GEF is able to engage youth in meaningful ways will be based on a number of factors including holding donors, states, UN agencies and civil society organizations accountable to intergeneration power sharing, restoring, and resourcing.
In an effort to create more meaningful and youth-led spaces for advocacy, several regional and global youth manifestos and platforms have already been created. We highly encourage Action Lab users to get involved with the following collaborative youth-led initiatives below:
From the sex positive Indian feminist organization Agents of Ishq
Every year, ILGA World publishes maps of sexual orientation laws in the world. A useful tool for LGBTQI human rights defenders, these images highlight spaces for global, regional, and international solidarity, to combat arbitrary laws.
While it can seem overwhelming, there are many ways to be active in the feminist movement. Here are some things to keep in mind when planning your actions and activism!
- Do your research!
That means learning more about the feminist agenda in your country from seasoned activists and emerging ones!
- Question and be curious.
Now that you know some principles in feminism (the importance of power, systemic change, intersectionality) you can better identify feminism from ‘gender ideology’ and other conservative movements! Question people who exclude or reinforce binaries! Break your own binaries!
- Organize your community.
Instead of becoming an individual leader on your own, build your collective voice and organize your community! There are many movements to join and learn from – find your allies and get involved!
- Raise your voice & advocate!
You have the right to be at the table and participate meaningfully in local, national and global spaces. Raise your voice and become a feminist advocate!
Are you ready to get involved in global and national feminist movements? Head to our Action study guide to learn more about the GEF and other networks you can join.