In the US, as in many other western countries, the link between the media and organized feminism goes back to the establishment of what in the west has been called “first wave feminism” in the nineteenth century. At the famous 1848 Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, NY the organizer Elizabeth Cady Stanton sought to raise public awareness about women’s rights by composing a Declaration of Sentiments modeled after the already sacrosanct US Declaration of Independence. Her Declaration elicited denunciatory press editorials. While she was unhappy about the misrepresentation of her ideas, Stanton understood the value of press attention. Subsequent waves of feminism continued to make use of media attention to achieve their ends, contributing to the discussion of the role of mass media in social movements, especially when messages are framed according to media practices contrary to the intent of the social movement (Barker-Plummer 1995).
By the turn of the twentieth century, as mass newspapers became entrenched in everyday life in North America and many parts of Europe, organized feminism had become expert in utilizing media strategies. Alice Paul, founder and head of the National Women’s Party (NWP), 1915, heavily relied upon the publicity techniques of confrontation and hunger strikes she had learned from British suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst. For example, in 1917 over 1,000 NWP women picketed the White House day and night for 18 weeks in order to put pressure on the federal government to pass the Susan B. Anthony Amendment (for women’s suffrage). Paul was arrested in October and sentenced to seven months in jail. After being placed in solitary confinement, she began a hunger strike. Newspapers across the country ran articles about the suffragists’ jail terms and forced feedings, which increased public support for the case for women’s suffrage.
From the 1970s, second wave feminists, as they have come to be called in many western countries, were strongly influenced by the publicity techniques of various new social movements (student antiwar, gay rights, civil rights). This was also true of burgeoning feminist movements in Japan (Muto 1997), West Germany (Lewis 1995), and many other democratic countries. In India, however, the emergence of feminism during this period was more closely related to the independence movement and its aftermath, tied up with profound changes in thinking about social class, religion, culture, and colonialism (Kumar 1993).
In the US, feminists in leadership positions, notably Betty Friedan (co-founder and first leader of the National Organization for Women) and Gloria Steinem (co-founder of the feminist magazine Ms.), were media practitioners who believed in the value of mass media in advancing feminist goals. The media savvy that characterized the new wave of feminism helped put feminist voices on the national news agenda. Early attention came by way of articles written by feminists in agenda-setting publications, such as the New York Times (Brownmiller 1970). “Agit-prop” (agitation propaganda) techniques soon dominated the movement’s activities. Both the reformist and the radical wings of the movement mounted events specifically designed to attract television coverage, from the Friedan-inspired sit-in at New York’s Plaza Hotel in 1967 to the famous protest at the Miss American Contest a year later (Bradley 2004).
As the women’s movement found a place on the news agenda, activist women were increasingly the subject of media coverage, none more sought out than Steinem, whose attractiveness comported with the demands of television. Steinem used her celebrity as a launch pad for the founding of Ms. in 1972, which aimed to take feminist issues to a mass media audience. Although critics of the magazine argued that the emphasis on sisterhood weakened the political message, the slick and well-produced magazine, which resembled mainstream domestic magazines for women, introduced subjects such as abortion, lesbianism, infanticide, and domestic abuse which had never before been broached in the mass media (Farrell 1998). For the rest of the twentieth century, discourses around feminism were influenced by a largely unsympathetic media (Faludi 1991). Mass media focused on traditional messages of beauty and fashion, as well as the concerns of working women. More than ever the emphasis was on the individual and on personal solutions to gender problems rather than on the structural discrimination that confronted women as a group.
Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, there have been notable developments within feminism that have led to a resurgence of feminist political action around the world. There has been a steadily growing number of feminist Internet sites and blogs. As Youngs (2007) notes, “feminism is alive and well, evolving and changing in these cyber times. Women’s online voices and activities expand day by day across the world, as does their diversity.” In global terms, feminism is enjoying renewed public and media interest. Issues including the plight of Afghan women, girls’ education, domestic violence, the feminization of poverty, abortion rights, women’s health, and HIV/AIDS have been brought to the attention of global audiences (Sarikakis & Shade 2007).
- Barker-Plummer, B. (1995). News as a political resource: Media strategies and political identity in the US. women’s movement 1966–1975. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, September 12, 306–324.
- Bradley, P. (2004). Mass media and the shaping of American feminism 1963–1975. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
- Brownmiller, S. (1970). “Sisterhood is powerful”: A member of the women’s liberation movement explains what it’s all about. New York Times Magazine, pp. 26–27, 127–130, 132, 134, 136, 140 (March 15).
- Faludi, S. (1991). Backlash: The undeclared war against American women. New York: Crown.
- Farrell, A. (1998). Yours in sisterhood: Ms. magazine and the promise of popular feminism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
- Kumar, R. (1993). The history of doing: An illustrated account of movements for women’s rights and feminism in India, 1800–1990. London: Verso.
- Lewis, J. J. (1995). Germany: Status of women. Encylopedia of women’s history. At womenshistory. about.com/library/ency/blwh_germany_women.htm, accessed August 14, 2007.
- Muto, I. (1997). The birth of the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s. In J. Moore (ed.), The other Japan. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.
- Sarikakis, K., & Shade, L. R. (eds.) (2007). Feminist interventions in international communication: Minding the gap. Lanham, MD: Rowan and Littlefield.
- Youngs, G. (2007). Blogging feminism: (Web)sites of resistance. At www.barnard.edu/sfonline/ blogs/youngs_05.htm, accessed August 10, 2007.