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Women’s Rights Movement Essay Example

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Essay

The general women’s right movement falls within the broader category of a social movement, which has been described in the academic literature as “the result of deep changes in the society around them.” (Foweraker, 9) In other words, in any social movement there are two forces at work: firstly, the dominant social structure, with its normativities, mores, and discourses, and secondly, undercurrents of social movements, which seek to change the hegemonic social structure. Yet according to the above quote, social movements can only emerge in a context when the dominant social structure is somehow weakened in its deepest roots.

The women’s right movement can be viewed as a result of such deeper changes, described by the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas as follows: social movements are a “reaction to the increasing rationalization of modern life.” (Foweraker, 10) This means that modern life is defined by a self-reflection about the world we live in, in so far as reason is employed to think about some of our most deep-seeded beliefs, instead of merely just accepting the latter as infallible.

Arguably, the women’s right movement emerges from this same paradigm shift of modernity. As Mountjoy and McNeese observe, “throughout history, women have been subjected to unequal treatment from legal codes within various societies and cultures.” In the case of the United States, the women’s right movement was able to gain the right to vote only in 1920, largely because of the fact that “the colonial and early American legal codes reflected the influence of English law, which in turn was influenced by Roman law…that placed rigid restraints on women.” (Mountjoy & McNeese, 14) Accordingly, the social discourse that rejected women’s rights was largely based upon an inherited legal heritage. The women’s rights movement emerges, therefore, in harmony with a rational questioning of the legal heritage of the Western world.

As societies become more democratized with modernity and the reign of reason, moving from traditional hierarchical structures towards a more “open society”, the women’s right movement utilizes these new social contracts to challenge the traditional inferior position of women in society. However, this social movement, in the case of the United States, also emerged in correlation to the abolitionist movement which sought to end slavery: “women’s rights became a prominent issue because some of the most committed, influential, and persuasive leaders opposed to slavery were women.” (33) Accordingly, the women’s right movement appears also within the context of a greater emancipatory social movement that also challenges highly stratified social structures.

The women’s right movement is thus the result of a general importance conferred to the rights of the minority. Women’s rights and issues such as suffrage are here symptoms of the minority using the democratic framework and the overall shift to a rationally based society to challenge hegemony. Without any support in traditional structures, that offer the reason for their existence according to various appeals to history or even to supernatural powers in the case of various theologies and mythologies, societies that are based on reason and a more general democratic character are open to interpretation. The minority thus begins to challenge his or her status as a minority: this opportunity is afforded by the greater social system.

Accordingly, the most significant tactic of the women’s right movement is that of using the modernized form of social states against themselves: the open structure of this society, one which avoids a mere reliance on tradition, also includes the seeds for its radically questioning. The open or democratized society, based on standards of reason which allows one to ask “why do we do what we do?”, gives rise to social movements that question the position of the minority, and thus the structure of society as a whole. The women’s right movement is thus a prototypical example of a social movement and the correlation between social movements and the erosion of traditional hierarchical power structures.

Works Cited

Foweraker, Joe. Theorizing Social Movements. Boulder, CO: Pluto Press.

Mountjoy, Shane & McNeese, Tim. The Women’s Rights Movement: Moving

Towards Equality. New York, NY: Chelsea House, 2008.

 

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