There are people who believe that we do not need feminism today, but nothing could be further from the truth. Women have struggled for equality and against oppression for centuries, and although some battles have been partly won - such as the right to vote and equal access to education – women are still disproportionally affected by all forms of violence and by discrimination in every aspect of life.

It is true that in some areas and on certain issues, there have been improvements: for example, in Saudi Arabia women were allowed, for the first time, to vote and run for office in 2015(!). However, on other issues there has been little or no progress: for example, there have been insignificant reductions in cases of violence against women. Women continue to receive lower pay for the same work as men in all parts of the world; there are still countries that do not have laws against marital rape and still allow child brides, and practices such as 'honour' killings and female genital mutilation still exist.

Jokes about feminism and stereotypes about feminists persist, and many of these are also homophobic and assume that being lesbian is something ‘bad’. In fact, being a feminist is not something particular to any sex or gender: there are women and men who consider themselves feminists, some are gay or lesbian, some heterosexual, bisexual or transgender - and some may identify differently.

The concept of feminism reflects a history of different struggles, and the term has been interpreted in fuller and more complex ways as understanding has developed. In general, feminism can be seen as a movement to put an end to sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression and to achieve full gender equality in law and in practice.

Women’s movements and the history of feminism

There have been many extraordinary women who have played an important role in local or world history, but not all of these have necessarily been advocates of women’s issues. The women’s movement is made up of women and men who work and fight to achieve gender equality and to improve the lives of women as a social group. In most societies, women were traditionally confined to the home as daughters, wives and mothers, and we are often only aware of women in history because of their relation to famous men. Of course many women throughout history did in fact play an important role in cultural and political life, but they tend to be invisible. An organised women’s movement only really started in the 19th century, even though women activists and the struggle for equality have always been part of all human societies.

One of the early pioneers, who thought and wrote about women as a group, is the Italian writer Christine de Pizan, who published a book about women’s position in society as early as 1495. Christine de Pizan wrote about books she had read by famous men, who wrote books about the sins and weaknesses of girls and women, and questioned whether women were really human beings at all, or whether they were more similar to animals. Christine de Pizan’s work offers a good example of the early stages of the struggle for women’s equality. However, she was very unusual in being able to read and write, which was not at all common for women of that time.

In later history, women took part in the French revolution from the very beginning: the demonstrations that led to the revolution started with a large group of working women marching to Versailles to demand not only food to feed their families, but also political change. However, the French Revolution did not lead to proper recognition of women’s rights. For that reason, in September 1791, Olympe de Gouges wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen, in response to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, and with the intention of exposing the failure of the French Revolution to recognise gender equality. As a result of her writings de Gouges was accused, tried and convicted of treason, resulting in her immediate execution.

The women’s movement began to develop in North America, mainly because women there were allowed to go to school earlier than in Europe - and women who can read and write, and who are encouraged to think for themselves, usually start to question how society works. The first activists travelled around North America and fought for the end of both slavery and women’s oppression. They organised the ‘First Women’s Rights Convention’ in 1848, and continued to campaign to improve the social position of all women. The movement also began in Europe with the same broad aims: activists collected signatures demanding that working women should receive their own wages and not their husbands’, that women should be able to own a house and have custody of their children.

First wave of feminism

The fight for women’s right to vote in elections is known as the ‘suffragette movement’. By the end of the 19th century, this had become a worldwide movement, and the words ‘feminism’ and ‘feminist movement’ started to be used from that point on.

This first wave of feminism activism included mass demonstrations, the publishing of newspapers, organised debates, and the establishment of international women’s organisations. By the 1920s, women had won the right to vote in most European countries and in North America. At around the same time, women became more active in communist, socialist and social democratic parties because increasing numbers of women began to work outside the home in factories and offices. Women were first allowed to go to university in the early 20th century, having both a career and a family. In certain countries, when fascist parties gained power the feminist movement was banned.

Women started organising again after the end of the Second World War, and they soon gained equal political rights in most European countries, with women’s emancipation becoming an important aim and most women being allowed to take on full-time jobs, divorce their husbands and go to university.

Second wave of feminism

In Western Europe and the USA, the feminist movement was resurgent by the 1970s. Although this second wave of feminism aimed to achieve ‘women’s liberation’, different groups had different ideas about how this should be done. Liberal feminists wanted better equality laws and reform of institutions such as schools, churches and the media. Radical feminists argued that the root cause of women’s inequality is patriarchy: men, as a group, oppress women. They also focused on violence against women by men and started to talk about violence in the family, and rape. Socialist feminists argued that it is a combination of patriarchy and capitalism that causes women’s oppression.

The second wave of feminism also resulted in new areas of science: women’s studies became a discipline to be studied at university, and books began to be published about women’s achievements in literature, music and science, and recording women’s previously unwritten history.

Finally, the women’s movement played an important role in the drafting of international documents about women’s rights, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW, 1979).

Third wave of feminism

The third wave of feminism mainly refers to the American movement in the 1990s, and was a reaction to the backlash of conservative media and politicians announcing the end of feminism or referring to ‘post-feminism’. The term ‘backlash’ was popularised by Susan Faludi in her book Backlash. The Undeclared War against Women, published in 1991, and describing the negative reaction of the patriarchal system towards women’s liberation. This was hardly a new phenomenon: women’s movements had always been met with antagonism. However, in the 1980s, institutionalised forms of attacks on women’s rights grew stronger. The third wave of feminism can be characterised by an increased awareness of overlapping categories, such as race, class, gender, sexual orientation. More emphasis was also placed on racial issues, including the status of women in other parts of the world (global feminism). This was also a moment when a number of feminist non-governmental organisations were established, but focusing on specific feminist issues, rather than claiming to represent general feminist ideas.

Third wave feminism actively uses media and pop culture to promote its ideas and to run activities, for example by publishing blogs or e-zines. It focuses on bringing feminism closer to the people’s daily lives. The main issues that third wave feminists are concerned about include: sexual harassment, domestic violence, the pay gap between men and women, eating disorders and body image, sexual and reproductive rights, honour crimes and female genital mutilation.

Cyberfeminism and networked feminism (fourth-wave feminism)

The term cyberfeminism is used to describe the work of feminists interested in theorising, critiquing, and making use of the Internet, cyberspace, and newmedia technologies in general. The term and movement grew out of 'third-wave' feminism. However, the exact meaning is still unclear to some: even at the first meeting of cyberfeminists The First Cyberfeminist International (FCI) in Kassel (Germany), participants found it hard to provide a definition, and as a result of discussions, they proposed 100 anti-theses52 (with reference to Martin Luther’s theses) on what cyberfeminism is not. These included, for example, it is not an institution, it is not an ideology, it is not an –ism.

Cyberfeminism is considered to be a predecessor of ‘networked feminism’, which refers generally to feminism on the Internet: for example, mobilising people to take action against sexism, misogyny or gender-based violence against women. One example is the online movement #metoo in 2017, which was a response on social networks from women all over the world to the case of Harvey Weinstein, a Hollywood producer who was accused of sexually harassing female staff in the movie industry.


This term is very often present in feminist literature as well as in the media and everyday life, and it is an important concept in understanding feminism. Sexism means perceiving and judging people only on the basis of their belonging to a particular sex or gender. It also covers discrimination of a person on the same basis. It is important to note that sexism applies to both men and women, however, women are more affected by sexism than men in all areas of life. Everyday sexism takes different forms, sometimes not easily recognisable – for example, telling jokes about girls, commenting on the female body (objectifying women), reacting to the way women are dressed, assigning women easier tasks in Internet games or objectifying women in advertising.

The literature mentions three types of sexism53

  • Traditional sexism: supporting traditional gender roles, treating women as worse than men, employing traditional stereotypes which portray women as less competent than men.
  • Modern sexism: denying gender discrimination (‘it is not a problem anymore’), having a negative attitude towards women’s rights, denying the validity of claims made by women
  • Neosexism: This notion refers to ideologies that justify discrimination towards women on the basis of competences – 'men are effectively better competent for some things' – for example in managerial or leadership positions, and not on a direct discrimination of women. Defenders of these ideas tend to ignore or deny the difficulties faced by women in society as having an influence on 'competences'.

If it is true that the situation of women’s human rights has improved in recent years, this does not mean that sexism has ended.

In March 2019, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe adopted Recommendation CM/Rec(2019)1 on preventing and combating sexism. The Recommendation defines sexism as

any act, gesture, visual representation, spoken or written words, practice or behaviour based upon the idea that a person or a group of persons is inferior because of their sex, which occurs in the public or private sphere, whether online or offline, with the purpose or effect of:

  • Violating the inherent dignity or rights of a person or a group of persons;
  • Resulting in physical, sexual, psychological or socio-economic harm or suffering to a person or a group of persons;
  • Creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment;
  • Constituting a barrier to the autonomy and full realisation of human rights by a person or a group of persons;
  • Maintaining and reinforcing gender stereotypes.

The Recommendation stresses that sexism is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between women and men, which leads to discrimination and prevents the full advancement of women in society. The Committee of Ministers asks Governments of member states to take measures to prevent and combat sexism and its manifestations in the public and private spheres, and encourage relevant stakeholders to implement appropriate legislation, policies and programmes.

Women’s rights are human rights

Why do we need women’s rights, when these are simply human rights? Why do we need human rights treaties about women’s rights, when we have already general human rights instruments? Almost everywhere in the world, women are denied their human rights just because of their sex or gender. Women’s rights should not be seen as special rights: they are human rights enshrined in international human rights treaties and other documents, and include such rights as freedom from discrimination, right to life, freedom from torture, right to privacy, access to health, right to decent living conditions, right to safety, and many others. However, there are also human rights instruments that take into account the specific situation of women in society with regards to accessing or exercising their human rights, or which aim to protect them from violence.

52.  100 anti-theses
53.  Based on: Todd. D. Nelson, Psychology of Prejudice, Pearsons Education, Inc. publishing as Allyn and Bacon, 2002

Legal instruments

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)

The UN Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security (2000) recognises the fact that armed conflicts or wars affect women differently than men, and highlights the specific role of women in peace building processes. This resolution was followed by 7 other resolutions subsequently adopted in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2013, and 2015.

At the level of the Council of Europe, the European Convention on Human Rights obliges member states to respect and promote all human rights in the Convention without discrimination on any grounds, including sex (Article 14 of the Convention). A further treaty, the Revised European Social Charter (1996), provides for equality between women and men in education, work and family life, and calls for positive measures in order to ensure equal opportunities and the right to equal remuneration.

The Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings

The Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence 

Recommendation No. R (79)10 of the Committee of Ministers concerning women migrants, calls on member states to ensure that national legislation and regulations concerning women migrants are fully adapted to meet international standards. It also recommends that measures should be taken to provide relevant information to women migrants, to prevent discrimination in their working conditions, to promote their socio-cultural integration and to improve their access to vocational guidance and training. The Council of Europe Gender Equality Strategy for 2018 – 2023 foresees the review and update of this Recommendation.

Recommendation No. R (90)4 of the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers, on the elimination of sexism from language, calls on member states to promote the use of language reflecting the principle of equality between women and men and to take appropriate measures to encourage the use of non-sexist language, taking account of the presence, status and role of women in society. The Recommendation also calls on member states to bring terminology used in legal documents, public administration and education into line with the principle of equality, and to encourage the use of non-sexist language in the media.

Recommendation No (2012)6 of the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers on the protection and promotion of the rights of women and girls with disabilities asks member states to adopt appropriate legislative measures and to undertake other positive actions likely to encourage the participation of women and girls with disabilities in all areas of life. Noting that women and girls with disabilities may suffer multiple discrimination, the proposed measures cover areas such as education and training, employment and economic status, health care, access to social protection, sexual and reproductive rights, motherhood and family life, access to justice and protection from violence and abuse, participation in culture, sport, leisure and tourism, and raising awareness and changing attitudes.

Recommendation CM/Rec(2019)1 of the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers on preventing and combating sexism