The term feminism comes from France and didn’t show up in the U.S until the late 19th century. It was not embraced as a term by many in the suffrage movement. To be a feminist meant to believe there was no difference between men and women. Feminists advocated for women to have a full life — complete with legal, professional, and sexual equality. Feminist scholar Sara Evans is Regents Professor Emeritus of history at the University of Minnesota. She is credited as a primary creator of the field of women’s history. This is a conversation with her by Siena Iwasaki Milbauer.

Many in the suffrage movement believed women should get to vote because they were different than men. The concept: women’s deep connection to children, the family, and the home made them more principled voters than men, and more likely to make choices that would lead to a moral society.

It was only certain women at the fringes of the suffrage movement — those interested in sexual freedom and a shift in professional and personal opportunities — who considered themselves to be feminists.

After the vote for women was won, the split in advocating for women’s rights increased. It got heated around issues of workplace equality. Some women in the rights movement strongly believed women needed laws to protect them, limiting their hours and physical risks.

Others saw these proposed laws as discriminatory and a barrier to women getting good pay.

After a lull in the use of “feminist” as a concept during the 1950s, it returned in the late 1960s, when arguments about feminism centered on how to define it as an accepted term for the movement.

In many ways, that is where we are today, debating feminism’s priorities. The word “feminist” has always been a target of those who oppose women’s equality, and it has been associated with so many negative viewpoints that people have been scared to call themselves a feminist. But feminism is becoming more intersectional, open to more self-defined and varied attitudes.

What Holds Us Back?

The last century has been a time of incredible progress for women in the United States. There are so many powerful women in our society today, and their visibility is opening new paths to progress.

We still have a long way to go. While legal barriers have changed, many cultural standards have not. For example, we haven’t redefined gender roles in the family, and men are still attacking women’s bodies as a means of asserting dominance.

Until we solve issues like these, women will not be equal.

For all its ups and downs, feminism has not gone away. The fight for women’s rights won’t stop. Each generation will define what feminism means to them.

Just as there is never a final wave in the ocean, the struggle for women’s rights will continue. There always will be another wave of feminists to fight it.