Feminist ideas and powerful women have been around for centuries. However, why did feminism as a global movement only emerge at this point in history? Constance Singam weighs in.
Why did feminism as a global movement catch fire at this particular time in history?
Many global trends reinforced each other and called into question the structure and value of family and public life.
First, capitalism and economic globalisation led to increased opportunities for women to enter the paid labour force, and this happened in close association with greater opportunities in education.
Second, global communication networks enabled a freer and faster exchange of ideas.
Third, technological advances in biology, pharmacology and medicine enabled women to have better control over child-bearing.
Fourth, women became involved in the paid labour force in huge numbers. This increased women’s bargaining power and undermined male domination in the home and in the workplace. It also put an unbearable burden on women who had to grapple with work, home and family responsibilities in their daily lives.
Finally, social movements such as the civil rights movement in the 1960s in the United States and nationalist movements in colonised countries in Asia in the first half of the twentieth century provided an impetus and social context for feminists to challenge patriarchy.
Indeed, major reforms were implemented for women in Singapore as part of the nationalist project, during and soon after independence from Britain in 1957. Women mobilised and set up the Singapore Council of Women in 1952 to lobby against polygamy, a feudal practice that resulted in abandoned women, unwanted children and poverty. The Women’s Charter of 1961 transformed women’s lives and secured their rights in marriage. However, once that period of nationalism and reform was over, women were once again sidelined. It took many more years before issues affecting women galvanised Singapore feminists into action. In Singapore the issues and concerns of second-wave feminists were raised by the Association of Women for Action and Research when it was set up in 1985.
These histories – of women’s activism and feminism, in both Asia and the West – are part of all women’s history and part of who we are.
Constance Singam was President of AWARE in 1987-88, 1994-5, and 2007-8. In the last 30 years, she has worked on behalf of women’s rights and migrant workers’ rights. She has been described as the “mother of civil society”, an inspirational leader who spearheaded many of the projects and initiatives that shaped Singapore’s civil society, and which continue to do so.
Arora, Mandakini, ed. Small Steps, Giant Leaps: A History of AWARE and the Women’s Movement in Singapore. Association of Women for Action and Research, 2007.
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