Common Writing Assignments

9 The Extended Definition Essay

The extended definition essay presents a detailed account of a single term or concept that is central to the content of the course for which the essay is written. What is cryptocurrency? What is a black hole? What is an algorithm? What is symbolism? What is deoxyribonucleic acid? What is National Socialism? Every subject has its own special vocabulary, and teachers will often assign an essay requiring students to present a detailed definition of a key term.

Read carefully this extended definition of feminism.

Example: On Feminism

The word “feminism” describes a popular movement for social justice, based on the premise that women have been and continue to be systemically oppressed by men who do not want to share the greater social, political, and economic power they have historically possessed. But the definition of feminism extends beyond raising the status of one gender; feminism recognizes that equal standards for all people regardless of gender will benefit society as a whole (Montgomery). In this respect, feminism can be interpreted as synonymous with egalitarianism.

Feminist scholars divide the movement into three phases or “Waves.”  First-wave feminism emerged in the early twentieth century in the form of a fight for the rights to vote, to own property, and to qualify for work in fields historically reserved for men. Second-wave feminism emerged in the 1960s as baby boomers entered university and demanded admission to programs that traditionally favoured men, such as engineering, medicine, and forestry, as well as “equal pay for work of equal value” (Montgomery).  Third-wave or post-feminism is the movement’s twenty-first century incarnation, devoted essentially to ending all forms of gender discrimination. Some even argue that a fourth wave has recently emerged, one that is concerned with the portrayal of women in social media.

While there is no clear consensus as to when first-wave feminism began, most accept that it emerged as industrialization progressed in the nineteenth century. Martha Lear coined the term in 1968, though the first wave focused on what we now consider basic issues of inequality (“What Was”). One of the earliest feminists was Mary Wollstonecraft, who mostly wrote in the late eighteenth century advocating that societies, and individuals specifically, should have rights that the state provides. Most other philosophers and writers of the time ignored women and Wollstonecraft was among the first to call for gender equality. After the American Civil War, Elizabeth Stanton and Susan Anthony rallied support for what they saw as one of the first great obstacles to greater freedom: the right to vote. Others, such as Barbara Leigh Smith, saw employment and education for women as critical areas to focus on.

Throughout the nineteenth century, Biblical interpretation of women’s role in the house and family prevented their ability to advance feminist ideals. To counteract the power of the church’s sex-based hierarchy, Stanton produced an influential work called The Woman’s Bible, in which she argued for equality using biblical references. This helped to provide religious justification, at least for some, for emerging feminism in the period. Furthermore, the National Woman Suffrage Association became a prominent organization, and in 1869, John Allen Campbell, the governor of Wyoming, became the first governor to grant women the right to vote (“What Was”). And when women replaced men in factories during the First World War, many realized that women did have equal skills to men. In Canada, women won the right to vote in most provinces during the war. In 1921, Agnes Macphail became the first woman in Canada elected to Parliament.

In the US, women had to wait a bit longer. Feminist organizations lobbied indefatigably and eventually convinced Congress that women should have the right to vote. Finally, in 1920, women won the right to vote across the United States. While the process itself was contentious, featuring hunger strikes and even mob violence, the gradual acceptance of women as voters can be considered the culminating success of first-wave feminism.

“The Progressive Era” took place in the 1930s; women’s social and political activism grew, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt advocated for the appointment of women to positions within the administration. Her cause was further advanced during the Second World War when, again, women had to take over the work enlisted men were forced to abandon. After the war, however, North America saw a new emphasis on domesticity. When the soldiers returned, women were almost uniformly fired and forced back into their duties of domestic chores and child-raising (Bisignani). Second-wave feminism was a reaction to this post-war obsession with the ideal of the contented housewife and suburban domesticity, a lifestyle that often isolated women and severely limited their choices and opportunities.

Feminism’s second wave truly began in the early 1960s and focused not just on legal barriers to civil equality but also examined social inequalities. Second-wave feminists sought to change discriminatory policies on sexuality and sexual identity; marriage and child-rearing; workplace environment; reproductive rights; and violence against women. They formed local, regional, and federal government groups on behalf of women, resulting in human rights and women’s equality becoming a growing part of the North American political agenda. Finally, they created new, more positive images of women in both pop culture and the media to fight the negative stereotypes commonly in circulation, primarily that of the “happy housewife.”

The second wave of feminism included many landmark moments. In the 1960s, many government health agencies approved the oral contraceptive pill, and in 1963, the Equal Pay Act was passed in the US. In 1968, Coretta Scott King assumed leadership of the African-American civil rights movement and expanded the platform to include women’s rights. This led to Shirley Chisholm becoming the first African-American woman elected to Congress. In 1972, the passage of Title IX ensured equal funding for women’s opportunities in education, and the first women’s studies program in the US opened at San Diego State University. Perhaps the greatest achievement of the second wave came in 1973, when the Roe v. Wade case resulted in women’s access to safe and legal abortion (Bisignani).

Third-wave feminism began in the 1990s and still exists today (Demarco). There are many different outlets and angles of feminism now, but the most important values of the third wave include gender equality, identity, language, sex positivity, breaking the glass ceiling, body positivity, ending violence against women, fixing the media’s image of women, and environmentalism.

Third-wave feminists assert that there is no universal identity for women; women come from every religion, nationality, culture, and sexual preference. Different forms of media such as fashion magazines, newspapers, and television favour white, young, slender women, a fact which negatively impacts all women and results in body anxiety. To combat this anxiety, modern feminists have fought for body positivity, quashing the opinions of those who believe that overweight people are lazy and unhealthy. Feminists want society’s view of women to expand, to recognize, for example, that it is possible to be beautiful enough to be a model, but also smart enough to be an astronaut or a CEO.  But considering that, in 2017, only 18 out of 500 Fortune CEOs and 22 out of 197 global heads of state were women, it is clear that third-wave feminism has not yet removed the glass ceiling (Demarco).

The emerging fourth wavers speak in terms of “intersectionality,” whereby women’s oppression can only fully be understood in the context of marginalization of other groups, who are victims of racism, ageism, classism, and homophobia (Demarco). Among the third wave’s bequests is the importance of inclusion; in the fourth wave, the internet takes inclusion further by levelling hierarchies. The appeal of the fourth wave is that there is a place in it for everyone. The academic and theoretical apparatus are now well-honed and ready to support new broad-based activism in the home, in the workplace, on the streets, and online.

No one is sure how feminism will progress from here. The movement has always included many political, social and intellectual ideologies, each with its own tensions, points and counterpoints. But the fact that each wave has been chaotic, multi-valanced, and disconcerted is cause for optimism; it is a sign that the movement continues to thrive.

Works Cited

Bisignani, Dana. “Feminism’s Second Wave.” The Gender Press, 27 Jan. 2015, Accessed 25 March 2019.

Demarco, April. “What Is Third Wave Feminist Movement?Viva Media, 17 March 2018,  Accessed 26 March 2019.

Montgomery, Landon. “The True Definition Of Feminism.” The Odyssey, 8 March 2016, Accessed 27 March 2019.

What Was the First Wave Feminist Movement?Daily History, 19 Jan. 2019, Accessed 28 March 2019.


On Feminism

Study Questions

Respond to these questions in writing, in small group discussion, or both.

  1. “On Feminism” is an extended definition essay, but it has qualities of what other rhetorical modes explained in this chapter?
  2. What are the main differences between first- and second-wave feminism?
  3. What are the main differences between third- and fourth-wave feminism?
  4. Respond to the conclusions the author offers in her final paragraph. Do you agree with what she writes?
  5. In academic writing assignments, paragraphs should be unified, coherent, and well-developed. Analyze two body paragraphs from this essay, commenting on the qualities of effective paragraphs they illustrate.

Writing Assignment

Write an extended definition of approximately 750 words on one of the following terms: Marxism, irony (in literature), recession (in economics), pentathlon (as Olympic sport), dressage, algorithm, neutral zone trap, cryptocurrency. You may also select your own topic or one provided by your teacher.


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Composition and Literature Copyright © 2019 by James Sexton and Derek Soles is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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