Feminism’s complex history
The feminist movement is over a century and a half old, and has undergone changes in identity and ideology over the years, in addition to being internally complex. The “wave” metaphor is an imperfect but useful way to understand those changes, and this article lays out the different waves and what they stand for.
Feminist scholar Linda Nicholson says that the wave metaphor incorrectly implies that the different feminist movements are all connected by one ideology, and that each “wave” is monolithic. Instead, the reality is that each wave built on previous work, often work that wasn’t included in mainstream feminism. Additionally, the waves themselves are full of splinter movements; they don’t represent just one idea or group.
That said, the wave metaphor can help us understand the developments in the broad feminist movement over the last hundred and fifty years.
Wave one: political rights and the suffragettes
The first wave refers to the first sustained political movement for equal rights for women in the West, specifically the suffragettes of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Beginning with the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, suffragettes pushed for a variety of political rights, including the right to vote. Many leading suffragettes were active abolitionists, and Frederick Douglass spoke at Seneca Falls, but the suffragette movement became explicitly defined as a movement for white women because they resented that black men, including former slaves, were given the right to vote before black women. After the passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, the first wave splintered and weakened.
Wave two: a changing society starting in the 1960s
The second wave began with the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963, which argued that women were oppressed by and dissatisfied with being stuck in the home and refused opportunities for creative and intellectual gratification. The second wave won legislative and court victories including the Equal Pay Act of 1963, the outlawing of marital rape, the right to birth control, Title IX, and the right to an abortion guaranteed in Roe v Wade. The second wave also focused on interpersonal sexism and racism, but often sidelined black women, since the Feminine Mystique’s focus on housewives was specifically about white, middle-class women. The womanist movement was founded by black feminists in response to mainstream feminism’s exclusion of black women and their concerns.
Wave three: equality in the workplace
Third wave feminism is generally considered to have begun with Anita Hill’s testimony against Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court appointment in 1991, and with the emergence of riot grrrl music groups. Third wave feminism tends to focus on fighting workplace sexual harassment and discrimination and putting more women in positions of power. Kimberlé Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality, the idea that one’s experiences are created in the intersections of identities and oppressions, was a big part of third-wave feminist thinking; the aesthetic of the movement was heavily influenced by the riot grrls’ Doc Martens as well as by more traditionally “feminine” aesthetic that sought to reconcile femininity and seriousness.
Wave four: modern-day feminism
Some have argued that the #MeToo movement, Time’s Up, and the Women’s March, among other contemporary feminist movements, constitute a fourth wave. This “fourth wave” is also defined by the Internet and online activism and blogging sites such as Jezebel and Feministing. Fourth-wave feminism tends to be Internet driven, queer-inclusive, sex-positive, trans-inclusive (usually), and body-positive.
While some second-wave feminists have criticized third- and fourth-wave feminists, other critics of the #MeToo movement are the same age as those they criticize. Furthermore, feminism has always had internal and external critics, internal ideological differences, reactionary counter-movements, and the like. The current visibility and vitality of third/fourth wave feminism is an opportunity for social change, as long as we don’t spend all our time dwelling on the past.
Feminism: a diverse movement
Feminism has always been an ideologically, racially, and generationally diverse movement, even when some feminists were confined to the sidelines. The different waves interact with each other, because both the ideas and the people are often around for more than one.
Questions about feminism to discuss on Ohlelo:
- Do you think current feminist activism constitutes a “fourth wave”?
- Do you agree with the concerns of reactionaries to the #MeToo movement, such as Bari Weiss?
- What do you believe are the main challenges facing current feminists?
- How can feminists be more inclusive in their work of those who have been historically excluded, such as black, queer, disabled, and transgender women?
- Do you think American feminism interacts enough with feminist movements from other parts of the world? What do these movements have to gain or learn from each other?