Feminism 101: What are the Waves of Feminism?

Design by Soli Rachwal

The greatest challenge to understanding feminism may be the fact that the ideology and philosophy informing it has shifted over time, creating separate “waves” of feminism. Additionally, not every wave has a distinct time frame, rather each wave is better defined by its goals and mechanisms than a period in time.

There are three traditionally recognized waves of feminism focused respectively on politics, culture and academia. There is also an emerging fourth wave of feminism that is less universally recognized and focused on technology.

The first wave of feminism began in the mid-19th century, primarily in Britain and the United States, and was centered around women’s suffrage — the right to vote. In Europe, women’s enfranchisement spread quickly, starting with the British colony of New Zealand in 1893. This wave of feminism concentrated on suffrage until the start of World War I in 1914, when many women’s rights activists shifted their support to the war effort.

In the United States, campaigns for women’s suffrage began during the abolitionist movement. In fact, supporters of the Declaration of Sentiments were abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass — a self-taught, runaway slave and political activist — and Sojourner Truth — a Black feminist who presented her famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech at the 1851 Women’s Convention. The Declaration of Sentiments was the document created at the Seneca Falls Convention which advocated for women’s innate rights as outlined in the Declaration of Independence.

The debate over the Fifteenth Amendment which outlined who could vote in the United States eventually led the abolitionists and suffragettes to diverge. In fact, the suffragettes created the separate National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1890. Their basic argument was that they didn’t want “inferior” Black men to “rule over” white women. Susan B. Anthony famously and crudely said “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.”

Eventually, first wave feminism in America culminated in the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, securing women’s right to vote. However, the vast majority of women in this movement were white, which accounts for their racist rhetoric and unwillingness to include women of color in the vote.

Women’s participation in World War II and the Civil Rights Movement were precursors to the second wave of feminism which occurred during the 1960s and 70s. This wave of feminism is defined by its dedication to social and economic justice. First wave feminism was primarily dedicated to politics, but second wave feminism encouraged women to fight for equality in all aspects of society, including the household. Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex” and Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” were two seminal books that influenced this feminist ideology.

By the 1960’s, the women’s movement began to split into two groups: equal rights feminists and radical feminists. The former wanted equality in the workplace and home, while the latter was dedicated to a more radical shift in patriarchal society. Equal rights feminists sought policies like anti-discrimination laws in the job market, whereas radical feminists looked past policies and sought to deconstruct gender roles and start a literal feminist revolution.

In 1969, the National Organization for Women organized the Congress to Unite Women in an attempt to reconcile the differences, but neither side understood one another. For example, radical feminists like Adrienne Rich were outraged that equal rights feminists did not recognize lesbian existence. Furthermore, there was a huge gap in age, class, and race between the two groups. Equal rights feminists were primarily older, white women, whereas radical feminists were more diverse, though they were primarily white as well.

Second wave feminists did, however, succeed in some ways. A few important wins were the job opportunities created through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the increase in divorce rights, the growing number of women running for political office, the passage of Title IX, and the Roe v. Wade decision which legalized abortion. Additionally, second wave feminism led to a change in attitudes about the role of women in society, so they were able to work outside the home and subvert their gender roles.

However, the successes of the second wave did not account for all women, and daughters of second-wavers realized that this “women’s rights movement” did not acknowledge non-white, lower class women. Thus, the third wave of feminism began in the mid-1990s as a reaction to the failures of second wave feminism.

There were three main differences between the two waves. First, third wave feminism was influenced by academic criticism such as postmodernism and queer theory. This meant that third wave feminists were more aware of their use of language and compliance with gender constructs, leading to a centralizing of queer and other identities outside of the cisgender, heterosexual norm. For example, third wave feminism empowered trans individuals who were ignored by most feminists up until this point.

Secondly, third wave feminism aims to be intersectional. Intersectionality examines the interconnected structure of society that includes race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and other defining characteristics. It critiques the different experiences of intersecting identities like being a Black woman versus a white woman, acknowledging that the former faces a more complicated form of oppression than the latter. Intersectional feminism is key to the third wave because it acknowledges the limited world views of previous white, middle class, and heteronormative waves.

Lastly, third wave feminism reclaims traditionally sexist images and redefines what it means to be a “woman.” Plays like Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues” push words like “vagina” into popular culture. Icons like Madonna and Queen Latifah sought to display that women could be domineering and powerful rather than shy and passive. In fact, the third wave is also referred to as “grrrl feminism” because it empowers women to define their own beauty rather than be objects of men’s desire.

However, “Vagina Monologues” promotes the idea that being a women is equivalent to having a vagina, which invalidates trans identities. Some third-wavers are adamant about this definition of “woman” which only benefits cisgender women, but stifles trans rights. Critiques like this have led to the rise of fourth wave feminism.

Fourth wave feminism is not commonly classified as separate from the third wave because they share many similarities. It differs from the previous wave, though, because it prioritizes making feminist critique in public discourse through public spaces and social media. Body positivity movements, sexual assault awareness and slutwalks are all examples of how the fourth wave catapults feminism into the public spotlight through the hands of non-academics.

Some believe the most defining aspect of the fourth wave is how it utilizes the internet and social media, creating a “call out” culture where feminists concentrate on micropolitics and everyday rhetoric online. An example of this would be the the #metoo campaign, which employs hashtag activism to spread awareness of feminist issues.

We must acknowledge the preceding waves of feminism that are built from earlier women’s accomplishments in order to better understand where feminism lies today and where the future of feminism is heading.


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