Feminist Theory

The waves of feminism: a (very) brief history

Whether you are new to feminism or have been a proud feminist for decades, you will not have escaped some mention of the waves of feminism. Whether from a debate or discussion about the current wave we find ourselves in, or a callback article listing the greatest feminist achievements of the feminist waves long past, you’ve definitely seen the term written before. But you may not know what defines or differentiates the different waves – and if you don’t, you wouldn’t be alone! 

To start off, we should disclaim that dividing the last 200 years into distinct waves of feminism is a simplified imagining of the movement.

For one thing, the waves of feminism really only tell the story of mainstream feminism in North America and Western Europe – feminist thinking and action have a rich and diverse history across the world outside of these waves. These waves of feminism, while describing powerful surges of collective action, protest, and advocacy, should not be understood as the only popular action taken in the name of feminism. Many fringe theories of feminism have existed during each wave.  And, it is not as if the fights or focuses of each wave have ended when the next one picked up. Each wave of feminism further builds upon the last one to constantly push and progress the movement forward. 

The landscape of feminism in 2024 is now so intersectional and diverse that the idea of the ‘waves of feminism’ can seem a little outdated. But let’s not completely turn our backs on the concept. The waves of feminism remain an important and foundational concept in our movement’s history; by understanding the goals and focuses of these waves, we can understand what feminists in the West have fought for over the past centuries and how they have conceptualised the fight for equal rights and eradicating the patriarchy. 

We can even approach the waves of feminism as a generational metaphor: how has each generation of feminists fought for the movement? What is the new generation of feminists prioritising; which rights are they trying to further? 

Let’s take a look. 

First Wave of Feminism –  1810s – 1920s 

Enter the Suffragettes! The Western world has just had a revolution of Enlightment and political liberalism, but to no one’s surprise, women are not yet recognised as people with legal rights. The main topics of the first wave of feminism are suffrage – the right to vote in political elections – personhood, and gaining property rights. In short, the Suffragettes were fighting to be recognised as people capable of thought, worth and contribution to society.

The suffragette movement was at its core a protest: these feminists went on hunger strikes, met in open air demonstrations, and created leagues and societies to fight to gain the same rights as their male peers. They were political, they were militant, and they were stubborn. The suffragette movement is inherently tied to the politics of liberalism – the political right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness should extend equally to women, right? And so, liberal feminism was born.  

Victories came incrementally. In the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada, voting rights first came to women who held property or who were married to men who held property. The right to vote and the right to political participation would also be removed and granted again at local and provincial levels in these countries over the course of 100 years. The Representation of the People Act in 1918 in the United Kingdom finally granted women over the age of 30 who were a member or married to a member of the Local Government Register the vote. It wouldn’t be until the Representation of the People Act in 1928 that women in England, Wales and Scotland could vote on the same terms as men. In the United States, the passing of the 19th Amendment in 1920 granted women the vote. 

This is the history of the first wave of feminism that is generally repeated and celebrated. And while it is not incorrect, it is certainly white-washed.

These milestones victories of suffrage were mainly victories for white women. While it is true that many joined the suffragette movement from their activism for abolition, many were also motivated by outrage that men of colour were granted suffrage before white women. Just as all feminists today are not a homogenous group with the same experiences and motivations, the exact same has been true since over 200 years ago. We cannot gloss over the reality that the Suffragettes were predominantly groups of white women who excluded women of colour. The passing of the 15th Amendment in 1870 in the United States granted the vote to black men. The idea that white women now held fewer rights than black men pushed many white women towards the Suffragette movement and towards protest – and it was not common for them to advocate for their black peers. 

It would take many more decades, until the 1960s and 1980s that all women, regardless of race and class, would be granted suffrage in North America and Europe.  

Second Wave of Feminism – 1950s – 1980s 

The Second World War is over and millions of housewives are reading The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. They are barefoot and in the kitchen, and frankly, they are all pretty unhappy. Betty Friedan calls it the ‘problem that has no name’ and millions of women feel it. Once again, there is building mainstream momentum to the feminist struggle: the second wave of feminism has begun. 

Most women have been granted the vote by now. During the war, women supported their countries by joining the workforce in great numbers and helping maintain the economy. Now, their husbands have come home and the general assumption is that the women will all return to homemaking. The struggle for the right to vote has evolved into the struggle for equal representation in the workplace, equal pay and the right to work. If the first wave of feminism fought to gain legal rights, the second wave is fighting for sexual and social rights: equal rights, reproductive rights, questioning the model of the nuclear family, and access to the workplace. 

A new term is popularised during this wave: the personal is political. This slogan challenged the private sphere of the home by connecting what happened behind closed doors to the greater social and political structures of the time. Domestic violence, marital rape and reproductive freedom become important themes that feminists wanted to address. 

This is only one side of the second wave. Once again, ‘the problem that has no name’ was deeply white and middle-class in the Western world. Many women of colour were already working during this time and their experience of cultural and social injustice was very different to that of white women. It didn’t seem to clue in to many white women that while they were campaigning for their right to work, they expected that women of colour would take over their household labour. 

The second wave of feminism sought to highlight race and class within the feminist struggle, in a manner that was not acknowledged during the first wave.

In the United States, the second wave coincided with the Civil Rights movement. Kimberlé Crenshaw coins the term ‘intersectionality’ at the tail end of the second wave in 1989, but feminist writers and political activists like Audre Lorde, bells hooks and Alice Walker have been writing critically about the intersections of identity – race, sexuality, class and gender – since the 1970s. 

The right to equality in the workplace and reproductive rights, as well as the critical analysis of intersecting identities as a feminist are not new ideas during the second wave. But they become the priorities of the feminist struggle in the mid-20th century. The second wave of feminism is also often thought of as the entry point for new theories of feminism; feminism is no longer dominantly liberal. Theories of womanism, intersectional feminism, socialist feminism, radical feminism and queer feminism become more popular, as the analysis of gender is brought into different political and social struggles of the time. 

Third Wave of Feminism – 1990s – 2010s

The momentum for the next wave of feminism comes in 1991, when activist Rebecca Walker publishes an article ‘Becoming the Third Wave’. This was a response to the appointment of a judge to the Supreme Court in the United States who had been accused of sexual harassment. The call of this article was very simple: “I am not a postfeminist, I am the Third Wave”. Feminism hasn’t gone anywhere, and it’s needed more than ever. 

Politically and socially, the West was experiencing a wave of conservatism in the 1980s and 1990s. After a global wave of decolonisation and political movements pushing for increased rights for marginalised people, the idea of postfeminism gained traction. Postfeminism largely encompassed the belief that all of the goals of feminism had been achieved, and a postfeminist world encouraged individual choice, agency and a retraditionalisation of gender.

The third wave of feminism was marked by this contrast between postfeminism and those, like Rebecca Walker, that openly shouted that feminism was not over. 

Practically, the third wave slowly started gaining access to the internet. Radical feminists, punk feminists and riot grrrls were able to start reaching out to more global audiences to highlight experiences of oppression and empower other feminists to action. 

Intellectually, the third wave was largely rooted in intersectionality. But the feminist sex wars that began towards the end of the second wave only grew into the third wave. The feminist sex wars encompass debates and differences of position between feminist theories on the topic of sexuality. Radical feminists that championed anti-porn and anti-sex work thinking ideologically clashed with sex-positive feminists. Judith Butler emerged as one of the revolutionary feminist thinkers of the third wave; the theory of gender as performative became a foundational idea of queer theory and transfeminism. As our conceptualisations of gender and identity expanded, so did feminist ideology. From riot grrrls to girl power to transfeminism, the third wave really pushed the feminist agenda: is there one distinct ‘feminism’ or a universal, shared experience of womanhood? No; the feminist movement would make room for inclusion and distinct expressions of womanhood, gender and difference. 

Fourth Wave of Feminism – 2010s – present

The advent of the internet has only served to ramp up the globalisation of feminism. The use of the internet and online campaigns has been a defining feature of the fourth wave of feminism. It may be a little harder for us to describe this wave, as we’re currently living it. But between the #MeToo movement, Time’s Up and Un Violador en Tu Camino, feminists have never been more capable of connecting with each other and their experiences.

The fourth wave is online. The current wave of feminism seems to be about connecting over shared and personal experiences, expanding the reach and accessibility of feminism, and celebrating our individual freedoms. 

This means that we can find our feminist communities online and create niche spaces for our priorities. It also means that feminism is more accessible than ever; feminist debate and thought in the previous hundred years did not have the same communication channels and reach that are now at our disposal. The online ‘space’ can be highly individualistic and when anyone is technically able to carve out their own corner of the feminist movement for themselves online, this current wave can also feel more about the individual than the collective. The tactic of the feminist movement in this phase has been to try to mobilise people by connecting them with others that share a common personal experience. 

There may not be a defined thematic priority to the current wave, as there is room and momentum for many. But we continue to see many priorities, debates and themes that we have seen in previous waves. Ideologically, feminism remains very intersectional. We continue to fight for reproductive rights, access to political and social spaces, holding men accountable, empowerment and agency, and recognising intersectionality within the movement. We are also seeing the intersection of the feminist movement with ecological, climate, indigenous and racial activism. 

Just as feminists in the fourth wave have never been more globally connected, anti-feminists have also never been more capable of connecting with each other. Anti-feminists and claims of postfeminism remain loud and present in society. The emergence of unregulated social media has given platforms and spaces for anti-feminism to thrive. When everyone has access to social media, everyone now can and does chime in. While the ability to campaign and rally online has been a major positive force for the feminist movement, the anonymity of social media and cancel culture have become new challenges to manoeuvre.

Alongside this, feminists of all ages now have to learn to navigate new subtle and outrageous forms of gendered discrimination that the digital age has fostered. Whether online sex crimes and deepfakes, AI that removes clothing, sharing naked pictures online, or anonymous online slut-shaming, the mingling of digitalisation and misogyny have created new reasons to fight and advocate for the protection and rights of women and marginalised genders. 

So, what now? 

It is the privilege of hindsight that allows us to put an end point to the previous waves of feminism. As the movement and struggle never stopped, it is unlikely that feminists a hundred years ago felt a distinct end-cap to their era of feminism. Feminism will continue to learn and evolve, as our movement grows and we continue to adapt to new and old challenges. 

Similarly, comparing the current wave of feminism to those of the past comes with many difficulties. For one thing, we don’t have the benefit of over a hundred years of hindsight to neatly summarise the key priorities of feminism in the 21st century. It is likely challenging for us to succinctly provide one tagline for our current feminist ‘wave’ because we are still living it. In the same way, when we talk about the waves of feminism, we are greatly over-simplifying a complex history down to a few key points and a few key actors.

Who knows what will be remembered of our feminism 100 years from now? 

But, there are some very important points to take away from this brief overview of our history of Western feminism that the waves provide. For one thing, the feminist movement has always been a protest and feminists have been met by obstacles and challenges at every turn. Anti-feminists have existed as long as we have and there has always been the belief in society that feminism is no longer needed or that it’s already as good as it’ll ever get. For another, anger has been and remains an important motivator in the feminist movement. The feminist movement is a counter-movement that challenges the status quo. The waves themselves always seem to be triggered by a culturally momentous moment that has incited anger. In acknowledging the role that anger and frustration play in our movement, we also acknowledge that the feminist movement is deeply personal.

The Western feminist movement has not been without its own imbalanced power dynamics; it has a long history of exclusion and further oppression that has not fully disappeared. We should take the lessons of the previous waves to ensure that the feminism we continue to fight for makes room for inclusion and protest, collective justice and rage. 

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