Feminism Is Waving at You

What is the difference between the first, second, third, fourth waves of feminism?

Photo by Valentina Conde on Unsplash

It’s one of those words we read a lot in feminist texts: this wave and that, and third-wavers don’t agree with second-wavers, and we are now entering a possible fifth wave of feminism (or is it the fourth?). But what does it all mean?

First, it’s important to understand the limits of counting the “waves” of feminism. It tends to teat feminists as a monolithic block, as though they all had the same ideals and motives. This has never been true. Back in the suffragette movement in the UK, in the 1910s, the movement was already divided between those who would respond to violence with violence and those who denounced more direct action. Today, you just have to see debates between TERFs and other feminists, debates around the hijab or prostitution, to realise that feminists don’t agree on everything — in fact, they disagree violently. In a way, talking about waves is as reductive to what feminism actually is as the internets many memes, casting all feminists as man-hating, ungroomed and hypocritical.

Then again, it is also important to understand the history of the movement and the evolutions it has undergone, so that we can improve and recognise our mistakes.

Often, waves refer to the dominant, mainstream feminisms, and don’t cover smaller movements or those of the less privileged. Seeing what main-stream feminism defended at a certain time has historical significance, because it shows which women were heard at a certain time, and which were still marginalised.

So basically, it is important to know about the different waves, but equally important to know that that is not all that was going on, and just as women don’t think with one monolithic woman brain, neither do feminists. There are always internal debates and divisions.

With that being said, here is a brief reminder about what each wave corresponds to, and when they happened.

The first wave: Votes For Women! (1848 to 1920)

Of course, this isn’t the first time that anyone thought to themselves, “Hey, maybe women are human too!” Throughout history, people had had their suspicions. But the first appearance of feminism as a political movement, in the modern sense, was the suffragette movement, fighting for women’s right to vote.

In the US, the movement was established specifically as a movement for white women. It was fueled, in part, but the passage of the 15th amendment in 1870, which granted black men the right to vote — something which spurred many white women to become suffragettes.

“If educated women are not as fit to decide who shall be the rulers of this country, as ‘field hands,’ then where’s the use of culture, or any brain at all?”

demanded one white woman who wrote in the feminist newspaper, The Revolution. Black women were barred from some protests, and in others, they were forced to walk behind white women in others. So a lot of things about the first wave scream “racism” more than they do “sisterhood.”

The first wave is seen to have come to an end after 1920, when Congress passed the 19th Amendment, allowing women to vote.

The second wave: Social Rights (1963 to the 1980s)

While the first wave was about political equality, the second wave of feminism sought social equality: equal pay, equal access to education, birth control, abortion rights…

It was about issues often deemed individual, while feminists began to argue that they were markers, causes and consequences of systemic oppression. Or, to use a phrase coined by second wavers:

The personal is political.

While this idea had been floating around academic circles for a while, it spread like wildfire with best-selling The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, which sold 3 million copies in three years, read by housewives across the country, who were angry about a world where their only option was to be a wife and mother. Second wavers fought for more equal opportunities, but also against domestic violence, sexual harassment and rape.

These rights were addressed primarily towards white women. For instance, second wavers fought for the right to work outside the home, something black women generally were forced to do for economic reasons anyway. They fought for birth control and abortion, but not against the forced sterilisation of people of colour.

The Third Wave: Girl Power, Queer Theory and a beginning of Intersectionality (90s — 2000s)

The third wave is a lot harder to distil into a few paragraphs, it’s more confusing and harder to draw common goals for the movement.

Still, as compared to the second wave, what the third brought was Queer theory, a start to questioning the notion of binary genders, thanks to academics like Judith Butler.

It brought a wave of workplace sexual harassment cases, following The Anita Hill case.

Aesthetically, this was the era of girl bands and the riot grrls. Women took back the term girl, intending to make it empowering and even menacing. They embraced elements of girly culture, lipstick, high heels

“BECAUSE we are angry at a society that tells us Girl = Dumb, Girl = Bad, Girl = Weak.”

“BECAUSE doing/reading/seeing/hearing cool things that validate and challenge us can help us gain the strength and sense of community that we need in order to figure out how bullshit like racism, able-bodieism, ageism, speciesism, classism, thinism, sexism, anti-semitism and heterosexism figures in our own lives,”

— Kathleen Hanna in the Riot Grrrl Manifesto, 1991.

The fourth Wave: #feminism (Late 2000s-…)

Some people don’t separate the fourth wave from the third, yet a lot of elements of today’s feminism do set it apart from what came before. As Bustle writes, the fourth wave of feminism is:

fourth-wave feminism is queer, sex-positive, trans-inclusive, body-positive, and digitally driven”

Yet Jessica Valenti may have said it all when she wrote:

“Maybe the fourth wave is online.”

Online is where women learn about feminism. Its where activists meet and plan their actions, where debate takes place. Some major movements like #MeToo are born of internet virality, others, like women’s marches, are enabled by the internet even if they happen IRL.

The fourth wave is about bringing powerful men to account.

It’s about questioning gender binarity and denouncing toxic masculinity.

It’s about questioning the small things that come together to form systemic oppression. Mansplaining. Manspreading. Microaggressions.

Perhaps because more diverse groups have access to the internet and can make their voices heard, it is a movement that is more diverse than ever before, and perhaps more divided.

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