Feminism is a movement that advocates for the equal political, social, and economic rights of women. Historians have divided the eras of feminism into three time periods, or “waves.” Each wave has focused on different goals and experienced different challenges, successes, and failures. Examining the history of feminism is helpful in understanding what has shaped feminism’s identity over time, and some of the key women’s rights issues that have been—and still are—fought for by activists worldwide.
The waves of feminism:
During the late 1700s and early 1800s, women wrote treatises which would inspire feminists of the late 1800s. British writer Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which argued for the equality of the sexes. American writer Margaret Fuller penned Woman in the Nineteenth Century, which analyzed the lack of equality between the sexes in America and made a case for it. These works are considered among the first feminist writings.
Nurtured by these ideas, women called suffragettes petitioned their governments for the right to vote. Most suffragettes lived in England and the United States. Unlike other waves of feminism, they tended to be politically moderate or conservative. They focused on getting the right to vote. Suffragettes used various tactics to fight for their rights, including picketing, speeches, petitions, and hunger strikes.
In England, the Representation of the People Act gave women the right to vote if they owned property and were 29 or older; in 1928, the law changed to include all women ages 21 and older. In the United States, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution granted women the right to vote in 1920. In addition to gaining the right to vote, women gained access to new jobs and more prominent roles in society, greater access to higher education, property rights, and legal rights surrounding the family.
Second-wave feminism was a reaction to the culture of domesticity that resulted from WWII. Betty Friedan published a book called The Feminine Mystique that pointed out and criticized many negative things that had come about as a result of this domesticity. Her bestselling book, in many ways, was the catalyst that sparked the movement.
Second-wave feminists were concerned about issues like sexuality, gender roles, equal pay, and reproductive rights. Organizations, magazines, and other groups were created in order to educate and make changes. Women experienced many exciting victories during this time, like the Equal Pay Act of 1963, the Women’s Educational Equity Act, and Roe v. Wade.
Along with those victories, of course, were failures; most notably the failed attempt to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. There was strong opposition to the ERA by conservative Republicans and other interested parties, who argued that the amendment could force women to serve in the army, would lead to gay marriage, prevent husbands from supporting wives, and lead to the creation of gender-neutral bathrooms. The ERA was a few states short of ratification when its deadline arrived, and even with an extension of the deadline, it still failed.
Second-wave feminism has been criticized for excluding women of color and LGBTQ people from the movement; feminist leaders focused primarily on white, straight, upper-middle-class women and failed to fully address the needs of others. Second-wave feminism has also received criticism for placing women over men.
In the early 90s, feminists needed to respond to the weaknesses of the second wave, particularly its failure to address women of all backgrounds. Third-wave feminism differs from the first two in that there is no one goal feminists are striving to achieve. It is as diverse as the people who subscribe to it.
Some of the important issues of this era of feminism have included reproductive rights, gender, rape and sexual violence, race, sexuality, motherhood and support for mothers, equal pay, and social class. While feminism has always focused on women, it was during third-wave feminism that an emphasis was placed on intersectionality, or the intersections between oppressed groups of people.
The biggest criticism third-wave feminism continually receives is its lack of any one specific goal. There are so many projects going on and goals that one wonders how third-wave feminists intend to achieve anything!
Surprise! Fourth wave:
This last category is somewhat debatable because it isn’t considered an “official” wave of feminism by everyone at this point in time. Those who do consider it official aren’t even necessarily in agreement on what its goals are.
Those who label themselves as fourth-wave feminists say that it started around 2007-2010, led by young, computer-savvy feminists. Fourth-wave feminism is unique because has mainly happened online. These feminists want to empower women by changing social and political power structures in order to create new spaces where women have power of their own. The idea is that women need to stop fitting into the patriarchal structures that currently exist and start changing or creating structures in order to claim their own rights and secure them for women now and the women who will follow in the future.
It'll be interesting to see where feminism goes in the future. The movement has changed over time and feminists have learned from the mistakes of leaders past. Feminists have become more open-minded and will probably continue to do so as the movement develops. Even with the changes that have occurred, the heart of feminism has stayed the same: It’s about empowering women and other groups of people to fight for their rights. As long as that remains at the center of the movement, it will continue advocating for and protecting human rights wherever it goes.