Your Handy-Dandy Map to the Feminist Movement

“To discuss feminist theory, you first need to be able to visualize a roadmap of what the fuck feminism is.” Carmen takes us on a crash course on First, Second, Third- and now Fourth-wave feminism. For Autostraddle. 


To discuss feminist theory, you first need to be able to visualize a roadmap of what the fuck feminism is. For just like you and I contain multitudes, so does the movement which advocates for women’s empowerment and equality. Feminism itself is made up of lots of itty bitty (or super major) factions, although they aren’t necessarily at war; it’s also come a long way, and is still evolving. But don’t lose hope! It’s easy to get a handle on all of it with a birds-eye view.

First Things First: What The Fuck Is A Wave?

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Women’s studies is no trip to the beach, but a casual conversation about the feminist movement might take you there. “She’s so first wave,” I’ve often remarked dismissively with my wrist limp. But what does that even mean? (Pro-Tip: It means you’re not relevant and need to stop pushing your outdated bullshit. But I digress.)

“Waves” are the way we divide up feminism’s generations. The visualization is apt, seeing as the ebb and flow of the movement has contributed to the radical differences between each instance of its actualization. Women have been fighting for their right to party just as they please and alongside anyone else for a long time now, but the tide has only come four times. (Or so they say.)

The First Wave (1800s – 1920)

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The first wave of feminism was the birth of the American women’s rights movement, though it also emerged parallel to similar movement across the world. Most first-wave feminists wouldn’t have called themselves feminists, and many came from existing activist backgrounds in both the temperance and abolition movements. First-wave feminism was primarily focused on women’s suffrage, which they won in 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment, following years of crazy-ass shit like hunger strikes and badass big-bannered protests outside the White House and inter-state parades on foot to galvanize support from men for their own enfranchisement.

Women like Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Victoria Woodhull, Carrie Chapman Catt, Sojourner Truth, Lucy Stone, and Alice Paul defined this era in American women’s rights, although they all varied widely on their desired goals and approaches to relative gender equality. Some suffragists did not believe in a gradualist approach, and some did — thus birthing the first-ever in-fight of the official feminist movement when the National Woman Suffrage Association (who advocated for federal suffrage rights) and the American Woman Suffrage Association (which wanted to work on suffrage state-by-state) found themselves warring for a victory.  Ultimately, the two groups would merge in NAWSA, the National American Women Suffrage Association, and Alice Paul would deliver them from relative evil into relative champagne-popping voting parties.

#FunFact: American women who fought for suffrage were called suffragists; women in the UK who did the same were called suffragettes.

The Second Wave (1960s-1980s)

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Feminism’s most notable wave is the second — colloquially, it refers to the period in the 60’s and 70’s in which feminism once more became an organized, cohesive effort for women’s equality. Following the baby boom and post-WWII return to traditional gender roles, women found themselves smack-dab in the middle of revolutionary times wanting more. First-wave feminism had brought women’s rights into the political sphere, but second-wave feminists would build on those victories with an insatiable desire for “de facto” equality, AKA both social and legal gender parity, albeit through political means. The second wave movement largely refers to the “women’s liberation” movement, in which women like Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan challenged gendered notions of womanhood and the socialization which kept women in the kitchen. They would also popularize the term “feminist.”

In 1963, the movement actualized when Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, thus revealing that “the problem with no name” that plagued America’s housewives was (SURPRISE!) their limited access to achievement and individuality in American culture. Steinem, later that year, would publish two groundbreaking essays about her time as an undercover Playboy bunny, remarking on how sexism had impacted men’s understanding of and value for women. That same year (I know! What an awesome year!), John F. Kennedy’s brand-spankin’-new Commission on the Status of Women released their first-ever report on gender inequality. Eleanor Roosevelt, secretly queer powerhouse of the second wave and my utter and complete idol as a child, was the chair. By 1964, Friedan had begun to talk of “a movement.” In 1966, she founded the National Organization for Women and watched that movement actualize. (Her homophobia, which also produced The Lavender Menace, is no longer integral to NOW’s core mission.)

The second wave experienced an amazing batch of victories in their two decades: the Equal Pay Act of 1963, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, legal access to birth control and abortion via the Supreme Court in Griswold v. Connecticut and Roe v. Wade, Title IX and the Women’s Educational Equality Act, and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act among them. Believe it or not, many of these pieces of legislation and historic Court cases still mark the furthest we’ve ever come on issues like reproductive rights, workplace discrimination, and ending sexual assault.

The second wave’s biggest goal, however, was never realized: the passage and ratification of Alice Paul’s Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution. (The worst part? It was defeated entirely by this awful woman named Phyllis Schafly.)

The second wave tapered off during the “feminist sex wars” of the 80s, in which a bunch of horrified and less horrified women debated whether or not dudes looking at porn was okay and what people should do about it. Believe it or not, this issue of their time literally divided what was an Earth-shaking force for women’s liberation. The movement, of course, still prevailed — in 1987, the Feminist Majority Foundation would be founded after a survey discovered that a majority of Americans (women and men!) identified as “feminists.”

#FunFact: very few bras were actually burned during this period of time, despite legions of legends to the contrary.

The Third Wave (1990s-Present)

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The third wave of feminism arose out of both the failures of previous movements for women’s equality and a rising backlash against their victories.

With a focus on intersectionality, particularly with respects to queer women and women of color, the third wave defies essentialism, seeks to destroy all binaries, and goes beyond the second wave to advocate for an end not only to blatant sexism, but to stereotypes and representations of women which are harmful and impede their ability to be whole people. The third wave is multi-disciplininary, reeking of elements from girl power, riot grrrl, postmodern, transnational, post-colonial, cyberfeminist, ecofeminist, trans, queer, and racial politics and philosophies — among others — and is the first of the now-existent four waves to really embrace sex positivity as a principle.

#FunFact: There isn’t much to say about the third wave that you don’t already know, because we’re smack-dab in the middle of it. Or are we?

The Forth Wave (2010-Present)

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In 2010, Shelby Knox published a post on her personal blog declaring herself not only a feminist blogger, but a founding mother — of the Forth Wave. Her conception of feminism’s newest incarnation was that it was one in which the Internet and a growing interconnectedness of movements had birthed an entirely different organizing structure and re-engaged young women in a movement which, to this day, people refuse to believe is still powerful and galvanized:

I’ve recently felt the pull of the blogosphere. As I become more outspoken in my feminism, I want to put my thoughts and ideas out there for the community to bounce off of, to critique, and expand upon. Most of all, I want to showcase what I see as I travel across the country: a vibrant network of young gender justice activists organizing in ways very specific to our generation.

I’m writing a book on this cohort, what I’m calling the ‘Forth Wave’ of feminism. Many of us in the Forth Wave found and continue to develop our feminism online. We use the internet to consciousness raise, plan rallies and fundraisers and readings, and collectively expand our movement.

Read the full article, published on 9 July 2014, at Autostraddle.

This article is part of a larger series, Rebel Girls, about feminist politics in America.

Featured Image: Autostraddle

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