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A brief history of feminist waves

Kyra Krall - editor for Feminists in the City

· Histoire

Although the concept of feminist waves may sound familiar to those swimming within anglophone feminist waters, its concrete meaning often evaporates from our minds into a vague, nebulous notion. In essence, the waves of feminism seek to analyse the trajectory of modern feminism by subdividing it into several time frames, starting in the late 19th century with the fight for women suffrage, up to the plurality of movements coexisting in our current day. The concept was popularised by a 1968 New York Times article by Martha Lear, in which she distinguished the feminist movement of her time, the second wave, from the previous generation of activists.

Just like any feminist issue, the wave-metaphor is subject to various debates and opinions: How many waves of feminism are there? Which one are we riding right now? Do we even need this categorisation? To spare you from drowning in a sea of confusion, we hereby toss you this lifebuoy of a blog post.

This article provides an overview of the timespan and distinct features of each feminist wave, and will then discuss criticism on the relevancy of the concept as a whole. Please bear in mind that this line of analysis reflects a Western-centric view on modern feminist movements, and therefore the focus lies on American and European events.

1st wave

The first wave of feminism takes root in the United States (US) and the United Kingdom (UK), starting in the mid-19th century. At this time, the main objective for women was to attain legal rights. The Seneca Falls convention of 1848 marks the beginning of the American first wave. This was the first women’s rights convention taking place in the US, whose attendants were comprised of many abolitionists as well.

In the beginning, equal property rights and the abolishment of a husband’s ownership of his wife stood at the forefront. Towards the end of the 19th century, the focus shifted to demanding women suffrage, with the hope that the right to vote would preface the access to further rights. Many advocates in the US, especially women of colour such as Sojourner Truth or Maria Stewart, fought for this to be paralleled with universal suffrage. However, the established feminist movement, members of which include Susan B. Anthony, ignored these voices and instrumentalised racist argumentation for its own cause, for example after the 15th Amendment of 1870, which (theoretically) gave voting rights to African American men, causing outrage among many white suffragettes.

The first wave came to a close in around 1920, when some white women (of a certain age and economic background) had been granted the right to vote in the US and the UK.

2nd wave

The second wave is said to have begun in 1963, catalysed by the publishing of Betty Friedman’s “The Feminine Mystique”, a work that gained remarkable reach in the US. It argues, contrary to the 1950’s female stereotype, that women are not fulfilled by caretaking, marriage or housework duties, and ties into the statement that “the personal is political”, which has become a representative slogan of the second wave.

Over the next two decades, Western feminist movements achieved legislative milestones in terms of reproductive rights, the right to equal pay and to equal education. It fought for women to possess their own bank accounts without a husband’s approval, and denounced domestic violence and sexual harassment. Sexual violence was a central theme to the movement, and in the US there were also campaigns to eliminate forced sterilisations of people of colour and people with disabilities.

The second wave managed to mobilise large groups for protest and activism, which fuelled the trope of the “angry feminist”, brought about the myth of bra-burning, and portrayed feminists as hysterical women who were falling out of line.

3rd wave

The third wave begins in the 1990s, with the Anita Hill case of 1991 as a distinctive element to its upsurge. Anita Hill, an African-American law professor, testified about facing sexual harassment by Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, marking one of the earliest public debates on workplace harassment.

Furthermore, the third wave is characterised by an increasing awareness of intersectionality, a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in the 80’s. It recognised the interwoven forms of discrimination of racism, classism, ableism and more, and also criticised the second wave for primarily representing the demands of white, cis, straight, middle-class women.

Philosopher Judith Butler is also considered a central figure to the third wave, as she defends the differentiation between sex and gender, strengthening the support of trans rights.

Lastly, riot grrrl music groups emerged, giving rise to punk feminism and contrasting the previous wave with a reclamation of femininity.

While there are many claims that only these first three waves of feminism exist, meaning that the 3rd wave is still ongoing, others argue the third gave way to a fourth wave in the 2010s.

4th wave

The main attribute of the fourth wave is its relationship to the media and its online advocacy for social change. This means that it promotes feminist causes on the internet, especially on social media, with campaigns on rape culture and body shaming, or hashtags like #MeToo or #YesAllWomen. This has led to a transformation of pop culture, resonating with young girls, women and minority genders around the world, giving rise to young activist online spaces. While the fourth wave supports the features of the third, it is argued that it goes a step further in terms of sex- and body-positivity, as well as reinforcing women’s empowerment.

5th wave

The fifth wave is the most controversial, since there is much debate on whether it even exists and what its main features are. Proponents claim this wave was created in around 2015, with fake news, trolls and online harassment increasing in momentum. This is said to have caused a wake-up call to a stronger organisation between feminist groups and to action-oriented activism. The preceding movement is portrayed as more individualistic and personal, while the fifth wave is more concentrated on large-scale changemaking.

So what’s with all these classifications?

Although the wave-metaphor is a simple tool to grasp basic historical developments, it has been subdued to various criticisms.

  1. The categorisation of a multi-faceted movement like feminism can be dangerously prone to oversimplification. While mainstream ideas and values of a certain time period might be portrayed, one wave doesn’t represent the full picture. This model is primarily focused on the evolvement of Anglo-Saxon feminism, which, as so often, shifts the narrative of feminism from a more holistic approach towards a Western perspective, without recognising global movements or side-lined participants. In addition, each wave has been comprised of subgroups, completely detached or even excluded movements, employing different methods of action, fighting for varying ideals of gender equality.
  2. Secondly, the rigidity of these set time frames implies a fragmented history, conveying a false sense of a linear trajectory. Feminist movements have not continuously developed to become more progressive, and feminist waves have been pulled by currents of all directions.
  3. Thirdly, critics claim that the waves suggest a generational conflict among feminists, failing to address a parallel evolvement of each generation over time.
  4. And lastly, it is important to note that such a historical classification is rather difficult given that the examined events are of such recent date. We will have to wait and see whether the metaphor stands the test of time.

No matter which wave is currently braving our societal seas, the current feminist movement is more connected, more intersectional, more critical of itself than ever before. The wave-metaphor shows us how feminism has changed and evolved, and is a pre-indication for what is to come.

As long as we move in common waters of respect and inclusivity, the streams we follow to achieving our goal of equality should be multiple, so that our efforts and currents amalgamize into a rebellious feminist wave, a tsunami ready to crash on the patriarchy.

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