The first wave of feminism took place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, emerging out of urban industrialism and liberal, socialist politics. While the major goal of this movement was to win women the right to vote, these women (and men) were addressing numerous dimensions of gender inequality, it just became popularized when these activists fought the right to vote. By gaining political power with the right to vote, the leaders of this movement realized they could then gain political momentum concerning issues such as sexual, reproductive, and economic matters. Women had been systematically excluded from history-making because men had the power to define what history was and what (and whom) was important. While often taken for granted, this first wave is largely credited for fueling the feminist fire.4 The first wave of feminism is credited with the development of the feminist consciousness: a recognition by women that they were treated unequally as a group and that their subordination is socially created and maintained by a system that can be replaced through collective action.
In 1920 women won the right to vote. However, once the vote was won, women did not turn out to the polls as often as men, and when they went, they often voted similarly to men (maybe as they had been told to by men). Many women withdrew from the movement, believing that once the vote was won, there was no more work to do. Young women especially neglected to see the necessity of the movement by depicting feminists as lonely, unmarried women who unnecessarily antagonized and provoked men.
Coming off the heels of World War II, the second wave of feminism focused on the workplace, sexuality, family, and reproductive rights.5 Betty Freidan’s book The Feminine Mystique is credited with stoking the fire for the second wave. Freidan exposed a voice of unhappiness and boredom of white, educated, middle-class housewives. She even referred to the suburbs as “comfortable concentration camps.” She named the depression, loneliness, and empty feeling experienced by so many housewives as “the problem that has no name.” Freidan reveled that this was not an individual problem, but rather it was a social problem. Freidan and 27 others founded the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966. It has since become the largest feminist grassroots organization in the U.S., with hundreds of chapters in all 50 states and hundreds of thousands of contributing members and supporters, focusing on a broad range of women’s rights issues, including economic justice, pay equity, racial discrimination, women’s health and body image, women with disabilities, reproductive rights and justice, family law, marriage and family formation rights of same-sex couples, representation of women in the media, and global feminist issues.
The second wave began in the 1960s and continued into the 90s. Prior to the spark of the second wave of feminism, it was largely perceived that women had met their equality goals. This wave unfolded in the context of the anti-war and civil rights movements and the growing self-consciousness of a variety of minority groups. Much of the movement was focused on passing the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing social equality regardless of sex. While the first wave of feminism was largely driven by middle class, Western, cisgender, white women, the second wave of feminism drew in women of color and developing nations, seeking solidarity, claiming, “Women's struggle is class struggle.” However, the feminists group at that time attracted mainly women who felt a personal sting of gender discrimination, including many lesbians. An eventual split between homo- and heterosexual activists resulted after the heterosexual feminists largely felt the lesbian presence would hurt the movement by devaluing or delegitimizing it.
The third wave of feminism began in the mid-90's, and in this phase many constructs were destabilized, including the notions of body, gender, sexuality, and heteronormativity.6 There are three major themes in the third wave of feminism:
- there is a greater focus on women’s issues in less developed nations;
- criticizing values that dominate work and society, such as challenging competition, toughness, and independence as ideal qualities (traditionally thought of as “male” qualities) and arguing to replace them with cooperation, connection, and interdependence as being ideal qualities; and
- there has been an emphasis placed on women’s sexual pleasure.
There has been debate whether or not we are experiencing a fourth wave of feminism. Some contest the fourth wave can be seen in terms of participants’ rising concern with intersectionality, whereby women’s suppression can only fully be understood in a context of the marginalization of other groups and genders. In other words, feminism is part of a larger consciousness of oppression along with racism, ageism, classism, abelism, and sexual orientation.
4 Bailey, C. (1997). Making waves and drawing lines: The politics of defining the vicissitudes of feminism. Hypatia, 12(3), 17-28.
6 Snyder, R. (2008). What Is Third‐Wave Feminism? A New Directions Essay. Signs, 34(1), 175-196. doi:10.1086/588436