This article will feature in Issue 35: Fractured Nations (March 2020)

The feminist movement began in the US at the end of the nineteenth century. It has persisted to this day, although the goals and rationalities behind the movement have changed radically since its inception; many factions have emerged with opposing ideas about what must be done to gain gender equality. While generally the movement has been broken down into various ‘waves’, this does not mean there is unity between feminist activists in these time periods. 

Another complexity of the movement is the levels of inclusivity within feminism. While the earlier periods of the movement are celebrated for getting women the vote and a place outside of the home, such success had race and class restrictions. These restrictions are highlighted by intersectional feminist groups who believe feminism must be diverse if the systematic problems concerning race, class, sexuality, and disabilities are to be overcomed and allow for all women to be equal, not just with men, but with each other.

First Wave (1848 – 1920)

The First Wave is generally thought to have started in 1848 at the Seneca Falls convention. Around 200 women met up in New York to discuss “the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of women.” While it was not the only outcome of the convention, there was a general agreement that the right to vote was an important goal to aim for. 

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony are the eulogised figures from this period. This is particularly for their work in getting the 19th Amendment passed in 1920, which secured the vote for women. Stanton and Anthony’s feminism generally excluded women of colour, however. This is despite the fact that women of colour such as Sojourner Truth, Maria Stewart, and Frances E.W. Harper were prominent figures in the early part of the Suffragette movement. Women of color were often barred from Suffragette meetings or marches and were often forced to walk behind white women. 

This period also saw the origins of the fight for reproductive rights. Margaret Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in the United States in 1916 and would go on to open the clinic which became the basis for Planned Parenthood. 

Second Wave (1963 – 1980s)

Feminist activism in the sixties moved beyond political inequalties between men and women and instead was concerned with overcoming social expectations that made women inferior in society. The commercial success of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, released in 1963, gave women, especially those who were white and middle-class, a reason to rally against their socially prescribed place in the household. This spurred many feminist activists to campaign against prevailing ideas about a woman’s ‘purpose’ and the systematic sexism women were being subjected to on a daily basis. This was mostly a middle-class concern however, as most working-class women or women of colour had no choice but to work. 

While there were many legislative victories in this period, the most notable was the decision of Roe V Wade. The 1973 ruling gave women reproductive control over their bodies. This later period is often remembered for feminism’s ‘radicalism’. While there were certainly small ‘radical’ feminist groups, the general perception of feminists being bitter, man-hating, 

bra-burners was the result of the conservatism of Reagan’s presidency. There was no mass burning of bras by feminists but the myth remains pervasive.

Third Wave 

Things get a little complicated when we get to the Third Wave of the feminist movement. It is not so easy to pinpoint if this wave even exists nor, if there is a Third Wave, when it begins or ends. 

An important moment for those who support the Third Wave was the Anita Hill case. In 1991, Anita Hill testified in the Senate against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, who she accused of sexual harassment. Thomas was admitted to the bench but the case caused a number of women to come forward about their own experiences of sexual harassment in the workplace. It also opened up a discussion about the gender imbalance in positions of power.  

The period also saw women reclaim markers of femininity, such as high heels and makeup, which had been rejected in the Second Wave. Retaining femininity led to prominent theorists discussing the ways in which women should be allowed to enjoy things, even if they had sexist or misogynistic origins. 

This period was diverse and does not have a unified goal or piece of legislation in which to define it. This is why it is difficult to say whether we are still living in this era or are moving on to something new. 

Fourth Wave? 

If the feminist movement is now in its Fourth Wave, it would certainly be defined by the internet and social media. The internet has been used to bring about feminist cultural moments, such as #MeToo and TimesUp, as a tool to discuss feminist ideas, and as a way to organise activist events, such as the Women’s March. 
The feminist movement is certainly far from its origins but that does not mean that the concerns of ‘former’ waves are no longer relevant. Reproductive rights remain a hot topic as anti-choice activists and conservatives continue to try and reverse Roe V Wade, or restrict it as much as possible. The mirroring of Anita Hill’s case in Christine Blasey Ford’s accusations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh in 2018 reminds us that the feminist movement continues to have relevance today.