The stages of feminism are broken down into four waves, referring to the intense changes of perspectives among generations of women at different points in history. These different periods share similar characteristics, but different calls to action, each building upon the one before it. One important shared mission shared amongst feminists throughout time is the desire to live an equal and happy life. The feminist flag is a royal purple with the sign for females in the middle with a fist inside of the circle. Pride Palace has put together a broad overview that will guide you through the historical four waves of feminism in the United States of America.
The First Wave: Late 1800s - Early 1900s
The first wave of feminism is widely considered to be Western culture’s first political movement dedicated to fighting for the equality of women. The women activists, called suffragettes, marched, protested, lectured, and endured arrest, ridicule, and violence for the right to vote. The first meeting of the feminist movement was at the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848. 200 women met inside of a church to discuss women’s rights for the first time. The convention was organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, who were active abolitionists. Fun fact: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott first met when they were both banned from the floor of the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention in London because women were not allowed! Together, the women hosted speakers and supporters such as Frederick Douglas, Sojourner Truth, Maria Stewart, and Frances E.W. Harper, who all advocated for women to have the right to vote.
Many white women were moved to join the suffragette movement after the 15th amendment was instituted in 1870, giving Black men the right to vote. What had originally started as a diverse call to action turned into a movement dedicated to predominantly white women’s right for equal opportunity for education, employment, and right to own property. The first wave of feminism also features the first call to action for reproductive rights for women in the United States, with Margaret Sanger opening the first birth control clinic in 1916. By 1920, women were finally granted the right to vote through the 19th amendment, but it still remained difficult for Black women to vote. After the unified mission of securing the right to vote, the movement splintered in different directions, no longer bonded together through a common goal.
The Second Wave: 1960s - 1980s
The beginning of the second wave of feminism can be marked with the publication of Betty Friedan’s book The Feminist Mystique. Selling three million copies in three years, the book rails against systematic sexism, quickly making the rounds amongst well-educated white married women. The book gave these women permission, for many for the first time, to feel angry about the daily lack of power and agency they experienced as domestic housewives. Until then, it had been seen as taboo to express unhappiness participating in the heteronormative nuclear family structure. The second wave’s unifying goal was social equality between men and women. The personal and individual experiences of these women fused a common bond together, making them realize the root of their mutual and individual dissatisfaction and unhappiness is because of systematic inequality.
There are several notable political achievements made during this time. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 outlawed (in theory, at least) the gender pay gap. Women fought for the right to use birth control, the right to educational equality, and the right to reproductive freedom with Roe v. Wade in 1973. Women were slowly changing the way society considered them. During this time period, women achieved the right to hold credit cards under their own name, apply for mortgages without a husband, and raised important awareness about domestic violence. There was a strong push to build shelters for domestic abuse victims. It was also the first time sexual harassment was defined and labeled in the workplace.
The Third Wave: 1990s - 2000s
The third wave of feminism has two significant cultural political moments: the Anita Hill’s sexual harassment case in 1991 and the riot grrrl groups of the nineties. After Anita Hill testified that soon-to-be Supreme Court Judge Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her in their workplace, a huge avalanche of sexual harassment complaints came forward. Even though Thomas was still elected to the Supreme Court, it started a huge national conversation. So many women were inspired by Anita’s honesty to come forward with sexual harassment experiences themselves, resulting in a re-examination of the over-representation of white men in positions of power.
Meanwhile, the riot grrl movement, lead by punk rock girl groups of the nineties, reclaimed femininity as an equal form of gender expression, subverting the public persona stereotype of a feminist from a man-hating bra burner (which, by the way, never actually happened) to however a woman wanted to dress. Rejecting innate femininity as anti-feminist is still projecting judgment through a misogynist male gaze, when instead all gender expressions, from masculine to feminine, should all be considered equal. This movement was rebellious in its reclaiming of high femme fashion, combining it with a fierce attitude that encouraged girls and women alike to get out in the world and fight oppression.
A very important figure in the third wave of feminism is Kimberlè Crenshaw, an academic scholar of gender and race who first coined the term ‘intersectional’. This phrase refers to the way different forms of oppression intersect. Another prominent figure, Judith Butler, argued that gender and sexuality are different entities, with gender being a performance of expression. For the first time, the feminist movement centered the fight for trans rights in its mission. However, the third wave lacked the cultural momentum that the two waves had before it.
The Fourth Wave: Present Day
We are currently living in the fourth wave of feminism, so it can be difficult to define. One of the biggest defining factors of the fourth wave is the addition and utilization of the internet for activism. Significant moments during this time that reflect this are #MeToo and Time’s Up, combining online organization with physical marches like the Women’s March. Another social campaign, SlutWalk, became an annual social protest in cities across the world that fights against the notion that how someone dresses impacts the likelihood of experiencing sexual assault. While feminism may mean different things to different people, one thing is clear: intersectional feminism is the most legitimately inclusive form. Being an intersectional feminist means being accepting of queer people, trans inclusive, body positive, inclusive of differently abled people, and working to understand what feminism means for all people.
The fourth wave focuses on issues like sexual harrasment, body shaming, rape culture in the United States, and working to bring needed national attention to vulnerable, marginalized groups by putting them at the center of today’s news. A large element of the fourth wave is the active deconstruction of gender norms across all areas of life by confronting the effects white male supremacy has on the upholding of systematic oppression in the United States. In the history of feminism, white women put their own power gain above championing equality for all women. Instead, the goal should be for everyone to have equal power and agency.
Online, activists meet and plan and strategize the movements that call for systematic change in our country. The internet has become an invaluable tool for feminism to wield. While the waves of feminism all had different era-specific goals, what they all share is a genuine drive and desire for change. No matter where feminism goes in the next fifth wave, it will certainly be a more diverse and inclusive space in its initiatives.
Feminism is considered to be a historically relevant lens in both a social movement and as a political movement. The first wave secured women the right to vote. The second wave secured women the right to dream of independence. The third wave secured the power to own your identity in a way like never before. The fourth wave secured the ideal that the only true form of feminism is intersectional.
Far too often, feminism has become a co-opted movement for white women pushing their rights above other women in order to gain the same amount of power as white men. Instead, they should have been working with all women to dismantle the power structure to give equality for everyone. These waves are intertwined with the social, political, and cultural movements of the history of the United States. While the four waves of feminism shared similar goals, they had distinct differences in their actions. Your feminism must include all marginalized and vulnerable groups, otherwise it is not true feminism.