Activity 5: Feminist/ism through time: 1ˢᵗ, 2ⁿᵈ, 3ʳᵈ wave and beyond?

3 hours


To help us to familiarise ourselves with the three commonly spoken about phases, periods or waves of feminism that have formed part of the history of the women’s movement, in order to to better understand feminism today and what the future of feminism holds.


The history of feminism is filled with radicals, progressives, liberals, Marxists and centrists. It is filled with splinter movements, counter-movements and conservative movements. That is part of what it means to be both an intellectual tradition and a social movement, and right now feminism is functioning as both with a vigor we haven’t seen in a while.

One useful way of looking at the feminist movement is through what is known as the waves metaphor. Despite its many critics, the waves of feminism is a useful tool for understanding feminism today. It is a useful way of linking the women’s movement of the ’60s and ’70s to the women’s movement of the suffragettes. It is a useful way to describe and distinguish between different eras and generations of feminism. And it is useful in understanding some of complexity to the movement through gender equality and a focus on the individual battles women face.

Naturally, it is not a perfect metaphor. Some have argued that it’s historically misleading and not helpful politically, as it suggests that gender activism has been for the most part unified around one set of ideas, and that set of ideas can be called feminism. Others have called it reductive, as it suggests that each wave of feminism is a monolith with a single unified agenda, when in fact the history of feminism is a history of different ideas in conflict. Others have critiqued its western, northern centric analysis and its lack of an intersectional focus.

As Constance Grady (2018) indicated, it is however important to recognise the enormous work that each wave has done for the feminist movement, and to prepare to keep doing more work. If we want to discard it, it is worth understanding first what we are discarding.

Task 1

The facilitator will provide a brief plenary overview on the waves of feminism, drawing on feminist theory as well as video clips from the All About Women 2018 Conference. This overview will provide a broad insight into the waves of feminism that will require some deeper consideration in the next task.

We will have 45 minutes for concluding task 1

Videos: All About Women 2018

Barbara Caine on first wave feminism:

Anne Summers on second wave feminism:

Rebecca Walker on third wave feminism:

Task 2

For this task you will be divided into 6 reading groups to explore a particular wave in greater detail. Two groups will focus on each of the waves, with one group looking at an international reading and the second group at a South African reading.

You will have a roving resource person dedicated to your wave who you can ask for advice/ questions or who can assist you with further readings/information if required.

Groups 1 and 2: 1ˢᵗ Wave Readings:

Groups 3 & 4: 2ⁿᵈ Wave Readings:

Groups 5 & 6: 3ʳᵈ Wave Readings


In your reading group, complete the two readings allocated to your group, using the highlighters provided to highlight points that you think are critical to consider or revisit.

On completing the readings, answer the following questions:

  1. What did women during the wave you are looking at want? What freedoms were they denied?

  2. What were their demands / slogans / popular imagery?

  3. How did they organise? Who were the major players?

  4. What did they win and how did this impact different groups of women?

  5. What did they not address and what critiques did they face?

You have 2 hours for the reading group. Please note that there will not be an immediate report back on this. But do keep your responses safe!

📖️ Readings