Handout: Waves of Feminism

(This handout is part of Activity 6: Feminist/ism through time: Poster making on the waves and beyond.)

Some would argue that one of the greatest challenges to understanding feminism may be the fact that the ideology and philosophy informing it have shifted over time. Others will argue that we cannot speak of feminism but should instead speak of feminisms. While others will have us understand feminism through typologies of political conceptions. There are many ways in understanding how feminism has developed over time – we have chosen to introduce here the creation of separate “waves” of feminism.

Over time, feminist activists have campaigned for issues such as women’s legal rights, especially in regard to contracts, property, and voting; body integrity and autonomy; abortion and reproductive rights, including contraception and prenatal care; protection from domestic violence, sexual harassment, and rape; workplace rights, including maternity leave, child care and equal pay; and against all other forms of discrimination women encounter. It is common in feminist history and theory to speak of three waves of feminism. However, there is little consensus as to how to characterise these three waves or how to categorise women’s movements before the late nineteenth century. Similarly, there has been critiques of the northern centricity of the waves metaphor and its inability to see the world beyond a gendered binary, among others.

The first wave, occurring in the 19th and early 20th century, was mainly concerned with women’s right to vote. The second wave, at its height in the 1960s and 1970s, refers to the women’s liberation movement for equal legal and social rights. The third wave, beginning in the 1990s, refers to a continuation of, and a reaction to, second-wave feminism. There is also an emerging fourth wave of feminism that is less universally recognised and which focuses on technology.

The first wave: 1800’s – early 1900’s

First-wave feminism most often refers to an extended period of feminist activity during the nineteenth century and early twentieth century in the United Kingdom and the United States.

During the 1800s women had little control over their lives. The average married female gave birth to seven children. Higher education was off-limits. Wealthier women could exercise limited authority in the domestic sphere but possessed no property rights or economic autonomy. Lower-class women toiled alongside men, but the same social and legal restrictions applied to them as well. At the same time there were many social changes as a result of industrialisation, national expansion and discussions on individuals’ rights.

The issue of slavery drew many women into the public sphere and in the early 1800s, women were instrumental in organising and participating in the Abolition Movement. Angelina and Sarah Grimke became well-known abolitionists who defied social custom by publicly addressing the American Anti-Slavery Society. In response to the fierce criticism of their speech, Sarah Grimke penned “Letters on the Equality of the Sexes” in 1838.

While the first wavers initially focused on the promotion of equal contract and property rights for women and the opposition to chattel marriage and ownership of married women (and their children) by their husbands, by the end of the nineteenth century, their activism focused primarily on gaining political power, particularly the right of women’s suffrage. Yet, feminists such as Voltairine de Cleyre and Margaret Sanger were still active in campaigning for women’s sexual, reproductive, and economic rights at this time. In 1854, Florence Nightingale established female nurses as adjuncts to the military.

The campaign for women’s suffrage which emerged in the 1840s and 1850s fought against the subordination and exploitation of women. The women’s suffrage movement was in alignment with the Black Suffrage and the Abolitionist movement, they were deeply intertwined, sharing similar goals of equality. Often, supporters of one cause were devoted to the other as well. Many feminists at the time were therefor not only suffragists, but also abolitionists. Though the connection was difficult to form at first, black and white women eventually formed strong bonds in the early 20th century. A common goal of equality for all women, regardless of race, was established. Estelle Freedman discusses the issue of race in early feminism in her book, No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women.

When denied the right to speak and visibly participate at anti-slavery and temperance conventions, women reformers organised the first women’s rights convention. The 300 attendee strong Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention, held on the 14 July 1848, was organised by abolitionists Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and focused on multiple issues, including education rights, property reforms, and women’s restrictive roles within the family. It also famously gave voice to the now-famous activists like the African-American Sojourner Truth (d. 1883), who demanded: “Ain’t I a woman?” The convention attendees drew up a Declaration of Sentiments, which detailed how men had denied women their rights. It was only after much deliberation that the 300 attendees decided also to address the controversial issue of women’s suffrage. The press responded disdainfully to the convention, but the event laid the groundwork for the suffrage movement. Other prominent leaders, including Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth and Lucy Stone (known for the unthinkable act of retaining her surname after marriage), joined the suffrage ranks as well.

Early first-wave feminists were liberal – naturalistic, feminists for whom the pressing socio-political agenda was centered around suffrage for women. Victorian America saw women acting in very “un-ladylike” ways (public speaking, demonstrating, stints in jail), which challenged the “cult of domesticity.” Some have argued that their key project was an individualist and reformist attack to dismantle discriminatory laws and gender- based exclusionary social norms – being primarily concerned with establishing in policy that women are human beings in their own right and not the property of men. While others have framed this as the realisation among women that they must first gain political power (including the right to vote) to bring about change particular in the spheres of sexual, reproductive and economic matters. Either way, the seed was planted that women have the potential to contribute just as much if not more than men.

While strongly influenced by Quaker thought, American first-wave feminism involved a wide range of women. Some, such as Frances Willard, belonged to conservative Christian groups such as the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. Others, such as Matilda Joslyn Gage, were more radical, and expressed themselves within the National Woman Suffrage Association or individually. American first-wave feminism is considered to have ended with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution (1919), granting women voting rights.

The achievement of female suffrage in most Western countries in the early twentieth century meant that the campaign for legal and civil rights assumed a lower profile and deprived the women’s movement of a unifying focus. In addition, the movement was seen as being populated mostly by white upper- and middle-class women.

By the 1950s, despite the traditional images of women, more and more middle-class white women were entering the labour market, and single motherhood and divorce rates were beginning to rise. The strain between societal expectations of domesticity and women’s experiences in education and the workforce, along with other factors such as the rise of the cycle of new social movements that swept the United States and Western Europe, led to the re-emergence of the movement in the 1960s and 1970s.

The second wave: 1960’s-1980’s

The second wave began in the 1960s and continued into the 90s. Building on the first wavers, 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 around the world. The New Left was on the rise, and the voice of the second wave was increasingly radical and revolutionary, centred around the demands of the growing Women’s Liberation Movement. Second-wave feminists challenged prevailing notions of the women’s role in the family, workplace, and society – addressing diverse issues such as childcare, equal pay, employment and education opportunities, reproductive rights, and women and children’s safety. Sexuality and reproductive rights were dominant issues, and much of the movement’s energy was focused on social equality regardless of sex. They highlighted the sexual division of labour and were instrumental in promoting women’s equality in the labour market.

Some argue that this wave began with protests against the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City in 1968 and 1969. Feminists parodied what they held to be a degrading “cattle parade” that reduced women to objects of beauty dominated by a patriarchy that sought to keep them in the home or in dull, low-paying jobs. The radical New York group called the Redstockings staged a counter pageant in which they crowned a sheep as Miss America and threw “oppressive” feminine artifacts such as bras, girdles, high-heels, makeup and false eyelashes into the trashcan.

Because the second wave of feminism found voice amid so many other social movements, it was easily marginalised and viewed as less pressing than, for example, Black Power or efforts to end the war in Vietnam. Feminists reacted by forming women-only organisations (such as the National Organization for Women, NOW) and “consciousness raising” groups. In publications like “The BITCH Manifesto” and “Sisterhood is Powerful,” feminists advocated for their place. The second wave was increasingly theoretical, based on a fusion of neo-Marxism and psycho-analytical theory, and began to associate the subjugation of women with broader critiques of patriarchy, capitalism, normative heterosexuality, and woman’s roles as wife and mother. Sex and gender were differentiated—the former being biological, and the later a social construct that varies culture-to-culture and over time.

Whereas the first wave of feminism was generally propelled by middle class, Western, cisgender, white women, the second phase drew in women of color and developing nations, seeking sisterhood and solidarity, claiming “Women’s struggle is class struggle.” In contrast to the first-wavers, the movement benefited from the involvement of far more organisations, encompassing a broad spectrum of political beliefs and ideologies, taking on many forms and included the Black Civil Rights Movement, Anti Vietnam Movement, Chicano Rights Movement, Asian-American Civil Rights Movement, Gay and Lesbian Movement and many other groups fighting for equality. Feminists spoke of women as a social class and coined phrases such as “the personal is political” which became synonymous with the second wave, in an effort to demonstrate that race, class, and gender oppression are all related. They initiated a concentrated effort to rid society top-to-bottom of sexism, from children’s cartoons to the highest levels of government.

In addition, the publication of books such as Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex in 1952 and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1962 sparked primarily white middle-class women’s dissatisfaction with the roles of men and women. And while heavily critiqued, both provided contributions to this wave. De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex provided a detailed analysis of women’s oppression and is seen as a foundational tract of contemporary feminism. Her famous “one is not born a woman, but becomes one” focuses on the social construction of Woman as the Other, viewing this as fundamental to women’s oppression. Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique criticised the idea that women could find fulfillment only through childrearing and homemaking, causing women to lose their own identities in that of their family. According to Friedan’s New York Times obituary, her book “ignited the contemporary women’s movement in 1963 and as a result permanently transformed the social fabric of the United States and countries around the world”.

From 1972 to 1982, the second wave was in what has been characterised as its heyday. Women’s liberation groups continued to recruit women to feminism and caused cultural shock waves with their critiques of femininity, gender roles, and heterosexuality. Issues of rape, domestic violence, abortion and access to childcare came to the forefront of the feminist platforms. Through consciousness-raising, women could identify common struggles and receive support while feminism grew into a mass movement. From this form of engagement, the slogan “the personal is political” aptly summed up the goals of second-wave feminism. What were once private issues were now in the public realm. In the US women’s rights groups won legislative victories with the 1972 passage of Title IX directed at ending sex discrimination in publicly funded education and the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision by the Supreme Court legalising abortion. One result of this heightened activity in the United States and abroad was that in 1975 the United Nations sponsored the First International Conference on Women in Mexico City.

Although these years were times of success for feminists, it was also a period of conflict, fragmentation, and growing discord in the movement. Critical second wave feminists moved away from many of the ideas espoused by liberal feminists, particularly those relating to working within the capitalist status quo. Lesbians, working-class women, and women of color critiqued white middle-class women’s control of both branches of the movement. Informed by the discord in the first and second waves, feminists and feminist scholars, such as the Combahee River Collective and, later, Patricia Hill Collins, conceptualised an intersectional feminist paradigm that views race/ethnicity, class, gender, and sexuality as interlocking systems of oppression, forming a” matrix of domination.” Black feminist writer bell hooks dismissed the idea of a common oppression among women arguing that leading white feminists in the 1970s only reinstated classist white supremacy by not acknowledging the experience of being a black woman.

Indeed, some feminist organisations at that time came across barriers to integrating white and black members. Gloria Steinem and other white feminists strived unsuccessfully to coordinate a racially diverse board of the Women’s Action Alliance in 1971. Some black feminists felt marginalised in certain groups and banded together. In 1973, as a result, the National Black Feminist Organization was founded.

Could the movement recover from all of these fractures and produce a third wave of feminism?

The third wave: 1990’s – early 2000’s

At the end of the second wave, the popular media and some political pundits repeatedly declared feminism dead or in decline. Scholars and activists responded to these obituaries in different ways. Some argued that these “premature” death notices serve a larger goal, preserving the status quo by erasing women’s activism. Some argued that feminism diffused into the larger culture, bringing about a “post-feminist” era where feminist goals and ideology are alive but submerged into the broader culture. Others viewed the movement as fragmented, particularly because of issues of homophobia, classism, and racism, yet insisted that it still remained active and vital. Related to this view, others argued that feminism had changed form and was now done in a different way by a new generation of activists.

Adopting the view that the movement had changed form and tactics, some scholars and participants referred to this phase of the women’s movement as “the third wave.” The idea of a third wave comes from the concept of a political generation, a period when common historical experiences form a political frame of reference for a group.

Originating in the 1980s, third-wave feminism began in the early 1990s, arising as a response to perceived failures of the second wave and also as a response to the backlash against initiatives and movements created by the second wave. Some argue that the third wave began with the 1991 Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings. The proceedings attracted widespread national attention when Anita Hill alleged sexual harassment by Thomas and witnesses corroborated her claims. Thomas’ eventual confirmation enraged and re-energised feminists across the country; in 1992, a record number of women won national political office. Rebecca Walker’s essay, “Becoming the Third Wave,” published in the January 1992 edition of Ms. magazine, voiced this feminist revival.

Third-wave feminism seeks to challenge or avoid what it deems to be the second wave’s essentialist definitions of femininity, with an over-emphasis on the experiences of upper middle-class white women. In this phase many constructs were destabilised, including the notions of “universal womanhood,” body, gender, sexuality and heteronormativity. The third-wave sees women’s lives as intersectional, demonstrating how race, ethnicity, class, religion, gender, and nationality are all significant factors when discussing feminism. It examines issues related to women’s lives on an international basis. It tackles body image, transgender sexuality and sweatshop labour along with reproductive freedom, workplace equality and violence against women. An aspect of third wave feminism that mystified the mothers of the earlier feminist movement was the readoption by young feminists of the very lip-stick, high-heels, and cleavage proudly exposed by low cut necklines that the first two phases of the movement identified with male oppression. Pinkfloor expressed this new position when she said that it is possible to have a push-up bra and a brain at the same time.

This wave is also about acceptance and a deeper understanding of the term ‘feminism’, due to varying feminist outlooks. There are ego-cultural feminists, the radicals, the liberal/reforms, the electoral, academic, ecofeminists… the list goes on. Feminist leaders rooted in the second wave like Gloria Anzaldua, bell hooks, Chela Sandoval, Cherrie Moraga, Audre Lorde, Maxine Hong Kingston, and many other black feminists, sought to negotiate a space within feminist thought for consideration of race-related subjectivities. Third-wave feminism also contains internal debates between difference feminists such as the psychologist Carol Gilligan (who believes that there are important differences between the sexes) and those who believe that there are no inherent differences between the sexes and contend that gender roles are due to social conditioning. At the same time, for third wavers, struggles are more individual: “We don’t need feminism anymore.”

Third wave feminism breaks boundaries. The “grrls” of the third wave stepped onto the stage as strong and empowered, eschewing victimisation and defining feminine beauty for themselves as subjects, not as objects of a sexist patriarchy. They developed a rhetoric of mimicry, which appropriated derogatory terms like “slut” and “bitch” in order to subvert sexist culture and deprive it of verbal weapons. The web is an important tool of “girlie feminism.” E-zines have provided “cybergrrls” and “netgrrls” another kind of women-only space. Grrl-feminism tends to be global, multi-cultural, and it shuns simple answers or artificial categories of identity, gender, and sexuality. Its transversal politics means that differences such as those of ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, etc. are celebrated and recognised as dynamic, situational, and provisional.

The fourth wave?

Many have written about how a fourth wave of feminism is in the air. The fourth wave is still a captivating silhouette. As one US writer points out, “A few months ago, a high school student approached one of the staff of the Center for Gender Equity at Pacific University and revealed in a somewhat confessional tone, “I think I’m a feminist!” It was like she was coming out of the closet. Well, perhaps that is the way to view the fourth wave of feminism.”

The fourth wave of feminism is emerging because (mostly) young women realise that the third wave is either overly optimistic or hampered by blinders. Feminism is now moving from the academy and back into the realm of public discourse. Issues that were central to the earliest phases of the women’s movement are receiving national and international attention by mainstream press and politicians: problems like sexual abuse, rape, violence against women, unequal pay, slut-shaming, the pressure on women to conform to a single and unrealistic body-type and the realisation that gains in female representation in politics and business, for example, are very slight.

The emerging fourth wavers are not just reincarnations of their second wave grandmothers; they bring to the discussion important perspectives taught by third wave feminism. They speak in terms of intersectionality whereby women’s suppression can only fully be understood in a context of the marginalisation of other groups and genders—feminism is part of a larger consciousness of oppression along with racism, ageism, classism, ableism, and sexual orientation.

The expressions of many feminisms, not just one ideology, and the recognition that there have always been tensions, points and counter-points is centered. The political, social and intellectual feminist movements have always been chaotic, espousing multiple values, meanings, or appeals: there must be hope that they continue to be so, it is a sign that they are thriving.

Will the fourth wave fully materialise and in what direction?


  • Betty Friedan (2018) ’The Three Waves of Feminism’, Ohio Humanities.
  • Martha Rampton (2018) ‘Four Waves of Feminism’, Pacific magazine.
  • Victoria Sheber (2017) ‘Feminism 101: What are the Waves of Feminism’, Fem News Magazine.