Informational Article Written by Suri Kautz
Although it is likely that feminist beliefs existed far before the mid-nineteenth century and could be found in countries across the globe, feminism is often viewed in four waves, starting in the mid-19th century United States. The four waves of feminism is a concept that emerged in the 1960s, and suggests that the history of gender activism in the United States can be viewed as four different waves, defined by the specific goals of the movement at the time (Pruitt). It is important to note that the four waves of feminism summarizes the complex history of women’s rights, and that the fight for gender equality extends beyond these four waves.
The First Wave
The first wave is usually dated between 1848 and 1920, correlating to the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. At the convention, abolitionists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, announced the Declaration of Sentiments, which stated that women were equal to men and demanded that women have the right to vote (Feminism). Despite the fact that women of color, like Sojourner Truth, Maria Stewart, Francis E.W. Harper, and Ida B. Wells played key roles in the women’s suffrage movement, the coalition established itself as a movement only for white women (Grady). Though the organization was dedicated to fighting for women's rights, racial segregation was used to gain traction and public support. The organization was not only unified against sexism, but also against people of color, which created two common enemies that they were determined to fight against.
In 1920, twenty-seven years after New Zealand became the first country to give women the right to vote, America passed the 19th Amendment. Women of color were not permitted to vote until forty-five years later. The passing of the 19th Amendment marked the end of the first wave, even though women still faced inequalities and discrimination daily.
The Second Wave
The second wave focused on the inequalities women still faced with the Equal Pay Act of 1963, and Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique (History.com). Friedan’s book, which sold a whopping 3 million copies in 3 years, argued that women faced sex-based discrimination every day when assigned to restrictive roles such as housewives. The book was so far-reaching it inspired millions of women to unify against traditional gender roles and to fight for not just political equality but social equality too. The movement led to multiple court cases and legislative initiatives that ultimately permitted women reproductive freedom and equal education. Most notably, the Roe V. Wade Supreme Court case legalized abortions, giving women the right to end their pregnancy. In addition to these legislative initiatives and rulings, the second wave focused on outlawing marital rape, raising awareness of sexual harassment, and undermining systemic sexism (Grady).
Unfortunately, women of color were still often alienated from the mainstream feminist movement. The second wave was tailored to and centered around white women. In part due to isolation from the mainstream movement, black women formed the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO), which fought to end the forced sterilization of people of color and people with disabilities.
The Third Wave
The third wave began in the 1990s and is often connected to the Anita Hills case and Riot Grrrl groups. When Anita Hill testified against Clarence Thomas, a Supreme Court Nominee, for sexually harassing her at work, women across the nation began to speak up and against their sexual harassment experiences. The case sparked further protests and discussions regarding workplace sexual harrasment and the lack of women in positions of power.
One means of protest was through music; an underground feminist punk movement known as Riot Grrrl groups addressed issues relating to sexuality, domestic abuse, rape, patriarchy, and female empowerment through their powerful lyrics. Moreover, the third wave looked at intersectionality and sought to be a movement for women of all different identities (Grady). Riot Grrrl groups embraced femininity and the term ‘girl’ as a way of empowerment, in contrast to the second-wavers who fought to be called women rather than girls.
The Fourth Wave
Many believe that we are currently in the fourth wave, which was thought to have begun around 2017 with the uprise of the #MeToo movement and with the thousands of people joining the Women’s March on Washington D.C. at the start of Trump’s presidency. The fourth wave seeks to diminish the systems that allow for misogyny, discrimination, and sexual misconduct to occur while continuing discussions regarding intersectionality and race (Pruitt).
Since the first wave of feminism, the women’s rights movement has made much progress in the United States. Today, women have the right to vote; there is more knowledge and action taken to prevent rape, domestic abuse, and sexual harassment; more people are aware of the systems enforcing sexism; there are more women in leadership roles, and there have been further discussions regarding intersectionality and racism within feminism.
Despite the progress made, there have been setbacks, and there is still much to be changed in order to achieve gender liberation. Women still experience discrimination, rape, domestic abuse and are less likely to be recruited for positions of power. Recently, Roe. V. Wade, a law passed during the second wave, was overturned, revoking the constitutional right to getting an abortion. Although abortion remains legal in most east and west coast states, many states in the midwest and south have permanently banned, trigger banned, or are likely to ban abortions. These restrictions mean that women, and others able to give birth, no longer have full reproductive freedom or control over their bodies — a right that is fundamental to achieving gender equality. Furthermore, this overturning negatively impacts the health of those needing or seeking an abortion. Under this ruling, those seeking an abortion are more likely to undergo dangerous procedures to terminate their pregnancies, and they may also experience mental health issues and/or financial strains. Marginalized communities are further exacerbated by this overturning as BIPOC and other disenfranchised peoples have already been historically denied access to and deprived of health resources.
The United States has long fought for women’s rights, but there are still many pivotal issues that must be addressed in order to ensure the rights of women and marginalized communities. The fourth wave of feminists must unite and continue to fight against sexist ideas and legislation in the U.S.
Grady, Constance. "The waves of feminism, and why people keep fighting over them, explained." Vox, 20 Mar. 2018, www.vox.com/2018/3/20/16955588/feminism-waves-explained-first-second-third-fourth. Accessed 22 June 2022.
History.com. "Feminism." History.com, 28 Feb. 2019, www.history.com/topics/womens-history/feminism-womens-history. Accessed 22 June 2022.
Pruitt, Sarah. "What Are the Four Waves of Feminism?" History.com, 2 Mar. 2022, www.history.com/news/feminism-four-waves. Accessed 22 June 2022.