When asked by a male twitter friend, I realised I don’t really know what second, third and forth wave feminism refer to, so I thought I better go away and find out. This is what I found. Please note this is very much from an English point of view. Lots of other things were happening in other places which I haven’t mentioned here.
First Wave Feminism
(19th-early 20th century)
Focus on legal rights, primarily the right to vote. A key thinker was Mary Wollstonecraft who, influenced by Rousseau and the French Revolution, identified women as an oppressed class and the need for an equal democratic society to include equal status for women.
Her most famous writings are A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). These ideas inspired the suffragettes. At this point feminism is largely a white middle class movement.
The earliest campaigns were centred around women’s right to custody of their children following a divorce, and women’s property rights. Throughout the industrial revolution women were campaigning for employment rights. WW1 led to a huge increase in women working outside their own homes, and in 1919 the the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 opened up the professions and the civil service to women, and ended the ban on married women working.
In 1918, women over 30 who were property owners were given the right to vote. In 1928 this was extended to all women over 21. This period saw an influx of women into higher education and also the first women MPs. In 1923 women were granted the right to divorce on the same grounds as men. Female thinkers began to outline the idea that what was necessary was not equality with men, but rather a recognition of what women need to fulfill their own unique potential, not only at work but also in society and at home. In her essay “A Room of Ones Own” Virginia Woolf said that a woman must have money and a room of her own to be able to write.
During the first wave, there was a tangible connection between the women’s rights movement and the slavery abolition movement, with many thinkers active in both. It was believed that it was essential for both to work together in order to attain true equality in regards to race and sex. However, there were other elements of the movement which were frankly racist.
First wave feminism wasn’t called first wave until the second wave was identified in 1968, by Martha Lear in the New York Times.
Second Wave Feminism
Whereas first wave feminism focused mainly on voting and property rights, second-wave feminism broadened the debate to include a wider range of issues: sexuality, family, the workplace, reproductive rights, and official legal inequalities. Second-wave feminism also drew attention to domestic violence, establishment of rape crisis and domestic violence shelters, as well as changes in custody and divorce law. Female-owned business such as bookshops, credit unions, and restaurants were the key meeting spaces and economic engines.
Key texts were Simone de Beauvoir’s La Deuxieme Sexe (The Second Sex) (1949) in which she outlined how women are perceived as “other” in the patriarchal society. Male-centered ideology is established as a norm and enforced by ongoing psychological oppression.
The movement was also influence by Germaine Greer’s “Female Eunuch” arguing that women are forced to assume submissive roles in society to fulfil male fantasies of what a woman is.
Spare Rib, a feminist magazine was also influential, and as a historically significant record of the women’s struggle has now been digitised by the British library
Women’s Studies grew as a serous field of research and teaching. During this period the movement could be broadly split into two branches: liberal and radical feminism. Liberal feminism concentrated on the ability of individual women to achieve their own equality through personal choices. Radical feminism advocates a complete reordering of society to fundamentally root out the patriarchal systems of oppression.
Many believe the second wave ended in the early 1980s as feminism encountered differing views on sexuality, prostitution and pornography, which led to third wave feminism in the early 1990s.
I enjoyed this article by Tracey Thorn on revolutionary feminism .
The BBC documentary “Angry Wimmin” is also fascinating
Third Wave Feminism
Third wave feminists focused on individualism and diversity, and what feminism means. It is a difficult period to define: “the confusion surrounding what constitutes third-wave feminism is in some respects its defining feature.” (Elizabeth Evans)
The term intersectionality—to describe the idea that women experience “layers of oppression” caused, for example, by gender, race and class—had been introduced by Kimberle Williams Crenshaw in 1989, and it was during the third wave that the concept flourished.
The goals of the movement changed, focusing on abolishing gender-role stereotypes and expanding feminism to include women with diverse racial and cultural identities.
The third wave saw the emergence of new feminist conversations, such as intersectionality and transfeminism. Third-wave ideology focused on a post structuralist interpretation of gender and sexuality. Post-structuralist feminists saw binaries such as male-female as an artificial construct created to maintain the power of the dominant group.
One issue raised by critics was a lack of cohesion because of the absence of a single cause for third-wave feminism. The first wave fought for and gained the right for women to vote. The second wave fought for the right for women to have access to and equal opportunity in the workforce, as well as the end of legal sex discrimination. The third wave lacked a cohesive goal.
I’ll be honest, getting personal as we are now in times I remember, for me the third wave is when feminism lost its way, hopelessly infiltrated by corporate interests which served to so undermine the movement than women didn’t even know they were oppressed any more. This whole “I can wear a short skirt and high heels and lap dance in public because it makes me feel sexy & empowered” bullshit. The rise of magazines like “Loaded” and you can’t complain cos it’s “only banter”. It wasn’t funny.
Britney Spears prancing about in a school uniform begging to be hit. The resurgence of things like wet t shirt competitions. “Brazilians”and anal sex as standard. Porn became more and more violent and abusive and widespread in usage. Many women (aided by powerful and rich lobbyists) argued that prostitution is “sex work”, pretending this gave respect to the workers, when in fact it only hides the coercive nature of the business. And if you have a problem with porn or prostitution you are a prude who should lighten up, embrace BDSM and make a liberated sex video of yourself and Skype it to your boyfriend. It was very grim. Third wave feminism was the Tony Blair of feminism.
Fourth Wave Feminism
Associated with a rise in social media, fourth wave feminism concentrates on violence and sexual harassment against women. Again, being personal, for me fourth wave feminism is feminism waking up and regrounding itself in the fundamentals and is associated with a general consciousness raising and rising anger that we are still fighting the same battles. One criticism is that being largely based on social media, it may lead to a decline in true activism on the streets. We shall see but personally I think it might be the other way around, as shown by the recent protests in Belfast and Dublin, the Women’s Marches in America and the resurgence of events such as Reclaim the Night. I would also say it is characterised by being a time where women’s rights are actively being revoked, rather than being expanded.