The History of U.S. Feminism In 3 Waves

From Suffragettes to the 60’s to Sexual Liberation…and Everything in Between

Feminism in the US has gone through many evolutions throughout the decades. We’ve come a long way from the fight for suffrage, and our conceptualization of “feminism” has shifted in a myriad of ways as the term comes to envelop the struggles faced by an increasingly diverse coalition of women. There have been three main “waves” of feminism, and this metaphor has been useful in describing how new ways of thinking were tied to previous movements. 

At the same time, the wave metaphor can also lead to reductionist and stereotypical thinking about feminism. Though there is a general agreement on the existence of three main “waves,” it is important to remember that each is not it’s own isolated movement with a single and unified feminist agenda. Despite being an imperfect way of describing the complicated history of feminism in the US, the metaphor is still a useful tool for understanding the main struggles that characterized women’s movements at specific locations in history.

If you identify as a feminist, becoming familiar with the three waves can also help you build your feminist vocabulary and understand the mainstream feminist movements, where our current ideas came from, and in what direction we are headed.

So here is a – sort of – Intro to Feminist History; welcome to women’s studies!

The First Wave: 1848 to 1920’s

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The first wave begins with the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 (geez that started a long time ago!) where, in a church in New York, nearly 200 women met to discuss their grievances. Together, they passed a list of 12 resolutions that called for equal rights, including the much-debated right to vote. 

Despite the fact that many of the leaders of the women’s rights movement were also abolitionists, and that many women of color also contributed to the cause, the movement eventually established itself as a movement that represented white women only (something that feminist movements still struggle with today, in the freaking 21st century!). 

Suffragettes were key players in fighting for the 19th Amendment. Their campaigns and marches become critical during the first wave of feminism.
Via Britannica

Even though racism barred the representation of women of color, the movement nevertheless set a radical agenda for the time. The first wave desired not only suffrage for white women, but also equal opportunities in employment and in education, the right to property, and reproductive rights. 

In 1920, Congress passed the 19th Amendment which gave all women the right to vote (unfortunately, women of color still faced many barriers in exercising this right, especially in the South). The 19th was the capstone achievement of the first wave, and having achieved this goal, the movement began to lose it’s momentum, effectively heralding the end of the first wave.

The Second Wave: 1963 to 1980’s

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Beginning with the publication of The Feminine Mystique by Betty Freidan, the second wave set its sights on not just political equality, but social equality. The book identified the systemic sexism that conditioned women to believe that their place was in the home and gave women the permission to be angry at a world that suppressed their creative and intellectual freedom. “The personal is political,” was their mantra. Problems that seemed to be individual and petty at first sight – like sex and relationships, domestic labor concerns, and access to reproductive healthcare – were actually deeply political and fundamental issues in the struggle for equality.

We are still fighting for some of the causes that came from this wave – equal pay (white women still earn less than men, and women of color even less), reproductive rights (this is under a particularly ferocious attack right now), and educational opportunities (affirmative action can’t fix everything). 

The second wave went on to win a number of legal victories. Title IV gave women the right to educational equality, The Equal Pay Act of 1963 (theoretically) outlawed the gender pay gap, Roe v. Wade guaranteed women reproductive freedom, and both married and unmarried women won the right to use birth control. 

This woman holding a sign calling for "equal positions with equal pay" shows the similarities among the waves of feminism, mainly activist work.
Via Creative Commons

The second wave also faced the issue of race. Despite being deeply rooted in the burgeoning civil rights movement, women of color found themselves increasingly alienated from this generation of feminists and their central platforms. An issue with the mainstream second wave movement was therefore its narrow scope. Despite its attempt to present women as a unified category that faced the same institutional and systemic sexisms, it did little to address the specific grievances of women of different colors and socioeconomic statuses.

The movement also birthed negative stereotypes of feminists as bra-burning, man-hating, lesbians who were just angry and bitter. The fact that many of these characterizations have persisted throughout the decades attests to the strength and violence of the backlash faced by the second wave. 

The Third Wave: 1990’s to ???

The third wave is the most amorphous of the three. There is no agreed-upon start or end date, and there is still debate as to whether or not we’re still in it! 

In 1989, Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality to describe how different forms of oppression intersect and interact. The idea is that identity is a constellation made up of the intersections between gender, race, class, sexuality, and geographic/historical location, and that these different aspects of identity produce different sites of oppression. So a queer, white woman and a poor, black woman would understandably experience differnent intersections of opporession based on the aspects of their identity and social positioning. 

"Women come from a whole range of backgrounds. If our visions of peace don't include these differences, then our peace will be partial," says Kimberle Crenshaw, a major player in the third wave of feminism.
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In addition, Judith Butler argued that sex and gender are separate. Gender, Butler contended, is performative, meaning it is something that we learn to present and perform, rather than something that is inherent and fixed in the body. The combined influence of these two thinkers would be foundational to the movement’s diversification to include feminisms that fought for the rights of queer and trans people, people of color, and the differently abled. 

This diversification also meant that one woman’s feminism might not empower a different woman’s feminism, and not all feminists were fighting the same battle. The third wave called for different kinds of specific feminisms to address the nuance of identity and oppression: race-based feminisms (white feminism, black feminism, etc), queer feminism, transnatinal feminism, third world feminism, sex-positive feminism just to name a few. 

Another important aspect of the third wave is its embracing of choice. As a response to the backlash against the second wave that cast feminists as bra-burning, man-hating, hairy lesbians, third-wave feminists sought to redefine the idea of femininity as something that could be expressed in a myriad of ways – none of which were wrong. In fact, the third wave introduced the idea that femininity is just as valuable as masculinity or androgyny, and to reject femininity was in itself misogynistic. Alongside the choice to present yourself however you pleased, the choices associated with physical and bodily autonomy are equally as important to third wave feminists.

What we do with our bodies, who we share our bodies with, and under what circumstances are all decisions that we claim ownership over. Sex-positivity (the idea that everyone should get to make their own choices about sex and their bodies, judgement-free) is a huge movement of the third wave, and lifting each other up is an essential part of modern feminism. 

Women lift each other up through the waves of feminism.
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The three waves of feminism have brought us to the present day, and we’re still actively defining the movement. Some anticipate a fourth wave – and some believe that we’re already in one. The most compelling argument for the emergence of a new wave is the use of the internet for feminist discourse and activism. Perhaps fourth wave feminism is our new ability to connect to each other in ways and on much grander scales than ever before. Hashtags like #MeToo and #YesAllWomen allow women to share experiences and stories with a world-wide audience, and we are increasingly demanding that society hold even our most powerful men accountable for their behavior. 

The most important thing to remember is that we owe where we are today to the women of the pioneering movements that drove feminist thought and discourse. We cannot take for granted their struggles for the rights that we enjoy today – the vote, birth control, economic and educational opportunity – were all made possible thanks to their activism. Equipped with our history, we can move forward to do the work that’s left. 

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About The Author, Elizabeth Mason

A recent graduate of UC Berkeley, Elizabeth Mason earned her degree in Gender and Women’s Studies. Currently, she is looking towards graduate school, and hopes to continue to focus her studies on womxn’s health and sexual wellness. Her main interests include identity politics and their relation to issues surrounding womxn’s healthcare and sexual liberation. She looks forward to the day when all womxn are empowered socially, politically, and – most importantly – sexually. She can be found on Instagram @elizabeth.mason.

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