Since the mid-19th century, organized feminist movements in the United States have called for greater political, economic, and cultural freedom and equality for women. Yet not all of these movements have pursued the same specific goals, adopted the same approaches to activism, or included the same women’s groups in their rallying cry. Because of these generational differences, it’s common to hear feminism split into four distinct waves, each roughly corresponding to a different time period.
This concept of “waves of feminism” first emerged in the late 1960s as a way of differentiating the women’s movement emerging at the time from the earlier women’s rights movement that began in 1848 with the Seneca Falls Convention. At the same time, the idea of a “second wave” also linked the movement to these earlier activists in a long and laudable struggle for women’s rights.
Critics of the “wave” concept argue that it oversimplifies a more complicated story by suggesting that only one distinct type of feminism exists at any given time in history. In reality, each movement comprises smaller and overlapping subgroups, which are often at odds with each other. While the concept of wave is certainly flawed, it remains a useful tool for describing and understanding the tumultuous history of feminism in the United States, from its origins in Seneca Falls to the social media-fueled activism of the #MeToo era.
First Wave: 1848 – 1920
The first organized movement to gain rights for American women actually began in July 1848, with the convention hosted by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott in Seneca Falls, New York. The participants signed the Declaration of Sentiments, which affirmed the equality of women with men, and adopted a dozen resolutions claiming various specific rights, including the right to vote.
Although the first women’s rights movement was tied to abolitionism, the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870 angered some women’s rights leaders who resented black men for having the right to vote before white women. Similarly, the women’s suffrage movement also largely marginalized or excluded black feminists like Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells. Although the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920 achieved the main goal of the first wave of feminism – to guarantee white women the right to vote – black women and other women of color faced continuous obstacles until passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Second wave: 1963 – 1980
In 1963, Betty Friedan published The feminine mystic, who argued that women resented the limitations of their roles as wives and mothers. The book was a huge success, selling 3 million copies in three years and launching what became known as the second wave of feminism. Inspired by the civil rights movement and protests against the Vietnam War, second-wave feminists called for a reassessment of traditional gender roles in society and an end to gender discrimination.
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Feminism – or “women’s liberation” – gained strength as a political force in the 1970s, when Friedan, Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug founded the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971. Second-wave highlights included passage of the Equal Pay Act and the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) and Roe v. Wade (1973) regarding reproductive freedom. But while Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972, a conservative backlash meant that it did not reach the number of states needed for ratification.
Like the suffrage movement, second-wave feminism drew criticism for centering privileged white women, and some black women formed their own feminist organizations, including the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO). Despite her accomplishments, the women’s liberation movement had begun to lose momentum in 1980, when conservative forces swept Ronald Reagan from the White House.
Third Wave: 1990 –
While the advances of second-wave feminism had undoubtedly achieved more equality and rights for women, the movement that emerged in the early 1990s focused on solving the problems that existed. again, including sexual harassment in the workplace and the shortage of women in positions of power. Rebecca Walker, the mixed-race daughter of second wave leader Alice Walker, heralded the arrival of “third wave” feminism in 1992, while watching Anita Hill testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee about her accusations of sexual harassment against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. That same year, dubbed “the year of the woman”, saw an unprecedented number of women elected to Congress.
Embracing the spirit of rebellion rather than reform, third wave feminists encouraged women to express their sexuality and individuality. Many adopted a more traditionally feminine style of dress and grooming, and even rejected the term “feminist” as a means of distancing themselves from their second-wave predecessors. “Riot grrl” bands like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile and Heavens to Betsy brought their brand of feminism to pop music, including songs that addressed issues of sexism, patriarchy, abuse, racism and rape.
Third-wave feminism also sought to be more inclusive of race and gender. Researcher and theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw’s work on the concept of “intersectionality”, or how types of oppression (based on race, class, gender, etc.) can overlap, has been particularly influential domain. Third-wave feminists have also drawn on the work of gender theorist Judith Butler, including support for trans rights in this type of intersectional feminism.
Fourth Wave: Today
Although fourth wave feminism is relatively difficult to define – as some claim it is simply a continuation of the third wave – the emergence of the internet has certainly led to a new form of activism fueled through social media. Launched by Tarana Burke in 2007, the #MeToo movement took off in 2017 following revelations of sexual misconduct by influential film producer Harvey Weinstein.
In addition to holding powerful men accountable for their actions, fourth-wave feminists turn their attention to the systems that allow such misconduct to occur. Like their predecessors in the feminist cause, they also continue to grapple with the concept of intersectionality and how the movement can be inclusive and representative regardless of sexuality, race, class and gender.