feminism / feministLast updated
Feminism is an umbrella term referring to various social, political, and economic movements for gender equality. Feminism and feminist advocacy and ideology have existed since the inception of patriarchal social structures, but US history largely defines feminism as a series of “waves.” It’s important to note that critics of the “wave” approach argue it’s too reductive — that in reality, smaller, often marginalized movements were happening simultaneously, and there was never one unifying motive of the movement for gender equality. Though not necessarily comprehensive, the “wave” approach can help to offer parameters for historical context. It’s also important to note the ways that factors including race, socioeconomic status, and immigration status can also affect positioning within existing power structures.
First-wave feminism (1848-1920) focused on white women’s suffrage, as well as equal access to education and employment. This movement effectively began with the Seneca Falls Convention, which brought together advocates for gender equality and policy change. Though the women’s rights movement stemmed from abolition and both had many of the same supporters, eventually the suffragist movement intentionally left out women of color, particularly Black women, in order to garner support from white people and politicians.
Second-wave feminism (1963-1980s) focused more on women’s social equity with men, including gendered expectations in the home, reproductive freedom, and gender-based violence and harassment. Betty Friedan’s The Feminist Mystique, a massive bestseller whose success kicked off the beginning of this wave, argued that the postwar confinement of women to the home was a major social problem. While Friedan spoke to the challenges of white, middle-class, college-educated women, she largely left out Black and queer women. The Equal Pay Act and Roe v. Wade were two major policy changes of this time.
Third-wave feminism (1990s) had a primary focus on workplace sexual harassment (as in the Anita Hill hearing) and a more serious dedication to intersectionality, a term coined by theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe the way other forms of oppression, like racism and homophobia, intersect with gender-based oppression. A more acute focus on queer and trans liberation emerged out of the third wave with prominent scholarly voices like Judith Butler. Riot grrrl, the feminist punk subculture, was also a defining voice during this time. The third wave is characterized by a sense of diffusion: there are no major policy changes credited to the third wave, but the era saw major shifts in feminist thinking on aesthetic and philosophical terms. This wave introduced to the mainstream issues like sex positivity, ecofeminism, and transfeminism.
Fourth-wave feminism (roughly 2008-present) is currently unfolding, and much discussion exists about how it should be defined. The emergence of social media is a pillar of this wave, as exemplified by the Me Too movement, a term coined by activist Tarana Burke in 2006 to show how widespread gender-based violence is for Black women and girls. The renewed prominence of Me Too in 2017 sought to hold perpetrators of sexual violence accountable (both publicly and privately) and show how common sexual violence is. The movement largely spread on social media.
The term white feminism refers to feminist ideologies that center white women in an exclusionary way.
- The waves of feminism, and why people keep fighting over them, explained (Vox)
- What Is Feminism? (International Women’s Development Agency)
Feminism is an umbrella term referring to various social, political, and economic movements for gender equality. It’s rooted in the fundamental belief that all genders are/should be equal. In discussions of feminism, it’s important to note the ways that factors including race, socioeconomic status, and immigration status can also affect positioning within existing power structures.