The first wave of feminism emerged in the 19th century and sought legal rights for women, focusing mostly on suffrage (the right to vote). It formally began at the 1848 Seneca Falls convention for women’s equality with Elizabeth Cady Stanton creating the Seneca Falls Declaration that detailed the new movement’s philosophies and political goals. Prominent activists during this time included Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, and Alice Paul.
The volatile political climate and anti-war activism of the 1960s allowed for the birth of the second wave of feminism. Due to the wage gap and sex discrimination by employers, a major focus of the second wave was workplace equality. The passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, a proposed amendment to the United States Constitution designed to guarantee equal rights for women, was a main goal of feminists during this time period. However, anti-feminists lead by Phyllis Schlafly made sure the amendment never passed.
Notable feminist achievements of the second wave include the legalization of abortion as a result of Roe V. Wade, and the partial legalization of birth control with Griswold V. Connecticut. These legislative changes were also reflected in the way that women were perceived in society. The second-wave philosophy of “the personal is political” led women to speak up about issues of rape and domestic violence that were considered private matters before. The 1972 birth of Ms. Magazine, a publication by radical feminist Gloria Steinem, became the first national periodical dedicated to the advancement of women’s rights, and its title popularized women rejecting the tradition of changing their title to reflect their marital status. Many new women’s rights organizations were brought about during the 1960s, most famous of which is the National Organization for Women whose purpose was to “break through the silken curtain of prejudice and discrimination against women.”
Unfortunately, the divisiveness within the feminist movement ultimately lead to its downfall. Sex-positive feminists who advocated for legalized sex work found themselves pitted against anti-porn feminists, resulting in the great “feminist sex wars” which many feminists today consider to have snuffed out the second wave. The 1960-1970s brought about radical change in the conceptualization of womanhood, forever altering the role of women in society and laying the groundwork for feminist movements of the future.
The 1980s is considered a stagnant time in terms of feminist activism, but feminist activity erupted once more in the 1990s. Aiming to rectify the wrongs of the first and second wave, third wave feminists worked towards creating an intersectional and inclusive feminist ideology. The Riot Grrrl feminist punk scene during this time succeeded in taking feminism out of the academic realm and making it more accessible to young people via political zines and concerts.
So, where does that leave us today? With the third wave ending in the early 2000s, will the 2010s be considered the fourth wave of feminism or will the activism of this decade be left unnoticed by history? I’d argue that we’re living in the fourth wave right now. Due to the internet allowing feminists to connect instantly, we’re more active and in the loop than ever. We have a bevy of political knowledge available to us via google, and it’s easier than ever to educate ourselves on feminist theory and share what we’ve learned. So, I can see the feminists of the future connecting the fourth wave with the birth of social media and internet activism. In terms of fourth wave philosophy, I think that we still carry the torch of intersectionality and inclusivity from the third wave.