Feminism: A History

I’d like to preface this blog by saying that the history of feminism I will write about is certainly not conclusive. It is marginal - a sliver of gender resistance as told from the experience and through the eyes of one woman. I’ll define and explore terms commonly used - ‘second wave feminism’, ‘third wave feminism’, etc. - that often delineate what we mean by a history of feminism. I’ll briefly outline the generally agreed developments of feminist activism in the West.

But I’ll also explore the instances of feminist resistance that remind us that the white, Western history of feminism is not universal. To the best of my ability, being a white woman in the western world, I will explore how what we often call the ‘history of feminism’ is reductive, and in fact the story of specific kind of feminist resistance in recent modern history.

But we’ll start from the beginning...





First Wave Feminism

The history of the modern feminist movement normally begins with First Wave Feminism, which existed between the 1800s and 1900s, and focussed mainly on women gaining legal rights. These included property ownership and the right to vote.

I think that ‘twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon… That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman?
— Sojourner Truth, First Wave Feminist (Delivered 1851, Women’s Convention, Akron, Ohio)

While many women of colour were involved and active in the fight for gender equality (for example Sojourner Truth or Sophia Duleep Singh), other white suffragettes used race as a bargaining chip. For example, American suffragettes encouraged people from Southern states to support women’s right to vote by pointing out that, as black men could vote, “the white race would maintain its supremacy” by “snow[ing] under the Negro vote” if white women could vote (Laura Clay, 1849-1940, founder of Kentucky’s first suffrage group).


Second Wave Feminism

This wave began in America in the 1960s, and focussed on the private rather than the political life. Second wave feminists resisted gender oppression in the home, in the workplace and in the family, across broad themes such as sexuality or gender based violence.

Chosen motherhood is the real liberation. The choice to have a child makes the whole experience of motherhood different, and the choice to be generative in other ways can at last be made, and is being made by many women now, without guilt.
— Betty Friedan, Second Wave Feminist, from her book “The Feminine Mystique” (1963)

Second Wave Feminism also saw the birth of Radical Feminism, which viewed the patriarchy as the most dominant form of oppression and sought to reorder society to eliminate male supremacy, and Political Lesbianism, a theory that suggests a woman could choose to enter only into lesbian relationships as a form of political resistance, no matter her own sexuality.


Third Wave Feminism

Third Wave Feminism arose off the back of second wave feminism in America in the mid to late 1980s. This wave was less unified than the first and second, which both had specific goals in mind. The Third Wave explored post-structuralist understandings of gender and feminism, leading to a more nuanced understanding of feminism’s relationship to sexuality and race - intersections that had previously within the feminist movement been indistinct from an overarching paradigm of gender.

The term “Third Wave” is attributed to Rebecca Walker, feminist writer and activist, who responded to the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court despite accusations of sexual assault by University professor Anita Hill.

So I write this as a plea to all women, especially women of my generation: Let Thomas’ confirmation serve to remind you, as it did me, that the fight is far from over. Let this dismissal of a woman’s experience move you to anger. Turn that outrage into political power. Do not vote for them unless they work for us. Do not have sex with them, do not break bread with them, do not nurture them if they don’t prioritize our freedom to control our bodies and our lives. I am not a post-feminism feminist. I am the Third Wave.
— Rebecca Walker, (1992) ‘Becoming the Third Wave’ in ‘Ms. Magazine’

The Third Wave of Feminism also sought to make a distinction between their activism and the activism of the Second Wave, arguing that feminism needs to be reinvented and reinvigorated as time passes and culture changes.


Fourth Wave Feminism

Fourth Wave Feminism is used by some to refer to the recent resurgence of interest in feminism, from roughly the 2010s. Some link this wave to the advent of social media and feminism on the internet. The Fourth Wave of feminism is preoccupied with issues such as everyday sexism, street harassment and rape culture.

Because of media advances and globalization, waves of mass change are coming faster and faster. The waves are all part of the same body politic known as feminism, and combine to become a powerful and distinct force.
— Jennifer Baumgartner, ‘feminist.com’

Others do not make a distinction between the third and fourth wave, and instead argue activism is still in the Third Wave. Both Third and Fourth Wave Feminism reject the idea that feminism no longer has a purpose, and address the more subtle and insidious aspects of sexism in our societies.


Fourth Wave Feminism


And that concludes a neat little timeline of feminist activism…

... uh, no. But you already knew I was going to say that.


This is the problem with conceptualising activism in this way. The first/second/third/fourth waves of feminism are no doubt important movements in the fight for gender equity, but by categorising periods of time and ways of resisting we begin to segregate ideas and actions into ‘feminist activism’ and label-less acts, even if the label-less acts were and are revolutionary.   

To explain properly what I mean, we have to look at what the term ‘feminism’ means. The Oxford Dictionary defines feminism as “the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes”. I have noted in a previous blog that the ‘advocacy’ part of feminism is not defined, and I like to imagine this is because advocacy can look like anything. Feminist resistance can come in all sorts of different forms.

So, feminism didn’t begin with the First Wave. Feminism, or ‘advocacy for women’s rights’ has existed throughout history and across cultures in women (and men) who have resisted oppressive institutions. While this kind of timeline of the feminist movement is useful to understand where and how feminism began to become a collective movement, the timeline is not conclusive where it may suggest that it is.


I suggest when thinking about the history of feminism that we remind ourselves that feminism as a concept and as activism is nuanced and varied, and that it therefore cannot be neatly categorised into time periods or geographical locations. The history of feminism is so rich, so wide, so political and yet so intensely personal that we will never really be able to map it, or know it in its entirety.

When thinking of the history of feminism, imagine individuals lost to history who laid the stepping stones for their friends and families. Imagine how many centuries old, how bizarre and unconventional feminist resistance could have been and could be. Use the waves to guide you, but don't limit your understanding of feminist resistance to those that hit the shore.




Article by Mairi Lubelska