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The 4 Waves Of Feminism, Explained

Feminism is a broad church and the online discourse around it is so frequently dominated by conflict between different schools of feminism that it can be difficult to pinpoint what it’s all about. 
In the simplest terms, feminism is a social and political movement that advocates for equality between the genders. As for who can call themselves a feminist, in her viral 2012 TEDx talk, We Should All Be Feminists, feminist author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie defined a feminist as anyone who believes “in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes”. 
As much as feminists have been historically criticised by commentators from certain parts of the political sphere for being disproportionately ‘angry’ women or for hating men, the struggle for equality is the essential foundation of feminist theory. 

Why do we need feminism? 

While feminism is routinely criticised as ‘unnecessary’ and detractors believe that some semblance of equality has, in fact, now been achieved between the genders, feminists recognise that there are a multitude of issues that need to be tackled in order to achieve true equality and in many cases, gender disparities have actually been worsening in recent years, according to data from the United Nations and human rights organisations. 
Family and domestic violence, sexual violence, lack of education for women and girls, threats to reproductive rights, persistent earnings gaps, a lack of women in leadership positions, and a growth in the number of women and girls living in poverty globally are persisting concerns and proof that gender equality has not yet been achieved. 

What are the ‘waves’ of feminism? 

The ‘waves’ of feminism refer to different eras, sets of beliefs and focuses of feminism that have happened since the movement first emerged in the late 19th Century. While defining feminism by these waves can be seen as extremely reductive and tends to ignore the work of feminists that occurred in between eras, they’re useful for providing historical context and understanding why certain feminist ideologies can come into conflict with one another. 

First wave feminism

The first wave of feminism refers to the first sustained movement in Western countries that involved women fighting for political equality – in other words, the vote. While it may be difficult to comprehend, before the late 1800s, no countries gave women the right to vote in parliamentary elections due to a prevailing belief that women were not educated or intelligent enough to hold political opinions or contribute to democracy. 
However, in this period, women began organising on the basis that winning the vote would unlock the ability to secure other rights, such as reproductive rights. The women’s suffrage movement emerged with particular intensity in Britain and the United States, with the Seneca Falls Convention (the first women’s rights convention) sparking the movement in earnest in the US. 
The women’s suffrage movement was led by two broad groups: the suffragists and the suffragettes. While the suffragettes are the most widely known, each had distinctive approaches to trying to secure the vote for women. The suffragists were known for using peaceful methods, such as lobbying, while the suffragettes were more militant, often committing unlawful and violent acts, which often culminated in repeat arrests. 
The women’s suffrage movement was ultimately highly successful, with New Zealand actually becoming the first self-governing country in the world to enshrine women’s right to vote in parliamentary elections into law in 1893. Today, women have the right to vote in every country and territory in the world, except for Vatican City where male Catholic Church cardinals elect the pope. 

Second wave feminism

The second wave of feminism then launched in the early 1960s, largely inspired by academic and literary work that questioned the role of women in society. In the late 40s, Simone De Beauvoir published the influential book The Second Sex which outlined how women have historically been treated as second to men, which set the tone for the next wave. Then in the early 60s, writer Betty Friedman published The Feminine Mystique, which tapped into a broad dissatisfaction experienced by (mostly white, middle-class) American women. The book rallied against prevailing beliefs about ‘traditional’ nuclear families and that women would find the most fulfilment staying in the household, performing domestic duties and caring for children. 
Second wave feminism argued for the creative and intellectual value of women, as well as raising critical issues such as workplace equality, access to birth control and abortion, and women’s education. Feminists of this era argued that the “personal is political” and drew connections between the inequality they were experiencing in sex, relationships, and domestic labour, to broader societal inequality and political systems designed and enforced by men. 
Second wave feminism saw crucial legislative victories in many Western countries, including laws passed that secured equal pay for men and women performing the same jobs, legislation that outlawed marital rape, and reproductive rights legislation, and the landmark Roe v. Wade decision in the US Supreme Court, which ruled that the United States Constitution protected the right to have an abortion (this decision was then overturned in 2022). 

Third wave feminism

Then, in the early 1990s, third wave feminism emerged. While this era is a little trickier to define than others, it is generally thought that it was sparked by the landmark Anita Hill case in 1991, when attorney Anita Hill testified before US Congress, claiming that then-Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas, had sexually harassed her while they were working at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. 
The testimony was broadcast live and even though Thomas was ultimately confirmed as an associate justice of the Supreme Court, Hill’s courage led to vastly-increased awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace and other high-profile accusations against powerful men. Third wave feminism also saw the emergence of intersectional feminism, which describes the way that different forms of oppression can intersect and compound one another. This era also saw the rise of cultural movements, such as Riot Grrl, which was a punk movement led by groups like Bikini Kill, Babes in Toyland and Sleater-Kinny that celebrated female anger and sexuality. 

Fourth wave feminism

The fourth wave of feminism is the wave that we’re currently in and it has been defined by large protest movements and online activism. It’s generally thought that fourth wave feminism kicked off in 2012 and it’s mostly focused on sexual harassment, rape culture (an environment in which sexual violence is prevalent and normalised), as well as issues such as body shaming
Fourth wave feminism has seen global action, including the worldwide 2017 protest, the Women’s March, which occurred the day after Donald Trump was inaugurated as US President. It’s estimated that over 7 million women worldwide participated in marches that protested misogynistic policy positions held by the President, as well as rhetoric that had led to widespread outrage, such as the leaked tape that recorded President Trump bragging about grabbing women “by the pussy”. 
The same year, the #MeToo movement, which had originally been created by American activist Tarana Burke back in 2006, went viral online. The movement grew in response to numerous sexual assault allegations that were made against high-profile film producer, Harvey Weinstein, by models, actors, and other workers. The hashtag ‘#MeToo’ allowed women online to organise and describe personal accounts of sexual assault and harassment and became a global shorthand for recognising widespread issues of sexual violence that were critically under-discussed. 

Where does feminism go from here? 

It’s unclear what fifth wave feminism could look like, despite some arguments that we may already be in it. However, what is clear is that there are a lot of varying ideologies within the feminist movement today that are leading to conflict. Issues such as trans rights, sex worker rights, issues related to capitalism, and how to best embrace intersectionality are still evolving within feminism. And then there are emerging issues, such as how women will be disproportionately affected by climate change that need to be addressed by mainstream feminism. 
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