A Brief Look at the Four Waves of Feminism

This is the first in a series of articles in March that will celebrate Women’s History Month.

The modern day humanist movement has embraced feminism, but like various types of humanism, the tension between the various waves of feminism is ever present. Established feminist movements within the United States have primarily fallen into four different time periods. The different movements—often termed first wave, second wave, third wave, and fourth wave feminism—share similar goals but different characteristics of action.

These various waves of feminism are interwoven into women’s rights, civil rights, and social justice movements. What has especially characterized these movements is the championing of equality under the law and within our socioeconomic structures. That said, the differences and the existing tension among these various waves outlines an important question: What kind of equality does feminism seek? The waves of feminism are not a linear progression and consensus of progress, even though they roughly follow a linear timeline. Instead, they are intense changes of perspective among different generations of women.

First wave feminism during the late 19th century is primarily characterized by the women’s suffrage movement and their championing of the woman’s right to vote. While many continue to celebrate feminist leaders like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the women’s suffrage movement largely excluded and discriminated against women of color including suffragettes such as Ida B. Wells, Ellen Watkins Harper and Sojourner Truth. White women were eventually guaranteed the right to vote in 1920 under the 19th amendment. Women of color wouldn’t have the universal right to vote until 45 years later with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, when all people of color were guaranteed the right to vote.

Second wave feminism, from roughly the 1960s to the 1990s, encompassed far more issues such as pay equality, reproductive rights, female sexuality, and domestic violence. Like the first wave of feminism, many of these goals were achieved through legislation and important court decisions. That said, while the second wave movement made some attempts to encompass racial justice, it remained a lesser priority than gender. Class and race were viewed as secondary issues, if they were considered at all. The disparities between white women and white men narrowed, but the inequity between women of color and white men or even between women of color and white women largely remained the same.

Third wave feminism emerged from the mid 1990’s, challenging female heteronormativity. Third wavers sought to redefine femininity and sought to celebrate differences across race, class, and sexual orientations. While third wave feminists support feminism, they reject many stereotypes of the feminine ideal, sometimes even rejecting the word “feminism” itself. This movement was a stark departure from the second wave and the development of intersectionality began to take form. The term intersectionality was coined by lawyer and activist Kimberlé Crenshaw “to describe how race, class, gender, and other individual characteristics ‘intersect’ with one another and overlap.”

Fourth wave feminism is newly emerging over the last decade or so, therefore it’s difficult to define. That said, fourth wave feminism is seen as characterized by action-based viral campaigns, protests, and movements like #MeToo advancing from the fringes of society into the headlines of our everyday news. The fourth wave has also been characterized as “queer, sex-positive, trans-inclusive, body-positive, and digitally driven.” It seeks to further deconstruct gender norms. The problem these feminists confront is systemic white male supremacy. Fourth wavers believe there is no feminism without an understanding of comprehensive justice that deconstructs systems of power and includes emphasis on racial justice as well as examinations of class, disability, and other issues.

None of these movements are monoliths, but the tension between the different versions of feminism is quite prominent. The American Humanist Association (AHA) takes an intersectional view of social justice issues, working to liberate all marginalized communities. Much as humanists often find that interfaith groups exclude us from the broader conversation, the women’s rights movement has frequently existed as a monolith of white women who have gained rights and equality among white men, while other marginalized groups are pushed to the edges for the sake of “scalable power” that was never guaranteed.

While the arguments about the various incarnations of feminism continue into 2021, we should consider what feminism means in conjunction to equality for all. A major through-line in the history of feminism has been the power white women seek among white men, not the power they seek to dismantle in pursuit of equality. If your feminism does not include and support trans people, people of color, non-gender conforming people, people with disabilities and ALL marginalized groups then you are not seeking equality for all.