Feminism through the ages

(Image: Georgia Laganiere, The Puma Prensa)

By Georgia Laganiere, business and social media manager

Feminism. A mysterious word. This word’s connotation does not match its actual definition from Oxford Languages: the advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes. It is not bringing men down to where women once stood; it is paving the way for women of the future to meet men at the metaphorical “top” of society.

Feminist movements can be divided up into three predominant waves with lesser known but more recent fourth and fifth waves. The first three waves were filled with controversy and inequality. The fourth wave, better known as the #MeToo movement, was something we all lived through and watched unfold. The fifth is what we are currently going through, and if it does its job correctly, we won’t need any more waves to achieve true equality. However, movements aren’t perfect. Feminism in the United States, like any movement throughout history, has been a messy 100 year—or possibly longer—struggle for equality of the sexes. 

The first wave of feminism was during the 19th and early 20th centuries and was characterized as mainly the fight for basic legal rights. Things such as the ability to vote, file for divorce, own land, have custody of their children, basically decide the fate of their own lives. In the arguably most famous phase of feminism, women’s suffrage, the primary goal was not equality in society, it was equality in legislation. Big names such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and Susan B. Anthony rose to the forefront of the movement. Unfortunately, this wave also rarely included women of color or transgender women as a lack of inclusion was a norm during this time. While the movement started as suffrage for white and Black women, they soon saw Black support as a liability and instead focused on primarily white suffrage. However, Black women fought back, founding the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1896 and the Alpha Suffrage Club in 1913. Sojourner Truth is an iconic advocate of black women’s suffrage, well known for her moving “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech. The result of this wave was the addition of the 19th amendment to the constitution.  

Women march for suffrage in Philadelphia

The second wave of feminism focused more on equality and discrimination in schools and the workplace during the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. Topics such as rape, reproductive rights, domestic violence and workplace safety were at the forefront of the movement as well as reshaping the image of women that society had pushed on to them. The wave was in part started by a book called The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan, as well as the popular usage of the newly administered birth control pill, which allowed women to control the amount of children they had, thus letting them work. Journalist Gloria Stienem was prominent during this era of feminism and was thrust into fame after the publication of her paper that called out the injustices women faced in the Playboy restaurants and clubs. Her paper was called “A Bunny’s Story” and is still famous to this day. Unfortunately, women of color were wildly underrepresented in the movement as the main leaders were white, middle class women. The popular image of women burning their undergarments came from this era because the idea of a feminine, housewife that conformed to society’s standards was the opposite of what the prominent leaders wanted at the time. Major results of this wave were legislation like the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as well as Supreme Court rulings like Griswold v. Connecticut and Roe v. Wade.

The third wave started in the 90’s and has focused mostly on intersectional feminism, the subsection of feminism aimed at bringing in women of color. This issue was almost thoroughly ignored in the first and second wave of feminism with the only exceptions being that women of color fought for their rights themselves. In 1991, Rebecca Walker published a piece in Ms Magazine—which was founded by Gloria Steinem—supporting Anita Hill in her claims of sexual harassment by Sumpreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. She iconically wrote, “I am not a post-feminism feminist. I am the third wave,” starting the idea of third wave feminism. In the 1990s, there was improvement in representation in politics and equality for women. 1991 was often called the “Year of the Woman” because of its progress. Five women weren elected to the US Senate in 1993. Hilary Clinton gave her famous “Women’s Rights are Human Rights” speech at the UN in 1995, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg became the second female Supreme Court justice in 1993. Transgender feminism also gained ground during this wave, sparking controversy even within feminist groups. This wave has often been said to have ended suddenly in 2012 with the violent rape of a woman in India that resulted in her death. 

Fourth wave feminism had looser goals but mostly focused women’s control over their bodies, specifically relating to rape and abortion. After Hilary Clinton lost the 2016 presidental election to Doland Trump—a man with 21 claims of sexual assault against him—the spread of marches errupted. Social media dubbed it the #MeToo movement. The day after Trump’s inauguration sparked one of the largest single-day women’s marches, with women gathering in cities all across the country to protest. According to History.com, 4.1 million women took part in the US with 300,000 women in attendance internationally. The #MeToo movement gained traction again when Harvey Weinstein was accused of multiple accounts of sexual assault and harassment. This sparked women around the world to share their stories using the hashtag #MeToo. 

Feminists take to Washington DC during 2016 Women’s March (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

I am of the opinion that the most inclusive and hopefully last wave of feminism has already begun. Though I believe it was gradual, the movement has branched from just middle-class white women. This is because of the diversification of topics as well as advocates for those topics. In the past couple of years, the word “feminist” has been muddled to mean misandranist, or a women who believes she is of higher standing then men. While there are extremists who believe this, the true feminist purpose of equality is coming back, and there are more male allies due to the recognition of what misogyny has done to men as well. Things like men being discouraged to show emotion, the emphasis on being strong physically and mentally and all of the other harmful stereotypes are also currently being fought against by feminists. The movement now includes people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals, which has consequently diversified the narrative of feminism. Issues such as abortion, rape and bodily autonomy are still at the forefront of the movement, but more issues are being included as well. Men’s issues, body positivity, reclaiming femininity and sexuality, POC issues, LGBTQ+ and specifically transgender equality are all things being fought for within this unofficial wave of feminism.

The issues of white selectivity and lack of diversity within the movement should be fixed during this wave. The first three waves of feminism, though dated and flawed, paved the way for the women of the fourth and fifth waves to fight for true equality. 

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