What Are…the Four Waves of Feminism?

The word “feminism” itself tends not to be viewed as social justice jargon, albeit it’s often misunderstood. Feminism is sometimes misunderstood as a sort of “bra-burning/destroy-all-men” mentality.

However, that is far from the truth. On this Women’s History Month in the United States, I think it is important to distance ourselves from that false narrative about feminism.

The reality is that feminism is the advocacy for women to have equal rights to men. So no, it does not involve hating or destroying men.

However, what is sometimes less understood is the different phases of advocacy for women over the years in the United States, also known as the four waves of feminism. It’s also less understood why it’s so important to understand those waves, and why it’s also so important to think beyond the second wave of feminism.

These phases of advocacy for women, also known as “waves of feminism,” are divided as such:

The first wave of feminism is typically regarded as the phase of advocacy that focused on greater women’s involvement in American government, particularly the right to vote. It is worth noting, though, that the focus on the greater involvement of women focused on white women, not on women of color. This phase went from about 1848 (the year of the Seneca Falls Convention, a women’s rights convention where the right to vote became a major issue) to the ratification of the women’s right to vote in the United States (also known as the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution) in 1920.

The second wave of feminism said that it was not enough for women to have the right to vote, but that it was also important to advocate for social, political, and economic equality for women. This phase of feminism went from the 1960s to about the early 1990s (approximately). Betty Friedan’s book, titled The Feminine Mystique, has often been credited with starting this second wave of feminism. This wave of feminism also included advocacy for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, which was designed for people in the United States to have equal legal rights regardless of sex.

However, the second wave of feminism was criticized for predominantly advocating for middle class white women, while leaving behind poor women, women of color, women in the LGBTQ+ community, women with disabilities, and women from other marginalized groups. This criticism led to the third wave of feminism, which placed emphasis on advocating not just for economically upwardly mobile white women, but women who were also marginalized for other facets of their identity. In this wave of feminism, which many say started in the early 1990s and ended around 2012 (though I think this wave is in many ways still present today),[1] there was a lot of emphasis on intersectional feminism—advocacy for the equal rights of women that takes into account how that advocacy should address the inequalities of women who experience overlapping and intersecting forms of discrimination in addition to discrimination for being a woman (example: discrimination for being an immigrant and a woman). 

The fourth wave of feminism, which many say started in 2012 and continues today, focuses on online tools, such as blogging and social media, to highlight inequalities that many women face. Through this, we see the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements on social media, the increased blogging about sexism, and personal stories of various forms of sexism that women have faced. 

It’s important to understand these different waves of feminism for a couple of reasons. First, it is good to have at least a working historical knowledge of the different eras of feminist advocacy, regardless of what your feelings on feminism are. Second, it’s generally good to understand what people are talking about when they’re referring to a particular wave of feminism. Finally, it’s especially important to understand the importance of third-wave and fourth-wave feminism, because without that understanding, it is difficult to appreciate the importance of advocating for all women and taking that advocacy to the public sphere.

So, next time you hear about third-wave or fourth-wave feminism, you will know what you’re talking about. If you’re accused of not moving beyond the second wave of feminism, you know that your feminism needs to do a better job of including women who are marginalized for other parts of their identity. And if you hear about the #MeToo movement, you know that you are hearing about the current, and fourth, wave of feminism.

[1] While, by many definitions, we’re into the fourth wave of feminism, the there’s still lots of emphasis on intersectional feminism; in other words, third-wave feminism.

23 Replies to “What Are…the Four Waves of Feminism?”

  1. I started doing volunteer training for a women’s shelter a few years ago. They seemed pretty second wave leaning. They didn’t allow trans women, and that and a few other things made it very clear that their feminism was not my feminism.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, it sounds like the sort of feminism you saw at your shelter was very much second-wave feminism.

      One other thing I’ll add is that there is a term for what you saw at the women’s shelter: trans exclusionary radical feminism (or TERF).

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Hey Brendan. Great post as always. I wasn’t quite around for the bra-burning “you’ve come a long way babe” type stuff but I agree with you about the waves… If it were a tsunami then it probably wouldn’t be as successful in moving forward. It’s like two steps forward, one back. If the women’s movement over ran the world in one fell swoop there would’ve been Huge backlash. Changing the direction of thinking and actions takes time. And like someone else said. Thanks for saying that feminism is not about hatred of men…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interestingly, what you talk about here was relevant in the minds of the people in involved in what is considered first-wave feminism and second-wave feminism–if I recall correctly, there was an awareness that including, for example, women of color would’ve undermined the whole movement. (And the fact that this has been the case in the past has resulted in the push for intersectional feminism.)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Good explanation of the waves, I didn’t really understand myself. I consider myself a feminist, but never understood the wave thing. I did always assume that the first wave was based around the Suffragettes. I will be damned if people TERFs represent Feminism, lol

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yup, the first wave involved suffrage. As for TERFs, I’m of the mind that a feminism that excludes any women (including transgender women) is not feminism, or at least not the most recent waves of feminism (which, at least in my experiences, do try to include transgender women).

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Very clear and concise. I wish we could get to the point where a woman is a woman not matter color, gender identity, nationality etc. I saw a great quote the other day “We should be glad women want equality not revenge.” Yes, not really to the point but made me laugh. The hating and destroying men feeling I think came partially from men who were being challenged.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That is a great quote. I, too, am glad the desire is for equality instead of revenge.

      You’re probably right that the hating and destroying men feeling probably comes from people who were feeling challenged. People who, to use a quote, are in a situation where: “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”

      Liked by 1 person

    2. That’s an Andrea Dworkin quote I think … one of my all-time feminist heroines. And I agree, the ‘man-hating’ nonsense was definitely spread by those who wanted to discourage other women from getting involved. Given that a majority of women live with men at some point in their lives, have brothers, dads, male friends, and even sons, it seems unlikely that man-hating would be a useful strategic move.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I agree, hatred and polarisation just leads to more hatred and polarisation. But in the same way that I can understand black people hating white supremacists, I understand that many women experience men as violent and abusive. Hatred in those circumstances might not be helpful but it is a rational response to trauma, fear or oppression.


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