Are “Waves” Still Valid For Feminism?

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I’ve decided that the “wave” construct for periods of feminism is flawed, at least in the way it has been used starting in the 1980s.  We are no longer experiencing waves but ripples. First and Second Wave feminism made big splashes when they occurred, mainly because they appeared after periods of perceived dormancy. I say “perceived” because there have always been women and men who have been concerned about women’s rights, dating back to times of antiquity. But the so-called Third Wave has merely reacted to the platforms of previous Waves, throwing out concerns no longer seen as valid, without constructing any new ones to take their place.

The First Wave lasted from approximately 1848-1920. But there was a big difference between the concerns of those who started the First Wave and those who finished it. The original First Wavers wanted women to have the right to hold property, to enter into contracts, and to have custody of their children, among other things.  They were not overly concerned with theorizing about what caused the sexual imbalance in society. Some of them didn’t even acknowledge the imbalance, but held to the belief that women were better suited to the home front. At the end of the First Wave it was all about suffrage. When women finally got the vote in 1920, feminism as a movement died down.

It resurfaced in the ’60s with demands for equal pay, sexual freedom, access to birth control and abortion, etc.  But for all its disruption of society, the Second Wave was a largely cerebral movement. Theories were developed about why women were discriminated against in society. A natural outgrowth of the Second Wave was the establishment of women’s studies programs. Institutions like the patriarchy, marriage, motherhood and heterosexual relationships were criticized and deconstructed.

There were forty years between the First and Second Waves. There were only approximately ten to twenty years between the Second and what has been labeled the Third Wave. That’s one reason why I don’t think it is accurate to call the late ’80s and early ’90s as the start of a Third Wave. Rather than being substantially different from the Second Wave, the so-called Third Wave has been more of a reaction to and continuation of the Second Wave.

Those who supposedly started off the Third Wave, like Naomi Wolf and Susan Faludi, were really describing society’s response to Second Wave feminism. There is a difference between the concerns of feminists in the ’60s and ’70s and those of today, but I see it more as a generational difference than a true re-working of the feminist platform.

Now there is even talk of a Fourth Wave. It has also been called millennial feminism. This might be more accurate. There is definitely a different attitude on the part of those who identify with the 21st century as opposed to those who lived most of their lives in the 20th. There may not even be a Fourth Wave, at least not anytime soon. A Fourth Wave, even a Third Wave, to me, would have to make a substantial disruption of society to qualify as a Wave. The feminism of today is institutionalized (in academia, for instance), not revolutionary. It is more concerned with working within the system than with overthrowing it.

Women’s rights are taken for granted in today’s climate, but there are still feminists who are trying to spread the message that women are not yet on a completely equal footing with men. These feminists are often written off as malcontents because so many people think that women have won true equality. Feminists today have to find some way to break through this complacency. They need to broaden their horizons as well as deepen the discourse.

I’m not saying that today’s feminists aren’t trying to do just that. There are many types of feminism these days: eco-feminism, radical feminism, pro-sex feminism, to name a few. There is also a renewed interest in taking feminist concerns beyond the boundaries of our society, for a kind of global or multicultural feminism. But so far there is no one consistent message or voice to rally around. That is what I believe is preventing a resurgence, or next Wave,  of the feminist movement.

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Ellen Keim

Ellen is a freelance writer, essayist and copy editor, living with three cats and a husband in Columbus, OH.

One thought on “Are “Waves” Still Valid For Feminism?”

  1. Interesting post, I hadn’t really thought about the waves in that way before. I suppose that ascertaining whether we’ve moved into another wave is dependent on what criteria we’re using to define it — is it disruption to society, as you say, or is it more just the way we frame feminist issues within our existing patriarchal culture?

    Good food for thought.

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