Feminism and its many waves


Women’s rights slogan (pixabay/B0red)

Ayelet Bernstein

Though the controversiality of feminism, and the growing divide between its many branches, is undeniable, feminism, for all its flaws, is the backbone of progression in our society. When searching “Feminism” on “Google search,” the automatic Oxford English Dictionary Definition that appears simplifies the concept into “The advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes,” but delving in deeper, you discover that this is merely one of the many definitions surrounding the popularized term. The Merriam Webster dictionary, for instance, breaks down the definition into two, very telling, distinctive parts: “ the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes” and “organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests.” This breakdown gives us a little more perspective.

What pops into your head when you hear the word feminism? For some, it is the fight “to abolish patriarchy by challenging existing social norms and institutions, rather than through a purely political process.” This, in reality, is merely the definition of “radical feminism,” a one-sided take on a multifaceted ideology. Feminism comes in waves brought about by social and economic changes and societal progression (or lack thereof). This movement has developed over time, and has developed many branches as it has moved from history to the present.  

The first wave of feminism began in the fight for women’s suffrage. Women had little to no access to education, property rights, voting rights, or economic autonomy. This movement, beginning in the 19th century, was started with a specific goal; the acquiring and mandating of women’s rights. The movement had a particular focus on voting rights for women. After the establishment of the 19th amendment, ratified in 1920, the movement was disbanded and replaced by organizations such as “The League of Women Voters and National Women’s Party.”

The second wave came at the precipice of war.“The Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement as well as older women’s dissatisfaction with domestic restrictions and workplace discrimination” caused an uproar of rioting protesters, rallying against unfair treatment of minorities and gender inequality. Unlike the first-wave suffragettes, “the movement during the 1970s (the second wave) benefitted from the involvement of far more organizations, encompassing a broad spectrum of political beliefs and ideologies.”

Feminism has encompassed many social and political activist interest groups in its ultimate fight for equality, but its ultimate focus, at the moment, has been women and their rights. “The third wave was made possible by the greater economic and professional power and status achieved by women of the second wave.” This opened up opportunities for “third-wavers” to focus on gender identity, sexuality, intersectionality and other more modernly political agendas. Third wave sub-movements such as transfeminism, postmodern feminism and intersectional feminism, are some of the many new facets of modern feminism. Transfeminism and many other sub-movements “move away from viewing sexism as an overly simplistic, unilateral form of oppression, where men are the oppressors and women are the oppressed, end of story.” These movements cite the many forms of sexism that occur in our society, such as heterosexism (where heterosexual people are viewed as more legitimate than homosexual people), monosexism (where people who are exclusively attracted to members of a single sex are viewed as more legitimate than bisexual [people] or pansexual [people])… and so on.” Using the overarching term “sexism” makes assumptions about people’s lives that are not ours to make. Under that same umbrella, intersectionality focuses on the intricacies of gender statistics based on race and religion rather than solely gender.

For instance, the “78 cents to a man’s dollar”, which seems to be the popular statistic to quote, is not entirely accurate. When looking at said statistic through an intersectional lense, you see that it only applies to White women in America. Asian American women make 90 cents to a dollar, while Hispanic and Latina women only make 54. The break down below helps map out the importance of a broad intersectional lense when making certain claims.

These new sub-movements and many others are slowly changing the definition of being a feminist, and yet many people cite radical feminism as the only form in existence. Being a feminist does not mean you hate men and it also does not make you a women; it makes you a believer in the equality of all genders with regard to race, religion and sexuality. In other words, it makes you a humanist.

UPDATED 11/22/17 for punctuation and capitalization.