The Three Waves of Feminism

The term feminism describes political, cultural, and economic movements that aim to establish equal rights and legal protections for women. Over time, feminist activists have campaigned for issues such as women’s legal rights, especially in regard to contracts, property, and voting; body integrity and autonomy; abortion and reproductive rights, including contraception and prenatal care; protection from domestic violence, sexual harassment, and rape; workplace rights, including maternity leave and equal pay; and against all forms of discrimination women encounter.

Feminist history can be divided into three waves. The first wave, occurring in the 19th and early 20th century, was mainly concerned with women’s right to vote. The second wave, at its height in the 1960s and 1970s, refers to the women’s liberation movement for equal legal and social rightsThe third wave, beginning in the 1990s, refers to a continuation of, and a reaction to, second-wave feminism.

First-wave feminism promoted equal contract and property rights for women, opposing ownership of married women by their husbands. By the late 19th century, feminist activism was primarily focused on the right to vote. American first-wave feminism ended with passage of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1919, granting women voting rights.

Second-wave feminism of the 1960s-1980s focused on issues of equality and discrimination. The second-wave slogan, “The Personal is Political,” identified women’s cultural and political inequalities as inextricably linked and encouraged women to understand how their personal lives reflected sexist power structures. Betty Friedan was a key player in second-wave feminism. In 1963, her book The Feminine Mystique criticized the idea that women could find fulfillment only through childrearing and homemaking. According to Friedan’s New York Times obituary, her book “ignited the contemporary women’s movement in 1963 and as a result permanently transformed the social fabric of the United States and countries around the world” and “is widely regarded as one of the most influential nonfiction books of the 20th century.” Friedan hypothesizes that women are victims of false beliefs requiring them to find identity in their lives through husbands and children. This causes women to lose their own identities in that of their family.

Third-wave feminism began in the early 1990s, responding to perceived failures of the second wave and to the backlash against second-wave initiatives. This ideology seeks to challenge the definitions of femininity that grew out of the ideas of the second-wave, arguing that the second-wave over-emphasized experiences of upper middle-class white women. The third-wave sees women’s lives as intersectional, demonstrating how race, ethnicity, class, religion, gender, and nationality are all significant factors when discussing feminism. It examines issues related to women’s lives on an international basis.