Cover of Life magazine v. 61, no. 1582 (1913 February 20) shows a Susan B. Anthony-like figure in classical dress thrusting an umbrella at a man in a toga. Another woman holds sign reading 'We want our rights' (cover art by Rea Irvin).
Here are the four waves of feminism in a nutshell.
This was women in the western world campaigning to have the same political and legal rights as men, particularly the key right to vote. Though this movement gained its intense momentum in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, its roots go back at least as far as Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1792 manifesto, A Vindication of the Rights of Women. An extreme example of a First Wave feminist act is Britain's Emily Davison throwing herself under the King's horse in 1913, as part of the suffragettes' campaign for the vote.
This was a more culturally broad spectrum of women still fighting for equal rights, including now in countries emerging from colonialism, but also concerned with understanding their personal, sexual and reproductive life in political terms, encapsulated in Carol Hanisch’s slogan ‘the personal is political’. Beginning in the 1960s and still existing today, Second Wave feminists seek to establish what it means, essentially, to be a woman, albeit in all its varied forms. This desire causes tensions amongst Second Wave feminists, particularly in the accusation that white, middle-class women attempt to speak for all women, thereby silencing other female voices. Black lesbian Audre Lorde famously likened such women to white slave owners of the past, having poor and often black women clean their houses while they go off to conferences to speak about women's liberation.
The more extreme wing of Second Wave feminism had a separatist agenda where women sought to live in as complete a separation as possible from men, to the extent of replacing their heterosexual relationships with lesbian relationships. The difficulty of reconciling separatism with the other allegiances women have, for example to their race or class, caused tensions within the movement.
The excavation of a specifically women’s history – the search for traces of this hidden within a dominant male history - is a key part of the Second Wave of feminism. Rewriting the past rewrites the present. Even if we had no knowledge of any history at all, we are, of course, still formed by the past. But by our conscious effort of retrieving the past, we make ourselves doubly formed by it. Hence the need to make sure that what we retrieve - whether by 'we' we refer to women, survivors of colonisation, the American right wing, or any other group - serves and nourishes our present image of ourselves.
From the early 1990s, beginning in the USA, these identity politics of the Second Wave became questioned by academic feminists such as Judith Butler, in the sway of post-structuralism’s insistence that the idea of a stable identity – an essence – is an illusion that we create through language, as is the idea that women, or anyone else, can construct any coherent history within which to place themselves in order to create some reassuring teleology (i.e. a meaningful journey).
While the First and Second Wave sought, and seek, to move women and other excluded groups from the margins to the centre, the Third Wave deconstructs the very concept of centre and margin, regarding this binary opposition as yet another example of us using language to structure, and thereby deny, the fluid chaos of existence. While this has liberating possibilities, the sheer difficulty of post-structuralism and its undermining of absolutes means it's hardly the kind of discourse to spur women to revolutionary action.
Particularly from the late 1990s, there has globally been a return in some quarters to an essentialist concept of women that focuses on their traditional identity as nurturers and as being more connected at a spiritual level to the natural world than men. This is no longer seen as a limiting identity forced on women by men, but as enabling women to take on crucial roles as mediators in healing political strife and in environmental causes. The key concern, then, is not women’s issues per se but the fate of the entire human race and of the other species with which we co-exist. Jane Fonda's environmental activism is an example of this Fourth Wave feminism.
Feminism does not, of course, speak for all women, but feminist thought has had a considerable impact on how women critically engage with the world, including in how they relate to men and their own sexual desire. For some women this has been to persuade them that they must vociferously attack what they see as the damage done by feminism. Their main criticisms are that feminism's insistence that women should put first their needs for fulfillment in all arenas of life has destroyed the stable family unit and undermined sexual morality, with these both wreaking havoc on society. The result is a world where children grow up feral and where women can no longer rely on the protection of male relatives.
These criticisms come particularly from right wing and religious quarters. However, serious tensions are developing in the traditional, albeit often strained, alliance between the left and feminism, where the support by sectors of the Left for anti-imperialist Islamist movements has led to advocating profoundly unfeminist agendas, such as the institution of male-biased Shariah courts, and an unwillingness to condemn 'honour killings' of women who dare to defy their husbands and families.
While dividing feminism into four waves provides a degree of clarity, the reality is that when you have a movement that makes a claim to speak for half the human population, cramming it into a nutshell is always going to be difficult and offer only a partial view.
Judith Butler, Undoing Gender (Routledge, 2004).
Global Feminist Politics: Identities in a Changing World, ed. by Suki Ali et al. (Routledge, 2000) (for more information on Fourth Wave feminism).
The Second Wave Feminist Reader: Feminist Theatrical Writings, ed. by Linda Nicholson (Routledge: 1997)
Third Wave Feminism: A Critical Exploration, ed. by Stacy Gillis et al. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)
Votes for Women: The Virago Book of Suffragettes, ed. by Joyce Marlow, (Virago, 2001)
Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women (Chatto and Windus, 1990).
Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women (Dover Publications, 1996). First published in 1792.