It is important to note that this article while referencing “feminism”, is strictly speaking of modern western feminism. Additionally, it is integral to remember that many of the feminist milestones were obtained first by white women; women of colour were often granted the same rights but much later (sometimes decades), as they had to fight on two battlefronts: racism and sexism.
Feminism is a collective of ideologies that promotes the equality of the sexes and spans spheres such as the social, political, and economic realms of our society. Simply put, it works to bring the sexes onto a more even playing field; the majority of its work strives to bring women on par with their male counterparts. Some of the accomplishments of feminism for women in recent history were obtaining the legal right to vote, owning property, the ability to receive higher education, hold public office, and much more.
While modern feminism began in the latter half of the 19th century, the advocation for the equality of the sexes has been ongoing for centuries. Mary Wollstonecraft, an English writer and philosopher, is considered to be the fore-mother of modern feminism. In the late 18th century, Wollstonecraft, inspired by French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman where she “advocated the enlightened social and moral equality of the sexes”. Where Rousseau argued for equality among men, Wollstonecraft expands his philosophy to include equality among men and women. She argued that women were not naturally inferior to men (as was believed at the time), but appeared so because they lacked education. This theme runs throughout the entirety of the history of feminism.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, the first wave of feminism was marked by the significant women’s suffrage movement. Women in the west were inconsistently allowed to vote and their wants and needs within the legal system were not being met, so movements struck up around the world petitioning in various ways for federal governments to recognize a women’s right and grant them suffrage. The Pitcairn Islands granted women’s suffrage, as the first province in the world to do so, in 1838, however larger colonies such as New Zealand and Australia did not admit the same grants until the 1890s. In Britain, the Representation of the People Act was passed in 1918; this Act granted women over the age of 30 who owned property the right to vote. While this was still incredibly agisted, classist and sexist, the door to women’s suffrage was no longer sealed tight. In 1928, the Act was reframed and extended to include all women over 21 on an equal basis to men.
Second-wave feminism began in the mid 20th century, and while the first-wave focused mainly on women’s suffrage and hurdling legal obstacles related to gender inequality, the second movement “broadened the debate” to include discrepancies related to gender in the workplace, reproductive rights, and sexuality. It was during this second-wave that the United States Supreme Court made the landmark decision in Roe v. Wade, the oral contraceptive pill was approved, and in various countries, the demand for equal pay for equal work began to surmount. As well, the liberation/hippie movement correlates to the timeframe of second-wave feminism – it was during this era, which follows the baby boom and nuclear family template, that women fought to further their rights and be able to express themselves not through the male gaze.
The initial wave of feminism lasted several decades, but the second wave was shorter, lasting until third-wave feminism took over in the 1990s. During this wave, feminism “embraced individualism and diversity”. This wave also paid more attention to intersectionalism – a “framework for understanding how aspects of a person’s social and political identities combine to create different modes of discrimination and privilege”. This new lens expanded the boundaries of feminism, discovering where -isms such as racism, ageism, environmentalism, etc. interconnected with feminism.
Currently, we are in the fourth wave of feminism. Most academics agree that fourth-wave feminism emerged in the 2010s and follows a predominant theme of empowerment of women. While there are still a lot of demands from previous waves that have not been met, such as equal pay for equal work, the fourth waves’ emphasis on women empowerment seems to be attacking the problem in a different manner. Targeting gendered norms and marginalisation of women, the fourth wave is utilising social media and the internet to connect women in a way that has not yet been done; creating and promoting a united front. An example of this is the #MeToo movement that took the world by storm. What started as a simple hashtag shared on social media has grown into a movement of women who have banded together under a shared experience and presented a united front against sexual harassment and holding harassers accountable, no matter their social standing.
This fourth wave will not be the last, only the latest. The feminist movement will keep growing and changing over time, as it has done since the 19th century until its aims of gender equality are achieved. Each wave has brought about monumental milestones for women in history, and continues to complete and seek out goals to fulfil true equality among humanity.