Feminism is very popular right now, which is great news for — well, everyone. With fast fashion selling "GRL PWR" t-shirts and many celebrities becoming outspoken in favor of the feminist cause, we seem to be in the midst of a (very necessary) time of increased discourse around the systems that keep women (and other genders that are not cis men) at a place of disadvantage within our society.
This moment in feminism, while it may seem to have developed over the last couple of years, is actually part of a much larger feminist movement, one that has spanned centuries and has instigated and continually catalyzed the progress in gender equality we see happening today.
What is the feminist movement?
The feminist movement arose in response to the issues women face in the world. From being legally considered property to facing wage disparities that persist today, women have long been held at a lower position than that of men, a fact reflected in our legislation, culture and history of violence. The feminist movement began when women started to question why women had were treated so poorly and how to correct it. The movement is grounded in theory about gender, class and oppression that attempts to explain the complex systems of power that keep women in a subordinate place in society and build our society the way it is in the first place. The origins of the feminist movement fought for women's rights to voting, divorce and career choice. As the movement progressed, different iterations of sexism came to light, so different issues became focal points of the modern feminist movement: sexual freedom, the social construction of gender as a concept, the right to abortion and the long battle against sexual violence, to name a few.
The main purpose of the feminist movement is to create a world in which patriarchy is not the status quo, a world in which humanity precedes gender as criteria for basic rights — and even a world in which gender as we know it doesn't really exist. This means fighting back against the conditions — both glaring and more subtle — that enforce a world that caters to and protects men (white, cis, straight men especially) at the expense of women and other marginalized people. Feminism aims to dismantle patriarchy and neutralize the stacked power inequalities that exist across race, sexuality and gender lines.
What are the four waves of feminism?
The feminist movement is generally separated into waves, movements in history that, with their thinkers and ideas, have shaped its evolution. Currently, feminism (mostly within the US) is divided into the following waves:
• First-wave feminism.
This started with what is considered to be the first feminist text in the United States in 1845, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, written by Margaret Fuller. It appeared in shorter forms and other mediums before its official release as a book and covered topics that are considered feminist to this day, like "how women should enjoy greater spiritual and intellectual freedom, which would allow both women and men to achieve enlightenment." The first wave is otherwise notable for the women's suffrage movement, which fought for (white) women's right to vote.
• Second-wave feminism.
The second wave originated shortly after World War II as a response to the postwar's "re-domestication" of women. Since women assumed many previously-male-dominated roles during the war due to the high U.S. drafting numbers, the return to peace signified a regression in women's roles and occupations, as men returned to the jobs they had left behind. Many women all over the world began to push back and reject the regression of their rights. Prominent thinkers of the second wave included Simone de Beauvoir, who penned the legendary text The Second Sex during the time, widely considered to be a landmark philosophical text of the twentieth century, in general. Its publishing is considered the starting point of second-wave feminism. The second wave is most remembered for the rioting feminists of the 1960s and 70s,who pushed back against beauty standards and workplace discrimination and campaigned for sexual freedom, abortion rights and women's rights outside of being housewives and caregivers. They are infamously known as the bra-burning generation — though the burning of bras was merely tangential in their demonstration against the imposition of oppressive apparel and beauty regimens.
• Third-wave feminism.
In the early 1990s, with the rise of women in political positions and other leadership roles, third-wave feminism was born. Its main focus was cultural shifts, including reproductive rights, race, class, social issues and LGBTQ rights. It was due to strong political moments taking place, like Anita Hill's testimony against Clarence Thomas, that third-wave feminism started to become everything it is known to be today. Another important element of third-wave feminism to keep in mind is its focus on the reclaiming of derogatory terms to describe women, as well as the strides (for the time) taken to incorporate gender-neutral language and redefine gender roles. The third wave (and late second wave) also saw a push back against the whitewashing of the feminist movement and the erasure of black women within both the feminist and Civil Rights movements. With Kimberlé Crenshaw coining the term intersectionality in the 1980s, this wave advocated for a holistic understanding of oppression across multiple intersecting identities and the leadership of black women within the movement.
• Fourth-wave feminism.
This moment in feminism is considered to have begun in 2012. The main characteristics of the moment are its strong pushback against sexism, violence against women, sexual assault and rape culture on college campuses, body shaming and workplace harassment. A really important element of fourth-wave feminism is the attention it devotes to social media, the internet and the newest forms of communication and their collateral damage to women and their rights (sometimes even their safety). A project by Laura Bates, titled Every Day Sexism Project, which focused on documenting day-to-day instances of sexism around the world, was considered the starting point of fourth-wave Feminism.
Who started the feminist movement?
While no one person started the feminist movement, the beginning the movement is commonly traced back to the publishing of Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects in 1792. A groundbreaking work of feminist philosophy at the time, the book challenged the opposition to women's education and the subordinate place of women within and outside of the home. The book argued that women had the right to an education and could transcend their roles as wives to their husbands, with Wollstonecraft articulately attacking the sexual double standards that existed between men and women.
Following Wollstonecraft's text has been a long list of feminist theory and philosophical works that expand on some of the themes and questions inherent to the feminist movement that originally arose during A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Feminist theory is only getting more and more advanced and intricate, as issues of gender and sexuality within our current society and worldview continue to change and adapt, in part as a response to the work of feminism.
The future of the feminist movement.
The feminist movement, currently believed to be in a fourth wave, still has a long way to go toward its goal of a world in which all genders are equal and patriarchy is not the governing system of power. The current focus of the movement has been an intersectional, often anti-capitalist approach to gender rights, with alliances between feminist, LGBTQ+ and anti-racist communities, with many people within these movements belonging to more than one marginalized group and recognizing that all forms of oppression are intertwined. It has also become more post-structuralist, in the sense that feminism now questions the construction of gender as a concept and whether it even exists outside of our perception. Also, increasingly, the feminist movement has incorporated climate activism into its efforts, acknowledging that the harmful effects of the climate crisis will first, and inordinately, affect marginalized identity groups.
The feminist movement will likely always be necessary, not because progress has not and will not be made but also because we are constantly reinterpreting and reexamining our ideas about gender and our understanding of the way patriarchy works within the world. These systems are so deeply ingrained our society that we are hardly living in a post-feminist world, and until we have a world that isn't organized hierarchically into gender — with almost every aspect of society influenced in some way by gender and its consequences — the feminist movement will continue on.