The Four Waves of Feminism

Posted on April 14, 2020

Feminism is commonly divided into three central waves, each having its specific characteristics, key figures, and ways of expressing the ideas of the movement. The first movement of feminism was centered around suffrage, the second fought for reproductive rights, and the third wave of feminists focused on women’s rights and gender equality. Even though some people believe that modern feminism belongs to the third wave, a new movement is emerging, and it is called the fourth wave of feminism, that is challenging to characterize and analyze appropriately as of now due to its recent appearance.

Throughout the history of humanity, the question of whether women should have more rights and be treated equally to men has arisen multiple times, yet the first wave of feminism does not refer to the first people who thought about equality thousands of years ago. First-wavers were the women who started the first political movement dedicated to achieving political equality for women – the suffragettes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (“The Woman Suffrage Movement”). The day that marked the commencement of the suffrage movement was the meeting held in Seneca Falls in 1848.Even though it was not the first meeting of this sort, this particular event had the most potent effect on the feminist activity of the time. Thus, the following fifty years saw the activity of suffragettes who educated people about the genuineness of the movement and what could be done to promote it.

The two leaders of the suffrage were Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton; together with other suffragists, they petitioned to provide women with political rights and the ability to vote (“The Woman Suffrage Movement”). With more and more women realizing that the right to vote is inalienable, and it is a crucial factor for making any reforms in the society, the suffrage movement grew to mass action, mainly led by two organizations – the national American Woman Suffrage Association and the National Woman’s Party. While the first organization was a rather moderate one and was mainly encouraging women to speak out as well as enfranchising them, the latter organization took more radical action. The National Woman’s Party organized pickets of the White House to convince the President to pass the woman suffrage amendment. The vital turning point in the history of first-wave feminism was undoubtedly the ratification of the 19th amendment, especially taking into account that is was achieved peacefully. Albeit individual small organizations continued fighting for equality in education and work, the main movement of suffragists started losing its strength and relevance, and it was not until the 1960s that the next wave of feminism emerged.

The firs-wavers were majorly inspired by the abolition movement; the activists of the second wave, on the contrary, were influenced by the civil rights movement and the protests against the Vietnam War. The main concerns of second-wavers were on President Kennedy and Eleanor Roosevelt since they had published a report on women’s position in society, according to which females were to become loyal wives, perfect mothers, and support their nuclear family with a man leading it. Women also suffered from discrimination in the workplace since they could not work in a number of sectors and did not have equal pay. Therefore, the activists of the second wave strove to provide women with equal job opportunities, wages and expanded child-care services. However, it was the time when laws restricted women’s access to contraception, job openings were segregated by sex, and many incidents of race and domestic violence were left without disclosure. Feminists believed that there was no more time to lose, and the movement began to grow. The growth led to the creation of multiple streams with different ideas – liberal, radical, and cultural feminism being the key streams.

Pragmatic change became the goal of liberal feminists who aimed at integrating women into the governmental sector and giving them access to the positions traditionally obtained by men. Reshaping society and restructuring its institutions was the focus of another stream of feminism, a radical one. Those women strove to fight the patriarchy and the stereotypes that women are weak and powerless and, as a result, unable to work in the political sector. Radical feminism of the second wave provided a core for the modern fourth wave. Finally, the cultural feminists differed from the former two streams in their perception of female qualities. They believed that men and women should not be seen as the same; according to cultural feminism, it was essential to praise feminine concern for affective relationship and nurturing preoccupation with others (Lewis n.p.). Thus, these activists were against making women more like men, and they criticized liberal feminists for trying to enter traditionally male spheres, which, according to the cultural stream, denigrated women’s natural qualities.

Even though the second wave of feminism was revolutionary at the time, it did not take into account the needs of women of other races since it was led by middle-class white women whose concerts differed drastically from those of African American women. While white women saw gender inequality as their primary concert, African Americans had to fight both racism and sexism, and it made their struggle much more complicated. Besides, multiple black females did not trust white women and did not see them as sisters; what is more, some feminists believed that white women were as much of oppressors as white men. Consequently, radical feminism started spreading in developing countries, and some people started thinking that feminism had gone too far, and they were quite scared of it.
By the end of the second wave, feminists had been portrayed as angry, aggressive, and man-hating; therefore, when the third wave began its formation, the main goal of the activists was to dispel the myths surrounding feminism. The beginning of this wave is connected to the Anita Hill case in 1991 and the activity of the riot grrrl groups (Grady n.p.). Anita Hill was a woman who testified against her employer, who had sexually harassed her at work. This event led to a series of sexual harassment complaints and inspired thousands of women to share their stories, which they had been afraid of sharing for years. Besides, a national conversation about male leadership began, and twenty-four women won the seats in the House of Representatives as a result. However, the third wave was not merely connected with harassment at work and female representation at a workplace; it was also influenced by the music scene of the 1990s and the groups of riot grrrls fighting against racism, sexism, antisemitism, and other posing issues. The use of the word “girl” instead of “woman” is the main difference between the second and the third waves since second-wavers saw themselves as grown adults who did not want to be called girls. The feminists of the third wave, contrastingly, liked being empowered girls not afraid of expressing themselves and following any aesthetics they wanted. Another reason why third-wavers embraced their girliness was that they tried to confront the anti-feminist ideas of the 1980s, which emerged after the second wave. Mainly, the idea that that all feminists were unfeminine, hairy, brutal, and furious. The grrrls were a complete opposite – they expressed their femininity and fought for equality at the same time; they were focused on breaking the stereotypes about feminism and demonstrating that their looks did not define them.

While some people assume that the third wave of feminism continues to this day, others state that the #MeToo campaign led to the development of a completely different movement – the fourth wave. Indeed, the 21st century does not make it easy to define feminism and its numerous streams, yet the majority of feminists agree that the current state of feminism cannot be characterized as the third wave. A key component of contemporary feminism and the force that drives all the recent protests is undoubtedly social media. It was on Twitter that the movement #MeToo started as a response to the allegations against Harley Weinstein in 2017 (North n.p). Both influential and ordinary women shared their stories on the Internet using the hashtag, and this movement spread across the world, leading to the development of a movement that calls for justice against harassment, assault, and for bodily autonomy. Since news on social media spread incredibly swiftly, it became much more accessible for feminists to share their messages, educate people, and organize marches and protests. Moreover, multiple online platforms are being launched that provide women with new opportunities for expressing their creativity, sharing their stories, and finding support.

Fourth-wavers also advocate for the rights of men and boys, mainly against toxic masculinity and for the ability of males to express their emotions and feelings freely, to escape the social pressure of being tough men who do not cry and should always stay strong. Apart from that, modern feminists support LGBTQ+ and trans community, they are more sex-positive, and they support the movement for body positivity. Indeed, there exists a stream of feminism that does not support trans people and is more radical, and that is why multiple conflicts and misunderstandings arise between liberal and radical feminists; one of the reasons why there are so many conflicting views is because feminism is becoming extremely popular nowadays.

Although the modern wave of feminism has millions of supporters, some individuals accuse it of being fake and too mainstream. There is no doubt that strong modern women are advocating for women’s rights and against violence and discrimination, yet a part of the feminist movement, reportedly, is turning into a brand. Indeed, some young women call themselves feminists without the understanding of its nature, mass-market shops are selling T-shirts and sweatshirts with feminist quotes on them, and every book shop sells at least a couple of feminist books. Feminism reached its peak popularity in the last decade, and a number of people see a threat to the true feminism in it. However, modern millennials are extremely creative, and even though their ways of talking about feminism and spreading its messages may differ for the ones present in the 90s, it does not mean they are not efficient.

Social media, fashion, and other industries should be used to inspire the future generations of feminists to fight with patriarchy, and that is why fourth-wavers should make sure that media listens to what they have to say and, most importantly, hears them. Wearing feminist shirts, reading books about feminism, or drinking from a cup decorated with the word “feminist” will not change the current situation in the world – action will. Whether this action will be connected with wearing a feminist shirt or not is for everyone to decide individually. Modern women have all the means to speak up; therefore, if one has a voice, it is high time to use it and prove that the fourth wave of feminism is not all about posting selfies with the feminist hashtag and not wearing a bra; it is about change, fight for equality, and just rights for people of all genders, races, backgrounds, and sexual orientations (Stride n.p.). There should be no exclusion and no discrimination since feminism is no more about solely men and women; it is about every person who feels oppressed in any way, about everyone deserving equal opportunities and respect.

To conclude, feminism has undergone a lot of change throughout the decades. What started as a fight for the right to vote turned into an international movement for equality and against sexism, racism, and homophobia. All four waves of feminism differed in the scope of their influence, ideas, and key figures; all of them have been criticized, some have been feared and stigmatized. The stereotypes that feminists are man-hating, hairy, and angry exist nowadays, too, yet the modern feminists are dispelling those myths with their actions, and social media plays a huge role in it. Therefore, the 21st century is the time of a completely new and difficult to define wave of feminism, which may differ from the previous waves in the ways of spreading the messages and taking action, yet the goals of the feminists remain the same – they are still fighting against patriarchy and stand for equality and freedom of expression.

Works Cited
Grady, Constance. “The Waves of Feminism, and Why People Keep Fighting over Them, Explained.” Vox, Vox, 20 July 2018,

Lewis, Jone Johnson. “Cultural Feminism: What Is the Essence of Being a Woman?” ThoughtCo, 30 May 2019,

North, Anna. “7 Positive Changes That Have Come from the #MeToo Movement.” Vox, 4 Oct. 2019,

Stride, Alice. “Has Feminism Become All Brand and No Substance?” Stylist, 6 Feb. 2019,

“The Woman Suffrage Movement.” National Women’s History Museum,

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