Women’s History Month has been celebrated in some capacity, whether in schools, by the US Government, or just in households across the country, every March since the early 1970s. Each year, this celebration seeks to highlight women throughout history who have accomplished great feats, impacted history or modern society, or fought for the rights of themselves or others. This year for Women’s History Month, I want to share some history and resources specifically related to the fight for women’s rights.
Most of the time when we talk about the history of women’s rights and the fight for equality, we talk about it in terms of waves, with the first wave being the early 1900s, and the third or fourth wave being present day feminism. And while terms like Third-Wave Feminism are quite commonly found on social media and books with a political or social commentary focus, not everyone knows what these waves are, who the predominant feminists of their time were, what legacy they had, or even what wave we are currently in. That’s why today, I want to break down a summary of each wave, as well as provide some suggestions for where to learn more.
First Wave Feminism
Even though women have been fighting unjust treatment for far longer than the last two centuries, what we now call First Wave Feminism is largely considered to have begun in the mid 1800s, with the first Women’s Rights Convention in New York in 1848. Between two and three hundred people met to discuss women’s rights, and outlined a document with twelve resolutions that they were going to fight for, including things like access to education and jobs, as well as most famously, the right to vote. In the next few decades, more conventions happened across the country, with now famous suffragists such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but also Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Frances E.W. Harper, and many others spearheading the events. But despite the relative diversity in speakers at these conventions, Black feminists and abolitionists were almost always treated as second class to white leaders, and this grew worse over time within the movement. In 1870, Black men won the right to vote, and many white women took it as a personal insult to see Black men receive recognition under the law before them. This group of angry white women flocked to the suffragist movement, increasing the push for the right for women to vote, while also shutting Black women out even further. The movement met their goal in 1920 with the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote, and although some smaller conventions and the push for equality continued, there was a lack of direction on where to go next, and the mass support for women’s rights splintered and fizzled out. For more information about the history, goals, and people involved with first wave feminism, check out this list.
Second Wave Feminism
Organized women’s rights movements settled down for a few decades, but began picking up steam again in the early 1960s, when the second wave hit. In 1963, an author named Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, which explained in a very approachable way how (mostly white) women were facing unjust, systemic mistreatment by being relegated to the roles of mother, wife, and homemaker. Friedan wasn’t the first to acknowledge this injustice, but her book popularized the idea, selling over three million copies in just three years. This book gave these women permission to be angry and share this anger with other white women, and demand rights like equality in jobs access and pay, the right to their own finances, reproductive freedom, and more. Nonwhite women were also fighting for equality, but unlike in the first wave where they had similar goals but were ignored or shunned, in this case many Black women and other women of color were fighting for the right to not have to work, fighting against forced sterilization and for the right to have children, and other goals that were not in line with the larger movement led by white women.
While Black women’s battles had mixed success, with some smaller scale wins like individual states outlawing forced sterilization, white women had greater success. Many legal battles were won, with Title IX granting the right to equal access to education, the Equal Pay Act of 1963 outlawing wage discrimination, and court cases of the 1970s like Roe v. Wade allowing for the right to an abortion and birth control. And while these legal battles were being fought, second wave feminists were simultaneously fighting a battle over gender presentation, seeking to be seen less as docile, subservient girls, and more as equal, capable women, protesting things like the Miss America Pageant and other examples of what they saw as objectification of women. This second battle was less successful, and with the ushering in of Reagan era conservatism in the early 1980s, the media and general public shifted to viewing feminists as humorless, unwomanly, man-hating types. This stereotype led to many women distancing themselves from the feminist movement for fear of being judged, in large part leading to the end of the second wave. If you’d like to learn more about the different work that activists fought for within the second wave of feminism, check out this list.
Third Wave Feminism
Third wave feminism has a less clearly defined end date than previous waves, but the start date is generally accepted as 1991, during the televised Anita Hill trial. Rebecca Walker (Alice Walker’s daughter) famously called herself a third wave feminist in a magazine interview after watching the mistreatment Hill faced due to her gender as well as her race, which spurred thousands of others to adopt this term for themselves. Women of this era took inspiration from scholars like Judith Butler and Kimberle Crenshaw, who focused on how women’s identities and persecution intersected with race, ability, gender presentation, and more. But women were also rebelling against their predecessors from the second wave, who seemed to want to downplay their femininity to be taken seriously. Instead, Third Wave Feminists wanted to be taken seriously because of, not in spite of, their femininity. Where second wave women shunned traditionally feminine clothing, colors, and activities, third wave women fought for equal rights while wearing makeup, dresses, and flaunting their sexuality. The rise of Riot Grrls music grew as a reflection of this social change, with a feminine style and lyrical focus on bringing attention to sexual harassment, rape, and encouraging girls to stand up for themselves and live the life they choose. While 1992 was named “The Year of the Woman,” by media outlets when twenty-seven women won seats in Congress, the third wave was largely a social movement related to the way society saw women and femininity itself, rather than a legal battle. To learn more about third wave feminism, check out this list.
Fourth Wave Feminism
This wave is possibly the most controversial, simply because scholars’ debate when it started, what it entails, and if we are even in a fourth wave, or just a continuation of the third. That being said, many believe we are now in a new wave that is distinctly separate from the third, in large part because of the rise of social media in the late 2000s to early 2010s. While the goals of the fourth wave are similar to its predecessor, with the focus being on examining the intersections of different identities and creating more equality for women, particularly against sexual harassment, rape, and other crimes committed against women by men in positions of power, the execution was distinctly different. Social media has allowed discourse to move to Twitter, Facebook, and TikTok, where trends like #MeToo have empowered women to come forward with personal stories and support others. These viral discussions of systemic sexism have brought in more people in small and large ways across the country and the world, and enlisted large groups of people online to push for change, whether through discussion of their own firsthand experiences, sharing trending hashtags like #MeToo and the Times Up campaign, or mass boycotting a business or organization to force a change in policy, employment, or otherwise. While it’s hard to pinpoint an exact start date, it’s clear that modern day women’s rights activists are taking to social media to educate, organize, and further their message. For more information about modern and potential future paths of feminism, check out this list.
This year and every year for Women’s History Month, it’s important to learn about the history of the women who helped shape the world we live in today. While different waves of feminism haven’t always agreed with each other’s tactics and goals, each wave has created change and set the stage for further pushes for equality down the line. I hope you’ll join me in celebrating Women’s History Month this March by learning about the historical and present-day women doing the challenging work to make our world a bit more equal.