Feminism’s ‘Four Waves’

By | November 2, 2017

Many feminists of my vintage are bewildered at the number of times wheels are being reinvented.

I have never referred to myself as a ‘feminist’, but rather as pro-feminist, which strikes me as preferable nomenclature for a male commentator. Yet I certainly have views, and I resent ‘tweets’ that would deny a legitimate voice on issues of gender to (white, ageing, middle-class) men like me. So this blog surveys and responds to feminism’s principal ‘waves’.

It has become commonplace to discern three, or more polemically four, waves of feminism, each associated with a distinctive theoretical orientation. While this modern, western division into waves ‘overlooks’ those pre-modern, non-western women’s movements that are being painstakingly resurrected by feminist historians, it provides a useful frame. Definitions and characterizations are nevertheless hard to come by. The first wave is typically linked to the late nineteenth century/early twentieth century fight for equal opportunities in general and suffrage in particular. One ‘herstory’ celebrates its birth at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 and Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s subsequent declaration culminating in a political strategy for change. Britain was not in the vanguard of progressive change: the vote for women aged 21 or more was won only in 1928 (15 years after Emily Davison’s death at Epsom’s Derby). This and other pioneering engagements by women necessarily required a ‘liberal’ re-examination of the differences between men and women.

The second wave was more explicitly theoretical. Emerging around the 1960s, it was the sister of a plethora of other minority, anti-Vietnam and civil rights movements. Equality of rights was its signature. Its theories reflected a fusion of neo-Marxism and psychoanalysis. The subjugation of women was associated with wide-ranging critiques of patriarchy, capitalism, normative heterosexuality and women’s roles and scripts as wives and mothers. Sex and gender were clearly differentiated, the former being biological and the latter a social construct variable by time and place. While the first wave was largely championed by middle-class, white and cisgender (‘cis’ being a neologism referring to those whose gender and sexual identities map clearly onto one another), protagonists of the second wave drew in women of colour and from developing nations in pursuit of sisterhood and solidarity. Many proclaimed that ‘the personal is political’ and that gender, ethnic and class oppression are interrelated. Others insisted on women-only spaces and argued that women were more humane, collaborative, inclusive and holistic in problem-solving than their male counterparts.

Feminism’s third wave had its origins in the mid-1990s and was informed by post-colonial and postmodern thinking. The general effect was to destabilize many constructs that had been taking for granted. Concepts like ‘universal womanhood’, ‘body’, ‘gender’, ‘sexuality’ and ‘heteronormativity’ were interrogated and rendered suspect. ‘Grrls’, ‘cybergrrls’ and ‘netgrrls’ eschewed victimization and took over feminine beauty for themselves as subjects, not as objects, of a sexist patriarchy. Sexist culture was subverted via terms like ‘slut’ and ‘bitch’. The third wave was characterized by irony. Ambiguity was celebrated: gender boundaries could be crossed, most notably in cyberspace. Grrl feminism became global, multicultural and post-categorization. Difference was positively cast and reality framed as performance and contingency. In many respects feminism’s third wave belonged ‘in the academy’.

The parameters of a putative, or embryonic, fourth wave are less transparent. It is represented mostly by the activities of young feminists outside of the academy at once rediscovering and refashioning earlier theories and aspirations. Solidary initiatives against sexual abuse, rape, violence against women, unequal pay, slut-shaming, conformance to body-type and lack of representation in government and boardrooms have become mainstream cultural issues. The fourth wave can perhaps best be defined via the notion of ‘intersectionality’, pioneered by women of colour. This recognizes that women’s suppression can only be adequately understood in the context of the ‘marginalization of others’. The oppression of women and sexism co-exist with classism, racism, ageism, able-ism and so on. Inclusion is prioritized. Past feminisms are not merely reincarnated; rather, fourth wave feminism is invested afresh in the millennials.

I have a few straightforward observations. First, several babies have over time disappeared with the bathwater. In other words, the shift from one to its succeeding wave has often resulted in omissions as well as commissions. Contemporary proponents of the fourth wave, for example, seem now to be ‘rediscovering’ and ‘appending’ the equality and redistribution agendas of first-wavers. Second, each of the four waves has undoubtedly introduced, deepened and informed understandings of and activism against patriarchal hierarchies, cultures, institutions and practices. Third, for all the complexity and multiplicity of phenomena accumulated over time and alluded to in my annotated representation of the four waves, there is a continuing need to synthesize and update feminist narratives for transformation and change in the ‘here and now’. And finally, in my view, there needs to be a rethink around ‘triggers for change’. On social media I sometimes encounter simplistic and divisive (‘you’re with us or against us’) binaries on the part of feminist activists that are issue-specific and, ironically, of a kind formerly transcended and denounced. Effective resistance requires solidarity and alliance-building.

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