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Feminism has changed the living world. These days, many of us could not imagine living in a world like The Handmaid’s Tale. Not too long ago, though, that was what reality was like for the lady folk in the world.

Part of being a good feminist is learning our roots and how much we have already achieved. The timeline of the feminist movement in America will show the progress and the events that led to it.

“The term feminism describes political, cultural, and economic movements that aim to establish equal rights and legal protections for women.”

Over time, feminist activists have campaigned for various issues. These include women’s legal rights regarding 

  • Contracts, property, voting 
  • Body integrity and autonomy 
  • Abortion and reproductive rights (contraception and prenatal care) 
  • Protection from domestic violence, sexual harassment, and rape 
  • Workplace rights (maternity leave and equal pay)

And against all forms of discrimination women encounter.

Feminist history: The four waves 

The first wave, occurring in the 19th and early 20th centuries, was mainly concerned with women’s right to vote.

The second wave peaked in the 1960s and 1970s. It refers to the women’s liberation movement for equal legal and social rights. 

The third wave, beginning in the 1990s to 2000, refers to a continuation of, and a reaction to, second-wave feminism. 

The Fourth Wave Feminism is still in its fledgling state from 2000. This movement is overwhelmingly accepting of LGBTQ issues. It eschews the idea of keeping things to two genders when discussing equal rights.

First Wave of Feminism 

The first wave of feminism took place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It emerged out of an environment of urban industrialism and liberal, socialist politics. The goal of this wave was to open up opportunities for women. The wave formally began at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. Three hundred men and women rallied to the cause of equality for women. 

Feminist activism was focused primarily on the right to vote. Elizabeth Cady Stanton (d.1902) drafted the Seneca Falls Declaration outlining the new movement’s ideology and political strategies. American first-wave feminism ended with the passage of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1919, granting women’s voting rights. 

Second Wave of Feminism 

Second-wave feminism of the 1960s-1980s focused on issues of equality and discrimination. The second-wave slogan, “The Personal is Political,” identified women’s cultural and political inequalities as inextricably linked. It encouraged women to understand the sexist power structures that reflected in their personal lives. Betty Friedan was a pivotal player in second-wave feminism.

This phase began with protests against the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City in 1968 and 1969. Feminists parodied what they held to be a degrading ‘cattle parade’. It reduced women to objects of beauty dominated by a patriarchy that sought to keep them in the home or dull, low-paying jobs. The radical New York group called the Redstockings staged a counter pageant in which they crowned a sheep as Miss America. They threw oppressive feminine artifacts. 

Feminists reacted by forming women-only organizations and ‘consciousness-raising’ groups. In publications like ‘The BITCH Manifesto’ and ‘Sisterhood is Powerful’, feminists advocated for their place in the sun.

Third Wave of Feminism

The third wave of feminism, informed by post-colonial and post-modern thinking, began in the mid-90s. This ideology seeks to challenge the definitions of femininity that grew out of ideas in the second wave. Arguments stated that the second-wave over-emphasized experiences of upper-middle-class white women. 

Some of the issues that Third Wave Feminism tackled or helped tackle included:

  1. LGBTQ Rights: This was the time when people began to normalize non-cis, non-het relationships. If you have a loved one, granted the right to marry, a friend who now has an equal opportunity at the workplace, it is the wave of feminism to thank.
  2. Environmentalism: Eco-feminism is about the time when women realized it was up to them to save the Earth from turning into a Love Canal.
  3. Body: Women started getting in touch with their natural selves and embracing their natural body issues. Body positivity and calling out the entertainment industry for double standards became the norm.
  4. Fat: Calling out thin privilege en masse is also a prevalent marker of Third Wave Feminism.
  5. Sex: On every timeline of the feminist movement, third-wave feminism receives credits for being the first group to openly call out the double standards of men being ‘studs’ and women being ‘sluts’.
  6. Brain + Beauty: Along with critiquing society’s stigma towards women who did not fit beauty norms, many third-wave feminists also emphasized that ladies can have both brains and beauty.

Most third-wavers refuse to identify as ‘feminists’. They reject the word that they find limiting and exclusionary. 

Fourth Wave of Feminism 

The fourth wave of feminism is still a captivating silhouette. A writer for Elle Magazine recently interviewed about the waves of feminism and asked if the second and third waves may have failed or dialed down. It is because the social and economic gains had sparkle, little substance, and whether at some point women substituted equal rights for career and the atomic self.

It is a body-positive movement that is also about sex-positivity. Trans people are welcome, but misandrists are not. More importantly, the fourth wave of feminism seems to be mostly an online discourse.

As of right now, there seems to be a divide on several issues in the Fourth Wave Feminist movement, most commonly, abortion. 

Feminism no longer refers to the struggles of women. It is a clarion call for gender equity. At this point, we are still not sure how feminism will mutate. Will the fourth wave fully materialize? If yes, so in what direction? There have been many feminists in the movement, not just one ideology. There have been tensions, points, and counterpoints. The political, social, and intellectual feminist advances have always been chaotic and multivalent. Let us all hope they continue on the agenda.

“It is a sign that they are thriving.”

– Amruth Kumar N N 


Published by Utkarshini Journal

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