What Does Feminism Even Mean Anymore?
This election year, we’re seeing record numbers in voter turnout. It’s been reported that it may even be the highest voter turnout since 1908. This year, some will use their vote to fight against political control over people’s bodies (abortion, birth control, etc.). One hundred years ago, the fight was for the right to vote. While the topic at the heart of the movement has morphed over the years, it’s always been about one thing: advocating for women’s rights with the intent of reaching equality between sexes (aka: feminism).
So, how’d we get to where we are today? Well, it happened in waves 🌊
🌊 1848 to 1920
In the Summer of 1848 one of the largest movements in history for women’s rights would begin. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott made their way to a social gathering at Jane Hunt’s home on July 9, 1848. Stanton and Mott had met before. They were two women who had attended the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, where they were asked to sit in a roped off area, and told that they couldn’t speak or vote. They were not happy, to say the least, and when they met again at Hunt’s for tea that day they aired their grievances over the situation. What they found were the other women there had their own grievances around how their rights were being limited because of their gender. This led to the Women’s Rights Convention (aka Seneca Falls Convention) just ten days later. At this convention, a manifesto was delivered and eleven resolutions were presented, 10 of which passed.
Lucretia Mott (left) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (right). Photo: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
The resolution declaring a woman should have the right to vote, the one that did not pass, became the centerpiece of the women’s rights movement during this time. The movement was fueled as Black men were granted the right to vote in 1870.
It wasn’t until 1920 that women would be granted the right to vote—this year we celebrate the 100th anniversary of this decision.
Along with the 19th Amendment, this wave saw the gradual eradication of coverture (the act of taking away many of women’s legal rights once married). This included things like the execution of wills, the ability to sue or be sued, and the control over property, all of which fell into the power of the husband. The evolution away from this happened gradually, with states slowly passing acts that would undo such restrictions. The first was in 1839 in Mississippi, when a law was passed that guaranteed married women the right to receive income from their property and to not be liable for their husband’s debts. By the end of the century, much of the country had passed some version of a Married Women’s Property Act, transforming the status of women and paving the way for progress ahead.
🌊🌊 1963 to 1980
Unlike the first wave of feminism, with the right to vote as its North Star, the second wave didn’t build around a central demand. From protesting the Miss America pageant to the monumental sales of The Feminist Mystique, the 60s and 70s saw feminism focusing on how the constructs of gender within culture and society were impacting them as individuals. While the first wave was built by and for White women, the second brought together women of all races and ethnicities. This made the individual lens of the movement that much more critical, since Black women were still fighting problems that White women were not facing—e.g., forced sterilization.
Women's liberation movement in Washington, DC, August 26, 1970. Photo: Don Carl Steffen/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images
Despite its fragmented nature, the second wave did see a number of big legislative wins.
1963 The Equal Pay Act
One of the first federal anti-discrimination laws to address wage differences based on gender, this Act made it illegal to pay men and women working in the same place different salaries for similar work.
1965 Griswold v. Connecticut
In this Supreme Court case, the Court ruled that the Constitution of the United States protects the liberty of married couples to buy and use contraceptives without government restriction.
1972 Title IX
Part of the Education Amendments of 1972, this federal civil rights law prohibits sex discrimination in any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.
1973 Roe v. Wade
Another Supreme Court Case, this one ruling that the Constitution of the United States protects a pregnant woman's liberty to choose to have an abortion without excessive government restriction.
These wins have had a long-lasting, positive impact on our progress toward equality in this country, even up until today. Another thing that had a long lasting impact? The perception around feminists that developed around this time. It wasn’t great. The country was still pretty conservative at this point in history, so women who spoke up to say they were unhappy with how they were treated or perceived, calling themselves feminists, were construed as bitter. Women themselves turned their backs on feminism, not wanting to be associated with what they felt it had become. In fact, prior to wave three (which we elaborate on below), many young women in the 80s began to distance themselves from the feminist movement.
“I'm a lot less shrill since I'm not a feminist.” A woman told the New York Times in an article from October 17, 1982. “The level of Angst in my life was just so futile. I looked at myself after a while and said, 'Oh, shut up.'’”
🌊🌊🌊1990s to 2010s
Many believe that this distancing from feminism by young women in the 80s led to a very different vibe for the movement’s third wave that began in the early 1990s. With a lot of progress having been made in the first and second wave, it seemed that the social and political inequalities of women had become less of an urgent matter. What seemed to be most urgent during this time was shedding the labels and reputations that the feminist movement had inadvertently taken on.
Feminists were no longer housewives fighting a patriarchal society. There was no longer just one topic that mattered either. Feminists of the third wave didn’t want to be categorized, at all, and the focus became about personal stories and experiences.
On one end, this post structural feminism mindset made it difficult for people to point to what the movement was even about at that time. On the other, it’s also what led to intersections for trans women and non binary people.
And while diversifying the movement is progress in and of itself, there were matters both political and legal happening as well. Most notably, Anita Hill and her sexual harassment claims against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Despite her claims, Thomas went on to become a Supreme Court judge. But it was Hill’s courage to speak out and share her personal story that would encourage women around the country to speak up about their own sexual harassment experiences.
Then of course there was the appointment of Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court in 1993. Ginsburg, who had already built a reputation as a pioneer for women as co-founder of, and eventually general counsel for the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Of her many strategic legal moves to dismantle oppression against women, Ginsburg filed the first federal case against involuntary sterilization on behalf of Nial Ruth Cox, a mother who had undergone forced sterilization in North Carolina as a penalty of her family losing welfare benefits.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg takes the Supreme Court oath from Chief Justice William Rehnquist in August 1993. Photo: CNN
🌊🌊🌊🌊 2012(ish) - Today
You are currently witnessing the fourth wave of feminism. Take that in.
#MeToo, #Girlboss, #IBelieveHer—it certainly looks different from waves of the past, and when it looks and feels different, that’s when you know you’ve entered into a new one. The fourth wave may be best defined by its ability to leverage the power and scale of the digital world. People could now have the support of others around the country, and even the world, when they stood up against injustices they’ve experienced.
When Anita Hill made her claims against Clarence Thomas in the 90s, she likely had to rely on her close circle for support and the press for an understanding of the general sentiment of these events taking place. In 2018, Christine Blasey Ford testified against then Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, and with the power of the Internet, she could see and hear people around the world stating “I Believe Her.”
Christine Blasey Ford is sworn in before testifying against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh in September 2018. Photo: The Atlantic
The birth and growth of the Women’s March also has the Internet to thank. It started immediately after Trump's inauguration and unlike the grass roots gatherings of past waves, you can go to a website and find a calendar of events with dates and times for the next March. This level of communication allows us to avoid a lot of the downfalls of past waves too. For one, you’ll never find yourself wondering, what’s this wave fighting for?
What may be most notable of the fourth wave is the move from defense to offense.
In addition to fighting for rights that are inherently deserved, women are positioning themselves in ways to take back the power, and hopefully to lessen the need for defensive waves in the future. Mantras like Lean In from Sheryl Sandberg and #GirlBoss from Sophia Amoruso serve as a constant reminder to women that they can have power when it comes to the workplace. Record numbers of women have taken leadership positions, received funding, and run for government in the fourth wave. This progress is closely tied to a shift in mentality too: women don’t have to compete to get ahead, they can actually help each other.
As we look back on these four waves of progress, it’s hard not to be humbled by how far we’ve come. But Lord knows that the likes of RBG, Gloria Steinhem, and other feminist legends would not have us slowing down now. So, let’s make our foremothers proud and keep the progress going strong, and if you’re in the United States, get out there and VOTE 🗣️🗣️🗣️