The History of the Feminism Movement

HomeEssaysHistory and PoliticsThe History of the Feminism Movement

The word feminism has been synonymous with advocacy for women’s rights, with support from both genders to achieve equality. During more than a century of its existence, the movement has metamorphosed, entrenching itself toward defining women’s roles in the social, economic, and political arena. The primary goal of feminism throughout this time has been the achievement of equality for both sexes through the establishment of ideologies that create equal opportunities. However, various feminist groups use different approaches in response to changing trends, times, and awareness to meet their goals. These approaches are known as waves, so there were four crucial periods when feminists tried to achieve equality through their movements around the world. The theory and history behind the four waves of feminism must be explored since all of them had experienced setbacks, while their outcomes might help project how modern and post-modern feminist movements will continue to fight for women’s rights.

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The Theory and History of the Four Waves of Feminism

In general, feminism developed in four waves at different periods of time. Feminism refers to a movement that aims at ending oppression, sexism, oppression, and sexist exploitation of women (Hooks, 2014). Thus, the first wave of this movement focused primarily on overcoming legal gender-based inequality and suffrage. The origins of this movement could be traced back to Mary Wollstonecraft through her work Vindications of the Rights of Women since she was the first among many other writers whose work would define the new age of feminist activism in Great Britain (Wrye, 2009). By the 1850s, a dire need emerged for women’s issues to be addressed. A census of 1851 showed that 30% of women were unmarried, and due to society’s attitude towards work, such women were more likely to face economic hardships (DeFonza, n.d.). In the USA, the Seneca Falls convention in 1848 heralded the start of the feministic movement. At the time, such activists as Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Stanton spearheaded the fight for the right of women to vote.

The second-wave feminism aimed at expanded the issues, which had been addressed in the first wave, by discussing sexuality, workplace, family, official legal inequalities, de facto inequalities, and reproductive rights. The campaign brought to the surface various issues related to marital rape, women’s shelter, domestic violence, and rape-crisis centers (Davis, 2017). The second-wave movement era started in the 1940s and ended in the early 1980s. Despite its slow start, the movement gained momentum, and by the late 1960s, there emerged a distinct campaign that bundled feminists’ ideologies strategically and philosophically. Nevertheless, the goals of white feminists were different from those of people of color, namely welfare rights and liberation (Valk, 2008). Arguably, these differences led to a schism in ideals between black and white feminists as well as Third World feminist movements. These divergent views enabled the campaign to evolve in the 1960s and 1970s, with multiple ideas, people, and issues incorporating themselves into the holistic broader agenda of female liberation (Valk, 2008). Eventually, these groups formed an all-inclusive feminist movement that advocated change in society through either liberal or radical means.

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The third wave of feminism began in the mid-1990s with the goal to continue the unfinished work of the second wave and redefine what it meant to be a feminist (Evans, 2015). The starting point of this movement was the ‘riot grrrl’ in Olympia, Washington; arguably, this term was coined by Rebecca Walker’s in response to Thomas’s appointment in Supreme Court. At this time, the word ‘intersectionality’ came in use to describe how power structures impacted the less able in society (Cooper, 2016). Other notions that could be attributed to this era included vegetarian ecofeminism, postmodern feminism, sex positivity, and transfeminism.

Currently, feminism is in its fourth wave. Around 2012, the movement resurged, but this time, social media began playing an important role in the fight for women’s rights (Chamberlain, 2017). By 2005, journalist Pythia Peay advocated a fourth wave movement that would be focused on civil rights and social justice. Since then, such organizations and events as UK Feminista, One Billion Rising, Everyday Sexism Project, and #MeToo movements have tried to address their agendas. A British feminist writer Laura Bates introduced Everyday Sexism Project, an online forum that was aimed at women who would post their everyday experiences of harassment (Aitkenhead, 2014). The focal point of the fourth-wave feminism includes campus sexual assault, workplace harassment, and rape culture.

How the Four Waves Shaped up Women’s Rights

In tracing the psychoanalytic perspective of the four waves of feminism, one might see a defined timeline encompassing an established line of thought and strategy that had helped in shaping the rights of women. The success of these waves was achieved gradually, with feminists dealing with the problems of their times and lobbying for solutions. The first wave of feminism in the early 20th century succeeded in achieving women’s right to vote; arguably, a lobby group succeeded in driving this change. The second wave focused mainly on the sociopolitical-cultural aspect of feminism evolution, specifically raising awareness on women’s liberation and gender issues. The third wave achieved considerable success in convincing women that they could combine sex, career, and motherhood without the need to sacrifice anything. Finally, the fourth wave focused on spiritual concerns of the world and all people by dealing with the issues of environment (Wrye, 2009). Therefore, all four waves of feminism have contributed to shaping the rights of women as they are today.

The Outcomes of Feminism Through the Years

In the first wave, some US states passed reforms that would allow women to vote. For example, Wyoming and Utah moved the motion to make women’s voting right into a law in 1869 and 1870 respectively, but the majority of the states waited until 1920, when the 19th Amendment became a part of the constitution, thus prohibiting gender-based voting and restrictions by the government (DeFonza, n.d.). Traditionally, women worked only in the areas that society perceived appropriate for them such as teaching, nursing, philanthropy, and working in school boards (DeFonza, n.d.). The first wave of feminism opened for them clerical work in the government and medicine. The second-wave movement partly achieved equal education, pay, and education, free contraceptives, 24-hour nurseries, and abortion on demand. The third wave used the issues raised by the second one, and through, considerable success was achieved in gaining equal access to public education, discussion on women’s abuse and rape, child-care services, women studies programs, funding for young women, and so on. Moreover, feminists of color were included into the broader movement as the intersection of gender and race gained more prominence. Finally, the era of social media helped propel the movement to new heights in its fourth wave. Therefore, much has been achieved in the struggle for women’s liberation throughout the world.

The Setbacks of Feminism Through the Years

During its history, feminism has experienced plenty of setbacks. For example, the first wave was plagued by lack of consideration in liberating women of color in their fight for socioeconomic status since only white, middle-class women dictated what other women should correspond to. This criticism re-emerged in the next wave of this movement, with whites ignoring the needs of other races since the most influential feminist leaders at the time were white, middle-aged women who suppressed the needs of others (Blackwell, 2011). The third wave of feminists lacked cohesion due to the absence of cause and immaturity in their ideologies, and the latter viewpoint emerged due to the subjective nature that this generation attributed to autonomy and empowerment (Newman & White, 2017). Finally, criticism leveled against the fourth-wave feminists includes their reliance on technology, their disproportionate ownership and access to media outlets as well as preference to only those who know how to use the technology (J?ns & Furuyama, 2013). At the same time, the ‘mean-girl’ atmosphere has been noticed to pit women against each other, with some feminists being hostile to those who adhere to their cause (Simpkins, 2014). Therefore, every wave had its with challenges that slowed down the progress of the feminist agenda in general, but these challenges would only enable future generations to avoid such traps in the future.

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The Movements Affiliated with the Waves of Feminism

One of the movement’s occurrences, instrumental in changing the dynamics of the first-wave popularity, was the Langham Place circle that comprised of white, middle-aged females who exchanged views and published scholarly work’s on women’s rights. This group inspired such works as The English Woman’s Journal, Women and Work, and Remarks on the Education of Girls and founded the Society for Promoting Employment of Women (Wrye, 2009). In the other three waves, the movements that had shaped feminism of their times comprised of students, civil rights activists, and antiwar movement (Valk, 2008). Additionally, several groups were involved in feminism issues, ranging from black women and Third World countries to white feminists, but these groups fell into one of the two categories, namely liberal and radical feminists. The former worked by prioritizing statutory and legal reforms as well as sexual equality while putting faith in America’s political and economic institutions. The radicals focused on ending male supremacy through targeting America’s economic and political might as well as creating a democracy that would be inclusive through representing every member of society equally.

Current and Expected Movements

The trend toward women’s liberation from oppression has been mostly positive. The four waves of feminism led to an upward trend in women’s employability, with an employment rate of 54% in the USA by 2016, while 61% of women across the world believed, either wholly or partially, that they had full equality with men (Statista, n.d.). Similarly, 68% of all people surveyed in 24 countries advocated equal opportunities for women in their nations (Statista, n.d.). Nevertheless, according to a survey in 2017, 72% of the people from 15 countries believed that there was still inequality between sexes regarding economic rights (Statista, n.d.). These data show that although much has been achieved in regards to feminism around the world, some areas still need improvement for the world to attain true equality. With more groups seeking equality in the structures of modern-day society, future feminist movements will incorporate these needs into their agendas. For long, waves of feminist have ignored the needs of women of color to be included in their organizations since their decisions in policymaking were biased, favoring only white women. Therefore, future feminist groups will incorporate many cultures and groups, eventually discovering more areas where women are still oppressed and expanding the scope of the movement to be inclusive of all of them.


The four waves of feminism have tried to address the inequalities between the sexes and achieved much. Over the years, feminists’ approaches have improved the social, political, and economic conditions of women worldwide. The feminist movement would not have succeeded as much as it had, were it not for the lobbyist groups that had aided their cause. The fraternization between women’s groups and other activists enabled the change in the landscape of freedom for them. The four waves of feminism contributed significantly to the present-day movements, with great success in the fight for voting rights, education, career, marriages, and economic viability. Despite some setbacks, the benefits for women all over the world cannot be understated. Therefore, feminism is considered to be a great step forward since people have been able to achieve gender integration into the social structure, which has been beneficial for everyone.

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