What's with the waves?
Feminism comes in waves. I don’t really know what this means. Waves of cool? Waves come in and then get sucked back out again so maybe this is talking about the two-steps-forward-one-step-backwards nature of feminist struggle. Maybe feminists are really in tune with lunar phases. I heard that 78% of all feminists are Wiccan. Everyone’s scared of them because they are Wiccans who don’t follow that pagan creed about not harming anyone. But let’s talk about waves. We know that feminism isn’t a monolith. People who identify as feminist can believe completely different things (some of them even think that Pacific Rim was a good film?) but the important thing is that we’re all fighting for the same thing – to eradicate social and economic inequality. There are lots of different possible approaches, and over time we can identify trends in the concerns and ideologies that have dominated feminist discourse. When a notable and divisive shift in that thinking happens, we start talking about waves.
Waves are a way of separating and measuring periods of history in the feminist movement. Kind of. Except waves overlap, and ideas from earlier ‘waves’ can still be strongly voiced and believed by feminists existing in later waves. We’re not talking about measuring just time, but about measuring dominant ideology within the movement. And this is always changing.
The first wave was basically the suffragette movement. Women demanded the right to vote, own land and receive education – pretty basic requests but also pretty damn important. The second wave was a big one; it went from about the early 60s to the end of the 80s. It was really cool because it widened the struggle’s concerns significantly, demanding things like reproductive rights, real good jobs, equal pay, maybe even the end of homophobia and sexual violence. Second wavers rejected traditional gender roles. They argued that women are not here to be looked at - our place is not in the kitchen, there is no requirement for us to wear makeup, or shave our legs, or smile. We can be doctors or lawyers or astronauts and economic freedom is paramount.
We have the second wave to thank for most of the rights we enjoy now – but it wasn’t perfect. The movement as a whole was criticised for being racist – most of its leaders were white, middle-upper class women, and their lived experiences were often presumed to be the norm. Some prominent second wavers were transphobic. The idea ‘I am woman, hear me roar’ was empowering for many – but excluded many more - and third wavers wanted none of that. The “Sex Wars” started in the late 70s and weren’t quite as exciting as they sound. Many 2nd wave feminists took an anti-pornography stance, but other young feminists in particular felt that stance was puritanical and declared themselves ‘pro-sex’. The heated debates that arose from this conflict are credited as causing the rift that separated 2nd wave feminism from the 3rd wave.
We’re in the third wave right now. The experts tell us that this wave began in the 90s, some people say it began in the mid-late 80s, whatever. Third-wave feminism is all about intersectionality. We recognise that it’s not enough to fight against only one kind of discrimination. Oppression is multi-faceted and we cannot address gender discrimination without also addressing race, class and sexuality. We don’t want to exclude anyone. We recognise that makeup and high heels and leg shaving are all patriarchal constraints, but you can do these things and still be a feminist. The second wave wanted unity - a core set of beliefs that would unite women and guide their activism. Third wavers want individuality and freedom of personal choice. Essentialism gives way to post-structuralism. You know what I’m talking about.
But, see, the second wave isn’t over. Most active feminists nowadays are third wavers, sure, but second wave ideas and voices can still be heard. And let me tell you – they disagree with a lot of third wave feminism. Because -- plot twist -- third-wave feminism isn’t perfect either.▼
Part two will be posted tomorrow, where Kathleen talks about Tumblr, third-wave feminism (aka now), and the rift between mordern feministic ideas and the traditional "second-wave" views. This was first published in the zine Cute Bruiser -- they are quite awesome -- check them out!