The Waves of Feminism

It may seem, and possibly is, something of an absurdity for a man to write on this subject. My excuse is that I keep coming upon the terms 1st, 2nd and 3rd wave feminism, along with ‘post-feminism’, and am never very clear as to what exactly is meant. It would therefore be helpful for me to have at least my own notes to fall back on, so this is one of those blogs intended mainly to help me clarify my own thought.

Now undoubtedly part of the problem is that there are no common definitions. This becomes perfectly clear when one has a look at Wikipedia (and I am sure would be even clearer if one Googled!). Another part of the problem is that the leading definitions are American while feminism has also gone through a number of stages in Britain (and other European countries); heavily influenced by America, but also with their own distinctive features. The lack of clarity in definition increases as one comes closer and closer to the present; that is to say it is fairly clear what first-wave feminism was, but very unclear as to what post-feminism is. In part this is a natural reaction to the gaining of historical perspective which is gained with all subjects.

My decision to embark on this blog was sparked by my reading my good and wise friend Ellen Moody’s thoughts on the subject which are part of a blog at Feminism is deeply ingrained into everything that Ellen discusses so I treat her as a considerable authority on the subject. She writes….

The first phase: officially visible started in 1848, in the US, by a conference in upper New York State, familiar to us in the suffragette movement where women asked for what in the western world is mostly at least in lipservice granted:

the vote, for career and education equality, for prohibition, critiquing the family structure strongly as such for hurting women physically and financially; this phase includes a demand for prohibition because when men, husbands and fathers are drunk, they don’t work and make money for the family, and they are frequently violent;

The second phase I’d sum up as the most radical and what makes feminism an object for attack, and is still hotly contested (this area includes discussions of say rape). Voices here are Catherine MacKinnon, Andrea Dworkin, Simone de Beauvoir, Lilian Robinson, lots of famous names:

they moved to a demand for freedom for their bodies, they analyzed the role of sexuality and wanted to change the terms of sexuality and indeed the experience and said society was structured to give men power over women in each particular (the analogy would be with Marxists showing the economic basis of oppression), so a strong socialism model underlies this. It is this group of women who are called man-haters and prigs and accused of not liking sex. Well, they don’t like to be raped.

Third-phase sometimes seen as a reaction against feminism, and a qualification by women in order to deflect the backlash; here you paradoxically also find people like Linda Hirshman so insistent on getting power, be in corridors of power and angry too:

Motherhood is power once again (at least to some), if women find power in sexuality the way it’s done, that’s power (the argument against is this is no power the way it’s experienced, or only fleetingly); strong individualism (an US value), seek power for yourself and use it as you please; pro-families (best or to me most valued argued on the basis of how lower class and working women only get their self-esteem through their function in a family or as a mother); here you find women trying to reach out too beyond their class and race and ethnicities.

And now post-feminism:

Refuge seeking, eclectic, sometimes seen as no feminism and a retreat, if so a sophisticated one. Examples found in Karen Joy Fowler’s Sister Noon, also Austen.

I say least about the last since the last has been least written about — as far as I know. I’d be grateful for any discussions of “post-feminism” others know of.

As I say, first-wave feminism is reasonably clear, centres above all (especially in the UK) on the suffragette movement, and as Wikipedia remarks “It focused on de jure (officially mandated) inequalities, primarily on gaining women’s suffrage (the right to vote).” 

Second-wave feminism also seems reasonably clear to me though there does seem to be, from reading very briefly, something of a tension between the demand for ‘a seat on the Board’ and a wish to abolish the Board (there is a fine short interview with Kate Millett at in which the latter position is clearly and cogently expressed).

It is with the third-wave that I start to become lost. I will add Wikipedia’s definition to Ellen’s….

Third-wave feminism is a term identified with several diverse strains of feminist activity and study from 1981 to the present. The movement arose as a response to the failures of and backlash against initiatives and movements created by second-wave feminism of c. 1960s through the 1970s and the realization that “women” are of “many colors, ethnicities, nationalities, religions and cultural backgrounds”.[1] The third wave embraces contradictions and conflict, and accommodates diversity and change.[1] There is, in this wave, no all-encompassing single feminist idea.[1]

Now one of the no doubt simplifying divides which is created between the second and third waves is over attitudes to sex and sexuality. Quoting Wikipedia again…

Also considered part of the third wave is sex-positivity, a celebration of sexuality as a positive aspect of life, with broader definitions of what sex means and what oppression and empowerment may imply in the context of sex. For example, many third-wave feminists have reconsidered opposition to pornography and to sex work of the second wave and challenge existing beliefs that participants in pornography and in sex work cannot be empowered.[2]

(this is one bit I always get wrong because I think of it as post-feminist – I hope I will remember now!). I also see how important anti-racism, anti-colonialism and so on are in the third-wave. It also seems to me that it is highly contested in terms of meaning and some deny that any such thing exists.

Then with post-feminism I get completely lost. As do many others it seems. Indeed if you try searching for it on Wikipedia you just get directed to third-wave feminism! I did find a feminist blog which is specifically designed to answer foolish questions about feminism which has a very useful definition of post-feminism However I would have to say that what I read there is not post-feminism but anti-feminism, as the definition concludes…

No matter what form it may take, however, it is clear that the movement arose out of a backlash against feminism. This backlash is often ascribed to the specialization and splintering of feminism, which is seen by many post-feminists as one of the root causes for feminism’s decline. Regardless of which frame is put on it, though, this backlash carries one primary notion: post-feminism’s rise signals a world “in which feminism has been transcended, occluded, overcome” (Hawkensworth).

Post-feminism is in fact part of the Backlash identified twenty years ago by Susan Faludi in her book of the same name. As such I am not actually interested in it here because my concern is with real feminisms.

Now of course this chronological approach is in many ways limiting. Wikipedia has the most wonderful list of varieties of feminism (see ). But it is the waves which are most often spoken of and which I so often have problems in understanding.

In terms of comments I want to make three…

  1. The most obvious point is that even in the Western world the goal of complete political and economic equality has not been achieved. I don’t think I need to start details. And in very large parts of the world what is immediately needed is First-wave feminism (although this will have to come from within those countries and in its own form of course). But First-wave feminism has not achieved all its goals, let alone the second and third waves.
  2. One of the most obvious conflicts within feminism, or between different varieties, is that about whether the desired end is an equal share of the cake or a completely different cake (to steal from Millett); whether what is sought is equality within capitalism, or some kind of replacement of capitalist structures. This may be  more likely to be associated with the particular varieties of feminism than with any of the waves, although I was always under the impression, perhaps wrongly, that it was especially associated with the Second-wave. I now see that it would be more accurate to speak of say Marxist feminism, or radical feminism or anarcha-feminism when talking of this.
  3. The other big conflict which I often trip up on concerns the attitude to sex. I find that these were actually the site of what are called the Feminist Sex Wars ( and that many see in these arguments the reason behind the ending of Second-wave Feminism. However for my purposes none of the waves can be identified with a particular attitude as far as I can tell.

No doubt this entire blog is simplistic and naive but my primary purpose was in composing a simple aide-memoire to myself. I would however welcome any corrections or amendments.

3 thoughts on “The Waves of Feminism

  1. ellenandjim

    I’ll add what I wrote to Nick this morning as further explanation of my brief definitions on my blog:

    yes third phase is such a retreat as to almost constitute a rejection. There is this in third phase though: in the second phase you had really mostly middle to upper class white and a lot of the emphasis on employment did constitute a despising of women who “stayed home,” of housewives. For black and other non-white women of the world respect and power of a sort and content and meaning is not only gotten from the home, they can get it no other way. So to include motherhood (though it sounds like a retreat to Victorianism and in some woman was and is) and move away from criteria beyond the reach of white working class women too is a good. Third phase is more inclusive.

    Consider Michelle Fine’s description of how when young girls are raped and come to clinics and professionals they find themselves pressured into behaving in middle class styles they can’t do and are useless to them:

    “What she shows is the suppositions, the assumptions behind this “help” are all middle class. That what these places offer is pep talk before going to and getting yourself middle class style interviews which only genuinely middle class people know how to do and can cope with. The advice offered is similarly counterproductive, for it does not take into account how the girl is returning to the same environment which has been destroying her in the first place. It is advice she can’t take and rightly sees as useless, indeed (if she is truthful to herself) grating, and which makes her feel worse. She finds herself accused of not cooperating, of being at fault herself for “not following up.” She is showed skills which in her case are unmarketable (she hasn’t the credentials, certificates, connections, knowing ways). Most of the options taught her reinforce her sense of her low position. Fine says “the option that appears valuable to a high power person may be justifiably critiqued as a charade by a lower person.” “Relational coping” is taught. (What a laugh. I’d have no patience for it and would probably be described as sullen.)”

    When you are raped, you are not supposed to be angry; it’s not acceptable.

    On fourth phase feminism, what is the truth is that only a tiny part of it is feminism, the rest is not just retreat but reversal. But that tiny part is found in literary women. I instance Karen Joyce Fowler. Again it’s an attempt to bring along something that was excluded: women like reading romances and they like wearing make-up and they are driven to dress sexily — to get a man. When you come across this when it is post-feminism, the perspective is what’s feminist on this retrograde content. You have someone seeking refuge; you say to her that this won’t do, there is none. Leave it at that and she hates you and reads her romances anyway. Write romances which include in their perspective that the reason women seek refuge, dress sexily is they have no other choice, and admit it consoles, and you have a fourth-wave feminist piece.

    Feeble stuff. Quite right: what’s needed is a return to phase 1 and 2 and bring alone the qualifications and inclusions not originally there. What is striking is how quickly when pressed, the people writing about it, making films stopped demanding 1) economic equality and justice, and 2) genuine sexual liberation. These women who lead movements are themselves middle class and have resources or know how to get and make money and themselves often despise women who don’t have what Victorians called “women’s pride” over sex (they themselves in their relationships know how to dominate or not be dominated).


  2. nick2209

    Many thanks Ellen. I have been thinking further about this and think that probably I ought to have said more about what I see as the general context, because it might appear that in bringing out these conflicts and disagreements (which are very real) within feminism I am somehow being disrespectful to the notion itself, which might be compounded if I were to make it clear that with some variants I am in complete disagreement (which I am).

    It would have been helpful for me to contextualise this by a comparison with some other theory, and the ideal one is socialism. Ideal, because I consider myself a socialist, there a thousand and one varieties of socialism and with some varieties I have almost no sympathy whatever, and would regard some people who proclaim themselves as socialists as being in a very different political ‘camp’. And these differences and disagreements are far from insignificant.

    As a specific example from within both the feminism and socialism I can instance green politics: ‘eco-feminism’ (which Wikipedia has as a specific school) and so called ‘red/green socialism’. Now I have, bluntly, no time for either of these. I am not going to go into the whys and wherefores, merely point out that my disagreement with some specific theoretical strain or variety does not imply my opposition to what I would see as the fundamental tenets of the theories.

    But perhaps more importantly the fact that within socialism there are clashes which would not only appear to be, but are, complete theoretical and practical contradictions and yet I would still proclaim my socialism, shows that I do not view the divisions (although I would take a strong position on them) as disastrous. Equally when someone proclaims themselves to be a socialist I want to know exactly what they mean by that and how it affects their theory and practice. This is really the context in which I place my desire to know more about the varieties of feminism. To ask what do you mean by that? seems just as valid a question as it would be to ask of a socialist and no more disrespectful of my own view of the essential core.

  3. ellenandjim

    Talk (and Diana Birchall’s answer to yours and mine on WWTTA which I put on “Long Morphing Life” leads me to add:

    Yes economic independence is central to the first phase and most important. I add something else to it: a woman should not have to be answerable with her body to anyone, husband, children, the world outside, no way no how. That’s what she was before 1891. And it’s the equivalent of slavery.

    Nick does say that many of the kinds of housekeeping jobs immigrant women end up taking become forms of slavery because they are coerced into being answerable with their bodies.

    Also for me the second phase is the most important and central. It gives me and others words with which to describe our real experience of sexuality in this society and not blame or hate myself or feel shame, but see how what I experienced is what was wanted to be inflicted on me. Controlling women’s sexuality is to my mind the center of repressing women — on behalf of men; they are to sacrifice themselves in every way for others and hate themselves at the same time (that’s how you teach a person to repress herself).

    The insistence on big economic success, yes, for me that’s a problem and scorning those women who can’t pull it off or don’t want it. That was the core danger of ERA where the second phase women were willing to throw into the hands of supreme court justices decades of protective legislation, compensatory: women might just have lost their right as life-long wives to the husband’s pension or social security given our present reactionary court.


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