The Origin of Feminism

  • Since the 18th century, the idea of feminism has transformed the lives of womyn and children across the world. Truly organized feminist movements began in the late 18th century in England and the early 19th century in the United States.
  • The most important early feminist text was Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women, published in 1792.
  • Its major themes included:
    • the exclusion of womyn from the public sphere.
    • the psychological and economic toll of womyn’s dependence on men.
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  • The French philosopher Charles Fourier is credited with having originated the word “feminism” in 1837.
  • Historian Estelle Freedman argued that there were two explanations for the emergence of feminism:
    • The rise of capitalism in the 18th century, which she argued reduced the status of womyn, forcing their dependence on men and confining them to the private, domestic sphere of life.
    • The emergence of radical theories of individual and political rights stemming from the Enlightenment. Ironically, as men began to assert their political rights and autonomy from royalty, they legally excluded womyn from these advancements.

Three Waves of Feminism

Early feminists movements are often called the first-wave and feminists after about 1960 the second-wave. These three waves are called so because like ocean waves, each wave comes on top of the one before, drawing on each other. Each wave represents a major change in general feminist ideas and action.

First Wave Feminism

  • First wave feminism was primarily concerned with the reform of womyn’s social and legal inequalities during the 19th and 20th centuries.
  • The major achievements of first wave feminism were:
    • opening of higher education and public schools for womyn;
    • womyn’s suffrage;
    • increased access to professional life for womyn;
    • property right for married womyn;
    • and some reform of rights for womyn to divorce and control child custody.

Second Wave Feminism

  • A critical turning point in feminism(s) occurred during the tumult of the 1960s.Many regard it as a delayed reaction to the renewed domesticity of womyn following World War 2. Major thinkers would ledthe transition to second wave feminism included Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan.
  • Second wave feminism focused on:
    • critiquing the idea that womyn are “the other” to men;
    • redefining traditional roles for womyn and the family;
    • ending workplace harassment and de facto professional inequality;
    • ensuring access to abortion and birth control for all womyn;
    • separating gender from sex;
    • and critiquing sexism inherent in popular culture

Third Wave Feminism

  • Third wave feminism emerged in the 1990s, driven by the literal and figurative daughters of second wave feminism.
  • Encyclopedia Britannica describes their movement this way: “These women and others like them grew up with the expectation of achievement and examples of female success as well as an awareness of the barriers presented by sexism, racism, and classism. They chose to battle such obstacles by inverting sexist, racist, and classist symbols, fighting patriarchy with irony, answering violence with stories of survival, and combating continued exclusion with grassroots activism and radical democracy. Rather than becoming part of the “machine,” third wavers began both sabotaging and rebuilding the machine itself.
  • Third-wave feminists sought to question, reclaim, and redefine the ideas, words, and media that have transmitted ideas about womanhood, gender, beauty, sexuality, femininity, and masculinity, among other things.
  • For third-wave feminists, therefore, “sexual liberation,” a major goal of second-wave feminism, was expanded to mean a process of first becoming conscious of the ways one’s gender identity and sexuality have been shaped by society and then intentionally constructing (and becoming free to express) one’s authentic gender identity.
  • The third wave was much more inclusive of women and girls of color than the first or second waves had been.
  • One key element of third wave feminism is the study of intersectionality, critical theory describing the ways in which oppressive institutions (racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, xenophobia, classism, etc.) are interconnected and cannot be examined separately from one another.
  • In reaction and opposition to stereotypical images of women as passive, weak, virginal, and faithful, or alternatively as domineering, demanding, slutty, and emasculating, the third wave redefined women and girls as assertive, powerful, and in control of their own sexuality.
  • Third wave feminists acknowledge that there is no single voice of feminism, and have embraced the idea of multiple feminisms.


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