The Four Waves of Feminism: Why do they matter for all women?

By Hitakshi Jhamtani | Jan. 22, 2021

“The theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes” is just another way feminism is defined by every other individual, but we have only little unanimity as to how the waves or phases of modern feminism are characterized. Focusing on politics, culture and academia respectively, each of these traditionally recognized waves are better defined by their goals and mechanisms rather than their distinct time frames.

Some sought to locate the roots of feminism in ancient Greece, with the foremothers of the Modern Women’s Movement, who advocated the basic human potential of the female sex. But not until the late nineteenth century were the efforts for equal rights for women conjugated into a clearly identifiable series of movements.


THE FIRST WAVE (19th and early 20th century)

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal…” alluding to the Declaration of Independence, the starting remark of the Seneca Falls Declaration drafted by Elizabeth Stanton in 1848 at the Seneca Falls, New York marks the formal beginning of the first wave, or what would become years of women’s struggle to change their position in society. Born to address legal inequalities primarily in Britain and the United States, this wave had been centered around women’s suffrage or simply the right to vote.

Women, who were often taken for granted at that time, realized that gaining political power to bring about necessary change was how the fire could be fueled. “If educated women are not considered fit to decide who shall be the rulers of the country, then what is the use of culture, or any brain at all?” were the demands of several women struggling for the cause of equality. They also brought forth issues such as the right to education, better working conditions and marriage and property laws to the forefront and called upon for strict action to be taken. Reproductive rights were also questioned as the movement developed. In 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution granting women the right to vote was recognized as the grand legislative achievement of the first wave. Though, the right to vote did not extend to people of color until the second wave took off in the 1960s.


THE SECOND WAVE (1963 – 1980s)

“The problem that has no name” brought forth through The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan published in 1963, describing pervasive dissatisfaction among women in mainstream American society in the post- World War II period sparked the beginning of the second wave of feminism. She wanted to be the voice of the women who were struggling to enunciate their feelings of being unsatisfied with their lives because of systemic sexism that taught women to find fulfillment through marriage, household work and child raising alone. Soon, the 3 million readers emerged with a unifying goal of social equality of women.

“The personal is political” was used by the second wavers to highlight all those problems considered petty and individual; about sex, relationships, access to abortions and domestic labor, which were fundamental to fight for women’s equality. Resulting from their struggles, were some of the significant legislative victories such as, The Equal Pay Act of 1963, the right to use birth control, Title IX giving the right to educational equality and guaranteeing of reproductive freedom to women. Protests were also held against the Miss America pageant in 1968 which was highly degrading as it reduced women to objects of beauty and were dominated by a patriarchy that kept them at home or in dull, low-paid jobs. Participants threw bras, girdles, heels and copies of Playboy into the trash can as they were considered “oppressive” feminine artifacts. This wave also raised consciousness about gender-based violence, domestic abuse, and marital rape along with sexual liberation of women. In the 1980s, second wave feminists were positioned as humorless and the image of them as angry, man-hating and lonely became orthodox as this wave lost its momentum, becoming instrumental to the way third wave positioned itself as it emerged.


THE THIRD WAVE (1990s – early 2000s)

The historic testimony of Anita Hill in front of the Supreme Court in 1991 accusing Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment and bringing this issue into national focus marked the beginning of the third-wave feminism. The third wavers initially fought against workplace sexual harassment and for rise in number of women in positions of power. Moreover, this wave sought to address the perceived failures of the second wave. Kimberlé Crenshaw, a scholar of gender and critical race theory defined the term “intersectional feminism”, which described how different forms of oppression intersect, led this wave to fight for Trans rights as a fundamental part of intersectional feminism.

Rise of musical movements like ‘Riot Grrl’, the girl groups who stepped onto the stage in 1990s as strong and empowered, eluding victimization defined feminine beauty as subjects for themselves and not as objects of a sexist patriarchy. Embracement of the word ‘girl’ was also the prime focus of the third wavers. Unlike being called a woman, they liked being a girl and wanted to alter the belief stating, the term ‘girl’ meant young, dumb and broken. What was rejected was being readopted again by young feminists; makeup, high heels, low cut necklines proudly exposing cleavage and high- femme girliness, in response to the anti- feminist backlash of the 1980s, the one that portrayed second wavers as unfeminine and convincing that no man would ever want them. This made them embrace girliness once again which was being rejected disgracefully earlier. 24 women won seats in the House of Representatives and 3 more in the Senate, dubbing the year 1992 as “the year of the women”, after which women entering politics plateaued rapidly. With key concerns of sexual identities and changes on stereotypes, language used to define women, this wave was yet a diffused movement, lacking a central goal and attaining no major social change or legal legislation.



“The fourth wave is online.” As it is rightly said, social media is now becoming the most widespread used platform through which women have been able to voice their concerns about any kind of harassment, physical abuse and discrimination faced by them. It is one of the most influential weapons till date that has been key in voices of several women being heard, who have been suppressing them for long. This wave is born with the prime concern of justice and safety of women and marginalized communities particularly affected by environmental devastation, racism and xenophobia. It is also known for its unaccustomed embosom of intersectional feminism, and decidedly it is queer, sex-positive, trans-inclusive, body-positive and is driven digitally.

Undoubtedly, a number of high-profile incidents came across this time, including the brutal gang rape of a young women in December 2012 in India who died subsequently sparking local protests, international outrage and ‘The Nirbhaya Movement’. Seditious remarks about women made by Trump led to protests on January 21, 2017 including the Women’s March, the largest single-day demonstration in the country’s history. Carrying more significance was the MeToo movement, assisting survivors of sexual violence, especially females of color around the globe who united, raising their voice and stepping up to share their assault stories using the #MeToo hashtag.

Even today, the fourth wave feminists continue to resist the prototypes of patriarchal societies and give us hope of a more equal and benevolent future to come.