A Short History of Second Wave Feminism
In many of the discussions that are happening in and around feminism today, it is common to come across terms referring to the ‘waves’ of feminism. My own research, looking at how motherhood is represented in European cinema in the 1960s and ‘70s, involves a lot of engagement with ‘second wave’ feminism, a term which I use to refer to both specific historical campaigns within this period and to a set of more abstract ideas, theories and values. When explaining my work to people outside of my discipline, however, I often find that (despite, in most cases, a great deal of awareness of and enthusiasm for contemporary feminist issues) there tends to be less clarity concerning what is meant by the various waves of feminism, and how they interact with the history of women’s rights.
What we broadly call First, Second and Third Wave feminisms are usually understood to correspond to different historical moments, which involve different key political campaigns and priorities, and are led by distinct ideologies. However, it’s important to bear in mind that the distinctions aren’t absolute; as with most movements, transitions from one wave to another are rarely a clean break. Concerns still overlap, anticipate and evolve, and there are many nuances and different perspectives on precisely what is involved in each. This article is therefore meant as a brief introduction to some of the key characteristics and histories that define the movements. Because of the area of my research, the ideas I mention will also mainly address European feminism. However, for those interested in exploring further, I would strongly recommend reading around the topic from as many cultural perspectives as possible.
The ‘First Wave’: Origins of a Movement
When thinking of the term ‘feminism’, the First Wave is often the movement that is brought to mind. Defined as such retrospectively, First Wave feminism in Europe refers generally to the origins of the women’s movement, which included the suffragettes in the UK, and spans the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Also referred to as ‘sameness feminism’, the core principles of the movement were built around the conviction that men and women are equal, and should be valued equally as citizens and given the same opportunities as men, but that unfair power structures limit their rights. This led to the political campaigns of the First Wave centring on issues such as women’s right to work, property and their own money (prior to this, the husband or head of the family controlled everything), and, perhaps most famously, acquiring the women’s vote.
Very few people today would argue about the importance and fairness of these achievements. However, First Wave ideas and politics also had limitations. After all, its aim was to allow women to participate in a system that was designed by and for men. This meant that women would have to behave as men to enjoy that system’s benefits. The achievements of the fight for women’s civil liberties were monumental. However, is the assertion that men and women are the same enough? What answers would this movement have, for instance, for the discrimination in employment faced by women of childbearing age, or for childcare for working mothers? Furthermore, was it necessary for women to reject all characteristics of femininity? These were some of the questions addressed by the Second Wave.
The ‘Second Wave’: Jamming the Machinery
‘…the issue is not one of elaborating a new theory of which woman would be the subject or the object, but of jamming the theoretical machinery itself, of suspending its pretension to the production of a truth and of a meaning that are excessively univocal. Which presupposes that women do not aspire simply to be men’s equals in knowledge.’
Developing on the gains made by the First Wave, the Second Wave, also known as ‘difference feminism’, is roughly defined as beginning in the 1960s and continuing until the late ‘80s or early ‘90s. The essential ideology of the Second Wave is that women and men are of equal value to society, but are different. Second Wave theorists and writers in Europe argued that the political project of simply allowing women entry into society as it stood maintained the hierarchy of masculine over feminine. Therefore, any person who chose to participate in traditionally feminine activities or professions, or who demonstrated feminine qualities, would continue to be looked down on socially and marginalised politically. Even today, it is not hard to see how traditionally ‘masculine’ occupations tend to hold more social (and literal) currency amongst all genders than traditionally ‘feminine’ occupations. In the existing system, masculinity was still the only acceptable style of being a full citizen. The Second Wave writers insisted that femininity was not something to be feared or hated; what they suggested was that it wasn’t enough to simply gain access to the system of power, but that the system itself needed to be changed.
In historical terms, women in the mid-twentieth century still faced a multitude of social and legal injustices. The vote was won, and women were increasingly present in the workplace; however, the major campaigns at this point turned to reproductive rights. The newly patented contraceptive pill was seeing increasing usage, and, along with sexual revolutions throughout the Western world, women had more control over their sexualities. Second Wave politics addressed women’s control over their own bodies and relationships, including changes in divorce laws and, importantly, decriminalisation of abortion. Though issues around women and sex remain legally and conceptually contested areas today, the Second Wave made hugely gainful strides in advancing women’s rights and giving women a voice on women’s issues.
The ‘Third Wave’: Intersectionality
Third Wave feminism is generally thought to have begun in the 1990s. The keyword within this movement is ‘intersectionality’. This is built around the idea that the feminist waves that went before on the whole were appropriate only for white, middle-class, cisgender and Western women. In the Third Wave, feminists who lived at intersections of oppression fought for a feminism that reflected their experiences. This involved a conceptual move from ‘woman’ to ‘women’, acknowledging the specificities and different experiences of women of varying ethnicities, classes and sexualities within feminist politics, as well as making sure that feminism was not seen as a purely Euro-American project. These issues remain hugely important within contemporary feminism.
Where Are We Now?
There are many differing opinions on where feminist thought and politics is today. Some argue that we are still within the Third Wave, whilst others are beginning to talk about a ‘Fourth Wave’, and others still believe that thinking in terms of Waves is no longer relevant. Many of the projects of the various movements, however, are ongoing, and all offer us important ways of looking at life and gender today.
First Wave writers: Mary Wollstonecraft, Virginia Woolf
Second Wave writers: Luce Irigaray, Hélène Cixous, Julia Kristeva, Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan
Third Wave writers: Chandra Talpade Mohanty, bell hooks, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak