In 1998, a Time magazine article asked the question, "Is Feminism Dead?" Today, the belief that we are living in a post-feminist era is widespread. Because of the gains in legal and institutional equality that were made over the past 40-plus years, there is an assumption that feminism is either defunct or no longer relevant.
This way of thinking narrowly ignores the ongoing and unresolved issues facing today. There is also a fear of feminism in some — primarily conservative — circles. It is said to threaten traditional values and to perpetuate an outdated model of women as victims. Anti-feminists all too often rely on well-known, negative stereotypes that portray feminists as angry, anti-male, anti-family and unfeminine.
The reality, however, is much different. While it is true that much has been accomplished, full parity between men and women remains elusive. Women are the primary victims of sexual and domestic violence. They make approximately 77 cents to every dollar earned by men. Even in families with two working partners, women carry the primary responsibilities for housework and child care. The objectification and commodification of female bodies continues to be a key component of the representations of women in the media and pop culture.
Though there is no comparable organized liberation movement as occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, feminism is by no means dead. It just looks different.
Feminists today are a diverse group in age, class and race/ethnicity, and feminism today is less formally organized and more personal. Advocacy now happens through technology, social networking and pop culture rather than marches and protests. Feminist organizations, especially those founded by young women, are more likely designed to advance a particular cause than achieving the over-arching goal of gender equality.
Feminism is actually a simple concept. I usually define it for my students as a commitment to ending the use of gender as a means of oppression. Historically, the various feminist movements have been described by the wave metaphor as three and possibly four distinct events. Though the first and second feminist waves have come to be defined by particular goals, the overall agenda of each of these movements was always more broad than suffrage in the First Wave and equity in education and employment in the Second. Third Wave feminism is a more loosely organized entity that seeks to build on the progress made by the Second and modifying it, as well.
The First Wave Feminist Movement occurred in the 19th century and has been primarily associated with women's suffrage. In this period, women had few legal rights or almost no opportunities to participate in the public sphere. Though suffrage ultimately became its main goal, First Wave feminism aimed full parity with men in employment, education and religion.
The First Wave developed out of its leaders' work with the abolitionist cause. In 1840, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott attended the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London and were outraged to learn that they were excluded from the proceedings because they were women. Galvanized to fight for women's rights, they returned home and organized the first ever Women's Rights Convention. The 1848 convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y., produced a "Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions," based on the Declaration of Independence, that included the right to vote, equality with men and full participation in public life.
The fight for suffrage turned out to be a long and bitter road. In 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granted the right to vote to black males but not women. This split the movement into those who believed in incremental progress and those who repudiated legal changes that did not include women. The crusade continued despite these differences, and under the leadership of Alice Paul, it took a more confrontational approach. Encouraged by her participation in acts of civil disobedience in England, she organized demonstrations and protests at home in the U.S., for which they were arrested and sent to prison. In 1920, the effort finally succeeded with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. In 1923, Alice Paul introduced the Equal Rights Amendment.
Though its best-known leaders were white, black women were also active in the First Wave. The ex-slave Sojourner Truth traveled widely to speak out on behalf of women's and slaves' rights. Poet and lecturer Ellen Watkins Harpur addressed black women's rights at women's rights conventions. Mary Ann Shadd Cary argued that black women were granted the right to vote under the 14th Amendment and successfully registered to vote in 1871.
The 1960s were characterized by massive social upheavals and major social movements for civil rights, gay rights and women's liberation. The catalyst for the Women's Liberation Movement, was the publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique in 1963. Friedan, speaking primarily for white, middle-class women, argued in favor of more and equal opportunity for women in education and the workplace. Staying at home, she asserted, wasted women's potential. Shortly after the publication of Friedan's book, the report of the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women (commissioned by President John F. Kennedy) was published. The report highlighted the widespread discrimination against women and lack of opportunity and added impetus to the emerging Women's Liberation Movement.
Though the Women's Liberation movement has come to be identified with the fight for gender equity in education and work, Second Wave feminists also called for action on violence against women, reproductive rights, pornography and the sexual objectification and devaluation of women. Their efforts produced ground-breaking legal changes such as the Equal Pay Act of 1963, Title IX , and Roe v. Wade . This era is also known for the 1968 Miss America Pageant protest in Atlantic City, where feminists planned to burn "instruments of female torture," aka bras, mops, girdles, pots and pans, and Playboy magazines. Items were thrown into a trash can, but no fires were actually lit.
Though the most visible activists of the Second Wave were white, middle-class women, the movement was, in fact, more complex than that. The fight for women's rights had its roots in the larger-scale social dissent of the 1960s and 1970s, and feminists worked alongside civil and gay rights activists to achieve social justice on many levels. Black women who were active in the civil rights cause became disillusioned by the implicit sexism of the black liberation organizations. Their discontent served as an impetus to feminist activism on their part, but their goals were not wholly compatible with those of the mainstream movement. While white women were concerned with breaking through the glass ceiling, black women lived a different experience in which they had no choice but to work and to devise creative family care solutions. From their perspective, gender was only one type of marginalization directed toward them as women. Truly effective feminism, they argued, had to take account of the ways multiple and intersecting oppressions affected women's lives.
By the 1980s, the daughters of the Second Wavers were coming of age. Although these younger women grew up with relatively equal opportunity in education, the workplace and reproductive freedom, they understood that full equality had not been achieved. Rebecca Walker, daughter of the poet Alice Walker, reacting to the backlash against women and feminism that was rampant in the '80s, wrote in 1992, "I am not a postfeminism feminist. I am the Third Wave." Walker's manifesta became a rallying point of sorts for Third Wave feminism. Responding in part to the challenges posed by women of color, this wave adopted the view that women's lives were not defined solely by gender but by race and class, as well. Championing diversity was a hallmark of their agenda. On the grounds of diversity, they rejected elements of the cultural critiques of the Second Wave. They embraced pop culture, girliness and sexual positivity, and reclaimed words like slut. They challenged the Second Wave's negative views of pornography and sex work as utterly negative. For this generation, feminism was personal, multifaceted, individualized and flexible.
Is there a Fourth Wave? Well-known Third Wave activist and writer Jennifer Baumgardner suggests there is. She identifies Fourth Wave feminists as women now in their 20s and 30s who are taking the agenda of the Third Wave to another level through technology and social networking. More comfortable with gender diversity and influenced by the openness fostered by social networking, they seek to meet the specific needs of modern women.