The waves of feminism, and why people keep fighting over them, explained


Machinists working for Ford Motors attending a women’s conference on equal rights on June 28, 1968.

“… It’s now a major object of cultural discourse — which has led to some very confusing conversations because not everyone is familiar with or agrees on the basic terminology of feminism. And one of the most basic and most confusing terms has to do with waves of feminism. People began talking about feminism as a series of waves in 1968 when a New York Times article by Martha Weinman Lear ran under the headline ‘The Second Feminist Wave.’ ‘Feminism, which one might have supposed as dead as a Polish question, is again an issue,’ Lear wrote. ‘Proponents call it the Second Feminist Wave, the first having ebbed after the glorious victory of suffrage and disappeared, finally, into the sandbar of Togetherness.’ The wave metaphor caught on: It became a useful way of linking the women’s movement of the ’60s and ’70s to the women’s movement of the suffragettes, and to suggest that the women’s libbers weren’t a bizarre historical aberration, as their detractors sneered, but a new chapter in a grand history of women fighting together for their rights. Over time, the wave metaphor became a way to describe and distinguish between different eras and generations of feminism. It’s not a perfect metaphor. ‘The wave metaphor tends to have built into it an important metaphorical implication that is historically misleading and not helpful politically,’ argued feminist historian Linda Nicholson in 2010. ‘That implication is that underlying certain historical differences, there is one phenomenon, feminism, that unites gender activism in the history of the United States, and that like a wave, peaks at certain times and recedes at others. In sum, the wave metaphor suggests the idea that gender activism in the history of the United States has been for the most part unified around one set of ideas, and that set of ideas can be called feminism.’ The wave metaphor can be reductive. It can suggest that each wave of feminism is a monolith with a single unified agenda, when in fact the history of feminism is a history of different ideas in wild conflict. …”
Vox
Four Waves of Feminism


Women’s liberation movement in Washington, DC, August 26, 1970.

About 1960s: Days of Rage

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