The 3 Waves of Feminism

Hello! So, I am aware that my past few posts have been based on feminism and have been rather heavily opinionated. However, this post is going to simply be an education, a sort of wiki page if you like. It is an explanation of the feminist movement that I have only recently learned myself. This semester I took a module on Religion, Gender and Sexuality in which one theme was ‘Feminism and the Rise of the Feminist Movement’. I thoroughly enjoyed this module and I wish to share what I learned (and also so that my revision didn’t go to waste hahaha).

Quick Overview: 

  • The feminist movement spans a couple of hundred years.
  • The feminist movement is divided into three ‘waves’ – an appropriate term to use as some periods of the movement was strong, and other times weak (i.e. peaks and troughs).
  • The first wave begins in the 1800’s and continued through till the late 1940’s (although this is unclear) – its successfulness is measured by which countries allowed women to vote.
  • The second wave begins in early 1950’s (although again, this is unclear) and continued through till the 1990’s – had some success (such as the Sex Discrimination Act 1975).
  • The third wave began in the 1990’s and is what we reside in today.

Now, lets go into a tad more detail (if you’re still reading)…

First Wave: 

The first wave was focused on getting civil, social, economic, legal rights for women and also tended to emphasise the subordinate, inferior, secondary position of women. The Abolitionist Movement in the 19th century (the movement to end slavery) gave the feminist movement a boost due to some similarities (e.g. freedom, liberation). In other words, due to the abolitionist movement, the concept that all humans should be treated equally was ‘up in the air’.

The first wave had a mountain to climb as they were fighting centuries worth of patriarchy. For example, Aristotle defined a woman as a “deformed male”. Also, despite Plato saying positive things on the rights of women in The Republiche believed that women were created from the souls of wicked men.

The first wave is easier to explain with what books were published and institutions that were formed during the time:

Books of the First Wave:

  • A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) by Mary Wollstonecraft – Wollstonecraft strongly argues in favour of social and economic rights for women and to provide women with a proper education. Women were of equal worth to men and therefore should have equal rights and what she said would’ve been controversial. This book gave rise to the very influential movement at the time as women wanted social justice, the same as slaves.
  • On the Subjection of Women (1869) by John Stuart Mill – Mill was the first male MP to demand that women should have the right to vote. Moreover, he argued that women did not have the same success as men because they did not have access to the same opportunities, especially due to their inferior education. Therefore, he fought for the principle that women should have access to all jobs and a voice. If jobs opened up for women, then there would be double the talent for service of humanity.
  • The Woman’s Bible  (1895, 1898) by Elizabeth Cady Stanton – Most religions are guilty of the segregation of women but, the Bible is especially guilty due to its profound religious authority. The Bible played a dominant role in the degradation of women in Western society. Stanton noticed that when women complained that they were inferior, people had a tendency to point to the Bible and say that “the Bible says you are inferior”. Therefore, Stanton, alongside a committee of 26 women, published a two-part non-fiction book to challenge the traditional position of religious orthodoxy that women should be subservient to men. However, the vast majority of women that Stanton approached didn’t want anything to do with her project. This was due to the fear that their scholarly ambitions would disappear and their name would be tarnished. (If you’re interested in the possible patriarchal nature of the Bible, please read my post ‘To What Extent is the Bible a Patriarchal Book?’
  • In relation to the last point I would like to mention Mathilda Gage, Frances Willard and Sarah Grimké – Gage and Willard argued that it wasn’t just the Bible responsible for the patriarchal society but also the commentaries written on it. This is due the commentaries all being written by men, which reinforces the Bible’s message. They argued that women wanted to interpret the Bible from their own perspective. Grimké (a slavery campaigner, also vocal on women’s rights) argued that it was the translations of the Bible responsible for the patriarchal society  instead of its interpretations. Grimké refers to false translations, perverted translations by men. She argues that if women were allowed to learn Hebrew/Greek, they would be able to produce a different translation to what we know now.
  • A Room of One’s Own (1929) by Virginia Woolf – Woolf asks questions such as if Shakespeare were a woman. If Shakespeare were a woman, would plays have survived? Would plays have even been written? In Shakespeare’s day, women were barred from libraries and lectures, and publishers would have been skeptical. Women were expected to be so busy with chores that they would have no time to write. In Woolf’s book she states that within a hundred years there would be women soldiers, women labourers, assumptions on gender roles would change dramatically, women would have time to write, women would have a ‘room of their own’. This was obviously controversial at the time, but she has since been proven to be correct.

Institutions of the First Wave:

  • National Society for Women’s Suffrage (1867) – This was established in order to try and get the vote for women. It is one of the largest, most popular movements to have ever existed in the UK.
  • The Co-Operative Women’s Guild (1883) – This group had a different emphasis to that of the Women’s Suffrage, it was a pressure group designed to improve the healthcare for mother’s and infants. At the time, 1 in 5 children died in childbirth or in infancy. This statistic blamed the mothers for being irresponsible, when in reality poverty was to blame. By 1914, the Woman’s Guild has 32 thousand members, most of which were full time housewives. This group had some success as the level of infant mortality fell dramatically and also, midwifery became a recognised profession.
  • National Federation of Women’s Workers (1906) – This group wanted the average wage for women to rise and had over 20 thousand members.
  • All three of these institutions were pressure groups and were designed to lobby government to change their policies.

There was some success in relation to these books and institutions, however the feminist movement felt success wasn’t coming quickly enough. They felt that they needed to engage in actions that were much more militant/strident.

The Suffragette Movement (UK):

  • Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst (1858 – 1928) –  Pankhurst was the leader of the suffragette movement, a movement which advocated the right for women to vote. In 1905, Pankhurst believed that more militant tactics were needed for government to listen (e.g. heckling ministers in meetings, posting letter bombs).
  • 1909 – Suffragettes protested against their imprisonment through hunger strike, which subsequently led to them being force fed.

    Annie Kenny and Christabel Pankhurst, members of the Women’s Social Political Union (WSPU) (Established 1903).
  • 1910 – March against parliament where over 100 women were arrested/imprisoned.
  • 1913 – ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act established. This act tried to deal with the hunger striking suffragettes by allowing the early release of prisoners who were so weakened by hunger striking. They were to be re-imprisoned once their health had improved where the cycle would begin again.
  • 1913 – Emily Davison was killed by King George V’s horse at the Epsom Derby. Her funeral attracted tens of thousands of people to line the streets of London.
  • 1914 – World War One broke out. Pankhurst called for a stop on militant tactics whilst the war was happening. She called for everyone to support the war effort.

Suffragette Movement Successful:

  • 1918: Representation of the People Act – This allowed women over the age of 30 and men over the age of 21 to vote.
  • 1918: Parliamentary Qualification of Women Act – This permitted women to stand in parliament.
  • 1928: Representation of the People Act – This allowed women to vote on the same terms as men.
  • 1957: Life Peerages Act – This allowed women to sit in the House of Lords. This was largely a result of Queen Elizabeth II coming to the throne in 1953.


Second Wave:

In general, the second wave was concerned with female oppression throughout the world regardless of race, nationality, etc. There was a notion of a ‘sisterhood’.

The feminist movement had become weak since World War One. Women had got the vote, they were allowed to become MPs, they were employed, they were earning a decent wage, they were no longer confined to domestic chores. There was nothing left to fight for. This all changed when The Second Sex  by Simone de Beauvoir was published in 1949 (published in English 1961).

Beauvoir’s book was an overnight success. It had 14 reprints in the first year of its publication. It was highly controversial at the time as it was open and honest about issues considered taboo (such as sexual experiences). The point Beauvoir is trying to make in the book is that complete freedom is difficult for women because of their social role (e.g. mothers are homebound, isolated). She wanted women to share their experiences, hence there was a feeling of solidarity, a sisterhood. Women often experience oppression, mostly in isolation. However, oppression comes to light when it is shared (e.g. it came to light that women often suffered domestic abuse). Oppression is an individual problem when not spoken about but when it becomes a social problem, legislators can do something about it.

Moreover, Germaine Greer wrote The Female Eunuch in 1970. The effect of this book, similar to The Second Sex, brought the issue of gender oppression from the home into the public domain.

In the 1970’s, the Woman’s Liberation Conference brought activists from the feminist movement together with the aim to develop a shared political outlook. Seven demands were formulated:

  1. Equal pay.
  2. Equal educational and job opportunities.
  3. Free contraception and abortion ‘on demand’.
  4. Free 24 hour nurseries.
  5. Legal and financial independence for all women (added 1974).
  6. The right to a self defined sexuality and also, an end to the discrimination against lesbians (added 1974).
  7. Freedom for all women from intimidation by the threat or use of violence or sexual coercion regardless of martial status. Also, an end to the laws, assumptions and institutions which perpetuate male dominance and aggression against women (added 1978).

There was also the criticism of the sexploitation of women during the second wave. The magazines and the media were (and still are) responsible for depicting the ‘ideal’ female body. For example, the Miss Wand Contest, a TV show in the 70’s and 80’s, where women flaunted themselves in gowns and bikinis. The second wave considered this demeaning, but it was not realised at the time. People started writing about the subtle influence this had on women (e.g. body issues). These images became internalised by younger generations, they wanted their bodies to reflect the ‘ideal’ body. This led to extreme measures such as anorexia and bulimia. The second wave recognised the need to change the mindset/attitude of people.

There was some success for the second wave. Such as the Equal Pay Act in 1970 which meant that women were to be payed the same as a man for doing the same job. Also, the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975, which made it illegal for women to be treated less favourably in a workplace. Moreover, the UK had their first female prime minister in 1979, Margaret Thatcher. Although, some say she did more harm than good to the feminist movement.

By the 1990’s feminists said that we have achieved what we wanted, there is no longer need for a feminist movement.

Third Wave: 

The third wave of the feminist movement began in the 1990s and is what we reside in today.

The third wave is critical of the second wave as it gave feminism a bad name. Feminists are portrayed as shrill, loud, man haters due to bad press during the second wave. The third wave also feels that the second wave looked out for the slightest bit of sexism. Moreover, the third wave also criticises the first wave, as well as the second, due to their attitude that ‘women are always the victim’ mantra. They made feminism become the dreaded ‘F’ word, as they stood for confrontation/a military approach.

The third wave are often criticised because they have no cohesive plan, no clear goal in view. The first wave had a goal and achieved it. The second wave had a goal and achieved it. What is the point the third wave is trying to make?

The third wave is about letting women choose their own ‘destiny’, rather than it being determined by the patriarchy. The third wave has less of a political agenda that the previous two waves and instead, they wish for people to change their mindset/attitude. They want to distance themselves from the man-hating stereotype.

Women are able to do what they want, they can be ‘girly’ and still be a feminist.

They can shave their body hair, and still be a feminist.

They can wear a bra, and still be a feminist.

They can be housewives, stay at home mums, and still be a feminist.

In fact, third wave believes that female sexuality can actually be empowering, it doesn’t have to be oppressive. Second wave feminists are critical of this attitude. For example, they would’ve condemned cosmetic surgery, makeup regimes etc, because women only do that to look nice for men according to the second wave. Whereas, the third wave says that it is your own body, do what you like with it, be proud of your femininity. Which has not gone down well with traditional feminists as they believe it is a betrayal of the feminist cause, it weakens what feminists have been fighting for for the last 200 years or so.


That’s it. That’s the three waves of the feminist movement to date. I strive to learn more and will perhaps write another post. But for now, thank you for reading if you made it this far! It is much appreciated!

Also, quickly, regarding the suffragette movement, I recommend watching Suffragette (2015). It is a brilliant film and will give you a clearer idea of what the suffragette movement was like.

Again, thanks for reading!



One thought on “The 3 Waves of Feminism

  1. Interesting background article on the ‘waves’ of feminism… particularly in light of the recent global ‘Woman’s Marches’… and the inauguration of ‘King Trump’ into his white house…

    Liked by 1 person

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