Feminism in the West began with 19th century activism in favor of women's voting rights. Throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries, it expanded in scope, adapting to new social and political realities. In general, feminism's trajectory led to broader inclusiveness with regard to race and social class. Feminist thought and activism roughly aligns with three distinctive historical periods, known simply as first, second and third wave feminism.
Votes for Women
The first wave of U.S. feminism debuted with Elizabeth Cady Stanton's 1848 Seneca Falls Convention address, which promoted voting rights for women. Stanton claimed that women were men's equals and deserved equal political rights. This touched off the American women's suffrage movement, which lasted until the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote in 1919.
Poverty and Race
Though some black women such as journalist Ida B. Wells participated in the suffrage movement, first wave feminism was dominated by white, middle class women and their interests. White women's dominance was reinforced by the population control rhetoric promoted by first wave feminists such as Margaret Sanger. Toward the end of the first wave, as Marxism spread in parts of Europe, feminist Marxists such as Germany's Rosa Luxembourg called for more dramatic social transformation.
Second Wave Feminism
After the suffrage movement, first wave feminism began to slow. It would not take up Luxembourg's call for radical transformation until the 1950s and 1960s. Inspired by earlier feminist writers including English novelist Virginia Woolf and French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, second wave feminists aimed to shake up the status quo. Many second wave feminists were influenced by the rise of a Marxist intellectual movement called the New Left. While Marxism cast the working class as an oppressed social class, second wave feminism saw women as an oppressed class.
Second Wave Feminism and Race
Second wave feminism's radicalism alienated many women from the movement as some feminists formed separatist communes to eliminate men from their lives. Black lesbian poet Audre Lorde challenged the separatist vision of second wave theologian Mary Daly. Men, she pointed out, were an integral part of the movement for racial equality. She insisted that it was not feasible for black women to sequester themselves in communes and ignore the black men working for racial equality beside them.
Other Second Wave Priorities
Women like Daly and her graduate student Janice Raymond advocated to exclude transgender women from feminist struggle. Daly called for the murder of transgender women, and Janice Raymond's "Transsexual Empire" cast transgender women as members of an anti-feminist conspiracy. Meanwhile, second wave feminists such as Julie Bindel and Andrea Dworkin focused heavily on critiquing sex workers and pornography.
Third Wave Sex Positive Feminism
During the 1990s, third wave feminism emerged in an effort to address earlier critiques of feminism. Third wave feminism attempted to reach out to women of color, transgender women and sex workers. During this time, feminist writer Heather Corinna began publishing a website magazine called Scarleteen, offering sex education to young people. Corinna's emphasis on personal sexual autonomy, distaste for sexual shaming and commitment to enthusiastic sexual consent became emblematic of a movement within third wave feminism called "sex positive feminism."
Women of Color
During the third wave, women of color became increasingly active in feminism. Beginning in the late 1990s, groups like the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective spearheaded a reproductive rights movement that treated reproduction as more than just access to birth control and abortion rights. These were crucial, they argued, but they maintained that women of color needed more. They rejected earlier feminist eugenicist thinking -- and insisted that marginalized women should be supported when they chose to have children as well.
- Gender Communication Theories and Analyses -- From Silence to Performance; Charlotte Krolokke et al
- Encyclopedia Britannica Profiles: Feminism
- No Turning Back -- The History of Feminism and the Future of Women; Estelle Freedman
- In Their Time -- A History of Feminism in Western Society; Marlene LeGates
- American Historical Association: The History of Feminism Is Political History
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Topics in Feminism
- Paul Thompson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images