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Is There a Fourth Wave? Does It Matter?

From the book F'em: Goo Goo, Gaga and Some Thoughts on Balls by Jennifer Baumgardner. Excerpted by arrangement with Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.

f'emThe people who were part of what is often called the First Wave of feminism in the United States didn’t identify as “First Wavers.” That designation was applied to the suffragists retroactively after a second swell of activism by American women occurred, in the 1960s and 1970s. Martha Lear, a journalist, is credited with coining the term “second feminist wave” in her 1968 article about the women’s liberation movement for The New York Times Sunday Magazine. Active feminists at the time considered themselves part of that movement, preferring that association to the term “feminist.”

After the backlash of the 1980s, women my age got interested in and active in women’s rights on their own behalf. In 1990, writer Rebecca Walker—daughter of poet Alice Walker and exactly my age—wrote that our generation was not full of postfeminist feminists (the slur that had appeared in another New York Times Sunday Magazine article); we were “the Third Wave.” Her term sounded good to the several cofounders of the Third Wave Foundation (Walker included) and to scads of younger academics, activists, and feminists, and it sounded good to me. It was both connected to and different from what had come before, I thought—and still think.

Of course, not everyone agrees. Within feminism, many find the concept of waves deeply flawed and annoying. “I don’t know who Martha Lear is,” Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, a professor and cofounder of the Boston separatist feminist group Cell 16 in the late 1960s, told me, “but I’d like to give her a piece of my mind for inventing that ahistorical and politically reactionary moniker.” The journalist Susan Faludi pointed out that she is chronologically between the two waves but temperamentally skews toward the Second Wave. Eve Ensler, who is chronologically Second Wave and came of age in that movement, calls her sensibility Third Wave because she’s committed to being funny and sexy and she uses art and pop culture to create her movement. Certainly, Eve’s most profound contributions to feminism—The Vagina Monologues and V-Day—are powered by Third Wave feminists who have performed her play on college campuses and around the world for the last decade. Feminists twenty years younger than I am don’t fit easily into my era’s identification with Nirvana, Riot Grrrls, and abortion rights marches in spite of the fact that no backlash has corrupted our wave. Meanwhile, I don’t understand an adolescence with abstinence-only education, purity rings, and Livejournal. And where to put bell hooks, the 1970s feminist who is also the most significant influence on Third Wave college students and Riot Grrrls?

If you think too hard about the criteria for each label, the integrity of the waves disintegrates rapidly and they eddy into one another, the way ocean waves do. But if anyone is going to resist a new wave, it is the previous wave, populated by women and men who believe that they have plenty left to offer and don’t need to be put out to sea. Ednie Kaeh Garrison recast this metaphor as radio waves, rather than ocean waves, in a 2000 essay, to convey that feminism’s reach was growing with each wave, moving further away (in time and in sheer numbers) from the small band of women who came together in 1848 for the first women’s rights convention on U.S. soil—the Seneca Falls Convention.

Garrison believes that the waves are bound to historical cultural moment but don’t necessarily define a cohort of feminists by age. “The ‘third’ is the mark of historical specificity, and like the marker ‘second’ in the Second Wave, it is not simply a sign of generational descendence,” she writes. “When we automatically assume ‘third’ refers to a specific generation, we actually erase the significant presence and contributions of many overlapping and multiple cohorts who count as feminists, and more particularly, of those who can count as Third Wave feminists.”1

Personally, I find the waves useful shorthand in describing the broad strokes of feminist history, which most people don’t know in even the most cursory way, much less a nuanced one. The American history we get in schoolbooks is also condensed, politically retrograde, and filled with holes—yet it at least provides the barest frame to view where we have been and where we are going. Feminism needs that same road map. We can add to it, balk at it, revel in it—but first we have to have it. What follows is a really, really short history of feminism.

Wave Zero
More than five hundred years before the Seneca Falls women’s liberation meeting in 1848, on the piece of land that would come to be called the United States, Iroquois and Cherokee clan mothers decided who would be chief and created war strategy, boys and girls were given an equal education, and women had control over their fertility and children. Many of the nearly five hundred Native American tribes thriving at the time provided an example of egalitarian society that the accidental arrival of Christopher Columbus would later obliterate.

In 1405, Parisian scholar Christine de Pisan published The Book of the City of Ladies in France. She argued that throughout history, women who had challenged the patriarchy had ruled in France and expressed the right and desire of women to be treated as fully human—that is, capable of being ambitious, intellectual, brave, or opportunistic. In Britain in 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Women, a foundational feminist work that says women aren’t intellectually inferior to men but their lack of access to education and other resources stunts their development.

The First Wave (Approximately 1840–1920)
The First Wave grew out of the movement to abolish slavery. That movement, and the ensuing one dedicated to women’s rights, drew from the ideals and disappointments of the new democracy. These Americans, many of them Quakers, believed that it was their moral responsibility to oppose slavery. The women who were active in this movement soon discovered that they, as females, didn’t have the rights that they were agitating for black men to have. As just one example, many women traveled with their husbands across the Atlantic to a historic abolitionist conference in London, only to be barred from entering once they arrived. They applied their raised consciousness, organizing skills, and philosophical template to themselves and fought this exclusion. Their strategies and technology included creating the Declaration of Sentiments (based on the Declaration of Independence, but including women), making speeches, writing books, and organizing marches.

If the First Wave had to be boiled down to one goal, it was rights of citizenship. The most important symbol of citizenship in a democracy is the right to vote, which suffragists asked for in July 1848, to universal ridicule, and achieved seventy-two years and one month later, on August 20, 1920. En route to the vote, these feminists changed our culture, shepherding in dress reform, birth control, and granting to women the right to own property, get divorced, be educated, keep their income and inheritance, and retain custody of their children. Alice Paul, a crucial organizer for women’s suffrage, quickly identified that a vote in such an unequal nation was less powerful than it could or should be. In 1923, she introduced the Lucretia Mott Amendment, also known as the Equal Rights Amendment, or ERA.

The Second Wave (Approximately 1960–1988)
Like the First Wave, the Second Wave grew out of an enormous social justice movement—the civil rights movement, which was reaching its apex in the early 1960s. Young people of all races flocked to the movement, eager to be a part of finishing the work of ensuring rights to black Americans. Once again, women in this movement—as well as the peace, free speech, and gay rights movements—found that they themselves didn’t have the rights that they were agitating for on behalf of others. They turned their raised consciousness and organizing skills on themselves and created an independent women’s liberation movement (the preferred term of this band of feminists). The radical feminists of this era believed in full-scale revolution for the common good. The liberal feminists fought for women to share in the opportunities and responsibilities men had, including creating a career, pushing off the drudgery of housework, and refusing to be held hostage by their reproductive systems.

The dominant goal of these feminists might be boiled down to equality—valuing equally that which was marked as female or feminine, such as knitting or childbirth, and having equal access to domains that had been exclusive to men. Second Wave feminists demonstrated that, given the opportunity or necessity, women could do what men did. They also made women’s activities visible and valuable. Their core beliefs stemmed from Marx, identifying women as an oppressed class and patriarchy as the illegitimate power over them. These feminists declared that they were the experts—not male doctors, shrinks, religious leaders, fathers, or husbands—when it came to abortion, rape, pregnancy, and female sexuality. They created language and resources for atrocities once just called “life”—such as date rape, domestic abuse, and illegal abortion. They lobbied for laws and court decisions to strike down legal inequality, such as Title IX, the Equal Pay Act, and Roe v. Wade.

By the mid-1980s, the concept of women as a class with overarching shared values and experiences was deeply splintered. Black women, women with disabilities, Latinas, lesbian and bisexual women, and others began critiquing the broad philosophies of the movement from within, causing splits that were rife with both tension and detailed feminist theory. The Combahee River Collective, a black feminist lesbian group that included Barbara Smith and Alexis De Veaux, created the theory of “interlocking oppressions.” This necessary deepening and expanding of feminist definitions coincided with a general backlash against feminism by people who wanted to undo the gains of the Second Wave.

The Third Wave (Approximately 1988–2010)
The Third Wave grew out of an enormous cultural shift. By the late 1980s, a cohort of women and men who’d been raised with the gains, theories, flaws, and backlash of the feminist movement were beginning to come of age. Whether or not these individual men and women were raised by self-described feminists—or called themselves feminists—they were living feminist lives: Females were playing sports and running marathons, taking charge of their sex lives, being educated in greater numbers than men, running for office, and working outside the home. For those who were consciously feminist, the splits of the 1980s formed the architecture of their theories. Kimberlé Crenshaw’s description of “intersectionality” drew on the work of the Combahee River Collective and advanced the idea that gender might be just one of many entry points for feminism.

The Third Wave rejected the idea of a shared political priority list or even a set of issues one must espouse to be feminist. It inherited critiques of sexist dominant culture (having grown up in a feminist-influenced civilization) and embraced and created pop culture that supported women, from Queen Latifah to bell hooks to Riot Grrrl. Girlie feminists created magazines and fashion statements (and complicated the idea of what a feminist might look like). Sex positivity undermined the notion that porn and sex work are inherently demeaning, and revealed a glimpse of the range of potential sexual expression.

Trans feminism, both the idea (from Judith Butler) that gender is performed and the belief that gender exists on a spectrum, complicated the legitimacy of women-only spaces as sites of unadulterated liberation. Reclaiming words like “slut” and “girl” replaced protests. Transparency about whether a feminist had worked out her body image issues, felt upset by an abortion, or believed that any hair could be unwanted replaced strong, black-and-white statements. Activists spoke from personal places, not to overshare, but to tell the truth about their lives and what had happened to them.

Third Wave feminism was portable—you didn’t have to go to a meeting to be feminist; you could bring feminism into any room you entered. Where the Second Wave radicals believed in mass movement and the liberal feminists believed in creating women’s institutions to influence men’s, a Third Waver might say, “Every time I move, I make a women’s movement,”1 indicating a feminism that is more individually driven. Institutions like NOW and Ms. magazine attenuated, in part because Third Wave feminists didn’t need any members to be feminist. And while they were committed to a pro-girl and pro-woman line, that didn’t preclude empathy for or interest in men’s experience of, for instance, sexual assault or abortion.

The Fourth Wave (Approximately 2008–Onward!)
By the time Obama and Hillary were facing off in the Democratic primaries, a critical mass of younger feminists began expressing themselves. They were tech-savvy and gender-sophisticated. Their youth was shaped by the 1980s backlash, Take Our Daughters to Work Day initiatives (also knows as the Girls’ Movement, led by Second Wave women) of the ’90s, and 9/11. Perhaps most significant, though, their experience of the online universe was that it was just a part of life, not something that landed in their world like an alien spaceship when they were twenty or fifty.

Much like the Third Wave lived out the theories of the Second Wave (with sometimes surprising results), the Fourth Wave enacted the concepts that Third Wave feminists had put forth. The Doula Project made sure the phrase “all-options” was more than just rhetoric, by creating doula services not just for childbirth, but for women placing an adoption or getting an abortion, too. Drawing from their own experiences, young activists created after-abortion talk lines, such as Exhale and Backline, to enable women and men to get the support they needed after a procedure—no enforced political line included. Trans-health initiatives (like that at the Feminist Women’s Health Centers in Atlanta) and trans-inclusive organizations like Third Wave Foundation (helmed by feminists in their twenties and thirties) reinforced the potential for all people to access feminine and masculine genders.

In place of zines and songs, young feminists created blogs, Twitter campaigns, and online media with names like Racialicious and Feministing, or wrote for Jezebel and Salon’s Broadsheet. They commented on the news, posted their most stylish plus-size fashion photos with info about where to shop, and tweeted that they, too, had had an abortion. “Reproductive justice,” coined by women of color in the 1990s, became the term of choice for young feminists. Transgenderism, male feminists, sex work, and complex relationships within the media characterized their feminism.

What do all of these waves add up to? Some analyze the era-specific crests of feminism as merely more splits, keeping feminists fighting with one another so that they don’t see the much larger and more challenging issues that unite them. A Second Wave friend of mine, Rosalyn Baxandall, notes that the First and Second Waves were part of larger social movements—abolition and civil rights—and were thus different than the trickles of activity she sees as having come later. But I see the cultural transformation that my generation harvested from the Second Wave’s ideas and revolution was the social movement of our day. Likewise, the Fourth Wave’s deployment of social media has once again transformed politics and feminism.

Personally, I believe that the Fourth Wave exists because it says that it exists. I believe the Fourth Wave matters, because I remember how sure I was that my generation mattered.

Because of media advances and globalization, waves of mass change are coming faster and faster. The waves are all part of the same body politic known as feminism, and combine to become a powerful and distinct force. “One aspect of the ‘waves’ metaphor that I kinda like,” the historian Louise Bernikow wrote on our Second Wave–dominated LISTSERV, “is the idea that waves recede and gather strength and come back stronger, don’t they?”

“Tsunami!” replied Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, the professor who resented Martha Lear’s coinage of “Second Wave.” “Let’s do it.”

From the book F'em: Goo Goo, Gaga and Some Thoughts on Balls by Jennifer Baumgardner. Excerpted by arrangement with Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.

jennifer baumgardner and sonJennifer Baumgardner is an award-winning writer, filmmaker, activist, and professor whose work explores abortion, sex, bisexuality, rape, single parenthood, and women's power. She is the author of Look Both Ways and Abortion & Life, the co-author of Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future and Grassroots: A Field Guide for Feminist Activism, and the creator of the "I Had an Abortion" project and film. She teaches at The New School, in New York City, and lives with her husband and two sons.

Author photo by Gretchen Sayers.


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