“Movements” can be hard to spot at first. They tend to be diffused, swelling like a wave until they break on our collective conscience. The Women’s Marches that brought millions of women (and supportive men) onto the streets worldwide, the day after the inauguration of Donald Trump, appeared to come from nowhere. In fact, many feminist activists had been talking about the so-called “fourth wave” of feminism for several years.
Earlier waves had been clearly recognizable; the suffragette movements of the turn of the century, the reproductive and work rights movements of the 1960s. The most recent wave has been subtler. Borne of the internet, it is broken into myriad subgroups with diverse goals and grievances. But in the last year, as #MeToo and Time’s Up gained momentum and a record number of women prepared to run for office, it’s clear feminism was reaching a level of cultural relevance it hadn’t enjoyed in years.
While the first waves focused on legal rights – vote, work and reproduction – the fourth wave has sought to do something grander – tackle the pervasive, deep-rooted personal and institutional biases that stop women taking the last steps towards equality. These are the daily microaggressions that are harder to quantify and difficult to solve. It’s the pay gaps, inequality in leadership, parenting penalties and protection from predators. It’s the subtle discrimination of a boss who rewards male traits over female or who belittles and demeans female workers. It’s the preponderance of all-male speaking panels and leadership boards. It’s the co-parent who doesn’t share the load at home.
And in the wake of the 2016 US presidential election, when most white women voters chose a man who had bragged of sexually assaulting women, instead of his opponent Hillary Clinton, the first woman to run for president, feminism is being forced to confront the fact that many women are still not onboard. “We’re still at a stage where we’re working out what it means to be women. What we think of ourselves and what we think of each other,” Michelle Obama told the United State of Women Summit earlier this year. “In light of this last election I’m concerned about us as women.”
The First Wave: 1840s-1920s
Thankfully, there have always been arguments that women are more than simply men’s property. The first political movement was driven by the suffragettes of the 19th and 20th century where women worldwide waged drawn-out battles to win the right to vote and stand for office in the belief that with political power they would force dramatic change. The battle would take the lifetimes of many of the suffragettes. In 1902, Australia became the second country – after New Zealand – to grant women the right to vote at a national level (Indigenous Australians were excluded until 1967). In the US it was 1920.
Nordic countries were the first Europeans to give women the vote, from 1906 in Finland. In the UK it was 1928 (women over 30 were granted the privilege in 1918). Others dragged their feet. The loss of millions of men who fought on the frontlines in WWII pushed France, Italy and Greece to enfranchise women in the years after the war. Swiss women finally went to the ballot box in 1971 and on went the momentum until 2015 when Saudi Arabia became the last country to grant women the right to vote (excluding Vatican City).
The Second Wave: 1950s-70s
With the right to vote won, feminists gradually turned their attention to women’s equality in the wider society. The second wave of feminism began in the US with Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique published in 1963. In Europe, prominent feminist thinkers such as Simone de Beauvoir, whose The Second Sex came out in France in 1949, were also urging a rethink on women’s roles (as did Australian Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch in 1970). That same year Ms. magazine co-founder Gloria Steinem gave her famous commencement speech “Living the Revolution”.
The Feminine Mystique was a phenomenon as much for its reach as its premise. Selling three million copies in three years it reached into the homes of America’s housewives teaching them about the “the problem that has no name”, the systemic sexism that said a woman’s place was in the home and if they were unhappy as housewives, it was their own fault. “I thought there was something wrong with me because I didn’t have an orgasm waxing the kitchen floor,” Friedan later quipped. The fault wasn’t with women, Friedan argued, but with a system that refused to allow them to use their creativity and intellect. She told women they were right to be unhappy.
The Female Eunuch burst into a burgeoning but still low-profile feminist movement in Australia. With its bawdy, provocative language and intimate personal details, the book challenged the country’s patriarchy. “It’s hard to describe the dimensions of the book’s impact,” recalls feminist Anne Summers in Christine Wallace’s book Germaine Greer: Untamed Shrew. “The [Sydney Morning] Herald has only just started using words such as ‘pregnant’ and ‘virgin’. There were no sexual references of any kind.” Greer’s approach was different, says Wallace, and many Australian women responded positively.
“I thought there was something wrong with me because I didn’t have an orgasm waxing the kitchen floor.”
The second wave won major victories in the US including the Equal Pay Act and a right to educational equality. Abortion rights were granted to UK women (excluding Northern Ireland) in 1967 and in some Australian states in 1969. The monumental 1973 Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade brought abortion rights to American women (the battle to overturn Roe v. Wade still dominates US politics today). The second wave worked on getting women the right to hold credit cards under their own names and to apply for mortgages. It worked to outlaw marital rape, to raise awareness about domestic violence, build shelters for women fleeing rape and domestic violence and legislate against sexual harassment in the workplace.
Despite those major wins second wave feminism drew heavy criticism in the US for sidelining women of colour. Earning the right to work outside the home was not a major concern for black women, many of whom had already been doing that to survive. They wanted reproductive freedom, but also to stop the forced sterilization of people of colour and people with disabilities.
Eventually the movement faced a backlash that would hobble feminism for decades to come. In 1968, feminist and civil rights activists picketed the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey, for what they called its demeaning and patriarchal treatment of women. The women ceremoniously threw items that objectified women into a garbage bin – pots and pans, brooms, Playboy magazines and bras. Nothing was actually burned – the police wouldn’t allow it – but it didn’t matter as the protest lingered in popular imagination as a “bra-burning” exercise and would fuel the backlash to come. In that same year this writer’s own mother, Penelope Plummer, became the first Australian to win Miss World. The contest, held in London, provoked no protests at that time but two years later Miss World became the focus of feminist ire too.
By the 1980s the conservatism of Ronald Reagan in the US and Margaret Thatcher in the UK, closely followed by John Howard’s 1990s Australia, successfully positioned feminists as humourless, hairy-legged shrews who protested to distract themselves from loneliness because no man would ever want them. By the 1990s women were rejecting the term, many thinking the fight was over. “I headed into college believing that the feminists of the ’60s and ’70s had done the hard work of achieving equality for my generation,” wrote Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg in her bestselling book Lean In. “My friends and I truly, if naively, believed that the world did not need feminists anymore.”
The Nebulous Third Wave: 1990s
Some of the controversy around whether a fourth wave of feminism has begun is because there’s no agreement on the third wave. The nebulous third wave was chiefly a US experience found in the aftermath of Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. In an extraordinary act of courage, Hill publicly testified at Thomas’ senate confirmation hearing that the judge had sexually harassed her when she worked for him as a legal clerk. The hearings captivated the country and Hill’s revelations prompted an avalanche of sexual harassment charges against powerful men in much the same way allegations against Harvey Weinstein would do in 2017.
Congress sent Thomas to the Supreme Court anyway. It sparked a national conversation about the lack of women in national leadership and, a year later, women won more seats than ever before in the US Congress. But again, the movement petered out and the numbers plateaued.
The Fourth Wave: 2012-2018
The fourth wave is the first feminist uprising of the technology age. Explosive as it was, the #MeToo movement encouraging women to share their experiences of harassment and assault, was just the latest feminist social media activism that academics back-dated to 2012. In April that year, London-based activist Laura Bates started the website Everyday Sexism as a safe space for women to share their experiences of daily, normalized sexism – from street harassment and workplace discrimination to sexual assault and rape. Tens of thousands of women have now posted to the site and it’s spawned versions in 25 countries.
Many large corporations have now felt the sting of an online campaign by women. In 2017, Facebook was forced to confront the issue of gender-based hate speech on its pages after initially arguing images of women being abused did not violate its terms of service. Activists mobilised members to find examples and expunge them. In one post, a woman is depicted in a shopping cart with the caption: “Returned my defective sandwich-maker to Walmart.” The post was flagged en masse and eventually removed.
The fourth wave is also distinct by its diversity. The demands of white middle class women are different from their Arab, African or Asian sisters for instance. Those who identify as transgender or non-gender conforming are facing different battles. Each group has its own hashtag, memes and campaigns. And, on frequent occasion, including the lead up to the Women’s March, conflict has ensued.
“I cannot associate myself with a feminism that focuses dementedly on ‘self-empowerment’,” writes US editor and activist Jessa Crispin in her book Why I Am Not A Feminist. “Whose goals include not the full destruction of corporate culture but merely a higher percentage of female CEOs and military officers, a feminism that requires no thought, no discomfort, and no real change.”
“I think that now feminism is inherently intersectional feminism – we are in a place of multiple feminisms.”
The fourth wave has also shown up generational divides. Millennial women were outraged by comedian Aziz Ansari’s entitled, demeaning treatment of a date who wrote about the encounter for the website Babe. This was not a Weinstein story of assault or intimidation but Ansari’s date felt pressured into performing oral sex on him, she wrote. While many raged against Ansari’s predatory behaviour, others were incredulous. “Apparently there is a whole country full of young women who don’t know how to call a cab, and who have spent a lot of time picking out pretty outfits for dates they hoped would be nights to remember,” wrote Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic. “They’re angry and temporarily powerful, and last night they destroyed a man who didn’t deserve it.”
Unlike the previous waves, the fourth is a tornado of views, experiences and grievances. Just as the internet has enabled like-minded women to connect worldwide it has also created acceptance for the traditional outsiders. “I think that now feminism is inherently intersectional feminism – we are in a place of multiple feminisms,” assistant professor in women’s and gender studies April Sizemore-Barber told Vox in January.
As the internet has fuelled a diverse range of women’s causes it has also fuelled a backlash. One dark sub-movement has come to light in recent months. In April 2018, Alek Minassian used his van as a weapon to kill 10 people, injuring more. It was later discovered that he’d posted on Facebook pledging allegiance to the “Incel Rebellion”. “Incel” stands for “involuntarily celibate” and the online community of men are united by their inability to convince women to have sex with them. They claim their sexual failure is due to women being shallow, vicious, and only attracted to hyper-muscular men. They promote an “Incel Rebellion” or “Beta Uprising” to eventually overturn the sexual status quo. It became clear that the Toronto attack was in homage to Elliot Rodger who killed six and wounded 14 in a shooting spree in Santa Barbara, California in 2014. Before doing so, he had posted a YouTube video called “Elliott Rodger’s Revenge” where he ranted about women who rejected him and men who attracted those women.
Feminism in 2018 is unchartered territory. Jaded veterans of previous waves have been predicting a vicious backlash against the latest uprising since Harvey Weinstein’s dramatic downfall. But as more powerful men are toppled and corporations and public entities – fearful of financial repercussions – make dramatic changes, it is starting to look like fourth wave feminism will be at least as consequential for women as its forebears, although some argue this won’t occur until there is a change at the very top – The White House.
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