The Different Waves of Feminism in the US


By David K. Johnson, Ph.D.King’s College

Although debates about women’s rights had been around for a long time, in the US, philosophically and historically, feminism has come in three “waves”. Feminism is the idea that women are of equal value to and deserve all the same rights as men; sexism should end, and women deserve justice for wrongs committed against them.

A woman with her fist up in the air facing the sunset.
Although feminism may have had similar definitions throughout history, it has changed via different waves. (Image: KieferPix/Shutterstock)

The First Wave of Feminism

First-wave feminism’s breakout moment was the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. Written primarily by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the convention’s Declaration of Sentiments argued that women and men were naturally equal and proposed a political strategy by which women could attain equal access and opportunity in the political system. 

First-wave feminism is most closely associated with women’s suffrage and is generally thought to have ended when the Nineteenth Amendment passed, giving women the right to vote. But first-wave feminists also founded the temperance movement—trying to protect themselves against domestic abuse at the hands of alcoholic husbands—and fought for the abolition of slavery. 

Some (most likely men) argued that women would improve the political process because of their natural domestic and maternal disposition and that giving them the right to vote would make them better perform their God-given roles as housewives and mothers. Others (most likely women) argued that women should have the right to vote because they are innately morally superior to men. 

But the argument that seemed to win the day was that, despite their biological differences, men and women were equal as human beings, both in their worth and value, and thus deserved equal political rights.

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The Second Wave of Feminism Was More Powerful

Women’s hands on top of each other.
The perception of feminists as militant lesbians wasn’t true, and only a small minority endorsed this belief. (Image: siberian_photographer/Shutterstock)

By the 1960s, however, it became clear that voting rights weren’t enough to secure the equalities the first wave wanted. Second-wave feminism began in 1963 when Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique—and called attention to the plight of college-educated homemakers who were unsatisfied in their dull domestic life of serving food, washing clothes, and making beds. Not only were they bored; they felt they had no identity. Friedan called for them to find fulfillment in the workforce, and an entire generation responded.

But the movement quickly expanded. The “women’s liberation movement” fought for equal reproductive, sexual, property, and divorce rights. Soon to follow was Roe v. Wade, legal changes to property and divorce laws, altered sexual expectations, and oral contraceptives, which allowed women to pursue education and employment without worrying about pregnancy or allowing others to decide the purpose of their sexual activities.

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The Criticism of the Second Wave of Feminism

Although some second wavers, such as Kate Millett, did call for feminists to reject men and “choose lesbianism,” the picture of all feminists as militant lesbians who hate men is largely a product of the imagination of the right—like Rush Limbaugh, who popularized the term “feminazi.”

Historically, second-wave feminism might have also ended with the passage of an amendment to the Constitution—in this case, the Equal Rights Amendment, which would have guaranteed legal equality for the sexes regarding employment, property, and divorce.

But, although it passed both houses in the late 1970s, a conservative backlash after the election of Ronald Reagan, led by Phyllis Schlafly, kept the ERA from receiving the necessary ratifications from the states. So exactly when the second wave ended is a matter of debate.

Third Time’s the Charm

Third-wave feminism itself is difficult to pin down. Arguably, it came into existence with Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth in 1990. Or in 1992, when in response to calls for a post-feminism era in the New York Times after the Anita Hill hearings, Rebecca Walker wrote in Ms. magazine, “I am not a post-feminism feminist. I am the Third Wave.”

There is no set leader of third-wave feminism, however, and no one set doctrine or goal, perhaps because, given the era, its ideas largely spread online. As Dr. Charlotte Kroløkke puts it, “Third-wave feminisms are defined not by common theoretical and political standpoint(s), but rather by the use of performance, mimicry, and subversion as rhetorical strategies.”

Indeed, some of the major players in third-wave feminisms include riot grrrl bands like Bikini Kill and activists/performance artists like Pussy Riot and Guerrilla Girls. 

Learn more about gender questions and feminist science fiction.

Wider Scope of the Third Wave of Feminism

One thing most third wavers have in common, though, is that, while they acknowledge the third wave was made possible by rights the second wave secured, they’re also critical of the second wave in many ways—like how it was mainly something advocated for-and-by white middle-class women.

Five ethnically different women smiling.
The third wave of feminism was more concerned with minorities compared to previous waves. (Image:

Third wavers are much more aware and sensitive to the needs of minority women and gender issues in general, conversing with and advocating for the rights of gays and transsexuals. And, unlike some previously discussed second wavers, third wavers do not have restrictions for how feminists must present themselves. 

Third wavers generally advocate for anyone’s freedom to dress and act as they like, including dressing sexy and being sexual. Indeed, a woman’s sexuality can be used as a means to feminine power. 

Third wavers are also notorious for taking what were once derogatory terms used to describe feminists—like “bitch” and “nasty woman”—and appropriating them. As Bitch magazine put it, “…‘bitch’ is most often hurled at women who speak their minds, who have opinions, and don’t shy away from expressing them. If being an outspoken woman means being a bitch, we’ll take that as a compliment …”

Common Questions about the Different Waves of Feminism in the US

Q: What were some of the reasons men supported women’s right to vote?

Some men supported the first wave of feminism because they believed women having the right to vote would be beneficial to society due to their caring nature.

Q: Why are third-wave feminists critical of second-wave feminists?

They believe the second wave of feminism was mainly about middle-class white women, and it failed to include other minorities when advocating for rights.

Q: What are the characteristics of the third wave of feminism?

The third wave of feminism is more sensitive to the disposition of other minorities in society. They are also more accepting of different forms of feminine sexuality and less concerned about what feminism should entail.

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