A Starting Point that Never Ends: A Brief Look at Feminist History (Guest Post!) Posted on May 5th, 2021 by

Today we welcome guest blogger Ashley Evans, the Library’s academic assistant, for the second post is a series on feminism resources. You can read her first post here.

Book cover for The Combahee River Collective Statement (1977).

Book cover for The Combahee River Collective Statement (1977).

Feminism has been around arguably as long as women have existed. As mentioned in the previous blog post feminism is a movement for equality, and people believe the movement could have begun as far back as Plato, who criticized marriage structure and said women could be raised to rule. No one can confirm nor deny Plato’s full thoughts on feminism, but we do have knowledge on the different eras, or waves, of feminism and how people viewed them.

The ‘waves’ of feminism are the time periods within the feminist movement that characterize different actions taken by women and the societal changes that came about. There are many negative connotations associated with the idea of feminism such as women who despise men, women who wish that they were seen as ‘above’ men, and many things in between. These connotations are often associated with the earlier waves of the movement and are considered outdated. Now, there are three recognized movements of feminism as follows:

First Wave Feminism is often seen as the time from the late nineteenth to early twentieth century as women began fighting for basic political rights (i.e., the suffrage movement).[1] These women were expected to be “perfect housewives,” not working, and attending to their homes and children. Their push for freedom was a huge steppingstone and these early activists, such as Dorothy Day, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Blackwell, etc., helped push forward the movement. One thing to note about this movement is that the first wave was primarily led by white, middle to upper class women. Women of color and LGBT+ people were not a part of this movement or, at least, were not well recognized in history. The activists in this movement did great things, but they left our many people in their fight.

The World Wars took center stage for many years, and feminism sat quietly in the background, waiting. Second Wave Feminism revived, though it never truly died down, in the late 1960s and continued through part of the seventies.[2] In this era, women began pushing towards greater equality in all areas of life. This included everything from fighting for equal pay, equal education, dismantling the ideas of a nuclear family, and more. This was during the time of the Civil Rights movement and many of the activists and voices at this time coincided with each other. Many women of color were pushing for both racial and gender equality and white women, who had previously ignored the need to help women of color, began working with them. Notable people and groups at this time include Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, The Combahee River Collective, and so many more exceptional people. This wave was certainly about critiquing and fighting against the white male dominated institutions, and partially where the idea that ‘feminists hate men’ came from.

As you’ll realize about feminism from the third wave, there is no room for hate within the feminist movement if justice and equality is to be obtained. Third Wave Feminism is seen as far more intersectional (the acknowledgement of different forms of discrimination and how they affect people daily) and seeks to fight for everyone on an equal basis. This part of the movement is considered the wave we are in currently and is often referred to as “intersectional feminism” as it is far more inclusive of all women and people no matter race, ethnicity, class, nationality, religion, and sexual or gender identity. Our wave is seeking to question, redefine, reclaim, and fix the issues within our society that have been perpetrated for hundreds of years. There is no one specific goal other than equality, and with the movement being so broad and inclusive, it would be impossible to list all of the things being fought for. We are still fighting for pay equality, equality of race and sexuality, climate justice, and a plethora of other things.

There are many varying definitions of what the waves of feminism look like, who is a feminist, and where we started our movement, but with the help of many amazing people we have made progress and gotten where we are. Some people may say 1st and 2nd wave feminism are not feminism because they weren’t inclusive, and others say our 3rd wave should be considered a 4th or 5th. The definitions I have given are generally accepted, but there was so much work done before the 19th century and there is still much left to do. And thus, we fight.

If you want to know more about the history of feminism I recommend the following works, authors, and databases for your perusal:

[1] McAfee, Noëlle. “Feminist Philosophy”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), last modified 18 Sep 2018, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminist-philosophy/#FemiBeliFemiMove
[2] McAfee, Noëlle. “Feminist Philosophy”.


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