to main Feminist Movement page
was posted to H-Women in May of 1996.
recent post asked if the common wisdom that there were two waves of
feminism has ever been challenged. If it hasn't been, it should be.
Those of us who started the women's liberation movement in the 1960s
thought we were the second wave of female political activism because
we knew very little about our own history. We were vaguely aware of
the Suffrage Movement and mistakenly thought that was all our foremothers
had done. One of our magazines was even named The Second Wave. Now
that we know more, it is time to drop it. If anything, what began
in the 1960s was the third wave of women's activism in the US, and
maybe even the fourth.
three main waves of conscious female activity have all had their roots
in periods of organized agitation for social change --Abolitionism,
Progressivism, "the Sixties" -- and each has been shaped
by the movements which gave them birth. Even when women's movements
grow vastly beyond their origins, forming their own communities with
their own values, they are always embedded in and shaped by the larger
social movement community from which they sprang.
the Nineteenth Century women whose roots were in abolition and temperance
worked to increase the rights of women, particularly the rights of
married women to gain some independence from their husbands and the
right of all women to gain an education. According to O'Neill (1969,
p. x) the term "woman movement appears in the late nineteenth
century to describe all the public activities of women, whether directly
related to feminist goals or not."
real second wave was the Suffrage Movement, which was stimulated by
the good government branch of the Progressive Movement. Although there
was a flurry of suffrage activity during the Populist movement of
the 1890s, the most active years for the Suffrage Movement were in
the second decade of the Twentieth Century. Women such as Susan B.
Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had been agitating for woman suffrage
for many decades but it didn't strike a popular cord until it was
picked up by those who wanted to reform the means of electing public
officials and curtail the power of the party machines. Woman suffrage
became a possibility when men, whose support was necessary because
they could vote, saw it as valuable to attaining their goals of a
better, purer, government.
contemporary movement which began in the mid-sixties is better seen
as the Third Wave of conscious female activism. This third wave is
the only one which can properly be called feminist, because the term
wasn't in use until after 1910 (Cott, 1987). Even then, it was the
younger generation of suffragists, rather than the older one which
actually organized the Suffrage Movement, which found the term attractive.
This younger generation included Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, and others
who formed the National Woman's Party. They provided the bridge between
the Second and Third Waves (Rupp and Taylor, 1987).
Copyright (c) 1996
Cott, Nancy F., The Grounding of Modern Feminism, New Haven,
Conn.: Yale University Press, 1987.
O'Neill, William L., Everyone was Brave: The Rise and Fall of Feminism
in America, Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1969.
Rupp, Leila and Verta Taylor, Survival in the Doldrums: The American
Women's Rights Movement, 1945 to the 1960s, New York: Oxford University