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Waves of Feminism
by Jo Freeman

This piece was posted to H-Women in May of 1996.

A 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.
The 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.
Throughout 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."
The 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.
The 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 Press, 1987.