The Fourth Wave: Feminism and its Legacies

Words by Dylan Rowen

Artwork by Emily Savage.

The feminist movement over the last century can’t be contained or neatly arranged into any one ideological box, but its development in the term of “waves” is incredibly useful in understanding its complexity and crucial historical relevancy. Its legacies and after-effects are constantly crashing and seeping into each other; feminism’s fluidity is what makes it unique and effective. The first-wave can roughly be traced from 1848 to 1920, with the second-wave occurring from 1963 to the 1980s, the third-wave from the 1990s to the early 2000s, and currently we are in the fourth-wave, which started in about 2012.

First-wave feminism began in the late nineteenth and twentieth century, and focused primarily on legal issues such as female suffrage and women’s property rights. Both the terms “first-wave” and “second-wave feminism” were coined and officially documented by Martha Lear in article titled ‘The Second Feminist Wave’ for The New York Times in 1968. Writing out of the context of the burgeoning 1960s women’s movement and giving explanation and analysis from Betty Friedan — author of the 1963 The Feminine Mystique, a text widely credited in sparking the beginning of second-wave feminism — Lear writes that:

According to Prudence Chamberlain, the problem with specific waves’ identities and figureheads is that earlier waves and cis-heterosexual white “grandstanding” feminists have “set up exclusionary norms for feminist waves. This has continued through the ways the waves have been documented and archived, with an emphasis placed on highly literate, educated, white, straight women.” The diversity and complexity of feminism’s history has simply not been recorded and memorialised correctly. This is a problem which later waves of feminism wish to address.

Third-wave feminism emerged in the 1990s through the radical feminist theory of the 1980s. Third-wave feminists believed feminism still had objectives to achieve; such as questioning gender binaries, the ways in which media proliferated power, and identities connected to one’s own position in the world. This new wave of feminism was influenced by the emergence of postmodernism and critiqued manifestations of cultural hegemony that defined ideas about beauty, sexuality, womanhood, gender and toxic masculinities. In an effort to place intersectionality at the forefront of its tactical approach, third-wave feminism responded to definitions of “woman” as multivalent and fluid. Black feminist scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 coined the term “intersectionality” as an analytic framework from which to derive action via critiquing the systems of power in society which keep marginalised people oppressed. Third-wavers prioritised “multivocality over synthesis” and “action over theoretical justification.” American writer and activist Rebecca Walker — daughter of the radical feminist author Alice Walker — emerged as a prominent leader in third-wave feminism. In her famous 1992 article published in Ms. Magazine, she proclaimed “I am the Third Wave.” Walker ended her manifesto declaring identity as always shifting, constantly overlapping, and sometimes conflicting. Walker defined third-wave feminism as an integration of the:

Third-wave feminism emphasised an inclusive approach to feminism that encouraged diverse minorities to form coalitions of active power against patriarchal forms of subversive control.

Fourth-wave feminism is the new iteration of the feminist movement and focuses heavily on the empowerment of LGBT individuals, trans-inclusivity, sex-positivity and body-positivity. This wave of feminism has been focalised via the use of technology in its rise, with the internet allowing its proliferation through “hashtag activism” resulting in online communities pushing for global change. The emergence of this wave began around 2012, with a focus of sexism, rape culture and sexual harassment. It was generated in opposition to entrenched institutionalised misogyny, and prioritises a reckoning of sexist and racist individuals within positions of power. The #MeToo and the Time’s Up movements mobilised in response to the “Weinstein Effect”, a global trend currently exposing the sexual misconduct of famous and powerful people. Fourth-wave feminists rely on social media to organise and advocate against systematic power injustices and abuses of power.

The relevance and need for feminism is crucial, especially in today’s political and cultural climate. With an equal emphasis on intersectionality and an analytical awareness of how the dynamics of class, race, sexuality, gender, religion, and age all affect us in differing ways, fourth-wave feminism continues the radical principles of its past and evolves it into the now.

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