Though it doesn't create the most representative picture of what can broadly be described as the women's movement, it can be helpful to visualize the vast, complicated birth and evolution of feminism in terms of the "wave narrative." What are the waves of feminism, and how are the feminist waves different? The first way to think about the waves is in terms of historical period or epoch – in other words, putting rough date ranges on the moments in time when self-identified feminists (though the nomenclature varies) began organizing, either in general or in a notably new way. Of course, that doesn't mean that feminism went away between the waves; rather, in the off seasons, ideas and practices were changing and adapting to need the needs of their particular context.
Another way to think about the waves of feminism is to combine historical time period with a particular set of organized, codified goals for which feminists were fighting. For example, the First Wave focused on suffrage, while the Second Wave roughly equated to the quest for equal rights – a piece of men's pie. But describing the waves only through an exclusive agenda misses a lot of the subtleties of this movement – namely, the specific platforms adopted by women of color, which, just like the goals of mainstream, white feminism, have existed as long as women have been subjugated, and there has been a need.
In other words, the feminist movement is multifaceted, so much so that using the article "the" feels almost irresponsible. If you want to really understand the waves of feminism, combine their time period with their agenda while remembering that the mainstream narrative has flaws. Keep reading to learn more about feminist waves, but keep in mind that no singular agenda could ever capture the complexity of this movement.
Even though “feminism” didn't officially begin until the mid-19th century, there are countless earlier examples of women asserting their independence. Female writers and thinkers from the 17th and 18th centuries like Aphra Behn, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Jane Austen all demonstrate feminist work in their writing. They ask questions about where a woman’s place is and why it has to be there; they challenge the idea that women can’t or shouldn’t write; and they advocate for the basic humanity of women as individuals deserving of human rights. However, because they didn’t function as part of a more organized, named apparatus fighting for social change, they are considered “foremothers” rather than members of the women’s movement.
In 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton delivered an address to more than 300 men and women at the first-ever convention for women’s rights, the Seneca Falls Convention. In her speech, Stanton outlined a political strategy for women to to gain equal access and opportunity. The event is commonly marked as the beginning of the suffrage movement.
These early suffragettes challenged the “cult of domesticity,” the idea that the home was women’s natural place. They fought for the right to vote, held protests while wearing their Sunday best, and spoke in public - all behaviors considered shocking for women at the time.
At first, the fight for suffrage was interwoven with other socially progressive movements of the late 19th century, like the fight to abolish slavery. As a result, this version of the women’s movement involved white women from both the middle and working classes along with women of color - which, sadly, hasn’t always been the case for mainstream feminism.
Women like Sojourner Truth and the Grimké sisters exemplify this anti-slavery, equal-rights-for-women moment in the feminist movement. These activists saw connections between the subordination of women and the subordination of African Americans, and they fought for a platform of uplift and equality for both groups. Unfortunately, that way of thinking didn’t take a lasting hold among middle-class white feminists.
Early feminism quickly distanced itself from the anti-slavery movement, as critics (and some women in the movement itself) saw gains made for African American men as gains lost for white women. In other words, the mainstream feminist platform moved away from abolition under the assumption that gaining equal rights was some kind of zero sum game where only one group could win at a time.
Soon, white, middle-class, well-educated feminists began distancing themselves from the fight for abolition with the idea that they would “go back” and fight for it again once they had won equal rights for themselves. This led certain white feminists to not only abandon abolition, but to also espouse white supremacist ideals.