As a part of our ongoing coverage of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, Oola is highlighting inspiring women across a variety of sectors.
“Feminism” is a word that packs a lot of punch. For some, it’s a despised word and concept. For others, it’s beloved and revered. And for still others, it’s somewhere in the middle.
But regardless of how you feel about it, there’s no denying that feminism has evolved significantly over the decades and centuries. It does not look how it used to, and in 10 years, 20 years, 50 years, it will likely evolve all over again.
So, what really is modern-day feminism? How is it different from its former iterations? And where is it headed next?
The Waves of Feminism
Depending on who you ask, feminism has had either three or four “waves.” These waves describe the different phases of the feminist movement as it’s evolved over time.
The first wave of feminism began in the late 19th century and continued into the early 20th century. It included the Seneca Falls Convention, the Women’s Suffrage Movement, and such notable figures as Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony.
Second-wave feminism started later in the 20th century—and is widely acknowledged to have specifically begun in the 1960s. It was a break from the traditional notions of domestic, suburban housewives reliant on their husbands. It included the Equal Pay Act of 1963, discussions of societal power dynamics, and attention paid to domestic violence and sexual assault issues. Important activists of this era include Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, and Florynce Kennedy.
Third-wave feminism is thought to have emerged in the 1990s. To a certain extent, this wave began because of a feeling of unfinished business from the previous waves. Many women felt that the movement hadn’t gone far enough, and that it had too often ignored issues of class and race. Intersectionality became a more central part of the movement (though there was still some exclusion of women of color). Issues like sex positivity, reproductive rights, and sexual harassment were hallmarks of this wave. Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, Anita Hill, Cherríe Moraga, and Eve Ensler were just a few of the many important figures of this time.
It’s now thought by most that we have officially entered a fourth wave of feminism. Since we’re still in it, it’s not as clearly defined as the others. But some consensus has emerged around what this modern-day feminism involves and means.
The Fourth Wave
Definitions of when fourth-wave feminism began vary slightly. But it’s generally thought to have started some time between 2007 and 2014. This timing is partly tied to the rise of the internet and social media, as well as feminist sites such as Feministing and Jezebel. The #MeToo and Time’s Up movements followed not too long after, ushering us into the phase of feminism that we’re currently in.
Other influencing factors have included men like Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, and Larry Nassar; the continued rise of the LGBTQ rights movement; and the Black Lives Matter movement and increased scrutiny of white feminism.
#MeToo and Time’s Up
Modern-day feminism took a massive turn in 2017. After the election of Donald Trump, there was a heightened awareness of the sexual harassment, abuse, and assault that men get away with—including men of tremendous power, fame, and wealth. That year, other high profile men were exposed for harassment and assault. Then, in October 2017, the hashtag #MeToo exploded across the internet. Women the world over publicly shared that they were survivors of harassment and assault, and a new movement was born.
Time’s Up sprang out of the Me Too Movement. Hollywood celebrities founded it in 2018 in response to scandals like Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo phenomenon as a whole. It’s a charity that raises money to support survivors of sexual harassment.
In the months and years following the emergence of the Me Too Movement, there’s been a clear shift in how we approach not only sexual assault and harassment, but also feminism more broadly. There’s simply no modern-day feminism without the Me Too Movement and everything that sprang out of it.
Black Lives Matter and Intersectional Feminism
One of the most important and valuable aspects of modern-day feminism is the increased focus on intersectionality. Though previous waves of feminism have in some ways attempted to be racially inclusive, on the whole, they’ve fallen short.
With the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013 and accelerated awareness of racial injustice in the United States and abroad, modern-day feminism couldn’t help but to be impacted. There’s been an increased understanding that true feminism cannot exist without including the issues of women of color.
We’ve still got a long way to go when it comes to creating equal opportunities, rights, and treatment for people of color. But a sustained focus on intersectional feminism will keep us moving in the right direction for 21st century women’s rights (and beyond).
LGBTQ Rights and Redefining Gender
Another central component of modern feminism is the impact of LGBTQ rights and perspectives, and a changing understanding of how we define sexuality and gender. 21st century activists have challenged the traditional gender binary, asserting that gender (along with sexuality) is a spectrum and is socially constructed. Additionally, there has been increasing awareness and acceptance of transgender individuals. This has further evolved our notions of gender, and has impacted our understanding of feminism as well.
Some have gone so far as to question whether feminism itself is too constrained within heteronormative values. Critics assert that feminism is too confined within outdated gender definitions, and that its rhetoric and aims need to be more inclusive.
Only time will tell how feminism will respond to our evolving understanding of gender and sexuality.
The Future of Feminism
There are too many aspects and nuances of modern feminism to be summed up in one article. It’s a multidimensional and multifaceted movement with many different perspectives, values, and goals.
But all in all, it is clear that the feminism of today is not what it used to be. Its rapid evolution in even just the past decade demonstrates just how much feminism shifts with time, struggles, and demands of each generation.
Feminism and women’s rights have taken enormous strides in recent decades—but we’ve still got a long way to go.