How Has Feminism Changed Between The 1960s And Today?

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Feminism is the mobilisation for equal rights between the two sexes. According to Schneir, feminism is one of the basic movements for human liberty (Peterson, 2017). Feminism acts to challenge existing gender inequalities that favour men over women in terms of the legal right to vote, gendered pay gap, sexism and misogyny. Griselda Pollack describes feminism as the changes that women desire for themselves and the world (Pollock, 1996). Most importantly, it is about respecting a woman’s diversity, identity, knowledge and strength in a strive to empower all women to be aware of their full rights. I will be examining the changes of feminism through the study of the four existing waves. Despite the first wave happening before the 1960s, it deserves mentioning as it was the catalyst for other waves.

First Wave Feminism:

The first wave focused on gaining more legal and political rights for women, particularly, gaining the right for women to vote. By 1918, women were given the right to vote if they were over the age of 30 and owned property, later in 1928, this right applied to all women over the age of 21 (Representation of the People Act 1918). The first wave was successful in gaining more equality for women and giving them the chance to have a say in politics as well as making them more aware of their lack of power, which inspired women to create a change. Moreover, the first wave-inspired many white and middle-class women to create their own movement for greater rights, known as second-wave feminism. However, a critique of this was that it was too focused on white, upper-class women to the exclusion of less privileged women (Charles, 2018).

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Second Wave Feminism:

Unlike the first wave, second-wave feminism provoked great discussion about women’s oppression, the nature of gender, and the role of the family. In 1963, writer and feminist Betty Friedan published ‘The Feminine Mystique, in which she challenged the post-World War II belief that it was women’s destiny to marry and bear children. Friedan’s book began to raise the awareness of many women who agreed that they were unhappy with their roles as housewives after achieving a University degree, which lead to a rapid evolution into the second wave of feminism (Friedan 2010). Educated women wanted to be more than just housewives or mothers in which women began to fight for more equal opportunities, in the act to end gender stereotypes. The outcomes of the second wave formed the establishment of Title IX in the United States, which prohibits discrimination based on sex in any federally funded institution or activity (Title IX, 2015). Additionally, the legality of a woman’s right to have an abortion under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution (Roe V. Wade, 2020) was introduced. In 1960, the US Food and Drug Administration approved the birth control pill, freeing women from the restrictions of pregnancy and childbearing. Women who were able to prevent and delay pregnancy were, therefore, freer to work, attend college, and delay marriage. This resulted in women holding more power in the decision to have children or whether they wanted children at all, which put less power in the hands of their partners to decide when a woman is ‘ready to have a baby. The prohibition of discrimination in any institution or activity also meant that women were given more opportunities in finding jobs that provide equal pay between the two sexes. The NOW organisation supported these issues with their main focus being to de-sex job advertising, ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, repeal abortion laws, and end education and employment discrimination (Charlotte Moller, 2016). NOW was a primary voice for the second wave as they promoted a lot of awareness across the issues of equal pay, sexism in the world of work and women’s rights to abort.

While the first wave focused on women achieving the right to vote and buy property, the second wave focused more on getting rid of the burdens that were getting in the way of men and women being equal in the world of work and decision making. However, in the review of the second wave, it became clear that this movement failed to recognise equality amongst women of different races and classes as these solutions only focused on improving the lives of white, middle-class women.

Third Wave Feminism:

The third wave of feminism emerged in the 1980-the 1990s, in response to the failures of the second wave. Different to the first and second waves, the third wave included factors of intersectionality, such as race and class which have proven strong connections with being a woman. Although campaigns against employment and wage discrimination helped overcome the gendered pay gap, the relationship between feminism and black women always presented greater challenges. While previous waves only saw gender as the problem between equality, black women were forced to confront the interplay between racism and sexism and to figure out how to make black men think about gender issues, while making white women think about racial issues (Brunell and Burkett, 2020). The third wave helped overcome these issues by encouraging existing feminists to understand that inequality exists beyond just gender. Third-wave activist, Rebecca Walker, reportedly kicked off this new movement when she declared ‘I am the Third Wave’ (Walker, 1995). As Walker explains, there seems to exist this idea that to be a feminist is to conform to an identity and a style of living that doesn’t allow for individuality. Creating this idea that our identity will dictate and control our lives, therefore, forces us to choose sides: female against male and black against white. This way of ordering the world is especially difficult for a generation that has grown up transgender, bisexual and interracial (Snyder, 2008). These interpretations make it clear that third wavers embrace and accept that there exists a difference in identities that shouldn’t be forced into one unifying agenda.

As an outcome of the third wave, there developed the Queer Theory which supported the idea that gender and sexuality are fluid categories, and do not easily map onto binary understandings of ‘male’ and ‘female’ (Munro, E. 2013). The third wave feminism was heavily critiqued for their strategy in moving away from the ‘personal is political’ debates of the second wave to a broader focus on individual freedom as it meant that it would become more difficult to put their aims into effect. Another critique of this wave was its lack of activism to support their ideas.

Fourth Wave Feminism:

The fourth wave emerged as the post-2000s movement with focuses on sexual harassment, body shaming and rape culture, among other issues. A key component of this wave was the use of social media in action to challenge ‘everyday sexism’. Social Media has opened up significant spaces for the rebirth of feminist debates and resistance and it has been argued that this is the birthplace of fourth-wave feminism (Leupold, 2010; Solomon, 2009). What is certain is that the internet has created a platform, in which sexism or misogyny can be ‘called out and challenged. Currently, the fourth-wavers are driving the movement behind the Women’s March, Slut Walks, The Women’s Strike, #MeToo and #Time’sUp campaigns. An existing example of a misogynist is Donald Trump asseveral number inflammatory remarks about women, which became a call for social change. When Trump was elected to become the president, there began huge protests against him. For instance, the Women’s March resulted in 4.6 million people attending various events, making the Women’s March perhaps the largest single-day demonstration in the United States history. Arguably, even more, powerful was the #MeToo movement, launched in 2006, to support survivors of sexual violence. The campaign gained attention from all around the world as victims of sexual assault began sharing their experiences, using the hashtag #MeToo on social platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. This resembled that women were supporting one another and empowered each other to speak up for themselves. Another protest of fourth wavers was the Slut Walks which began in 2011. They used the Slut Walks in the act as a protest of the idea that the way to prevent rape is for women to “stop dressing like sluts.” Here, we see a desire to tackle the feminist backlash construction of feminism as ‘man-hating or ‘bra burning’, and to seek equality that demobilises the power of one gender over another and shames sexist and violent behaviour wherever it is found (Cochrane, 2012).

Although the fourth wave provided a greater place for women to have their voices heard, they were critiqued for their choice of activism as they relied too much on the internet and social platforms to form their wave. Many argued that another wave could not be built solemnly through the use of the internet. Additionally, while the fourth wave promoted the use of social platforms as a place of unity and a place of calling out and challenging sexism and misogyny, inevitably, these platforms were also used as a place of hatred. The fourth wave could not prevent the misuse of these platforms, that is, by people who exist to continue spreading sexist comments and negativity around a woman and her rights.

To conclude, we can examine clear changes throughout the four waves of feminism, however, the focus of improving women’s rights remains the same throughout all four waves. Despite the difficulties and backlash these waves faced, we can definitely agree that feminism has changed and had huge positive impacts on a woman and her rights, since the 1960s. At present, women have more equality in household chores, working environments, politics and decision making, moving away from past events in which women would exist to marry, have children and become ‘slaves for their husbands. Although sexism still exists today, there is a significant change to the level of sexism that is freely allowed as there are more laws in place in action to protect women’s rights. While in the past, a woman’s only job was to be a housewife and look after their husband and children, today, a housewife is not considered as a job but more a choice and more women are encouraged and supported to go into the world of work. Overall, it is important to understand that each wave performed in different ways to get us here today.


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