Feminist waves

Feminism in "Waves": Useful Metaphor or Not?

It had become clear that the kind of feminist activity that had blossomed from the late 1960s through the late 1980s in the United States was no longer present. Consequently, many began to ask: what was the present state of feminism? One idea put forth in the early 1990s was that feminism had not died but was merely in a "third wave" – a younger form of feminism that looked very different from earlier forms.[1] Here I would like to turn to the question of the current state of feminism, not through asking whether we are in a "third wave, " but through reflecting upon the general use of the wave metaphor in feminist self-understanding. In seeing what has been useful, or not, in this metaphor, we can generate some tools in understanding the contemporary state of U.S. feminism.

Let me begin then with some reflections on the wave metaphor. In the late 1960s, it was very useful for feminists to begin to describe their movement as the "second wave" of feminism. It was useful because it reminded people that the then current women's rights and women's liberation movements had a venerable past – that these movements were not historical aberrations but were part of a long tradition of activism. The late 1960s and early 1970s was a time when feminists began to rewrite U.S. history. Involved in that rewriting were new understandings of the suffrage movement, including the recognition that the suffrage movement was part of a larger nineteenth century movement around women's issues. One could expand the meaning of the suffrage movement and tie it to 1960s activism by referring to the former as the first wave of U.S. feminism and to the 1960s movement as the second wave. Thus the wave metaphor both showed the 1960s movement as something other than an historical aberration and also framed the nineteenth century movement as far larger and more historically significant than most of us had been taught.

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Between Feminist Waves

­After the passage of the 19th Amendment, the National American Woman Suffrage Association, spearheaded by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, was disbanded. The League of Women Voters and National Women's Party took its place. But three years after women won the vote, suffragist and feminist factions split over Alice Paul's introduction of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to Congress. The proposed amendment, which read, "equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex," alienated some women who feared that its passage would under…

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