When you ask five different people what feminism is, you’re likely to get five different answers. Person 1 might describe what many right-leaning individuals would call a “feminazi”: a far-left/Marxist feminist who often comes off as authoritarian and anti-men. Person 2 might describe someone much more moderate and Persons 3, 4, and 5 will differ as well. Perceptions of feminism vary for many different reasons but suffice it to say feminism means different things to different people.
Being a very diverse political movement and body of thought, there are many different ways to categorize feminists, but they are typically grouped into three different “waves” (some would argue there is a fourth wave, but we will stick with three for the sake of simplicity): the first wave, the second wave, and the third wave.
The first wave – First-wave feminism is typically associated with the suffrage movement which began in the nineteenth century and continued into the early 20th century. The major accomplishment of the first wave in the United States was the passage of the 19th amendment which gave women the legal right to vote.
The second wave – Compared to second-wave feminism, first-wave feminism was typically more moderate or conservative. Being inspired by the civil rights movement, second-wave feminists fought for greater gender equality in all parts of society. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is considered one of the major accomplishments of the second wave. Many second-wave feminists adopted far-left/radical politics and are referred to as “radical feminists”.
The third wave – Emerging in the 90’s, third-wave feminism gained popularity and set itself apart from the second wave with its adaptation of ideas from postmodernism, a philosophical movement that challenges many assumptions of more traditional philosophical movements collectively known as modernism. One major third-wave takeaway from postmodernism is the rejection of sex/gender essentialism, the notion that sex/gender is an essential, or natural, category that exists independent of culture.
Both the first and the second waves tended to be centered around the experiences and needs of white, middle/upper-class, cisgender women. As a result, many women of color, lower-class women and transgender women were not well represented, if at all. One of the things the third wave did was challenge the notion of a universal experience of womanhood. In other words, the third wave pushed the idea that there was no one way to be a woman. It did this by acknowledging that race, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, gender and other identities intersect. For example, because of racism a black woman’s experiences and needs differ from some of the needs and experiences of white women. The idea that identities intersect is called intersectionality and was originally introduced by Kimberle Crenshaw.
In her book Gender Trouble, philosopher Judith Butler argues that since there is no universal womanhood, feminists need to be cautious when it comes to deciding who feminism is for. Many radical feminists believe that feminism is for “women born women”, a concept that excludes transgender women–hence the term trans-exclusionary radical feminist, or TERF. Butler warned that by drawing hard lines around who counts as a woman and who does not, feminists actually recreate the very structures of oppression they fight against.
In practice, many third-wave feminists have failed to heed Butler’s warning. Though transgender women are generally accepted in many feminist spaces, some so-called intersectional feminists still fall for the lie that trans-women have, or had, male privilege by virtue of the fact that they are assigned male at birth. This often happens as a result of centering the experiences of cisgender women as universal and since transgender women’s experiences tend to differ from those of cisgender women (for example, some trans women report not experiencing sexual harassment from men to the same degree or frequency as their cisgender counterparts), some feminists conclude that trans women have, or had, male privilege. However, if we take intersectionality seriously, this is a big mistake.