Feminism is term that was coined in the west at the mid-1800s organised largely around the mobilization for woman suffrage in Europe and the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The ‘First Wave’ feminism had a fairly simple goal: have society recognize that women are humans, not property. Leaders of the 1st-wave feminism were abolitionists, and their focus was on white women’s rights, an issue that afflicted the feminist movement for decades to come.1 The first wave of feminism waned following the passing of the U.S Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 giving women the right to vote; as well as the two world wars in the first half of the twentieth century. Feminism “revived” in the late 1960s and early 1970s as “Second Wave” feminism, which built on first-wave feminism and challenged what women’s role in society should be, focusing on the institutions that held women back. In this wave feminists questioned traditional gender and family roles. Major victories of this wave included the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and Roe V Wade in 1973, which gave American women the right to have an abortion; and queer theory became more recognised as a feminist issue. Three main types of feminism emerged during this wave: Mainstream feminism focused on institutional reforms, which meant reducing gender discrimination, giving women access to male-dominated spaces, and promoting equality. Radical feminism wanted to reshape society entirely, saying that the system was inherently patriarchal and only an overhaul would bring liberation. It resisted the belief that men and women were basically the same. Cultural feminism had a similar view and taught that there’s a “female essence” that’s distinct from men.2 Building on the institutional victories 2nd wave feminism which gave women more rights and power, ‘Third-Wave’ feminism of the 1990s started to grapple with other aspects of their identity, such a sexual orientation and gender identity, and was characterised by embracing individuality and rebellion. While the 1st and 2nd wave feminism largely ignored racial disparities, 3rd wave feminism also became more conscious of race. Kimberle Crenshaw, a gender and critical-race scholar, coined the phrase “intersectionality” in 1989. The term refers to how different kinds of oppression – like those based on gender, race, class and disability – intersect with each other. The phrase “third-wave feminism” was coined in 1992 by Rebecca Walker, a 23-year old Black bisexual woman. With the advancement and growing use of technology it became easier to hear perspectives and ideas from feminists around the world, expanding the movement. While there may not have been a major shift in ideologies, because of the resurgence of attacks on women’s rights and the MeToo movement some feminists believe we have entered the ‘Fourth wave’ feminism, which is said to have begun around 2012. The use of social media for activism has propelled the movement firmly into the technological age. Fourth-wave feminism continues to grapple with intersectionality. Many fourth-wave feminists are working to combat exclusion of trans women and other non-binary individuals, who have in previous waves of feminisms been excluded. As with every wave before it the fourth wave is complex. It encompasses many movements that both complement and clash with each other. This tension is unavoidable. While some types of feminism can have harmful impacts, having a variety of voices makes feminism more inclusive and successful. The climatecrisi has also come into sharp focus in this wave, with feminist movements demanding that women have a seat at the table, and that all solutions to the crisis are informed by feminist knowledge and principles.

Feminism and race

Throughout the various waves of feminism there has been ongoing criticism of “white feminism,” which ignores the unique struggles of women of colour and marginalises non-white feminist’s knowledge and ideas.

1 Emmaline Soken-Huberty, ‘Types of Feminism: The Four Waves’, Human Rights Careers (blog), 28 February 2021, https://www.humanrightscareers.com/issues/types-of-feminism-the-four-waves/.

2 Ibid