Guy Fawkes: Feminism and the Putative Fourth Wave

From a comment I wrote on WHTM, lightly edited for clarity absent its original context:

So many people have announced the beginning of 4th wave feminism. It’s not here.

The only way to begin a new wave is to make new ethical claims. The “first wave” feminists were actually acting on a relatively diverse mix of ethical philosophies, but the ones who’ve come to define 1W are the Susan B. Anthonys, and those were contractarians. Their claims were primarily about how women are treated by the government and the reforms they demanded were largely designed to make women equal participants in the social contract — which in a democracy is significantly defined by voting and participation in government.

Socialist feminism ran concurrently with contractarian feminism (and a smaller movement of not-well-defined sexually libertarian feminism), but since “wave theory” didn’t exist until relatively recently, it got lumped in with the 1W contractarian feminism in the earlier period and outright ignored during the period after the recognized end of contractarian feminism in the 1920s (leaving the appearance of a gap in feminist activism, though that appearance was deceptive).

2W feminism is largely existentialist in nature, and made claims about how women were treated socially, separate from the treatment of women by the government. This is a substantially different feminism that tries to justify negative ethical judgements of sexist behaviors on entirely different ethical grounds of an essential and universal quality of “womanhood”, and focuses on relationships women have with large institutions that are not the government and with whom we have no direct social contract and which have their own freedoms against which the claims of 2W feminism must compete. The language and form of analysis is completely different from 1W feminism.

3W feminism incorporates critiques of how women themselves are a heterogenous group. Though intersectionality comes to us through honest-to-goodness (not buzzword bullshit) critical race theory written by one of the two women of color who first introduced the term critical race theory (Kimerlé Crenshaw), feminism that acknowledges divides between groups of women and the need for a feminism that creates ethical demands on individual women towards other individual women has its roots so long ago that it actually is contemporaneous with 1W. (Remember Sojourner Truth’s “Aren’t I a woman?”) It further ran concurrently with 2W (Maxine Hong Kingston, the Combahee River Collective, Pat Parker, Shulamit Firestone etc., etc.).

What transitioned between 1980 and 2000 is that the critiques of feminism’s outsiders demanding an approach that acknowledge power differences, power abuses, and systematic privileges between women, falling on racial and other highly contested lines, finally reached the center of feminist activism and gender studies courses. Part of this is that even the relatively privileged white feminists of the 80s went through the so-called “Sex Wars”. In the Sex Wars, the Lavender Purge and other intrafeminist conflicts white feminists treated each other badly. This made them reflect on who was hurting whom, and why some people with bad ideas and harmful behaviors nonetheless maintained a respected and visible place within the movement. White, mainstream feminists suddenly had a number of people who reached to women of color feminisms to make sense of their contested, divided experience.

So now we have intersectional feminisms, which are quite old but are named for the metaphor that was coined right in the middle of this crucial period. And while old in philosophical tradition, it is new to the dominant position in feminist theory. Intersectional feminisms make different ethical claims than 2W feminism, though it does not reject the causes and claims of 2W feminism wholesale (much as 1W feminism was largely accepted by 2W feminists).

But ever since 2000 I keep hearing about people saying we have a 4th wave of feminism and every time I hear this I ask, “What is the new philosophy, not just the same ethical and philosophical approach applied to a new issue (like internet-based social media), but actual new method of analysis and new ethical claim being made by this proposed 4W feminism?”

There’s never a good answer.

I’ve heard 4W feminism is feminism informed by religion for religious women. But previous generations of feminists have been religious, often quite fiercely so. The 1848 Seneca Falls convention was held in a church by church-going women for church-going women.

I’ve heard 4W feminism is feminism that addresses behavior on the internet performed by feminists who use the internet. But that’s facile. We didn’t start a new wave of feminism when the radio was invented. Or the TV. It’s the same feminism addressing a new issue, as far as I can tell.

I’ve heard 4W feminism described as feminism done by people born (or coming of age) after 3W feminism had already been established. However if a mere passage of a couple decades required a new wave designation, then the 1W name for a period spanning 7-8 decades immediately fails. And if the 1W name is taken to be coherent, than the mere passage of 20 or 25 years can’t define a novel “wave” of feminism.

I’d be delighted for a genuinely new feminist methodology to arise that grounds genuinely novel ethical claims. But if we’re simply dealing with dehumanization over twitter instead of face to face or in the newspaper, then sorry. That’s still 2W feminism, focussed on the existentialist feminist priority of the struggle to place transcendent value on the authentic human experience. Dehumanization is a 2W concept. Addressing dehumanization that occurs in 280 characters or less isn’t suddenly no longer 2W.

So what is 4W feminism? What does it claim? On what body of thought does it rest its ethical claims about what is wrong with the world and what does it prescribe we should do about those wrongs? How is the logic by which it persuades fundamentally different from what came before? How is its vision of justice incompatible with that of the 3W?

Someday there will be a 4W feminism. It will be exciting and I’ll learn a ton from it and I can’t wait to read it.

But no one has been able to show me anything yet that’s not just a previously established school of feminism writing about a new issue — which is just as novel as a movie reviewer writing about this years’ movies instead of last. It’s not a whole new wave of movie reviews. It’s just the ongoing work you would expect the same movie reviewers to keep doing, so long as all movie reviewers don’t just up and die. If one movie reviewer retires and is replaced by a younger movie reviewer with different tastes, we still do not have a whole new “wave” of film studies.

Please educate me if I’m wrong and there really is a novel form of feminism out there that I should read. Until you do though, count me skeptical. Too many have announced a 4W before now for me to trust such claims without investigation.




  1. Jonathan Dresner says

    I wonder if the integration of non-binary and trans conceptions of gender – which certainly predate the current moment, as does a certain amount of feminist theory around these topics, but which hadn’t quite risen to the level of ethical claims – might be the essense of a fourth wave. The ethical claim would be, I think, an expansion of the community of obligation that you describe as the core of the 3rd wave to include people who were, often aggressively, excluded from the category of women, or at least women’s feminist communities.

  2. says

    The more I learn about radical feminism in the 70s, the more skeptical I am of wave theory in general. You could argue, as you did, that 3W ran concurrently with 2W, but what if we just… chose not to frame it that way? I mean, it’s fine either way, I’m not so confident in my history as to tell other people what to do.

  3. invivoMark says

    I feel like I have only heard of 4W feminism in a derogatory sense, referring to a performative rebellion expressed primarily through Instagram and TikTok. I agree that there is nothing new on the philosophical front, unless you count a wider recognition of gender fluidity and a diversity of nonbinary identities.

    But there is certainly a new wave in terms of medical care. The 2010s saw a huge spike in gender-affirming medical care in the US and elsewhere, which is great to see – these are lifesaving treatments, and their surge in popularity surely reflects broadening of support and acceptance of trans and nonbinary people.

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    I feel particularly dumb for having to ask this, but here goes: what has the question of “waves” in US/Canadian feminism got to do with a very early 17th-century crypto-Catholic bomb-maker?

  5. says

    @pierce R Butler:

    The “Guy Fawkes” series is just an acknowledgement that some things I’m posting here are things I originally wrote somewhere else. This is one of those things. I recognized that I was writing some valuable things (or things I arrogantly assumed were valuable) on places other than my blog and decided that it would be good to maybe repost some of them here.

    Two things then conspired to name the series “Guy Fawkes”:
    1 was that the “Remember, remember” rhyme fit with pulling valuable content from comment threads where they might get lost to OPs here where they can be found again, and

    2 it was Nov 4th when I had that idea, so the first post in that series happened on Nov. 5th.

    In short, it makes no sense at all, really, but out of a random confluence of factors it struck my whimsy, and so now whenever I repost something here originally written elsewhere I call it a Guy Fawkes post.

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