I’ve seen some confusion about “fourth wave feminism” and what it means. As it stands, the term has two separate meanings.
There were tonnes of suffrage movements spanning hundreds of years, most of which failed. In contrast, the US-based women’s liberation movement of the early 1960’s was unusually successful over its two-decade run. One possible explanation is that they had the benefit of hindsight. Unions and other social justice movements were more willing to team up with feminists, and they shaped their activism to appeal to the masses. Whatever the reasoning, the eventual outcome was a lot of sympathetic mass-media attention that made them a cultural presence, letting them achieve more in a shorter time-span than the suffragists did.
That’s all a feminist “wave” is, a groundswell of sympathetic media attention to feminist causes. It’s an exercise in branding, to be brutally honest, not much different from grouping people into distinct generations. When you read what feminists were actually saying, the waves reveal themselves to be mere political conveniences.
Representing feminisms’ past, present, and future as a series of waves may help some to see connections between large-scale public feminist movements of the past centuries, but lumping hundreds of thousands of women under the term “second wave” and others under the label “third wave” feminists certainly contributes to the homogenization within and the erasure of similarities across these groups as well. Such labels might be acceptable if, in fact, clear distinctions between these groups existed, but the evidence reviewed here suggests just the opposite. Rather than representing American feminism as three (semi-)distinct waves, however, a more productive presentation of feminist history might emphasize continuity over time, while simultaneously highlighting the constant diversity of thought, movement, and actors at each historical moment.
Harnois, Catherine. “Re-presenting Feminisms: Past, Present, and Future.” NWSA Journal, vol. 20 no. 1, 2008, p. 120-145. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/article/236183.
Feminism doesn’t have “seasons,” people are always doing the work. The only thing that changes is how much attention the media gives to that work, and whether feminists of the day can exploit that attention to advance social justice.
I am sick of the way women are negated, violated, devalued, ignored. I am livid, unrelenting in my anger at those who invade my space, who wish to take away my rights, who refuse to hear my voice. As the days pass, I push myself to figure out what it means to be a part of the Third Wave of feminism. I begin to realize that I owe it to myself, to my little sister on the train, to all of the daughters yet to be born, to push beyond my rage and articulate an agenda. After battling with ideas of separatism and militancy, I connect with my own feelings of powerlessness. I realize that I must undergo a transformation if I am truly committed to women’s empowerment. My involvement must reach beyond my own voice in discussion, beyond voting, beyond reading feminist theory. My anger and awareness must translate into tangible action. [….]
I write this as a plea to all women, especially the women of my generation: Let [Clarence] Thomas’ confirmation serve to re-mind you, as it did me, that the fight is far from over. Let this dismissal of a woman’s experience move you to anger. Turn that outrage into political power. Do not vote for them unless they work for us. Do not have sex with them, do not break bread with them, do not nurture them if they don’t prioritize our freedom to control our bodies and our lives.
I am not a postfeminism feminist. I am the Third Wave.
Third-wave feminism started as a manifesto’s catchphrase, and feminist manifestos are a dime a dozen. Rebecca Walker’s writing landed at the perfect time, though, as women all across the USA were angered at how Anita Hill was treated. Her phrasing stuck, as it invoked the good vibes people had in the 1990’s towards the “second wave.”
In 1968, though, the term “second wave” was coined to divide and conquer feminism by singling out a minority for ridicule. It has a very similar history to “new atheism,” in fact; compare Gary Wolf’s hit job on the 2006-era atheist movement to Martha Weinman Lear’s sneering prose about NOW.
In short, feminism, which one might have supposed as dead as the Polish Question, is again an issue. Proponents call it the Second Feminist Wave, the first having ebbed after the glorious victory of suffrage and disappeared, finally, into the great sandbar of Togetherness. When I prepared to do an article on this new tide, I prepared also to be entertained; it is the feminist burden that theirs is the only civil-rights movement in history which has been put down, consistently, by the cruelest weapon of them all—ridicule.
“We must not be afraid of ridicule,” they say to one another. And, indeed, when pink refrigerators abound, when women (51 per cent of the population) hold unparalleled consumer power, when women control most of the corporate stocks, when women have ready access to higher education and to the professions, when millions of women are gainfully employed, when all the nation is telling American women, all the time, that they are the most privileged female population on earth, the insistence on a civil-rights movement for women does seem a trifle stubborn. “Oh, come off it; why ruin it for the rest of us?’ a New York matron recently commented to a NOW member, and she wasn’t half kidding.
Shifting cultural norms transformed Lear’s snarky term into something positive, to the point that Walker was eager to merge the “second wave” brand with her own call to action: we changed the world before, let’s do it again.
Compare and contrast this exercise in myth-making to the people who view the “waves” of feminism as genuine resurgences. Martha Rampton in 2008 argued there was a distinctive fourth wave, with the proximal cause being the third wave’s obsession with dispassionate, distant academic arguments instead of a fiery new activism she was observing. This is laughably backwards, but also a sign of how the “third wave” brand had evolved in two decades. What was once an angry backlash to Antia Hill’s treatment had become “intersectionality,” “queer theory,” and a high-minded attempt to improve on the shortfalls of second wave feminism.
Writing a decade later, Jessica Abrams instead argued the internet was defining a fourth wave of feminism. Ealasaid Munroa agrees.
Many commentators argue that the internet itself has enabled a shift from ‘third-wave’ to ‘fourth-wave’ feminism. What is certain is that the internet has created a ‘call-out’ culture, in which sexism or misogyny can be ‘called out’ and challenged. This culture is indicative of the continuing influence of the third wave, with its focus on micropolitics and challenging sexism and misogyny insofar as they appear in everyday rhetoric, advertising, film, television and literature, the media, and so on.
The existence of a feminist ‘fourth wave’ has been challenged by those who maintain that increased usage of the internet is not enough to delineate a new era. But it is increasingly clear that the internet has facilitated the creation of a global community of feminists who use the internet both for discussion and activism.
But it’s telling that Abram never once mentions the third wave in her article, and Munro has to tack on question marks after every appearance of “fourth wave.” The third wave needs to die down before a fourth wave can begin, yet the third wave has quite a shelf life. Marking one segment as unique because it challenges sexism via popular media is bizarre, doubly so when you then commend a different segment for also challenging sexism via popular media. There’s also the inconvenient fact that “call-out culture” isn’t what you think it is, and the similar concept of “cancel culture” doesn’t exist.
Still, there seems to be a consensus out there for an internet-focused “fourth wave.” This is the first and most common meaning of “fourth wave,” and while I consider it quite clueless it is about as harmful as grousing about avocado toast. At best, this attention on waves focuses media attention on activists working to change minds and policy.
The second meaning of “fourth wave” is much more in line with Rebecca Walker’s usage: a buzzword from a manifesto.
Like most good liberals, I was totally on board with transgender “liberation.” After all, it’s the next civil rights struggle, right? I’ve marched against war, racism, for health care, for women’s and gay and lesbian rights. In the 1980s, I surfed the Second Wave of feminism, loving who I chose, dressing as I chose, speaking my mind, and living the life of equality first wavers like Susan B. Anthony, Charlotte Gilman, and Emma Goldman fought so hard for. I was a two-time election worker on President Obama’s campaigns. In the past couple of years, I celebrated as homophobic laws toppled, state by state, and gay marriage morphed into mainstream reality. And until recently, I’ve had the unexamined, vague conviction that the “T” in LGBT was part of the same good trend: more inclusion for the marginalized.
But that has all changed. I’ve shifted from the cookie-cutter progressive vantage point I inhabited only a few months ago. It’s not a 180 turnaround. I believe in civil rights for all people, and I don’t think trans people should face job, housing, or other discrimination. But I no longer see transgenderism as a liberation movement. From where I now stand, I see it as a profound and fundamentally conservative undermining of the gains of the Second Wave of feminism. It’s the Third Wave, a tsunami of narcissism, of post-modernist relativism run amok…a hall of mirrors, wave upon wave of shiny, YouTube transition videos and Tumblr confessions… where subjective feelings and ideas always trump physical reality.
Something has gone wrong. Very wrong. I’ve been asleep for 20 years, but now I’m waking up…because my own teenage daughter is being churned and tossed in this very turbulent sea. […]
What happened to: women can be anything they want to be? Shave your legs, don’t, cut your hair, don’t….love who you want, work on cars, have a child, don’t….that’s liberation as I’ve always understood it. But Second Wave feminism is considered stodgy and old fashioned now. Despite its fundamentally liberating message to women.
A 4th Wave of Feminism. We need it. We need it NOW.
Around the beginning of 2015, the teen child of a TERF announced that they didn’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. This scenario usually causes someone to rethink their bigotry, such as what happened to Dick Cheney. Not here; instead, this mother doubled down and started up a hub for activism.
4thWaveNow is a place for other open-minded parents of “gender non-conforming” girls and women who are questioning the dominant trans-driven paradigm. Note please: It’s not a place for homophobes or religious zealots who think their offspring will go to hell for making the wrong choices. It’s for clear thinkers who aren’t afraid to call the trans agenda what it is: a regressive cult.
It’s lonely for parents like us. Nowadays, a mother or father who questions whether lifelong drugs and surgery—leading to permanent, lifelong physical and psychological changes—is the right thing for their child is vilified.
This blog is also a place for women-born-women (sorry—I’m not really interested in hearing from transwomen) of all ages who are troubled by the trans phenomenon.
This is the second meaning of “fourth wave.” It is no less a political convenience than “second” and “third wave,” with only a tenuous relation to reality, but at least those two were fighting against bigotry. This second meaning, in contrast, appropriates feminist terminology to promote bigotry. It is a manifesto for TERFs to deny medical care to children and deny the rights of transgender people. If unopposed, it could become dominant over the first meaning, in the same way “second wave” went from an insult to a feel-good brand. TERFs have already hijacked the term “radical feminist” to their own ends, so this is a plausible concern.
It is thus worth knowing about both meanings, and pushing back against the bigoted version to prevent another successful brand hijack.