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A Fourth Wave Emerges: the Future is Feminist

This March marks the 30th anniversary of Women’s History Month and nearly 45 years since the passing of Title IX. As we celebrate the victories of past feminist movements, we also celebrate the progress made within the movement itself.

While feminist thought existed in the Western world prior to the 19th century, the first organized push for women’s rights was the suffragette movement, hallmarked by the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention and extending to the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1917. Growing from the abolition and temperance movements, the fight for women’s suffrage was the result of white women awakening to the tragic irony of agitating for liberty and peace for others while it was still denied to them.

This first wave of feminists not only won women the right to vote, but the right to own property and be economically independent. Central to first wave feminism was being recognized as autonomous citizens, which meant destructing legal institutions that defined women as little more than minors.

Credit: Emma Dewey / M-A Chronicle.

Second wave feminism, which grew out of the anti-war and civil rights movements of the 1960s, focused on challenging traditional norms of femininity, like the constructs of marriage and housewifery. The rejection of traditional femininity branded feminists with the stereotypes that persist today of angry, bra-burning, hairy misandrists.

For Alanna Jaworski, a tenth grade English teacher here at M-A, some of her earliest exposures to feminism were the stories of female role models in her life that were part of this rejection of traditional femininity. Growing up in a small town in western Pennsylvania, one of Jaworski’s own high school English teachers told stories of how she was “one of the first women [teachers at the school] to wear pants… [and] she was one of the first women to work when she was pregnant and come back to work.”

The fact that women wearing pants to work was once considered a radical act exemplifies the success of second wave feminists in fundamentally changing the way we think about gender and misogyny in society. They uprooted roles and stereotypes, and shed light on America’s glaring gender inequality.

Second wave feminism also built long-lasting, national networks and institutions of support for women. They established women’s buildings and shelters for victims of domestic abuse, made reproductive healthcare a right, created new academic fields of women’s studies or gender and sexuality studies, and shifted national discourse to include women’s equality as a real issue. Victories like Title IX, Roe v. Wade, and the Equal Pay Act all secured the rights of generations of women to come.

Credit: Emma Dewey / M-A Chronicle.

Jaworski was among the generation that first began to benefit from the establishment of feminist thought in academia. In college, she studied English education and was able to take courses built around female writers, that introduced her to both the tenets and complexities of feminism. “In college I learned too that it’s not just that women can be feminists, men can be feminists; that it’s this idea of treating everyone equally,” Jaworski explained, “Works like the ‘Feminist Manifesto’ and female writers… exposed [me] to different types of writing and different ideas of what women can do, and be, and think.”

The establishment of feminist academia is self-perpetuating, and now Jaworski is able to teach her high school students these same topics she learned in college. “As a teacher, I can include works from women in my classes, and I can create units of study like I did with an honors class last year — we looked at feminist poetry, we looked at gender roles in the media and throughout print advertisements and television advertisements,” she added.

Despite the significant achievements of the movement, for many, second wave feminism was also highly exclusionary. Like the first wave of suffragettes, feminism in the 1960s and 70s was primarily the awakening of middle to upper-class white women. Working class women and women of color were already excluded from norms of domestic femininity by definition of their social status. The emerging Marxist ideology that women were an oppressed class was not news to these women; as members of the working class or racial minorities, their oppression had always been very tangible in their lives, and organizing for labor rights, racial justice, and decolonization existed well before the advent of “The Feminine Mystique.”

This is not to say that the oppression of white women is invalid, but that second wave feminism often attempted to sell a false message of universal womanhood, that washed over the uniqueness of each woman’s oppression. In reality, experiences of womanhood depend on a variety of factors such as race, socioeconomic status, sexuality, and environment.

The discord between what well-to-do white women and more marginalized groups envisioned for feminism meant that concurrent to mainstream feminism emerged more radical movements, such as womanism or Xicanisma, both approaches designed to specifically address the complex oppressions of black women and Chicana women, respectively.

Credit: Emma Dewey / M-A Chronicle.

Yet many of that era considered even white feminism to be radical — for some, too radical. By the late 1970s, a “backlash” movement had emerged, beginning with the failure to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, extending through the election of Ronald Reagan and the growth of the New Right, and reinforced by media narratives in the 1980s that proclaimed a post-feminist society and death of the movement.

The growth of a third wave in the 1990s, however, proved these narratives wrong. Counterculture movements of this era rejected labels and pushed the boundaries of social norms. Rising from the punk scene of the Pacific Northwest was the Riot Grrrl movement, which pushed back on the male dominated music industry and created an underground network of young women that circulated zines focused on validating women’s experiences and confronting taboo, gender-specific issues. Zines became a forum not just for discussing sexism, but other forms of oppression like racism and fatphobia.

Concurrent to zine production was the performance aspect of Riot Grrrls and other female musicians. Young women of the time, from the punk grrrl bands like Bikini Kill and Hole, to hip hop queens like Missy Elliott and Lil’ Kim, to pop sensations like the Spice Girls and Destiny’s Child, both reclaimed and redefined what femininity was. High heels, red lipstick, and push-up bras — symbols of the traditional femininity the previous generation of feminists had so vehemently rejected as agents of the patriarchy — became choices a woman could make about her identity and sexuality. Words like “slut” and “bitch” were reclaimed to empower and highlight double standards. Simultaneously, these artists were creating their own images of girl power that dominated pop culture and left a legacy of female role models for their generation.

Credit: Emma Dewey / M-A Chronicle.

While many of this era were reluctant to accept the label feminist — and many second wave feminists were reluctant to grant them it — the third wave was ultimately feminist in its call for every woman to be able to define her own life for herself. They expanded feminist thought to include an individualistic approach, where a woman’s personal choices of dress, expression, or lifestyle were not necessarily indicators of her awareness of the movement.

For Jaworski, her mother always encouraged her to follow this path of self-definition. “My mom worked the same job for 35 years as a secretary, but I do something different and she’s okay with that,” she explained. “She’s not pressuring me to be the stereotype.”

This idea that every woman can define her life for herself as long as it does not reinforce the oppression of others has become more and more central to the feminist movement. What’s most important is autonomy and dignity, the same central principles fought for over a century ago by the first suffragettes.

To Jaworski, the success of past eras in embedding self-determination for women in society is evident. “There’s more of an attitude that you can do this and do that; the go-to is not just get married, start a family, have a job,” she remarked. “It’s ‘do you want to be an inventor, do you want to go to this company, do you want to get this degree and take on this career’… I see that more opportunities are out there and people are more encouraging of women to seek those opportunities.”

Beyond expanding opportunities for women, the idea of feminism itself has shifted. Today, the word feminism has taken on a trendy connotation. From high fashion to chain stores, clothing and accessories can be found emblazoned with slogans of female empowerment; celebrities from Beyoncé to Emma Watson have come out under the banner of ‘feminist.’

While the fact that women’s equality is now palatable to mainstream audiences may mean most people hold a watered down understanding, it is also an incredible marker of progress from second or even third wave eras, when the word ‘feminist’ held a negative connotation in conventional spheres. This change has been notable for Jaworski. “I think it’s really cool that today it’s something that’s talked about; it’s not taboo, it’s something that’s out there,” she commented. “It’s floating on social media, it’s floating in the conversations at school, it’s floating around in classes.”

Credit: Emma Dewey / M-A Chronicle.

So does this mean we have moved beyond the third wave? Quite possibly. “I think with Facebook and all the different social media platforms, I’m learning more about feminism than ever before,” Jaworski observed.

Her experience is not a unique one. The advent of the Internet and social media has made feminism and other social justice movements increasingly accessible to much wider audiences, and many contemporary feminists have begun to identify a fourth wave just taking shape, one defined by a generation that has grown up with technology.

A major benefit of the digital age is how easy it is to share information. Although mainstream media may give a less nuanced perspective of feminism, a simple Google search can quickly lead to more radical ideas. The result of this is that once radical feminist thought, like womanism or Xicanisma, has become increasingly accepted as a pillar rather than a divergence from feminism (although both movements have adopted more radical thinking that continues to push the boundaries of feminism). Today, the preferred term for this sort of thought is ‘intersectionality.’

Coined in the late 1980s by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, the principle of intersectionality is that the various facets of a person’s identity can combine to create multiple layers of injustice. The need to acknowledge this principle is what drove black women to create womanism, and Chicanas Xicanisma. Although contemporary feminism still fails to address this idea at times, intersectionality is now undeniably an indispensable piece of feminist theory, commonplace in mainstream circles (for example, the Women’s March — although many felt the march still fell short in this respect despite the explicitly intersectional platform.)

With the popularity of intersectionality, perhaps this nebulous, budding fourth wave finally has the words to define the idea that feminists before us struggled to articulate or understand: that the fight for women’s liberation is tied up with every other struggle against injustice in the world, and that each movement could not and cannot exist without the others.

Perhaps, then, the most important benefit of social media to the fourth wave is that it allows us to link together social justice movements across the nation and globe, be it against police brutality, colonialism, environmental injustice, homophobia and transphobia, or gender inequality. Social media creates truly leaderless movements with strong collective voices focused on a message rather than a face. There are no Susan B. Anthonys or Betty Friedans or Gloria Steinems of today. Instead, we have #YesAllWomen, and #NoDAPL, and #SayHerName, and #BlackLivesMatter, and #ShePersisted.

The true democracy of social media elevates the voices of the regular people, allowing those like Jaworski’s mother or high school English teacher, who were role models for her, to reach those beyond their geographic community. Sharing knowledge and experiences mobilizes people to take action in their daily lives, and for Jaworski, this is what’s most significant: “What I think is important is the everyday woman, who does not come up in the news, or the history books, or the ones that are on female empowerment posters… the everyday woman that stands up for herself, and explains to people what’s a better way to interact with a woman, what’s a better way to treat a woman.”

Ultimately, we are all the everyday woman. We all have the power to be role models and make change through our daily interactions with the people around us, and we are what will fuel the movement.

When asked about how feminism has changed through her lifetime, Jaworski reflected, “I would say there’s this scope, there’s this vision over the horizon that is more – endless.”

As the fourth wave swells and solidifies, we look forward to perhaps a not-so-distant future where the everyday woman is feminist, and she is heard, and she is valued, and her horizon is endless.

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