The first two waves of feminism - what changes did they cause?

January 27, 2022

text: Stefania Gheorghe

illustration: Ana Maria Mihailidis


The feminist movement has changed certain goals over time, all with the end result of achieving gender balance. The priorities of the movement were fixed around 1800, but they have varied throughout history depending on the territory we are in, unfortunately even today there are states that denigrate, abuse and harass women. 

Feminism has known certain classifications, in "waves", each wave being determined by a certain achievement that the social movement pursued. The first wave of feminism foregrounded the position of (white) women in a higher social class and involved the right to vote or own property. Second wave feminism continued to focus on combating discrimination and social inequality, this time for both white women and black or lower class women. In the third wave, feminism continued to address social and financial inequalities between the sexes, but also related to the role of women in a family. Also, during the third wave, serious steps were taken to respect bodily integrity, emphasizing the right to reproduction. The fourth wave studies exactly the factors for which marginalization occurs, but also aims for a better acceptance of minorities in society, feminism being as much about women as about the world around them - a world that needs support. 

 Following the evolution of the feminist movement chronologically, we can say that the most important movement of the first wave of feminism was completed by obtaining the right to vote for women. In the US it consisted of the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, which finally gave women the right to vote. This landmark event in the US led to the adoption of these procedures in other states. New Zealand was however the first country where women could vote, back in 1893. The impact of giving women the right to vote was huge, leading to the acceptance that women are human and capable of making their own decisions, but also laying the stone the foundation of all future movements and changes that will follow. 

France also had a series of reforms in the 1900s, the first being started with a newspaper - "La Fronde" - that debated controversial topics such as supporting political rights or working and employed women. In Germany, women's suffrage was won in the early 19th century as a result of social pressure from middle-class women who wanted the right to work and education, thereby gaining the "status" of "full individuals". Although in the West the position of women was beginning to improve, in Russia, in 1917, following the Revolution, the equality of women and men was decided in the eyes of the Soviet Union, but this was only formal, the Soviets banning all organized women's movements. The end of World War I (1918) brought with it the right to vote in several countries such as Austria, Canada, Germany and Czechoslovakia. 

A huge problem with the first wave of feminism was that even the women who organized the movements, although they were "feminists", were also racists, an unintentional racism that would rob millions of women of equal opportunity. Personal or institutional racism has prevented many black women from participating in feminist movements and taking an active stance on certain events. In the event "The March on Washington" in 1913 (an event in which more than 5000 women marched on Pennsylvania Avenue to demand the right to vote and was called "The largest suffrage event in US history") the women of black women were forced to march at the back of the group so as not to be associated with the white women in front, thus being segregated. 

The years that followed were marked by the constant evolution of women's position in society, gradually gaining the opportunity to study, make decisions about their own bodies, work or get involved in politics, at least theoretically.

 World War II (1939) changed everything for women, causing a "two steps forward, one step back" effect. During the war, women were drafted to work in the Naval Service, Air Force, Army or nursing services. Along with these events came many labels placed on women, such as if they wore a uniform and implicitly trousers, they were considered women of "low morals". Although society judged them, these moments gave women a greater sense of power, because they worked, saved lives, and at the end of the day returned home to take care of the children and the house. 

After the end of the war, the divorce rate in Britain increased significantly, because although women demonstrated that inequality did not exist, in practice they were still "small" and their role in the family (perceived by the husband) remained unchanged. 

The second wave of feminism (started in 1963) built on the foundations of the first and tried to change the view of women in society, with activists targeting those institutions that stop the expansion of women. Thus 3 types of feminism appeared: liberal, radical and cultural. Liberal feminism focused on institutional reforms, which resulted in giving women access to male-dominated spheres such as politics or high-ranking positions. Radical feminism focused on mass societal change, assuming that the system is inherently patriarchal and that the only way to change this is to start from scratch. Cultural feminism supported radical feminism to some extent . 

Although more and more women were starting to get higher educations and enter the workforce, they were unable to advance in their careers because they were… women. Women's desire for normalcy was growing, so what they now wanted was employment, education and respect for their sexuality.

Feeling left out, during the second wave, black women developed their own associations, fueling the rise of black women.

After 1970 women began to register record numbers for political candidacy, in universities and even in sports, spawning women's sports teams, funded, but gradually also earning equal wages to men for equal work in a few companies. 

One thing that started in the second wave of feminism was related to the sexualization of women, the possibility of an abortion and open discussions about sexual abuse. A major source of resentment was beauty pageants, which set unattainable standards of beauty and exploited women, leading to a 1963 protest against fashion pageants. This event gave feminists the name "brad burners". During the protest, women threw heels, hair curlers, Playboy magazines or bras into the "freedom can" - a garbage container, which they were going to burn. Although they were not given permission to set fire to them, they were wrongly and falsely associated with the name "brad burners". The movement continued against pornography, concluding that in the viewed materials the woman cannot enjoy the sexual act, but more than that, considering that it can incite aggression. A definite gain in the well-developed states at that time was the legalization of abortion and the development of medicine in this direction. 

The second wave of feminism raised many questions and put many labels on women. Labels that other women began to fear, which is why they began to be slightly, slightly reluctant to move. 

At the end of the article we can say that yes, the first two waves proposed a lot, achieved a lot, but unfortunately not enough or only formally. The evolution of the movement comes soon in a future article, staying with the basics of wave three for now. 


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