Feminist Waves: First and Second

What Does the Metaphor Mean?

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Beginning with a 1968 article titled "Second Feminist Wave" by Martha Weinman Lear in the New York Times Magazine, the metaphor of "waves" was used to describe feminism at different points in history.

The first wave of feminism is usually assumed to have begun in 1848 with the Seneca Falls Convention and to have ended in 1920, with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment giving American women the vote.  While early in the movement, feminists took on such issues as education, religion, marriage law, admission to professions and financial and property rights, by 1920 the major focus of the first wave was on voting.  When that battle was won, women's rights activism seemed to disappear.

The second wave of feminism is usually assumed to begin in the 1960s and run through the ERA deadline of March, 1979, or the extended deadline in 1982.

But the truth is that there were feminists -- those who advocated women's advancement towards equality -- before 1848, and there was activism between 1920 and the 1960s on behalf of women's rights.  The periods from 1848 to 1920 and during the 1960s and 1970s saw more focus in such activism, and there were backlashes from 1920 – 1960 and starting in the 1970s, which lend some credence to the image of waves cresting and then the water falling back.

Like many metaphors, the “waves” metaphor both reveals and hides some truths about the women’s rights movements.