I will preface this post by saying that I am mindful that I am speaking from the point of view of a white, middle-class, cis-gendered woman, which is to say I am aware of my privilege. With that being said, this is my truth and I wholeheartedly accept that what I have to say may not resonate with everyone. If you don’t agree with my point of view I invite you to leave a comment and we can discuss further; I just ask that any exchanges remain respectful. We don’t have to agree but let’s keep it classy!
First of all I am going to give you the Coles Notes of the four main “waves” of feminist activism that have occurred over the past century. I will also note here that I am by no means a scholar of Women’s Studies so if I have left anything important out or have gotten anything wrong, please educate me!
The first wave of feminism occurred from roughly 1867 to 1960.
First wavers fought for the property and voting rights that you and I enjoy today. These fearless ladies in petticoats thought it was pretty lame that we as women couldn’t own property or participate in the democratic process that men had enjoyed for centuries. Defying their husbands and society as a whole, they gathered in droves and protested until in 1884 (Ontario) and 1900 (Manitoba) the Married Women’s Property Act was enacted, which gave married women in these provinces the legal right to buy property.
Remember the Mom from Mary Poppins? She was a Suffragette fighting for women to have the right to vote. In Canada women first won the right to vote in 1916 in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta; followed by British Columbia and Ontario in 1917. The bad ass feminists of this time worth reading up on were known as the “famous five”; Henrietta Muir Edwards, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, Emily Murphy and Irene Parlby.
The very fact that we can even consider whether we would like to buy property (probably not in Victoria because of the housing crisis) is thanks to these women who resisted the notion that women were not persons under the law.
For most of us, when we think of feminism we think of ladies in the 70’s lead by Gloria Steinem burning their bras in protest. While that scene is a part of the second wave there is so much more to this time period than the stereotypical take on the 1968 Miss America protest.
The second wave of feminism took place between the years of 1960 and 1985 and was focussed on achieving gender parity in the workplace (i.e. reducing the wage gap), equal access to education, establishing reproductive rights, bringing forth a deeper understanding of women’s sexuality and deconstructing the age old idea that a women’s place was in the home.
In a nutshell, second wavers felt that there was much more work to be done in achieving equality than simply aquiring enfranchisement.
I think the most infamous achievement during this time was the affirmation by the United States Supreme Court of the legality of a woman’s right to have an abortion under the Fourteenth amendment to the Constitution. We know this as Roe v. Wade. In 1969 the Criminal Amendment Act legalized abortion in Canada so long as a doctor deemed it was necessary for the physical and/or mental well-being of the mother; still very paternalistic and patriarchal but a step in the right direction.
Can you imagine someone other than yourself making decisions about your body? This is still happening in more conservative areas of the United States where women’s clinics (i.e. Planned Parenthood) are underfunded and/or shutdown forcing women to travel great distances to get the health care they need, which disproportionally affects women who are below or hovering around the poverty line.
Think things are different in Canada? Think again. While women have the right to abortion in Canada and as Canadians we tend to view ourselves as progressive in our ideological and moral stance on reproductive rights, the fact remains that access to abortion beyond major city centres is extremely limited. Like our sisters to the south, women in northern or rural areas of Canada are forced to travel great distances to access healthcare. This is a complex issue with many different considerations but I think when you look at the populations of these areas (i.e. cultural, gender and socio-economic makeup) the argument could be made that this is a systemic problem rooted in many different prejudices (i.e. racism, misogyny etc.).
Two things I would like to note here as food for thought:
Supporting a woman’s right to choose means supporting that choice without caveats (i.e. being pro-choice only if the pregnancy was a product of rape or incest, or if the mother’s life is in medical danger).
That being said, Pro-Choice does not necessarily mean Pro-Abortion. I think this is an important distinction as while many support a woman’s right to choose they may not agree or support abortion personally for spiritual, moral or religious reasons.
The same goes for the Pro-Life group. I have a hard time reconciling a group that so passionately advocates for women to keep their unwanted pregnancies while often vehemently opposing birth control, sex education and even going as far as promoting abstinence. Pro-life (to me), should encompass birth control, sex education and support for women who choose to go ahead with their pregnancies so they do not end up in poverty (i.e. access to affordable health care, housing, education training etc.); otherwise this side starts to sound awful lot like Pro-Birth.
In Canada, organizations such as Voice of Women (VOW) and Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) were established during this time and were responsible for defending the rights fought for by previous generations as well as elevating new voices in the movement such as women of colour and lesbians.
* When I say “new voices in the movement” I mean in the context of mainstream feminism, which was predominantly lead by white women. These voices had been there all along but only began to be recognized towards the end of the second wave.
Somewhere between 1985 and 1990 the third wave of feminism was born. This group of ladies, led by Gen-X’ers, fought to preserve the rights obtained by second wave feminists in a digital age. The term “third wave” actually comes from black author, Rebecca Walker, who in response to the Clarence Thomas verdict wrote a piece for Ms. magazine where she stated “So I write this as a plea to all women, especially women of my generation: Let Thomas’ confirmation serve to remind 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 post-feminism feminist. I am the Third Wave.”
This period was also marked by the rise of feminist punk subculture, where female bands projected an image of non-conformity while writing songs that reflected strong, feminist views. Bands such as Riot grrrl, Pussy Riot and Sleater Kinney challenged mainstream ideas of femininity and beauty in a previously male dominated genre.
To me, the most significant part of the third wave was the deconstructing of the mainstream feminist paradigm to include women of colour and lesbians; voices that had been ignored or dismissed up until this point. This dismantling, thought by many to be a schism in the movement, saw the emergence of subsets of feminism such as intersectionality, womanism, sex positivity and postmodern feminism, which were reflective of the diversity of women as opposed to the previously one-dimensional makeup of the movement.
The fourth wave began in 2012 and conveyed the ideas, values and messaging of the feminist movement through social platforms such Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Tumblr. Much like our sisters in past generations, the focus of the fourth wave continues to be justice for women particularly focussed around violence against women and sexual harassment.
This generation of feminists continues to contend with the pervasiveness of rape culture and the dismantling of societal norms that reinforce the idea that a woman’s body is there for the taking.
Names such as Brock Turner, Jian Gomeshi, Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein should serve as a reminder that the work of feminism is far from over.
Still wondering why feminism is necessary or how it is relevant in your life? I am going to pose a series of questions and if you answer yes to any of them, then feminism is both relevant and necessary.
1) Are you privileged? (Cis-gendered, white, middle class etc.)
2) When walking to your car at night, do you carry your keys in your hand as a weapon just in case?
3) Do you make sure to park in an open area either during the day or at night so as to reduce your risk of attack?
4) Do you run, walk or ride your bike with a friend of partner because it feels safer?
5) Do you keep your eyes on your drink at all times when out at a bar?
6) Have you ever questioned what you were wearing when going out and worried that it may give the wrong impression (from males and females)?
7) Has a male colleague ever mansplained something to you?
8) Have you ever been cat called on the street?
9) Has a male employee, supervisor or equal, ever made you uncomfortable with inappropriate looks, comments or jokes at your place of work?
10) Have you ever contributed a thought or idea in a meeting, not be acknowledged by your superiors and then witness a male colleague reiterate the same thoughts or ideas and be praised?
11) Have you ever earned less than a male counterpart performing the same job?
12) Have you ever been passed over for a promotion because of the risk that you could become pregnant or already are?
13) Have you ever been sexually assaulted?
14) Have you ever reported a sex crime only to be questioned by police as to what you may have done to give your assailant the “wrong idea”?
15) Have you ever been slut shamed by other women for your choice of clothing or sexual confidence?
16) Have you ever had to explain consent?
17) Have you ever been body shamed?
18) Are you familiar with the Pickton case in British Columbia?
19) Are you familiar with the ongoing epidemic of missing and murdered women in Canada?
20) Have you ever wondered why women are disproportionately represented on income assistance caseloads across Canada?
21) Do you have smart, sensitive, kind men and boys in your life?
Feminism suffers from a public relations problem and gets a bad rap for being anti-men but that is simply a farce. In short, it is a movement focussed on gender equality, not gender supremacy. Boys will become men and we need men as our allies.
I have often read in comment threads across many social platforms, where the topic of feminism is front and center, that the idea of humanism is a more modern take on the movement. Just like All Lives Matter as a counter movement to Black Lives Matter doesn’t work because All Lives are not disproportionately ended by police violence; humanism as a counter argument to feminism doesn’t work either because it does not address the systemic subjugation women have faced (and continue to face in many facets of their lives) for hundreds (read: thousands) of years. Humans aren’t faced with the consequences of endemic sexism, women are. By not acknowledging this fundamental truth we will never be able to overcome what holds us back.
Let us not get so caught up in our differences that we forget what brings us together. Let us raise each other up instead of tear each other down. Let us celebrate our unique points of view and kindly educate those we encounter who are misinformed. Let us revel in what makes us intrinsically female and enter the fifth wave with a renewed solidarity to uphold and improve what has come before us while working to tear down all that continues to constrain us.
So sisters, let us rise together; Black, White, Latina, Asian, First Nation, Lesbian, Bi, Questioning, Two-Spirited, Trans, Disabled, Poor, Rich, Educated, Marginalized…WOMEN…and feel our power. United we are a force to be reckoned with.
If you are interested in learning more about Feminism check out this comprehensive list of awesome books. I would add these to your reading list as well:
The Beauty Myth – Naomi Wolf
Female Chauvinist Pigs – Ariel Levi
How to be a Woman – Caitlan Moran
How to Build a Girl – Caitlan Moran
Full Frontal Feminism – Jessica Valenti
Our Bodies Our Selves (consider yourself extremely lucky if you have the original from the 70’s)
A Little F’d Up: Why Feminism is Not a Dirty Word – Julie Zeilinger