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Making the Waves Metaphor Walk the Plank

The history of feminist action in the United States has been primarily explained in the American education system through the waves metaphor. Waves imply that the accomplishments of the women’s movement have been outgrowths of the same cause; instead of being disjointed achievements, the waves come from the same ocean. However, the waves metaphor reductively implies a lack of continuity in feminist action, as well as a lack of variation in the views of feminists; the waves metaphor often elides the experiences of women of color. It is very prone to oversimplification and tends to gloss over the experiences of the feminist activity that took place outside of mainstream liberal feminist action. 


           The “first wave” took place from 1848 to 1920, beginning with the Seneca Falls Convention and ending with the passage of the 19th Amendment. Despite the overt racism and eventual exclusion of women of color, the first wave fought for suffrage and equal opportunities for employment and education. The second wave is defined by journalist Constance Grady as taking place from 1963 to the 1980s, beginning with Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Friedan railed against the “problem with no name” and argued that “we can no longer ignore the voice within women that says: ‘I want something more than my husband and my children and my home.’” Feminism once again appeared to have a unifying goal- social equality. There were major legal victories, such as the Equal Pay Act of 1963, Title IX, and Roe v. Wade giving women more autonomy. This was also the era when the waves metaphor began to be used; the term was famously coined by Martha Lear when she wrote that “feminism, which one might have supposed as dead as a 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 sandbar of Togetherness.” 


           The third wave is difficult to define, as few people agree on when it started or if it is still occurring today; the third wave is usually believed to have begun in the early 1990s with the Anita Hill case and the emergence of riot grrrl groups. Anita Hill’s testimony was very significant as it sparked a conversation about the overrepresentation of men in leadership positions (Grady 2018). The third wave can also be characterized as a rejection of certain aspects of second wave feminism: third wave feminists embraced being called “girls” as opposed to “women”, were more focused on trans inclusivity, and celebrated more “feminine” aesthetics like makeup and heels. Similarly, it is hard to define the beginning of the fourth wave, or whether the fourth wave still exists today. The fourth wave’s beginning is loosely tied to the entrenchment of online platforms in daily life and is most commonly characterized as “queer, sex-positive, trans-inclusive, body-positive, and digitally driven.” 


The waves metaphor implies that feminism has united gender activity in the United States, which is untrue. There is an overarching assumption of linear, cohesive feminism and suffrage built into the metaphor. Historian Nancy Hewitt points out the singularity of descriptions of the waves, particularly the first wave when she writes that “racial justice, labor rights, divorce, religious authority, domestic abuse, the plight of prostitutes, sexual freedom, and international politics all attracted the attention of women activists in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, yet suffrage remains the centerpiece of most references to the First Wave.” Women who belonged to this group of “feminist activists” often did not even identify themselves as feminists. For example, “many who supported suffrage had more limited political goals than did those who began to use the word feminism in the early twentieth century. Many of those who supported suffrage did so not on the basis of a general idea of women's equality with men… but because they believed, for a variety of reasons, that women should have the vote.” There were also many issues of representation in the second wave as well. Betty Friedan wrote about the “problem with no name”, which was revolutionary in its reach and galvanized legislative action to guarantee more equality between the sexes. However, this “problem with no name” was a problem that primarily affected well-educated, white, middle- or upper-class women. In fact, Betty Friedan specifically targeted groups of women that she believed were dangerous to the feminist movement, particularly lesbians; she referred to them as the “lavender menace” and explicitly excluded them. Viewing waves as containing monolithic goals is an unhelpful way of viewing American history.


          The waves metaphor is also problematic because it implies that social change did not continuously occur in the United States before or between waves. Historian Nancy Hewitt writes that “the decades excluded from the waves- before 1848 or from 1920 to 1960- are too often assumed to be feminist-free zones." Although it can properly identify “those moments in history when issues of gender mobilize large numbers of people in very public, noisy, and challenging ways,” it tends to obscure action that took place in lulls between bursts of activity. For example, historian Linda Nicholson writes that “during the 1920s and 1930s, ordinary women were challenging older notions of womanhood in a myriad number of ways, from cutting their hair, to adopting new norms about sexuality, to developing new understandings of their relationship to wage labor.” The waves metaphor does not successfully deal with smaller-scale activity and changing social norms, and women’s gender roles are often relegated to a few sentences in a history textbook between the first and second waves. 


           The waves metaphor has been an important way to explain how feminist activity took place and could be viewed as a brief overview or outline of legal and cultural shifts in American history. However, it has also contributed to a predominant lens that not only elides the experiences of women of color and ultimately simplifies the past and determines what is significant to study and preserve. There are no waves of one singular “feminism” to study and dissect- rather, there are a plethora that deserve to be treated as thoughtfully as mainstream liberal feminism. 

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