The Feminist Wave Construct

Where do we learn to be feminists? How do we learn to be feminists? For many of us, it’s not as simple as picking up a book by Virginia Woolf or attending a university lecture on gender studies. And yet, these are some of the stereotypes by which we have come to qualify feminist identification. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with studying feminist literature, or attending feminist lectures, but such academic resources should not be the only means of ‘learning’ feminism. Here's why.


Where do we learn to be feminists? How do we learn to be feminists? For many of us, it’s not as simple as picking up a book by Virginia Woolf or attending a university lecture on gender studies. And yet, these are some of the stereotypes by which we have come to qualify feminist identification. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with studying feminist literature, or attending feminist lectures, but such academic resources should not be the only means of ‘learning’ feminism. Here's why.

Over the last 150 years, feminist theory has had a troubling relationship with academia, elitism, and gatekeeping. For starters, much of feminist learning takes place in university settings which instantly excludes more than 70 per cent of Australia’s population from the conversation. And I would know—as a young, white, postgrad liberal arts student, I’m guilty of it too.

One of the primary methods that us ‘academic’ feminists use to gatekeep feminist theory is by historicising the women’s revolution. More specifically, by deploying ‘wave construct’ terminology, which breaks the discussion down into ‘first wave’, ‘second wave, and ‘third wave’ feminism. Plenty of people will have heard these terms before, but far less will know what they mean, which is precisely the impact of prolonged academic gatekeeping. On top of that, discussions of the feminist wave construct are largely built upon complete historical erasure, because the legacy it captures does not represent all women. Rather, it represents women of privilege—whiteness, straightness, wealth, et cetera. If you don’t meet that description, you’ll probably struggle to find yourself within this discourse.

The first step to countering these problems is accessibility. Rather than eliminating the feminist wave construct altogether, I’d like to be more forthright about it. Because, despite its elitist constructs, feminist history has been crucial for me in understanding my own politics. It has given me a tangible legacy in which to place myself. To understand and empower myself, just as thousands of women have been empowered before me.

So, without further ado, let’s take a look at first, second, and third wave feminism through a more human, less technical lens.

First wave feminism: Mary Wollstonecraft.

Mary Wollstonecraft, a British woman born in 1759, was the second of seven children. As such, most of the household duties were shared between her and her mother—a relationship she held very dearly. In 1785, Wollstonecraft found work as a governess. This was the milestone that really sparked her passion for education and went on to inspire her early feminist career. She wrote three books during this period, but her final work: Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), is her most influential. In it, Wollstonecraft advocates for equal education between the sexes. She insists that young women be taught to prioritise intellectual substance over social niceties. Teach them maths, science, and politics. Teach them to hold a conversation with their male counterparts. By depriving young women of a man’s education, we are doing all of society a huge disfavour. Don’t we want our wives to be sound of mind? Don’t we want our mothers to be pure of heart?

Within this particular brand of feminism, women are still subordinate to men but that didn’t mean they couldn’t have a voice. It’s also worth noting that wifehood and motherhood held a very significant place in Wollstonecraft’s philosophy. Taking care of others was more than a bland domestic duty—it was a rigorous and honourable profession. 

So, how does Wollstonecraft embody first wave feminism? Traditionally, the first wave is characterised by women’s suffrage, which was achieved almost a hundred years after Wollstonecraft’s time. That said, by advocating for women’s education, Wollstonecraft set an invaluable precedent for women to partake in ‘masculine’ discourses like politics, which is precisely what the suffragettes did. After all, how better to engage in a man’s world than by demanding a seat at his table?

Second wave feminism: Betty Friedan.

Betty Friedan was a Jewish-American woman born in the early 1920s. Growing up, she was an outstanding student with a particular aptitude for journalism and poetry. She went on to study at Smith College, followed by Berkley, where she majored in psychology. At the same time, she was very active in the Marxist scene which, during mid-twentieth century America, was considered highly controversial.

Despite her impressive academic transcript, Friedan faced various social pressures to abandon further study in pursuit of family life. She was married with two children by 1952 and  struggled to navigate her duties as a housewife around her career as a journalist. Speaking to her female peers Friedan realised that this was a common dilemma: married, upper middle class, highly educated white women who found it difficult to balance their own needs against the needs of their households. Women who felt dissatisfied, or unfulfilled, by the lives they were expected to lead.

Friedan extrapolated these feelings into her first book, The Feminine Mystique (1962), in which she challenges the sexist assumption that ‘real women’ are naturally inclined towards the home. She discusses domestic labour—cooking, cleaning, childcare, and conjugal intimacies—and shoots down the cultural expectation for women to enjoy these tasks. In fact, such domestic notions of femininity have nothing to do with women’s enjoyment, but rather, with men’s profit. And what do we end up with then? A generation of housewives doomed to perpetuate toxic capitalist structures like unpaid labour, all the while providing a convenient target demographic for mass-produced household appliances. 

Betty Friedan was hugely influential to second wave feminism. The Feminine Mystique not only gave a name to “the problem that has no name,” but it gave women a direction in which to retaliate. They fought for women’s labour outside the home—equal pay, equal opportunities, and expanded childcare services in particular. They fought for personal fulfilment, financial autonomy, and the right to reject patriarchal standards of femininity. For these reasons, second wave feminism is widely classified as the most radical thus far. 

Third wave feminism: Rebecca Walker.

Rebecca Walker, a Jewish, African American woman, is currently 52 years of age. The daughter of two distinguished civil rights activists, she was born in Jackson, Mississippi. Her mother, Alice Walker, is especially famous for being the first African American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Alice Walker is also renowned for her contributions to second wave feminism, branching out from the white mainstream to advocate for women of colour. Rebecca was deeply inspired by her parents’ activism, as she went on to discuss issues of race, gender, and multiculturalism in her early writings.

Walker graduated from Yale in 1992 with academic excellence, at which point she had already begun to write for Ms.—a liberal feminist magazine. She admired the radical spirit and lasting contributions of second wave feminism, but at the same time she registered a need for change. She took note of the contemporary, political power injustices against women. In particular, Walker took note of the injustices against marginalised women: women of colour, queerness, or other minority statuses, whose interests had not been represented in second wave feminism. And thus, that same year, Walker’s famous article ‘Becoming the Third Wave’ was born.

‘Becoming the Third Wave’ is part-exposé, as Walker discusses the sexual assault case against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and part feminist conceptualisation. She examines the way that women are still being oppressed in modern-day America and goes on to prompt a new, ‘third wave’ beat in feminism. A feminism that emphasises equality, whereby all women—regardless of class, race, or sexual orientation—can support each other. Walker proceeded to start the ‘Third Wave Foundation’ in 1997: a teaching and leadership program that supports young women of colour, queer women, intersex women, and trans women. It is precisely these intersectional politics that constitute Walker’s embodiment—her proclamation, in fact—of being a third wave feminist.

Elitism versus accessibility.

Clearly, as these women represent, there is a lot of white, wealthy, straight privilege happening within the feminist wave construct. It’s also worth noting that Wollstonecraft, Friedan, and Walker all amplified their politics through tertiary education, which lends the history itself to academic elitism. On the one hand, we could just say fuck it—down with the feminist wave construct altogether. Let’s conjure up some brand-new terminology to understand the women’s revolution. But personally, I’ve found the feminist wave construct to be very useful in figuring out where I stand as a feminist. So maybe the problem isn’t the language itself, but rather, the exclusionary parameters within which we use them. 

The feminist wave construct stands for far more than academic elitism. For me, it stands for power, and legacy, and to remind me of the very principles that make me call myself a feminist.  With that in mind, I hope framing the feminist wave construct in a more grounded, embodied way has helped to break down some of those exclusionary parameters. Even if just a little. 

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