Your Ul­ti­mate Guide to De­cod­ing Fem­i­nism

We should all be fem­i­nists. . But what does that ac­tu­ally mean? It’s not all burn­ing bras and hat­ing men – here’s what fem­i­nism looks like in 2018

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There’s a lot of mis­con­cep­tion around the term ‘fem­i­nism’. In short, it rep­re­sents so­cial, po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic eq­uity, giv­ing women the same level of au­ton­omy and agency as is af­forded to men. Think women should get equal pay to their male coun­ter­parts? Be­lieve we have the right to ac­cess birth con­trol? Con­grats, you’re a fem­i­nist.

But it’s not a one-size-fit­sall model – in 2018, we’re re­fram­ing and re­defin­ing fem­i­nism for our­selves.

FIRST WAVE FEM­I­NISM: The Po­lit­i­cal Move­ment WHEN The 19th and 20th cen­tury.

WHO The suf­fragettes protested against the sex­ist laws that pre­vented women from vot­ing. Mostly white and mid­dle-toup­per- class, they also tack­led women’s rights to own prop­erty, and ac­cess to ed­u­ca­tion.


Be­ing ex­cluded from po­lit­i­cal con­ver­sa­tions meant women’s is­sues and rights re­mained un­heard. First-Wave Fem­i­nism was about de­fy­ing gen­der con­structs, break­ing pol­icy and bring­ing women into the con­ver­sa­tion.


While the right to vote, own prop­erty and go to school are all im­por­tant, this wasn’t enough to cre­ate true gen­der equal­ity. There were still many gaps to fill ( be­yond the po­lit­i­cal), such as the so­cial im­pact of op­pres­sion.


1930: White women are granted the right to vote in South Africa.

1949: Si­mone de Beau­voir writes

The Sec­ond Sex to ex­plain how pa­tri­archy ‘oth­ers’ women.

1954: The Fed­er­a­tion of South African Women is formed. SEC­OND WAVE FEM­I­NISM: The So­cial Move­ment WHEN The 1960s to 1980s.

WHO The pi­o­neers of Sec­ond-Wave Fem­i­nism aimed to move be­yond the is­sues of the suf­frage and fo­cus on iden­tity, sex­u­al­ity, work­place rights, health­care, and re­pro­duc­tive rights (such as ac­cess to con­tra­cep­tion and abor­tion).


Af­ter World War II, women were rel­e­gated from be­ing ac­tively in­volved in the work­force and pre­serv­ing the econ­omy while the men were away to chil­drea­r­ing and nur­tur­ing. Sec­ond Wave fem­i­nists strongly re­jected this, chal­leng­ing how women were stripped of choices when it came to their body.


The ( largely white and Amer­i­can) icons emerg­ing from this time in­cluded Betty Friedan, Jo Free­man and Glo­ria Steinem. Their works on fem­i­nist the­ory and ac­tivism shaped the move­ment, but be­cause white women and their is­sues spear­headed it, fem­i­nists of colour and queer fem­i­nists felt left out of the frame­work. The Sec­ond Wave ended with the fem­i­nist sex wars, a pe­riod de­scrib­ing the di­vide among fem­i­nists around dif­fer­ent as­pects of sex­u­al­ity, in­clud­ing pornog­ra­phy, kink, sex­pos­i­tiv­ity, sex work and same-sex de­sire.


1956: The Women’s March to the Union Build­ings in Pre­to­ria protests pass laws that dis­crim­i­nate against black women.

1961: The Pill be­comes avail­able in the US.

1963: Betty Friedan pub­lishes The Fem­i­nine Mys­tique (cred­ited as a cat­a­lyst in the Sec­ond Wave), which chal­lenges rep­re­sen­ta­tions of women in the me­dia and ex­pected gen­der roles.

THIRD WAVE FEM­I­NISM: The In­di­vid­ual Move­ment

WHEN The 1990s to 2012.

WHO ‘ The per­sonal is po­lit­i­cal’ is the defin­ing phrase of the Third Wave. Re­becca Walker cat­a­pulted the idea of Third-Wave Fem­i­nism in her 1992 es­say ‘Be­com­ing the Third Wave’, which sug­gests that although it looked like the fem­i­nists had won, the fight was far from over. Per­sonal iden­tity plays a huge role in fem­i­nism, and the Third Wave in­tro­duced new fem­i­nist the­o­ries such as wom­an­ism (or black fem­i­nism), trans fem­i­nism, post­fem­i­nism and in­ter­sec­tion­al­ity.


The fo­cus on in­di­vid­u­al­ity and di­ver­sity in the Third Wave made it dif­fi­cult for peo­ple to pin down a def­i­ni­tion. But as scholar El­iz­a­beth Evans points out, ‘ The con­fu­sion around what con­sti­tutes Third-Wave Fem­i­nism is, in some re­spects, its defin­ing fea­ture.’


1989: The term ‘in­ter­sec­tion­al­ity’ is coined by at­tor­ney and fem­i­nist scholar Kim­berlé Cren­shaw.

1990: Riot Gr­rrl, the rad­i­cal sub­cul­ture that de­fined US Third Wave Fem­i­nism in the 1990s, is formed. The move­ment cen­tres on self- ex­pres­sion via zines, art and mu­sic.

2005: Ellen John­son Sir­leaf, for­mer pres­i­dent of Liberia, be­comes Africa’s first elected woman leader and the first black fe­male pres­i­dent in the world.

2011: The first SlutWalk takes place in Toronto in re­sponse to Toronto po­lice of­fi­cer Michael San­guinetti’s state­ment that ‘women should stop dress­ing like sluts’ in or­der not to be vic­timised.

2012: Ac­tivist and No­bel Peace Prize win­ner Malala Yousafzai is shot in the head for her vo­cal ad­vo­cacy for women to have the right to ed­u­ca­tion in Pak­istan.


2015: Start of #FeesMustFall move­ment, spear­headed by black women, trans women and queer ac­tivists.

2016: Zu­laikha Pa­tel and young ac­tivists from Pre­to­ria High School for Girls protest against a dis­crim­i­na­tory code of con­duct that po­lices nat­u­ral hair.

2017: The Women’s March in Wash­ing­ton DC be­comes the largest protest in US his­tory. The ‘si­lence break­ers’ of the #MeToo move­ment are named Time’s Per­son of the Year.

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