HERstory: Waves of Feminism

Well-behaved women seldom make history. Here’s just how the women’s rights movement has evolved over the past 170 years.

by Erin Hickey

The term feminism was originally coined by French socialist Charles Fourier in 1937. He used the French word “feminisme” to describe the emancipation of women he envisioned in a utopian future. Women have been fighting for basic human rights for hundreds of years. However, from the mid-1800s on, feminism has seen waves of popularity, in which women band together in order to accomplish a common goal. Within the past few years, there has been discussion over whether there have been three or four waves of feminism. For the purpose of this article, we will consider there to be four main waves of feminism. Take a look at the “herstory” of feminism, including major movements, court cases and moments.

First wave: 1848-1920

The first wave of feminism focused on gaining political rights for women, namely suffrage. Women wanted equal opportunities to education, employment and the right to own property. They protested, marched and lectured in hopes of gaining equal rights. Many were jailed for taking action against laws they found unfair.


Seneca Falls Convention of 1848

Organized by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton – who met at the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention in London when they were both barred from the floor because they were women – the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 allowed women to come together and voice their opinions and complaints about the government. Around 200 women met to discuss the rights they believed they should have, which resulted in the Declaration of Sentiments. This document featured 12 resolutions calling for specific rights, including the right to vote.


Passing of the 15th Amendment

The 15th amendment gave black men the right to vote, yet women were still unable to do so. This fueled the women’s suffrage movement and led to racial separations that would last throughout the first two waves of feminism. White women believed that if former slaves had the right to vote, they should as well. This separated the women’s suffrage movement from the abolitionist movement, as women began to focus on the rights of white women, not all women.


Wyoming State Law

Wyoming became the first state to grant women the right to vote in all elections.


Margaret Sanger and Birth Control

Margaret Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in the U.S in Brooklyn. This went against New York State law that banned the discussion and distribution of contraception. Though she was put in jail, this action paved the way for organizations like Planned Parenthood to operate later.


19th Amendment

The 19th amendment was passed, which gave women of all races the right to vote. From now until the 1960s, feminism loses its momentum because of a lack of unity and no common goal.

Second Wave: 1963 to 1980s

The second wave of feminism focused on social rights. This movement was concerned with issues such as sexuality, reproductive rights, domestic violence and legislating sexual violence in the workplace.


The Feminine Mystique & Equal Pay Act

Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” was published. This novel sparked the second wave of feminism due to the fact that it focused on sexism that was innately occurring in society. Women were taught that their place was in the home and that they should be happy as housewives; if they weren’t happy, they were seen as having something wrong with them. Friedan’s novel argued that something was wrong with the world and that it didn’t allow women to be creative, independent thinkers

The Equal Pay Act of 1963 was also passed this year, which aimed to close the wage gap based on sex.


Title IX

Title IX is signed into law. Title IX states that “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”


Roe v. Wade

The Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, a landmark case that gave women the constitutional right to a safe, legal abortion.



The Equal Credit Opportunity Act was passed, which made it illegal for creditors to discriminate against an applicant based on sex, religion, race, color, national origin, marital status or age.

Third Wave: 1990 to mid-2000s

The third wave of feminism dealt with the overall theme of the individual. Prior concepts of gender, sexuality and heteronormativity changed, and the movement became more LGBTQ+ inclusive. Women also took back objects that were seen as the product of male oppression in the past: lipstick, low-cut shirts and dresses and heels.


Anita Hill

Anita Hill accused then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexually assaulting her. This led to women around the country having the courage to speak up about their experiences with sexual assault. Thomas was confirmed and became a Supreme Court justice anyway, yet this led to a conversation about the overrepresentation of men in national positions.


Year of the Woman

This year was called the “Year of the Woman,” because in the U.S. Congress, 24 women held seats in the House and three held seats in the Senate.


Family and Medical Leave Act

The Family and Medical Leave Act is enacted, part of which gave job-protected, unpaid maternity leave to working mothers.


Violence Against Women Act

The Violence Against Women Act was passed, which provided $1.6 billion dollars toward investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women.

Fourth wave: Around 2008-Present

Some say we’re in the fourth wave of feminism now. This has seen a surge in popularity due to the ability social media has given women to speak up for themselves and make a difference.

Jan. 2017

Women’s March

The 2017 Women’s March, which has become an annual march, was a protest planned for the first day of President Donald Trump’s presidency as a statement that women’s rights are human rights after he made multiple claims throughout the election process that were seen as anti-women.

Oct. 2017


Following allegations of sexual harassment against Harvey Weinstein, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted #MeToo as a way to show the widespread effects of sexual assault on women. Though the #MeToo movement began nearly a decade earlier by activist Tarana Burke, Milano’s tweet sparked a nationwide outpouring of support for survivors. This also led to the #TimesUp movement, which focuses on sexual assault in the work environment.