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May 29, 2013 / C H Thompson

Feminism’s historical context

Welcome to the fourth wave of feminism. This movement follows the first-wave campaign for votes for women, which reached its height 100 years ago, the second wave women’s liberation movement that blazed through the 1970s and 80s, and the third wave declared by Rebecca Walker, Alice Walker’s daughter, and others, in the early 1990s.

That shift from second to third wave took many important forms, but often felt broadly generational, with women defining their work as distinct from their mothers’. What’s happening now feels like something new again. It’s defined by technology: tools that are allowing women to build a strong, popular, reactive movement online known as the fourth wave which contradicts the assumptions made by post-feminists, a point explored in this clip.

Just how popular is sometimes slightly startling. Girlguiding UK introduced a campaigning and activism badge this year and a summer survey of Mumsnet users found 59% consider themselves feminists, double those who don’t. Bates says that, for her, modern feminism is defined by pragmatism, inclusion and humour. “I feel like it is really down-to-earth, really open,” she says, “and it’s very much about people saying: ‘Here is something that doesn’t make sense to me, I thought women were equal, I’m going to do something about it.'”


Over the last 50 years, feminist analysis has made a major contribution to and has changed social theory, making sociologists aware of issues that were previously ignored.  Feminism is also associated with changes in society – especially in North America and Western Europe, but also in other regions of the world.

Many aspects of what were considered to be “private life,” associated with male/female relations in household, family, and other social relationships have been transformed; many parts of society have experienced changes as a result of increased involvement of women in public life.

Feminists and others argue that there is still a long road ahead before the goal of equality of males and females is achieved, but there can be no doubts that major advances have occurred toward such equality – examples include legislation and employment.

While it has been women and men, through their social actions and interaction that have changed social relationships, feminist writers and theorists have contributed to these social changes and to the development of attitudes and views more supportive of equality.  As a demonstration of how social theory can be socially engaged, feminist theory has often been exemplary and, at least through the 1990s (see Lovell, Ch. 12 for shifts in emphasis), never strayed far from practical social issues faced by women in their involvement in the social world.

The feminist writers of the 1960s were part of feminist groups and political and social agitation.  Currently, many feminist writers are involved in or closely associated with women’s groups or social reform activities.

A section on feminist social theory would probably not have been included in a course in sociological theory a generation ago.  However, feminist social theory has made major contributions not just to feminism but also to social theory in general.  By focussing on the differences between biological and social, on the meaning of the social, on how a person’s experience affects her understanding of the social world, and on how males and females relate to each other, feminist theory has forced sociologists to re-examine and revise their social theories.

Among the issues that have entered into sociological discussion are the sociology of bodies, understandings of power, sexual violence, patriarchy, and sexuality.  Each of these were ignored or were minor sociological issues – now they are often key in discussions of contemporary sociology.  Turner notes that feminists have raised radical questions about “social roles, gender identities and biological sex characteristics” so that sociologists have developed new understandings and analysis of “the relationship between society and culture, public and private, and between society and nature” (Turner, first edition, p. 304).

Feminisms of the second wave refers to the feminist ideas and movement that emerged in the 1960s and had its greatest initial impact in the 1970s. The first wave refers to the feminist movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the suffragettes, the struggle for the vote and for formal equality in Western Europe and North America.

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