Whose Wave Is It Anyway?


WHEN: Early 20th Century (and everything before it, though there wasn’t much!)

WHAT:  First wave feminism focused primarily on obtaining Women’s Suffrage (ie their right to vote). They didn’t yet describe themselves as feminists, but also fought for marriage, divorce and property rights for women.  In 1918, the UK government enfranchised women over the age of 30 who were either a member or married to a member of the Local Government Register (8.4 million)… this having been achieved, feminist activity in the UK diminished for several years.

Mary Woolstonecraft:
1792, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, seen as the grandmother of British Feminism.
Emmeline Pankhurst: one of the leaders of the suffragette movement.
Virginia Woolf:
wrote “A Room of One’s Own”, and supported the suffrage movement.


WHEN: 1960S-1980s

WHAT: In the 1960s the invention of the pill and availability of contraception meant that women were no longer tied to their reproductive systems – they could make the choice not to get pregnant.  This lead to a feminist uprising – the second wave. Second waves feminists broadened the debate from simple legal rights to sexuality, family, the workplace, reproductive rights, de facto inequalities, and official legal inequalities. This movement is the first to call themselves “feminists”.

Betty Friedan:
The Feminine Mystique (1963), heavily influenced by Simone deBeauvoir’s The Second Sex, lays groundwork for Second Wave feminism in the US. It is a series of interviews with dissatisfied American Housewives, interlaced with psychology and the media. In 1966 she founds the National Organisation for Women, a civil rights organisation.
Germaine Greer: The Female Eunuch (1970), an international bestseller, is groundbreaking in its use of humour and coarse language to examine women’s self-perception and sexuality.
Gloria Steinem:
co-founder of Ms magazine, a feminist magazine in the states.


WHEN: 1980S > Present day

WHAT: By the 1980s the feminist movement was heavily divided over issues such as banning pornography and legalising sex work; these arguments are known as the “sex wars” (sounds like more fun than it was!). Those feminists who were pro-pornography and believed sex workers should have legal protection broke off and formed the third wave. Third wave feminism embraces diversity and so is hard to pin down:  it arose as a response to the perceived failures of Second-wave feminism during the 1960s to 1980s, and the realization that women are of “many colors, ethnicities, nationalities, religions and cultural backgrounds“

Eve Ensler:
wrote The Vagina Monologues and founder of v-day, a worldwide campaign against sexual violence.
bell hooks: writer and academic who focuses on the interconnectivity of race, gender and capitalism.
Kate Bornstein:
author, performance artist and gender theorist; Kate was born a man but received gender reassignment surgery, now she says “I don’t call myself a woman, and I know I’m not a man“.
Caitlin Moran: journalist and author of How To Be A Woman, focuses on making feminism accessible to a new generation of women.


Radical Feminism (Radfem)
Closely linked to 2nd-wave feminism, it sees patriarchal oppression as the primary oppression and all other oppression as lesser. It opposes all standard gender roles and sometimes advocates for political lesbianism (ie total, including sexual, rejection of men).

Liberal Feminism (Libfem)
An individualistic form of feminist theory, it focuses on women’s freedom to choose. It encourages women to question gender roles but does not claim any choice is wrong or bad.

Intersectional Feminism
Argues that all oppression is linked and that feminism should not simply be about fighting patriarchal oppression but all forms of oppression, and focuses on inclusivity and fighting racism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, classism and all other forms of oppression.

A term coined by Alice Walker for feminists of colour who feel excluded by white-centric feminism.

Lipstick Feminism
A backlash against the “ugly feminist” ideas that second wave feminism spawned, Lipstick Feminism which embraces the feminine and aims to lift it so that it is respected by society in the way that the masculine is. It embraces what it calls the “sexual power” of women.

Sex Positive Feminism
Feminism that rejoices in sexuality and argues sexual freedom is the key component to women’s liberation. It is pro-pornography, argues for the legalization and protection of sex workers, pro-BDSM and inclusive of a wide range of sexuality.



(from http://gray.intrasun.tcnj.edu/Coming%20of%20Age/a_basic_definition_of_patriarchy.htm )

Patriarchal social structures are:

1.  Male dominated–which doesn’t mean that all men are powerful or all women are powerless–only that the most powerful roles in most sectors of society are held predominantly by men, and the least powerful roles are held predominantly by women

2.  Organized around an obsession with control, with men elevated in the social structure because of their presumed ability to exert control (whether rationally or through violence or the threat of violence) and women devalued for their supposed lack of control–women are assumed to need men’s supervision, protection, or control

3.  Male identified:  aspects of society and personal attributes that are highly valued are associated with men, while devalued attributes and social activities are associated with women.  There is a sense of threat to the social structure of patriarchies when these gendered associations are destabilized–and the response in patriarchy is to increase the level of control, often by exerting control over women (as well as groups who are devalued by virtue of race, ethnicity, sexuality, or class).

4.  Male centered:  It is taken for granted that the center of attention is the natural place for men and boys, and that women should occupy the margins.  Public attention is focused on men.  (To test this, take a look at any daily newspaper; what do you find on the front page about men?  about women?)


Intersectionality is a concept often used in critical theories to describe the ways in which oppressive institutions (racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, xenophobia, classism, etc.) are interconnected and cannot be examined separately from one another. The concept first came from legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989 and is largely used in critical theories, especially Feminist theory, when discussing systematic oppression.

It is important when discussing feminism not to assume that all women are white, straight, cisgendered, able-bodied, middle class, educated, thin, western… or anything else.

Feminism is the advocation of equality for women – and this means ALL women. Therefore feminism MUST also be a battle against ALL oppressive institutions.


Privilege is the set of unearned advantages a person gets for some perceived trait a person possesses.

If you are reading this blog you are privileged in some ways!

It’s important to remember that because of your privilege you have certain advantages over other people.

You have more space in society, and you are more likely to be listened to.

You have to learn to listen to those less privileged than you, and not to try and speak for them. Allow other groups a space to speak.

Educate yourself  about issues that don’t affect you and don’t expect others to do it for you

Realise you can only sympathise, not empathise; different forms of oppression are not the same – experiencing sexism does not mean you understand racism/homophobia etc.

YOU WILL MAKE MISTAKES SOMETIMES – own them and apologise, and learn from them.


Sex is your biological makeup; gender is a conditioned role you perform in society.

Neither of these things are a binary! Even sex is not as simple as what your genitals look like, there are actually 8 categories for defining a person’s sex, and it is not uncommon for them not to align:

  1. chromosomal sex (XX or XY)
  2. antigenic sex (whether or not there is an HY antigen on the XY chromosome)
  3. gonadal sex (ovaries or testicles)
  4. prenatal hormonal sex (what hormones were dominant when the child was in the mother’s womb)
  5. internal morphologic sex (presence of ovaries, uterus, or not)
  6. external morphologic sex (penis or vagina)
  7. pubertal hormonal sex (whether testosterone or estrogen is dominant during puberty and so affecting secondary sex characteristics), and
  8. assigned sex (whether the “IT’S A BOY!” or “IT’S A GIRL!” sign gets put on the parents’ front door)

Though society tends to align sex with gender it is important to realise that the two are not related; your genitals or breasts or chromosomes do not determine your gender.

As such, it is problematic to use terms such as “ladyparts”, to claim someone with a penis isn’t a woman, to claim that the ability to give birth or menstruate is what “makes you a woman”. In fact, many feminists  and trans activists argue that sex characteristics should not be linked to gender at all and that describe someone as “female-bodied” suggests that there is a certain way a female should look. When it comes to talking about sex or gender, it’s best to be as specific as possible.

Gender is even more complicated! You can be a cisgendered (explained below) man or woman, bigendered (having a mixture of both femininity and masculinity), transgendered (the opposite of cisgendered), androgynous (in between masculine and feminine), agendered (without a gender), genderfluid (moving freely between genders) or genderqueer (identifying outside of the male/female gender binary), with a whole lot more. It’s easiest to break it down into different categories:

  • Gender assigned at birth
  • Gender identity (the gender you feel you are)
  • Gender expression (the gender you present yourself as)

If all three of these are aligned, then you are Cis-gendered. ‘cis’ comes from the latin meaning ‘on the same side as’, and is the opposite to ‘trans’.

All three of these exist as a scale, rather than a binary, and even that is simplistic. Being masculine or feminine is not like being hot or cold, you don’t have to be one or the other – you can be both or neither. Being more masculine in some senses – for example, being particularly aggressive – doesn’t stop you  being feminine in others – for example, loving dresses and makeup. Gender is actually just an umbrella term for a whole load of other qualities.

Just because someone wears dresses and makeup, does not mean they are a woman! They may still identify as a man but prefer to express their gender in a feminine way.

Gender is an incredibly complicated issue for feminists. Many believe we should be aiming for a post-gender society, as they are essentially meaningless categories. However, other feminists feel this is a form of trans-erasure, and many second wave feminists have made transphobic remarks in the past.


  • All bodies are beautiful! There is no right way or wrong way to look. You do not have a right to comment on how other people look. There is nothing wrong with being skinny or fat, body hair is a choice, and your body has nothing to do with your gender.
  • The only immoral sexual choices are non-consensual ones. Otherwise people have a right to conduct their sex life how they choose without fear of judgement.
  • You are allowed to like things that are problematic; however you must not excuse their problems or shut down conversations about their problematic aspects.
  • If you get something wrong, apologise. When you apologise, own your mistake rather than saying “I’m sorry you were offended.” Then try and learn from it.
  • Learn to listen to others and afford their views consideration.
  • This doesn’t mean accepting and agreeing with everything you are told. Question everything. Critical thinking, arguing and engaging with ideas is key to being a good feminist. If you find yourself losing a debate, consider that maybe you might be in the wrong. Be prepared to change your mind frequently.
  • You are allowed to be angry when dealing with oppression. Don’t tone police. Equally, accept that feminism is a long journey and other people get things wrong along the way – learn to forgive.

Hattie Grunewald
UEAFS President

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