Identifying with the waves of feminism

By Genevieve DiNatale


Historians divide the feminist movement into three ‘waves’ beginning with the ‘first-wave,’ or the Suffragette movement of the late 19th and early 20th century, when women sought the right to vote.  The second-wave (1960s – 1980s) focused primarily on reproductive rights and equality in the workplace, and the third-wave (1990s – present) places an emphasis on intersectionality – or the idea that women of different races, sexual preferences and social classes have unique identities with different forms of oppression that intersect with one another.

Sharlene Hesse-Biber is the head of Boston College’s Women’s and Gender Studies program.  She says that the most successful feminist movements unite around a single issue.  “I think the Suffragette movement had the right to vote as a rallying cry, but it didn’t unite a lot of women on other issues,” she said.

She goes on to argue that the result of the successes of single-issue feminist movements led to the stereotyping of what it meant to be a ‘woman’ during the second-wave of the 70s.  “What it meant to be ‘woman’ then was primarily white and middle class and a lot of that movement was also white and very middle class,” she said. “Very many differences among women were left out of that movement.  I think it is different now that all these intersectional views are coming together.”

The problem with intersectionality, according to Hesse-Biber, is that the breadth of issues in the movement forces it to prioritize, and in order to effectuate itself, she believes intersectional feminists needs to form a number of coalitions with emphases on different issues, such as minorities, the LGBTQ community, immigration, sexual and reproductive health, daycare and so on.  “People began to see some common issues and concerns that crossed racial lines, that crossed class lines, so I think that this kind of movement is much more of a focus on things that bring differences together,” she said.  “And that’s probably one of it’s weaknesses, too, because it’s about many things and lots of successful movements tend to focus on an issue.”

Allen Corben is the co-director of the National Organization of Men Against Sexism (NOMAS).  A self-proclaimed ‘pro-feminist,’ Corben says he doesn’t call himself a feminist because he “doesn’t want to co-opt somebody else’s story.”  However, as a “pro-feminist” Corben identifies with the second-wave because the intersectionality of the third-wave has elements that “undo” the work of the second.  “I identify very strongly with the second-wave feminists, the Betty Friedans and that sort of awareness of structural issues that play out in personal lives,” he said.

Corben’s dispute with the third-wave are with the ideas presented by ‘choice feminists’ who argue that any choice a woman makes, including working in the sex trade, is empowering.  “I have a political disagreement with some of third-wave feminism that wants to see – sometimes it’s called ‘choice feminism’ – they want to see that any choice that a woman makes is therefore inherently feminist,” he said.  “My analysis is parallel to feminists who, like Andrea Dworkin, say ‘pornography is the exploitation of the class of women,’ and I think that’s right and I find it more convincing than those who want to make an argument that sex work is empowering for women, for example.”

Ben Atherton-Zeman is the spokesman for NOMAS whose feminism, like Corben’s, was influenced heavily by the second-wave movement.  He said, “I like Rebecca West’s definition from 1923 where she says, ‘I only know that people call me a feminist when I express sentiments that differentiate myself from a doormat.’”

Like Corben, Atherton-Zeman identifies as pro-feminist, even though feminists have told him to call himself a ‘feminist’ in order to dispel the myth that feminists hate men.

“A few years ago there was a bit more of a movement among younger feminist women saying men really shouldn’t call themselves feminists, at least that we should be suspicious of men calling themselves feminists,” he said.  “As a man I want to say, it’s our job to welcome and understand women’s suspicion.  We as a gender have given you a lot of reason to be suspicious.”

About Genevieve Dinatale 4 Articles

Genevieve DiNatale is a multimedia/broadcast journalist with a passion for politics, crime and all things breaking.