The Emergence of Fourth-Wave Feminism


Fourth Wave Feminism reflects the emerging phase in the evolution of true feminist thought.

The First Wave of feminism (1840-1920) was focused on getting the vote for women. This struggle was won by the suffragists’ holistic inclusion of equal rights in their philosophy. Women not only sought legal equality with men but also supported the rights of other oppressed segments of the population. Suffragists supported abolitionism, child labor laws, worker and immigrant rights, and the rights of the unborn. No one said it more clearly than Elizabeth Cady Stanton in her famous comment to Julia Ward Howe about abortion: “When we consider that we [as women] have been considered property, it is degrading that we should treat our children as property to be disposed of as we see fit.” This wave of feminism is represented by Susan B. Anthony and The Revolution, the newspaper she owned and published. In it and other women’s rights journals, abortion was called “child murder,” “prenatal killing,” and “foeticide.”

The Second Wave of feminism (1970s), represented by Gloria Steinem, pushed beyond getting the vote for women to gaining equal opportunity in education and employment. The Vietnam War, global insecurity created by the nuclear threat, and the war on poverty cried out for more nurturing voices, such as women’s, to participate in government and corporate decision-making. The lessening of family responsibilities and making motherhood optional required not only the widespread availability of better contraceptive options, but the right to abortion, Second Wave feminists argued.

Ironically, The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan did not promote abortion rights. Rather, the idea of abortion rights was introduced into the activist world by Bill Baird and abortionist Henry Morganthaller, who made the point to Friedan and later Steinem that women needed abortion if they expected to maintain positions in the workforce. Women built tenuous alliances with those embracing an anti-war sentiment, who felt women were underrepresented in government and corporations, particularly those in the war industry. In order to appease the pacifist faction of the anti-war movement, which saw killing a human being as against nonviolent principles, the label used by abortion rights’ activists evolved in the mid-1980s to the term “pro-choice.” This term embraced the civil right of privacy but at the same time allowed those who “would never do this themselves” to adopt the “bandwagon approach” anti-war activists needed to meet the emerging global nuclear arms race threatening “mutually assured destruction."

The Third Wave of feminism (2000s) is primarily represented by contemporary women associated with academia at the dawning of the 21st century. These young women feel secure in their rights concerning reproduction, including abortion. However, they have found through dialogue with a more diverse population of women that the language of “choice” is not a reality for those too poor to have a choice. To poor women on university campuses, abortion felt more like a need than a choice because they lacked the social support necessary to carry their children to term. Feminist language changed to “reproductive justice,” or the striving for economic equality needed to be able to make a free choice.

The Third Wave embraces a broader justice agenda, one that includes environmental rights, gay rights, workers’ rights, and immigrant rights. In addition, Third Wave feminists “create a space” for dialogue about the freedom of the feminine body to love itself. This sometimes takes the form of supporting pornography, embracing public nudity, and legalized prostitution as it regards the right of sex workers to unionize, and so on.

Unlike Second Wave feminists, who used face-to-face confrontations such as public protest, group meetings, and civil disobedience, Third Wave feminists feel less of a need for a defensive posture and embrace more impersonal and isolated methods of communication (blogs, personal websites, e-mail, Facebook). One Third Wave feminist is blogger Rebecca Walker, the daughter of Alice Walker. Criticizing her mother’s emotional and physical absenteeism in her life, Rebecca Walker delayed motherhood. She and others of the Third Wave identify with attachment parenting as an antidote to their own generational nurturing gap that was left by their mothers in the Second Wave.

The Fourth Wave is what we see as an emerging feminism that progresses beyond justice for women, the poor, and ethnic groups to also include justice for the unborn. Fourth Wave feminists see this circling back to the principles of First Wave feminism not in contradiction to the rights for women but rather as being in support of women’s rights. Their numbers include women like the Third Wave feminists who feel abortion was never a “choice” for poor women. Many are Second Wave feminists who believed in the 1970s that abortion would remedy single motherhood, the feminization of poverty, child abuse, and unequal pay for equal work but who have found that not only have these social ills not been eradicated after almost 40 years of abortion rights but in some cases, have worsened. Moreover, many have had first-hand experience with abortion and see or live with the negative effects of abortions, particularly post-traumatic stress—the same disorder seen in soldiers who have faced war.

Other Fourth Wave feminists bypassed the Third Wave altogether and understand through the sciences of ultrasonography, genetics, and embryology the humanness of the unborn. They see themselves embracing “inclusive justice” by identifying abortion as violence to both the mother and another human being. Therefore, they see contraception, the prevention of conceiving a life, as distinct from the right to take a life in abortion. In this regard, they stand squarely with Susan B. Anthony and First Wave feminists who, without the assistance of science, also made that distinction.

Fourth Wave Feminism has come full circle and embraces an even greater and more expansive interpretation of human rights.

Carol Crossed is President of the Susan B Anthony Birthplace Museum and is on the Board of Directors of Feminists for Nonviolent Choices in Rochester, New York.


Photo courtesy FFNVC Facebook page, some rights reserved.

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