Different parts of feminism are distinguished by waves and to be honest, it can be a little confusing trying to get a full understanding of each of the complete three waves. Feminism is characterized by waves in order to identify the coming up of the movement, the peak, and then finally the wave crashing back down before coming back up again into a brand-new wave (of feminism). But are all first-wave feminists racist? Are all third wavers radical, bra-burning Feminazis? And more commonly, when is the fourth wave happening? Are we witnessing it right now? However, let’s start with the first wave of feminism, the birth of feminism if you will…
If we were to travel all the way back in time to the Seneca falls convention in 1848, we would be introduced to two women, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, these two women started The First Wave of feminism as we know it today. They met when they were denied entry to the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention for simply, of course, being a woman. They reacted to this situation in the only appropriate way and so, on the 19th of July 1848 in a church, upstate New York, roughly three hundred men, and women gathered to discuss the “the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of women.”
First-wave feminism mainly focused on gaining political power. Even women had been conditioned by society into believing they didn’t deserve it. Take Cheryl Jorgensen-Earp for example, who literally believed that “Women simply had inferior brains, which made them unsuited to the rigours of voting”. They realised that perhaps the first step towards being recognised as actual human beings deserving of basic rights, they would have to have a say on what goes on in the political world, thus fuelling the fire to lead to real change. Their key focus initially being the vote for women which would obviously bring your mind to the suffragettes. Although I want to move away from the suffragettes since they’re talked about so often and instead enlighten some of the less known areas of the first wave, in particular why many people today dismiss them as racist.
This wave of feminism did give a powerful voice to women of colour who are just as relevant today, such as Sojourner Truth who delivered one of the most powerful speeches in American history “Ain’t I a Woman”. However, the movement did begin to be clarified as mainly a white woman’s battle and women of colour would often have to walk behind white women in marches or sometimes weren’t even allowed to show up at marches or demonstrations despite how much women of colour contributed to the cause. Women of colour became ostracised from the movement and so they were forced into creating their own group the National Association of Coloured Women (NACW). A group founded in 1896 which worked to not only secure suffrage for women, but universally.
Let’s move forward a bit to 1970s where The 15th Amendment’s passage in 1970 was passed which meant the “right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, colour, or previous condition of servitude.” essentially that meant African American men can now vote… well, that was the intention. Regardless, since African American men could now vote white women took this to use as ammunition in order to argue why they should get the vote. To them, it was truly unfathomable that these former slaves and immigrants would be given the right to vote before them.
The end of the first wave happens with the passing of the 19th amendment which was arguably their biggest achievement. The amendment “prohibits the states and the federal government from denying the right to vote to citizens of the United States on the basis of sex.” and this was a huge step forward towards reaching equality. As well as the vote it brought about changes to elements of health care and the workplace and truly was a massive victory. But after this, the presence of a unified goal was lacking and so this wave began to crash back down.
It’s fairly obvious that many first-wave feminists used racist tactics in order to reach their goals but in a society literally built on systematic racism, I believe it says more about the African American community and the strength in their actions used to overcome this and make sure their voices were still heard. However, we cannot dismiss or refuse to acknowledge the actions of the first wavers because they brought about a tremendous change to how women were viewed in terms of politics and I think that is very important.