The Changing Face of Feminism

17 September 2015


Feminism is a complex set of ideologies and theories, but on the most basic level, its goal is to achieve equal social, political, and economic rights for women.

The first wave of feminism, at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, focused mainly on women’s voting rights and property rights. Then came the second wave of feminism and the Women’s Liberation movement of the 1960s, which focused on issues beyond the legal status of women to include sexuality, reproductive rights, gender roles, and patriarchal attitudes and culture.

So where are we now?

Something I find both very odd and very disheartening is the backlash we see against feminism—not from men, which is not to say there hasn’t been one from men—but from younger women in particular. Many seem to want to distance themselves from the feminist movement, despite the enormous privileges they enjoy as a result of the struggles of the many women who went before them.

Take the Tumblr site, Women Against Feminism, where young women submit photos of themselves holding up signs that say, “I don’t need feminist because…” Each writes the reason she (believes) she doesn’t need feminism, like “I don’t need feminism because I’m not a victim,” (great!) or “I don’t need feminism because I’m free to make my own choices,” (ah, well that’s a big philosophical question—are you ever truly free?—and what would that even mean?) and “I don’t need feminism because I believe in equality,” (um, okay…?)

How about “I don’t need feminism because I need a dictionary”? The amazing popularity of this website begs the question: what exactly do these young women think feminism is? Clearly, they do not know, or if they do, they are incredibly entitled and ungrateful.

Without the feminist movement, these women wouldn’t be able to vote or get a higher education, they wouldn’t be able to pursue their own careers outside of the home, they wouldn’t have access to birth control, and if they were married, it would be legal for their husbands to beat or rape them. It’s fantastic that they’ve grown up in a world where they can simply take all that for granted, but a little humility and gratitude please!

The achievements of the feminist movement are enormous and ought not to be forgotten by the younger generation, but that’s not to say that feminism has already achieved all its goals. Sure, women today have more choices in life. If they want to stay home and take care of the kids, they can. If they want to have a career, they can do that too.

Of course, I meant middle class women have these choices. But a lot of other women have no choice but to work one, maybe two jobs, and also take care of the kids, and do the housework. The choice to stay home is a privilege only for some.

The sources sources of social, political, and economic inequality are diverse. They include factors such as race, class, sexuality, religion, education, and culture. Expecting the feminist movement to solve all those problems would be to demand too much, but at the same time, if the movement is just about the rights of privileged, straight, white, middle-class women living in Western countries, it is very much in danger of becoming obsolete.

This is why feminists of the third wave talk so much about that buzzword, intersectionality. There’s a popular slogan amongst young feminist activists that goes “My feminism will be intersection or it will be bullshit.” What that means is that if feminism to stay relevant in today’s changing world, it has to intersect with other social and political causes. It has to be a global movement that takes into account the full diversity of women’s experiences, and not simply assume that the educated white woman’s experience is universal.

“Leaning in” is all well and good for the Sheryl Sandbergs and Carli Fiorinas of this world, but for women not so privileged—the vast majority of women in the world—it does not speak to their experience and it does not address the challenges they face.

Some in the feminist movement think that this focus on identity politics and difference is ultimately divisive. It results in a splintering and radicalization of the movement. But it seems to me that it’s really the lack of intersectionality that encourages splintering.

If white, middle class feminists only pay lip service to intersectionality, but still try to set the agenda and control the feminist narrative, then of course these other marginalized groups within feminism will look for allies who understand their realities and deal with their struggles. After all, the discrimination faced by black lesbians is not the same as that faced by disabled Latinas. That can be very easy for a straight, white, able-bodied woman to forget.

To highlight how second wave and third wave feminists think differently about certain issues, take reproductive rights as an example. On the surface, it might seem like a unifying issue. We’ve seen concerted attacks on Planned Parenthood recently, which resulted today in the House of Representatives voting to defund it for a year. Then there’s been many states across the country that have passed new ALEC/AUL sponsored legislation severely restricting women’s access to abortion and birth control. And of course, there’s even a major national movement to overthrow Roe v. Wade.

Access to birth control is a paradigmatic issue for second wave feminists. So what do third wave feminists, who care about intersectionality, have to say about this issue?

First, they might emphasize how access to these kinds of services is not equal for all women, especially in states where there are very few abortion clinics and mandatory three-day waiting periods. For women who are poor or disabled, for example, they may not be able to afford to take three days, so they have even less access to these services than more privileged women do.

Second, they might also say that by focusing solely on access to birth control and abortion, we ignore the reproductive concerns of other, more marginalized women. Take, for example, the fact that throughout the world, many women have been forcibly sterilized. In this country, it is mostly Native American and African American women, as well as the physically and mentally disabled, who have had to endure this. Yet when we talk about reproductive rights for women, this is not what immediately comes to mind. We tend to think only about access to birth control and abortion.

Is that because it is simply a sad fact from our past that goes along with the history of oppression and subjugation of certain ethnic groups, like Native and African Americans? Unfortunately, no. Just last year, the state of California passed a law forbidding forced sterilization in prisons because, as late as 2010, almost 150 women in California prisons were sterilized, without their consent and often even without their knowledge.

If feminism is to stay relevant in the twenty first century, it has to fight for the rights of all women of all backgrounds and ethnicities. It can’t just be a movement that encourages white, affluent women to “lean in.”

Photo by Lindsey LaMont on Unsplash

Comments (17)

Laura Maguire's picture

Laura Maguire

Saturday, September 19, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Thanks for sharing that - a

Thanks for sharing that - a very interesting and informative article!
You draw attention to what I take to be one of the biggest misconceptions about (radical) feminism: "A radical feminist isn?t against the patriarchy solely because of its oppression of women, but also because of its oppression of men. They recognize that the patriarchy harms men also." When people criticize feminism for either hating men/boys or for simply not caring about them, it's more a reflection of their own ignorance than anything about feminism itself, even if, as you say, there are some feminists who misrepresent the movement.
I also liked your discussion of atheism in this context. It's annoying when people assume you're a fan of Harris, Dawkins, and the like just because you're an atheist. Atheist? Yes. Fan of Sam Harris? Definitely not!
One question I have about your article is that what you call the fourth wave is what I (and others) call the third wave. Are you taking the first three waves to be radical feminism, cultural feminism, and liberal feminism? If that's the case, the categorization seems not to follow the chronological history of feminism and I've always understood talk of "waves" as opposed to mere "categories" in this historical way.
Anyway, if you can tune into the live broadcast this morning, our guest on the show is the "Factual Feminist," Christina Sommers. You can hear it at 10am Pacific here:'s picture

Saturday, September 19, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

So what did you expect from

So what did you expect from the American Enterprise Institute?

Rey43's picture


Sunday, September 20, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Hi Laurie,

Hi Laurie,
Thank you for taking the time to read my article. I really appreciate your feedback. As to your question about the fourth wave, I used fourth wave rather than third because of a growing recognition of this new wave. That isn't to say that the third is over, but that we are perhaps in the midst of a palpable transition. Kira Cochrane, writing for The Guardian, has this to say:
"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."
What she's conveying here is that the fourth wave is driven by the use of technology. YouTube, blogs,  Facebook, etc. are the avenues feminists are increasingly beginning to choose. As we've seen, feminism can be badly misunderstood and/or communicated, but there are feminists online who both understand feminism and convey factual information about and related to the movement. Cochrane adds that:
"As the philosopher Nina Power notes, there are teenage girls today, growing up with Twitter and Tumblr, who have a perfect grasp of feminist language and concepts, who are active on a huge range of issues ? some of those I talk to are starting to work on economic analyses of women's predicament, the ways in which neo-liberal policies such as the rolling back of the state and low taxes for the rich, have shaped modern inequalities.?"
Having started a blog on Tumblr a few years ago, I've come across teens and young women with an excellent grasp of feminism, the political assault on women's rights, e.g., Planned Parenthood, etc. They understand feminism from a historical point of view and they're also aware of the intersectionality starting to take hold within the movement. I think the fourth wave will be fully realized once digital media becomes the means by which women organize, campaign, protest, and so on. Also, when it's fully realized, we will hopefully see women from say the U.S. urging women in the Muslim world to resist the patriarchy that currently binds them. Their current struggle resembles that of women in the middle centuries: they find themselves pinned under a theocratic authority that undermines their rights in several ways. They have to, in turn, pay a similar price to the one paid by the women you mentioned in your article, so that their descendants inherit better lives. Though I recognize that there's a digital divide, technology will be the manner that eventually enables us to reach these women. It's imperative that we do.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Monday, September 21, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

As to the strategies of

As to the strategies of feminism as a political or social movement I have no opinions. But in my youth I felt that it was on a wrong course, though perhaps one necessitated by the times. That is, it seemed to me that feminism, in the sixties and seventies, aimed at opening opportunities for women to compete with men on men's terms, doing nothing to alter the state of its being a "man's world". It always seemed to me that women should be striving for a world in which the character of each person can attain the highest level of achievement in that character, without having to adopt preexisting roles. Women should have no lesser rights than men, but this does not mean in every respect the same rights. Women do have a different life experience and have a right to make the most of it in their own way, and to a world that permits, even facilitates, achievement, and in that character most who they naturally are or, within the law, choose to be. Some suppose the world will be a "better place" if women have a stronger role in running it. But that is not the issue, and my opinion is that it would just be different. But the point is, it would be more just. People, all people, should be under as little constraint as possible to be something other than who they are, or to achieve their utmost as such. But how to achieve that is tactical, and tactics I leave to activists. What others want out of life, or how to get it, is not my place to opine on.
But the abortion issue has a special aspect to it that I think is being overlooked. To deny reproductive rights to women amounts to denying a liberty right that is explicitly defended in all other circumstances. The right to life is a community or public responsibility, not a private one. No one's liberty should be sacrificed in pursuit of the right to life of another person. Civil authorities only have the power to demand action in preserving life where the person directed to do so has a prior consensual commitment to do so, as firefighters, rescue squad, or police. A woman, simply by virtue of being female, has made no consensual commitment to sacrifice liberty to the right to life of the unborn. Civil authority is responsible for viable life to be possessed its life as a right, but only insofar as this means only infringing of liberty by prohibiting others from taking that right away. What anti-abortion activists claim is that abortion does just that. But if this is prevented only at the price of the woman's liberty the state has no compelling responsibility to affirm one right over the other. And so long as personal rights are individual and public responsibility to uphold them are collective, there can be no subordination of one to the other. in a real sense the unborn is not innocent. It infringes upon the a woman's liberty. And the public responsibility is not to subordinate one right to the other, but to distinguish them. And where the pregnancy is not at a viable stage this means there is no viable life for the public to protect as a matter of public responsibility, whereas the woman has a liberty right the public can and must protect. It's all about whether a woman has a liberty right as inalienable as a man's, and whether the unborn is a living person before viability just doesn't come into it.
Culture? In my youth women would not go out of doors without a scarf. But they did not make a political case out of it. Someone should do a cartoon of Mohamed and Fatima, with Fatima wearing curlers under her scarf. The point is, it is only an issue because there is compulsion involved. There is no other reason to affirm it as a 'right'. Let alone the veil. It is not up to the enslaved to endorse the condition of slavery. Do some women freely wear the scarf or veil? Is culture a right? If it is not spontaneous it is not inalienable. The earliest talk of right was about the right to self-defense. The point there was that no law can prevent it, and so it was taken as a demonstrable fact of natural law supreme over human laws and customs. Cultural constraints are not a natural and spontaneous expression of rights. A recent film on arranged marriages (I do not know its title) portrays an ex-patriot Indian community desperately clinging to social norms that are fading in India itself. Should their right to be sticks-in-the-mud be regarded as an inalienable right? Indigenous cultures should not be protected from the future, they should be provided the means to adapt to it in their own terms. Assimilation is a two way street, we adopt them as much as they us. The only crime is where it is unilateral and coercive. Absent that coercion and that implacable resistance to being influenced by the stranger, two way assimilation is the future for us all, not just those who feel they need to be protected from it, or from "them". Go to Iran and watch the girls push back their scarf when they think no one is looking, but quickly pull it over their hair when they think officials might be present, and then tell them it is their "right" to wear it. In France the scarf is outlawed in public schools. Does this go to far? Or do they have a point? After all, they don't allow visible Christian symbols either. 
But, why do I get the impression that what Laura really wants to discuss is why there is so little participation by women in philosophy. My own feeling is that, being a man's world after all, too much that passes for philosophy is a matter of proving something rather than explaining it. The gender division in this, I think, is not unreal, though it is highly prejudicial that it be thought so. Men are more instinctive/intuitive than they admit. The point is, an explanation requires a fine-tuned sense of what others understand.

Laura Maguire's picture

Laura Maguire

Monday, September 21, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Gary, I agree with you that

Gary, I agree with you that feminism that wants women to succeed on men's terms, by adopting traditionally "masculine" traits etc. was the wrong way to go. I see Simone de Beauvoir as guilty of advocating this in many ways. But then there was a swing in the opposite direction that I also think is wrong-headed. The idea that logic and rationality are "masculine" and that therefore science is oppressive, or that women would be better leaders because they are more nurturing by nature, are just as wrong because there's a kind of essentialism that is assumed here that is just as limiting. What we need is to value the positive traits of individuals, whether they are traditionally associated with being "masculine" or "feminine" and let both men and women pursue the kinds of careers they want and never assume they ought to do something in virtue of their gender. 
And yes, I was thinking about the dearth of women in philosophy while preparing for this show. We did a segment on that in one of our annual Examined Year shows, but maybe it's time to do a full show on that soon.

MJA's picture


Tuesday, September 22, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Intersectionality of equality

Intersectionality of equality, now we're talking justice for all!
While there are those who rightfully fight for the equation of this that or the other, would it not be far far better to fight for the equitable right, for the justice of All?
Perhaps Laura, it is that very sectionalism of the struggle for right, be it gay rights, women's rights, black rights, migrant rights, animal rights, wild horse rights, tree rights, river rights, etc., that keeps those sections divided from all the other rights? And rather then creating unity which is equality, there is only greater division. When One argues for the right of a few, does One not separate the few from the One?
There is great merit in this intersectionality or unification of rights, as surely unity is equality is justice is right. Isn't it time for a new wave or just One wave, a wave for the equitable right of All?
It is Dr. King's promised land that we are really after here, the light at the end of the tunnel. And like Dr. King I can't promise to take you there because we already are there, All we need to be is One!
The future of feminism is equalism,
= is

Celia35's picture


Friday, September 25, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

I've been a fan of Phil. Talk

I've been a fan of Phil. Talk for a couple years, but today's show was appalling. To have a "feminist scholar" from the AEI is like having a scholar on racism from the John Birch Society. How is it the only mention of the pandemic of violence against women is in the last humorous (?) minute in which the commentator ridicules the problem on college campuses? Try some facts on for size, for example these from the World Health Organization: Or the U.S. Centers for Disease Control:  1 in 5 women raped during lifetime
Please have an actual feminist on to counteract the mishmosh on today's show.

MER's picture


Monday, September 28, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

I agree with Celia35 overall,

I agree with Celia35 overall, though guest Christina Hoff Sommers did offer at least one positive takeaway: the empowerment of refusing to remain a victim. However, her response to some questions seemed to reveal an unfamiliarity with the full spectrum of feminism. For example, when asked to address the assertion that men earn more than women, her answer seemed sincere but bordered on ignorance. She said that women don't go into the field of petroleum engineering, which is where the biggest bucks are, so they therefore earn less than men. Maybe Sommers didn't understand what feminists mean when we say, "Women don't get paid as much as men." What we mean is that, too often, if a man and a woman with the same education, training and experience are doing the same job, the man's pay is higher.
Sommers also seemed unaware of what constituted feminism in the late 1970s and the 1980s. Feminism was not meant to benefit only white women, or only women in general; instead, it questioned the economic and hierarchical basis of our current society. Feminism aspired to create more equitable conditions for people suffering from all types of oppression -- including poverty and prejudice based on race, ethnicity, religion or ability. Feminism questioned the underlying capitalist structure of our society and the way it supports putting power in the hands of a few, mostly, men. Feminists from that era -- and perhaps their influence is still felt in the career choices of today's young women -- would not choose petroleum engineering because it reflects a capitalist drive to dominate nature for the extraction of resources.... The question whether women have full equality will only become obsolete when we can ask, in all seriousness, "Do men have full equality?"

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Tuesday, September 29, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

I'd recommend reading Nickel

I'd recommend reading Nickel and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich. Too much feminist talk centers around  access to the middle class, rather than on the plight of entry-level wage earners. The fact is that in America most employees are at the mercy of their employers with no established recourse against mistreatment of all sorts.
But sexual misconduct is on a slightly different footing. Sexual crimes should be a matter of prosecution, not just of reforming the equity of the workplace.
In the movie ET there is a scene in which Eliot creates pandemonium in his science class, and in the bedlam he plucks-up the courage to kiss the girl he has had his eye on. But to do so he has to stand on a box. Clearly, I am not the only one to notice that there is period in the life of children in which girls are larger than boys. This is often taken as a precocity in the girls or immaturity in the boys. It certainly sets girls up for sexual interest they are not ready for, and I wonder if the sense of strength it might imbue in girls, for a time, doesn't lead to discouragement as the boys shoot up in size. But my thought is that this delay in the growth of boys protects them from being in direct competition with more mature males for females their own age. During this time boys certainly act as if they are under threat. They separate and cluster in secret places, tree-houses and 'forts', often with signs warning girls to keep away. Here they practice being fierce, striking poses they learn from film violence, and forming alliances against some real or imagined dangers. We should be intervening at this stage, because it is here, and even earlier in development, that boys form the cultural values that support later habits of sexual violence and sexist attitudes.

Giraffe_knight's picture


Tuesday, September 29, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

No one is denying the

No one is denying the achievements of the early feminists, they have done great things in regards to social equality.
That out of the way.... My problem with the modern feminist movement extends beyond social equality, but rather this notion of entitlement and skewed facts. For one, the wage myth is perpetuated on false data. Women in the same fields, working the same hours as men with the same education do not make less. That's a fact. The notion that 1/4 women are sexual abuse victims is false (with questions like, "have you had sexual relations while drunk?" making that a yes, and to follow up on that, they don't consider it sexual abuse if a guy is drunk and has sex. He is still the perpetrator of abuse. The notion of domestic abuse, women initiate domestic abuse more often than men do, but men don't/can't report it because of the social stigma of a man getting physically abused (its shameful whether from a man or a woman). These are just a couple of facts that have been ignored or misrepresented that the feminist movement pushes, but they're not the important ones in my opinion.
More importantly its the fact that they push this independence agenda, this concept of self-empowerment and autonomy, but when it comes to observing feminism the actions speak the opposite. State-funded contraception, "safe spaces", collectivism (my fiance is a feminist AND wants to be a stay at home wife, yet is shunned by the feminist community for that decision), their desire to shut any voice for being "offensive", which is a totally ambiguous concept in itself. Feminists don't seem to act as if they want to be empowered or independent, they just want others to cater to their every whim. From a philosophical standpoint it is inconsistent, at best and at worst, self-destructive.
To balance the argument a bit, men are not off the hook either. I have a deep disposition for the "Mens Rights Movement" as much as the modern feminist movement. I tend to find men as being mentally and emotionally fragile, they let their wives walk all over them and as a result, they huddle to the computer screen to vent on Reddit behind their wives backs. The Redpill/MGTOW movement is especially flawed, what I have gathered from these "men" is they're upset that they can't get laid anytime they want and happened to have been screwed over by a girlfriend or two and now scream "misandry!" every chance they get. These guys are incapable of standing up for themselves, of learning from their own mistakes and becoming better people as a result. Nope, they'd rather maintain their bitter attitude toward women and blame all their problems on everyone else but themselves.
In short, social movements are bothersome and petty (in my opionion), especially gender-based movements.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Wednesday, September 30, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

There is a difference between

There is a difference between a movement and the conduct of the people in it. You don't have to like the latter to support the former. We don't make enough effort to understand each other, but this is never a one way street. Men spend a life being rejected, and getting mad as a result. But women spend a lifetime hiding their sexual feelings much of the time because men get the wrong idea and once fixated won't take no for an answer. I happen to think women should never use the interest they inspire in men, intending to or not, as a weapon to cause pain or humiliation. But this is an issue of sexual etiquette, not work and wage equity. What I meant above was to point out the culture of intimidation men grow up in and tend to perpetuate throughout life, out of ignorance of a better social order. I would like to live in a world where women could be honest with men about their sexual interest in them, but such a world would be one in which men are not so craven about their interest in women. I suspect that in societies where gay rights are fully observed the culture of intimidation adolescent boys feel compelled to create would not be so prevalent. And that, therefore, feminism and gay rights are not unrelated. Gay orientation as a recognized normal mode of sexuality confuses the tendency of heterosexuals to a stark delineation of roles. But, in sum, I don't see why the rights of women cannot be different and yet equitably recognized in most social settings, and certainly in the workplace, even while the war between the sexes merrily rages on.
When making a factual claim, a note on one's source wouldn't go amiss. This is supposed to be a philosophy discussion, after all.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Sunday, October 4, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Laura, a question:

Laura, a question:
The ERA failed by one state. One state (Tennessee?) reversed its ratification vote. Was this the one vote? If so then the failed ratification may be appealed. But even if not, there seems to me an important issue at stake. If a state can reverse a recent ratification vote, can it do so on older votes? Can a state reverse its ratification of the Constitution itself? Secede? I think we fought a war on that one. So it seems to me the only proper way to reverse a ratification vote is to offer a new amendment repealing it and then vote on that. A state cannot unilaterally undo a passing vote even if it is the same body and members and even the same session of the legislature that does so. So, that is, that reversed vote does not stand, whether it would make the difference or not, but if it does, then the ERA is law.
I suppose we could all become dervishes, or just do the Hokey-Pokey. But I think you put your left foot in your mouth this time, and maybe shouldn't move it all about. I wonder why post a two year old thread that's been archived and does not permit comments? Well, how does the kinesthetic derive the Katastematic? Husserl would endorse it, I suppose. I seem to remember reading a book that went on and on about Husserl and 'kinesthetic invariance', by a woman (sorry, but I can't not think "aint it just like a girl"). Invariance, you see, is not the basis of knowledge, no more than is replication the basis of life (in a complex organism replication is cancer). No, it is variance that changes course or even revises all fundamentals in a way that feels more at home than stasis ever could. But this is not dance. It is more like stumbling. But if it is the very presumption of stability or 'invariance', whether kinesthetic or katastematic, that leads to the fall, then it is the fall that is the meaning of it all. Vertigo is closer to knowledge than dance.

Laura Maguire's picture

Laura Maguire

Thursday, October 8, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Comments automatically close

Comments automatically close after a month but we repost old blogs when the show repeats, usually with the comments reopened. Comments on that blog are now open again.

jaIBH8bg2bnn's picture


Saturday, October 10, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

The hosts seemed taken aback

The hosts seemed taken aback that the guest supported capitalism.  That seemed to suggest an obvious question.  How can we expect feminists to become CEO's or captains of industry if their ideology prevents them from supporting capitalism?  

Laura Maguire's picture

Laura Maguire

Sunday, October 11, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

There have been a lof of

There have been a lof of articles critiquing 'white feminism' recently. Here's an interesting one I read today by Kirsten West Savali:
It reminded me of Unmanageable Revolutionaries, a book by Margaret Ward about the role women played in the Irish independence struggle of the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries, a role largely forgotten/omitted from subsequent histories of the Irish nationalist movement, just as black women seem to have beeen written out of the history of the women's suffrage movement in this country.

Laura Maguire's picture

Laura Maguire

Sunday, October 11, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

People hold inconsistent

People hold inconsistent views all the time, so it's possible to believe yourself both a feminist and a capitalist.