First Wave Feminists largely responded to specific injustices they had themselves experienced. Their major achievements were the opening of higher education for women; reform of the girls' secondary-school system, including participation in formal national examinations: the widening of access to the professions, especially medicine; married women's property rights, recognized in the Married Women's Property Act of 1870; and there were some improvement in divorced and separated women's child custody rights. However active until the First World War, First Wave Feminists failed however, to secure the women's vote. ‘One of the major drives behind feminism was the need felt by middle class women to reassert their superiority of status over socially or racially 'inferior' men to whom political and social change was bringing rights and thus status, which they were still denied.’ (Evans, 1977 p. 239)
In some retrospect three basic feminist political strategies developed during the first wave of feminism which emerged during the nineteenth century. These were maternal, equal rights and trade unionist feminists. Maternal feminists were concentrated on suffrage, i.e. voting rights for women. They based their argument on the moral superiority of women because of their child-bearing ability and their natural nurturing ability that made them peace makers, as mothers of the nation etc.
Equal rights feminists based their arguments on the idea that women’s rights are human rights, and many of these feminists came from the abolitionist movement where freedom from slavery informed their ideas about equality. They felt that only through voting (suffrage) and the right to own property (enfranchisement) would women ever achieve equal rights with men.
Trade union feminism rose out of the sweatshops of large urban areas of western civilization. These feminists felt their struggle for equality was that of one that was based in a class struggle, and fought to have their labour fairly waged, and for time to be away from their work. They based their alliance on a Marxist analysis of capitalism.
Nevertheless However around the 1920’s to 1960’s there was in some retrospect a feminist retreat due to the war and depression, the start of the cold war and then the reconstruction of Europe. In 1949 A breaking point can be seen between the first and second periods of women's activism, in this country, it comes with the publication of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Barbara Arneil observes that de Beauvoir embraces the first wave beliefs of ‘humanism, equality and reason,’ (Arneil, 1999 p. 163) yet moves beyond these beliefs to focus on distinct categories of feminism characteristic of second wave thinking. The rebirth of feminism, as a ‘single mass-based social movement’ began in the 1960s. ‘To call something a wave implies that it is one among others, in some sort of succession, both similar to and different from the other occurrences’. (Bailey, 1997) That is precisely what the Second Wave was, building on many of the successes of the First Wave, reviving some of the failures, and redefining some of the issues. (Rosen, 2001 p98) This rebirth, however, occurred after a significant period of time. The distinction between those feminists of the First Wave and those of the Second Wave was clear. ‘One of the obvious differences between the first and second waves is time… if there is a temporal difference between the second and third waves; it is neither so great nor so visible as that which separates the first from the second.’ (Bailey, 1997 p17-28)
One of the most important features of second wave feminism was the recognition that power was found in private as well as public life, and that for many women it was oppression in the private sphere that in fact harmed them the most. The popular political slogan of the day, ‘The Personal is Political’ reflected the newfound importance of exploring the exercise of power in a variety of settings. As Arneil concludes, ‘Each of the different forms of feminism developed its own ideas about how to break through this oppression of women in the private sphere.’ (Arneil, 1999, p195)
Second wave political strategies focused on such diverse issues such as the Equal Rights Amendment, consciousness-raising groups for women, abortion rights and Affirmative Action. It was a time of great gains, but once again these gains primarily reflected the interests of white, well-educated women. Second wave feminism did not just make an impact on western societies, but also continued to inspire the struggle for women’s rights across the world. Second Wave feminists focused on winning pay equity for women, access to jobs and education, recognition of women’s unpaid labour in the home, and a rebalancing of the double workload of family and outside work for women in the paid labour force. Drude Dahlerup wrote ‘Second-wave feminism simply indicates a new impetus to this movement which has experienced periods of bloom, strength, and visibility, alternating with periods of more quiet, dogged, struggle to better women's position in a male-dominated society’. (The New Women’s Movement’)
During the second wave of feminism, three political strategies emerged that compare with the first wave feminist theories. Second-wave liberal feminism is an approach that has grown from many of the same notions of first-wave equal rights feminism. Both have the notion that women’s rights are human rights, that the way for women to eliminate subordination is by gaining equality with men is through the political tools available, through government legislation, through laws, and by breaking down barriers to women. The idea of ‘equal opportunity’ is very strong for liberal feminists, i.e. women don’t need special consideration or treatment, just the opportunity to succeed and the rest is up to the individual. Radical feminism finds its roots in maternal feminism because both are quite focused on women’s bodies and women’s gendered experience and roles in society. Radical feminists believe that the first and foremost oppression experienced by women is connected to her biological difference from men, her role in social reproduction and patriarchy’s desire to control women’s bodies and reproductive capacity and rights. Much of radical feminism writings also look at the moral superiority of women because of their roles as mothers. The way for women to eliminate subordination is to eliminate sexism. Second wave socialist feminists found their inspiration in the early trade union feminists and their Marxist analysis of capitalism and how it contributes to women’s oppression. They also found credibility in radical feminist’s theories and therefore felt both economic factors and gender was equally responsible for women’s oppression. To eliminate women’s subordination one must address both sexism and capitalism.
It is interesting to look for similarities and differences between First and Second Wave feminism. In Europe, both waves developed in periods of agitation for social and political change. The early activists of the Second Wave knew relatively little about the feminist activism of previous generations. They tended to assume that the pre World War 1 movement was concerned only with legal and political rights and used only moderate campaigning methods about respectable issues. Research to rediscover women's history has been an important activity within the contemporary women's movement and we now know that, for example, women's rights within the so-called 'private' sphere of marriage, family and sexuality were addressed by First Wave feminists and that all First Wave feminist movements in Europe contained both moderates and radicals.
Historically, feminist movements have embraced both theory and practice to overcome the oppression faced by women. The changes that come about as a result of women’s liberation benefit each member of society, not just women. From the formal equality taken up by first wave feminists to the current focus on identity and difference, feminist theories and the critical debate they bring about continue to be important catalysts for social change and to reflect the cutting edge of social thought at any given time. Over a century and a half the movement has grown to include diverse perspectives on what constitutes discrimination against women. Feminism is both an intellectual commitment and a political movement that seeks justice for women and the end of sexism in all forms. However, there are many different kinds of feminism. Feminists disagree about what sexism consists in, and what exactly ought to be done about it; they disagree about what it means to be a woman or a man and what social and political implications gender has or should have. Nonetheless, motivated by the quest for social justice, feminist inquiry provides a wide range of perspectives on social, cultural, and political phenomena. Important topics for feminist theory and politics include: the body, class and work, disability, the family, globalization, human rights, popular culture, race and racism, reproduction, science, and sexuality. And hence Lovenduski sums up by saying ‘The two waves of feminism were instrumental in achieving agenda status for the suffrage and emancipation acts of the early part of the twentieth century, followed by the equality and anti-discrimination initiatives of the 1970s and the 1980s'. (Lovenduski, 1986 p.246
Arneil,B. ‘Politics and Feminism,’ Blackwell’s, 1999.
Bailey, C. ‘Making waves and drawing lines: The politics of defining the vicissitudes of feminism’, summer, 1997.
Dahlerup, D ‘The New Women’s Movement: feminism and political power in Europe and USA’, Sage, 1986
Evans, R. ‘The Feminists: Women's Emancipation Movements 1840-1920,’ 1977
Jaggar, M, A ‘Feminist Politics and Human Nature,’ Harvester Press, 1983
Lovenduski, J, ‘Women and European Politics: contemporary feminism and public policy,’ Massachusetts Press, 1986
Rendall, J ‘Women’s politics in Britain 1780-1870:Claiming citizenship,’ York, 2002
Rosen, R, ‘The world split open: How the modern women's movement changed America.’ Viking Press. 2001
De Beauvoir, S. ‘The Second Sex’ Cape 1949