Report: The waves of feminism and the issues that remain


When half of the world has struggled to achieve basic human rights, feminism is a fundamental means towards achieving equality and justice.  This report begins with background information and historical contexts of feminism and its human rights objectives. The key concepts, main debates and analysis are presented within the framework of the three waves of feminism, including the arguments of prominent thinkers, their manifestos, and the unresolved problems they identified. A further analysis of current issues is provided to more fully explore the historical background and contemporary meaning of feminist theory and practice. The central argument of this report is that, although the struggle continues—and the voices are many and distinct—progress is slow and by no means universal.



What is feminism?

A feminist is a person “who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes” (Adichie, 2014). Feminism acknowledges that there is a gender imbalance which results in male privilege and female subjugation, and intends that all people should be treated equally regardless of their gender. The aim of feminism is to educate people on current aspects of sexism within society, to create momentum for a social movement to occur.

Promoting human rights is a widely-embraced goal which seeks to address the needs, concerns, and violations of humans globally. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights encompasses a world vision for global acceptance of its definition of human rights. During the Declaration’s drafting in 1948, Eleanor Roosevelt successfully fought for the inclusion of ‘sex’ in the passage, in an attempt to address the world-wide issue of female subordination (Bunch, 1990), nevertheless, sexism and racism are ever prominent in society today.

Opposing views and disagreements

There are many anti-feminists who aim to maintain the patriarchy, and claim that the movement exaggerates theories about women’s disadvantages, encourages oppression or harm to men, and that it advocates misandry (Smith, 2008). A common misconception about feminism is that it is inherently anti-male. While feminists can take many forms, the movement is all-inclusive, which means that men can be feminists, as can those women who are strongly opposed to men because of their passive or aggressive perpetration of an oppressive patriarchal society. Feminism gives voice to social standards and beliefs, which ultimately benefit all humans regardless of their gender identity.

The feminist author, bell hooks (who prefers her name in lower case) states in her book Feminism is for Everybody:  “Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression” (hooks, 2000, p. viii). This definition clearly establishes that the problem is not men – it is sexism. Sexist thought is not a ‘woman’s issue’ nor is it ‘inherently male’, it is a human practice which we have been conditioned from birth to accept.

Modern feminism

Feminism, as a movement to fight female oppression, has changed and developed depending on the struggles of the times. Feminism today aims to bring world-wide attention to human rights violations (particularly for non-Western women), and to end discrimination, stereotypes, gender-bias, unequal representation, harassment, and passive acceptance of patriarchal practices and ideas. Modern Western Feminism has been split into three ‘waves’ as to signify the different aims and progress throughout history.


Key concepts, debates and analysis

The achievements, prevailing issues, and debates of each wave of feminism are analysed and discussed below.

First wave feminism

First wave feminism, in the 19th to early 20th century, was based primarily in the United States and United Kingdom. The first wave was concerned with the legal rights of women, improving their economic status, and tackling violence against women.

Originally focusing on property rights for women and opposition to the ‘ownership’ of married women by their husbands, the movement’s key goal came to be allowing women the right to vote. The early suffragettes’ argument was one of justice, stressing the common humanity of men and women, and asserting that women deserved the same opportunities to progress that men received. The movement also acknowledged the benefits to society that would accrue by allowing women the right to vote, by offering a unique perspective on policy reform, especially as political life was increasingly concerned with home-life and the private sphere (Burrell, 2004).

A key thinker in the origins of this movement was Mary Wollstencraft, who is widely-considered to be the first feminist theorist. Wollstencraft’s work A Vindication for the Rights of Woman in 1792 argued that women should have the same fundamental rights as men, especially the right to education considering they are primary educators of children (Wollstonecraft, 1792). Wollstencraft’s work also discussed issues such as: women entering politics and medicine, being shamed for having sex before marriage (when men are not), speaking freely without fear of being seen as ‘masculine’ or undesirable, and a woman’s inordinate interest in appearance and beauty to please men.

Despite the work of Wollstencraft and the early feminists, many of the issues they raised are still to an extent unresolved today, and remain central concerns of modern feminism:

  • Women’s education is still a contested subject – Malala Yousafzai was shot in the face by the Taliban when she was 15, after campaigning for girls’ education (Yousafzai & Lamb, 2013).
  • Female politicians, and women in public life, are consistently facing sexism and misogyny, and commonly receive violent threats against them (Anderson, 2016).
  • ‘Honour’ killings, particularly in the Middle East, are the murders of mostly young women, who are killed by their families for ‘bringing shame’ to them – mostly in the form of pre-marital sex, by refusing arranged marriages, or by having been raped (Pope, 2012). In the West, the sexual double standard is disproportionately aimed towards women and girls and has elevated to dangerous levels with the growth of the internet (Tanenbaum, 2015).
  • Women, particularly in the business and corporate world, are still often perceived as ‘too aggressive’ when they display behaviour required of a person in charge (Bennett, 2016).
  • Women are increasingly becoming alienated from their own bodies, which is intensified by capitalism and marketing, with the beauty industry coercing women into conserving or altering their bodies in an effort to sell more products (Jeffreys, 2005).

Along with Wollstencraft, John Stuart Mill is seen as a primary philosophical architect of feminist thought. Building on her ideas, Mill brought a secular liberal utilitarian foundation to developing feminist theory (Botting, 2016). Mill is regarded as one of the most influential philosophical thinkers, and one of the earliest male writers of feminist philosophy. He argued in his essay The Subjugation of Women in 1869, that gender inequality is severely impeding the progress of humanity, asserting that women’s lives are hindered by society and gender construction, limited education, and the expectation of marriage (Mill, 1869). Mill compared gender inequality to slavery, arguing that husbands controlling their wives’ lives is abuse, like that of master to slave.

These issues are still relevant and concerning for modern feminism:

  • Stereotypes limit women’s choices and opportunities, and hinder their ability to fulfil their potential, while also justifying gender discrimination and perpetuating historical gender constructs (Puri, 2011).
  • Limited education for women, particularly focusing on sexuality education, directly affects quality of women’s health care (Klein et al., 2014).
  • Forced marriages are still prominent in non-Western countries, and studies have shown women in the West earn more in their jobs if they never marry, and are more likely to get the job in the first place if their employer doesn’t believe they may soon require maternity leave (Dunn, 2016).

Mill applied key liberal principles of egalitarianism, rationality, and autonomy to the subject of women (Hekman, 1992). Feminism and Liberalism both attempt to emancipate individuals from ascribed hierarchical bonds of traditional society (Pateman, 1989). Feminism and Liberalism share a common origin, and a common goal, though their strategies often differ. Radical third wave feminists have come to dispute liberal feminist ideas, suggesting that satisfaction with a woman’s freedom to choose is not enough to bring down the patriarchal structure of society. Essentially, if one wants to break free of their cage, they must first be aware of what the cage is. While this delves deeper into the philosophical breakdown of feminism and its relationship to liberalism, it is important to understand the origins of such a prolific movement.

Though first wave feminism was liberal in nature, feminism’s philosophical essence has continued to develop over time, depending on the needs and issues of the times. This makes differentiating between the waves of feminism very important for our understanding of the complexities and developments of feminist thoughts. First wave feminism saw women gaining the right to vote and the ability to run for public office. It focused primarily on political rights for women and overturning legal obstacles, which expanded to issues concerning economic, sexual, and reproductive matters. Feminism’s second wave saw these issues highlighted, while also assessing women’s rights in the workplace and the family, with a goal to ending discrimination.

Second wave feminism

The second wave refers to the period of feminist activity from the early 1960s to late 1980s. Second wave feminism brought attention to sexual inequalities, particularly those affecting women in the workplace and the family, as well as women’s reproductive rights, and the sexist nature of popular culture. An aim of second wave feminism was to raise women’s awareness of their oppression through creating positive images of women to counteract the dominant portrayal of women in mass media (Arrow, 2007).

In 1949, Simone de Beauvoir published her ground breaking book The Second Sex, which dealt with women’s oppression throughout history, and analysed the notion of women being defined relative to men (de Beauvoir, 1949/2015). This book is widely acknowledged as a precursor to second wave feminism, and it remains one of the most significant works of existentialism and feminism (Crowell, 2012). De Beauvoir wanted to strip away the misconceptions, hypocrisies, and prejudices that prevented people from seeing the necessity of gender equality. Unfortunately, many of these obstructions are still prevalent in society today.

Publication of The Second Sex, the availability of the female contraceptive pill in 1961, J.F. Kennedy’s establishment of a Presidential Commission on the Status of Women in 1961, and the Women Strike for Peace marches involving approximately 50,000 women across 60 US cities in 1961, were all important events which gave rise to the second wave of feminism (Robinson, 2017). Perhaps the greatest influence on contemporary feminism, and considered to be the beginning of second wave feminism, was Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963.

The Feminine Mystique challenged social norms and assessed the needs and desires of women in 1950-60s United States – a concept that had largely been overlooked in popular culture. Freidan conducted a survey of her classmates 15 years after graduating from Smith College, which resulted in the discovery that an alarming number of women were dissatisfied with their lives as housewives. This prompted Freidan to research and write the highly influential, best-selling book.

Freidan argued that women, despite living in material contentment, fear they are losing their self-identity and are not fulfilled by the role of wife and mother. Freidan suggested that this problem is not an individual one, and is intensified when American popular culture (primarily created by men) perpetuates the idea that a woman’s proper role is one of a housewife and carer. Technological advances (e.g., vacuum cleaners, washing machines, etc.) in the post-war economic boom, made housework easier and less time-consuming. She argued that even though women are aware of their dissatisfaction, they often don’t share their experiences with other women (for fearing of sounding like a ‘bad’ wife or mother). Furthermore, because women were less educated than men, they had fewer resources to fully explore and understand this problem and how to tackle it. The Feminine Mystique brought widespread attention to acknowledging that women need meaningful work and greater education in their lives to achieve self-actualisation and fulfilment (Friedan, 1963).

There have been massive improvements in some aspects of women’s human rights issues since the publication of The Feminine Mystique, for example, the landmark Roe V. Wade decision, Equal Pay Act and the Civil Rights Act in the U.S (Robinson, 2017), and Deborah Wardley in Australia, who set precedent in sex discrimination laws after taking Ansett Airlines to the High Court for not allowing her the right to pilot training (Maloney & Grosz, 2012). Nevertheless, many issues raised in The Feminine Mystique are still relevant today:

  • Although men do more housework today than they did in the 60s, they are still doing less than a third of inside chores, and women continue to do the bulk of the work (Coltrane & Adams, 2008)
  • There is still a strong cultural expectation for women to marry, which can result in them being overlooked for opportunities and promotion in the workplace (Penn, 2006).
  • Men dominate managerial and administrative positions in all occupations, and regardless of whether they work in a male-dominated or female-dominated industry, men’s wages grow faster, and they get promoted faster than women (Hakim, 2004).
  • Women seen in advertising material are often alluring, decorative, and sexually provocative. These sexist advertisements have self-destructive implications on the viewer, particularly, female viewers who are more likely to perceive themselves as overweight after seeing the stereotypes shown in these advertisements (Hetsroni, 2012).
  • Women often show reluctance to be associated with the feminist movement for fear of seeming aggressive or strident – a portrayal of feminists which is perpetuated by the media (Caplan, 2012).

With the help of the civil rights movement, second wave feminism gained momentum with the development of strategic feminist theories. Though some of these issues brought to attention by Betty Friedan remain prevalent today, the introduction of policies and legislation making gender-based discrimination illegal has immensely assisted the fight for equality. Second wave feminism has been criticised for only focusing on issues relevant to privileged middle-class white women, who are blissfully unaware of the economic and racial struggles faced by many women throughout the world (hooks, 1984). This aspect of feminism as it has come to be, is commonly discussed as feminism’s third wave.

Third wave feminism

Third wave feminism is occurring presently, and is said to have begun when 22-year-old African-American Rebecca Walker wrote an article (later proclaiming it a “manifesto for a new generation of activists” (Walker, 2011)) for Ms. Magazine in 1922 titled Becoming the Third Wave (Walker, 1992). Her article expressed anger towards perpetuating sexism and racism, and a hunger to continue the feminist fight—a fight she considered not yet over. This rage, directed at patriarchal society, is the driving force of feminism’s third wave, fuelled by dissatisfaction with the fact that patriarchal society still exists. This is evidenced by the fact that many men and women decide not to ‘call people out’ when witnessing sexist behaviour, because silent observers contribute to sexism as much as the instigator.

First and second wave feminist movements have been criticised for not only benefitting white middle-class women, but also for demonstrating a heteronormative agenda, preserving a deep class divide in America, and not being accessible to women in developing countries. Third wave feminism has a direct intention to address these criticisms and effectively work to change faults at the heart of western feminism.

The focus of third way feminism is less on political and legal changes, and more on individualistic identity and embracing differences. Major areas of concern for third wave feminists are: gender violence, sexual harassment, reproductive rights, sex positivity, racism, transgender rights, social class, self-reliance, and female empowerment (Gillis, Howie, & Munford, 2004). Third wave feminism acknowledges individualism within feminism—one that cannot be subjected to a single manifesto or best-selling non-fiction book. Its voice comes from a variety of people, whether they be women or men, straight or queer, rich or poor, black or white, Christian or Muslim, and it is the difference between these voices which makes the feminist movement stronger. Feminism has come to mean a movement which seeks to bring down all systems of oppression, not just those which affect women.

Consciousness-raising activism, widely shared throughout social media, is prevalent in third wave feminism. It brings attention to ordinary experiences which don’t necessarily ‘stink’ of sexism, yet when looked at more closely, prove to be a direct result of male dominated societal structures, and taking part in them only encourages the patriarchy, such as, through marriage. Through social media, the movement is more accessible in non-Western countries and there have been many social media campaigns which have brought world-wide attention to their issues, for example, women filming themselves walking in Saudi Arabia as a silent protest as part of their fight for the right to drive (Roberts, 2017), and the #BringBackOurGirls campaign which highlighted the abduction of 276 school girls in Nigeria (Shearlaw, 2015). Through the use of social media and the acknowledgement of individuality, feminism’s third wave has attempted to create a more inclusive movement.

While women are largely granted the same legal rights as men in most of the Western world, there are still aspects of the legal system, political representation, and society itself, which hinder the feminist plight. These waves of feminist activity have empowered mobility and encouraged philosophical and social progress in the struggle for equal rights. With that in mind, the feminist fight is still prominent today.


Current issues

There are multiple human rights issues relating to feminism that remain unresolved and are still affecting women today. These issues concern a range of aspects of personal, cultural and professional life, including:

  • Workplace

Gender bias and discrimination, the wage gap, workplace harassment, the glass ceiling and unequal representation in managerial positions, and intentions, or assumed intentions, to have children (Penn, 2006).

  • Domestic

Partner violence, marital rape, sexual harassment are issues which are globally committed almost exclusively by men against women (Johnson, Ollus, & Nevala, 2007), and women continue to do the majority of housework.

  • Social and cultural

Gender stereo types, unattainable beauty standards, derogatory terms insinuating women’s inferiority, and the sexualisation of females in popular culture (Hetsroni, 2012).

  • Non-Western countries

Forced marriages, women covering up their beauty, ‘honour’ killings, rape, lack of sexual control, exposure to disease, genital mutilation, and gender inequality directly causing poverty which is experienced internationally by more women than men (Serr, 2006).

Of most concern in the context of the current discussion is the alarming prevalence of hard-won rights being weakened, undermined or reversed. Workplace harassment is still of utmost concern, particularly as we continue to see powerful men, such as Bill O’Reilly, using their influence to coerce women and force gratuitous sexual advances (Wemple, 2017). Women’s health in the US is threatened by President Trump, who has cut federal funding to the women’s health clinic Planned Parenthood (Davis, 2017), and who is rolling back workplace protections for women (Luckwaldt, 2017). Women in leadership positions are still apprehensive to use the feminist title, such as Angela Merkel (Devins, 2017), because the backlash against feminists is still largely directed at women in the public eye—particularly politicians—who are advised to play down their gender and domestic situations. These issues and countless more, are detrimental to the momentum of the feminist movement.



This report has analysed the historical significance of the three waves of feminism and key thinkers within them. The analysis shows that problems remain in the workplace, domestic life, and within social and cultural expectations of women’s roles and wellbeing today. Women in non-Western and developing countries are still being subjected to horrific human rights abuses. Nevertheless, as we have seen, through analysing the needs of women during the first wave of feminism, there have been some great improvements to the status of women, and although by no means uniform across the globe, progress is slowly being made. We can only imagine what the fourth wave will bring.



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