Feminist Movements and Feminist Theory

Learning Outcomes

  • Evaluate feminist movements in the U.S. and the strengths and weaknesses of each
  • Describe feminist theory

The Feminist Movement

The feminist movement (also known as the women’s liberation movement, the women’s movement, or simply feminism) refers to a series of political campaigns for reform on a variety of issues that affect women’s quality of life. Although there have been feminist movements all over the world, this section will focus on the four eras of the feminist movement in the U.S.

First Wave Feminism (1848-1920)

The first women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York (now known as the Seneca Falls Convention) from July 19-20, 1848, and advertised itself as “a convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of woman.” While there, 68 women and 32 men–100 out of some 300 attendees–signed the Declaration of Sentiments, also known as the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments, which was principally authored by Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

There was a notable connection between the movement to abolish slavery and the women’s rights movement. Frederick Douglass was heavily involved in both projects and believed it was essential for both groups to work together. As a fellow activistic the pursuit of equality and freedom from arbitrary discrimination, he was asked to speak at the Convention and to sign the Declaration of Sentiments. Despite this instance of movement kinship and intersectionality, it is important to note that no women of color attended the Seneca Convention.

In 1851, Lucy Gage led a women’s convention in Ohio where Sojourner Truth, who was born a slave and gave birth to five children in slavery, gave her famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech. Truth was born Isabella Bomfree in 1797 in New York, and was bought and sold four times during her lifetime. Her five-year-old son Peter was illegally sold into slavery in Alabama, though in 1827, with the help of an abolitionist family, she was able to buy her freedom and to successfully sue for the return of her son. [1]. She moved to New York City in 1828 and became part of the religious revivals then underway. Becoming an activist and speaker, in 1843 she renamed herself Sojourner Truth and dedicated her life to working toward the end of slavery and for women’s rights and temperance.

The 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, was unpopular with suffragists because it did not include women in its guarantee of the right to vote irrespective of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”  Suffragette Susan B. Anthony (in)famously said, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman,” but abolitionists and early Republicans were intent on prioritizing Black men’s suffrage over that of women [2]. This further complicated the suffragist movement, as many prominent participants opposed the 15th amendment, which earned them unhelpful support from Reconstruction-era racists who opposed suffrage for Black men.

A map showing only Norway, Finland, Australia, New Zealand, and the states of Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado having equal suffrage in 1908, with Canada and Iceland having municipal suffrage, and Sweden, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and England having every suffrage save parliamentary.
Figure 1. Woman’s suffrage around the world in 1908.

The 1920 ratification of the 19th Amendment is the biggest success of the first wave, and it took 72 years to get it passed. As you can see from the map above, the United States was far behind other countries in terms of suffrage. Charlotte Woodward, one of 100 signers of the 1848 Declaration of Sentiments, was the only signatory still alive when the Nineteenth Amendment passed; however, Woodward was not well enough to vote. Another leading feminist from this early period was Margaret Sanger, who advocated for free and available birth control.

The limitations of this wave were related to its lack of inclusion of women of color and poor women. The movement was led by educated white women and often willfully ignored pressing issues for the rest of the women in the United States.

Second Wave Feminism (1960s-1980s)

Whereas the first wave of feminism was generally propelled by middle class, western, cisgender, white women, the second phase drew in women of color and women from developing nations, seeking sisterhood and solidarity, and claiming “Women’s struggle is class struggle.” [3] Feminists spoke of women as a social class and coined phrases such as “the personal is political” and “identity politics” in an effort to demonstrate that race, class, and gender oppression are all related. They initiated a concentrated effort to rid society top-to-bottom of sexism, from children’s cartoons to the highest levels of government (Rampton 2015).

Margaret Sanger, birth control advocate from the first wave, lived to see the Food and Drug Administration approve the combined oral contraceptive pill in 1960, which was made available in 1961 (she died in 1966). President Kennedy made women’s rights a key issue of the New Frontier (a slate of ambitious domestic and foreign policy initiatives), and named women (such as Esther Peterson) to many high-ranking posts in his administration (1961-1963).

Like first wave feminists, second wave feminists were influenced by other contemporaneous social movements. During the 1960s, these included the civil rights movement, anti-war movement, environmental movement, student movement, gay rights movement, and the farm workers movement.

The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was proposed by first wave feminists in 1923, and was premised on legal equality of the sexes. It was ratified by Congress in 1972 but failed to achieve the three-fourths majority in the states required to make it the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution.[4]. Although this effort was not successful, other gains were made, including increased attention to domestic violence and marital rape issues, the establishment of rape crisis and battered women’s shelters, and changes in child custody and divorce law.

In 1963 Betty Friedan, influenced by Simone De Beauvoir’s 1947 book The Second Sex, wrote the bestselling The Feminine Mystique, in which she objected to the mainstream media depiction of women and argued that narrowly reducing women to the status of homemakers limited their potential and wasted their talent. The idealized nuclear family that was prominently marketed at the time, she wrote, did not reflect authentic happiness and was in fact often unsatisfying and degrading for women. Friedan’s book is considered one of the most important founding texts of second wave feminism.

Thus, the successes of the second wave included a more individualistic approach to feminism, a broadening of issues beyond voting and property rights, and greater awareness of timely feminist objectives through books and television. However, there were some impactful political disappointments, as the ERA was not ratified by the states, and second wave feminists were not able to create lasting coalitions with other social movements.

Third Wave Feminism (1990s-2008)

We Can Do It! image of Rosie the Riveter showing her flexed arm muscle.
Figure 2. The “We Can Do It!” poster from 1943 was re-appropriated as a symbol of the feminist movement in the 1980s. 

Third-wave feminism refers to several diverse strains of feminist activity and study, whose exact boundaries in the history of feminism are a subject of debate. The movement arose partially as a response to the perceived failures of and backlash against initiatives and movements created by second-wave feminism. Post-colonial and postmodern theory, which work, among other goals, toward the destabilization of social constructions of gender and sexuality, including the notion of “universal womanhood,” have also been important influences (Rampton 2015). This wave broadened the parameters of feminism to include a more diverse group of women and a more fluid range of sexual and gender identities.

Popular television shows like Sex in the City (1998-2004) elevated a type of third wave feminism that merged feminine imagery (i.e., lipstick, high heels, cleavage), which were previously associated with male oppression, with high powered careers and robust sex lives. The “grrls” of the third wave stepped onto the stage as strong and empowered, eschewing victimization and defining feminine beauty for themselves as subjects, not as objects of a sexist patriarchy; they developed a rhetoric of mimicry, which appropriated derogatory terms like “slut” and “bitch” in order to subvert sexist culture and deprive it of verbal weapons (Rampton 2015).

Third wave feminists effectively used mass media, particularly the web (“cybergrrls” and “netgrrls”), to create a feminism that is global, multicultural, and boundary-crossing. One important third wave sub-group was the Riot Grrrl movement, whose DIY (do it yourself) ethos produced a number of influential, independent feminist musicians, such as Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney.

Third wave feminism’s focus on identity and the blurring of boundaries, however, did not effectively address many persistent macrosociological issues such as sexual harassment and sexual assault.

Fourth Wave Feminism (2008-present)

Fourth wave feminism is shaped by technology and characterized by the #metoo and the #timesup movements. Considering that these hashtags were first introduced on Twitter in 2007, this movement has grown rapidly, as social media activism has spread interest in and awareness of feminism.

Waves of accusations against men in powerful positions—from Hollywood directors, to Supreme Court justices, to the President of the United States, have catalyzed feminists in a way that appears to be fundamentally different compared to previous iterations. 

As Rampton (2015) states, “The emerging fourth wavers are not just reincarnations of their second wave grandmothers; they bring to the discussion important perspectives taught by third wave feminism; they speak in terms of intersectionality whereby women’s suppression can only fully be understood in a context of the marginalization of other groups and genders—feminism is part of a larger consciousness of oppression along with racism, ageism, classism, ableism, and sexual orientation (no “ism” to go with that).”

Successes of fourth wave feminists include the proliferation of social media tags that promote inclusion and more effectively dismantle the gender and sexual binaries that have fragmented the movement. Female farm workers are demanding to have sexual harassment in the fields addressed alongside Hollywood actors.

The unprecedented number of women who were elected to Congress in the 2018 midterm elections is another sign of success for fourth wave feminists. Specifically, we can see that women of color, whose intersectional commitments also extend to environmental issues and income inequality, are represented in substantial numbers in both chambers. 

Try It

Watch It

Watch this video for an overview of gender in sociology. The video begins with an explanation of Harriet Martineau and her important contributions to sociology, then examines gender-conflict theory and three of the four waves of feminism.

Feminist Theory

Feminist theory is a type of conflict theory that examines inequalities in gender-related issues. It uses the conflict approach to examine the maintenance of gender roles and uneven power relations. Radical feminism, in particular, considers the role of the family in perpetuating male dominance (note that “radical” means “at the root”). In patriarchal societies, men’s contributions are seen as more valuable than those of women. Patriarchal perspectives and arrangements are widespread and taken for granted. As a result, women’s viewpoints tend to be silenced or marginalized to the point of being discredited or considered invalid. Peggy Reeves Sanday’s study of the Indonesian Minangkabau (2004) revealed that in societies considered to be matriarchies (where women comprise the dominant group), women and men tend to work cooperatively rather than competitively, regardless of whether a job would be gendered as feminine by U.S. standards. The men, however, do not experience the sense of bifurcated (i.e., divided into two parts) consciousness under this social structure that modern U.S. females encounter (Sanday 2004).

Patriarchy refers to a set of institutional structures (like property rights, access to positions of power, relationship to sources of income) that are based on the belief that men and women are dichotomous and unequal categories of being. The key to patriarchy is what might be called the dominant gender ideology toward sexual differences: the assumption that physiological sex differences between males and females are related to differences in their character, behavior, and ability (i.e., their gender). These differences are used to justify a gendered division of social roles and inequality in access to rewards, positions of power, and privilege. The question that feminists ask therefore is: How does this distinction between male and female, and the attribution of different qualities to each, serve to organize our institutions (e.g., the family, law, the occupational structure, religious institutions, the division between public and private) and to perpetuate inequality between the sexes?

One of the influential sociological insights that emerged within second wave feminism is that “the personal is political.” This is a way of acknowledging that the challenges and personal crises that emerge in one’s day-to-day lived experience are symptomatic of larger systemic political issues, and that the solutions to such problems must be collectively pursued. As Friedan and others showed, these personal dissatisfactions often originated in previously unquestioned, stubbornly gendered discrepancies.

Standpoint Theory

Many of the most immediate and fundamental experiences of social life—from childbirth to who washes the dishes to the experience of sexual violence—had simply been invisible or regarded as unimportant politically or socially. Dorothy Smith’s development of standpoint theory was a key innovation in sociology that enabled these issues to be seen and addressed in a systematic way by examining one’s position in life (Smith 1977). She recognized from the consciousness-raising exercises and encounter groups initiated by feminists in the 1960s and 1970s that many of the immediate concerns expressed by women about their personal lives had a commonality of themes.

Smith argued that instead of beginning sociological analysis from the abstract point of view of institutions or systems, women’s lives could be more effectively examined if one began from the “actualities” of their lived experience in the immediate local settings of “everyday/ everynight” life. She asked, “What are the common features of women’s everyday lives?” From this standpoint, Smith observed that women’s position in modern society is acutely divided by the experience of dual consciousness (recall W.E.B. DuBois’ double consciousness). Every day women crossed a tangible dividing line when they went from the “particularizing work in relation to children, spouse, and household” to the institutional world of text-mediated, abstract concerns at work, or in their dealings with schools, medical systems, or government bureaucracies. In the abstract world of institutional life, the actualities of local consciousness and lived life are “obliterated” (Smith 1977). Note again that Smith’s argument is in keeping with the second wave feminist idea that “the personal” (child-rearing, housekeeping) complicates and illuminates one’s relationship to “the political” (work life, government bureaucracies).

Intersectional Theory

Recall that intersectional theory examines multiple, overlapping identities and social contexts (Black, Latina, Asian, gay, trans, working class, poor, single parent, working, stay-at-home, immigrant, undocumented, etc.) and the unique, various lived experiences within these spaces. Intersectional theory combines critical race theory, gender conflict theory, and critical components of Marx’s class theory. Kimberlé Crenshaw describes it as a “prism for understanding certain kinds of problems.”

Watch It

How does the convergence or racial or gender stereotypes play out in classrooms? How does this influence the opportunity for equal education? Consider these issues as you watch this short clip from Kimberlé Crenshaw.

Try It


[glossary-term]dominant gender ideology:[/glossary-term]
[glossary-definition]the assumption that physiological sex differences between males and females are related to differences in their character, behavior, and ability (i.e., their gender)[/glossary-definition]
[glossary-definition]is a system of attitudes, bias, and discrimination that favor male-female sexuality and relationships[/glossary-definition]
[glossary-definition]one who believes that females should be equal to males[/glossary-definition]
[glossary-term]feminist movement:[/glossary-term]
[glossary-definition]a series of political campaigns for reforms on issues such as reproductive rights, domestic violence, maternity leave, equal pay, women’s suffrage, sexual harassment, and sexual violence, all of which fall under the label of feminism and the feminist movement[/glossary-definition]
[glossary-term]feminist theory:[/glossary-term]
[glossary-definition]the critical analysis of the way gender affects societal structures, power, and inequality[/glossary-definition]
[glossary-term]intersectional theory:[/glossary-term]
[glossary-definition]utilizes multiple identities of females (i.e. such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, etc.) as important to understanding inequality
[glossary-definition] a set of institutional structures (like property rights, access to positions of power, relationship to sources of income) that are based on the belief that males (patri means “father”) are dominant
[glossary-term]standpoint theory:[/glossary-term]
[glossary-definition]theory that feminist social science should be practiced from the standpoint of women[/glossary-definition]

<a style="margin-left: 16px;" href="https://docs.google.com/document/d/1vy-T6DtTF-BbMfpVEI7VP_R7w2A4anzYZLXR8Pk4Fu4" target="_blank"

  1. Michals, D. "Soujourner Truth." National Women's History Museum. https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/sojourner-truth.
  2. Ford, S. 2017. "How racism split the suffrage movement. Bust Magazine. https://bust.com/feminism/19147-equal-means-equal.html.
  3. Rampton, M. (2015). "Four waves of feminism." Pacific University Oregon. https://www.pacificu.edu/about/media/four-waves-feminism.
  4. "Equal Rights Amendment." This Day in History. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/equal-rights-amendment-passed-by-congress.


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