New breadth has made it harder to define a coherent feminism for the 21st century—but it has also made space for a greater diversity of voices and perspectivesby Jessica Abrahams / August 14, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
On 22nd January, the day after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, millions of women marched across dozens of countries to demand equal rights. The women’s march was organised in reaction to the hyper-masculinity of Trump’s election campaign, and his attitude towards women throughout—from his stance against reproductive rights, at one point threatening to jail women who had abortions, to his boasts of “grabbing ’em by the pussy.” But the day also became a focal point for grievances that have been building since the emergence of what is now being called the fourth wave of feminism—following on from previous waves that began with the struggle for the right to vote in the late 19th century, moved through the liberation movements of the 1960s and on to the debates surrounding pop culture and gender theory in the 1980s.
But what exactly is fourth-wave feminism, where did it come from, and what does it want?
By the 1990s, feminism in Britain had fallen out of fashion. Received wisdom—even among women—was that equality had already been achieved. Over the preceding century, women had won most of the legal rights for which they had so relentlessly campaigned—from the Married Women’s Property Act in 1870 and the reform bill in 1918, which enfranchised 8.4m women, to the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975. “Feminism: outmoded and unpopular,” declared the Guardian in 2003, after a study found that the women’s movement was “regarded virtually unanimously in negative terms,” associated with militants and bra-burning. As Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg wrote 10 years later in her bestselling Lean In: “I headed into college believing that the feminists of the 60s and 70s had done the hard work of achieving equality for my generation… My friends and I truly, if naïvely, believed that the world did not need feminists anymore.”
Yet we now see an unprecedented amount of discussion around women’s rights issues—facilitated by the ease of networking and communication online—and a wealth of new books on the topic published in recent years. If there is a consistent theme running through them it is that feminism in the 21st century has shifted its focus from legal equality to a kind of discrimination that is harder to quantify—and harder to fight.