This post is a broad overview of 167 years of activism in the US. It is not meant to be an exhaustive discussion of the history of feminism. Hopefully any commentary generated by this post will avoid name calling and stay on the side of expanding understanding.
Proto-Feminists = Women who spoke out for womankind before there was an organized movement. Mary Wollstonecraft, Christine de Pizan, Abigail Adams, etc.
First Wave Feminism = The Vote. Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Paul, Emmeline Pankhurt, etc. The suffrage movement has its origins in the anti-slavery movement, but many of the most prominent first wave feminists were single issue activists. WoC were generally marginalized by first wave feminism, but there were non-white suffrage activists (Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terell, Sojourner Truth) and white activists involved in both the suffrage movement and the anti-racism movement (Lucretia Mott, Martha Coffin Wright, Florence Kelley).
After suffrage was achieved, feminist activity faded from view until the 1960s. Alice Paul and other suffragettes focused their efforts on passing the Equal Rights Amendment and working with suffragettes abroad.
Second Wave Feminism = The Women’s Movement. Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Andrea Dworkin, Audre Lorde. Second wave accomplishments include equal pay acts, the legalization of abortion, laws against domestic violence and marital rape, the founding of the first domestic violence shelters, and Title IX. Second wave feminism is often criticized as being for middle class straight white women which is not an unjust criticism (”Lavender Menace”). But within the second wave movement was the beginnings of intersectionality as WoC and non-straight women became more prominent.
After making headlines in the 1960s and 1970s, feminism faded again in the 1980s. Sandra Day O’Connor was appointed the first female Supreme Court Justice in 1981. The ERA failed in 1982.
Third Wave Feminism = Coined in 1992 by Rebecca Walker (daughter of Alice) as a direct response to the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings in 1991. Year of the Woman proclaimed in the US in 1992 as a record setting six women serve in the Senate (today there are 20). VAWA passed in 1994. Riot grrl. Transfeminism emerges as a term with work by Kate Bornstein and Patrick Califia. Much more intersectional than second wave feminism.
Fourth Wave Feminism = Happening right now???? Maybe?
Feminism is a pretty big tent and not every feminist agrees on every issue. Feminism is also a product of its environment as are other political movements. Over time, feminism has become more welcoming of different races, religions, sexual orientations, and gender identities the same way society as a whole has become more accepting of these differences. That work is not finished. Entire books have been written on how non-middle class, non-white, non-straight, non-cis women have been included and excluded from the feminist movement. It’s complicated stuff and this is just an outline.
Sex positivity has a long and complicated history going back to the free love movement (Victoria Woodhall was a fan) to second wave ladies checking out their vaginas with hand mirrors to those who disagreed with anti-pornography activists in the 1980s. Again, it is complicated stuff and entire books have been written on these subjects.
Feminism vs. beauty norms, feminism vs. stay-at-home moms, feminism vs. changing your last name when you get married. All of these things have been a least a little controversial since the first wave (See: Lucy Stone, Amelia Bloomer, Dress Reform, and the biography of every married suffragette). But, you can be a makeup-wearing, body-hair-shaving, last-name-changing, stay-at-home mom feminist.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a frustrated stay-at-home mom when she presented the Declaration of Sentiments at the Seneca Falls Convention. Gloria Steinem was known for her mini skirts in the 1970s. You can love nail art and feminism. You can homeschool your five kids and be a feminist. But like the second wavers said, “The personal is political.” None of these choices happen in a void, they are products of both society and individual choice.
Whether or not you consider yourself a feminist, you have benefited from feminism. Even if you’re a guy. Alice Paul was a radical, Anita Hill was a nuisance. They both made the world a better place.