International Women’s Day: The History of Female Empowerment

It was 1908 when 15,000 women took to the streets of New York City to demand the right to vote and equal pay. Today, over a hundred years later, women again come together to celebrate and demonstrate the power of a unified, equal people on International Women’s Day.

Over the years, this movement has evolved and grown, reaching out to the support the advancement of other marginalized societies against oppressive hierarchies. This year, IWD continues the quest, championing #BalanceForBetter, a campaign towards building a gender-balanced world in which everyone is offered a seat at the table.

As we gear up for another IWD, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to freshen our knowledge of the four waves of feminism so that we may draw from them the hope we need to build a future of equality.

First Wave

First wave feminism was born to address legal inequalities in the United States. Suffrage, the word that defines the first wave of feminism, is defined simply as: ‘the right to vote in elections.’ In order to gain the right to vote, many women and suffragettes argued that women have a stronger moral compass than men, and that there is no such thing as a woman’s “natural role.” In 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment would recognize women’s hard-earned right to vote, stating that a vote cannot be denied on account of sex.

Sojourner Truth and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, two icons of the first wave, were also anti-slavery abolitionists. Civil and women’s rights are intrinsically linked throughout history. Though the right to vote would not be extended to people of color until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Second Wave

The second wave of feminism, which peaked during the 1960s and 1970s, fought primarily for access to family planning, equality and education for women and girls in order to help them thrive in the workplace. Take Back the Night marches and rallies have raised awareness about domestic violence since the 1970s, and continue into present day. They now commonly including men (whereas they began as women-only marches). Parallel social movements of the time, including the anti-war and civil rights, connected feminism once again to human rights in general. Gloria Steinem, Icon of the second wave, once explained: “The story of women’s struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist nor to any one organization but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights.”

The Third Wave

The third wave was sparked by Anita Hill’s historic testimony in front of the Supreme Court in 1991 and sexual harassment was once again brought into national focus. As this movement sought to address the perceived failures of the second wave, Law professor and civil rights activist Kimberlé Krenshaw defined the popularized term intersectional feminism just as the third wave began. She defined it as ‘the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.”

The third wave is also synonymous with musical movements like Riot Grrrl and Feminists-of-Color-centered crunk feminism. As mixed tape/zine culture expanded throughout the nineties, and later with Myspace hitting the ‘net in the early ‘00’s, music made history as the vehicle of choice for spreading third wave feminist thought. Eve Ensler’s feminist play, The Vagina Monologues is a hallmark example of popular third wave thought, (demystify the experiences of women), and debuted in New York as an Off-Off-Broadway play at HERE Arts Theatre in 1996.

The Fourth Wave

The fourth wave of feminism began around the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency and focuses on justice and safety for women and marginalized communities, particularly those affected by environmental devastation, racism, and xenophobia. Tarana Burke coined the #metoo hashtag in 2006. Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi orchestrated the viral spread of the #blacklivesmatter hashtag. The fourth wave is known for its unprecedented embrace of intersectional feminism, as voices like Beyoncé, Rachel Cargle and Layla Saad take center stage. And, led by Millenial and Gen-Z generations, the fourth wave is also decidedly more queer-friendly and trans-inclusive.

As feminists of the fourth wave continue to disrupt the status quo and resist the archetypes of binary, patriarchal societies, they give us hope for a more equal, compassionate future to come.

Happy International Women’s Day!


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