The history of feminism is usually divided in three waves. To start with a disclaimer, I want to say that I am aware there were some prominent female figures who appeared on the scene for hundreds of years before the first wave. However, the first recognized movement for women's rights took place in the late 19th and early 20th century. The key issues they focused on at this time were suffrage, education, and public voice. The leaders of the movement wanted women to attain all the rights of men and gain the respect of being seen as autonomous and intelligent human beings.
The second wave reached its height in the 1960s following the Civil Rights Movement. Rather than focusing on the legal constrictions against women, they revealed the detrimental assumptions and expectations that pervaded society. In an effort to broaden the perception of "feminine" actions, many of these women boldly challenged traditional roles by their loud and determined protests. Another significant component of this movement was redefining a woman's sexuality in society, which was minimally addressed in the previous wave.
The third wave started in the 1990s and took on a new perspective. Most of the privileges the leaders of the first and second movements sought were achieved at this point, and the new focus was on the underlying gentrification. They resist the dichotomy of mutually exclusive categories of "men" and "women." Instead, they argue that sexual identity should not be constrained by any categories or definitions. The transgender identity, a previously unheard voice, was a significant part of this movement. They also highlighted that one's identity as a woman was inextricably linked to her race, social status, and culture, and it would thus necessarily differ and conflict among the population.
Why would I want to know this? How will this affect my reading?
If nothing else, making an effort to read work by female authors will provide you with a different literary perspective. Although I will readily acknowledge much of the value of a feminist perspective, I have to admit that the majority of the authors I read are men. However, women do have a different kind of voice, and it's particularly beneficial to read those who are intentionally revealing these feminist issues.
The feminist authors of the first wave illustrated the oppression women faced without the ability to represent themselves, even within their own homes. The feminist writers of the second wave explored their unique perspective outside of the traditional roles of "wife" and "mother." Finally, the material in feminist literature in the third wave plays with gender assumptions and challenges the notion of a dichotomy. Please let me know if you can think of other pieces of fiction that should be included in my list!
Feminism in fiction literature:
Before any "Waves"The Rover by Aphra Behn
First WaveThe Awakening by Kate Chopin
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Second WaveTo the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
Third WaveThe Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter
Overview: This PDF is a wonderful summary and easily accessible.
A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollenstone Craft
- This is a beautifully written piece and was a huge landmark in its era. It's fairly short, and you can read the full text here. I highly encourage you to check it out.
The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir
- I have only read samples of this, but it was very influential in the era it was published. In the text, Beauvoir revealed the nature of women as "other" for the first time.
The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan
- I have not read this, but it is universally acknowledged as one of the foundational texts of the second wave of feminism.
Gender Trouble by Judith Butler
- This is one of the most fascinating feminist texts. Butler analyzes feminism from a fairly objective perspective of gender roles and offers remarkable insight.