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Fourth-wave feminism is a phase of feminism that began around 2012 and is characterized by a focus on the empowerment of women and the use of internet tools. Centered on intersectionality, the fourth wave examines the interlocking systems of power that contribute to the stratification of traditionally marginalized groups. Fourth-wave feminists advocate for greater representation of these groups in politics and business, and argue that society would be more equitable if policies and practices incorporated the perspectives of all people.
Whereas earlier feminists fought for and earned women greater liberation, individualism, and social mobility, the fourth wave furthers the agenda by calling for justice against assault and harassment, for equal pay for equal work, and for bodily autonomy. Fourth-wave feminists often use print, news, and social media to collaborate and mobilize, speak against abusers of power, and provide equal opportunities for girls and women. In addition to advocating for women, fourth-wave feminists believe that boys and men should have greater opportunities to express their emotions and feelings freely, to present themselves as they wish, and to be engaged parents to their children.
While previous waves of feminism have encountered such obstacles as rigid sociopolitical structures and a lack of available communication channels, fourth-wave feminists harness digital media as a far-reaching platform on which to connect, share perspectives, create a broader view of experienced oppression, and critique past feminist waves.
Indeed, Kira Cochrane has argued that fourth-wave feminism is "defined by technology" and characterized particularly by the use of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Tumblr, and blogs such as Feministing to challenge misogyny.
Social-media activism can manifest as Twitter threads critiquing perceived transphobia in the media or in so-called "hashtag feminism" campaigns, notably #MeToo, #YesAllWomen, #bringbackourgirls, #NotYourAsianSidekick and #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen. #GirlGaze, launched by Amanda de Cadenet, is an online platform that promotes creativity and entrepreneurship among women, emphasizes the importance of feminist discourse in society, and aims to level the "playing field" for young women in the media. Time named a group of activists prominent in the #MeToo movement, dubbed "the silence breakers", as its 2017 Person of the Year.
Other fourth-wave feminist campaigns include the Everyday Sexism Project, No More Page 3, Ni una menos, Stop Bild Sexism, Free the Nipple, SlutWalk, the 2017 and 2018 Women's Marches, Time's Up, and One Billion Rising. Artistic endeavors include Mattress Performance and 10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman.
Discourse surrounding the topic of privilege is common among fourth-wave feminists, who argue that members of traditionally dominant social groups should acknowledge their societal privilege and use it to empower and advocate for members of marginalized groups.
History and definition
In the 1980s, conservative figures around the globe like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan (and later Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump) challenged gains women had made up to that point. At the same time, feminists in North America, Latin America, and Europe had succeeded in some of their goals, including the creation of state-run institutions that explicitly promoted women's rights, or feminist involvement in government; these institutions, however, also weakened feminist movements by letting the state take over implementation of feminist goals.
European and Latin American fourth-wave feminism began in the 1990s, as lipstick feminism and consumerist feminism started to come to an end and as feminist activists were rejecting queer theory espoused by American academics. Fourth-wave feminism developed slowly, globally via the media and the Internet. The wave emerged from a new generation of women who had largely not been informed about previous waves through their education at high school, institutions and university. Knowledge about feminism was gained informally, and it developed a virtual academy where feminists learned that "the personal is political"; it did not emerge from structured feminist learning. Fourth-wave feminism, like other waves before it, in this period was not about the existence of a single ideology, entity, or collective. It was about drawing together in collective groups to work together towards a common goal of ending violence against women in order to free them for the options to take the paths they desire; it was about mutual commitment and support to other women.
The movement in Spain traces its roots to the murder of Ana Orantes; on 17 December 1997 she was burned to death by her husband in her house in Granada for speaking publicly on Canal Sur about abuse she suffered at his hands. Early fourth-wave Spanish feminism used television and newspapers as the primary social network. Orantes' death took the topic of gender violence out of the privacy of the home and brought it to national attention, and resulted in RTVE changing its policies on how the station reported on gender-based and sexist violence. Similar conversations took place at other television networks and media organizations across the country. Jokes about women being hit by boyfriends and husbands were no longer acceptable on Spanish TV. Journalists from Prensa Libre, El Mundo, El País and Infolibre were among Spain's first participants in the fourth-wave, using their positions in the media to talk about a number of issues, mostly centered around sexist violence and its portrayal in the media. They later went on to talk about Spain's gender parity pay problems and the glass ceiling for them, and promoted taking activism to virtual spaces.
Because Latin American fourth wave feminism encompasses simultaneously distinct movements, many of which are in tension with one another, some refer to Latin American ‘feminisms’ in the plural. One of the more controversial branches emerged as a reaction to and rejection of queer feminism and of postmodern feminism, and consists of trans-exclusionary activists who reject prominent feminist academics like Judith Butler and much of feminist theory and seek to create a new anti-LGBT feminist movement by redefining 'woman' as exclusively cisgender and non-intersex, seeking to reframe the queer feminist movement not as an inclusive but as a watering-down of feminism and erasure of females. Whereas queer feminism was inclusive by expanding binary and cisnormative concepts of gender, these Latin American feminists argue that Butler was attempting to erase the concept of womanhood and thereby women as political subjects, and reject gender studies, calling it a conspiracy to hide women in academia. Defining identity through biology instead of gender, and replacing postmodern concepts of femininity with gender-essentialism, they frame queer feminism as a conspiracy to hide 'male' aggressors (trans women) and oppress females.
The beginnings of this movement in this period took place in Latin America, Argentina, and Poland. Some of this global desire to act, particularly in a Polish context, came out of the World Conference on Women, 1995 in Beijing.
Social media had an amplifying effect as the fourth-wave feminist movement began to grow. 2018 would be the year that fourth-wave feminism began its peak in Spain, Argentina, and Brazil as a result of a number of different factors, with women mobilized on a large scale to take to the streets. Their mobilization also challenged for the first time, the legitimacy of Spain's judiciary, whereas in previous waves the focus had been more on political leadership and acts of the legislature. The wave in Spain would also face a major challenge, including the emergence of Vox, a far right political party who won seats in Andalusia. Vox was opposed to and wanted to see it overturned. In Argentina, the peak would be around the abortion rights issue which saw thousands of women with green scarves take to the streets.
In an Anglo-Saxon feminist context, journalist Pythia Peay argued for the existence of a fourth wave as early as 2005, to focus on social justice and civil rights, and in 2011, Jennifer Baumgardner dated the start of the fourth wave to 2008. Twitter, the social network most popular with the 18-to-29 age group, was created in 2006, making feminism more accessible, and giving rise to "hashtag feminism".
In 2013, unsuccessful Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis staged a 13-hour filibuster in Texas, in an attempt to prevent an anti-abortion bill from passing. Other women showed support by rallying around the Texas State Capitol, and those who were not physically present used the hashtag #StandWithWendy. Similarly, women protested the perceived sexist questions (for example, focusing on appearance or love life) often directed at female celebrities by tweeting the hashtag #askhermore.[contradictory]
Other feminist movements and "calls to action" have arisen from the fourth wave. One is the "HeForShe" campaign which originated from Emma Watson's viral UN Women speech in 2014 and her subsequent activism. Several other incidents have galvanized the movement, including the Delhi gang rape (India, 2012), Jimmy Savile allegations (UK, 2012), Bill Cosby sexual assault cases (US, 2014), Isla Vista killings (US, 2014), trial of Jian Ghomeshi (Canada, 2016), Harvey Weinstein allegations (US, 2017) and subsequent Me Too movement and Weinstein effect, the Westminster sexual scandals (worldwide and UK, 2017), and the La Manada gang rape case in Spain (2018).
Due to the simultaneous existence of multiple waves of feminism – namely the second, third, and fourth – many scholars are questioning the use of the wave metaphor in feminism. However, it is still the terminology most commonly used and most easily understood by the public. As the fourth wave finds much of its definition in relation to the previous ones, it is important to understand what the other waves were:
Internationally, comparisons between waves can be difficult. Anglo-Saxon first-wave feminism is second-wave for Europeans and Latin American feminists. Second-wave American and British feminism is also third-wave for Europeans and Latin Americans. Spanish feminism went through several waves in the Franco era.
Broadly speaking, they are first-wave feminism taking place from the mid-nineteenth century to 1965, second-wave feminism taking place from 1965 to 1975, and third-wave feminism taking place from 1975 to 2012. Fourth-wave feminism in Spain began in the mid-1990s. When resolving waves around the work of important Spanish-speaking feminists discussing wave theory like Amelia Valcárcel, the Spanish fourth-wave may at times actually represent an international fifth wave, not a fourth one.
Each feminist wave has a separate identity, although they get harder to distinguish and define clearly as time goes on, due to debate among activists and scholars. In an Anglo-Saxon feminist context, the first wave was characterized by the suffragette movements and had the aim of legalizing women voting in public elections. In the same context, second wave is more difficult to comprehensively define, but is thought to have roots in the 1960s. Its focus shifted to social and personal rights, such as equal pay, choice over bodily issues, sexual liberation, and resistance to the gendered double standard in society. There is much debate among Anglo-Saxon academics and activists regarding the true definition of the third wave of feminism. It is most commonly understood as a push by younger generations to create a feminism more centered on inclusivity; privileging the plights of queer and non-white women in their messaging. American poet Natasha Sajé has written, "[It] is an amalgamation of many different streams of theorizing—including that of women of colour and younger women disillusioned with what they perceive to make up the body of 'second wave' feminism—in intrinsically different formulations than the theorizing coming from anti-feminists".
Brit Kira Cochrane and feminist scholar Prudence Chamberlain describe the fourth wave as focusing on justice for women, particularly opposition to sexual harassment (including street harassment), violence against women, workplace discrimination and harassment, body shaming, sexist imagery in the media, online misogyny, campus sexual assault and assault on public transport, and rape culture. They also say it supports intersectionality, social media activism, and online petitioning. Its essence, Chamberlain writes, is "incredulity that certain attitudes can still exist". Events and organizations involved in fourth-wave feminism include Everyday Sexism Project, UK Feminista, Reclaim the Night, One Billion Rising, and "a Lose the Lads' mags protest". Movements such as #GirlGaze focus on male-dominated industries such as photography and cinema, intending to push the narratives audiences to include the female gaze.
Books associated with the fourth wave include:
- Men Explain Things to Me (2014) by American Rebecca Solnit (which gave rise to the term mansplaining)
- The Vagenda (2014) by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter (based on their online UJ feminist magazine, The Vagenda, launched in 2012)
- Sex Object: A Memoir (2016) by American Jessica Valenti
- Everyday Sexism (2016) by Laura Bates (based on Bates' Everyday Sexism Project)
Cosslett and Baxter's book aims to debunk stereotypes of femininity promoted by mainstream women's press. Bates, a British feminist writer, created the Everyday Sexism Project on 16 April 2012 as an online forum where women could post their experiences of everyday harassment.
Third-wave feminists began introducing the concept of male privilege in their writings in the 1990s, and fourth-wave feminists continue to discuss it in academia and on social media. American Peggy McIntosh was one of the first feminists to describe the phenomenon in 1988, calling it "an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks." Fourth-wave feminists have taken action to reduce and combat this "knapsack" by raising awareness of privileged and unprivileged groups. Alliance is greatly encouraged by these feminists, who believe that males and other privileged groups can still take action for social change within their communities.
London author Nikki van der Gaag discusses the damaging effects of raising young boys with privilege, citing the Consultative Group on Early Child Care and Development, "a tendency to privilege boys [...] does not teach teach boys responsibility, nor clarify what will be expected from them". Fourth-wave feminists have begun promoting solutions to avoid these issues, such as raising children as gender neutral. Professor of Neuroscience at Chicago Medical School Lise Eliot, points out that infants and growing children are so impressionable that any small differences in raising the child can lead to large personality differences over time, resulting in reinforced gender stereotypes.
Fourth-wave feminists have argued that reinforced gender stereotypes create pressure for men to be breadwinners, as opposed to women, who feel obligated to take on the role of homemakers. Feminists argue that these pressures to conform socially can cause gender discrimination in the workplace and more widely in society. According to Pew Research, a majority of women working in male-dominated workplaces believe that sexual harassment is a problem in their industry.
British scholar Pauline Maclaran argues that although that celebrities are at the forefront of fourth-wave feminism, ready access to information has enabled the movement to draw greater attention to economic inequalities faced by women than heretofore possible.
Regarded as more inclusive of the LGBT+ community, fourth-wave feminists such as Jacob Bucher of Baker University have protested stereotypes surrounding men's supposed uncontrolled sexual desire and objectification of women. He states that gay men specifically are stigmatized by such stereotypes because they lie outside of the typical standard for masculinity.
British historian Amanda Vickery claims that fourth-wave feminism marginalizes women of colour who are fighting for inclusivity, neglecting the specific injustices they face to make way for the mainstream struggle.
Canadian Ruth Phillips argues that fourth-wave feminism falls within the broader agenda of financial, political, and environmental concerns and is recognized as a key factor in alleviating poverty, improving women's health, and achieving economic growth.
One criticism of fourth-wave feminism is that it depends on technology. Ragna Rök Jóns argued that "[t]he key problem that this '4th Wave' will face will be the disproportionate access to and ownership of digital media devices." The fourth wave is left with the "inherent classism and ableism" created by giving the greatest voice to those who can afford and use technology, while the growth of social media in regions plagued by pervasive social injustice remains slow.
Critics argue that efforts by large corporations such as Dove to capitalize on the movement through activist advertising may be inimical to the tenets of fourth-wave feminism, which tends to be critical of capitalism as an economic system.
The conservative critique of fourth-wave feminism is that when women believe that the world is set against them through social systems such as the patriarchy, then they will abandon all efforts instead of competing with men as equals, as a result of the feminist movement. Author Joanna Williams writes in The American Conservative that fourth-wave feminism encourages women to "call upon external helpmates, like the state, and ugly identity politics that push good men away".
It is also argued that when people participate in Twitter activism, they may not feel the need to do anything else to help the effort. In an article for Newuniversity.org, Alex Guardado asserts that after contributing their say, people just "continue on with their day, liking other posts or retweeting". Some may think of themselves as activists while never bothering to attend a single rally or extend their message beyond their Twitter fan base. While various feminist campaigns have spread via social media, the term slacktivism was coined to describe the mass media users who may speak out on their online platform but do little else to stimulate social action outside of their online platform. This forms part of a greater dialogue surrounding the roles and requirements of activism in an age where communities operate almost as equally online as they do face-to-face.
Jennifer Simpkins of The Huffington Post argued in 2014 that fourth-wave feminism had created a hostile, Mean Girls–like atmosphere, in which women are more likely to tear each other down. "I've actually never once been belittled and attacked by a man for believing in the cause of feminism ... but women are just about lining up to take a whack at the shoddy piñata of my personal tastes and opinions". British scholar Ealasaid Munro says that the call out culture of fourth wave feminism risks marginalizing and separating people who could serve better as allies over minor disagreements.
Women and their gendered issues are not uniform and many variations in issues are a result of related issues such as race, sexuality, and class, and Munro also provides the critique that mainstream feminism is focused on the struggle of middle-class white women. Social campaigns that cast celebrities as the face of the movement, such as the Me Too movement, have been criticized, because celebrities often represent the privileged sectors of society, which in turn negate the efforts to expand upon the intersectionality of feminism.
The wave narrative itself is criticised due to perceptions that it is only inclusive of western feminist movements and that the fourth wave itself takes place in the global north, often neglecting the struggle of women in other regions.
Other critiques of fourth-wave feminism include its lack of clear evidence in most cases of social media use. Along with this, some argue that though all issues should be dealt with, smaller issues must not be inflated to a higher level by the feminist movement. One example of this is Matt Damon's response to the Harvey Weinstein case, "I do believe that there is a spectrum of behaviour, right? [...] There's a difference between, you know, patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation, right?" Social media also can be seen as ineffective as it brings down "bogeyman" individuals rather than, "invent[ing] a different language or logic that can excise or alter the structures of oppression" as Sarah K. Burgess describes.
Around the world
As fourth-wave feminism became popular in the United States, other countries were also dealing with similar issues. Although the reactions of local governments differed, the movement of fourth-wave feminists in the United States had a significant effect around the world. Some local alternative hashtags to #MeToo included:
- #AndNow or NowWhat in Canada
- #WoYeShi (en: MeToo) in China
- #BalanceTonPorc (en: DenounceYourPig or ExposeYourPig) in France
- #NotinMyName in India
- #QuellaVoltaChe (en: The Time That) in Italy
- #BoycottAliZafar, #BoycottTeefainTrouble, #TeefaisTrouble in Pakistan
- #BabaeAko (en: I am a Woman) in the Philippines
- #YoTambien (en: MeToo) in Spain
As the importance of social media in "creating and sustaining feminist community" is an increasingly popular idea, "diversity and creativity continue to characterize feminist activism" around the world in the 21st century. Communities around the globe witnessed the reflections of "the current, Internet-based fourth wave" feminism and investigated the difference of it. Moreover, the increasing social power of fourth-wave feminist movements prioritise these issues for elected governments, encouraging them to engage with the "new and young feminisms" of the modern day.
For instance, in Canada, after the #MeToo hashtag started trending in October 2017, hundreds of people began to credit fourth-wave feminists with the movement. Another hashtag, #AndNow, became popular in Canada due to the support of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. #AndNow supported discussing the solution to sexual harassment or abuse in the workplace to help people fight for equity between all people.
In India, there have been several movements or protests with large numbers of women, which have changed the perspective of many in the nation regarding femininity. These include the 2003 Blank Noise Project, the 2009 Pink Chaddi (underwear) movement, the 2011 SlutWalk protest, the 2015 Pinjra Tod (Break the Cage) movement and the 2017 Bekhauf Azadi (Freedom without Fear) March. Indian social discourse started to focus on long-term and deep-rooted issues, such as gender inequality, sexual violence, child marriage, sex-selective abortions, and dowry-related violence. Many believe it led to the questioning of women's freedoms, choices, and desires in society. The influence and power of the campaign made the government expand the legal definition of rape, introduced "harsher punishment for rapists, criminalizing stalking and voyeurism", showed "a new kind of Indian femininity that was comfortable with her modernity and sexuality" and demonstrates the rise of fourth-wave feminism in India.
Other countries which have experienced the effects of fourth-wave feminism, through movements or protests planned independently or without the support of government, include Australia, China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Norway, Pakistan, the Philippines, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.
|16 April 2012||Laura Bates creates the Everyday Sexism Project for women to report sexist encounters.|
|Aug 2012||Lucy-Anne Holmes starts No More Page 3 to stop The Sun in the UK publishing images of topless women.|
|Sept 2012||Eve Ensler founds One Billion Rising to end sexual violence against women.||
|Sept 2012||Allegations lead to the Jimmy Savile sexual abuse scandal.|
|Alissa Quart coins the term hipster sexism.|
|16 December 2012||The 2012 Delhi gang rape sparks protests in India and global outrage.|
|2014||Free the Nipple argues for women's right to show breasts in public.|
|Feb 2013||Cao Ju (pseudonym), first woman to bring gender-discrimination lawsuit in China, wins 30,000 yuan and apology from the Juren Academy.|
|7 March 2013||Anita Sarkeesian launches Tropes vs. Women in Video Games.|
|December 2013||Kira Cochrane's book All the Rebel Women: The Rise of the Fourth Wave of Feminism published.|
|22 January 2014||President Obama launches the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault.|
|April 2014||Rashida Manjoo, UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, criticizes UK's "boys' club sexist culture".|
|24 May 2014||#YesAllWomen begins in response to the 2014 Isla Vista killings.|
|Aug 2014||Gamergate begins, leading to sexist harassment of female video-game developers and widespread condemnation.|
|14 September 2014||Female graduate student at the University of Miami reports Colin McGinn for sexual harassment, sparking debate about sexual harassment within academia.|
|20 September 2014||Emma Watson launches HeForShe at the UN.|
|Sept 2014||Emma Sulkowicz begins Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight) to highlight campus sexual assault.|
|27 October 2014||Release of 10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman.|
|Nov 2014||First women speak out about the sexual assault by Bill Cosby.|
|Oct 2014||Kristina Lunz starts Stop Bild Sexism to stop the German Bild newspaper from objectifying women.|
|31 October 2014||#BeenRapedNeverReported tweeted millions of times in response to the Jian Ghomeshi sexual-assault allegations in Canada.|
|Dec 2014||Comic book Priya's Shakti features an Indian girl who is gang raped.|
|23 December 2014||Time magazine writes that 2014 "may have been the best year for women since the dawn of time".|
|22 September 2015||Launch of blog "Breasts Are Healthy", to assist women to appear in public bare-chested without police interference.|
|1 February 2016||Trial of Jian Ghomeshi begins in Toronto.|
|21 January 2017||2017 Women's March supports women's rights and protests inauguration of Donald Trump.|
|5 October 2017||Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse allegations first reported by The New York Times.|
|10 October 2017||#MeToo campaign, based on a slogan created in 2007 by Tarana Burke, begins in response to the Weinstein allegations.|
|30 October 2017||The first 2017 Westminster sexual scandals appear on the Guido Fawkes blogsite.|
|6 December 2017||Time magazine names #MeToo campaign as Person of the Year.|
|1 January 2018||Time's Up, a movement against sexual harassment, is founded by Hollywood celebrities in response to the Weinstein effect and #MeToo.|
- Third-wave feminism
- Feminism and media
- Radical feminism
- Postcolonial feminism
- Social justice warrior
- Black feminism
- Equity feminism
- Material feminism
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