A Brief History of Feminism

At the end of Harvard’s first Women’s Week (co-hosted by the Women’s Center and the Seneca, a group that has worn the mantle of “feminist” uneasily), it would be difficult to argue that women haven’t come a long way.

Feminism is commonly split into three “waves.” During the First Wave—the women’s suffrage movement pioneered by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and a host of other sidebars in American history textbooks—the term “feminism” wasn’t used at all. Once it entered the American lexicon, “[The word] then disappeared after the 1920s. Nobody wanted to call themselves a feminist,” says 300th Anniversary University Professor Laurel T. Ulrich. “Then it came back again in the 60s and 70s, after people realized there were a few problems to be solved.”

Second Wave feminism gave the term many of its current negative associations. The image of the FemiNazi can be traced back to events like the publication of Valerie Solanas’s SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) Manifesto. Accusations would be leveled later against the overwhelmingly white, middle-class makeup of the Second Wave.

Third Wave feminism arose in the mid 1980s and 90s, adding emphasis to queer theory and racial challenges. Part of this movement involved the cultural development of Girl Power, originally exemplified by the no-holds-barred Riot Grrrl and later by a series of pop-stars (Spice Girls, anyone?) as a commercial strategy to sell music and clothes.

It’s difficult to imagine a time when the underground prevalence of feminist political magazines bearing titles like “Diabolical Clits” and “The Adventures of Baby Dyke” was groundbreaking. The concept of women drawing empowerment from platform heels has long past reached its expiration date. The Riot Grrl has taken her place with the Girl Friday as something of an anachronism, and the Modern Woman is on the rise—but who is she? Laurel T. Ulrich’s best-known quotation, a bumper-sticker staple, reads: “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” With a Women’s Week of relatively inoffensive events like a “Smoothie Night for Vision Awareness” and a “Broads in the City” mixer, are women at Harvard too well-behaved for their own good?