Over the past few years, I have been watching with concern as female celebrity after female celebrity has declared from the ramparts of press conferences or social media statements that they are not feminists. This worries me. For one because they are in a position of immense influence over the next generation of girls and women who track their every speech, every quote and emulate them. And for another, the very position that gives them the platform to speak about their feminism has been built by feminism and the many waves of the feminist movement that has brought us to this space where they can speak about not being ‘feminist’ as a choice they make, in turn, makes their words unseemly hollow.
There have been many waves of feminism that have preceded these modern-day declarations about not being feminists. All that we now celebrate as givens have been hard fought for by the feminists who have before us. The right to be educated, to not be treated as chattel, the right to the vote, the right to financial independence, the right to work, these weren’t rights that women had till quite recently.
Agreed there are many forms of feminism, and perhaps sadly enough, the one that gets the most visibility and airplay is the militant form of feminism that goes on to become the accepted form of feminism.
Perhaps it would do us well to recall the many waves of feminism that lead up to the freedoms we so enjoy and take for granted today. The feminist movement has been broadly divided into waves, depending on their sequence and the impact.
The first wave of feminism:
(From Wikipedia) “First-wave feminism was oriented around the station of middle- or upper-class white women and involved suffrage and political equality.”
From Gender Cawater Info.net. “First-wave feminism refers to an extended period of feminist activity during the nineteenth century and early twentieth century in the United Kingdom and the United States. Originally it focused on the promotion of equal contract and property rights for women and the opposition to chattel marriage and ownership of married women (and their children) by their husbands. However, by the end of the nineteenth century, activism focused primarily on gaining political power, particularly the right of women’s suffrage. Yet, feminists such as Voltairine de Cleyre and Margaret Sanger were still active in campaigning for women’s sexual, reproductive, and economic rights at this time. In 1854, Florence Nightingale established female nurses as adjuncts to the military.”
In simple terms, the first wave of feminists fought for women to be politically equal to men, to have the right to vote and therefore a voice in the political process. They also fought for a woman’s right to be equal in a marriage and for her right to own property.
The second wave of feminism:
(From Wikipedia) Second-wave feminism attempted to further combat social and cultural inequalities.
“Second-wave feminism broadened the debate to a wide range of issues: sexuality, family, the workplace, reproductive rights, de facto inequalities, and official legal inequalities. Second-wave feminism also drew attention to domestic violence and marital rape issues, the establishment of rape crisis and battered women’s shelters, and changes in custody and divorce law.”
What emerged from the second wave of feminism was the right to equal pay for equal work, the right for women to own property, to have reproductive rights to their own body. It also looked at redressing domestic violence which was commonplace. The invention of the birth control pill helped women control their pregnancies and let them stay in the workplace if they chose to. A seminal work of the time was The Feminine Mystique which took a good hard look at whether domestic happiness was a myth.
“In 1963 Betty Friedan, influenced by The Second Sex, wrote the bestselling book The Feminine Mystique. Discussing primarily white women, she explicitly objected to how women were depicted in the mainstream media, and how placing them at home limited their possibilities and wasted potential. Friedan described this as “The Problem That Has No Name”. The perfect nuclear family image depicted and strongly marketed at the time, she wrote, did not reflect happiness and was rather degrading for women. This book is widely credited with having begun second-wave feminism.”
Second-wave feminists took a good hard look at how women were being depicted in popular culture and sought to revise depictions of women that were derogatory or antithetical to women being equals to men.
“Second-wave feminists viewed popular culture as sexist and created a pop culture of their own to counteract this. Australian artist Helen Reddy‘s song “I Am Woman” played a large role in popular culture and became a feminist anthem; Reddy came to be known as a “feminist poster girl” or a “feminist icon”. “One project of second-wave feminism was to create ‘positive’ images of women, to act as a counterweight to the dominant images circulating in popular culture and to raise women’s consciousness of their oppressions.” ”
Then came the third wave of feminism:
(From Wikipedia) Third-wave feminism is continuing to address the financial, social and cultural inequalities and includes renewed campaigning for greater influence of women in politics and media. In reaction to political activism, feminists have also had to maintain focus on women’s reproductive rights, such as the right to abortion.
“Gender violence has become a central issue for third-wave feminists. Organizations such as V-Day have formed with the goal of ending gender violence, and artistic expressions such as The Vagina Monologues have generated awareness and action around issues relating to women’s sexuality. Third-wave feminists want to transform the traditional notions of sexuality and embrace “an exploration of women’s feelings about sexuality that included vagina-centered topics as diverse as orgasm, birth, and rape.” 
“Third-wave feminism regards race, social class, transgender rights, and sexual liberation as central issues. However, it also pays attention to workplace matters such as the glass ceiling, sexual harassment, unfair maternity-leave policies, motherhood – support for single mothersby means of welfare and child care and respect for working mothers and for mothers who decide to leave their careers to raise their children full-time.”
Perhaps the wave of feminism we are most familiar with, because it is so recent, the third wave of feminism reclaimed space for women in public spaces and looked at raising awareness about and ending gender violence through activism and campaigning. It also put into the spotlight women’s sexuality discussed important issues like the glass ceiling which held women in the workspace back and called out sexual harassment at the workspace and demanded reparation.
We are now in the fourth wave of feminism.
From Wikipedia. “Fourth wave feminism is often associated with online feminism, especially using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram,YouTube, Tumblr, and other forms of social media to discuss, uplift, and activate gender equality and social justice. According to NOWToronto, the internet has created a “call-out” culture, in which sexismor misogyny can be called out and challenged immediately with relative ease. This culture is indicative of the continuing influence of the third wave, with its focus on micro-politics and challenging sexism and misogyny insofar as they appear in everyday rhetoric, advertising, film, television and literature, the media, and so on. This online feminism aspect of the fourth wave has impacted how companies market to women so that they are not “called out” for sexism in their marketing strategies.”
The online space and social media have created a space which allows for Hashtag activism to spread virally across the globe in a matter of minutes. The #MeToo movement which took the world by storm came out of this wave.
Through these various waves of feminism, we have had branches of feminism which are socialist, Marxist, black feminism, post colonial feminism and many more that women have associated themselves with depending on what they identify with the most. There is also the move to gender fluidity, the push for LGBTQA+ rights, the awareness of the issues facing transgender women, non-binary women and more. The fourth wave of feminism is inclusive, gathering and nurturing.
At the end of it all, we need to stop and think about what feminism really means to us individually as a person. To me, feminism simply means I am an equal person to a man in every sense, and that is the crux of the feminism I try to live. We all need to find our own feminism and speak it out. To say “I am not a feminist” in an interview to the media comes from a position of privilege which has been made possible by the sacrifices and work of all the feminists who came before you. Not acknowledging that is a sheer lack of understanding of the movement.
By Kiran Manral
Kiran Manral is a Mumbai-based author and blogger.