Maxine Molyneux, Adrija Day, Malu A.C. Gatto, and Holly Rowden

New Feminist Activism, Waves and Generations UN Women Discussion Paper, 2021

58 pages


Reviewed by Sarah Frankie Summers

Feminism has historically been conceptualized or at least narrativized in waves, with each wave of the movement ushering in fresh intentions for broader inclusion and greater equity. The authors of this discussion paper begin with questioning the usefulness and accuracy of this waves metaphor, for the feminist movement has never been a finite phenomenon in all places at all times. The waves metaphor has also been charged with obscuring the role of African American women in the suffrage movement. The contextual and changing nature of feminism around the globe, Molyneux argues, is better exemplified by the concept of ‘generations,’ while her use of ‘timescapes’ seeks to emphasize the temporal and spatial dimensions of the human experience. To avoid implications of singular, homogeneous movements, the authors conclude that the plurality of struggles against gender-based oppression can best be articulated as ‘feminisms.’ Without negating their differences, feminist streams through time have all struggled for redistributive justice, recognition, and political inclusion. Molyneux points out that “a wave signifies fluidity and motion and is made up of multiple currents, each with its own momentum” and notes that the waves metaphor thus still offers a helpful visualization for feminisms and their overlapping movements.

This document was composed as a background paper for the 25th Anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action and the 64th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women. Background papers are commissioned by the Research and Data section of the UN Women group. A summary in English, followed by translations in French and Spanish, poses the other questions guiding the research detailed in the paper: is the new wave of activism a distinct generation from the movements that came before, and if so, what are its distinguishing characteristics, and what unites it to previous generations of feminist activism?

“Feminism is used in this paper as an overarching generic term for a diverse body of ideas and activism that share some common principles and perspectives and that aim to end the harms women suffer as a result of the social distribution of power in favour of men.” This footnoted definition of feminism provides a useful foothold for the position the authors ultimately take: the current iterations of feminism are situated within a wave of new activism by young people around the world. Four key features are identified to demarcate a ‘new feminism’—its global nature; its reliance on and empowerment by communications technology; its defensive stance; and its commitment to intersectionality.One of the most useful tools this document offers is a brief and approximate history of feminisms. The first timescape explored starts between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and was largely centered around issues of suffrage. This generation also took on the fight for equal rights within the family, equal pay, access to higher education and professions, and workers’ rights. Some anarcho-feminists at this time began calling for the end of capitalism. The second wave, starting roughly in the late 1960s, early 1970s, sought autonomy. Consciousness-raising meetings focused on issues of prejudice, discrimination, abortions, and patriarchy. The movement emphasized sisterhood, although it had not confronted or resolved unequal power dynamics within it. Third wave feminism, in the 1980s and 1990s, emphasized policy-related activism, witnessed the strengthening feminist movements and rights advocacy in the Global South, and engendered the establishment of Women Studies as a discipline. The fourth wave, approximately starting with the new millennium, has pushed for “radical inclusion,” with intersectionality and use of technology at its core. This wave has identified the deepening gap between the expectations and accomplishments of feminist movements past as well as

the existential insecurity faced by new generations and the detachment from democracy.

The roots of the four key features of the fourth wave previously mentioned can be seen in the earlier waves, underscoring the difficulty or futility of differentiating between the waves to an extent. Over time, feminisms and some feminist principles have been absorbed by formal government, severing the grassroots connections that the movements relied on to understand gender issues faced by women “down here”—as opposed to women “up there” in the government. The case studies illustrate further difficulties with distinguishing between waves and the need to avoid overgeneralizing; however, the case studies also illuminate conflicts between generations of feminists which underscore the impact of real differences in values and approaches between the generations that shape new movements. 

The first case study explores the history of feminisms in Brazil, offering narratives and statistics that underscore the relationships between feminist generations and political progress and the fight to maintain that progress. The case study serves to demonstrate the experience of a generational lull as well as the defensive position new feminists have had to take. In this section, two Brazilian feminists offer potent perspectives on these changes. Sueli Carneiro noted, “Some 20 years ago, old feminists asked: ‘where are the girls, where are the girls? What happened? They didn’t show up.’ Now, I ask: ‘there are so many of you, where were you hiding that we didn’t see you?’ And they say: ‘we were growing up’.” And Cecília Sardenberg put it this way: “Back then, we fought to gain rights; now, we fight against them being taken away.” 

Efforts to eliminate violence against women (VAW) and sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) in India are detailed in the second case study, showing how recent legal reform movements have been led by a new generation of feminists, whose strategies for building awareness of VAW and SGBV have not always supported by older generations of feminists. New feminists in India have come up against the challenge of a lack of implementation for the legal changes fought for by earlier feminist movements. The third case study about the radical inclusion efforts of the new feminists in Malawi offers an example of the generational divides where older feminists’ essentialist definition of women conflicts with the more expansive position of younger intersectional LBGTQI+ feminists. This case study also highlights the importance of regionally-specific approaches in fourth wave feminist scholarship.

The three case studies show both the importance of framing feminist struggles in the context of rights as well as the use of social media for advancing the movements. In a gesture of reflexivity, this UN Women publication considers its own positionality in the new feminist movement, recognizing that ownership and authority belong to a new generation which exists outside international agencies for human rights. This new generation, this fourth wave, situates intersectional feminisms locally and is concerned with advancing and preserving women’s rights, which encompass issues of gender, race, sexuality, and environmental justice. This compact, accessible text is an invaluable tool for all who seek to understand some of the many nuances of the global feminist movement through history.