Women’s Liberation: Understanding the Waves of Feminism

Congratulations on your right to vote, your right to own property, your independence on securing economic freedom, going to the college of your choice, and your successful start to a new business.

The law was written with you in mind and supported you 100%. If this had been the initial reality for women and women of color, we would not have the privilege of celebrating and honoring the trailblazers who put their lives on the line for women to experience wealth and freedom. Nor is this to say that everyone’s experiences are the same. March is women’s history month and a reminder of the women who fought for a seat at the table so that women’s fundamental human rights are a reality.

In 1920, the 19th Amendment enabled voting rights for women.

Women were in the position of advocating and proving their value and worth to be a part of American Democracy by marching and picketing. American history shows us the reality for women as having no human rights but being considered their husbands’ property under the coverture laws. Women could not own property or have a separate identity from their husbands, making the negative stigmas associated with being a single female, and the challenges of attempting to get ahead to make a life for oneself, come as no surprise. If a woman earned money during her marriage, everything she made was her husband’s property. The movement of women’s rights was in motion long before the 19th Amendment. In 1912 several states had adopted suffrage legislation as a starting point. 

The Federal Suffrage Amendment made it illegal to discriminate against gender.

Still, it did not include any women of color, making it legal to exclude all women of color, such as Native American women, Asian Americans, Latinx, and African American Women. Who could vote? Only white men. Women’s rights advocates like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton believed that educated women should vote even before black men, stating that the most intelligent should vote first, as claimed in 1869. Jim Crow legislation still made it impossible for African American women and other women of color to vote until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, 45 years later. Native American women gained the right to vote under the Indian Citizenship Act. Many of the states in America implemented barriers such as literacy tests, poll taxes, and barring all those residing on a reservation from holding state residents’ rights.

Those entering into America, mainly Asian women, were considered immigrants and were excluded from voting until the passing of the Immigration Nationality Act of 1952, which allowed them to gain citizenship, about 30 years after the 19th Amendment passed. Dr. Mabel Ping-Hua Lee was instrumental during this movement. Luisa Capetillo worked to ensure that Latinx women gained voting rights. Women who spoke Spanish were given English literacy tests that kept Hispanic and other women of color from voting. The 1975 extension of the Voting Rights Amendment protected minority language citizens’ right to vote. Zitkala-Sa was a Native American activist who fought for Indigenous women’s rights. Indigenous women gained citizenship in 1924 but still were not allowed to vote. 

African American women faced voter suppression tactics.

Fannie Lou Hamer and Diane Nash were instrumental in passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965. African American Women were not allowed to attend conventions like the National American Woman Suffrage Association. The concerns during the battle for women’s rights only incorporated the concerns of white women.

Women such as Sojourner Truth gave speeches to tell the story of the reality of African American women in her famous speech “Ain’t I a Woman?” delivered at the Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, in 1851. Several women were known for their efforts in the women’s movement: Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, and Nannie Helen Burroughs. The layers of race and gender barriers compounded the challenges that women of color faced during the women’s suffrage movement.

During the mid-19th century, the first wave of feminism focused on the concerns of white middle-class women, such as political equality, instead of the complexity of the issues and challenges faced by women of color, particularly black women. During the second wave of feminism, which occurred during the mid-20th century, and the civil rights movement, women became more vocal about the oppression they faced. During this wave, different perspectives of feminism surfaced, like black feminism. The third wave of feminism occurred during the 1990s, which focused more on the multiple challenges faced by women and their intersectionality of gender, race, ethnicity, immigration status, religion, and class, to name a few.

The feminist movement has helped bring to light the challenges and struggles of women in the United States, first by illuminating the struggles of white Christian women, then evolving to include the nuanced and compounded challenges of gender, class, and race in an intersectional manner. Further expansion of feminist theory has examined the intersection of sexuality, gender, class, and race class.

African American women and other women of color were not heard during the first wave of the feminist movement.

African American women felt invisible because the issues that impacted them were not heard. The message about feminism was based on the experiences and values of white women privileged to a higher socioeconomic status. The homogenous message did not allow room for the more complex experiences of African American women or other women of color.

While progress exists, women still make less money than men, and if you are a woman of color, the wage gap is even more expansive. There are many layers to peel back when assessing the disparities amongst women, such as gender, gender identity, race and ethnicity, ability, sexual orientation, and educational attainment. Everyone does not seek to be alone or struggle, but learns early on how to play the cards they are dealt, and sometimes it is our personal experiences that shape our footsteps towards advocacy.