A Reflection on “Leadership in the Women’s Movement”

Annie Palmer, ’20

The feminist movement has been defined by three distinct waves of feminism, which cover a range of agendas and needs at verging intersections to influence change and progress ultimately demanding a fight for equality of the sexes in all aspects of life.

The first wave of feminism fought for the suffrage for women globally. This was a defining obstacle, which women faced from the 1880s all the way until winning the vote in 1920. Women needed a dynamic facet to give them legal equality in order to redefine a woman’s role in society. On the forefront the women’s suffrage movement grew from an international stage and challenged institutions of social constraints such as race and class oppression. The first wave in America initially grew out of the Abolitionist movement from the rise of strong leadership of mostly middle class white women and did not give equality to black women. Later the movement became separated as a whole when the leadership held different perspectives, focus and philosophies, in particular, whether to use moderate or militant tactics. Leading figures spoke volumes to define women’s rights and substantiate the first wave of feminism of the 20th century with the vote. 

The second wave of the women’s movement was characterized by women on the more conservative branch seeking political reform and women on the radical branch promoting an alternative women’s culture. All women of the movement challenged the institutions of gender inequality and the status of women in society. Reform organizations used spokespersons as leaders often in political reform, while radical leadership used collective tactics. The development of nonhierarchical leadership of moderate and radical groups took the second wave to the left side of the political spectrum. The women’s movement was cognizant of redefining leadership to the feminist conception of power to avoid the male model of domination. Power for women was non-hierarchical through empowering one another to share equal power through the force of shared leadership. However, the influence of media has pushed forward women in the public eye as leaders of the movement, which distorted leadership for the second wave and gave a stronger visual dynamic to white women over colored women in the movement. Yet, women with strong voices help to redefine feminism bringing women of different classes and races to work together to not only fight for women’s issues but human rights, environment concerns, sovereignty, etc.

The third wave of the feminist movement comes from a generation born into a world of benefits their mothers fought for. They can approach feminism from a more formal approach after being exposed to feminist leadership training. The third-wave movement’s success is also owed to the changing forms of distribution of communication shaping leadership roles by those who defied norms to create social change and to continue to protect the rights that were given to them into the future. The progress of the first and second wave influenced the third wave and the growth of active participants.

With the progressive growth of the feminist movement of the three different waves the natural question is what is next for the feminist movement? Are we growing towards a fourth wave of neoliberalism, or intersectional feminist?  It seems there is an array of different perspectives and leadership of the women’s movement. A leading woman of today, who I have identified with, who stands out to define my generation is Sophia Bush. An actress who has been a role model for many women. She has spoken out as an activist of equal rights for all humans. Her definition of feminism, “It’s so not complicated… I watch everybody fight over whether it’s appropriate to be a feminist or not. And I sit here thinking, well, I’m a woman. I would like to be judged on the quality of my work, I would like to be compensated fairly for my work. I would like to have just as much access to healthcare as any man. Yeah, that’s pretty much it. I don’t know what the big fight is all about… Believing in my right to live as well and as well-protected in the world as a man, doesn’t mean I hate men. And it doesn’t mean I’m going to burn all my bras and throw away all my high heels. I don’t want to be judged for wearing [heels]. I don’t want to be judged for wearing motorcycle boots either. It just feels like there’s so much stuff that gets placed on women that if we truly had equal opportunity wouldn’t even be in the conversation.”

Her voice touches my inner self and I relate to the call for equality and opportunity.  It is what we see when we look back to all the waves of feminism. It is the same universal message, to be heard and the share in equality. It is important to remember that for women feminism is working towards equality for men and women. If we fight one another we lose site of the equal ground for all people. It doesn’t matter what the color of our skin is, or our economic class, where we went to school, it about living in a society where we are not defined by stereotypes, but and can work to create an environment where we can all feel and be equal. We need to work as leaders to create a place where everyone is confident and comfortable to express who we are.