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Scholz On Feminism: Waves Or Themes?

There are often considered to be, depending on who you talk to of course, three waves of feminism (with a fourth potentially being entered into as we speak). Although Scholz doesn’t particularly like the delineation of feminism into waves (preferring themes instead), let us begin nonetheless with a cursory look at them before moving onto the terminology she does like.

Wave One

This wave stems from a post-Enlightenment era (seventeenth to twentieth centuries) where interest in liberty became prominent, and while interest in women’s rights existed prior to this time, there was a greater movement toward social change in the 1700’s due to the greater philosophical milieu. Scholz states that the abolitionist movement in the United States furthered the feminist cause there by providing forums and rhetoric for public discussions on the role of women in society, she states:  “… the first wave focused on women gaining status as human beings with full civil, intellectual, social, economic, and legal rights…” (p. 6) . It is here that what is typically called the “first wave” of feminism began. It is important to note that the feminist thought of this time is largely located to the United States with some influence from France and runs roughly until 1960,  there was an apparent ebb of feminist thought leading up to the 60’s which became reinvigorated and became known as “second wave” feminism.

Wave Two

This wave was spurred by “civil rights activism as well as student and union uprisings” (p. 7) and came to look at different forms of oppression, namely that women’s bodies are “sites of domination, stereotyping, violence…” (p. 7). It was in this wave that women came to unite, under their shared experiences of oppression, to form a political force for positive social change. Women would no longer be excluded from the public sphere, they would be involved in discussions about what to do with their own bodies including all forms of reproductive rights (abortion, birth, contraception, and honest, medically reliable information about such), and to remove the stigma around these issues, even celebrating them. More than this, violence against women, domestic abuse and rape was openly discussed, defined and argued.

Wave Three

This wave began in the early nineties roughly and problematizes many issues of the second wave by moving away from unity to celebrate diversity, “not only in identity but subjectivity and thought itself.” (p. 7) Scholz notes this wave finds oppression in thought, language, and culture often using mainstream and alternative cultural theories to challenge dominant thought. This is part of what makes third wave so problematic for some, in that it doesn’t address such obvious concerns as the second wave, but rather challenges “the very structures of consciousness [that] have been colonized by oppression” (p. 7) . There is also much disagreement about the topics, issues and methodologies to use (perhaps stemming from the great philosophical milieu of postmodernism that we find ourselves in) by feminists in the third wave, or even on the use of “theory” as too “totalizing or universalizing” instead choosing PoMo terms like “narratives” to unsettle taken for granted metaphysical categories like “woman”. (p. 107)


Before we move forward we should state that Scholz does find the waves approach helpful insofar as it “indicates a project not yet completed” (p. 6), but she also believes it fails to cover the origins of feminist thought or “feminist praxis” (that is practice distinguished from theory).

The thematic approach is another way to think about the waves of feminism. In this approach, the metaphorical waves are concentric circles rather than generational moments. Consider, for instance, that economic and legal inequalities based on gender are often most visible forms of oppression of women. If we think addressing these as analogous to the first circle formed when a raindrop hits the pond, we could see that there will likely be many reverberations, some more predictable than others, and all reliant on each other. But there will also likely be countless other raindrops all over the pond. The concentric circles of all these drops blend and merge. (Scholz, 2010, p. 8)

To Scholz then the first wave focuses on efforts to obtain legal rights and formal equality, the second wave expands on these goals by elaborating on and providing a wider analysis of oppression and how this affects identity and agency. The third wave moves to the structures of consciousness and language to see how oppression is fluent there and how it might be fought. (p. 8)

She offers a few justifications as to why the thematic model should be preferred:

(1): She states that a chronological model misconstrues the history of feminism as linear and singular, rather than pluralistic, multiple, and varied. To Scholz there are many schools of thought within feminism, approaches too, a global feminism is diluted when looked at generationally.

(2): Generational models seem to be class and race based, as in they trace the history of white, middle class feminism, Scholz sees it as a mistake to disregard the anti-racism movements that helped open doors for feminism (and feminists). “Women of all nationalities, social classes, races, and ehtnicities, have been engaged in the struggle for gender justice.” (p. 8)

(3): The wave or generational model seems to assume that as one wave ends, so do the problems of that wave, and with the solutions of the previous wave in toe, we move cleanly onto the next issue. The example Scholz uses is that of legal rights, every wave aims to maintain (and potentially improve) achieved legal rights

(4): The wave model can, according to Schulz privilege a particular view of feminism and its history. “The chronological waves most likely resemble the development of feminism in the United States and Western Europe. Other feminists, other feminisms, other movements around the globe would certainly order things differently – or even point out that so many of the issues pertaining to separate waves must be tackled simultaneously.” (p. 9)

(5): Finally Scholze states that thinking in terms of waves promotes a misleading idea about progress, an assumption she (and many PoMo’s) feels needs to be challenged:

… part of the project of feminism in general is to continually critique itself. At least part of that is a recognition that some of the causes we fight for or the arguments we make may actually be counterproductive for the overall feminist movement, exclusive of some women, or otherwise fail to account for some of the needs of some women. (Scholz, 2010, p. 9)

She does note however that this isn’t to say feminism hasn’t made significant advances or that the situation for women isn’t improving.


Scholz. S.J. (2010). Feminism. London, England. One World Productions.

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