Should we separate feminism into waves? It’s a complicated question with a complicated subject, and I think there are good arguments both ways. To some extent, the division of feminism into waves serves to divide what is undoubtedly a continuum, disrupting the chain running between feminists fighting for suffrage to those of today. Furthermore, they lend themselves to division and fighting in the feminist movement itself; to quote the Jennifer Baumgardner article, “if anyone is going to resist a new wave, it is the previous wave, populated by women and men who believe that they have plenty left to offer.” On top of these realities, such divisions lend themselves to easy classification that perhaps misses the deeply nuanced positions of many feminists and dismisses those caught between waves, forcing them into categories that fail to encapsulate their true views.
But despite all the failures of these seemingly overly simple classifications, there is a genuine need for them. This discussion is far from an issue restricted to the feminist movement; historians know that the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era were not totally distinct, but they nevertheless use separate names to describe them. And I think this is where it becomes important to have these shorthand phrases. When we say that Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a First Wave Feminist, it allows us to immediately have some idea of the time she lived in and the ideals she fought for. While that classification results in a not insignificant loss of detail and nuance, it also allows for us to work with a framework when we talk about feminist history. This is the same argument that Baumgardner uses, and I think that in the end it trumps the loss of nuance that comes from these classifications.
So, in the end, I do believe that we should classify feminists into waves. But I also think we should be extraordinarily careful when we do so, because every time we say she was a first or second or third wave feminist, we lose some of the complexities that defined that person’s ideals and contributions to the feminist movement.
On another note, I found the idea of the feminist cookbooks very interesting because they seemed so anathema to many ideals of the movement today. I think that this really shows how far we’ve come, and how ingrained societal ideas of gender roles can be. Even the radicals of that time still felt that their place was in the kitchen, and it’s important to recognize both that we are far from that time and still quite likely to fall back into similar gender stereotypes.