When I first started reading feminst blogs, a lot of the “terminology” confused me.

I hadn’t a clue, for example, what The Third Wave might be – or the First and Second Waves come to mention it. Had to look it up. Looking back at it now, it seems an outrage to my heritage as a woman that I had to look it up. Ariel will not have to.

That wave imagery moves me even now. The wave seems a powerfully female metaphor. There is, of course, the sea itself, with its tidal rhythms and its relationship with the womanly moon, and the hypnotic sight of waves crashing against a rocky English shore, powerful and wet and irresistable. And the wave metaphor reaches out to encompass the feelings we have in our own bodies: our womb emptying itself of blood; the frightening power of a multiple orgasm; our whole lifeforce pushing out new life; the subsequent shrinking of the uterus in afterpains…

The First Wave was the feminism of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. During the First Wave, women fought – battled, physically and intellecutally and emotionally and financially and with everything they had, heart and soul – for women’s rights. Who can forget, once they have imagined it, the brave suffragettes, the hunger strikers, the desperation that drove Emily Wilding Davison to throw herself under the King’s horse?

The First Wave women won us the vote. They also won fairer marriage laws, and child custody laws to change the exclusive right of fathers over their children, and they won the legal right for married women to own property themselves.

The First Wave died down a bit when the vote was won, but the activist spirit rekindled in the revolutionary climate of second half of the twentieth century. The Second Wave was the movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Women came together, collectivised, protested, marched, wrote, and fought again, fought hard for women’s rights. Who can forget the black and white photographs of angry women, our angry mothers, bearing placards down the street in protest? Who can forget those images, once seen, of those angry women protesting against the Bomb, against the Vietnam war, against rapes and against beauty pageants?

The Second Wave won us equality before the law. Sex discrmination was banned from the workplace. Those women also won us the right to contraception and to abortion, they won us rape crisis centres, women’s studies courses. Dear Goddess, for what it was worth we even got a woman Prime Minister.

Once all those wars seemed won, the Second Wave too ran out of steam. And now we have a Third Wave. What will the Third Wavers do?

Looking back, it is pretty clear that these waves are not so much distinct and separate movements as continuations with shifting emphasis as the world moves on. The continuity can be seen perhaps in this way:

The First Wave was primarily about winning legal independence for women, mainly the right to vote but also the right to be considered as legal individuals separate from their husbands. In that movement, the right to own property independently is a key part of what I think the Second Wave was primarily about – winning financial independence for women. The Second Wave also brought us the beginning of reproductive freedom, a key first step on the road to what I personally think is the biggest single demand that women today must make – bodily independence.

Bodily independence means:

  • Not being raped or abused or otherwise physically attacked.
  • Not having to wear makeup, shave our hairy bits, spend a fortune on our clothes and hair, have our bodies surgically altered – all in the name of an artificial social construct of “beauty”.
  • Having better access to good sex education and to safe and effective contraception.
  • Being trusted to know when an abortion is the right choice.
  • Being allowed to dress up or down, to sparkle or not, without it being a political statement.
  • Having the freedom to be the size and shape that nature intended.
  • Not being objectified as sex toys for men.
  • Being allowed to menstruate, gestate, parturate, lactate and climacterate as part of a celebration of life, rather than as something difficult requiring medical intervention.
  • Loving our bodies.
  • Knowing our bodies.
  • Living inside our bodies.
  • Being at one with our bodies.

Bodily independence is not a new need, it is just the one that seems to me to be the most urgent today. Second Wavers started us off. We need to keep their battles going.

Will the Third Wave achieve all that? Will it make fat hatred and lipstick hatred and self hatred a thing of the past? Will it make lactation grossout, menstruation grossout, and contraceptive cockups a dated symbol of days gone by? Will it make Nuts and Glamour and FHM and Vogue and Zoo and Cosmo look, well, a bit daft? Will it make rape unthinkable?

The First and Second Waves had their squabbles too. We didn’t fail to win the vote just because some women disagreed about tactics or details. We didn’t fail to win employment rights or abortion rights or any of the other rights that we demanded in years gone by just because we disagreed about certain things. Feminists will always disagree about stuff, in the way that all people everywhere will always disagree about stuff.

I know it all seems messy, and hopeless, and disorganised, and chaotic, and divided. But I kind of feel, today, that there might just be something wonderful to come out of it.