To this day, in the minds of many, the beginning of women’s organizing and activists is credited to suffragettes Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony and the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention. Later labeled as the first wave of feminism, it is discerned for its efforts to gain women suffrage and property rights in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. This is the lasting and enduring narrative of the start of the history of feminist activism – and it makes sense why. When it comes to social movements, we tend to like charming leaders and noteworthy events to serve as symbols of and to articulate the goals of the movement to capture the public’s attention.
We also like easily memorable and linear stories. We can see that in how the first wave is continently considered to have ended to with the passage of the 19th Amendment which granted women the right to suffrage in 1920. This maybe a more palatable narrative but not inclusive at all; feminist organizing didn’t start with Stanton or Anthony or Seneca Falls nor did the efforts for suffrage end with the 19th Amendment. When we commemorate movements by specific people or milestones, the rich history of the decades of messy and work done by activists and other participants is concealed and forgotten. These specific narratives or the lack of them shape and influence the mainstream, popular understandings of feminist legacies.
Like other social movements, feminism tends to be remembered in its most attenuated form and often without the necessary political and historical perspective needed to understand it. One of the ways we can see this in how we commemorate the history of feminism through the wave metaphor. The wave metaphor, used to describe the different generations and accompanying goals of feminist activism, has assumed a permanent and unchallenged place in our mainstream understanding of feminism.
On the one hand, the wave metaphor allows us to not only understand history of feminist organizing and its development but also synthesizes the history enough to make it more accessible to a larger audience. On the other hand, its focus on ascertaining goals to specific waves erases the existence of diverse feminisms and their goals while its canonizing of specific figure heads and events erases the work and efforts of many organizers within the movement.
The first wave doesn’t refer to the first feminist thinkers – or organizers for women’s rights but the first sustained political movement dedicated t o achieving political equality for women Lisa Tetreault’s A Myth of Seneca Falls challenges this origin story by showing the length that Anthony and Stanton went through to create this myth.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott and their peers — who are credited with founding, defining and leading the women’s suffrage campaign — gradually created and popularized the original story. She details how they created the legend during the second half of the 19th century in response to the movement’s internal politics as well as racial politics following the Civil War.
This, in part, can be due to the purposeful efforts of Stanton and Anthony who made sure to be remembered in history as leaders of their movement. The creation of the Seneca Falls origin story was sustained in large part thanks to the wave metaphor – which often glorifies accomplishments and not efforts. Using Corrine McConaughey’s theory of “layers of activism” along with Lisa Turtle’s The Myth of Seneca Falls to analyze and challenge the wave metaphor, specifically the first wave, and its part in creating historical narratives, we looked to understand feminist activism and its mainstream conceptions with more breadth and depth.
Feminism, throughout its history, has never been a monolith but a conglomeration of different ideas and goals. The true history of feminism is the history of difference and conflict. We have to look at the fight for women’s empowerment as a continuous struggle – one which can’t be marked off by specific dates or events. And, as such, we need to think beyond the wave metaphor which elevates the stories of only few leaders and struggles; and instead, look towards a model that is more inclusive of the stories of the many silenced.