This was originally on appropriately-inappropriate:
In a nutshell:
The “waves” are a feminist response to cultural and societal context.
First wave feminism came about because white women were being denied the right to vote in the West. In the English-speaking world, suffragettes advocated for:
-The right of women to be seen as “Persons” under the law (prior to that, woman was “chattel”, literally, a possession of her man)
-The right of women to vote
-The right of women to hold gainful employment
-The right of women to seek arbitration in the event of the marriages’ dissolution
First wave feminism also arguably encompasses Prohibition, which was originally fought for not because feminists are buzzkill funsucks but because men were going out to the pubs and bars, getting shitfaced, coming home and beating/raping their wives who, because marital rape wasn’t seen as a crime and spousal assault wasn’t even conceived of, were stuck in abusive marriages with no way of escaping.
The first wave hit shore somewhere between the 1890-1930s.
The second wave came about in the 60s and 70s, during the social revolution of the post-War years.
Women had worked all through the war, in industry and business; anywhere a man had worked, a woman was now able to.
But then the men came back, and they wanted “their” jobs. So they took them, and women started taking Valium (originally marketed as “mother’s little helper”) to cope with this sudden lack of rights.
But put enough pressure on something and it snaps, and women snapped hard.
Suddenly, the second wave started agitating for concrete rights:
-The right to a no-fault divorce
-The right to access female reproductive health
-The right to abortion
-The right to safe contraceptives
It’s this last point that splits the feminisms:
The Second Wave can be divided into two halves; the “Sexual Liberation” side, which encouraged free love and argued that reclaiming sexuality via sex/porn/sadomasochism was a good thing, and the “Radical Feminist” side which argued then, as now, that pornography, sex work, etc were harmful to women and funding a system set in place by men who were profiting off this new industry.
From this schism came the feminist wars; they were acrimonious and truthfully, ugly.
This is when we start to see a branching out of feminisms; lesbian separatism was created in response to Betty Friedman’s “lavender menace” (she believed that lesbians, ole big man haters, were ruining feminism’s credibility as a movement). That led to a lot of lesbians moving over to more radical politics which, while not perfect, were somewhat less concerned with impressing mainstream society.
You also see Intersectional Feminism first arise here; championed by hooks and Lorde, intersectional feminism was a radical feminist school of thought that focused on how different oppressions could combine and manifest. That school of thought eventually matured into Womanism.
Then, we run into AIDS in the 80s, and many lesbian feminists began to work in AIDS advocacy, running hospices and taking leadership roles in the AIDS battles.
The Third Wave comes around in the 90s. Ironically, you can see when the Third Wave really happened by the media of the time( we start to get Riot Grrl and female-led punk groups, for example, and also the Disney Renaissance with its crop of “I’ll fix this, hold my purse” heroines).
The Third Wave, capitalizing on the legal (first wave) and social (second wave) progress of the previous century, now turned it’s eyes to “equality”. Women were still being systematically barred from positions of power in the corporate and political spheres, so third wave attempted to address that (hence Senator Rodham-Clinton’s success as more than just the “First Lady”).
In later years, the Third Wave also started to concern itself with sexuality…
And here we are, with libfems saying porn is healthy and radfems pointing out that no, it isn’t, and lesbians still being told we’re ruining the movement and woc still trying to advocate for basic rights of personhood nearly everywhere.
So, it was a very big nutshell, and I may have missed some things, but that’s a hundred years of feminist activism a la Coles Notes.