Feminism | The Canadian Encyclopedia



The term “feminism” refers to political, social, and intellectual movements working towards the goal of equality for individuals of all genders. There have always been individuals who have fought against the limits that their society placed on people based on their gender. However, feminism as a political, social and intellectual movement only started in the mid-19th century in Europe. French philosopher Charles Fourier is credited with first using the term “féminisme” in the 1830s, and “feminist” first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1852. Since this time, feminism as a movement has spread across the world, including to Canada, in many different forms.

Women's March, Vancouver, 2017

History of the Movement

The history of feminism is divided into four periods, often called “waves.” While this is a helpful way to understand the history of feminism, it is important to remember that history cannot be neatly divided in this way. However, these different waves happened at different times and in different places.

First Wave

The first feminist wave lasted from the mid-19th to the early 20th century. This feminist movement is sometimes referred to as “women’s suffrage,” because the most important goal of these feminists was to give women the right to vote and be elected to political office. These feminist activists, often called suffragists or suffragettes, also focused on subjects like married women’s property rights, child custody, and citizenship. Many of these early feminists can also be described as maternal feminists. They argued that women had special responsibilities as “mothers of the nation,” and were therefore more naturally suited to take care of matters regarding child care and education. In Canada, the most prominent first-wave feminists were the Famous Five, including Emily Murphy, Henrietta Edwards, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, and Irene Parlby.

While first-wave feminists are often credited with giving women the right to vote in various countries, this was not always a benevolent or an inclusive process. For example, many first-wave feminists in North America, including the Famous Five, believed that only white women deserved the right to vote or be elected. This was one of several different methods they used to preserve their racial privilege in the face of a growing immigrant population. (See also Immigration to Canada.) Some campaigned against allowing Indigenous, Black, or women of colour the right to vote at all. (See also Prejudice and Discrimination.) The history of first-wave feminism cannot be separated from the history of eugenics, nationalism and racism.

Second Wave

The second feminist wave was mainly active from the 1960s to the 1980s, and is sometimes also called the “Women’s Movement.” Feminists in this time period, like Canadians Thérèse Casgrain and Doris Anderson, generally concentrated on subjects like equal pay for equal work, access to birth control and abortion, and ending gender discrimination. The movement’s most well-known slogan was “The Personal is Political,” meaning that all people’s social and political lives are intertwined and cannot be separated. Betty Friedan’s book, The Feminine Mystique, is seen as one of the key publications of this wave and marked the start of second wave feminism in North America. This book exposed the unhappiness and lack of fulfillment that many women homemakers felt in the 1950s because of restrictive gender roles. (See also History of Gender Roles in Canada.)

Some individuals have critiqued second-wave feminism because, particularly in North America, the movement was not inclusive. Instead, the movement was dominated by white middle-class women who argued that all women are united as “sisters.” This erased the diverse kinds of oppression that many individuals faced. As a result, many working-class women; Indigenous, Black, and women of colour; queer, trans, gender non-conforming, and non-binary folks (see also Queer Culture), and women with disabilities formed their own feminist organizations. They did so both to fight for their rights and to create solidarity in their own communities, which were excluded by mainstream feminism. Many feminists outside of North America and Europe, including Indigenous feminists in Canada like Lee Maracle (Stó:lō), also critiqued second-wave feminism for its emphasis on the idea that women and men must necessarily be equal, arguing instead that it was important to recognize that women and men contributed to society equally, but in different ways. (See Indigenous Feminisms in Canada; Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights in Canada.)

Third Wave

The nineties are often seen as the dividing line between second- and third-wave feminism. The origins of third-wave feminism are often connected to the “Riot Grrrl” feminist punk subculture in the United States. The subculture emerged in response to criticisms of second-wave feminism around the exclusion of racialized and marginalized individuals. Third-wave feminists worked deliberately to be inclusive. Major third-wave organizations, like Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF), concentrated on subjects like sexual liberation, reclaiming derogatory words, and violence against women.

One of the key thinkers in this wave was Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term “intersectionality” to describe the ways in which different aspects of identity and oppression intersect and interact. Another important thinker in third-wave feminism was Judith Butler, who introduced the idea of gender performativity, or the idea that all gender is a performance. The introduction of these two concepts also corresponded with the third wave’s emphasis on fighting for justice on behalf of all people who experience gender discrimination. This includes cis-women as well as trans, non-binary, Two-Spirit, and gender-diverse. However, while many individuals believe that third-wave feminism was more inclusive than earlier feminist waves, the movement was still focused mostly on the experiences of white cis-women, especially in North America. It has also been criticized for its lack of a central message.

Fourth Wave

The fourth feminist wave began in the period between 2008 and 2012, and is connected to the rise of the internet. Building on the third wave’s emphasis on intersectionality, the fourth wave is even more deliberately inclusive. It has generally focused on justice for survivors (particularly around sexual harassment, assault, and rape culture), education on issues like pronoun usages, and the importance of personal narratives. Internet access, especially social media, has made it easier than ever for feminists to connect and organize politically. One of the key realizations of fourth-wave feminism has been the #MeToo movement, which originated with Tarana Burke in 2006. The #MeToo movement has empowered gender and sexual violence survivors to come forward with their stories and make public allegations against the powerful or prominent (often male) perpetrators.

Some have critiqued the fourth wave particularly around the exclusion of sex workers as well as the continuing exclusion and marginalization on the basis of class, race and ethnicity, Indigeneity, gender diversity, and disability. Some have critiqued the movement for so-called “cancel” or “call-out culture,” where individuals are often condemned online, as well as for “hashtag activism,” or activism for show, without any real change.


Today, there are many different feminist theories, perspectives, schools of thought, and organizations fighting for gender equality for all people. No matter the form, feminism’s impact on history is enormous, and feminism continues to be a vibrant force today.