I think we may be counting feminism wrong. I understand the idea and the need for third-wave feminism, in recognition of the fact that second-wave feminism (Steinem, Friedan, Abzug, 1960s-1970s movement) focused too much on the issues of white middle and upper-class women and not enough on those of the majority of women in the world.
It’s the other end of the time-scale I’m concerned with. We tend to refer to 19th century feminists together and call them the first wave – Lucy Stone, the Grimke sisters, Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton. On the latter end, that misses the Pankhursts, Carrie Chapman Catt, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and others fighting for and winning suffrage and the right to work. On the other end are the ones from the Age of Reason – who fought for the acknowledgement of women as reasoning beings. We hardly ever even count them in the lists of important feminists: Mary Wollstonecraft. Marie Gouze. Mercy Otis Warren. Catherine Macaulay. Margaret Fuller. Maybe we should even include the ones who proved the power of women’s brains through story, like Jane Austen and Fanny Burney.
You could group them like this (an American view, I acknowledge, but the dates are totally arbitrary and very negotiable):
1770 – 1820: First Wave, the fight to accept women as reasoning beings
1820 – 1880: Second Wave, the fight to abolish the concept of people as property. (Abolition and women’s rights were entwined at this point, though both sides kept disappointing each other.)
1880-1921: Third Wave, the fight for the vote (This is a particularly egregious US-centric date. Women in Switzerland got the right to vote in 1971!)
1920S-1970s: Fourth Wave: the fight for choice to work or stay home
1980s-present: Fifth Wave: the fight for recognition of all women as human beings worthy of respect and opportunity.
But by the time you get to so many subdivisions with so many debatable dates,the whole exercise gets a bit silly. I think the ideal might be to forget the whole wave concept, and accept the whole thing as a continuum, the long fight for the idea that women are human beings and all women matter. There have been triumphs and setbacks during that period, but none of them are really an end or a beginning – at most, a time to dress your wounds and rest a minute before charging back in.