Georgetown Law
Georgetown Law Library

A Brief History of Civil Rights in the United States

This guide offers a history of various movements by citizens in the United States to gain political and social freedom and equality. It highlights resources available through the library and also offers a list of current civil rights organizations.

Feminism and Intersectionality

The issues that divided early suffragettes still plague women today. For all the forward progress that has been made, women's rights activists have also taken steps backwards. Feminism, as a movement, has not done a good job at being inclusive of minorities. Women of color have been left on the peripheries while feminism has largely catered solely to white viewpoints.

Feminism is spoken of in waves - first wave feminism encompasses the suffragettes of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century - the women who fought for the right to vote. Second wave feminism generally encapsulates the period from the 1960s to the 1990s. This period runs concurrent with anti-war and civil rights movements and the dominant issues for feminists in this time period revolved around sexuality and reproductive rights. Third wave feminism is generally seen as starting in the mid-1990s and is sometimes referred to as girlie-feminism or "grrrl" feminism. Its adherents often confounded followers of second wave feminism because many third wavers rejected the notion that lip-stick, high-heels, and cleavage proudly exposed by low cut necklines identified with male oppression. This was in keeping with the third wave's celebration of ambiguity and refusal to think in terms of "us versus them." Most third-wavers refused to identify as "feminists" and rejected the word because they found it limiting and exclusionary.

The fourth wave of feminism is still crystallizing. Feminism is now back in the realm of public discourse. Issues that were central to the earliest phases of the women’s movement are receiving national and international attention by mainstream press and politicians:  problems like sexual abuse, rape, violence against women, unequal pay, slut-shaming, the pressure to conform to an unrealistic body-type, and the fact that gains in female representation in politics and business are minimal. At the same time, reproductive rights that had been won by second wavers are now under attack. It is no longer considered “extreme" to talk about societal abuse of women, rape on college campus, unfair pay and work conditions, discrimination against LGBTQ friends and colleagues, and the fact that the US has one of the worst records for legally-mandated parental leave and maternity benefits in the world.

With the rise of fourth wave feminism, the concepts of privilege and intersectionality have gained widespread traction amongst younger feminists. Intersectionality is a term that was first introduced in 1989 by critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw. It is a framework that must be applied to all situations women face, a framework that recognizes all the aspects of identity that enrich women's lives and experiences and that compound and complicate the various oppressions and marginalizations women face. It means that women cannot separate out numerous injustices because women experience them intersectionally.

Intersectionality helps us to understand that while all women are subject to the wage gap, some women are affected even more harshly due to their race. Another instance where intersectionality applies is cases of LGBTQ murders - people of color and transgendered people are more likely to be victims than cisgender people. These are just two examples of why intersectionality matters. To truly bring about change that is meaningful for all, everyone's voice needs to be at the table.

Library Resources:

Additional Resources:

Feminists Around the World