August Macke, "Three Women at the Table by the Lamp" (1912)

Three waves of modernity—and feminism

August Macke, "Three Women at the Table by the Lamp" (1912)
August Macke, “Three Women at the Table by the Lamp” (1912)

The problem feminists seem to face today (I speak, like St. Paul, “as a man”) is a difficulty in reconciling nature with nurture. It cannot be glibly maintained that the modern woman is “as free” as a modern man. Though discrimination of every kind be stamped out, women still possess a capacity which men do not—the ability to carry and bear children. Nature has assigned them this role. History, and maybe nature too, has also assigned women the role of nurturer and primary caretaker for the children produced, who nature in its wisdom has made helpless at birth and dependent for a long time afterwards. This cannot be said to have no significant impact upon women’s ability to participate fully in the public sphere. The gestation and bearing of children—let alone their rearing—requires too much time and energy. And women find that at best they can expect to be patronized and compensated, by a society in which they are (in every other way) supposedly equal to men.

I believe this uncomfortable position of the modern woman can be well explained by analogy to what Leo Strauss called the “crisis of modernity.” This crisis stems from the historical development of stages in modern thought which Strauss described in his 1956 essay “The Three Waves of Modernity.” The development of feminist thought is also often described in three ideological “waves,” and between these two sets of waves there is a surprising similarity.


In this section I rely on Martha Rampton’s essay “The Three Waves of Feminism.” She provides a good historical outline of the feminist movement or movements, stressing, as is proper, the democratic and varied character of its development and changes over time. As she observes, “There have always been feminisms in the movement, not just one ideology, and there have always been tensions, points and counter-points.” Her summary is limited, as is this essay, mainly to feminism in the United States.

Rampton (and other theorists) tend to divide the development of feminism as a movement into three dialectical waves. The “first wave” evolved gradually in the 1800s out of the abolition and temperance movements and reached its height in the early 20th century, as it achieved its primary goal of equal political rights for women. Its philosophy may be described as one in which women hold a differentiated but equal and in many ways superior position in society to men; which to be fully realized must find expression in political life. Rampton writes, “Some claimed that women were morally superior to men, and so their presence in the civic sphere would improve public behavior and the political process.” Fresh from success in the abolition of slavery and with the temperance movement gathering steam, first-wave feminists envisioned a more humane and virtuous society to be achieved once women gained the franchise.

Two world wars and an economic depression put overt social change on hold for some decades. However, in the 1960s the “second wave” of feminism arose: this time not narrowly concerned with political suffrage, now an unquestioned reality of American political life, but addressing more deeply the question of women’s equality with men, as concerns social, economic, political, and sexual life. Whereas first-wave feminism had been content to exist within an industrial capitalist economy, Protestant morality, and middle-class social ethics, second-wave feminists questioned and often rejected these frameworks. Rampton writes, “The second wave was increasingly theoretical, based on a fusion of neo-Marxism and psycho-analytical theory, and began to associate the subjugation of women with broader critiques of patriarchy, capitalism, normative heterosexuality, and the woman’s role as wife and mother.” However different its context, second-wave feminism continued to maintain that in being in some way different from men, women were uniquely qualified to exercise a valuable influence upon society. “Women,” Rampton observes, “due whether to their long ‘subjugation’ or to their biology, were thought by some to be more humane, collaborative, inclusive, peaceful, nurturing, democratic, and holistic in their approach to problem solving than men.”

The third wave of feminism is postmodern rather than modern, and turns back upon the second and first waves in significant ways. While the first two waves stressed the equality of women to men, first in political suffrage, then in economic and social priorities, more prominent in the third wave is the rejection of all kinds of “normative” distinctions. “In this phase many constructs have been destabilized, including the notions of ‘universal womanhood,’ body, gender, sexuality and hetreronormativity. . . . Its transversal politics means that differences such as those of ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, etc. and are celebrated but recognized as dynamic, situational, and provisional. Reality is conceived not so much in terms of fixed structures and power relations, but in terms of performance within contingencies. Third wave feminism breaks boundaries.”

Although in their particular concerns and cultural aims these three “waves” undeniably meet one another as dialectical opposites, there seems to be a universal nexus beneath the diversity of their programs. It is the preoccupation of feminists, and possibly modern women in general, to question the boundaries that restrict and direct them in particular modes and habits of living. These might be political boundaries, as in the denial of voting rights; social boundaries, such as unequal pay for working women, inflexible working conditions that do not allow women to express simultaneous vocations of parent and provider, and double standards of sexual expression; or even physical boundaries, the limits or contingencies imposed upon women’s sexual and reproductive liberty by their own bodies.

Feminism is generally understood to have arisen within the context of the modern age. Although earlier proto-feminists exist, and even liberal ones such as Mary Wollstonecraft, theirs tend to be solitary voices not constituting any kind of democratic movement, or even a clear philosophical tradition. Thus the question arises: How may we characterize modernity and its relation to feminism?


The “first wave” of modernity, according to Strauss, begins with the Italian Renaissance political philosopher, Niccolo Machiavelli. Machiavelli, Strauss writes, is the first “realist” of political theory. Rather than expressing how things ought to be, he sees them as they are. However, “his realism is of a peculiar kind” in which “fortuna is a woman who can be controlled by the use of force.” Machiavelli reacts against classical philosophers who held that human actions were subject to the whims of the goddess Fortuna (Fate), or Christian theologians who likewise observed human action subject not to futility but to the inscrutable decree of Divine providence. Machiavelli believed that even the limitations of human nature and fate could be overcome by decisive action. This is the passage itself, from The Prince:

I conclude, then, inasmuch as Fortune is changeable, that men who persist obstinately in their own ways will be successful only so long as those ways coincide with those of Fortune; and whenever these differ, they fail. But, on the whole, I judge impetuosity to be better than caution; for Fortune is a woman, and if you wish to master her, you must strike and beat her, and you will see that she allows herself to be more easily vanquished by the rash and the violent than by those who proceed more slowly and coldly. And therefore, as a woman, she ever favors youth more than age, for youth is less cautious and more energetic, and commands Fortune with greater audacity. (Machiavelli, The Prince, ch. xxv, Detmold trans.)

“The political problem becomes a technical problem,” Strauss writes. Difficult, but surmountable. With this novel technical view of politics arose a likewise political view of science as technics:

The purpose of science is reinterpreted: propter potentiam, for the relief of man’s estate, for the conquest of nature, for the maximum control, the systematic control of the natural conditions of human life. Conquest of nature implies that nature is the enemy, a chaos to be reduced to order; everything good is due to man’s labor rather than to nature’s gift: nature supplies only the almost worthless materials. (Strauss, p. 88)

Strauss’s “first wave” of modernity, encompassing the political philosophers Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke, ends up affirming an idea “that universal affluence and peace is the necessary and sufficient condition of perfect justice.” This is accomplished through political and scientific innovations toward the relief of man’s estate, and is a founding concept for modern liberal economics and government.

The “second wave” of modernity is, like second-wave feminism, a dialectical return upon the first wave. The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau condemned the modern liberalism of his day “in the name of virtue, of the genuine, nonutilitarian virtue of the classical republics against the degrading and enervating doctrines of his predecessors,” i.e., the early modern “first-wave” philosophers (Strauss, p. 89). However, rather than rejecting the origin myth propounded by Locke and Hobbes of a chaotic “state of nature” from which mankind rises through a social contract, Rousseau reinterpreted it—thus reinforcing the modern idea of nature as something that forsaken or overcome by the rise of civil society. Rousseau, and Kant and Hegel who followed him, saw the rise of civilization as man’s evolution into rationality, the condition in which he could make universal judgments and establish a just society. But the source of legitimacy for the just society had altogether changed. While pre-modern philosophers, pagan and Christian, appealed to eternal forms of law (natural or divine), and first-wave philosophers used them to demonstrate how their liberal philosophies were indeed humane, Rousseau’s philosophy refused even to acknowledge the influence of primordial wisdom. Nature became utterly separate from politics.

Yet Rosseau maintained a great respect for the natural goodness, as opposed to political virtue, of mankind. By separating civil virtue from true, natural virtue he sought to preserve at least the idea of the state of nature, not, as in Hobbes’s and Locke’s view, a chaotic and dismal realm, but an ideal to which man longs to return–but chooses to give up in favor of society. According to Rosseau’s philosophy, Strauss writes, “There is an unbridgeable gulf between the world of virtue, reason, moral freedom, history on the one hand and nature, natural freedom, and goodness on the other” (Strauss 93).

Friedrich Nietzsche is the animating philosopher of the “third wave” of modernity, which again turns dialectically back upon the first and second waves. Strauss writes: “Post-Hegelian thought rejected the notion that there can be an end or peak of history, i.e., it understood the historical process as unfinished and unfinishable, and yet it maintained the now baseless belief in the rationality or progressive character of the historical process. Nietzsche was the first to face this situation.” Nietzsche concluded that all ideals and systems, whether they appealed to natural law, the general will, or some other source, proceeded from the exercise of man’s vital strength, the “will to power.”

Each wave of modernity, Nietzsche reveals, swelled on the idea that “man will be for the first time master of his fate.” Nietzche was the first to recognize that this fate would not be liberal nor democratic. Strauss observes, “Surely the nature of man is will to power and this means on the primary level the will to overpower others: man does not by nature will equality. Man derives enjoyment from overpowering others as well as himself.” Thus, Strauss concludes, “this undeniable fact does not permit us to return to the earlier forms of modern thought: the critque of modern rationalism or of the modern belief in reason by Nietzsche cannot be dismissed or forgotten.”

This is why the efforts of American conservatives to return America to its early modern constitutional values fail: we cannot undiscover Nietzsche’s critique. This, however, is precisely what many modern feminists attempt to do.


It should be relatively apparent by this point that there are parallels dbetween the three waves of feminism and the three waves of modernity, and that there is a rough correspondence between them. To make this coincidence explicit, we shall examine each wave in the context of the other. The two “first waves” share in common a concern with political life; a repugnance at the rule of fate and an accompanying urge to seize political power for the sake of improving the human condition. Feminists sought political power, it must be noted, not only to better the estates of women and children, but also, as they saw it, to benefit all of mankind by instigating a more moral and humane politics. Thus the two “first waves” are deeply altruistic in their intentions, if not uniformly in their results.

The two “second waves” deepen the insight. Second-wave feminism separates women from “nature,” the demands of biology and history (or tradition), instead immersing women fully in civil life by granting them equal rights as regards employment, wages, and personal freedom. Second-wave feminism, in short, seeks to liberate women from the ways female gender keeps them from competing with men as equals in the modern economy. However, it maintains the separateness and goodness of female gender identity. This corresponds to Rosseau’s radical separation of nature from society—while he yet maintained that humankind yearned toward a “natural” state that was outside of and in many ways antithetical to society.

Third-wave feminism democratizes the Nietzschean reaction. For third-wave feminists, nature and sexuality, though helpful as starting points, are ultimately more “constructs” to be dismantled and reassembled at the whim of the individual, who has been enabled more and more to fashion the structure of hir life and even to alter and re-fashion the biological accidents of the body—for the third-wave feminist applies Nietzsche’s theory of power to the body just as to external constraints. It seems that for the third-wave feminist, everything will end up being abolished and persons will exist (insofar as they are able to exercise the power) in a condition fully controlled by themselves. This is not to speak, though, of a utopian condition of peace. For the postmodern feminist there is always oppression to overthrow, just as for the postmodern Nietzschean there are always people to dominate.


Like Strauss*, feminist political theorist Susan Okin assiduously engages with the ancients, especially Plato and Aristotle, as well as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Stuart Mill (Strauss does not give Mill the time of day). Okin sees inherent in both ancient and modern political theorists a contradiction between the liberty of the citizen and the role assigned to women in the private sphere. In Women in Western Political Thought her critique centers around the inferior treatment of women in the seminal works of Western political theory. This deserves attention for the inconsistency she observes between the project of the liberation of mankind, on the one hand, and the continued subjugation of women on the other.

*Okin dislikes Strauss and his disciple Allan Bloom. In Justice, Gender, and the Family, she accuses them of concealing a project to dismantle modernity within a purported attempt to sustain certain classical elements, including traditional gender roles, within the modern world. She may be correct.

Rousseau and other modern philosophers, Okin contends, “exclude [woman] from equal participation and status in the world of economic and public life” (Okin, p. 281). Ultimately, she does not believe any political philosophy has adequately addressed the issue of female participation:

It should by now be clear that it is by no means a simple matter to integrate the female half of the human race into a tradition of political theory which has been based, almost without exception, upon the belief that women must be defined by their role within the family, and which has thus defined them, and intrafamilial relationships, as outside the scope of the political. (Okin, p. 286)

Okin attempts to determine why, even in spite of political enfranchisement, women remain disadvantaged in the economic and political world. She points to the continued existence of the public-private distinction as a probable cause.

As a number of feminists have pointed out, conventional notions of the family and its sex roles have facilitated the distinct separation of the public and private spheres, and of productive labor into two types. On the one hand, there is that recognized as productive labor, which is performed in work places outside of the home by both men and women and is paid . . . On the other hand, there is that, though in fact productive labor but not recognized as such, which is still performed largely by women within the home, and is unpaid–the labor involved in the reproduction, nurturance, health and welfare of the work force. There is no denying that what housewives and mothers do is work, nor that it is necessary. However, it is frequently not regarded as work: “working mothers” are mothers who work outside their homes, only. The bearing and rearing of children, particularly in this age of population consciousness, are all too frequently perceived as a luxury and indulgence of private life, rather than as a process of overwhelming social importance. (Okin, p. 292)

This critique, which necessarily involves the nature of the wage-based economy, can probably be traced back to Marx in some form or another, is undeniably just. For instance, evangelical author Nancy Pearcey makes a similar argument in Total Truth, and many other conservatives have adopted Marx’s critique of capitalism without adopting Marxism, which universalizes rather than abolishes the problem.

Okin is clearly deeply uncomfortable with calls for the “abolition of the family” and shies away from Shulamith Firestone’s suggestion that natural human reproduction itself should be technologically replaced. Okin draws a distinction between those elements of women’s biology which are “natural” and those that are socially assigned. She calls for “the merging, to a considerable extent, of what have up till now been regarded as the private and unproductive functions of family life, and the public, productive work of the market economy” (Okin, p. 302):

On the one hand, much of the work of the private household, and especially the most time-consuming part of it, child-care, can be done outside of the home. Good, accessible and subsidized day care facilities, staffed by both sexes, will be a partial solution. In addition, however, the structure and conditions of work outside the home will have to relinquish the inflexibility they have been able to develop on the assumption that women take responsibility for home and family. (Okin, p. 302)

Yet Okin does not seem to believe that the family itself is a social construct, or that the subcontracting of various family tasks, including the actual care for and raising of children, necessarily subtracts from the essential nature of the family—nor even that the abolition of traditional gender roles should abolish the family: She writes, “We have reached a point in technological and economic development at which it should be possible to do away with sex roles entirely, except for the isolated case of woman’s freely chosen exercise of her procreative capacity.” (Okin 303) In altering beyond recognition the actual experience of gender and family she yet maintains that men and women are, behind the biological and social accumulations of culture, different, and continues to view the family as an institution which deserves to be not abandoned but restructured upon egalitarian lines.

Okin attempts to retain individual liberty as her primary value, dismissing theories of multicultural tolerance that would lead to subcultures in which women are repressed existing side-by-side with liberal culture. Individual rights trump group rights, and so Okin believes that traditional cultures who sue by way of multiculturalism for tolerance of their “way of life” should be regarded with suspicion by liberal society. Curiously, she calls for “negotiations about group rights” in which all, including “women—and, more specifically, young women, since older women often become co-opted into reinforcing gender inequality” are granted a voice. This suggestion resembles the myth of the social contract; but I wonder whether Okin would prefer these negotiations happen in the real world or remain in the realm of theory. It is striking that she seems willing to grant preference to young women on the consideration that old women are likely to agree with traditional forms. (Okin, “Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?”)


For Susan Okin, technology is an essential part of women’s liberation, as we have seen. There is a question of “which came first” regarding modern gender equality and the technology which permits a relative simulacrum of the egalitarian ideal by controlling (surpressing) women’s reproductive abilities as bestowed by nature. Did the philosophy of gender equality first arise, or did the technology which allowed radical gender equality have to exist before the second or third wave of feminism could happen?

The first wave of feminism, as mentioned before, is political. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and many others demanded equal political suffrage for women, not as identical equals of men, but as equal counterparts possessing qualities in which men were deficient. The Victorian proto-feminists widened the natural distance between men and women in some important ways. Whereas it was accepted that the female biological and psychological constitution best suited women for a procreative, nurturing, and homekeeping role, feminists expanded the reach of this idea from biology and psychology to the social and political sphere. Women, they said, were not only rearers of young, but keepers of the sacred flame of family life and nurturers of national culture against lazy, dissolute men. They argued for suffrage on these grounds, so that women could exercise a positive purifying influence upon the political process.

Since first-wave feminism argued for political equality based on an idea of women’s biological and psychological affinity for nurturing and reproducing, there did not at once arise a need for technological means of arresting their reproductive capacity. Nevertheless, the Progressive movement in politics, which came about in large part due to female suffrage, helped to force the issue. In their attempt to promote middle-class White Anglo-Saxon Protestant values, Progressives and feminists were not afraid to posit requirements of social and moral fitness for reproduction. Progressive Protestant eugenists and and public-school proponents were concerned by the rise in lower-class Catholic immigrant populations, and especially “Negroes,” who were considered a lower order of humankind altogether. Public opinion of the day favored sterilization and other measures for “degenerates,” those who did not meet the moral and genetic standards of the White Protestant élite.

Thus, first-wave feminism may have been indirectly responsible for the rise and prevalence of counter-reproductive policy and technology, but these did not grow up together, nor was first-wave feminism enabled by reproductive technology. It belongs analogically to the pre-industrial “first wave of modernity,” in which mankind’s triumph over nature is limited to the ethical sphere.

This cannot be said of second-wave feminists such as Okin, who rely explicitly upon technological control of female biology to equalize women and men in the economy; nor of third-wave feminism, which uses technology to in some cases obfuscate gender altogether, and would be entirely unthinkable outside of a technological society.


Modernity is misogynistic. From its beginning in Machiavelli, who described Fortuna as a woman to be subjugated; to Rousseau, who found no place for women in the public sphere; to its ultimate crisis in Machiavelli, who offers a vision of post-modernity inhospitable to women, children, or the weak; modernity is, at best, ambivalent about the value and status of women in society. Once third-wave feminism denies the absolutes of masculine and feminine, feminism fails to possess even itself or express a reasonable concern for the status and treatment of women in society. And as Strauss darkly observes, “the critique of modern rationalism or of the modern belief in reason [or equality or liberty] by Nietzsche cannot be dismissed or forgotten” (Strauss, p. 98). Strauss believes that liberal democracy, in order to survive, must continue to draw its strength from “the premodern thought of our western tradition.” In the same way, I suggest that those concerned with the welfare of women, children, and all humankind consider the premodern Christian tradition as a source of sustaining wisdom.

I wish to mediate briefly upon the dignity of Christian theology as regards the two central women in Christianity: Eve and Mary. Eve’s weakness to temptation, along with the weakness of her husband Adam, plunged the world into the futility of sin. But Christianity blames Adam, not Eve, for the fall, while God promises Eve that through her offspring God will undo the works of the devil. Mary, the mother of Jesus, makes up the virtues Eve lacks. Where Eve was foolish, Mary is wise, and where Eve rebelled, Mary submits to God’s will—even in the face of disapproval from her husband. In Mary, the promise to Eve is fulfilled with the gift of the incarnate Son of God.

Douglas Farrow observes that Christianity itself “subverts” the natural, patriarchal family by inverting its natural hierarchy in the Holy Family. While the patriarchial family is ordered father-mother-child, the Holy Family is reversed: the Christ-child is over all, Mary is his blessed mother, and Joseph is the pious man who serves a larger purpose than the institutional family (Farrow, Nation of Bastards, p. 25, 32-33).

[T]hrough the Holy Family marriage itself has become what it never was before. It has become a sign of something eternally higher and better. It has become a witness to the possibility of human communion with God, the author of life; that is, to the mystery of the union of the church with Christ, the prince of life. (Farrow, p. 114-115)

With Christianity, the institution of the family became not only an institution of nature, as it was before, but a sacramental, though imperfect, image of redemption. All mothers are like the Mother of God; all fathers are, like Joseph, his humble servants; all children remind us of the new life in his Incarnation. Christ did not come to abolish gender or the family, but to liberate them.

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THOMAS HOLGRAVE is a conservative but not necessarily a hipster. He is the publisher of The Hipster Conservative. He has never read a comic book he liked. He is an occasional theologian who has been known to become quite exercised over questions of Puritan doctrine and practice. Not much else is known about him.

4 thoughts on “Three waves of modernity—and feminism”

  1. “Did the philosophy of gender equality first arise, or did the technology which allowed radical gender equality have to exist before the second or third wave of feminism could happen?”

    Easy! The philosophy of gender equality came millenia before technology interfered. Long, long ago. 😛

  2. “…to its ultimate crisis in Machiavelli, who offers a vision of post-modernity inhospitable to women, children, or the weak; modernity is, at best, ambivalent about the value and status of women in society.”

    Nietszche, surely?

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