After the Women's Suffrage Movement (or the "first wave" of feminism), there was a decade of complacency. Women enjoyed their right to vote, but beyond that, saw no reason to push for more rights, nor did people in general feel the need to care about politics. It was a period known for its music, its fashion trends, and for its fun-loving attitude. Women began to show more skin, party more, and enjoy sex more than they ever had. Compare the 1920's to the 1980's, where women has just received a plethora of rights from the Women's Liberation Movement (or "second wave" of feminism), but suddenly began to see a greater focus on looking good (crazy fashion trends, big hair that required a lot of work and styling products), being thin (think of all the workout videos associated with the decade), and being sexual (think MTV).
Shortly after the 1920's came a period of depression and war. Eyes were on Washington again, as politics suddenly became more relevant to everyday people, but there was little focus on women's rights. Sure, women entered the workplace when family money was scarce, and when WWII required women to take the jobs the men left behind, and along with that surge in women's labor came adjustments to women's rights in the workplace. Similarly, in the last decade we've seen a greater interest in politics as the country went to war and plunged into a recession, but those concerns were so great that women's rights have hardly been a social or political priority. Women are going to work not because they necessarily want to, but because they need to in order to put food on the table.
The period between the first and second waves of feminism did see some feminist activity. Someone had to fight for women's labor rights in the 1930's and 1940's, and surely the American people had greater support for these reforms during that time period because there was a need for women's labor. The New Deal also included support for low income mothers. Feminism wasn't dead in that time period, but it was very subtle, a fringe movement that people paid little attention to. That's where we are now.
We're not in a "third wave" of feminism. The Third Wave hasn't come yet. We feminists are like surfers out in the water, trying to catch the occasional baby wave and occasionally getting a good ride in, but nothing major has come our way since the 1970's. We're in a lull, and almost a regressive period where, if anything, legislatures are drastically turning back the clock on women's reproductive rights; rape apologism and victim blaming are rampant with no end in sight, and people are so concerned with evil jezebels making false rape claims that even victims are beginning to doubt their own stories; and people still defend employers who pay their female employees less money for the same job, or who impose greater image standards on the women who work for them than the men who work for them. To many people, feminism is a dead movement. We got what we want, why don't we fight for something more important, right?
In order for Third Wave Feminism to become a reality, there needs to be a catalyst - an earthquake to churn the tsunami. The first two waves arose out of the struggle of African Americans - the suffrage movement arose out of the abolitionist movement; and the early women's liberation movement had close ties to the civil rights movement. Could the catalyst for Third Wave Feminism once again be connected with a racially charged movement? Could be, since we're no more post-racial than we are post-feminist. We don't see any feminist activity arising from an anti-war movement either, as it had during the Vietnam war. Abortion and gay marriage are hot button topics, but as much as they're closely tied with modern-day feminism, there are plenty of people who are pro-choice or pro-gay marriage without identifying as feminists, and there are even people who identify as both pro-life and feminist.
If we are in the early stages of Third Wave Feminism, we need momentum. And if the wave hasn't come yet, we need to figure out how to make it happen.