What is Third Wave Feminism?

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Judith Butler. Image: Verso, Judith Butler, 2015, Judith Butler on Gender and the Trans-Experience

Third wave feminism emerged between 1990 and 2010. Feminists of the the 1980s begun noticing a powerful backlash against feminism itself, notably from a growing number of opponents and anti-feminists. Opponents argued that women had gained equal opportunities in education and employment, and that feminists were beginning to emasculate men. There were also debates and discussions relating to a “post-feminist” era in which women no longer needed to strive for equality.

The Rise of Third Wave Feminism

However, many American feminists did not agree with this, and they argued that equality for women had not been achieved and that women still faced many issues. These feminists recognized the achievements of the second wave but wished build upon them. They also believed that feminism needed to adapt to new and changing circumstances, some which involved conservatism. The US president Ronald Regan openly opposed equality for gay and lesbian people while Christian conservatism, prompted by the televangelist and pastor Jerry Falwell, gained traction. Evangelical Christians mobilized a “family values” coalition which actively opposed feminism, reproductive choice, and LGBT rights.

Controversy surrounding the appointment of Judge Clarence Thomas further prompted the third wave feminism. This was largely the effort of Rebecca Walker who responded to Thomas’s appointment to the US Supreme Court over what she considered blatant misogyny after the attorney Anita Hill had accused him of sexual harassment — claims that Thomas denied. As such, Walker declared her support for a new kind of feminism. In a 1991 article she penned for Ms. Magazine called Becoming the Third Wave, she declared that “the fight is far from over.” Walker’s article brought into being a new era for feminism which challenged sexism, racism, and classicism which still existed within society.

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Rebecca Walker. Image: rebeccawalker.com

A further force underpinning the rise of a third wave was the Riot Grrrl movement of the early 1990s. Riot Grrrl gained the reputation for combining feminist consciousness with punk music, and especially for projecting a powerful image. Its members dressed as they pleased, and they reclaimed words such “girl,” “slut,” and “bitch.” The movement also explored serious issues such as rape, domestic abuse, sexuality, and patriarchy through music and zines (handmade magazines). They also challenged the likes of gender constructions, constructions of femininity, and restrictive gender roles.

Debates and Major Theorists

During the rise of third wave feminism there were intense debates and discussions between members of the third and second waves. A major debate concerned how women were to present themselves. For example, the feminist Ariel Levy coined the term “raunch culture” and penned the 2005 book with the provocative title Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. Female chauvinist pig is a reference to those women who sexually objectify other women as well as themselves, and thus act like their male chauvinist counterparts. Levy is critical of the overtly sexual behaviour of some of the younger feminists and women, many of whom were protesting against the prudishness of second wave feminism. According to Levy, raunch culture did not pave a path to liberation for women but rather to their oppression. However, the alleged prudishness that some third wave feminists saw in the second wave feminist ranks was argued to affirm misogynist culture and therefore still reinforce women’s subordination. Some feminists were beginning to develop more sex-positive views, and they argued that women had the right to sexual freedom and pleasure. A movement sprung into existence that supported and celebrated feminist-created pornography

Another prominent proponent of the third wave is the writer Naomi Wolf. She penned an influential text The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women (1990) in which she argues that women are being harmed by images of idealized beauty in several important areas of life (such as work, religion, violence, sex, and hunger), and in particular those images being created and used by marketing and modeling agencies. She explains that women are forced to try and attain these idealized standards (due to commercial forces imposed by men), and explores how certain cultural forces are making women feel negative about themselves, especially their physical appearances as suggested by the burgeoning cosmetic surgery industry and the rise in eating disorders.

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Naomi Wolf. Image: Wikimedia Commons

There were also debates and conflicting theories on ideas about sex, gender, and identity. Influential is Judith Butler and her 1990 book Gender Trouble. Butler argues that gender is a performative act, and that it is continually acted out according to cultural expectations. This creates the illusion of stable gender identities, but gender, she argues, is fluid (as opposed to binary), and is therefore both socially and cultural constructed. Issues relating to biosexuality were gaining prominence because biosexuals were increasingly alleging that they were being treated with hostility by heterosexual men and women.

The black feminist, professor, and American civil rights activist Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw introduced the term “intersectionality” in a 1989 when she discussed the intersection of race, gender, and class from a black feminist perspective. She coined the term as a way to capture how power systems interlocked together to oppress the most marginalized people in society, including LGBT people.

Feminism Taking on New Issues of Women Abuse

While feminists and women were debating issues of gender, many still campaigned against the oppression of women, and in particular issues that had been sidelined or covered up. Attention was being drawn to black women and women of colour, especially on issues relating to healthcare provision for poor women. Elsewhere in the world, Efua Dorkenoo (1949-2014), a Ghanaian-British activist, was spearheading the global movement to end female genital mutilation. For several decades she campaigned against female genital cutting that was being carried out on young women in Africa. She realized that this issue was often ignored by governments across the world, and it is a credit to her many years of passionate work that the United Nations declared female genital mutilation to be a form of violence against women.

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Efua Dorkenoo. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Iraqi-born Zainab Salbi, a woman whose family had close links to Iraq’s then vice-president Saddam Hussein, has attempted to expose the existence of “rape camps” established by the Serbian regime in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the Bosnian war. Muslim women and girls were raped by troops in the early days of the Bosnian conflict, and many were raped for months. Salbi feels strongly for the victims for she has seen war first-hand and has even been raped herself (by her husband). She set up Women for Women International to help those affected by war, and penned the book If You Knew Me You Would Care (2012) which contains portraits and interviews with female survivors of war. Some of the interviewees include a Congolese woman speaks of being repeatedly gang-raped, and an Afghan woman of being married to a warlord as a teenager.

References and Recommended Reading

Khaleeli, H. 2013. Zainab Salbi: Escape from tyranny. Available.

McCann, H. et al. 2019. The Feminism Book. p. 250-289.

Rebecca, W. Rebecca Walker Full Biography. Available.

Topping, A. 2014. Efua Dorkenoo OBE, the ‘incredible African female warrior’, has died. Available.

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