Understanding Third Wave Feminism: Everything You Should Know

Historical Context and Background: There were numerous ideological elements influencing the intern national order at the beginning of the mid-1990s. Dominant among them were post colonialism, post socialism, the rapid expansion of the information society, neoliberalism, and intensified global politics. In the midst of all this, the third wave of feminism emerged. It sought to connect the strands left by the previous waves by challenging the notion of universal womanhood. The Third wave had its roots in the progress made during the second wave of feminism, and they used this as a foundation to mobilize for women’s issues of their time. This wave was characterized by the coexistence of diverse opinions about women-centric issues. In simple words, we can say that third-wave feminism agreed to disagree by providing space for different view points. The third wave magnified the paradigms that emerged during second-wave feminism and brought them closer to experienced reality.

Read: Understanding First Wave Feminism: Everything You Should Know

The Second Wave of Feminism: A Comprehensive Overview

third wave of feminism

There were two events that are closely associated with emergence of third wave feminism. One such event was the testimony of Law Professor Anita Hill against Clarence Thomas, the Supreme Court nominee. She testified that Thomas, as her supervisor, had committed sexual misconduct and made inappropriate sexual remarks at the workplace. During the trial, she was mocked and ridiculed. At the end, despite her testimony, Clarence Thomas was appointed Supreme Court Justice. This event generated an outcry within feminist circles. The foremost among them was Rebecca Walker (the daughter of Alice Walker, who was a prominent second-wave feminist). She wrote an article in Ms. Magazine proclaiming the need for third-wave feminism as the battle for equality was far from over. The other event was the emergence of rock punk culture in the music industry. The pioneers of this were bands like Riot Grrls, Guerrilla Girls, Bikini Kill, etc., to name a few. They catered to the theme of “girl power”. Their lyrics reclaimed the derogatory words used for females like bitch, slut, etc. and used them in an empowering sense.

Key Issues of Third Wave Feminism

  • The sexuality dilemma: Third-wave feminists criticized the rigid stance of many second-wave feminists for looking at all forms of sexual expression by women as vulgar and dis-empowering. They introduced the concept of ‘consent’. They believed that a woman, as an autonomous individual, has the right to enjoy sex and express herself sexually in any way that she deems fit. They were against the policing of women’s sexuality.
  • Reproductive justice: The third wave extended the argument for reproductive rights and transformed it into an issue of justice. Loretta Ross used the term “reproductive justice” in 1994 for the first time. Proponents of this view contended that a female has to make a high level of investment of her physical, emotional, and mental labor into sustaining a fetus and then nurturing it. Thus, they felt that women’s voices should be given more importance in making decisions related to reproduction. Along with that, it is equally important that sex education and reproductive choice tools be made accessible to all women, irrespective of their race and socio-economic conditions.
  • LGBTQA+ Rights: During this wave, LGBTQA+ community activists actively organized protests at the Capitol, demanding equal rights and curbing the misinformation about them in society.
  • Bisexuality: Bisexuals also drew attention to the hostile treatment they were receiving from heterosexuals and lesbians.
  • Issues of marginalized women: In addition to the problems that the second wave brought to light, hitherto overlooked issues like insufficient healthcare for people who have economic and social disadvantages were also talked about.
  • Against problematic cultural practices: Cultural practices like Female Genital Mutilation (widely carried out in Muslim countries of Africa)were also campaigned against. State sponsored rape camps were also met with strong opposition.
  • Questioned ‘Sisterhood’ of second wave: With mainstream feminist thinkers not open to women belonging to LGBTQA+, third wave questioned the concept of ‘sisterhood’ proclaimed (by Robin Morgan) during second wave feminism.
  • Violence against Women in media: Earlier waves were focused on violence towards women in domestic sphere. Third wave went a step further and brought under its ambient violence experienced by women in public paces especially media. They criticized increasing levels of violent acts shown in media towards women (in news, Television and movies etc.).
  • Disability feminism: P. Macintosh concept of “white privilege” made people see other forms of privileges (rights and preferences) too. One such privilege was able-bodies privilege. Third wave recognised that views, experiences, problems and solutions for disabled women were starkly different from able-bodied women. Even among disabled women there are differences based on type of disability which affects their life in different manner too. Disability feminism emerged to give voice to these hitherto ignored groups.
  • Trans feminism: This strand of thought was introduced by Julia Serrano. They question the essence of what it means to be a ‘man’ and ‘woman’ to explain trans-people experiences. She advocates coalition of trans-activists and feminists. Their fight is against the structure of society that deny recognition to experience and existence of trans people thus ultimately denying them the share of life affirming resources.

Key Figures and Their Contributions

  • Rebecca Walker: She carried the legacy of her mother, Alice Walker, a prominent second-wave feminist, forward. Seeing the ridicule and mockery law professor Anita Hill was subjected to during her testimony against Thomas, the supreme court justice, she wrote the article titled “Becoming the Third Wave” in Ms. Magazine. She argued that gender equality as a dream is still not achieved and that feminism’s role is more important than ever.
  • Riot Grrrl and Guerrilla Girls: Through their activities, they both tried to bring attention to the under representation of women artists. They used their music, lyrics, clothing, posters, pamphlets, and zines’ (handmade magazines) to spread the idea of feminism and promote “girl power”. The reclamation of derogatory words like bitch, and slut, etc. as empowering to women was quite unique to these bands.
  • Ariel Levy: She criticized the overtly sexualised expression of women in contemporary American society. She points out that sexualising clothing and our own bodies to look attractive for others is not empowering in any way. This caters to the persistence of a stereotypical understanding of women that was curated and propagated by males. Earlier, only men sexualised women. But now even women have started to sexualize themselves and others. They want to be perceived as sexy and hot rather than valued based on their merits. She called this trend “Raunch Culture”. Feminists themselves have become chauvinists. Her sentiments are clearly reflected in her work “Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture”. High achieving women who are able to thrive and risein the male-dominated world are presented as exceptions to the general rule that ‘women are inferior to men.’ As long as successful and high-achieving women’s status remains an exception, we can’t presume that feminism has made any significant progress. She suggests women stay true to themselves by working on self-discovery and stop playing the game by complying with rules laid out by men.
  • Naomi Wolf: She put forward her ideas in “The Beauty Myth”. The image of perfect beauty is being marketed to women, which has detrimental effects on their physical, mental, and emotional well-being. She pointed out that girls are not taught to desire themselves but to please others (read the male idea of what beauty means). Cosmetic surgery, eating disorders, etc. are grave forms of violence that women subject themselves to. These standards portray women as one-dimensional beings whose identity is limited to how they look. She suggests cultivating a feeling of self-worth within women so they no longer have to measure up to other views of “beautiful”.
  • Judith Butler: She gave the concept of gender performativity, i.e., gender is in doing. Through this concept, she argued that gender is not ascriptive but rather achieved and actualized through the performance of ‘acts’. By ‘acts’, she meant through linguistic structures, discourses, and roles. Her thoughts were heavily inspired by post-structuralists Michael Foucault and Julia Kristeva. Verbal and Non-verbal communication are both modes of communication through which we communicate our gender. However, she said that an individual has choice in gender performance. She says that sex and gender are both constructed through language in society. So our understanding of sex is not absolute but predetermined by the discourse of space and time in which we live.
  • Efua Dorkenoo: She was a Ghanaian-British author and activist who was a pioneer of the global movement against the practice of Female Genital Mutilation. She is lovingly remembered as “Mama Efua”.
  • Nancy Chodrow: She was a Psychologist by profession and wrote about her views in “Reproducing Mothers”. In her book, she argued that mothers are not born but rather carefully reproduced by entrenched socio-psychological conditioning through generations. Girls are said to follow the model of their ‘mothers’ and find fulfillment in those social roles.
  • Adriana Cavarero: She was a pioneer in studying ancient philosophy through a feminist lens. She analyzed ‘Plato’ in her 1995 book titled “In Spite of Plato.” She called on modern and young feminists to not ignore ancient philosophers works on the basis of them being patriarchal. But critically analyze them through feminist theories and concepts to provide an alternate perspective on them.
  • Musawah: A Malaysia-based organization of 200+ Muslim activists was formed in 2009 and led by women. It was inspired by another Muslim movement called Sisters in Islam. Their aim is to interpret the Quran in light of human rights and the principles of equality, fraternity, and liberty.
  • Lila Abu-Lughod: She was an American Anthropologist who questioned the stance long held by western feminists that Islam and its practices are biased against women. She argued that gender equality in any society cannot be solely blamed on religion. She has explored this theme in her work, “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?”
  • Kimberlé Crenshaw: An African American feminist who introduced the idea of “intersectionality,” or inter sectional thinking. This analytical tool identified the ways in which class, race, and gender interact and create multiple oppression, particularly for the most marginalized women in society, such as indigenous women and women of color. She developed this concept through her exploration of black women’s experiences of domestic violence. Intersectionality provided a new theoretical dimension to feminist thought that focused on understanding the diverse social situations in which women find themselves. These situations and social contexts have a great impact on how women rationalize and use their agency in society. She advocates for focusing on the inter-linkages of various forms of oppression where they are affecting the agency of social actors simultaneously.

Achievements of Third Wave Feminism

  • The Family Medical Leave Act (USA).
  • The Violence Against Women Act (USA).
  • Third-wave feminists strongly advocated for women’s right to make their own choices about their bodies and lives. What made their argument more powerful was the way they linked the matter of choice to ‘basic rights.
  • They engaged with micro-politics on a deeper level than previous waves. They focused on the personalized narratives of women from all socio-economic situations. It brought much-needed diversity to the feminist movement.
  • The third wave also saw the emergence of new feminist concepts like intersectionality, sex positivity, vegetarian feminism, trans-feminism, postmodern feminism, body positivity, beauty myth, gender performativity, etc.
  • Post-structuralist understandings of gender and sexuality also emerged during these times, which brought the sex-gender debate out of biological and socialized differences into linguistic structures and discourse. Adherents of this thought considered both sex and gender to be socially constructed.

Limitations of Third Wave Feminism

  • There is found to be an absence of a single cause for third-wave feminism. Often, it is seen as an extension of second-wave feminist issues.
  • Too much focus on the personalized experiences of women prevented the movement from becoming more politicized.
  • Shira Tarrant, a feminist scholar, criticized the wave construct used for defining feminist activities throughout history. She also argued that these waves correspond closely to American feminist developments and fail to account for feminist activities happening around the world.
  • The rise of “girly” feminism, “lipstick” feminism, and “Raunch culture” was critiqued for presenting the subjective nature of empowerment. Scholars were unsure whether empowerment should be best measured as an “internal feeling of power and agency” or as an external “measure of power and control”.

READ: Four Waves of Feminism – Summary

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Aastha, an engineering graduate turned Sociology student, is a passionate practitioner of self-reflexivity and the Sociological Imagination. Delving deep into sociological theories, she finds joy in experiencing her own 'Eureka' moments when understanding them. Fascinated by Sociology's power to connect her to social reality and ignite her curiosity, Aastha embraces it as a source of inspiration for her writing. As she embarks on her journey as a writer, she eagerly looks forward to sharing her profound insights about Sociology and gaining valuable perspectives from other individuals.