Feminism’s Third Wave: New Tactics, Old Lineages

THE THIRD WAVE

“[w]hen has it ever been a good idea to trust a master narrative?” – Lisa Jervis

What we call third wave feminism (the wave we are theoretically still riding) began in the late 1990s (though some say inklings began as early as the 1980s) and is sometimes framed as: 1) a response to the shortcomings of second wave feminism; or 2) as a generational feminism (i.e., the daughters of second wavers now turned activists in their own right). There is some truth to both of these, but these are often overly simplistic and problematic ways to think of the third wave.

Let’s turn to the Third Wave Foundation and a quote from Rebecca Walker’s (the daughter of African American writer and feminist Alice Walker) foundational article in Ms. Magazine:

“So I write this as a plea to all women, especially women of my generation: Let Thomas’ confirmation* serve to remind you, as it did me, that the fight is far from over. Let this dismissal of a woman’s experience move you to anger. Turn that outrage into political power. Do not vote for them unless they work for us. Do not have sex with them, do not break bread with them, do not nurture them if they don’t prioritize our freedom to control our bodies and our lives. I am not a post-feminist feminist. I am the Third Wave.”

– Rebecca Walker

(*In 1991, Anita Hill, an African American attorney and professor, alleged that then-Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas, had sexually harassed her when he was her supervisor at the U.S. Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Despite these allegations, Thomas was appointed to the Supreme Court anyway. The “dismissal of a woman’s experience” that Walker here refers to is the dismissal of Anita Hill’s testimony. However, Hill’s public testimony focused national attention on issues of workplace sexual harassment for the first time.)

THIRD WAVE CHARACTERISTICS

Third wave has exploded how we think of feminism and its goals, how we collaborate and define ourselves as feminists – particularly as young feminists – how we approach activism, and how and where we publish, debate, and organize as feminists around the globe. While second wavers grew up with John F. Kennedy, the Civil Rights movement, and the Vietnam War, third wavers have grown up amidst almost constant armed conflict, the Internet, hip hop, and punk.

Third Wave Feminism:

  • Continues to challenge essentialism: the argument that by virtune of one’s biological sex, one also possesses certain inherent characteristics or tendencies often associated with that sex (e.g., weakness or kindness in women; aggression in men); and the assumption that there is a universal female identity around which we can (or need to) create solidarity.
  • Sees all binaries (black vs. white, male vs. female, good vs. bad) as artificial social constructs that limit possibility, not as just “the way things are.”
  • Has worked to reclaim negative terms (e.g., cunt or bitch) and change the context of such language rather than censoring it. For example, the feminist publication Bitch magazine.
  • Recognizes greater diversity through intersections of gender, race and ethnicity, sexuality, and class (thanks to the work of second wavers like bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Maxine Hong Kingston, Gloria Anzaldua, and others).
  • Is transnational, forging intellectual, artistic, and activist links with women around the globe.
  • Has given rise to Third World Feminisms and increasing dialogues among women about what feminism looks like around the globe (and how women around the globe can help one another).
  • Embraces sex positivity; that is, sees sexual identity and sexual expression as a positive aspect of one’s life; argues for a broader definition of sex and more complex analyses of the relationship between oppression and empowerment where sex is involved (e.g., in relationships, but also in pornography, sex work, etc.).
  • Has opened new fields of study and dialogue like queer theory* (the study of queer identities, which includes bisexual, transsexual and transgender, gay and lesbian identities); post-colonial theory (the study of colonized or previously colonized peoples and cultures, e.g., Native Americans or Filipinos or the Irish, etc., and intersections of imperialism and militarism with gender, race, and class oppression); and masculinity studies.
  • Embraces technology and uses blogs and other social media to dialogue, publish, and organize around the world.

*Note: “queer” is still a controversial term and not everyone in gay and lesbian communities embraces it.

THIRD WAVE ISSUES

Third wave feminism has sought to bring attention to and change an even broader range of issues than the second wave, who built the foundation on which these contemporary activists have expanded, which include tackling:

  • Gender-based violence (intimate partner abuse, rape, “femicide,” as well as violence against those in gay, lesbian, and transgender communities).
  • Reproductive rights: access to adequate healthcare, contraception, safe and legal abortion, and information about choices regarding sexual health, family planning, and sexual pleasure.
  • Negative images of women in pop culture and media, including in music, art, film, and advertising.
  • Increasingly unrealistic (and unhealthy) expectations regarding weight and beauty (e.g., issues like body image, cosmetic surgery, dieting, eating disorders, etc.).
  • The glass ceiling, maternity (and parental) leave policies, and childcare and support for single parents in the workplace and through public policy.
  • Both domestic and global labor practices, including the feminization of poverty, sweat shops, unionizing, and liveable wage.

NEW ACTIVIST TACTICS

Eve Ensler & The Vagina Monologues

In the 1990s, Eve Ensler interviewed countless women for what became The Vagina Monologues, a play still performed all over the world and linked with V-Day activism (V for Valentine’s Day, but also for vagina appreciation or celebration day, and for ending violence against women). Ensler originally performed the play solo off-broadway and it was an instant hit. The monologues chronicle individual women’s stories about everything from their first periods and pubic hair to war-time rape and lesbian sex work to giving birth.  Here is Eve Ensler performing one of the funnier monologues, “My Angry Vagina”:

The Radical Cheerleaders

Turning a traditionally feminine, sideline activity in pro-woman feminist activism. A Chicago group of the national phenomenon Radical Cheerleaders performs one of their pro-girl cheers. For more cheers, visit Radical Cheerleaders.

Women Artists Unite: The Guerilla Girls

The Guerilla Girls formed in response to an exhibition of global artists at the famed MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) in New York, a show which had only 13 women (and even fewer artists of color) out of 169 artists invited. The curator stated that any artist who had not been included in the show should rethink his [sic] career. Guerilla Girls challenge racism and sexism in the art world. All of the activists are anonymous, donning gorilla masks during their exhibitions and protests and assuming the names of famous female artists (like Frida Kahlo). Here is one of their posters, displayed on sandwich boards and carried around during one of their protests in Shanghai in China:

A Guerilla Girls poster challenging the place of women artists in the art world.

A Guerilla Girls poster challenging the place of women artists in the art world.

Women in Music: Riot Grrrls

The Riot Grrrl movement took off in the 1990s and embraced a punk, DIY (do it yourself), and anti-capitalist/anti-corporate philosophy. Riot Grrrls advocated to help women artists gain and maintain control over their voices and their artistic expression in music and visual art and generated countless underground zines. They also focused a great deal on the issues and needs of adolescent girls. All-girl punk bands like Bikini Kill (below) were part of the Riot Grrrl movement.

Protest Movements: Slutwalk

A more recent phenomenon, which showed up on Purdue’s campus last fall in the form of FACT’s Clothes (are) Not Consent Walk, is Slutwalk. Now an international phenomenon, the first SlutWalk was held in Toronto in April 2011 in response to a police officer who stated that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order to not be victimized.” Women marched through the city dressed like “sluts” to challenge this tired blame-the-victim rhetoric. On Purdue’s campus, both men and women participated.

A photo from the first Slutwalk in Toronto, April 2011.

A photo from the first Slutwalk in Toronto, Canada, April 2011.

LANDMARK MOMENTS FOR THE THIRD WAVE

  • 1981: Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua publish the book This Bridge Called My Back, an edited collection of feminist writings by women of color exploring intersections of gender and race.
  • 1990: philosopher Judith Butler publishes Gender Trouble, a challenging text challenging the notion that women need an essential feminine or universal “woman” identity on which to build feminist solidarity.
  • 199os: four women were elected to the U.S. Senate (and joined two already there); the second woman was appointed to the Supreme Court (Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who joined Sandra Day O;Connor); we elected the first female Attorney General and the first female Secretary of State; and we saw the first First Lady (Hillary Clinton) to have her own independent political, legal, activist, and public service career.
  • 1991: Anita Hill accuses Clarence Thomas (a Supreme Court nominee) of sexual harassment at work, bringing the issue into the public eye and sparking conversations about gender and race in the workplace.
  • 1991: the Senate votes overwhelmingly to open combat positions for women aviators.
  • 1991: Feminist writer and activist Naomi Wolf publishes The Beauty Myth, arguing that the booming beauty industry served to reinforce impossible standards as a form of social (and economic) oppression for women.
  • 1992: Rebecca Walker (daughter of author Alice Walker) and Shannon Liss start the Third Wave Direct Action Corporation and commence the Freedom Rides to register voters in poor communities, focusing especially on women.
  • 1994: Violence Against Women Act becomes law (allotting funds for the investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women).
  • 1996: The Vagina Monologues premiers in New York, starting a movement.
  • 1996: the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the male-only admissions policy of the state-supported Virginia Military Institute violates the Fourteenth Amendment (it was on of the last strong-holds).
  • 2004: the March for Women’s Lives was held in Washington, D.C., to support the right to abortion, access to birth control, scientifically accurate sex education, and information regarding sexual health, and to show public support for mothers and children.

A LANDMARK MOMENT: 2012 U.S. PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION RESULTS

Our New Congress

As of this past November, the 113th U.S. Congress now has record numbers of women and minorities.

The House now has 81 women while the new Senate includes 20 women. There will be 44 African Americans in the House and one in the Senate. We voted in nine new Latino members, making it the largest Latino class in history (28 House seats and three Senate seats). We also elected the first openly gay senator, Democrat Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, and the first openly bisexual representative, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. We swore in our first disabled member of Congress, Ladda Tammy Duckworth, to the U.S. House of Representatives; Duckworth was also the first female double-amputee in the Iraq War, sustaining her wounds while serving as a U.S. Army helicopter pilot. We also have more religious diversity in our Congress, with two Buddhists, a Hindu, and several Muslims.

For the first time ever, white men will be a minority among House Democrats. Thank the ongoing efforts of activists for such diversity.

113th US Congress

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