Third-Wave Feminism Definition Essay

Being the third part in a series on different feminisms. The second part was:‘No Longer a Second Sex: A Brief Look at Second-Wave Feminism‘

Beginning in the 1990s, after the end of second-wave feminism and the Feminist Sex Wars, third-wave feminism began with a mixture of disgruntled and unsure feminists and feminists born into a world where feminism had always existed. Third-wave feminism began in a world with punk rock, and thus carved out the safe space of Riot Grrrl. Third-wave feminism may be the most diverse and individualistic feminist wave to date.

The movement of third-wave feminism focused less on laws and the political process and more on individual identity. The movement of third-wave feminism is said to have arisen out of the realization that women are of many colors, ethnicities, nationalities, religions and cultural backgrounds.

With this wave of feminism what can be seen is a desire to challenge or avoid the assumption that there is a universal female identity and over-emphasizing of the experience of the upper-middle class white woman. Cherrie Morago and Gloria E. Anzaldua in books such as This Bridge Called My Back and All the Women Are White, All the Blacks are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies critiqued second-wave feminism for its focus primarily on the problems and political positions of white women.

Proponents of third-wave feminism claim that it allows women to define feminism for themselves by incorporating their own identities into their belief system of what feminism is and what it can become.

Having the successes of the first two waves of feminism – the right to vote, the right to work, a greater right to one’s own body, a greater right to education – third-wave feminists felt a need for further changes in the stereotypes against women and in the media portrayals of women as well as in the language that is used to define women.

In this advocacy, feminists have argued that language has been used to create binaries (such as the male/female or heterosexual/homosexual binaries). Post-structuralist feminists see these binaries as artificial constructs created to maintain the power of dominant groups.

The roots of Intersectional Feminism can be said to be found in the roots of third-wave feminism, which usually incorporates elements of queer theory, anti-racism and women of color, as well as people of color, consciousness, womanism, girl power, post-colonial (anti-Imperialism) theory, postmodernism, transnationalism, cyber feminism, ecofeminism, individualist feminism, new feminist theory, Trans*gender politics and a rejection of the gender binary.

Another important part of this wave of feminism is sex-positivity, a celebration of sexuality as a positive aspect of life, with a broader definition of what sex means and what oppression and empowerment may imply in the context of sex. Though opinions of sex and sexuality are not universal. The Feminist Sex Wars split feminists on the issue of sex and sexuality. Split into the anti-porn and sex positive factions respectfully, these two factions disagreed on sexuality, pornography and other forms of equal representation, prostitution, the role of trans*women in the lesbian community as well as lesbian sexual practices and BDSM.
The anti-pornography faction argued that, “Pederasty, pornography, sadomasochism and public sex” were about “exploitation, violence or invasion of privacy” and not “sexual preference or orientation.”

Meanwhile, the sex positive faction promotes personal, individualized views on the gender-related issues focused on during the feminist sex wars, such as prostitution, pornography, and sadomasochism. Additionally, many third-wave feminists challenge existing beliefs that participants in pornography and sex work are always being exploited.

It has been suggested to both factions that rather than pass personal judgment of sexual acts, each feminist camp should recognize the plasticity of sexual meaning. It is argued that this would enable the feminist movement through shared education and mutual respect, to benefit from a greater comprehension of the diverse sexual preferences that exist.

Further, third-wave feminists want to transform the traditional notions of sexuality and embrace ‘an exploration of women’s feelings about sexuality that includes vagina-centered topics as diverse as orgasm, birth and rape.’ Baumgardner and Richards, authors of Manifesta wrote, “It is not feminism’s goal to control any woman’s fertility, only to free each woman to control her own.”

Some feminists prefer to change the connotations of a word or words that are sexist rather than censor it from speech. This idea of changing the connotation of a word inspired the first SlutWalk in Toronto, Canada in 2011 in response to a Toronto police officer who stated, “Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.”

As discussed in the second part of this series, “No Longer a Second Sex”, third wave feminists are not finished fighting political battles, they face continuing pay inequality, a glass ceiling, sexual harassment, unfair maternity leave policies, a lack of support for single mothers by means such as welfare and child care and a lack of respect for working mothers and mothers who decide to leave their careers to raise their children full-time as well as restrictions to Supreme Court decisions such as Roe V. Wade (such restrictions come at the state and county levels and include restrictions such as mandatory waiting periods, parental consent laws and spousal consent laws).

Third Wave Direct Action Corporation was founded by American feminists Rebecca Walker and Shannon Liss as a multiracial, multicultural, multi-issue organization to support young activists. The organization’s initial mission was to fill a void in young women’s leadership and to mobilize young people to become more involved socially and politically in their communities.

To fully understand the past, present and future of feminism, as well as to reach a full understanding of intersectionality, this series will next begin looking at various individual feminisms, of which there are many.

Some Third-Wave Feminists of Note:

Joan W. Scott – “Deconstructing Equality-Versus-Difference: Or, the Uses of Poststructuralist Theory for Feminism”

Jennifer Baumgardner & Amy Richards – Manifesta

Rebecca Walker – To Be Real

Gloria Anzaldua & Cherrie Moraga – This Bridge Called My Back , All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies

Elizabeth Wurtzel – Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women

Susan Faludi – Backlash

Eve Ensler – The Vagina Monologues

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Categories: feminism, Jessica Fisher|

The third wave of feminism

The third wave of feminism emerged in the mid-1990s. It was led by so-called Generation Xers who, born in the 1960s and ’70s in the developed world, came of age in a media-saturated and culturally and economically diversemilieu. Although they benefitted significantly from the legal rights and protections that had been obtained by first- and second-wave feminists, they also critiqued the positions and what they felt was unfinished work of second-wave feminism.


The third wave was made possible by the greater economic and professional power and status achieved by women of the second wave, the massive expansion in opportunities for the dissemination of ideas created by the information revolution of the late 20th century, and the coming of age of Generation X scholars and activists.

Some early adherents of the new approach were literally daughters of the second wave. Third Wave Direct Action Corporation (organized in 1992) became in 1997 the Third Wave Foundation, dedicated to supporting “groups and individuals working towards gender, racial, economic, and social justice”; both were founded by (among others) Rebecca Walker, the daughter of the novelist and second-waver Alice Walker. Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, authors of Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future (2000), were both born in 1970 and raised by second wavers who had belonged to organized feminist groups, questioned the sexual division of labour in their households, and raised their daughters to be self-aware, empowered, articulate, high-achieving women.

These women and others like them grew up with the expectation of achievement and examples of female success as well as an awareness of the barriers presented by sexism, racism, and classism. They chose to battle such obstacles by inverting sexist, racist, and classist symbols, fighting patriarchy with irony, answering violence with stories of survival, and combating continued exclusion with grassroots activism and radicaldemocracy. Rather than becoming part of the “machine,” third wavers began both sabotaging and rebuilding the machine itself.

Influenced by the postmodernist movement in the academy, third-wave feminists sought to question, reclaim, and redefine the ideas, words, and media that have transmitted ideas about womanhood, gender, beauty, sexuality, femininity, and masculinity, among other things. There was a decided shift in perceptions of gender, with the notion that there are some characteristics that are strictly male and others that are strictly female giving way to the concept of a gender continuum. From this perspective each person is seen as possessing, expressing, and suppressing the full range of traits that had previously been associated with one gender or the other. For third-wave feminists, therefore, “sexual liberation,” a major goal of second-wave feminism, was expanded to mean a process of first becoming conscious of the ways one’s gender identity and sexuality have been shaped by society and then intentionally constructing (and becoming free to express) one’s authentic gender identity.


Third wavers inherited a foothold of institutional power created by second wavers, including women’s studies programs at universities, long-standing feminist organizations, and well-established publishing outlets such as Ms. magazine and several academic journals. These outlets became a less important part of the culture of the third wave than they had been for the second wave.

In expressing their concerns, third-wave feminists actively subverted, co-opted, and played on seemingly sexist images and symbols. This was evident in the double entendre and irony of the language commonly adopted by people in their self-presentations. Slang used derogatorily in most earlier contexts became proud and defiant labels. The spirit and intent of the third wave shone through the raw honesty, humour, and horror of Eve Ensler’s play (and later book) The Vagina Monologues, an exploration of women’s feelings about sexuality that included vagina-centred topics as diverse as orgasm, birth, and rape; the righteous anger of punk rock’s riot grrrls movement; and the playfulness, seriousness, and subversion of the Guerrilla Girls, a group of women artists who donned gorilla masks in an effort to expose female stereotypes and fight discrimination against female artists.

The third wave was much more inclusive of women and girls of colour than the first or second waves had been. In reaction and opposition to stereotypical images of women as passive, weak, virginal, and faithful, or alternatively as domineering, demanding, slutty, and emasculating, the third wave redefined women and girls as assertive, powerful, and in control of their own sexuality. In popular culture this redefinition gave rise to icons of powerful women that included the singers Madonna, Queen Latifah, and Mary J. Blige, among others, and the women depicted in television series such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003), Sex and the City (1998–2004), and Girlfriends (2000–08). Media programming for children increasingly depicted smart, independent girls and women in lead roles, including Disney heroines such as Mulan (1998) and Helen Parr and her daughter, Violet (The Incredibles, 2006), and television characters such as Dora (Dora the Explorer, 1999–2006), Carly and Sam (iCarly, 2007–12), and Sesame Street’s first female lead, Abby Cadabby, who debuted in 2006. The sassy self-expression of “Girl Power” merchandise also proved popular.

The increasing ease of publishing on the Internet meant that e-zines (electronic magazines) and blogs became ubiquitous. Many serious independent writers, not to mention organizations, found that the Internet offered a forum for the exchange of information and the publication of essays and videos that made their point to a potentially huge audience. The Internet radically democratized the content of the feminist movement with respect to participants, aesthetics, and issues.


Predictably, third wavers faced critics. Even as the third wave found its voice, some writers were declaring themselves postfeminist and arguing that the movement had lived beyond its usefulness. Meanwhile, established feminists of the earlier generation argued that the issues had not really changed and that the younger women were not adding anything of substance. By about 2000, some writers from inside and outside the movement rushed to declare that the wave had broken. In addition, questions of sexualized behaviour raised debate on whether such things as revealing clothing, designer-label stiletto heels, and amateur pole dancing represented true sexual liberation and gender equality or old oppressions in disguise.

As with any other social or political movement, fissures and disagreements were present in each wave of feminism. The third wave, to an extent almost unimaginable to the members of the first and second waves before it, was plural and multifaceted, comprising people of many gender, ethnic, and class identities, experiences, and interests. As such, its greatest strength, multivocality, was attacked by some as its greatest weakness. Third-wavers countered this criticism by stating that the creation of a unified agenda or philosophy—or at least, one that was unified beyond the very general statements offered by groups such as the Third Wave Foundation noted above (“groups and individuals working towards gender, racial, economic, and social justice”)—was a goal that was not only unrealistic but undesirable.

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