Andi Zeisler

Third-wave feminism

Third-wave feminism is a term identified with several diverse strains of feminist activity and study beginning in the early 1990s. The movement arose as a response to perceived failures and backlash against initiatives and movements created by second-wave feminism of c. 1960s through the 1980s.


Third-wave feminism seeks to challenge or avoid what it deems the second wave's "essentialist" definitions of femininity, which often assumed a universal female identity and over-emphasized experiences of upper middle class white women. A post-structuralist interpretation of gender and sexuality is central to third wave ideology. There is a heightened emphasis on the discursive power and fundamental ambiguity inherent in gender terms and categories. Third-wave theory usually encompasses queer theory, transgender politics and a rejection of the gender binary, anti-racism and women-of-color consciousness, womanism, post-colonial theory, critical theory, transnationalism, ecofeminism, libertarian feminism, and new feminist theory. Also considered part of the third wave is sex-positivity, a celebration of sexuality as a positive aspect of life, with broader definitions of what sex means and what oppression and empowerment may mean in the context of sex. For example, many third-wave feminists have reconsidered oppositions to pornography and sex work of the second wave and challenge existing beliefs that participants in pornography and sex work can not be empowered.

Third-wave feminists often focus on "micro-politics" and challenge the second wave's paradigm as to what is, or is not, good for women.


Third-wave feminism began in the early 1990s, arising as a response to perceived failures of the second wave and also as a response to the backlash against initiatives and movements created by the second wave. The third wave has its origins in the mid-1980s. Feminist leaders rooted in the second wave like Gloria Anzaldua, bell hooks, Chela Sandoval, Cherrie Moraga, Audre Lorde, Maxine Hong Kingston, and many other feminists of color, sought to negotiate a space within feminist thought for consideration of race-related subjectivities.

In 1991, Anita Hill accused Clarence Thomas, a man nominated to the United States Supreme Court, of sexual harassment. Thomas denied the accusations and, after extensive debate, the United States Senate voted 52–48 in favor of Thomas. In response to this case, Rebecca Walker published an article entitled "Becoming the Third Wave" in which she stated, "I am not a post-feminism feminist. I am the third-wave."

The roots of the third wave began, however, in the mid 1980s. Feminist leaders rooted in the second wave called for a new subjectivity in feminist voice. They sought to negotiate prominent space within feminist thought for consideration of race related subjectivities. This focus on the intersection between race and gender remained prominent through the Hill–Thomas hearings, but was perceived to shift with the Freedom Ride 1992, the first project of the Walker-led Third Wave Direct Action Corporation. This drive to register voters in poor minority communities was surrounded with rhetoric that focused on rallying young women.

The fundamental rights and programs gained by feminist activists of the second wave include the creation of domestic abuse shelters for women and children and the acknowledgment of abuse and rape of women on a public level, access to contraception and other reproductive services including the legalization of abortion, the creation and enforcement of sexual harassment policies for women in the workplace, child care services, equal or greater educational and extracurricular funding for young women, women’s studies programs, and much more—have served as a foundation, and a tool for third-wave feminists.

Some third-wave feminists prefer not to call themselves feminists, as the word feminist can be misinterpreted as insensitive to the fluid notion of gender and the potential oppressions inherent in all gender roles, or perhaps misconstrued as exclusive or elitist by critics. Others have kept and redefined the term to include these ideas. Third-wave feminism seeks to challenge any universal definition of femininity. In the introduction of To Be Real, the Third Wave founder and leader writes,

"Whether the young women who refuse the feminist label realize it or not, on some level they recognize that an ideal woman born of prevalent notions of how empowered women look, act, or think is simply another impossible contrivance of perfect womanhood, another scripted role to perform in the name of biology and virtue."

Third-wave feminism deals with issues that seem to limit or oppress women, as well as other marginalized identities. Consciousness raising activism and widespread education is often the first step that feminists take toward social change. In their book Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future, Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards write,

"Consciousness among women is what caused this [change], and consciousness, one’s ability to open their mind to the fact that male domination does affect the women of our generation, is what we need... The presence of feminism in our lives is taken for granted. For our generation, feminism is like fluoride. We scarcely notice we have it—it’s simply in the water."

Activism and the third-wave agenda

Activism and products of the third wave

There are an abundance of grassroots organizations and coalitions that work to transform the world that women live in; for instance, Dress for Success, an organization that collects suits through donations and fund-raisers, giving them to women on welfare in order to instill confidence when interviewing for jobs. Other organizations include: National Organization for Women, La Red, The Third Wave Foundation, Women’s Action Alliance, Voters for Choice, Students Organizing Students, Take Back the Night, Code Pink, Vox: Voices for Planned Parenthood, Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance and more. However, third wave feminists urge that people do not have to join preexisting organizations to make important changes in their communities.

Story-telling is a productive way in which third-wave women raise consciousness and exemplify instances of oppression. "Women often see that an experience was a result of sexism only if another woman, or group of women, [speaks] ... Reading women’s real experiences in books and magazines can provide the same click of recognition." As a result, feminist magazines such as Bitch, Bust, Off Our Backs, and Ms. have been successful in relaying women’s concerns and personal stories related to the feminist movement. Books, such as To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism by Rebecca Walker, The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler, Listen Up! Voices from the Next Feminist Generation edited by Barbara Findlen, and Bitchfest edited by Lisa Jervis and Andi Zeisler have done the same, as well as conferences and Speak Outs where women gather and inspire one another.

Reproductive rights

One of feminism’s primary concerns is a woman's life and respect for her body. South Dakota’s 2006 attempt to ban abortion in all cases, except when necessary to protect the mother's life, and the US Supreme Court's recent vote to uphold the partial birth abortion ban are viewed as restrictions on women’s civil and reproductive rights. Restrictions on the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, which guaranteed the right to abortion in the United States, are becoming more and more common in states around the country; such restrictions include mandatory waiting periods, parental-consent laws, and spousal-consent laws.

According to Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, "It is not feminism’s goal to control any woman’s fertility, only to free each woman to control her own".

Reclaiming derogatory terms

Words such as spinster, bitch, whore, and cunt continue to be used in derogatory ways to demean women. Inga Muscio writes, "I posit that we’re free to seize a word that was kidnapped and co-opted in a pain-filled, distant, past, with a ransom that cost our grandmothers’ freedom, children, traditions, pride, and land." Third-wave feminists believe it is better to change the meaning of a sexist word than to censor it from speech.

Many of these words did not originally have their modern connotations of power. For example, the English word cunt, which is commonly used as a pejorative, is a derivative of the Germanic word "kunton" meaning "female genitalia. Over time the word has become both a pejorative and a marker of femininity. The words bitch and whore developed in a similar fashion.

Other areas of concern

Third-wave feminism's central issues are that of race, social class and sexuality. However, they are also concerns of workplace issues such as the glass ceiling, sexual harassment, unfair maternity leave policies, motherhood—support for single mothers by means of welfare and child care and respect for working mothers and mothers who decide to leave their careers to raise their children full-time.

Third-wave feminists want women to be seen as intelligent, political beings with intelligent, political minds; some claim that there is a lack of diverse, positive female representatives in pop culture. They also want to put attention to the media's unhealthy standards for women; the glamorization of eating disorders; the portrayal of women as sexualized objects catering solely to the man’s needs, and anti-intellectualism.

The riot grrrl movement

Riot grrrl is an underground feminist punk movement that started in the 1990s and is often associated with third-wave feminism (it is sometimes seen as its starting point). It was grounded in the DIY philosophy of punk values, riot grrls took an anti-corporate stance of self-sufficiency and self-reliance. Riot grrrl's emphasis on universal female identity and separatism often appears more closely allied with second-wave feminism than with the third wave. Riot grrrl bands often address issues such as rape, domestic abuse, sexuality, and female empowerment. Some bands associated with the movement are: Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Excuse 17, Free Kitten, Heavens To Betsy, Huggy Bear, L7, and Team Dresch. In addition to a music scene, riot grrrl is also a subculture; zines, the DIY ethic, art, political action, and activism are part of the movement. Riot grrrls hold meetings, start chapters, and support and organize women in music. The term "Riot Grrl" uses a "growling" double or triple r, placing it in the word girl as an appropriation of the derogatory use of the term.

The movement sprang out of Olympia, Washington and Washington, D.C. in the early 1990s. It sought to give women the power to control their voices and artistic expressions. Its links to social and political issues are where the beginning rumblings of the third-wave feminism can be seen. The music and zine writings produced are strong examples of "cultural politics in action, with strong women giving voice to important social issues though an empowered, a female oriented community, many people link the emergence of the third-wave feminism to this time". The movement encouraged and made "adolescent girls’ standpoints central," allowing them to express themselves fully.

Criticism of the third wave

One issue raised by critics is the lack of a single cause for third-wave feminism. The first wave fought and gained the right for women to vote. The second wave obtained the right for women to have access and equal opportunity to the workforce, as well as ending of legal sex discrimination. The third wave of feminism lacks a cohesive goal, and it is often seen as an extension of the second wave. Also, third-wave feminism does not have a set definition that can distinguish itself from second-wave feminism. Some argue the third wave can be dubbed the "Second Wave, Part Two" when it comes to the politics of feminism, and "only young feminist culture as truly third wave".

Amy Richards, a prominent third-wave author and activist, defines the feminist culture for this generation as "third wave because it’s an expression of having grown up with feminism". Second-wave feminists grew up where the politics intertwined within the culture, such as "Kennedy, the Vietnam War, civil rights, and women’s rights;" while the Third Wave sprang from a culture of "punk-rock, hip-hop, 'zines, products, consumerism and the Internet".

There continues to be tension between second-wave and third-wave feminists. In an essay entitled "Generations, Academic Feminists in dialogue" Diane Elam writes:

This problem manifests itself when senior feminists insist that junior feminists be good daughters, defending the same kind of feminism their mothers advocated. Questions and criticisms are allowed, but only if they proceed from the approved brand of feminism. Daughters are not allowed to invent new ways of thinking and doing feminism for themselves; feminists’ politics should take the same shape that it has always assumed.
Rebecca Walker also explores this in her book To Be Real; she writes about her fear of rejection by her mother, author Alice Walker, and godmother, Gloria Steinem, because of her challenging their views:
Young Women feminists find themselves watching their speech and tone in their works so as not to upset their elder feminist mothers. There is a definite gap among feminists who consider themselves to be second wave and those who would label themselves as third wave. Although, the age criteria for second wave feminists and third wave feminists is murky, younger feminists definitely have a hard time proving themselves worthy as feminist scholars and activists.


Post-feminism describes a range of viewpoints reacting to feminism. The term was first used in the 1980s to describe a backlash against second-wave feminism. It is now a label for a wide range of theories that take critical approaches to previous feminist discourses and includes challenges to the second wave's ideas. Other post-feminists say that feminism is no longer relevant to today's society. Amelia Jones has written that the post-feminist texts which emerged in the 1980s and 1990s portrayed second-wave feminism as a monolithic entity and criticized it using generalizations.

One of the earliest uses of the term was in Susan Bolotin's 1982 article "Voices of the Post-Feminist Generation," published in New York Times Magazine. This article was based on a number of interviews with women who largely agreed with the goals of feminism, but did not identify as feminists.

Some contemporary feminists, such as Katha Pollitt or Nadine Strossen, consider feminism to hold simply that "women are people". Views that separate the sexes rather than unite them are considered by these writers to be sexist rather than feminist.

In her 1994 book Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women, Christina Hoff Sommers considers much of modern academic feminist theory and the feminist movement to be gynocentric and misandrist. She labels this "Gender feminism" and proposes "Equity feminism"—an ideology that aims for full civil and legal equality. She argues that while the feminists she designates as gender feminists advocate preferential treatment and portray women as victims, equity feminism provides a viable alternative form of feminism. These descriptions and her other work have caused Hoff Sommers to be described as an antifeminist by some other feminists.

Susan Faludi in her book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, argues that a backlash against second wave feminism in the 1980s has successfully re-defined feminism through its terms. She argues that it constructed the women's liberation movement as the source of many of the problems alleged to be plaguing women in the late 1980s. She also argues that many of these problems are illusory, constructed by the media without reliable evidence. According to her, this type of backlash is an historical trend, recurring when it appears that women have made substantial gains in their efforts to obtain equal rights.

See also



  • Baumgardner, Jennifer; Amy Richards (2000). ManifestA: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
  • Baumgardner, Jennifer; Amy Richards (2005). Grassroots: A Field Guide for Feminist Activism. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
  • Code, Lorraine (2000). Encyclopedia of Feminist Theories. Routledge of Taylor and Francis Group.
  • Dekoven, Marianne (2006). "Jouissance, Cyborgs, and Companion Species.: Feminist Experiment". PMLA 121 (5): 1690–1696.
  • Ensler, Eve (2001). The Vagina Monologues. Virigo Press Ltd.
  • Findlen, Barbara, ed (1995). Listen Up! Voices From the Next Feminist Generation. Seal Press.
  • . Revised paperback edition published in 2007.
  • Henry, Astrid (2004). Not My Mother's Sister: Generational Conflict and Third-Wave Feminism. Indiana University Press.
  • Hernandez, Daisy; Bushra Reman (2002). Colonize This! Young Women of Color and Today's Feminism. Seal Press.
  • Heywood, Leslie; Jennifer Drake, ed (1997). Third Wave Agenda: Being Feminist, Doing Feminism. University of Minnesota Press.
  • Jervis, Lisa; Andi Zeisler, ed (2006). Bitchfest. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
  • Karaian, Lara; Lisa Bryn Rundel; Allyson Mitchell, eds (2001). Turbo Chicks: Talking Young Feminisms. Toronto, Canada: Sumach Press.
  • Kinser, Amber (2004). "Negotiating space for/through Third-Wave Feminism". NWSA Journal 16 (3): 124–153.
  • Musico, Inga (2002). Cunt: A Declaration of Independence. California: Seal Press.
  • Rowe-Finkbeiner, Kristin (2004). The F-Word. Avalon Publishing Group.
  • Verhofstadt, Dirk (2006). The Third Feminist Wave. Antwerpen, Amsterdam: Houtekiet.
  • Walker, Rebecca (1995). To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism. Anchor.

External links

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