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Third-wave feminism is a term identified with several diverse strains of feminist activity and study from 1990 to the present. The movement arose as a response to perceived possible failures and backlash against initiatives and movements created by second-wave feminism of c. 1960s through the 1970s. It also addressed issues that were not delved deeply into in the 1960s and 1970s, such as sexual harassment, largely due to the Anita Hill hearings in the Senate and violence against women. In 1992, the "Year of the Woman" saw four women enter the United States Senate to join the two already there. The following year another woman won a special election, bringing the number to seven. The 1990s also saw the first female United States Attorney General and Secretary of State, as well as the second woman on the Supreme Court, and the first First Lady to have an independent political, legal, corporate executive, activist, and public service career.



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. Emphasizing discursive power and the ambiguity of gender, third-wave theory usually incorporates elements of queer theory, transgender politics and a rejection of the gender binary, anti-racism and women-of-color consciousness, womanism, post-colonial theory, critical theory, postmodernism, 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 cannot 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.[1][2][3][4]

Third-wave feminism allows women to define feminism for themselves by incorporating their own identities into the belief system of what feminism is and what it can become through one's own perspective. Third-wavers are proactive in issues, such as activism. Authors Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards wrote Manifesta, which introduced the idea of third-wave feminism well by making the connection that feminism can change with every generation and individual:
"The fact that feminism is no longer limited to arenas where we expect to see it-- NOW, Ms., women's studies, and redsuited Congresswomen-- perhaps means that young women today have really reaped what feminism has sown. Raised after Title IX and "William Wants a Doll," young women emerged from college or high school or two years of marriage or their first job and began challenging some of the received wisdom of the past ten or twenty years of feminism. We're not doing feminism the same way that the seventies feminists did it; being liberated doesn't mean copying what came before but finding one's own way-- a way that is genuine to one's own generation." [5]


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. 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 colour, sought to negotiate a space within feminist thought for consideration of subjects related to race.[3][6]

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.[3][6][7] 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."[8]

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.[9]

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.Template:Fact

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."[7]

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."[5]

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: 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.

Recently, Bust magazine just celebrated its 15th anniversary of promoting a positive, feminist-friendly girl culture. The importance of these magazines has become more and more apparent in society with more women subscribing to magazines and the magazines having more circulation than ever before. The image of the third-wave is changing through print journalism, which usually is very negative to feminism[dubious ], for example, the Time Magazine article "Is Feminism Dead?" which was written in 1998.[10]

Reproductive rights

One of feminism's primary concerns is reproductive rights, such as access to contraception and abortion. 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".[5] South Dakota’s 2006 attempt to ban abortion in all cases, except when necessary to protect the mother's life, [11] and the US Supreme Court's recent vote to uphold the partial birth abortion ban are viewed by many feminists as restrictions on women’s civil and reproductive rights.[12][13] Restrictions on the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion in the United States, are becoming more and more common in states around the country; such restrictions include mandatory waiting periods[14], parental-consent laws[15] , and spousal-consent laws[16]. Many feminists oppose these and other legislative attempts to restrict abortion.

Reclaiming derogatory terms

Words such as spinster, bitch, whore, and cunt continue to be used in derogatory ways about 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 powerTemplate:Clarify me. For example, the English word cunt, which is commonly used as a pejorative, is thought to ultimately come from the Proto-Germanic word *kunton meaning "female genitalia"[17]. Over time the word has become both a pejorative and a marker of femininity. The words bitch and whore developed in a similar fashion.

Part of taking back the word bitch was fueled by Elizabeth Wurtzel's 1999 book, Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women. In the successful declaration of the word bitch, Wurtzel introduces her philosophy: "I intend to scream, shout, race the engine, call when I feel like it, throw tantrums in Bloomingdale's if I feel like it and confess intimate details about my life to complete strangers. I intend to do what I want to do and be whom I want to be and answer only to myself: that is, quite simply, the bitch philosophy." [18]

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[19], 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 alleged unhealthy standards for women in media; 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

was the lead singer of Bikini Kill: a riot grrrl band formed in 1990.]]

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.[20] Riot grrrl's emphasis on universal female identity and separatism often appears more closely allied with second-wave feminism than with the third wave.[21] 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.[22] The term "Riot Grrl" uses a "growling" double or triple r, placing it in the word girl as an appropriation of the perceived derogatory use of the term.[20]

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.[20] 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".[20] The movement encouraged and made "adolescent girls’ standpoints central," allowing them to express themselves fully.[23]

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 struggled to obtain the right for women to have access and equal opportunity to the workforce, as well as ending of legal sex discrimination.[20]

The third wave of feminism lacks a cohesive goal, and it is often seen as an extension of the second wave.[20] 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".[5]

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".[20] 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".[5]

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.[5]

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.[7]


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.[24] Other post-feminists say that feminism is no longer relevant to today's society.[25] 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.[26]

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.[27]

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.[28][29]

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.[30] These descriptions and her other work have caused Hoff Sommers to be described as an antifeminist by some other feminists.[31][32]

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.[33]

Kate Bornstein, transgendered author and playwright, calls herself a post-modern feminist.

See also


  1. Freedman, Estelle B., No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women (London: Ballantine Books, 2003)
  2. Henry, Astrid, Not My Mother's Sister: Generational Conflict and Third-Wave Feminism (Indiana University Press, 2003), ISBN 9780253217134
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Gillis, Stacy, Gillian Howie & Rebecca Munford (eds), Third Wave Feminism: A Critical Exploration (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), ISBN 9780230521742
  4. Faludi, Susan, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women (Vintage, 1993), ISBN 9780099222712
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 Baumgardner, Jennifer; Amy Richards (2000). ManifestA: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  6. 6.0 6.1 Heywood, Leslie; Jennifer Drake eds., Third Wave Agenda: Being Feminist, Doing Feminism (University of Minnesota Press, 1997), ISBN 9780816630054
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Walker, Rebecca, To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism (Anchor, 1995) ISBN 9780385472625
  8. Walker, Rebecca, 'Becoming the Third Wave' in Ms. (January/February, 1992) pp. 39–41
  9. Hayes Taylor, Kimberly (8 March 1995), "Feminism reaches the next generation - Walker underscores need for inclusion, change in 'third wave'", Star Tribune: 1B 
  10. Labi, Nadia; McDowell, Jeanne (29 June 1998), "Girl Power", Time 151 (25),,9171,988643,00.html, retrieved on 2009-02-03 
  11. Davey, Monica (3/7/2006), "South Dakota Bans Abortion, Setting Up a Battle", New York Times 155 (53511): A1–A14 
  12. Ludlow, Jeannie (Spring 2008), "Sometimes, It's a Child and a Choice: Toward an Embodied Abortion Praxis.", NWSA Journal 20 (1): 26–50 
  13. Weitz, Tracy A; Yanow, Susan (May 2008), "Implications of the Federal Abortion Ban for Women's Health in the United States.", Reproductive Health Matters 16 (31): 99–107, doi:10.1016/S0968-8080(08)31374-3 
  14. Indiana revised statutes, Title 16, Article 34, Chapter 2, Section 1.1, Subsection 1, 18 hours.
  15. South Dakota revised statutes, Title 34, Chapter 23A, Section 7
  16. South Carolina revised statutes, Title 44, Chapter 41, Section 10
  18. Wurtzel, Elizabeth. Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women. Anchor Publishing, 1999. ISBN 0385484011
  19. Munden, Frank (07 May 2003), The Kapi'o Newspress 36 (28),, retrieved on 2009-02-04 
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 20.3 20.4 20.5 20.6 Rowe-Finkbeiner, Kristin (2004). The F-Word. Avalon Publishing Group. ISBN 1-58005-114-6
  21. Rosenberg, Jessica, Gitana Garofalo, 'Riot Grrrl: Revolutions from within' in Signs, Vol. 23, No. 3, Feminisms and Youth Cultures (Spring, 1998)
  22. Schilt, Kristen, '"A Little Too Ironic": The Appropriation and Packaging of Riot Grrrl Politics by Mainstream Female Musicians' in Popular Music and Society, Vol. 26, 2003
  23. Code, Lorraine (2000). Encyclopedia of Feminist Theories. Routledge of Taylor and Francis Group. ISBN 0-415030885-2.
  24. Wright, Elizabeth, Lacan and Postfeminism (Icon Books, 2000), ISBN 9781840461829
  25. Modleski, Tania. Feminism without Women: Culture and Criticism in a “Postfeminist” Age. New York: Routledge, 1991, 3.
  26. Jones, Amelia. “Postfeminism, Feminist Pleasures, and Embodied Theories of Art,” New Feminist Criticism: Art, Identity, Action, Eds. Joana Frueh, Cassandra L. Langer and Arlene Raven. New York: HarperCollins, 1994. 16–41, 20.
  27. Rosen, Ruth. The World Split Open: How the Modern Women's Movement Changed America. New York: Viking, 2000, 275, 337.
  28. Pollitt, Katha, Reasonable Creatures: Essays on Women and Feminism (Vintage, 1995) ISBN 9780679762782
  29. Strossen, Nadine, Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex, and the Fight for Women's Rights (Prentice Hall & IBD, 1995), ISBN 9780684197494
  30. Hoff Sommers, Christina, Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 1995)
  31. Flood, Michael (7 July 2004). "Backlash: Angry men's movements", in Stacey Elin Rossi, ed.: The Battle and Backlash Rage On. N.p.: XLibris, 273. ISBN 1-4134-5934-X
  32. "Uncovering the Right—Female Anti-Feminism for Fame and Profit". Retrieved on 2007-12-21. 
  33. Faludi, Susan, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women (Three Rivers Press, 2006)


  • 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. ISBN 0-415030885-2. 
  • Dekoven, Marianne (October 2006). "Jouissance, Cyborgs, and Companion Species.: Feminist Experiment". PMLA 121 (5): 1690–1696. doi:10.1632/pmla.2006.121.5.1690. 
  • Ensler, Eve (2001). The Vagina Monologues. Virigo Press Ltd. 
  • Findlen, Barbara, ed (1995). Listen Up! Voices From the Next Feminist Generation. Seal Press. 
  • Gillis, Stacy; Howie, Gillian; Munford, Rebecca (2004), Third Wave Feminism: A Critical Exploration, Palgrave, ISBN 1-4039-1821-X . Revised paperback edition published in 2007.
  • Henry, Astrid (2004). Not My Mother's Sister: Generational Conflict and Third-Wave Feminism. Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-21713-X. 
  • Hernandez, Daisy; Bushra Reman (2002). Colonize This! Young Women of Color and Today's Feminism. Seal Press. ISBN 1-58005-067-0. 
  • Heywood, Leslie; Jennifer Drake, ed (1997). Third Wave Agenda: Being Feminist, Doing Feminism. University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 0-8166-3005-4. 
  • Jervis, Lisa; Andi Zeisler, ed (2006). Bitchfest. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 
  • Karaian, Lara; Lisa Bryn Rundel; Allyson Mitchell, eds (2001) (in English). 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. doi:10.2979/NWS.2004.16.3.124. 
  • Musico, Inga (2002). Cunt: A Declaration of Independence. California: Seal Press. 
  • Musse, Fowzia (2004), "Somalia—The Untold Story: The War Through the Eyes of Somali Women", War Crimes Against Girls and Women (London: Pluto Press): 69–76 
  • Rowe-Finkbeiner, Kristin (2004). The F-Word. Avalon Publishing Group. ISBN 1-58005-114-6. 
  • Verhofstadt, Dirk (2006). The Third Feminist Wave. Antwerpen, Amsterdam: Houtekiet. ISBN 9789052409153. 
  • Walker, Rebecca (1995) (in Dutch). To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism. Anchor. ISBN 0-385-47262-5. 

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