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Third-wave feminism is a term identified with several diverse strains of feminist activity and study, whose exact boundaries in the historiography of feminism are a subject of debate, but are often marked as beginning in the early 1990s and continuing to the present. The movement arose partially as a response to the perceived failures of and backlash against initiatives and movements created by second-wave feminism during the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, and the realization that women are of "many colors, ethnicities, nationalities, religions and cultural backgrounds". Rebecca Walker – a 23-year-old (at the time), bisexual African-American woman born in Jackson, Mississippi – coined the term "third-wave feminism" in a 1992 essay. Walker is in many ways a living symbol of the way that second-wave feminism historically failed to incorporate the voices of many young, queer, and non-white women.
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 that over-emphasized the experiences of upper-middle-class white women. The shift from second wave feminism came about with many of the legal and institutional rights that were extended to women. In addition to these institutional gains, third-wave feminists believed there needed to be further changes in stereotypes of women and in the media portrayals of women as well as in the language that has been used to define women. Therefore, third-wave ideology focuses on a more post-structuralist interpretation of gender and sexuality. In "Deconstructing Equality-versus-Difference: Or, the Uses of Poststructuralist Theory for Feminism," Joan W. Scott describes how language has been used as a way to understand the world, however, "post-structuralists insist that words and texts have no fixed or intrinsic meanings, that there is no transparent or self-evident relationship between them and either ideas or things, no basic or ultimate correspondence between language and the world" Thus, while language has been used to create binaries (such as male/female), post-structuralists see these binaries as artificial constructs created to maintain the power of dominant groups.
Third-wave theory usually incorporates elements of queer theory; anti-racism and women-of-color consciousness; womanism; girl power; post-colonial theory; postmodernism; transnationalism; cyberfeminism; ecofeminism; individualist feminism; new feminist theory, transgender politics, and a rejection of the gender binary. 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 imply in the context of sex. For example, many third-wave feminists have reconsidered the opposition to pornography and sex work of the second wave, and challenge existing beliefs that participants in pornography and sex work are always being exploited.
Proponents of third-wave feminism claim that it 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. In the introduction to the idea of third-wave feminism in Manifesta, authors Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards suggest 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 [sic], 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.
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: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism, the Third Wave Foundation founder and leader Rebecca Walker 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, which is "the collective critical reconstitution of the meaning of women’s social experience, as women live through it" 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.
Feminist scholars such as Shira Tarrant object to the "wave construct" because it ignores important progress between the so-called waves. Furthermore, if feminism is a global movement, the fact that the "first-, second-, and third waves time periods correspond most closely to American feminist developments" raises serious problems about how feminism recognizes the history of political issues around the world.
Arguably, the biggest challenge to the efforts of third-wave feminism is the decline in popular support for the relevance and importance of feminism in what some claim is the "post-feminist" era. Manon Tremblay refers to this phenomenon as the "antifeminist undercurrent" of the West. Here, a concern for what Amy Friedman calls third-wave feminism's "radical fanaticism" is expressed. Essentially, the claim is that gender equality has already been achieved via the first two waves, and that further attempts to push for women's rights are either irrelevant and unnecessary, or are excessively pushing the pendulum towards advantaging women over men and exaggerating the state of women in modern western society. Indeed, we see this very issue manifesting itself in the heated debates over whether or not affirmative action initiatives really are creating societal gender equality, or are actually disadvantaging/punishing white, middle-class, males for a biological history that they have merely inherited.
In response to such sentiments, we can trace many previously self-proclaimed feminists crossing the floor to becoming self-proclaimed post-feminists, claiming that the strands of feminism extant today are out of sync with the reality of the success story of women's gains. The popular media has played a large role in propounding this image of crazy, radical, lunatic feminists. Donna LaFromboise is known for accusing third-wave feminism of having "perpetuated the myth of female martyrdom, stated that feminists have deliberately maintained such fictions to ensure its survival, and differentiated between "a feminism that informs one's opinions and a feminism that dictates how one should think"". The target of such attacks are the rather notoriously extremist feminists such as Catherine MacKinnon, Andrea Dworkin etc., thus it can be argued that such a critique isn't actually hitting the mark with regards to third-wave feminism as a whole, but is merely overgeneralizing based on a limited sample.
Third-wave feminism began in the early 1990s, arising as a response to perceived failures of the second wave and to address the backlash against initiatives and movements created by the second wave. However, the fundamental rights and programs gained by feminist activists of the second wave – including 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 also served as a foundation and a tool for third-wave feminists. Feminist leaders rooted in the second wave like Gloria Anzaldúa, bell hooks, Kerry Ann Kane, Cherríe Moraga, Audre Lorde, Maxine Hong Kingston, Reena Walker and many other feminists of color, sought to negotiate a space within feminist thought for consideration of subjects related to race.
In 1981, Cherríe Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa published the anthology This Bridge Called My Back, which, along with All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women's Studies (1982), critiqued second-wave feminism, which focused primarily on the problems and political positions of white women.
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[by whom?] 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.
In the early 1990s, the Riot grrrl movement began in Olympia, Washington and Washington, D.C.. It sought to give women the power to control their voices and artistic expressions. Its links to social and political issues are where the beginnings 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, 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. It was grounded in the DIY philosophy of punk values, riot grrrls 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, Jack Off Jill, Free Kitten, Heavens to Betsy, Huggy Bear, Fifth Column 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 Grrrl uses a "growling" double or triple r, placing it in the word girl as an appropriation of the perceived derogatory use of the term.
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 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 (Kay Bailey Hutchison) 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 US First Lady (Hillary Rodham Clinton) to have an independent political, legal, corporate executive, activist, and public service career. However, the Equal Rights Amendment, which is supported by second- and third-wave feminists, remains a work in progress.
Third-wave feminists have recently utilized the internet and modern technology to enhance their movement, which have allowed for information and organization to reach a larger audience.
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
Gender violence has become a central issue for third-wave feminists. Organizations such as V-Day, have formed with the goal of ending gender violence, and artistic expressions such as The Vagina Monologues have generated awareness and action around issues relating to women's sexuality. Third-wave feminists want to transform the traditional notions of sexuality and embrace “an exploration of women’s feelings about sexuality that included vagina-centred topics as diverse as orgasm, birth, and rape."
One of feminism's primary concerns is reproductive rights, such as access to contraception and abortion. According to Baumgardner and Richards, "It is not feminism's goal to control any woman's fertility, only to free each woman to control her own". 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 by many feminists as restrictions on women's civil and reproductive rights. Restrictions on the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion in the United States, are becoming more common in states around the country; such restrictions include mandatory waiting periods, parental-consent laws, and spousal-consent laws.
English-speakers continue to use words such as spinster, bitch, whore, and cunt to refer to women in derogatory ways. 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 prefer to change the connotation of a sexist word rather than censor it from speech.
Part of taking back the word bitch was fueled by the 1994 single, "All Women Are Bitches" by the all-woman band Fifth Column, and, later, by the 1999 book Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women by Elizabeth Wurtzel. 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."
Since 2011, the utility of the reclamation strategy has been a hot topic among third-wave feminists with the advent of SlutWalks. The first SlutWalk took place in Toronto on April 3, 2011, in response to Toronto police officer Michael Sanguinetti's statement that "women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized." Additional SlutWalks sprung up rapidly in cities all over the world, with marchers reclaiming the word "slut" to make the point that if victimized women are sluts, then all women must be, since anyone can be victimized regardless of what they are wearing. SlutWalks have occurred in major cities all over the world, including New York City, Berlin, Seattle, West Hollywood, and London. Third-wave feminist bloggers have both praised and criticized the Slutwalks, with the reclamation of the word "slut" being questioned for its possible exclusion of some cultural groups.
Third-wave feminism's central issues are that of race, social class, and sexuality. However, there 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 feminism is often associated with the emergence of, so-called, "lipstick" or "girly" feminisms and the rise of "raunch culture". This is because these new feminisms advocated for “expressions of femininity and female sexuality as a challenge to objectification". Accordingly, this included the dismissal of any restriction, whether deemed patriarchal or feminist, to define or control how women or girls can dress, act, or generally express themselves. These emerging positions stood in stark contrast with the anti-pornography strains of feminism prevalent in the 1980s. These new feminisms posit that the ability to make autonomous choices about self-expression can be an empowering act of resistance, not simply internalized oppression. However, such views have been critiqued because of the subjective nature of empowerment and autonomy. Scholars are unsure if empowerment is best measured as an “internal feeling of power and agency" or an external "measure of power and control". Moreover, they critique an over-investment in "a model of free will and choice" in the marketplace of identities and ideas. Regardless, the "girly" feminisms attempted to be open to all different selves while maintaining a dialogue about the meaning of identity and femininity in the contemporary world.
These view-points shouldn’t be limited by the label "girly" feminism or regarded as simply advocating for "raunch culture". Rather, these feminisms seek to be inclusive of the many diverse relationships and roles women fulfill. Gender scholars Linda Duits and Liesbet van Zoonen highlight this inclusiveness by looking at the politicization of women’s clothing choices and how the "controversial sartorial choices of girls" and women are constituted in public discourse as "a locus of necessary regulation". Thus, the "hijab" and the "belly shirt", as dress choices, are both identified as requiring regulation but for different reasons. The two clothing items of women that have caused a great deal of controversy initially appear to be opposing forms of self-expression. However, through the lens of "girly" feminisms, they can both be viewed as symbolic of "political agency and resistance to objectification". The "hijab" can be seen as an act of resistance against western ambivalence towards Islamic identity, while the "belly shirt" can be viewed as an act of resistance towards patriarchal society’s narrow views of female sexuality: Both are regarded as valid forms of self-expression.
Layli Miller-Muro founded the Tahirih Justice Center in 1997 following a well-publicized asylum case in which she was involved as a student attorney dealing with female genital mutilation. Miller-Muro later co-wrote a book with the client she had aided and used her portion of the proceeds for the initial funding of Tahirih. As of 2012, the organization had assisted more than 13,000 women and children fleeing from a wide variety of abuses. The organization played a significant role in the passage of the International Marriage Broker Regulation Act (IMBRA), which was signed by President Bush in early 2006 and incorporated into the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). IMBRA gives foreign women important information about prospective American husbands (for a summary, see also Mail-order bride, Legal issues).
One issue raised by critics is the lack of a single cause for third-wave feminism. The first wave fought for 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.
The third wave of feminism, some argue, 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 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".
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.
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.