Third Wave Feminism- Who’s driving this thing anyways?

In the midst of this”third wave” of Feminism, it seems as though the movement is becoming more fractured than ever. Womanism, Chicana Feminsim, Radical Feminism… There hardly seems to be anything coherent left. Compared to the movements that came before us- the shoulders upon which we stand- we seem to have less in common with one another and fewer tangible goals that we can all agree upon. Are prostitutes sex workers or victims? Can a woman choose the wear Hijab? What role should the West play in supporting middle eastern feminist efforts? Should we even be involved at all? Do women across cultures and socioeconomic levels and races have enough in common to all work together for a common goal? What would that goal look like?

A Quick History-

The First Wave

There have always been rifts in the feminist movement. History has the effect of dampening the sound of conflict, leaving out the complicating details so much that past eras seems always to be simple times when victory for the good guys was obvious and inevitable. The first wave was characterized, in the story we tell, by the fight for the vote. Originating in the U.K., this is the classic wave that you might have touched upon in history class. At this point, a hundred years later, these women are finally considered uncontroversial heroes of civil rights. This was the time of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Victoria Woodhull, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Susan B. Anthony, Margaret Sanger, and others. These (mostly white) ladies fought for and won the right to own property, vote, enter university, manage money and own businesses, and run for office. The big controversy, and the reason suffrage took so long to achieve, was a question of priorities: Do we fight for the right of women to vote first or African- Americans? Ultimately, the women took the backburner. But it was a huge controversy at the time, dividing women:

“Elizabeth Cady Stanton herself complained about the prospect of black voting rights in 1865. “Now,” she wrote, “it becomes a serious question whether we had better stand aside and see ‘Sambo’ walk in the kingdom first.” (Tom Head)

Ultimately, it came to pass than African-Americans gained voting rights (on paper) first, possibly because rich white politicians knew they  had a bag full of tricks like poll taxes and literacy tests  that would effectively silence the Black vote for decades. (As an aside, the literacy tests given are seriously impossible. Take one here. The Supreme Court made a ruling in June to remove federal oversight on these tests, meaning that the south may decide to rise again and get all ugly and racist again. Something to keep a lookout for). 

The Second Wave

The Second Wavers focused less on the legal aspect of equality and more on gaining equity in the workplace, in the family, and in sexuality. Margaret Sanger’s dream of reliable oral contraception was realized on the dime of Katherine McCormick, who funded research that was too ‘out there’ for drug companies who somehow missed the fact that women would very much like to have sex and not get pregnant. Released in 1960, it changed the face of human sexuality. Betty Friedan dared mention that all women might not be entirely fulfilled by children and marriage in her 1963 book. Much of the second wave was characterized by discovery- the discovery of how deeply entrenched in patriarchy we are, of who we could become as we freed ourselves from it.

Like the First Wave before it, though, it was not without internal controversy. The Feminist Sex Wars, considered the end of the second wave, have been dividing feminists since the 1980s and are only now beginning to be reconciled. The central controversies all related to sex- Can prostitution be considered work? Is pornography inherently degrading to women? Are some sexual practices “unfeminist”?

The Third Wave

Beginning on such turbulent ground, we of the third wave have taken a step back and made efforts to include as many people under our banner as possible, recognizing differences. Earlier movements had failed to enfranchise poor women and women of color, as well as men. The struggle for the acceptance of women working outside the home seems laughable to the millions of  poor women who have always had jobs in addition to housework as members of the working poor. Yet these women need feminism too.

So feminism has splintered into a channels in attempts to deal with all the very different needs of many groups of women. In addition to demographic groups, there remain the ideological groups left over from the Sex Wars- anti-sex feminists like Andrea Dworkin who believe that heterosexual intercourse is inherently oppressive to women, pro-positive sex feminists like Gloria Steinem who believe that sex is not oppressive to women when it is mutually respectful, pro-sex feminists like Carol Queen and Nina Hartly who think that sex is only oppressive when one party feels it is… it seems there are as many Feminisms as there are feminists. As we try to break down gender entirely, the nice binaries and titles that made Feminism an entity are broken down too. It seems sometimes as though Feminism is ripping up the deck while we’re still standing on it trying to put together outdoor furniture- in the name of consciousness raising and checking privilege.

Even as we use queer theory to question, in the classroom, the very existence of gender, third wave feminists haven’t entirely abandoned the pursuit of change: like our 1st wave grandmothers we fight for legal change- protecting Roe v. Wade, getting sexual harassment laws on the books, and increasing women’s presence in politics. Like our 2nd wave mothers we fight for social change- for child care and universal preschool, for equitable wages for women who choose work outside the home and respect and social security benefits for women who choose work unpaid in the home. We, too, emphasize choice.

So where do we go from here? That’s a hell of a question. Feminists continue to support the LGBQI community and their efforts for legal change and social acceptance. We’re fighting to end rape culture and to secure our reproductive rights. We’re trying to include men. We are invading the academic sphere. Sometimes the most important thing is to say “We’re still here!” in a culture that would like to think that it is “post-racial” and “post-feminist”.  The third wave is happening now, around you. You can be a part of it and be a feminist for your own personal Feminism. It is what we make it, ladies and gentlemen.


Feminism: What it is, and what it isn’t

It’s almost funny how much I didn’t know about myself when I stepped foot on my college campus for the first time. For one, I didn’t know I was a feminist. I only knew feminism based on clichés, some of which, though untrue, have permeated our culture to the point where it becomes a part of the movement to those that knew very little of feminism (like myself). When I heard people talk about feminists, it was with disdain: “those man-haters are complaining again.” Those misconceptions were immediately banished, however, when I started attending and talking about events on campus with my fellow students. There were events and talks like Slut Walk, I Love Female Orgasm, Vagina Monologues, Take Back the Night, and many more. I began to realize that I had been seeing a distorted view of feminism, one that was not only untrue, but harmful to the purpose of true feminism.

Simply put, there are a lot of things that feminism isn’t, but let’s start with what feminism is. Firstly, a feminist is “a person who advocates equal rights for women.” Let the record show that nowhere in this definition were the phrases “bra burner” or “man hater.” At the most basic level, a feminist believes that women should have the same rights as men. They do not believe that all men are evil nor do they hate every man they lay eyes on. There are, obviously, radicals among any cause. Unfortunately sometimes radicals end up becoming the face of a cause. The Westboro Baptist Church does not represent Christianity across the globe, but sometimes they are the loudest. Therefore, though you may have met radical feminists that turned you off of the idea, they do not represent the whole.

Perhaps people are confused about feminism because they do not understand this “patriarchy” that we feminists so vehemently fight against. Patriarchy “is a term for societies in which male is the favoured gender, and in which men hold power, dominion and privileges.” When we look at patriarchy, we do not see evil, soulless men trying to dominate women, we see a harmful, outdated societal structure that hurts everyone. Let me repeat that: patriarchy hurts everyone. Tony Porter discusses the “man box,” a set of ideals that men must accept and live out to avoid ridicule and ostracism. I invite (read: implore) you to watch this quick video. It is illuminating.

Toward the end of his talk, he applies his stories to how this culture of the “man box” leads to violence against women. While he makes a fantastic point, I don’t have enough room in this post to delve into that topic. Therefore, I will focus on another implication of his story: the “man box” (a result of patriarchy) hurts men, too.
Challey Kacelnik states:

“The thing is, it’s patriarchy that says men are stupid and monolithic and unchanging and incapable. It’s patriarchy that says men have animalistic instincts and just can’t stop themselves from harassing and assaulting. It’s patriarchy that says men can only be attracted by certain qualities, can only have particular kinds of responses, can only experience the world in narrow ways. Feminism holds that men are capable of more – are more than that.”

Kacelnik helps disentangle the feminists from the “man hating” cliché that is so inappropriately applied. Feminists are fighting for equal rights by lifting women up, not pulling men down. In recognizing how patriarchy hurts women, we must first understand how it hurts everyone.

I’ve definitely heard from friends and strangers alike “I don’t see any inequality.” “What are feminists fighting?” “Those problems don’t exist anymore, feminists are just complaining.” Though comments like these make me angry, they also worry and sadden me. It shows that the people that made these comments have either a) miraculously not experienced or witnessed any sort of problem in our society stemming from the objectification and abuse of women or b) they don’t understand that what they have seen qualifies as abuse of women and power. It shows that these issues are born from our society itself, so ingrained in the way we see and process the world around us that they seem like the framework of our social interactions- just a part of us. (Steubenville is a horrifying example of this concept, in which teenagers didn’t understand that what they were witnessing was rape). A writer on wordpress hit the nail on the head when she said:

“They’re not self-indulgent like people seem to think, or only concerned about whining and asking for more; they have made the difficult choice to accept and live with awful truths and dedicate themselves to fighting an almost impenetrable force…Look at the words modern feminists use all the time: patriarchy, male entitlement, rape culture, social scripts, expectations. What the hell are those? Compare these concepts with words like suffrage, abortion, and employment, and they might as well be dust blowing in the wind, or sand washing into the ocean, or rain falling from the sky. What do they mean? How do we fix it? What is there to be done?…Feminists today (i.e. Third Wave feminists) have to first defend the existence of the problems they fight.”

As the writer mentions in her article, being a feminist is hard: it means letting yourself see the problems in our society instead of pleasantly ignoring them, it means taking a stand and saying “rape jokes aren’t funny,” or “slut shaming is harmful to our society and its members.” It means understanding and truly seeing the culture we live in, acknowledging both the good and the bad. It means knowing that you have a responsibility to make a difference, and accepting that responsibility.

I mentioned a few topics in this post such as rape jokes, slut shaming, and victim blaming. These are all topics that deserve full discussions and will be discussed in subsequent posts.

(This post does appear (under the same title) on another blog to which I contribute-

Other brilliant posts-
7 Things Feminists Always Have to Explain to Everybody Else
Hating on Feminism? I Get That.