Third Wave Feminism

Third wave feminism has numerous definitions, but perhaps is best described in the most general terms as the feminism of a younger generation of women who acknowledge the legacy of second wave feminism, but also identify what they see as its limitations. These perceived limitations would include their sense that it remained too exclusively white and middle class, that it became a prescriptive movement which alienated ordinary women by making them feel guilty about enjoying aspects of individual self-expression such as cosmetics and fashion, but also sexuality – especially heterosexuality and its trappings, such as pornography. Moreover, most third wavers would assert that the historical and political conditions in which second wave feminism emerged no longer exist and therefore it does not chime with the experiences of today’s women. Third wave feminists seem to largely be women who have grown up massively influenced by feminism, possibly with feminist mothers and relations, and accustomed to the existence of women’s studies courses as the norm as well as academic interrogations of ‘race’ and class. These young, mainly university-educated women may well also have encountered post-structuralist and postmodernist theories, so that their approach to staple feminist concepts such as identity and sisterhood will be sceptical and challenging.

According to the conservative critic Rene Denfeld, the third wave was conceived by Rebecca Walker (daughter of the writer Alice Walker) and Shannon Liss in the early 1990s (Denfeld 1995: 263), but it seems likely that the term was applied across a number of sources synchronically and, like the second wave, its history is dispersed and caught up with the political tendencies of the age. It is interesting to point out, though, that much of its impetus derives from the writings of women of colour. Most third wave feminists seem to separate their perspectives from so-called ‘post-feminism’; as Lesley Heywood and Jennifer Drake assert, ‘Let us be clear: “post-feminist” characterizes a group of young, conservative feminists who explicitly define themselves against and criticize feminists of the second wave’ (1997: 1). They, conversely, seem very conscious of the second wave’s recent history and may well see their work as part of a continuum of feminist radical thought and theorising. This is in opposition to some contemporary commentators on feminism such as Katie Roiphe, whose The Morning After (1994) portrayed US campuses as overrun with misguided feminist radicals exaggerating the dangers of date rape and sexual harassment to the detriment of relationships between men and women – clearly part of the conservative tendency rejected by third wavers.

Naomi Wolf, however, gets a more mixed reception, but her Fire with Fire (1993) in many ways fits the third wave mould, particularly in her dismissal of what she calls ‘victim feminism’ – where women are supposedly encouraged to see themselves rendered passive by oppression within a second wave formulation. Wolf articulates her perspective as part of a generational shift in common with practically all third wave feminism whose genesis is based on a resistance to the ‘old guard’or framed in terms of the need for the ‘daughter’ to break away from her feminist ‘mother’ in order to define her own agenda.

Third wave feminism seems to have emerged from the academy in the loosest sense – that its key spokespeople developed these ideas as a response to their own feminist education – but is equally present in popular cultural forms, as these feminists see their lives as just as powerfully shaped by popular culture, particularly music, television, film and literature. Media figures such as the rock star Courtney Love represent third wave icons in their tendency to refuse to adhere to a feminist party line, but also in their resistance to comply with the types of ‘feminine’ behaviour deemed compatible with media and mainstream success. The Riot Grrrl movement which began around 1991, has close links with the emergence of third wave feminism and illustrates their claim that popular culture can be the site of activism, and that media such as music can be used to communicate political messages. The musical style of Riot Grrrls was heavily influenced by 1970s’ punk and it embraced punk’s  inclusivity – the idea that anyone with a passion for music, but perhaps without formal training, could be involved in performance. Their influence soon went beyond the music scene to a broader-based movement – the 1992 Riot Grrrl convention in Washington, DC, for example, had workshops on sexuality, rape, racism and domestic violence (Klein in Heywood and Drake 1997: 214). Examples of Riot Grrl and subsequent third wave activism include making music (not an inconsiderable ambition in an industry famously dominated by men), running record labels, publishing fanzines and setting up cultural events. As all this suggests, being part of feminism’s third wave means realising one’s own politics through the mass media and popular culture – this is diametrically opposed to the ambitions of second wave feminism to keep its ‘authenticity’ by generally shunning the blandishments of the media for fear of being absorbed by patriarchal power structures. Despite the marginal and maverick status of Riot Grrrl performers, there is more generally an investment in women who have made success in a man’s world, using all the usual ‘patriarchal’ indicators of success, such as money, fame, media savvy. The sources for third wave inspiration reflect this cultural multi-lingualism, so that a third wave feminist is as likely to read Mary Wollstonecraft as she is to pick up Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women (1999) or settle down to watch the latest episode of Buffy.

Beyond their cultural tastes, third wavers pride themselves on their global perspective and there is a commitment to look at the material conditions of people’s lives while embracing some of the key tenets of second wave feminism. Men and heterosexuality have a less problematic place in third wave feminism – and their analysis tends to take into account the dispossession of young males as well as females. In the USA in particular, its focus on a certain generation acts as a counterpoise to the characterisation of American generation-Xers as whining and idle.

It is certain that third wave activism is still in its relative infancy and that more academic commentaries will gradually emerge, which will themselves broaden its scope at the same time that they attempt to account for its particular philosophy. Very much at the heart of feminism’s third wave is the sense of generational conflict – one generation claiming its own space and fashioning the movement in its own image – in fact ‘generation X feminism’ is defined by age more than  anything else. This marks a very different transition from the first to second waves of feminism, where the shape of political action and feminist purpose was transformed from a discourse of rights to that of liberation. There are hints of good old second wave collective activity in the websites, the zines and the concerts such as Ladyfest (which began in 2000 and are happening across the USA and Europe), but it has a more individualist edge, reflecting among other things a radical suspicion of the politics of identity, and a marked shift to ‘lifestyle’ politics (the idea that your politics said something about your individual taste in the same way that your clothes, furniture and car did – and was in fact part of the ‘package’) evident since the mid-1980s. Of course second wave feminism was itself largely a ‘young’ movement, comprised mainly of women who were in their twenties and thirties during its height, but they have grown old with it and presumably never imagined that its essential message couldn’t be conveyed to a new generation. Catherine Redfern, editor of the web-based The F-Word declares that ‘Second wavers often misunderstand young women’s enthusiasm for the term “third wave”. They think it’s because we don’t respect their achievements or want to disassociate ourselves from them. In actual fact I think it simply demonstrates a desire to feel part of a movement with relevance to our own lives and to claim it for ourselves, to stress that feminism is active today, right now . . . a lot has changed between Gen X and the baby boomers, partly because of the achievements of 70s feminism. Having said that, feminism still has unfinished business’ (Redfern 2002).


Source: Fifty Key Concepts in Gender Studies Jane Pilcher and Imelda Whelehan Sage Publications, 2004.

Lesley Haywood and Jennifer Drake (1997) offer a lively account of the meanings of third wave feminism to date; Naomi Wolf (1993) is one of the most influential books for this generation of feminists. Because this is a movement that generates intense debate on the web, it is worth looking at some of the sites available, such as ‘The third wave – Feminism for the new millennium’ ( or the UK’s ‘The FWord’ (

Categories: Gender Studies

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