To pinpoint the start of a social movement is a difficult task, but not one made impossible given the access to media and folklore of the 90s which may give us insight to what exactly was changing in feminist consciousness to give way to a new wave of feminism. The third wave of feminism, originating in the 1990’s was a call for inclusion, and a sort of call-out of previous waves that had failed to consider the intersection of identities of many women in the movement. The third wave of feminism effectively synthesised an intersectional perspective, that is, the consideration that gender, race, class, sexuality and other intersecting identities shape one’s experience under patriarchy, rejecting second wave ideas that all women face the same type of oppression under patriarchy. Even still, we may look at the second wave of feminism, much like the first, as an evolving social movement that is not static, but requires updating to include modern contexts and perspectives. This post-modern approach to feminism rejected universality and included global voices in the movement, with a twinge of cultural relativism which is most helpful in understanding an increasingly globalised world.
Within the movement, there was a diverse range of voices and thus, subcategories of the umbrella ‘feminism’ that continue to be readily important in the development of a conscious and inclusive feminist framework. Womanism for example, also began to emerge around this time. Womanism, first coined by Pulitzer award writer Alice Walker, served to distinguish Black feminism from the primarily white feminist movement. In this differentiation, Womanist mobilisation vested primarily for one of society's most marginalised groups and empowered Black women through activism focused on their unique experience under both institutionalised patriarchy and racism.
The third wave of feminism was heavily marked by changes in folklore: including music, literature and films, which influenced feminist consciousness and marked a clear differentiation from second wave feminist thinking. We may turn to examples in the media, literature and politics to gain a comprehensive understanding of third wave feminism.
In the media
The 90s was marked by a flourishing zine culture that had been previously long standing primarily with an anti-establishment sentiment. To communicate in the alternative scene was comparatively harder in the 90’s: the knowledge of the obscure or anti mainstream culture happened mainly through word-of-mouth: knowing someone who knew someone who knew about a thing. One of such things was zine’s, shortened version of magazines which are usually small, self-produced and thus enjoy the liberty of diffusing anti-establishing messaging. Within Zine culture, the underground feminist movement “Riot Grrrl" began to proliferate through music and a DIY aesthetic. The underground zine culture was a place of synthesis for anti-establishment culture, ranging from radical politics to the in-your-face feminism mostly noticed in punk adjacent “Riot Grrrl” music. The rhetoric about women’s liberation was catalysed by the anger being demonstrated in the mainstream.
A classic example of “Riot Grrrl” music and feminist rhetoric is Bikini Kill's “Double Dare Ya,” which begins with the lines “We want revolution, Girl-Style now!” of which punk style drumming and hard bass lines create a sonic atmosphere of hostility and rebellion. Another anthem of the “Riot Grrrl” movement, Bratmobile’s “Cool Schmool” evidences the contradictions of patriarchal society in the anecdotal experiences of the bandmates. As it seems, “Riot Grrrl” music grew out of a frustration of the post-feminist discourse of the 90’s, which ignored the remaining patriarchy that was expressed amongst the young and seemingly progressive crowd. The inability to verbalise the material struggle translated as anger, and rightfully so.
“Riot Grrl’s” and Guerrilla Girls alike reproached the anti-woman sentiment of the times both in the art world, and through their music. Zines were a useful medium to translate the “Riot Grrrl” agenda into the mainstream which ultimately led to some Zines, like Bitch, or Bust solidifying themselves as full scale publications.
Third wave feminism found a way to incorporate feminism, and the wide scale anger of women, into the mainstream. Still, most of the women who were heard were white women- although the third movement is predominantly recognized for including a comparatively more inclusive, even intersectional perspective as opposed to its predating movements.
Third wave feminist literature encapsulated the intersectional ethos of the time and effectively captured the inertia of the movement. The analysis of third wave feminism in literature was in line with the social political occurrences of the era. Alice Walker’s daughter, Rebecca Walker’s “Becoming The Third Wave,” was firstly used to coin the movement as such as per the political and social happenings of the era, specifically, Anita Hill’s testimony against (now) Supreme Court Justice Clarence Tomas which began on October 11, 1991.
What is most poignant in third wave feminist literature is its critical analysis of race, class and their intersections with gender. Third wave feminists radical discourse came charged with the legacy of second wave feminists. Like Rebecca Walker, many of the prominent third wave writers recognized, in their mothers for example, the legacy of second wave feminist. Most of the third wave’s prominent thinkers were largely college educated and did not, like conservative critics of the time, concentrate on critiquing second wave feminism for its perceived hyperboles, but rather incorporated the legacy of second wave feminists to an intersectional critique that could be useful globally. Kimberlé Crenshaw’s work in critical race theory first introduced the idea of intersectionality in feminist critique, and was highly influential in shaping the critical analysis of third wave feminists. Seminal works by Patricia Hills Collins, “Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment'' and Judith Butler’s “Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity'' approach feminism through the analysis of women's social and political roles in society- a hallmark of the third wave. In the words of Professor Angela Davis; “the personal is political,” and third wave feminist sought to refresh and remark the statement of the previous wave in their literature and analysis.
As aforementioned, the second wave of feminism was synchronous with the testimony of Anita Hill, which radically disrupted the Senate in the 90s and introduced the question of workplace sexual harassment into the forefront of public consciousness. Anita Hill, a law school professor and an employee for Clarence Thomas, testified to being subjected to workplace sexual harassment by the latter; the Sente Judicuary Committe hearings were then televised. The United States bore witness to the treatment of Anita Hill by the Senate, many of whom asked bashing questions and who sought to induce doubt to Hill’s credibility.
Three days of hearings, testimonies, and unreasonable questioning later, Clarence Thomas was confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice, of which he is still a part of. The rhetoric that arose from the hearings; having both a black man and a Black woman put on the stand beefore an all-white cabinet demonstrated the influence of race in feminist thinking and how imperative it is for it to be considered in feminist theorising and in the material consequences for Black women in American society. Thomas’s metaphor of the hearings being “high tech lynching” mobilized scholar and lawyer Kimberlé Crenshaw (who was part of Hill’s legal team) to highlight the erasure of Black women in history as both survivors of atrocities and advocates against them. The hearing, and its preposturness inspired Rebecca Walker’s powerful words; “To Me the hearings were not about determining whether or not Clarence Thomas didn't in fact harass Anita Hill. They were about checking and redefining the extent of women's credibility and power.” (Walker, 1992).
The emergence of the third wave of feminism in the 1990s marked a transformative period in the feminist movement, characterized by a dynamic intersectional perspective that acknowledged the diverse identities shaping women's experiences under patriarchy. Departing from the more homogeneous views of the second wave, the third wave embraced a post-modern approach, incorporating global voices. This era witnessed the rise of various feminist subcategories, which aimed to address the unique struggles of marginalized groups, particularly Black women.
The cultural landscape played a crucial role in shaping the third wave, with the flourishing zine culture and the Riot Grrrl movement providing an alternative platform for feminist expression. Music, literature, and films became powerful mediums through which feminist ideas were disseminated. Riot Grrrl music, for instance, expressed frustration with post-feminist discourse, offering an outlet for the anger and rebellion simmering beneath the surface. The movement effectively infiltrated mainstream media, albeit with a predominantly white representation, highlighting the ongoing need for inclusivity within feminist spaces.
In literature, third wave feminists critically analyzed issues of race, class, and gender intersectionality, building on the legacy of second wave feminists. The works of scholars like Kimberlé Crenshaw, Patricia Hill Collins, and Judith Butler contributed to a rich body of feminist literature that sought to address women's social and political roles globally. The political arena also witnessed pivotal moments, such as Anita Hill's testimony, which exposed the intersection of race and gender in feminist discourse.
Despite its achievements, the third wave faced challenges, with the co-option of feminist narratives into pop culture raising concerns about potential corruption. However, the movement undeniably brought about significant progress in reshaping feminist consciousness, emphasizing the importance of diverse voices and experiences. As the third wave unfolded, it left an indelible mark on feminist theory, setting the stage for ongoing conversations about inclusivity, intersectionality, and the ever-evolving nature of the feminist movement.
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