The F Word: Your Guide to Third Wave Feminism

Photo courtesy of www.huffingtonpost.ca

By Lauren Herber, Co-Editor

Last semester, I was practicing a presentation with a partner in the seemingly empty Tower room. Our presentation was about feminism and the effect that globalization has had on the feminist movement. Near the end of our presentation, a Thunderbird student appeared from around the corner and approached us, admonishing us for using such a “foul” word so freely. My partner and I were stunned into silence, wondering what it was that we had said to provoke such a hostile reaction. After a few moments, we realized that the language we used that so offended our peer was simply the word feminism. I tell this story not to say that Thunderbird is full of narrow-minded misogynists but to demonstrate how important and relevant the feminist movement truly is. Never in my life have I been surrounded by such open-minded, intelligent people. But even in this safe haven of progressive, forward-thinking students, feminism is still misunderstood by some. I wanted to write this article so that I can, hopefully, present a clear, honest portrait of what “feminism” means, why it should matter to you (no matter your gender), and why it’s important in the world of business.

Photo courtesy of thedevelopmentofwomensrights.weebly.com
Photo courtesy of thedevelopmentofwomensrights.weebly.com

I’ll start with a brief history of the Western feminist movement for context using the wave metaphor. This metaphor is often used to describe the feminist movement because it emphasizes the connection between the crests of each wave of the movement. While each wave is unique, it is deeply tied to the previous wave and forms the foundation for the next wave. The first wave of the feminist movement began in the 19th century and ended in 1920 (keep in mind that the start and end dates aren’t set in stone, they’re just for reference). Led by activists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the main concern of the first wave was legal issues like property rights and women’s suffrage. As a result, many other relevant women’s issues such as abortion, rape, and sexuality were largely ignored. Also neglected were issues of race and class; the first wave is widely acknowledged to have only served the goals of white, middle class women. The feminist literature and theory written during that time period makes this oversight exceedingly obvious.

Bra burning at a Miss America Pageant. Photo courtesy of www.gurjotnewyork.com
Bra burning at a Miss America Pageant. Photo courtesy of www.gurjotnewyork.com

The second wave of feminism consisted largely of self-identified feminists who were brought up in the 1970s and developed political consciousness during or after the antifeminist backlash of the 1980s. Key players in this wave included Simone de Beauvoir (author of “Woman as Other”) and Betty Friedan (author of The Feminine Mystique and “The Problem That Has No Name”). During this wave of the movement, issues surrounding sexuality and reproductive freedom played a larger role. Additionally, women started recognizing that their socially dictated gender roles of wives and mothers did not completely satisfy them. As a result, women started fighting more actively for their right to a more intellectually fulfilling career. While the second wave made definite progress in women’s rights, inattentiveness to racial, cultural, sexual, and national differences was still rampant. Women of color and women outside the limiting circle of heteronormativity were still excluded, their voices silenced by their white, upper-middle class peers.

Currently, we are in the third wave of the feminist movement, which, according to theorists, has abandoned the coherent set of values and ideas of previous waves. Third wave feminism is heavily influenced by postmodernism and multiracial feminist theory, and it emphasizes the difference in experiences rather than asserting that all women have the same experiences. This approach gives a voice to women who were previously excluded or ignored due to their race, status, sexuality, or religion. Indeed, rather than asserting that “feminism” boils down to a singular, exclusive ideology, third wave feminists celebrate the many varied paths that one can take in her personal feminist journey.

Rebecca Walker. Photo courtesy of dailymultiracial.com
Rebecca Walker. Photo courtesy of dailymultiracial.com

The goal of third wave feminism is to be open and inclusive to all women. This policy of openness and nonjudgment gives many multiracial and queer theorists a chance to share their experiences in a realm that was, in the past, largely dominated by white heteronormative theorists. The result of this is a much higher degree of diversity than the previous waves. Multiracial feminist theory is extremely important to the feminist movement as a whole because the work of multiracial feminists has demonstrated that the meaning of feminism itself may differ for women of different races. As a result, personal narratives constitute a powerful form of communication in third wave feminism because they illustrate an intersectional and multiperspectival version of feminism. Personal narratives allow experiences to take center stage as opposed to theories. Rebecca Walker, regarded by many to be the starter of the third wave, puts it best: “It seems that to be a feminist in the way that we have seen or understood feminism is to conform to an identity and way of living that doesn’t allow for individuality, complexity, or less than perfect personal histories.” Third wave feminism is all about women using their personal experiences and empowerment to define feminism for themselves.

Article featured in Maxim magazine. Photo courtesy of www.thewire.com
Article featured in Maxim magazine. Photo courtesy of www.thewire.com

Like the generations of feminists before them, third wave feminists are still struggling to combat the negative representations of them that are widely circulated through the media. While certainly not a new problem, the growth of media has enabled the spread of stereotypes. Feminists are often stereotyped as being angry, uptight, humorless, unconcerned about their appearance, and fanatically invested in “political correctness.” These misrepresentations work against the feminist movement, giving feminists a bad rap and discouraging women who consider themselves more “moderate” from joining the feminist movement. Third wave feminists make a concerted effort to demonstrate to all people—no matter your gender, race, or sexuality—that anyone can be feminist. Just as your gender, race, sexuality, and status do not matter, neither do your clothes, makeup, or outward appearance.

Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Photo courtesy of www.nytimes.com
Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Photo courtesy of www.nytimes.com

Social media has played an instrumental role in the spread of the third wave feminist movement because it gives a voice to women who were previously silenced or ignored. It also serves as a platform for emphasizing the important role that men play in the feminist movement, as can be seen in the #HeForShe social media campaign that highlights the importance of male support. For example, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian writer and feminist, emphasizes the criticality of teaching young men different definitions of gender roles early in their lives. The practice of changing the way that men think about women at a young age is key in changing the attitudes of men towards women as a whole. Clearly, men play an extremely important role in women’s rights. Just because “feminism” is the title does not mean that the movement only pertains to women!

This line of thinking can and should be extended to the business world as well. For a long time, business was considered a man’s domain. Recently, however, this has been changing. More women than ever before are going to college and pursuing successful, fulfilling careers in business. Women bring new perspectives and ideas to the table and add a new dimension to their teams. And even if you’re not a woman, you will, without a doubt, work with women at some point in your life. Understanding feminism and how it benefits everyone is key to having successful working relationships with women. The times are changing and the opportunities are endless: imagine the success that can be achieved with new, more diverse collaborations. Feminism is certainly about gender equality, but it’s really about so much more: it’s about recognizing the value of all human beings, regardless of gender, race, sexuality, and social status. Don’t get left behind.

To learn more about third wave feminism, read To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism by Rebecca Walker, We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive by Julia Serano

To experience third wave feminism in all its glory (and see how it differs from first and second wave feminism), read Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, Ain’t I a Woman:Black Women and Feminism by bell hooks, #Girlboss by Sophia Amoruso, Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran.

1 Comment

  1. This is a very smart article Lauren. This issue is really important to me…There have been a few times when I’ve been talking with WOMEN who react negatively when I tell them I’m a feminist. It shows how misunderstood “feminism” is in pop culture. You are absolutely right that feminism needs the support of men and is actually beneficial to all of society, not just women. Feminism is about celebrating and cultivating the potential in ALL human beings: men, women and everyone in between. Thank you for sharing this article with us.

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