What is referred to as Third Wave Feminism (TWF) began in the 1990’s with pioneering figures such as Rebecca Walker, Kimberle Crenshaw, the Riot Grrrl punk-rock scene (featuring acts such as Bikini Kill and Bratmobile), Anita Hill, Leslie Heywood, Eve Ensler (creator of the Vagina Monologues), Jennifer Drake, the Spice Girls, and Deborah Siegel. They were in many respects a “modernized” (or post-modernist) response to the Second Wave Feminists whom the Third Wave felt were overwhelmingly white, privileged, and inherently conservative in their conception of rights, issues, goals, and the political order of Western Civilization.
Described by its proponents, TWF is conceived of as a movement grounded in “coalition [based] political activism that defines itself through the multiple subject positions and diverse community affiliations of its members.” They furthermore promote an ideology that “comes to terms with the multiple, constantly shifting bases of oppression in relation to the multiple, and interpenetrating, axes of identity and the creation of a [political movement] based on these understandings.”
Conversely, Third Wave critics describe it as a set of “paternalistic authority figures [who attempt to] project a hypothetical utopia that [would] be magically free from offence and hurt.” Detractors also note the movement’s reactionary and rampant “policing of thought and speech” (which they frame as a “gross betrayal of the radical principles of 1960s counterculture”) that intentionally promotes the fraudulent assumption of women as “naïve [and] helpless in asserting control over their [own lives].”
Third Wavers held, and continue to hold, a set of distinct and irrefutable foundational planks associated with their movement: Intersectional theory, group distinctions, sex positivity, post-modernist theory, social justice activism, and an anti-establishment bend (against the prevailing “hetero-normative patriarchal political structure” and the Second Wave Feminists they rebel against). So an overwhelming majority of what can be described as contemporary “identity politics” can trace its roots to 1990’s TWF and the awareness they raised in terms of marginalized groups, systemic bias, tone deaf political speech, and the plight of the those who face intersectional hardships.
And this is the key intellectual, social, and political contribution that the Third Wave has given the world…“intersectionality”. This is defined as “the complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classism) combine, overlap, or intersect especially in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups.”
Indeed this is the heart of the Third Wave conception of the world. The prevailing liberal-democratic regime of legal equality, individual rights, capitalism, free speech, and empirical evidence was challenged by Third Wave charges of rampant (and systemic) inequality, group rights/claims, social justice gaps between marginalized groups, a reappraisal of free speech’s limits, and the enshrinement of identity truths. Undoubtedly these issues have been at the forefront of political discourse for the last decade and have manifested themselves in prominent ways. These include deplatforming speakers at universities, expanding the scope of discrimination laws, special governmental inquiries into marginalized groups, revisiting historical “truths”, increased attention to social programs, and reviewing the conduct of law enforcement officials. Contrariwise, the increased attention paid to intersectionality, and social justice activism, has also been blamed for the rise of the “Alt-Right” (white identity politics), President Trump, the nationalist/populist backlash, as well as political polarization across the Western world. There are those that say the Third Wave has not ended while others insist we have been seeing a “Fourth Wave” roll out over the last 4-8 years. These are matters that are still being contested in the larger conversation, but...
...one fact remains regardless of whether you consider yourself “old school”, “woke”, “traditional”, “intersectional”, “anti-feminist” or “progressive”… the Third Wave’s message had an impact on your conception of reality.
To demonstrate this watch, listen, or read something from pop-culture history (dating 25 years or older) and notice yourself noticing the cringe inducing realities of an unaware and willfully ignorant era. TWF most obviously had a large role in raising civilizational consciousness whether or not you reject the political and legal claims made by TWFs.
The real question that strikes us as prescient for this topic and issue is: “How should, and to what extent, Third Wave ideals, theories, and concepts be applied to the real world?” Should social justice be an integral part of political life in the 21st century, or, is it best utilized as a critical tool to measure problematic realties? Should people put group identity ahead of the individual? Is applying social justice/intersectional theory required to correct historical realities (or arguably current realities)? Has civilizational consciousness been raised to a point where the political application of TWF values becomes inherently regressive and divisive? Should people “check their privilege” or stay content with the current state of affairs?
We have allowed our diverse set of writers ample time and space to parse out these questions and grapple with the topic of Third Wave Feminism. In this issue we look TWF’s history, theory, and utilization, within the current socio-cultural and political context. We hope you enjoy the content put forth.