There is no single definition of Third Wave feminism, in part because the movement sought greater analytical diversity than had the Second Wave. Rejecting a woman good / man bad binary, the Third Wave stressed women’s complex agency, and even complicity, in systems of power. Beginning in the mid-1990s and influenced by the 21st century’s dramatic expansion of communication technologies, Third Wave feminists questioned long-standing accounts of pornography and sex work that saw women primarily as victims. They also emphasized how race, sexuality, colonialism, and many other vectors of identity vastly complicate gendered experience.
This latter focus became known as intersectionality, arguably the Third Wave’s most significant, and internally fracturing, contribution. Intersectionality recognized that not all men are privileged, and that some women—especially upper-middle-class white women—are far from powerless. Despite a reductive application that could result in the smearing of white, heterosexual men even more sweepingly than before, the Third Wave’s development of a potentially more subtle understanding of social relations meant at least that many elite white feminists were forced to give up claims to righteous victimhood.
Recently, however, righteous victimhood is making a big comeback. Beginning around 2012, what some observers have called a Fourth Wave of feminism, embodied in social media campaigns and public demonstrations against rape and sexual harassment, has gained momentum. Its manifestations have included college campus protests, Trump-era Women’s Marches, the wildfire #MeToo movement, and, most recently, an outpouring of support in the fall of 2018 for Christine Blasey Ford when she testified before the U.S. Senate about her alleged teenaged sexual assault by Brett Kavanaugh.
These expressions of female anger—often boisterous, unruly, and accusatory—though not oblivious to Third Wave concerns about race and marginalization, are reminiscent of an earlier era in Second Wave consciousness-raising. They are far less interested in internal critique than in female solidarity and condemnation of male power. Many of the movement’s martyrs—Hollywood starlets, a Palo Alto Psychology professor—are, by any standard, enormously privileged white women. Yet their claims to victim status have not received feminist condemnation: on the contrary, the women have been embraced as models of Everywoman’s experience.
It seems that we are witnessing within feminism a rediscovery of male sexual perfidy—vast, predatory, and undifferentiated—that has enabled the women’s movement to regain the exhilarating purpose it arguably lost during the Third Wave years of intra-feminist squabbling and power politicking. Now, every woman is a victim again, and sisterhood is once again powerful.
Though in some sense a clear return to a Second Wave worldview—often the advocates seem to have taken their rape threat rhetoric straight from the fervid writings of Harvard legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon, or from the saliva-spewing rants of her friend Andrea Dworkin—the Fourth Wave has necessitated the forgetting of Second Wave achievements.
On December 20, 2017, Christina Hoff Sommers, best known for her books critical of Third Wave feminist developments, stated in interview with Tucker Carlson that the avalanche of misconduct allegations that had begun the previous fall with accusations against Hollywood movie producer Harvey Weinstein represented a watershed moment that, if acted upon rightly, could “bring the workplace up to 21st century standards of dignity and equality.” It was a startling statement in its implication that there had not yet been a thorough discussion of workplace standards prior to 2017. In fact, public concerns about workplace sexual harassment had been ongoing for decades, predating Anita Hill’s 1991 bombshell against Clarence Thomas, and laws and policies on harassment had been codified for offices and classrooms by the early 1990s. What #MeToo has gained in angry clarity of vision, it has lost in honest accounting of the past.
For #MeToo advocates, little if anything has changed since the 1960s, women still have a long way to go, and men are just as bad as ever. At the height of the Harvey Weinstein furor in October, 2017, when every day seemed to bring fresh accusations of helpless (often very wealthy and famous) women forced to prostitute their lovely bodies to hideous and rapacious men, Professor of English Roxane Gay published a mass accusation titled “Dear Men: It’s You, Too” in The New York Times. The article was a condemnation of all men’s supposed participation in sexual violence; as the title indicated, no man could escape blame, and no woman was not part of the enormity of suffering that women had only just begun to reveal. The long list of male transgressions (which included men cornering women in office hallways, making lewd comments to co-workers, not taking no for an answer, “guilting” women into sex, and being complicit in other men’s bad behavior) was shocking not because it broke a taboo, as Gay seemed to suggest, but because—for anyone who ever read a Second Wave consciousness-raising tract—it was so utterly familiar.
Since 2017, the condemnations have remained at Second Wave fever pitch. Professor of Sociology Suzanna Walters’ definitive Washington Post opinion piece “Why Can’t We Hate Men?” though published in June of 2018, more than six months after the Weinstein scandal broke, brandished a picture of the disgraced mogul, with the clear implication that his alleged wrongdoing stood in for that of all predatory men—and all men, period. Walters’ crude title was less a question than an exultant affirmation, claiming women’s right to hate men for their dismal failure, as Walters saw it, to end sexual assault, bigotry, terrorism, the pay gap, and all inequality. She went so far as to instruct men that if they wished women “to not hate you for all the millennia of woe you have produced and benefited from,” their only recourse was to “Step away from the power” and allow women to take charge of the world. Like Gay’s op ed, Walter’s screed—which would have seemed parodic in any less fevered era—had the tenor of a spontaneous outburst, jubilant in the poisonous truths, the hitherto unspoken rage, defiantly expressed on behalf of all the angry women in the world. Yet the apologia for misandry read like a reprise of Andrea Dworkin’s iconic 1983 “I Want a 24-Hour Truce” essay, in which she too indicted all men for their failure to end violence against women and alleged that no man could escape the taint of his deformed selfhood in a culture of male violence.
Where now? All movements for liberation have at least two elements: an account of the enemy who must be fought or resisted—whether that enemy is a group of people, an ideology, a structure, or some combination of all three—and a description of the victim group itself, its identifying characteristics and internal relationships. After Third Wave Feminism revealed manifold fractures and rivalries within womanhood itself, the Fourth Wave’s renewed attention to female sexual subordination can be seen as a strategy to direct unifying attention back to a common enemy. How long women’s own sexual choices and agency will remain off limits to feminist analysis is an open question.