The Third Wave

“The fight is far from over. Let this dismissal of a woman’s experience move you to anger. Turn that outrage into political power. Do not vote for them unless they work for us. Do not have sex with them, do not break bread with them, do not nurture them if they don’t prioritize our freedom to control our bodies and our lives. I am not a postfeminism feminist. I am the Third Wave” – Rebecca Walker

The boundaries of third wave feminism are not widely agreed upon. There was no single march or protest that signaled the beginning of this wave, and feminist thinkers disagree on whether or not we’ve now entered a fourth wave. That said, third wave feminism is defined not by its cohesion, but rather by the way that the movement acknowledges diversity. Third wave feminism has often focused on the fact that feminism does not look the same for every person, let alone every generation. Generally speaking, though, third wave feminism emerged in the early 1990s, “in large part as a response to the hostility to feminism represented by the outcome of the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings” (Dicker). The 1980s saw the rise of the “New Right” and prominent anti-feminist figures like Phyllis Schlafly, who prioritized a “return” to “traditionalism” and “family values” (Dicker). Feminism and feminists became scapegoats for many social ills, including rising divorce rates, rising welfare use, and increasing rates of single motherhood. This backlash is the reason the ERA failed to pass.



‘Keep Abortion Safe and Legal’: Women’s marches of the late Twentieth Century

This conservative shift in society also led to increased threats to abortion rights, as many anti-abortion groups and activists fought to limit the availability of and access to abortions. While the issue is still a highly contentious one, the 80s and 90s saw an intensification of the debate; “by 1990 there had been eight bombings, twenty-eight acts of arson, twenty-eight arson or bombing attempts, and 170 acts of vandalism at the nation’s abortion clinics” (Dicker). While many feminist organizations are openly pro-choice, such as EMILY’s list and NOW, there are also feminist organization that identify as pro-life, such as Feminists for Life.

Because abortion became such a contentious issue during the third wave, many feminists took to the streets to advocate for the right to choose. Marchers at NOW’s March for Women’s Lives wore the colors of their predecessors from the Suffrage Movement. The March took place in Washington D.C. in April 9, 1989 in reaction to the rise in Anti-Choice legislation and the proposed repeal of Roe v. Wade. The 600,000 that showed up to the capitol was, at the time, record breaking. Many of the women marched in the Purple, Gold, and White of the Suffrage movement, carrying banners and wearing sashes meant to resemble those used years before.

The “Postfeminist” Generation?

There was often intergenerational disagreement on feminism’s role in society between the second and third wave. Pop culture reflected a shift away from what many women saw as the performativity of the second wave’s women’s liberation movement. In 1982, Susan Bolotin published a piece in the New York Times Magazine called “Voices of the Postfeminist Generation.” In the article, Bolotin suggested that women of this generation were more inclined to think in individual terms, as opposed to the collective, sisterhood-based thinking that had produced practices like Consciousness Raising.  Though these younger women often “acknowledged the successes of feminism,” and realized that the women’s movement had given them an easier go at life, they believed that “feminism was passe and many of its goals accomplished” (Dicker). Subsequent articles in Elle and other magazines reflected that the word “feminist” had become associated with “bra-burning, hairy-legged, amazon, castrating, militant-almost-anti-feminine, communist, Marxist, separatist, female skinheads, female supremacists, he-woman type, bunch-a-lesbians” (Kamen, quoted in Dicker). This is obviously an unflattering portrait, but one that is rooted in some of the tongue-in-cheek buttons and other memorabilia described by second wave feminists like Jo Freeman.

Academia, Inclusivity, and Expanding Feminism

One large accomplishment of second wave feminism was the establishment of women’s and gender studies programs at many universities. The second wave essentially created the idea of feminist scholarship and taking a feminist approach to various disciplines. But with this strong showing of academically-minded feminism, many argued that women’s studies and feminist scholarship needed to actively engage in more inclusive kinds of feminism. In 1979, Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua decided to create a new anthology written by feminist women of color. They wrote, “we want to express to all women—especially to white middle-class women—the experiences which divide us as feminists; we want to examine incidents of intolerance, prejudice and denial of difference within the feminist movement. We intend to explore the causes and sources of, and solutions to these divisions. We want to create a definition that explains what feminist means to us” (quoted in Dicker 109). This practice of soliciting responses from women of all kinds meant that they were getting a variety of voices involved in expanding notions of feminism in general.

Their anthology was entitled This Bridge Called My Back: Writing by Radical Women of Color. This book, paired with writings by Audre Lorde, bell hooks, and Alice Walker revitalized and expanded what feminism meant. In her collection In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose, Alice Walker suggested the term “womanist,” that “would help define feminism for women of color, particularly black women” (Dicker).  The word womanist was derived “from womanish. [opp. Of ‘girlish,’ i.e., frivolous, irresponsible, not serious,” and was defined as “a black feminist or feminist of color” (quoted in Dicker 110). As Walker explained, she didn’t think of feminist and womanist being on any hierarchy—one was not better than the other, but they were intrinsically related. As she put it, I don’t choose womanism because it is ‘better’ than feminism…Since womanism means black feminism, this would be a nonsensical distinction. I choose it because I prefer the sound, the feel, the fit of it, because I cherish the spirit of the women (like Sojourner) the word calls to mind” (quoted in Dicker). By expanding definitions of feminism and clarifying the ways that women of color experience the world differently than white women, these texts and thinkers helped reinvigorate the academic feminist scene and the language used to describe feminism.


Kimberlé Crenshaw: Expanding Feminism & Introducing Intersectionality

One example of academic language filtering down to everyday activism is Kimberlé Crenshaw’s creation of the word “intersectionality,” which was a term she initially used in an academic paper on the specific kinds of discrimination faced by black women. She noticed that people tended to talk about discrimination or oppression based on race or based on gender, but rarely the two together. Though her original piece had to do with gender and race, intersectionality also prioritizes considering how class, ability, sexuality, and other facets of identity can affect the way a person experiences the world. In her own words, “intersectionality is a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects. It’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or LBGTQ problem there. Many times that framework erases what happens to people who are subject to all of these things.” This theory is taught widely in women’s studies circles and has extended outside of academia, too. Crenshaw has given many interviews on the topic over the years, helping it gain traction; she has even given TED talks on the subject, helping people consider the theory in an approachable way. Acknowledging intersectionality is regarded by many as a landmark of the third wave.



Guerilla Girls

Some feminists of the third wave were not averse to using some of the language and activism-styles of the women’s liberation movement. One such group was the Guerrilla Girls, where were “organized by an anonymous of artists, writers, performers, and filmmakers,” and were devoted to exposing sexism and racism “in politics, film, and everyday culture,” though they devoted the most energy to the art world’s general tendency to exclude women artists (Dicker). Founded in 1985, this anonymous group of radical activists works to “undermine the idea of a mainstream narrative by revealing the understory, the subtext, the overlooked, and the downright unfair”. Though these activists held lectures, performances, and workshops, they were most well-known for public demonstrations where they wore gorilla masks and distributed flyers and posters. Bold, Bright, and in your face, this Guerrilla Girls poster is one of many created by the group to protest gender discrimination in the art world. From billboards to stickers on light poles, the Guerilla Girl movement “use facts, humor and outrageous visuals to expose gender and ethnic bias as well as corruption in politics, art, film, and pop culture.” The Guerrilla Girls are still an active organization and copies of many of their most famous posters are often available for purchase at museum gift shops all around the world. Part of their lasting impact has to do with their persistent use of humor; they believe that “humor ‘gets people involved’ and is ‘an effective weapon’ against sexism” (Dicker). By making use of humor, they also help “challenge the idea that, because feminists are angry, they are humorless” (Dicker). Though the goal is not to appease critics, taking this approach helps display that anger is not always expressed in simplistic or expected ways.





Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, & “Becoming the Third Wave”

One anger-inducing event for many feminists was the treatment of Anita Hill, a woman who bravely shared her story of sexual harassment on a national stage. Hill was an African American law professor teaching at the University of Oklahoma. She had worked with Thomas at both the Department of Education and the EEOC, and accused Thomas of sexual harassment in both workplaces. Because these allegations were unearthed after Thomas was appointed, many dismissed Hill’s claims and when she testified, she was questioned “aggressively and harshly,” while Thomas maintained that this was “high-tech lynching” (Dicker). Despite this, he was still confirmed by a narrow vote, which energized feminists of all kinds.

One such feminist, the 22-year-old Rebecca Walker, took to the press to express her disappointment with Thomas’ confirmation. Walker is the daughter of Alice Walker, a prominent writer best known for her novel The Color Purple who also defined Womanism. While attending Yale, Rebecca Walker wrote in to Ms. magazine for their January/February 1992 issue. Her article, “Becoming the Third Wave” gave the feminist movement of the 90’ a name, and the article served as a manifesto of sorts for a new generation. The piece perfectly encapsulates the anger and passion of the third wave feminist movement: “I acknowledge the fact that we live under siege. I intend to fight back. I have uncovered and unleashed more repressed anger than I thought possible. For the umpteenth time in my 22 years, I have been radicalized, politicized, shaken awake. I have come to voice again, and this time my voice is not conciliatory.” She believed, furthermore, that Thomas’ confirmation had confirmed that women’s voices were rarely heard, and she announced that she intended to fight back (Dicker). She also made a “plea” to fellow young women, urging them to consider that there was more work to be done, and “the fight is far from over.” She ended with a declaration, saying, “I am not a postfeminism feminist. I am the Third Wave” (quoted in Dicker, 118). By rejecting the notion that feminism was no longer necessary or that equality should be handled individually, this piece acted as a call to action and awareness. Walker would follow in her mother’s footsteps, writing works that challenge and heal, “to make the world a better place, one conversation at a time.”

Riot Grrrls, punk culture, Zines, & Girlie Feminism

Started in the early nineties, the Riot Grrrl movement was a conglomeration of punk music, art, women’s rights, and protest. The movement was a “collective brainstorm of a small group of smart, angry women that eventually became a national news story and influenced an entire generation of girls” (Darms). More than anything, “riot grrrl called for the liberation of young women by taking control of the means of subcultural production” (Darms). Riot grrrls were known for their passionate reclamations of the power of girlhood; even their name suggests that girl and growl go well together.

Many of the major contributors to the movement were musicians in punk bands like Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, and Bratmobile; at their shows, these bands created safe spaces towards the front of the stage for young women to watch the shows safely in. Their movement, therefore, aimed to put women’s issues at the front, both literally and figuratively. Musician-activists Kathleen Hanna and Johanna Fateman are considered central to the movement. Their problem with the punk music scene was that it was known for being overwhelmingly populated by white men and was often an unsafe space for young women. Riot Grrrls hoped to “revive feminism by focusing on sexual and psychic violence against women,” while also supporting young women’s sexual expression and right to pleasure (Fateman). Riot grrrl was all about female autonomy, taking back independence and spitting in the face of societal norms.


Riot grrrls were encouraged to start bands, write music, and produce zines, which were the lifeblood of the riot grrrl movement. According to Fateman, “Whatever riot grrrl became — a political movement, an avant-garde, or an ethos — it began as a zine.” These zines took the form of xeroxed pamphlets containing poems, photographs, art, and rants. Zines were always made by hand and allowed the maker to decide what would go inside. This often meant that zines featured content considered too controversial or niche for a larger publication.

This artistic freedom also led to a rise of “girlie feminism: “the use of girlish script as a subversive weapon was not just a feminist fantasy…riot grrrl, in a conscious response to second wave-wave feminists’ rejection of the word “girl,” reclaimed it pride—and also in parody…in a new tradition of self-publishing, girls used loopy cursive, hearts, stars, photo-booth portraits, and kitsch images (of housewives, superheroes, schoolgirls, and cheerleaders) to set off type of handwritten communiqués, cultural criticism, fiction, and philosophy” (Fateman). While many zines remained small and niche, magazines like Bust and Bitch both started out as small zines and are now published as relatively mainstream magazines. Pictured is a flyer that would have been mailed or given out at shows, asking for help in making and circulating zines.


The Third Wave, the Internet, & Today

Feminism has frequently flourished where women were able to come together in communities and discuss both problems and solutions. With the introduction of the internet, building those kinds of communities and connections has become increasingly easy. Now, instead of relying on mainstream magazines, small, personal zines, or even buttons functioning as mini billboards, women have the option to spread their messages via blogs, websites, and other online communities. In an interview with the New York Times, the founder of the feminist website feministing, Jessica Valenti, suggested that “maybe the fourth wave is online.” As she acknowledged, being able to raise your voice online is a great liberator, but can also be used to oppress, as hostile responses are not only a possibility but a likely probability, too. But one way or another, today’s feminist movement and activism in general are intrinsically tied to changing technologies.

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About the Project

This exhibit was funded by a generous grant from the University of St. Thomas and with the help of the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, and Fales Library at NYU. You can read more about our process and project here.

This exhibit was complied by Rachel Busse and Kerry Kraemer.

© Poetics of Protest | 2018

Website design by Rachel Busse