Third Wave Feminism


In 2015, I published a post entitled “Who Highjacked the Word Feminist?” In it I discussed how, rather naively, I had chosen the title Faithless Feminist for my blog, not understanding the changes that had occurred to the word feminist since the sixties and seventies. In that post, I gave a very brief history of the feminist movement.

What is now referred to as the first wave of feminism secured women the right to vote in 1920 in the United States. This movement grew out of the abolitionist movement. These were the days of Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech and the vivid photo of Susan B. Anthony getting slammed to the sidewalk by police. The second wave occurred in the 1960’s through the 1980’s and was characterized by efforts to secure wage parity between the genders, reproductive freedom, and redefined roles in the family. There was also an attempt to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. Think Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Coretta Scott King, and Germaine Greer. Organizations such as the National Organization for Women and the National Abortion Rights Action League were created. Starting in the 1990’s a third wave of feminism began and included a focus on race, culture, and sexual identity.

Since that time, I have had interviews on over 36 secular podcasts, conducted book tours in Texas, Washington, Oregon, and California. Often, when I use the word feminist, I get the response, “OK. But you are a second wave feminist, you’re okay.” Thus, I thought it was time to delve into third wave feminism to find out what it is all about. Why are so many opposed to this movement. Is the criticism justified?

Third wave feminism’s starting point was a letter from Rebecca Walker, daughter of Alice Walker, African-American author of The Color Purple, that appeared in Ms. Magazine in 1992. Her essay was a response, in part, to the Anita Hill hearings where Hill accused Supreme Court candidate Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. Below are a few key excerpts from what she wrote.

Can a woman’s voice, a woman’s sense of self-worth and injustice, challenge a structure predicated upon the subjugation of our gender? Anita Hill’s testimony threatened to do that and more. If Thomas had not been confirmed, every man in the United States would be at risk.

While some may laud the whole spectacle for the consciousness it raised around sexual harassment, it’s very real outcome is more informative. He was promoted. She was repudiated. Men were assured of the inviolability of their penis/power. Women were admonished to keep their experiences to themselves.

Thomas’ confirmation, the ultimate rally of support for the male paradigm of harassment, sends a clear message to women: “Shut up! Even if you speak, we will not listen.”

I will not be silenced.

I am sick of the way women are negated, violated, devalued, ignored. I am livid, unrelenting in my anger at those who invade my space, who wish to take away my rights, who refuse to hear my voice. As the days pass, I push myself to figure out what it means to be a part of the Third Wave of feminism. I begin to realize that I owe it to myself, to my little sister on the train, to all of the daughters yet to be born, to push beyond my rage and articulate an agenda.

Let Thomas’ confirmation serve to remind you, as it did me, that 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 post-feminism feminist. I am the Third Wave.

Walker co-founded the Third Wave Direct Action Corporation whose first project was to send a group of young women and men across the country to register voters for the election. Many of those registered were low-income and young women of color. In 1994, Walker was named one of Time magazine’s  50 for the Future list featuring America’s promising leaders under 40. In 1991, an ad appeared in the New York Times signed by over 1600 women entitled African American Women in Defense of Ourselves. This ad, as well as many third wave activities that came after it, emphasized “taking an intersectional feminist approach to understanding how gender, race, sexuality, and power all converged in the hearings.”[1] While there were African-American women active in the second wave feminist movement, it was characterized by straight white women. Third wave basically said that it’s more complicated than that. Rejecting the word feminist because it portrayed a binary gender system of male and female, it embraced the entire continuum of gender identities. In 1997, the Third Wave Foundation was formed, led by a group that incorporated this intersectional view. Today this foundation focuses its grant-making on investing “in communities and not issue areas: young women of color and trans, intersex, non-binary, gender non-conforming, and queer youth of color know what they need, but their needs are always shifting. It’s our job to support their vision with resources, training, and opportunities to build community with each other.”

A few weeks ago, I attended a live show of God Awful Movies in Seattle. I stayed with three new friends who were all transgender. I heard their stories of rejection by their families, jobs lost when they came out, alienation from some of their friends, and constant harassment by strangers. When we were walking back to the hotel, there was even a preacher with a banner that said “God Hates Fags” to underline that last point. President Trump’s recent decision to ban transgender people from serving in the military shows the struggles they continue to have for equal rights. It is these issues of differences in gender, in addition to race, that were emphasized more in third wave feminism than in second wave feminism. Many gains have been made in terms of women’s rights partially because of this continued emphasis by third wave feminists such as passage of laws such as the Gender Equity in Education Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act and artistic contributions such as The Vagina Monologues play and the punk rock group Riot Grrrl. To take back derogatory words used against women, a magazine in Portland, Oregon adopted the name Bitch.

The backlash toward feminism itself began in the late 1970’s.[2] The Right, with the election of President Ronald Reagan, began to target the issues fought and won in the sixties and seventies by proposing restrictions on abortions, weakening affirmative action, and refusing to acknowledge gay and lesbian rights. Third wave feminism can be seen, not as a repudiation of the gains of the second wave feminists, but a continuation of these efforts with an expansion based on an intersectional view. Many colleges and universities started women’s studies programs that are now mostly referred to as gender studies programs. With the advent of the Internet, social media became the space where these issues were discussed. Jessica Valenti started a blog entitled Feministing in 2004 that soon gained over 100,000 followers around the globe.[3] Various blogs and organizations targeted issues such as the plight of domestic workers, rape culture, violence against women, sex education, women in third-world countries and their unique issues, etc.

Criticism of the third wave comes from a variety of different perspectives. Daisy Cousens in an article in The Spectator criticizes the movement for focusing on issues such as manspreading,  mansplaining, and micro-aggressions instead of female genital mutilation in third world countries. As a woman on the right, she condemns third wave feminists for not supporting women such as Sarah Palin or Kellyanne Conway. (Second wave feminists would not have supported them either BTW.) Krista Jacob opines that third wave’s “comprehensive approach to politics makes young women’s activism look more fragmented, which can give the appearance of political inactivity or apathy.” A focus on each person’s individual place and position in society does sometimes makes it difficult to see a united front. Karen Straughan is a woman who is an avid men’s rights advocate and an anti-feminist.

The most vocal voices against third wave or any other kind of feminism, however, come from men. In a debate on, the position against feminism states that “They claim to fight for equality of the sexes, but their actions tell us they want to dominate men and destroy the traditional family of man and woman with children. They want us to believe that feminism isn’t just about fighting for women’s rights, but to also change the family structure.” Popular YouTubers like Sargon of Akkad and ThunderfOOt continually rant against feminism. And their videos get upwards of two million views per episode. They are often characterized as misogynistic trolls. I was once interviewed on an atheist podcast and mentioned ThunderfOOt. I was later asked if it would be okay to delete that comment because the podcaster would get so much grief from some of his supporters who also supported ThunderfOOT. I graciously agreed, but felt bad for the podcaster’s need to censor that comment. Kristi Winters, an atheist podcaster who lives in Germany, often enters into debate with Sargon. If you want to know more, just watch this episode. Many men consider that feminism has achieved equal rights for women and that men’s rights now need more attention. They cite men’s rape in prisons, the fact that men generally are the soldiers in any wars, domestic violence is not limited to men on women but women on men as well, and that men do most of the dangerous jobs in the United States.

This has been a necessarily brief overview of some of the issues raised by third wave feminism and some of the push-back that it has received. I am sure that gender equality will be a topic of discussion in the decades to come, both here and abroad. I take the position that until there is a more equal distribution of women in political roles, in business leadership positions, and in every profession, we do not have gender equality. I also believe that there are clearly areas such as those mentioned above that disadvantage men. Gender equality is righting both of these wrongs. I maintain today that religion is the biggest cultural barrier to gender equality. It is our religious history that subordinates women, finds them unclean and dirty, and restricts their freedom in society. I will continue to focus on this issue in future blog posts.

Karen L. Garst

The Faithless Feminist

August 5, 2017


[1] Dorothy Sue Cobble, Linda Gordon, and Astrid Henry, Feminism Unfinished (New York, NY: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2014), 150.

[2] Dorothy Sue Cobble, Linda Gordon, and Astrid Henry, Feminism Unfinished (New York, NY: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2014), 157.

[3] Ibid. p. 177

About the Author Karen Garst


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