Vital Yet Forgotten: Resurfacing Third-Wave Feminism

by Josie Sedam

Media only ever tells one part of the story.

In 8th grade, I read Jennifer Mathieu’s 2018 novel Moxie, which has since been adapted by Netflix into a movie directed by Amy Poehler. Moxie follows the story of Vivian Carter who grows fed up with sexist dress codes and a football team whose harassment of girls is ignored by the administration. In response, she starts a feminist uprising at her small Texas high school. Taking inspiration from her mom’s punk rock life as a Riot grrrl in the 90s, Viv puts out zines that encourage her classmates to speak out and stand up against the misogynistic attitudes of classmates and school administrators. This spirals into a — spoiler! — walkout that garners media attention and forces the school to change its policies. 

Watching this movie introduced me to the movement that inspired Viv. I was interested in history, but the only touchstone I had was Kat Stratford in 10 Things I Hate About You. Kat is the “shrew” of her high school, who listens to Bikini Kill and rejects her high school’s proposed English curriculum in favor of books like The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath or The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedman. Yet both Viv and Kat paint only one picture of the third wave feminist movement. Both stories are told by white, cis, female protagonists. It wasn’t until digging deeper into the history behind Moxie that I began to understand how vital the third wave was toward our modern perception of intersectional feminism. Despite its crucial contributions to the feminist movement, the third wave’s significance is often overshadowed or overlooked, with its narratives, particularly those from diverse perspectives, seldom given the attention they deserve. Ignoring the third-wave movement, or combining it with the fourth-wave, allows cishet white feminism to dominate the narrative before the 21st century and disregards the impact of intersectionality in the battle for bodily and reproductive rights.

While often ignored or roped in with the fourth wave to create a sense of the “modern” feminist movement, third-wave feminism is distinct and vital on its own. Third-wave feminism is characterized by its embrace of diversity, sexuality, and the fight for reproductive rights. The movement brought conversations about sexual assault, patriarchal structures, female sexuality, trans/queer rights, abortion, and more into the limelight. However, the movement was fraught with issues, chief among them the exclusion of women of color in what was called the “most inclusive” feminist movement. There was also a lack of cohesion related to specific goals compared to the previous two movements.

Anita Hill is sworn in before testifying to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Friday, Oct. 11, 1991. SOURCE: JOHN DURICKA, AP FILE

Though it is challenging to pick specific moments that sparked the new wave of feminism, Anita Hill’s testimony against Clarence Thomas is often considered to be one of two that inspired a new generation of feminists. In her testimony, she accused Thomas of sexually harassing her when she worked as an adviser for him during his time as chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. While Thomas was later confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice on a 52-48 vote, Hill’s harrowing account and bravery during the televised hearings were instrumental in shaping both the third and fourth wave movements. It brought conversations about sexual assault and harassment to a national stage, capturing media attention and encouraging others to speak out about their experiences. This opened the door for what would eventually become the #MeToo movement in 2017 (though the origin of the phrase dates back to a 2006 Myspace post by Tarana Burke). 

The second spark of the third wave was the emergence of punk rock and Riot grrrl culture. With roots in Olympia, Washington, the underground Riot grrrl movement was a response to sexism, patriarchal structures, rape/rape culture, sexuality, classism, female empowerment, and more. It offered a platform for women to express rage and frustration at societal expectations, allowances, and structures. Bikini Kill, which was referenced in both Moxie and Ten Things I Hate About You, was arguably the most popular punk rock band that emerged during this time, with songs like “Rebel Girl” and “White Boy” becoming anthems for the movement. They supported female sexuality and bodily autonomy, encouraging women to speak up about abortion to strip away shame from the procedure. 

The third wave believed itself to be the “most inclusive” wave of feminism, encouraging all women, regardless of race, religion, or sexuality, to embrace the movement and speak out against the patriarchy. It also coincided and was subsequently influenced by the rise of new sociological scholarly thought in the 90s. “Queer theory” first emerged as a term in Teresa de Lauretis’ 1991 work titled “Queer Theory: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities,” which examined how heteronormativity, racism, and perceptions of queerness impact modern thinking around sexuality. Furthermore, literature written as a response to the movement, like Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity and Patricia Hill Collins’ Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment, provided a revolutionary framework for examining how intersectionality interacted with feminism theory and women’s social politics, including the fight for bodily autonomy. 

Michelle Cruz Gonzales plays the drums in her band, Spitboy. Source: Red Wedge Magazine

However, Riot grrrl and the third wave were rife with problems. Though it claimed to be an amplifier for all women’s voices, the loudest were those of white women. All-white bands like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile became the face of the movement, which actively excluded women of color. Many women of color in the punk rock scene, like Michelle Cruz Gonzales from the band Spitboy, refused to associate with Riot grrls because they felt unrepresented by the movement. This created fracturing within the third wave as different groups had different goals and spoke to different audiences. The movement also coincided with the AIDS crisis, which swept through the United States in the 80s and 90s. This brought discussions about queer and trans rights into the limelight and had strong implications for the feminist movement. Few queer women and virtually no trans women had a platform within the movement, and the movement’s primary voice remained that of cis, straight women. Second-wave feminists had typically rebuked the trans rights movement, feeling that it would cause too much division among supporters. Many third wave feminists walked blurry lines in regards to trans rights, with some vocally supporting the movement but not if it cost them a platform or an opportunity. This issue arose when, in the early 2000s, trans activists asked bands like Le Tigre to boycott the famously trans-exclusionary Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, aka Michfest. The band announced their support for the trans community but ultimately refused to pull out. Though third wave feminists claimed their movement was the most inclusive, the treatment of minoritized groups within the movement proved it to still be perpetuating a predominantly white, cishet feminist narrative.

Learning about third-wave feminism is essential to understanding the development of the feminist movement as a whole, as well as the influences behind fourth-wave feminism. For all the many years I spent learning solely American history, it’s disappointing that this was left unaddressed. We mustn’t forget the roles queer women and women of color have played in the feminist movement throughout history. Especially now, in a time when civil rights and the right to bodily autonomy are under fire all across the country, it’s important to remember that no social movement happens without context. It does a disservice to new generations to include only the first and second waves in their education. We would not have had #MeToo without the third wave, and our perception of what feminism is would be drastically different. Having Kat Stratford or even Vivian Carter be popular representations of the movement allows for one story to dominate the narrative. The fight for intersectionality within the feminist movement has shaped modern feminist theory and social activism. We cannot ignore the successes and deep-rooted flaws of what came before in favor of a simpler story. 

To learn more about third-wave feminism and the intersectional fight for bodily autonomy, check out these books published by NYU Press.

The Movement for Reproductive Justice
Empowering Women of Color Through Social Activism

By Patricia Zavella

“Intersectionality is a popular concept, but this terrific study of the practical uses of an intersectional approach to organizing for social change goes far beyond the usual invocations of the term, actually illuminating its strengths and challenges … Exhaustively researched, beautifully detailed, and theoretically powerful.” ~Choice

Fight Like a Girl, Second Edition
How to Be a Fearless Feminist

By Megan Seely

“Feeling angry about how women are treated? Fight Like a Girl is perfect for women of all ages, with thoughtful analysis, helpful advice, and useful resources.” ~Cindy Pearson,Executive Director of National Women’s Health Network (NWHN)

Reproductive Rights as Human Rights
Women of Color and the Fight for Reproductive Justice

by Zakiya Luna

Reproductive Rights as Human Rights is a necessary contribution to the scholarship on the reproductive justice movement and the reader will come to understand the movement through Luna’s work.” ~Mobilization

Girl Zines
Making Media, Doing Feminism

by Alison Piepmeier

“Before you could Tweet your every thought to the world, young women cut, pasted, Xeroxed, and traded their own handmade magazines through the mail. In fact, the gorgeously glossy mag youre holding in your hands right now started off as a zine. Girl Zines analyzes the beginning of the movement and its revolution grrrl style roots, as well as the way zinesters used the medium to explore race, sexuality, and identity.” ~Bust Magazine

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