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Third Wave Feminism vs Second Wave: is it a Step Backwards?

Feminism today is a negative word for anyone outside the bubble of mainstream media. Many would argue that the current wave of feminism, the third wave, has shifted away from core values that the second wave started and has since turned into something ugly. We see mainstream Hollywood media praising feminism as simply being about equal rights, but what we see outside of the glamor and promotions from celebrities is something entirely different. One instance had a group of feminists protesting male suicide conferences by barging the doors shut to prevent people from entering (21). Another group sent death threats to a conference at a hotel in order to get it shut down, threatening the staff and saying they would be disguised as guests (22). Large websites that see thousands if not millions of views a month such as Huffington Post (90 Million)(24), Buzzfeed (185 million)(24), Bustle (43.8 million)(24), Everyday Feminism, and even television networks such as MTV reinforce ideas such as “women can’t be sexist to men” and “Feminism is just about equality, if you believe in equality you are a feminist.”


Many of these new ideas and tactics not only fall into a logical loophole, but they also rebel against many of the standards second wave feminism set before it. This may in fact be in line with the movement as a whole since there are good things that have come out of third wave that previous generations were lacking, or at least they claim to take these into consideration. Intersectionality is the first thought that comes to mind as a positive outcome of third wave feminism to move it from a primarily white, middle class house wife movement to something more inclusive despite still having flaws. This begs the question, is third wave feminism a step forward since the last wave or a step backwards? I will attempt to answer this question by comparing a few beliefs of third wave feminism to second wave.

What Remains the Same.

We cannot have a comparison of second wave and third wave feminism without first diving into the core beliefs of the two, much of which is still the same. According to Rebbeca Walker, who is credited as the person who started third wave feminism in 1992, (20) the problems with second wave feminism is the feeling of conformity.

“For many of us it seems that to be a feminist in the way that we have seen or understood feminism is to conform to an identity and way of living that doesn’t allow for individuality, complexity, or less than perfect personal histories” (20).

- Rebbeca Walker

The core belief is still the same as second wave, the dictionary definition being “The advocacy of women's rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.” Other beliefs shared by the waves include patriarchy theory which is defined as “A system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it.” There are new beliefs however, that are quite different from the original movement.


Women can not be Sexist Towards Men.

For instance, the belief that women are incapable of being sexist towards men because they lack the institutional power to do so is a third wave belief that has surfaced rather recently. All the companies I have listed above have stated this belief on their websites and other forms of media that they control. A Huffington Post article entitled “Sexism Against Men? I Wish” elaborates this belief the best,

“I acknowledge as a white, cisgender person that my beliefs come from a ridiculously privileged place. I understand that white feminists’ voices have flooded civil rights conversation over the last couple years. That being said...If someone tells you that they are offended by something... just believe them. One cannot be racist against white people. One can’t be sexist against men” (8).

-Barbara Holm, Huffington Post

But is This Belief an Accurate One?

To imply women cannot be sexist to men because they lack the institutional power to do so would imply that all men have institutional power, despite their position in life. Otherwise men could not be sexist per this definition either unless they had said power. What this ignores however, is the power of influence that women have on an institutional level (1). If women did not have institutional power, this would mean every bill ever put forth by women in government, like the Truth in settlements act of 2015 introduced by Elizabeth Warren (23) or the Kate Mullany National Historic Site Act made into law by Hillary Clinton (15), would be invalid. It would mean that despite making up the majority of voters in the United States, (2, 4, 16) their votes would not count on any issue. It would mean every board member of every company that was a woman would not be allowed decision making power to influence budgets, marketing, public relations, or sales. Women don’t make up the majority of institutional power positions this is true and we do in fact have a long way to go before power is more evenly balanced. However, the idea that you cannot be sexist because your gender lacks power is flawed when your concept of power is based simply on the number of seats filled by your gender instead of the contributions made by those seats. You do not need to physically have the majority positions in government to influence an outcome, you simply have to persuade enough members to see things your way, which is common among all politicians regardless of gender.


Women only make up 23 of the fortune 500 CEO’s (11) but that doesn’t mean Meg Whitman, CEO of Hewlet Packard, can't be sexist towards her male interns despite having power over them. You can make an argument that history has shown men have held power the longest, so sexism from women in power towards men would only be limited to discrimination. But how much history of control does a 22 year old male intern really have over his 60 year old CEO? How would this not be a case of punishing the son for the sins of the father? Second wave feminism heavily implied that there was an imbalance of power between the sexes but it never out right denied that women cannot contribute to that system on an institutional level. To do so would deny all the ground work made by women in both the academic as well as government institutions that feminism has fought so hard to have access to. This belief also ties into how third wave and second wave feminism differ in regards to how they present their beliefs.


Protest Differences and Restricting Ideas.

Before the internet, in order to gain a following and have influence, second wave feminism had to rely on protesting and formal conferences in order to attract media attention. One such event was The Miss America Beauty pageant protest of 1968 In Atlantic City. Feminist protesters came to the event holding signs and throwing away items they felt oppressed women such as playboys and high heels into “freedom trash cans” (7). Some protestors even managed to go into the event with a banner and were shouting at the stage saying “Women’s Liberation” and “No more Miss America” (7). The event sparked a lot of attention for the movement and was seen live on television and was written about in newspapers across the country (7). Protesting is still a high priority of the third wave movement and happens frequently for issues that are still important. The difference however, is the second wave still allowed for, and outright encouraged, debate among different viewpoints. Second wave protests would say their ideas, but they would still allow patrons visiting events to go inside. They would allow speakers with opposite viewpoints to voice their questions and apply skepticism because they understood it would make the movement stronger and seen with legitimacy.

Fran: In other words, it's OK to debate. Carol: Absolutely, not only is it OK, it's absolutely necessary.

Fran: In other words, it's OK to debate. Carol: Absolutely, not only is it OK, it's absolutely necessary.

Third wave seems to have strayed away from these things. Third wave feminists have called in fake bomb threats to events (22) and created human chains to prevent people from entering conferences (21). These events are made easy to plan thanks to social media platforms that make it simple to connect with likeminded individuals, making these actions frequent, especially across college campuses and teenagers (10). Second wave feminism understood that there would be limited outlets that would let them have their voice, so they were forced to perfect their arguments so they would stand up to scrutiny. Take second wave activist and author Audre Lorde. She saw that women’s conferences that were being offered to talk about women’s issues still lacked in perspective in regards to women of color and sighted such conferences as being “tools of the oppressors” (12). Even so, she never scheduled a mass blockade of these events or called in bomb threats to stop them from happening. To do so would drown out her message and have her be taken less seriously. So why do third wave feminists protest these events? Each situation is unique, but it can all be linked by another concept of third wave feminism, the oversimplification of what it means to be a feminist.

For the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.

For the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.

Oversimplification of Feminism

Third wave feminism defines feminism as simply being for equality and nothing else. There are a few problems with this however. Firstly, to simply refer to feminism as only being about equal rights would mean that anyone who doesn’t label themselves as feminist must therefore not believe in equal rights. Huffington Post would agree with this idea, going as far as to label it under their “What is Feminism” article.

“When people comment against feminism, they are supporting sexism. There is no sitting on the fence. You are either a feminist or sexist. Unfortunately, most sexists don’t know they are sexist, and compose the majority of the population” (14).

- Hannah McAtamney, Huffingtion Post

This can be a big reason for wanting to restrict ideas from people who don’t identify as feminist because it leaves the impression that anything they say automatically falls into the category of being against equal rights. It is also a way to ignore what someone who has a criticism of the movement says because it only leaves two choices, a feminist or a bigot.

“People who speak against feminism are scared of change. They are scared of the idea of everyone being treated the same, instead of one gender having control over another. They are scared of shedding the holds of patriarchy in society and accepting everyone as an individual human being, not categorizing them as male or female. Most of all, they are scared that they will not hold the same importance as a person if their power as a certain gender is taken away”(14).

- Hannah McAtamney, Huffingtion Post

These are not quotes made by individuals on unknown forums, these are articles written by popular news media outlets with mass audiences. According to third wave feminism, if you are against ANYTHING about the movement you are against the entire movement and therefore must secretly be afraid of equal rights and loss of power. There is no middle ground.

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Secondly, this definition falls into a logical loop hole. If all being a feminist means is believing in equal rights, then someone who wants to achieve equality by wiping every other sex off the face of the earth could fall under this definition and be a feminist. After all, if only one sex remains there would be no gender discrimination. There is an old German phrase that describes this concept known as Danse Macabre, which was a late-medieval artistic genre relating to death.

"Who was the fool, who the wise man, who the beggar or the emperor? Whether rich or poor, all are equal in death” (5).

Of course, this is an extreme example but the fact that it still would not break any of the criteria under the simplified definition shows why feminism is more complicated than simply being for equality. Saying feminism is only about equality is not a way to grow a conversation or start a discussion, it is there to do the exact opposite. It is there to shut down criticism. There are many branches of Feminism brought on by both the first and second wave and to boil it down to simply being about equality gives birth to the idea that feminism is the best course of action for every issue, when in reality it is not.

Feminism is not the solution for Everything.

Buzzfeed for instance, wrote a quiz titled “How Much of a Feminist are you” and one of the questions asked the reader if they thought police brutality and its correlation to race was a feminist issue (13). If you checked yes, you earned a point, if you did not check it you did not earn a point. The problem with this question is it assumes the feminist movement is the answer to police brutality instead of the civil rights movement. Despite the NAACP fighting the issues for many years and having specialization and understanding problems that have plagued the African American community, Buzzfeed thinks third wave feminism can do a better job. Buzzfeed thinks third wave feminism can do a better job despite only recently including issues related to non-white middle class women than the NAACP, an organization that has been in effect for over a century. Sure, this could be interpreted as simply “poor wording” on the part of Buzzfeed, maybe they meant to say feminism can help with police brutality. But when there are three people working on one quiz it leaves you to wonder how they could have missed something so obvious if it wasn’t intentional.


Another feminist media outlet Bustle wrote an article demonizing International Men’s Day entitled “There's An International Men's Day, Too. There Probably Shouldn't Be” (3). While this article mostly complained about men trying to “take over” International Women’s Day, the title implies that it is a wasted holiday. What Bustle failed to realize, is that International Men’s Day is not about praising men’s accomplishments but is instead about raising awareness about men’s issues (9), 2016 being about male suicide, which was not mentioned a single time in the Bustle article. The icing on top of the Bustle cake has to be the last line of the article,

“Feminists don't build walls or create unnecessary competition between men and women. They build bridges by raising awareness of the struggles unique to both” (3).

-Hillarary E. Crawford, Bustle.

If that was true, why did this article fail to bring up men’s suicide which was the central theme of the holiday? Why is the title of her article saying we don’t need an international men’s day, would that not be building a wall/creating unnecessary competition? Would not the fact that so many people were unaware of its existence and that even the person who wrote the article misunderstood the holiday show that it is needed? This lack of understanding often comes from groups that don’t specialize and instead try to apply their way of thinking to every issue.


Second wave feminism understood this. It understood that there was a gap in understanding perspectives and sought to fix this going towards the beginning of third wave feminism, Audre Lorde still being a great example. Second wave feminists sought to work WITH different organizations to further equal rights, it did not seek to take them over and force them to think how they do or criticize them for not being feminist enough (6). The problem with third wave is it is going faster than its understanding can keep up with. By wanting to include everyone, its knowledge of what is really effecting the one’s it claims to represent is too thin. Third wave feminism has become the Walmart of activism, it will try and sell you the idea that you only have to shop there, but chances are you can get better quality items and service at a store that specializes and has been doing it for longer. (17,18)

Have we Moved Forward or Backward?

Third wave feminism has made a lot of improvements. Intersectionality is taking into consideration more issues of women of color but there are still flaws in the current system that need to be addressed. Media outlets have a lot of influence to generate harmful ideas that can spread to mainstream society and cause unwanted consequences. Jon Ronson in a Ted Talks was talking about the power of social media and this quote struck me as one that could be applied to third wave feminism.

“When we watch court room dramas, we tend to identify with the kindhearted defense attorney, but give us the power, and we become like hanging judges… We were getting [Jonah Lehrer] because he was perceived to have misused his privilege, but Jonah was on the floor then and we were congratulating ourselves for punching up” (19).

- Jon Ronson

It is up to the current generation to evaluate what is harmful, and what is beneficial, and third wave feminism has some improvements that need to be made. While a good number of feminists may or may not believe what these websites post, these media outlets have the reach, influence, and power to effect society in any way they choose. These publications have the most influence and control, these publications are running third wave feminism. The media has power, but it loses that power once we decide to think critically and question what we believe. Individual thought won’t change movements without power, but collections of people can change things because there is power in numbers. Groups of people are just individuals with a common goal and that goal should be the pursuit of truth, not the pursuit of a narrative.

“I think for [other] people…Twitter is basically a mutual approval machine. We surround ourselves with multiple people who feel the same way we do and we approve each other… and if somebody gets in the way, we reen them out… as Meghan O’Gieblyn wrote in the Boston Review, ‘this isn’t social justice. It’s a cathartic alternative” (19).

- Jon Ronson


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