Third Wave Feminism

Third-wave feminism (mid 1990s-?)

Associate Professor in Language and Literature, Michelle M. Lazar states that feminism’s third wave was characterized by a global, neoliberal, post-feminist discourse (a dissociation towards the earlier feminist waves) (Lazar 2013: 38). This wave acknowledged the inheritance as well as the effect from the second wave although it saw this battle as history. It’s therefore a characteristic for this period that many dissociated themselves from the label ‘feminist’ (Rampton 2015).

This wave represents contrasting and at times conflicting ideas about what women’s liberation means. On one hand it was about focusing on female accomplishments concerning individualization and development of the self (examples of this are the increased focus on lifestyle and the choices of the consumer which were welcomed with open arms). On the other hand there was an effort to rethink gender/sex in a more feminist spirit (Budgeon 2013: 281).

Third-wave feminism and the Media

As within the time between the first- and second-wave of feminism there was a tendency in the third wave where the media ‘dictated’ how to ‘do’ the feminine subject. Thus Rosalind Gill, Professor in Cultural & Social Analysis, argued that the Media was marked by a postfeminist sensibility rather than post-feminism which resulted in the fact that one had to look at the Media as being both feminist as well as anti-feminist at the same time (Gill 2007: 4). In this period feminism was shaped around a new idea of recaptured agency: the right to one’s personal sexuality. This was questioned in some academic circles because they saw this sort of subjectivity as a surrender to oppressive patriarchal structures. An example of this is the singer, Madonna (‘s Billboards ‘Woman of the Year 2016’ speech (Web) which has been criticized by many second-wave feminists for presenting as well as sexualizing herself in a degrading way. Madonna herself, however, has been very clear about the fact that her definition of feminism is about the right to self-determination as well as the right to break with the Victorian image of women, in which she has helped lots of young women take ownership of their own sexuality (Cassas (c) 2013: 20:00).

Another point of discussion in this wave was the weather one could achieve feminist goals through consumption (Lazar 2013: 44) – if one made the ‘right’ choices that is (ibid.: 48):

The option not offered to women is the one not to consume and, in turn, the freedom not to comply with commercialized beauty rituals and ideals entailed by the consumption of those products

(Lazar 2013: 45)

With this de-politicisation of the right to choose which was a central part of the second-wave feminists fights (including abortion: the right to one’s own body) there was an increased focus on women’s right to choose beauty products, which made ‘consumer-feminism’ problematic because it solely offered a simulation of freedom.

In spite of the ‘choice-feminism’ (introduced by Nancy J. Hirschman) that promised emancipation, there was still no changes in the traditional, binary understanding of gender (Lazar 2013: 46).

This is interesting because of many of the norms which were – and still are – associated with traditional femininity steer the ‘free choice’ towards unconscious deselections suchs as being a lesbian, childless, single or a feminist (Budgeon 2013: 286) and to add to this: imperfect, makeup-less, (non-feminin) and in bad shape (Lazar 2013: 39). This displays how problematic it is that the third-wave has tried to distance itself from the political and academic aspects of feminism.

Within the mid 90s feminism was marked by postcolonial and post-modern thinking:“In this phase many constructs were destabilized, including the notions of “universal womanhood,” body, gender, sexuality and heteronormativity” (Rampton 2015).

In this period feminism was about a new form of reconquered agency: the right to one’s own sexuality. They were/are simultaneously highly influenced by Pinkfloors utterance of how it’s possible for women to be wearing a push-up bra while still having a brain.

Women see themselves as subjects – not objects. Rampton calls them grrls, which is a reference to the band Riot Grrls (Rampton 2015) that is often associated with this kind of feminism. The band was formed in 1991 with a purpose to address sexism in the universe of punk. They spread their messages through their music but also through Zines (a contraction of fanzines: self produced publishments with a limited distribution). “Reading other girl-zines enabled girls to see their experiences of racism, abuse, and harassment as political issues rather than isolated personal incidents” (Schilt).

Within this period, the internet became an important tool in promoting this sort of ‘girlie feminism’. A lot of people distanced themselves from the label ‘feminist’ which is also one of the characteristic for this period of time (Rampton 2015).

A focus on subjectivity and individualism was also present in the third wave, which had bigger societal consequences since it meant that a denial of external influences such as how class and race had an impact on the understanding of the successful, feminin subject. The third-wave feminists believed women had already achieved equal (political) rights and therefore were free to achieve whatever success they wanted. Because of this they were not able to realize the inequality between the genders alongside individual success could co-exist. This was not just evident in the denial of a specific gender being crucial but also because women were systematically exposed to suppression which among other things meant that feminist fight lacked political activism (Budgeon 2013: 282, 285). Another problem regarding the thought of female empowerment was the fact that it overshadowed the possibilities of understanding the complexity of self-empowerment and developing a critical understanding for social contexts where feminist values were adapted in a way that reproduced status quo, and therefore didn’t take class- and race-segregation into account (Budgeon 2013: 287). This, in spite of the fact that they actually tried to break with the us/them-dichotomy. Therefore the mid-90s were marked by postcolonial and postmodernist thinking: “In this phase many constructs were destabilized, including the notions of “universal womanhood,” body, gender, sexuality and heteronormativity” (Rampton 2015). This meant that: “(…) third-wave feminism does not privilege gender or sexual difference as its key site of struggle nor does it limit itself to any single issue” (Budgeon 2013: 280).


Budgeon, Shelley (2013): “The Contradictions of Successful Femininity: Third-Wave Feminism, Postfeminism and ‘New’ Femininities” in New Femininities. Postfeminism, neoliberalism and subjectivity. Scharff, Christina & Gill, Rosalind. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN: 978-1-137-33986-7

Casas(c) (2013): Makers: Women Who Make America (Part 3). Found at

Gill, Rosalind (2007): Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility. European Journal Of Cultural Studies, 10 (2). pp. 147-166. DOI: 10.1177/1367549407075898. Found at 

Lazar, Michelle M. (2013): “The Right to Be Beautiful: Postfeminist Identity and Consumer Beauty Advertising” in New Femininities. Postfeminism, Neoliberalism and subjectivity. Scharff, Christina & Gill, Rosalind. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN: 978-1-137- 33986-7

Rampton, Martha (2015): Four Waves of Feminism. Pacific University Oregon. Found at


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