Women's liberation movement in Washington, DC, August 26, 1970.

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The waves of feminism, and why people keep fighting over them, explained

If you have no idea which wave of feminism we’re in right now, read this.

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If one thing’s for sure, it’s that the second-wave feminists are at war with the third-wave feminists.

No, wait, the second-wavers are at war with the fourth-wave feminists.

No, it’s not the second-wavers, it’s the Gen X-ers.

Are we still cool with the first-wavers? Are they all racists now?

Is there actually intergenerational fighting about feminist waves? Is that a real thing?

Do we even use the wave metaphor anymore?

As the #MeToo movement barrels forward, as record numbers of women seek office, and as the Women’s March drives the resistance against the Trump administration, feminism is reaching a level of cultural relevance it hasn’t enjoyed in years. It’s now a major object of cultural discourse — which has led to some very confusing conversations because not everyone is familiar with or agrees on the basic terminology of feminism. And one of the most basic and most confusing terms has to do with waves of feminism.

People began talking about feminism as a series of waves in 1968 when a New York Times article by Martha Weinman Lear ran under the headline “ The Second Feminist Wave .” “Feminism, which one might have supposed as dead as a Polish question, is again an issue,” Lear wrote. “Proponents call it the Second Feminist Wave, the first having ebbed after the glorious victory of suffrage and disappeared, finally, into the sandbar of Togetherness.”

Machinists working for Ford Motors attending  a Women's Conference on equal rights on June 28, 1968.

The wave metaphor caught on: It became a useful way of linking the women’s movement of the ’60s and ’70s to the women’s movement of the suffragettes, and to suggest that the women’s libbers weren’t a bizarre historical aberration, as their detractors sneered, but a new chapter in a grand history of women fighting together for their rights. Over time, the wave metaphor became a way to describe and distinguish between different eras and generations of feminism.

It’s not a perfect metaphor. “The wave metaphor tends to have built into it an important metaphorical implication that is historically misleading and not helpful politically,” argued feminist historian Linda Nicholson in 2010 . “That implication is that underlying certain historical differences, there is one phenomenon, feminism, that unites gender activism in the history of the United States, and that like a wave, peaks at certain times and recedes at others. In sum, the wave metaphor suggests the idea that gender activism in the history of the United States has been for the most part unified around one set of ideas, and that set of ideas can be called feminism.”

The wave metaphor can be reductive. It can suggest that each wave of feminism is a monolith with a single unified agenda, when in fact the history of feminism is a history of different ideas in wild conflict.

It can reduce each wave to a stereotype and suggest that there’s a sharp division between generations of feminism, when in fact there’s a fairly strong continuity between each wave — and since no wave is a monolith, the theories that are fashionable in one wave are often grounded in the work that someone was doing on the sidelines of a previous wave. And the wave metaphor can suggest that mainstream feminism is the only kind of feminism there is, when feminism is full of splinter movements.

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And as waves pile upon waves in feminist discourse, it’s become unclear that the wave metaphor is useful for understanding where we are right now. “I don’t think we are in a wave right now,” gender studies scholar April Sizemore-Barber told Vox in January. “I think that now feminism is inherently intersectional feminism — we are in a place of multiple feminisms.”

But the wave metaphor is also probably the best tool we have for understanding the history of feminism in the US, where it came from and how it developed. And it’s become a fundamental part of how we talk about feminism — so even if we end up deciding to discard it, it’s worth understanding exactly what we’re discarding.

Here is an overview of the waves of feminism in the US, from the suffragettes to #MeToo. This is a broad overview, and it won’t capture every nuance of the movement in each era. Think of it as a Feminism 101 explainer, here to give you a framework to understand the feminist conversation that’s happening right now, how we got here, and where we go next.

The first wave: 1848 to 1920

People have been suggesting things along the line of “Hmmm, are women maybe human beings?” for all of history, so first-wave feminism doesn’t refer to the first feminist thinkers in history. It refers to the West’s first sustained political movement dedicated to achieving political equality for women: the suffragettes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Woman’s suffrage march in New York City circa 1900.

For 70 years, the first-wavers would march, lecture, and protest, and face arrest, ridicule, and violence as they fought tooth and nail for the right to vote. As Susan B. Anthony’s biographer Ida Husted Harper would put it , suffrage was the right that, once a woman had won it, “would secure to her all others.”

The first wave basically begins with the Seneca Falls convention of 1848 . There, almost 200 women met in a church in upstate New York to discuss “the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of women.” Attendees discussed their grievances and passed a list of 12 resolutions calling for specific equal rights — including, after much debate, the right to vote.

Cartoon representing feminist speaker denouncing men at the first Women's Rights Convention in July 1848, in Seneca Falls, NY, where the American feminist movement was launched.

The whole thing was organized by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who were both active abolitionists. (They met when they were both barred from the floor of the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention in London; no women were allowed.)

At the time, the nascent women’s movement was firmly integrated with the abolitionist movement: The leaders were all abolitionists, and Frederick Douglass spoke at the Seneca Falls Convention, arguing for women’s suffrage. Women of color like Sojourner Truth , Maria Stewart , and Frances E.W. Harper were major forces in the movement, working not just for women’s suffrage but for universal suffrage.

essay on new waves of feminism and our culture

But despite the immense work of women of color for the women’s movement, the movement of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony eventually established itself as a movement specifically for white women, one that used racial animus as fuel for its work.

The 15th Amendment’s passage in 1870 , granting black men the right to vote, became a spur that politicized white women and turned them into suffragettes. Were they truly not going to be granted the vote before former slaves were?

Susan B. Anthony sitting at her desk, circa 1868.

“If educated women are not as fit to decide who shall be the rulers of this country, as ‘field hands,’ then where’s the use of culture, or any brain at all?” demanded one white woman who wrote in to Stanton and Anthony’s newspaper, the Revolution. “One might as well have been ‘born on the plantation.’” Black women were barred from some demonstrations or forced to walk behind white women in others.

Despite its racism, the women’s movement developed radical goals for its members. First-wavers fought not only for white women’s suffrage but also for equal opportunities to education and employment, and for the right to own property.

And as the movement developed, it began to turn to the question of reproductive rights. In 1916, Margaret Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in the US, in defiance of a New York state law that forbade the distribution of contraception. She would later go on to establish the clinic that became Planned Parenthood.

In 1920, Congress passed the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote. (In theory, it granted the right to women of all races, but in practice, it remained difficult for black women to vote , especially in the South.)

Suffragettes hold a jubilee celebrating their victory on August 31, 1920.

The 19th Amendment was the grand legislative achievement of the first wave. Although individual groups continued to work — for reproductive freedom, for equality in education and employment, for voting rights for black women — the movement as a whole began to splinter. It no longer had a unified goal with strong cultural momentum behind it, and it would not find another until the second wave began to take off in the 1960s.

Further reading: first-wave feminism

A Vindication of the Rights of Women , Mary Wollstonecraft (1791)

Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions , Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1848)

Ain’t I a Woman? Sojourner Truth (1851)

Criminals, Idiots, Women, and Minors: Is the Classification Sound? A Discussion on the Laws Concerning the Property of Married Women , Frances Power Cobbe (1868)

Remarks by Susan B. Anthony at her trial for illegal voting (1873)

A Room of One’s Own , Virginia Woolf (1929)

Feminism: The Essential Historical Writings , edited by Miriam Schneir (1994)

The second wave: 1963 to the 1980s

The second wave of feminism begins with Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique , which came out in 1963. There were prominent feminist thinkers before Friedan who would come to be associated with the second wave — most importantly Simone de Beauvoir, whose Second Sex came out in France in 1949 and in the US in 1953 — but The Feminine Mystique was a phenomenon. It sold 3 million copies in three years .

The Feminine Mystique rails against “the problem that has no name”: the systemic sexism that taught women that their place was in the home and that if they were unhappy as housewives, it was only because they were broken and perverse. “I thought there was something wrong with me because I didn’t have an orgasm waxing the kitchen floor,” Friedan later quipped .

But, she argued, the fault didn’t truly lie with women, but rather with the world that refused to allow them to exercise their creative and intellectual faculties. Women were right to be unhappy; they were being ripped off.

Betty Friedan (top row, fourth from left) with feminists at her home in June 7, 1973. The gathering was described as a session of the International Feminist Conference and included Yoko Ono (second row, center).

The Feminine Mystique was not revolutionary in its thinking, as many of Friedan’s ideas were already being discussed by academics and feminist intellectuals. Instead, it was revolutionary in its reach . It made its way into the hands of housewives, who gave it to their friends, who passed it along through a whole chain of well-educated middle-class white women with beautiful homes and families. And it gave them permission to be angry.

And once those 3 million readers realized that they were angry, feminism once again had cultural momentum behind it. It had a unifying goal, too: not just political equality, which the first-wavers had fought for, but social equality.

“The personal is political,” said the second-wavers. (The phrase cannot be traced back to any individual woman but was popularized by Carol Hanisch .) They would go on to argue that problems that seemed to be individual and petty — about sex, and relationships, and access to abortions, and domestic labor — were in fact systemic and political, and fundamental to the fight for women’s equality.

So the movement won some major legislative and legal victories: The Equal Pay Act of 1963 theoretically outlawed the gender pay gap; a series of landmark Supreme Court cases through the ’60s and ’70s gave married and unmarried women the right to use birth control; Title IX gave women the right to educational equality; and in 1973, Roe v. Wade guaranteed women reproductive freedom.

Nurse showing a diaphragm to birth control patients, in 1967.

The second wave worked on getting women the right to hold credit cards under their own names and to apply for mortgages. It worked to outlaw marital rape, to raise awareness about domestic violence and build shelters for women fleeing rape and domestic violence. It worked to name and legislate against sexual harassment in the workplace.

But perhaps just as central was the second wave’s focus on changing the way society thought about women. The second wave cared deeply about the casual, systemic sexism ingrained into society — the belief that women’s highest purposes were domestic and decorative, and the social standards that reinforced that belief — and in naming that sexism and ripping it apart.

The second wave cared about racism too, but it could be clumsy in working with people of color. As the women’s movement developed, it was rooted in the anti-capitalist and anti-racist civil rights movements, but black women increasingly found themselves alienated from the central platforms of the mainstream women’s movement.

The Feminine Mystique and its “problem that has no name” was specifically for white middle-class women: Women who had to work to support themselves experienced their oppression very differently from women who were socially discouraged from working.

Earning the right to work outside the home was not a major concern for black women, many of whom had to work outside the home anyway. And while black women and white women both advocated for reproductive freedom, black women wanted to fight not just for the right to contraception and abortions but also to stop the forced sterilization of people of color and people with disabilities , which was not a priority for the mainstream women’s movement. In response, some black feminists decamped from feminism to create womanism. (“Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender,” Alice Walker wrote in 1983 .)

Women’s Liberation march at Copley Square plaza in Boston on April 17, 1971.

Even with its limited scope, second-wave feminism at its height was plenty radical enough to scare people — hence the myth of the bra burners. Despite the popular story, there was no mass burning of bras among second-wave feminists .

But women did gather together in 1968 to protest the Miss America pageant and its demeaning, patriarchal treatment of women. And as part of the protest, participants ceremoniously threw away objects that they considered to be symbols of women’s objectification, including bras and copies of Playboy.

essay on new waves of feminism and our culture

That the Miss America protest has long lingered in the popular imagination as a bra-burning, and that bra-burning has become a metonym for postwar American feminism, says a lot about the backlash to the second wave that would soon ensue.

In the 1980s, the comfortable conservatism of the Reagan era managed to successfully position second-wave feminists as humorless, hairy-legged shrews who cared only about petty bullshit like bras instead of real problems, probably to distract themselves from the loneliness of their lives, since no man would ever want a ( shudder ) feminist.

“I don’t think of myself as a feminist,” a young woman told Susan Bolotin in 1982 for the New York Times Magazine. “Not for me, but for the guy next door that would mean that I’m a lesbian and I hate men.”

Another young woman chimed in, agreeing. “Look around and you’ll see some happy women, and then you’ll see all these bitter, bitter women,” she said. “The unhappy women are all feminists. You’ll find very few happy, enthusiastic, relaxed people who are ardent supporters of feminism.”

That image of feminists as angry and man-hating and lonely would become canonical as the second wave began to lose its momentum, and it continues to haunt the way we talk about feminism today. It would also become foundational to the way the third wave would position itself as it emerged.

Further reading: second-wave feminism

The Second Sex , Simone de Beauvoir (1949)

The Feminine Mystique , B e tty Fried a n ( 1963)

Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape , Susan Brownmiller (1975)

Sexual Harassment of Working Women: A Case of Sex Discrimination , Catharine A. MacKinnon (1979)

The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination , Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar (1979)

Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism , bell hooks (1981)

In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose , Alice Walker (1983)

Sister Outsider , Audre Lorde (1984)

The third wave: 1991(?) to ????

It is almost impossible to talk with any clarity about the third wave because few people agree on exactly what the third wave is, when it started, or if it’s still going on. “The confusion surrounding what constitutes third wave feminism,” writes feminist scholar Elizabeth Evans , “is in some respects its defining feature.”

But generally, the beginning of the third wave is pegged to two things: the Anita Hill case in 1991, and the emergence of the riot grrrl groups in the music scene of the early 1990s.

In 1991, Anita Hill testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her at work. Thomas made his way to the Supreme Court anyway, but Hill’s testimony sparked an avalanche of sexual harassment complaints , in much the same way that last fall’s Harvey Weinstein accusations were followed by a litany of sexual misconduct accusations against other powerful men.

Anita Hill testified in the Caucus room of the Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill on October 11, 1991.

And Congress’s decision to send Thomas to the Supreme Court despite Hill’s testimony led to a national conversation about the overrepresentation of men in national leadership roles. The following year, 1992, would be dubbed “ the Year of the Woman ” after 24 women won seats in the House of Representatives and three more won seats in the Senate.

And for the young women watching the Anita Hill case in real time, it would become an awakening. “I am not a postfeminism feminist,” declared Rebecca Walker (Alice Walker’s daughter) for Ms. after watching Thomas get sworn into the Supreme Court. “I am the Third Wave.”

Thousands of demonstrators gathered for the March for Women’s Lives, sponsored by the National Organization for Women (NOW), in Washington DC, on April 5, 1992.

Early third-wave activism tended to involve fighting against workplace sexual harassment and working to increase the number of women in positions of power. Intellectually, it was rooted in the work of theorists of the ’80s: Kimberlé Crenshaw , a scholar of gender and critical race theory who coined the term intersectionality to describe the ways in which different forms of oppression intersect; and Judith Butler , who argued that gender and sex are separate and that gender is performative. Crenshaw and Butler’s combined influence would become foundational to the third wave’s embrace of the fight for trans rights as a fundamental part of intersectional feminism.

Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw speaks onstage at 2018 Women's March Los Angeles, California, on January 20, 2018.

Aesthetically, the third wave is deeply influenced by the rise of the riot grrrls, the girl groups who stomped their Doc Martens onto the music scene in the 1990s.

“BECAUSE doing/reading/seeing/hearing cool things that validate and challenge us can help us gain the strength and sense of community that we need in order to figure out how bullshit like racism, able-bodieism, ageism, speciesism, classism, thinism, sexism, anti-semitism and heterosexism figures in our own lives,” wrote Bikini Kill lead singer Kathleen Hanna in the Riot Grrrl Manifesto in 1991. “BECAUSE we are angry at a society that tells us Girl = Dumb, Girl = Bad, Girl = Weak.”

The word girl here points to one of the major differences between second- and third-wave feminism. Second-wavers fought to be called women rather than girls : They weren’t children, they were fully grown adults, and they demanded to be treated with according dignity. There should be no more college girls or coeds: only college women, learning alongside college men.

But third-wavers liked being girls. They embraced the word; they wanted to make it empowering, even threatening — hence grrrl . And as it developed, that trend would continue: The third wave would go on to embrace all kinds of ideas and language and aesthetics that the second wave had worked to reject: makeup and high heels and high-femme girliness.

Bikini Kill and Joan Jett (center), 1994.

In part, the third-wave embrace of girliness was a response to the anti-feminist backlash of the 1980s, the one that said the second-wavers were shrill, hairy, and unfeminine and that no man would ever want them. And in part, it was born out of a belief that the rejection of girliness was in itself misogynistic: girliness, third-wavers argued, was not inherently less valuable than masculinity or androgyny.

And it was rooted in a growing belief that effective feminism had to recognize both the dangers and the pleasures of the patriarchal structures that create the beauty standard and that it was pointless to punish and censure individual women for doing things that brought them pleasure.

Third-wave feminism had an entirely different way of talking and thinking than the second wave did — but it also lacked the strong cultural momentum that was behind the grand achievements of the second wave. (Even the Year of Women turned out to be a blip, as the number of women entering national politics plateaued rapidly after 1992.)

The third wave was a diffuse movement without a central goal, and as such, there’s no single piece of legislation or major social change that belongs to the third wave the way the 19th Amendment belongs to the first wave or Roe v. Wade belongs to the second.

Depending on how you count the waves, that might be changing now, as the #MeToo moment develops with no signs of stopping — or we might be kicking off an entirely new wave.

Further reading: third-wave feminism

Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity , Judith Butler (1990)

The Beauty Myth , Naomi Woolf (1991)

“ Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color ,” Kimberlé Crenshaw (1991)

“ The Riot GRRRL Manifesto ,” Kathleen Hanna (1991)

Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women , Susan Faludi (1991)

The Bust Guide to the New Girl Order , edited by Marcelle Karp and‎ Debbie Stoller (1999)

Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics , bell hooks (2000)

Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture , Ariel Levy (2005)

The present day: a fourth wave?

Feminists have been anticipating the arrival of a fourth wave since at least 1986, when a letter writer to the Wilson Quarterly opined that the fourth wave was already building. Internet trolls actually tried to launch their own fourth wave in 2014 , planning to create a “pro-sexualization, pro-skinny, anti-fat” feminist movement that the third wave would revile, ultimately miring the entire feminist community in bloody civil war. (It didn’t work out.)

But over the past few years, as #MeToo and Time’s Up pick up momentum, the Women’s March floods Washington with pussy hats every year, and a record number of women prepare to run for office , it’s beginning to seem that the long-heralded fourth wave might actually be here.

Woman’s March in Washington DC, on January 21, 2017.

While a lot of media coverage of #MeToo describes it as a movement dominated by third-wave feminism, it actually seems to be centered in a movement that lacks the characteristic diffusion of the third wave. It feels different.

“Maybe the fourth wave is online,” said feminist Jessica Valenti in 2009 , and that’s come to be one of the major ideas of fourth-wave feminism. Online is where activists meet and plan their activism, and it’s where feminist discourse and debate takes place. Sometimes fourth-wave activism can even take place on the internet (the “#MeToo” tweets), and sometimes it takes place on the streets (the Women’s March), but it’s conceived and propagated online.

As such, the fourth wave’s beginnings are often loosely pegged to around 2008, when Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube were firmly entrenched in the cultural fabric and feminist blogs like Jezebel and Feministing were spreading across the web. By 2013, the idea that we had entered a fourth wave was widespread enough that it was getting written up in the Guardian . “What’s happening now feels like something new again,” wrote Kira Cochrane.

Currently, the fourth-wavers are driving the movement behind #MeToo and Time’s Up, but in previous years they were responsible for the cultural impact of projects like Emma Sulkowicz’s Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight) , in which a rape victim at Columbia University committed to carrying their mattress around campus until the university expelled their rapist.

The trending hashtag #YesAllWomen after the UC Santa Barbara shooting was a fourth-wave campaign, and so was the trending hashtag #StandWithWendy when Wendy Davis filibustered a Texas abortion law. Arguably, the SlutWalks that began in 2011 — in protest of the idea that the way to prevent rape is for women to “stop dressing like sluts” — are fourth-wave campaigns.

Beyoncé in front of a sign that says FEMINIST

Like all of feminism, the fourth wave is not a monolith. It means different things to different people. But these tentpole positions that Bustle identified as belonging to fourth-wave feminism in 2015 do tend to hold true for a lot of fourth-wavers; namely, that fourth-wave feminism is queer, sex-positive, trans-inclusive, body-positive, and digitally driven. (Bustle also claims that fourth-wave feminism is anti-misandry, but given the glee with which fourth-wavers across the internet riff on ironic misandry , that may be more prescriptivist than descriptivist on their part.)

And now the fourth wave has begun to hold our culture’s most powerful men accountable for their behavior. It has begun a radical critique of the systems of power that allow predators to target women with impunity.

Further reading: fourth-wave feminism

The Purity Myth , Jessica Valenti (2009)

How to Be a Woman , Caitlin Moran (2012)

Men Explain Things to Me , Rebecca Solnit (2014)

We Should All Be Feminists , Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2014)

Bad Feminist , Roxane Gay (2014)

So is there a generational war between feminists?

As the fourth wave begins to establish itself, and as #MeToo goes on, we’ve begun to develop a narrative that says the fourth wave’s biggest obstacles are its predecessors — the feminists of the second wave.

“The backlash to #MeToo is indeed here,” wrote Jezebel’s Stassa Edwards in January , “and it’s liberal second-wave feminism.”

Writing with a lot less nuance, Katie Way, the reporter who broke the Aziz Ansari story , smeared one of her critics as a “burgundy-lipstick, bad-highlights, second-wave-feminist has-been.”

essay on new waves of feminism and our culture

And there certainly are second-wave feminists pushing a #MeToo backlash. “If you spread your legs because he said ‘be nice to me and I’ll give you a job in a movie’ then I’m afraid that’s tantamount to consent,” second-wave feminist icon Germaine Greer remarked as the accusations about Weinstein mounted, “and it’s too late now to start whingeing about that.” (Greer, who has also said on the record that she doesn’t believe trans women are “real women,” has become something of a poster child for the worst impulses of the second wave. Die a hero or live long enough to become a villain, etc.)

But some of the most prominent voices speaking out against #MeToo, like Katie Roiphe and Bari Weiss , are too young to have been part of the second wave. Roiphe is a Gen X-er who was pushing back against both the second and the third waves in the 1990s and has managed to stick around long enough to push back against the fourth wave today. Weiss, 33, is a millennial. Other prominent #MeToo critics, like Caitlin Flanagan and Daphne Merkin , are old enough to have been around for the second wave but have always been on the conservative end of the spectrum.

“In the 1990s and 2000s, second-wavers were cast as the shrill, militant, man-hating mothers and grandmothers who got in the way of their daughters’ sexual liberation. Now they’re the dull, hidebound relics who are too timid to push for the real revolution,” writes Sady Doyle at Elle . “And of course, while young women have been telling their forebears to shut up and fade into the sunset, older women have been stereotyping and slamming younger activists as feather-headed, boy-crazy pseudo-feminists who squander their mothers’ feminist gains by taking them for granted.”

It is not particularly useful to think of the #MeToo debates as a war between generations of feminists — or, more creepily, as some sort of Freudian Electra complex in action. And the data from our polling shows that these supposed generational gaps largely don’t exist . It is perhaps more useful to think of it as part of what has always been the history of feminism: passionate disagreement between different schools of thought, which history will later smooth out into a single overarching “wave” of discourse (if the wave metaphor holds on that long).

Women’s March in Washington, DC on  Saturday January 21, 2017.

The history of feminism is filled with radicals and progressives and liberals and centrists. It’s filled with splinter movements and reactionary counter-movements. That’s part of what it means to be both an intellectual tradition and a social movement, and right now feminism is functioning as both with a gorgeous and monumental vitality. Rather than devouring their own, feminists should recognize the enormous work that each wave has done for the movement, and get ready to keep doing more work.

After all, the past is past. We’re in the middle of the third wave now.

Or is it the fourth?

Women's March in Washington, DC, on January 20, 2018.

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Article contents

Feminism and the politics of difference.

  • Maria O’Reilly Maria O’Reilly School of Politics and International Relations, Queen Mary University of London
  • https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780190846626.013.177
  • Published in print: 24 January 2012
  • Published online: 22 December 2017

Feminist scholars and practitioners have challenged—and sought to overcome—gendered forms of inequality, subordination, or oppression within a variety of political, economic, and social contexts. However, feminists have been embroiled in profound theoretical disagreements over a variety of issues, including the nature and significance of the relationship between culture and the production of gendered social life, as well as the implications of cultural location for women’s agency, feminist knowledge production, and the possibilities of building cross-cultural feminist coalitions and agendas. Many of the approaches that emerged in the “first” and “second waves” of feminist scholarship and activism were not able to effectively engage with questions of culture. Women of color and ethnicity, postcolonial feminists and poststructural feminists, in addition to the questions and debates raised by liberal feminists (and their critics) on the implications of multiculturalism for feminist goals, have produced scholarship that highlights issues of cultural difference, division, diversity, and differentiation. Their critiques of the “universalism” and “culture-blindness” of second wave theories and practices exposed the hegemonic and exclusionary tendencies of the feminist movement in the global North, and opened up the opportunity to develop intersectional analyses and feminist identity politics, thereby shifting issues of cultural diversity and difference from the margins to the center of international feminism. The debates on cultural difference, division, diversity, and differentiation have enriched feminist scholarship within the discipline of international relations, particularly after 9/11.

  • women’s agency
  • women of color
  • multiculturalism
  • cultural difference
  • differentiation
  • cultural diversity


The politics of cultural difference, division, diversity, and differentiation has emerged as one of the most contentious concerns of feminist theory and practice in the late modern era. At least since Simone de Beauvoir ( 1973 :301) famously distinguished (biological) sex from gender by stating that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman,” feminist scholars and practitioners, of varying ontological, epistemological, and methodological persuasions, have sought to understand the role that cultural beliefs, values, norms, languages, representations, customs, and practices across time and space play in the construction, reproduction, and contestation of gender roles, identities, subjectivities, and structures of power. In doing so, they have aimed to challenge and overcome gendered forms of inequality, subordination, or oppression within a variety of political, economic, and social contexts; to render visible masculinist ideas, meanings, and representations that are often concealed or naturalized as “commonsense” understandings of reality; and to transform power relations and improve the material conditions of women's (and men's) lives.

Nevertheless feminism, as a plural and interdisciplinary field of contesting perspectives rather than a unified body of thought and practice, has been gripped by deep theoretical disagreements over not “only” the nature and significance of the relationship between culture and the production of gendered social life, but also of the implications of cultural location for women's agency, feminist knowledge production, and the possibilities of building cross-cultural feminist coalitions and agendas. Many of the approaches that emerged in the “first” and “second waves” of feminist scholarship and activism failed to effectively engage with questions of culture. Liberal feminists, for example, generally overlooked culture in their analyses or regarded it as a mere obstacle to sexual equality – one which can be overcome through legal and institutional reform and the achievement of full equality with men. Grounded in an individualistic paradigm of rights, equality, autonomy, and rationality, the liberal feminist project is built upon the presumption of sameness between men and women, reflecting a belief in “a fundamentally sexually undifferentiated human nature” (Beasley 1999 :52) regardless of spatial or temporal location. Meanwhile, Marxist/socialist feminism's emphasis on social-economic structures (e.g., divisions of labor), and its examination of women's systematic economic and social oppression as the product of a patriarchal and/or capitalist social system (Jackson 2001 :284), has tended to downgrade culturally constituted differences between and among men and women (see discussions by Kuhn and Wolpe 1978 ; Eisenstein 1979 ; Coward 1983 ; Barrett 1988 ). As Scott ( 1986 :1061) points out, “[w]ithin Marxism, the concept of gender has long been treated as the by-product of changing economic structures; gender has had no independent analytic status of its own.” Radical feminist analyses, as epitomized by the work of Mary Daly ( 1978 ) and Adrienne Rich ( 1977 , 1979 ) among others, also suffer from similar deficiencies – their emphasis on women's shared oppression, unique location, and essential “feminine” qualities, their turn to femininity as a basis on which to critique patriarchal culture and (re)imagine a more just society, and their aim of positively redefining “female” virtues and values in reaction to misogyny and sexism, mean that radical feminists not only tend to deny differences among women but also generate homogeneous, essentialist, and ahistorical conceptions of “womanhood” that reflect and contribute to power-laden and damaging cultural stereotypes about women (Young 1985 ; Alcoff 1988 :408–15; see also Echols 1983 , 1984 ; Eisenstein 1983 ). 1 Moreover, feminist standpoint theories – as exemplified in the work of Nancy Hartsock ( 1983a ), and which draw in particular on Nancy Chodorow's ( 1978 ) psychoanalytic study on the family and Carol Gilligan's ( 1982 ) psychological analysis of male and female moral development – often overstate the commonality of women's experience of material and ideological oppression. Thus, attempts to develop better critical insights into the realities of gendered social relations by “locating knowledge or inquiry in women's standpoint or in women's experience” (Smith 1997 :392) and to use these theoretical approaches to transform gender inequalities of power have been faulted for their reliance upon the standpoint of the “generalized,” as opposed to “concrete,” “other” (Benhabib 1986 ). By falsely assuming that humans are separate and essentially alike, rather than culturally and socially situated individuals “with a concrete history, identity, and affective-emotional constitution” (Benhabib 1986 :411), standpoint feminists often erroneously produce universalistic knowledge claims that are asserted to be generalizable to all humans regardless of context (Hutchings 1999 ).

In response to the perceived “culture-blindness” of many of these feminist approaches, a number of innovative perspectives emerged from a “third wave” of boundary-shifting scholarship and activism that sought to transform understandings of the complex relationship between gender, culture, and the production of feminist knowledge. As this essay will reveal, the work of women of color and ethnicity, postcolonial feminists and poststructural feminists, in addition to the questions and debates raised by liberal feminists (and their critics) on the implications of multiculturalism for feminist goals, have all been instrumental in spotlighting issues of cultural difference, division, diversity, and differentiation. In particular, such works have foregrounded crucial questions regarding the universality/particularity of feminist theories, the importance of spotlighting identity, subjectivity, and agency in feminist scholarship, the politics of cultural representation, and the potential tensions arising between the goals of sexual and cultural equality. As a result of these debates, many feminists within the third wave have highlighted the need to decenter and destabilize the dominating, exclusionary, ethnocentric, elitist, and power-laden discourses and practices of second wave feminism, to recover the “subjugated knowledges” (Foucault 1980 , cited in Spivak 1988 :272) and agency of those marginalized by feminism's propensity toward “epistemic violence” (Spivak 1988 ), and to reconstruct feminist scholarship and activism by embracing diversity, complexity, multiplicity, ambiguity, and contradiction (Bailey 1997 ; Mann and Huffman 2005 ). In doing so, they have repeatedly spotlighted and broached what Joan Scott has referred to as the “paradox” at the heart of the feminist movement:

Feminism was a protest against women's political exclusion: its goal was to eliminate “sexual difference” in politics, but it had to make its claims on behalf of “women” (who were discursively produced through “sexual difference”). To the extent that it acted for “women,” feminism produced the “sexual difference” it sought to eliminate. This paradox – the need to both accept and to refuse “sexual difference” – was the constitutive condition of feminism as a political movement through its long history. (Scott 1996 :3–4)

While the pervasiveness of women's oppression across cultures requires a distinctly feminist politics of recognition (Baum 2004 :1074), the demands for recognition made by women differentiated by race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, (dis)ability, nationality etc., has produced, in Henrietta Moore's ( 2000 :1130) words, the “affirmation that women have different contexts and histories, that they have suffered multiple and various forms of subordination and discrimination, and that their situation in the world is the product of differential relations between groups of people – classes, nations, races, ethnic and religious groups, and so on.” This awareness, as Moore notes, results in two fundamental challenges for feminist politics: (1) to reenvision how we recognize difference once we appreciate that “the recognition of difference along one dimension was insufficient;” (2) to appreciate that “the recognition of difference is only a starting point because the purpose of recognition is to transform the context in which differences are lived” ( 2000 :1130–1).

This essay therefore traces the variety of ways in which four significant strands of third wave feminism have engaged with questions of cultural difference, division, diversity, and differentiation, outlining some of the major contributions of each to our understandings of the relationship between culture and gender, and exploring the implications for international feminist scholarship and practice. It first investigates the contributions made by women of color and ethnicity, illustrating how their critiques of the “universalism” and “culture-blindness” of second wave theories and practices exposed the hegemonic and exclusionary tendencies of the feminist movement in the global North, and opened up space for the development of intersectional analyses and feminist identity politics, thereby shifting issues of cultural diversity and difference from the margins to the center of international feminism. Next, the major concerns of postcolonial feminist theory are outlined, noting especially the historical relationship between “Western” feminism and nineteenth-century colonialism and its continuing impact on feminist theorizing and activism, particularly on cross-cultural modes of representation and communication. Third, the essay examines the dilemmas raised by liberal feminists in relation to the issue of multiculturalism, exploring the crucial question of whether promoting respect for and recognition of cultural diversity conflicts with the feminist goal of achieving gender justice and equality. Fourth, the central claims of poststructural feminist theory are explored, noting in particular its rejection of totalizing “metanarratives” and unitary categories, and its celebration of diversity, complexity, multiplicity, and contradiction as a way of ensuring political inclusiveness. Finally, the essay concludes by reflecting on how these debates have enriched feminist scholarship within the discipline of international relations, particularly after 9/11.

Essentially metatheoretical in scope, the essay seeks to critically assess the key conceptual, theoretical, and methodological discourses used to “explain” and “understand” the cultural (and hierarchical) construction of gender – through the complex processes of gender symbolism, gender structure , and individual gender (Harding 1986 :17–18) – and to reflect upon the implicit and explicit assumptions upon which feminist theories and activist agendas are built. It is hoped that reading this essay alongside others by Nancy A. Naples and Nikki McGary (“Feminism, Activism, and Scholarship in Global Context”) and by Melinda Adams and Gwynn Thomas (“Transnational Feminist Activism and Globalizing Women's Movements”) in the Compendium series will provide the reader not only with an overview of the key challenges presented by cultural difference for feminist theorizing and praxis, but also of the possibilities for the negotiation and contestation of gender roles, identities, subjectivities, and structures of power.

The “wave” metaphor is employed here to reflect the existence of mass-based feminist movements that, like waves, “ebb and flow, rise and decline, and crest in some concrete, historical accomplishments or defeats” (Mann and Huffman 2005 :58) – a “first wave” originating in the nineteenth century that sought formal civic equality for women through political enfranchisement; a “second wave” that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, which focused on explaining the origins and pervasiveness of women's oppression across time and space, on radically questioning and reconstructing gender roles, and on extending the feminist struggle for equal rights (for an excellent overview see Nicholson 1997 ); and a “third wave” which endeavored to deconstruct and decenter the dominant discourses and practices of second wave feminism and reconstruct feminist scholarship and activism by embracing diversity, complexity, multiplicity, ambiguity, and contradiction (Bailey 1997 ; Mann and Huffman 2005 ). In adopting this approach I recognize the danger that dividing up feminisms into discrete strands or “waves” may (1) overstate the common elements that unify each wave; (2) understate the diversity of competing feminisms within each mass movement; and (3) downplay the continuity of earlier and later waves (Guy-Sheftall 1995 ; Ruth 1998 ; Springer 2002 ; Mann and Huffman 2005 ). The term “wave” was, according to Orr ( 1997 :43), coined in the 1970s to emphasize the contemporary (“second wave”) movement's “connection and indebtedness to the Woman's Rights movement of the nineteenth century ” (the “first wave”). However, as Cathryn Bailey ( 1997 :18–19) points out, the second wave was “named primarily as a means of emphasizing continuity with earlier feminist activities and ideas,” while the third wave “seems to identify itself as such largely as a means of distancing itself from earlier feminism, as a means of stressing what are perceived as discontinuities with earlier feminist thought and activity.” This essay outlines some of the major debates and perspectives that have contributed to the emergence of a third wave of feminist theorizing and activism centered upon the recognition of cultural difference and its implications for feminist politics. These alternative trajectories of feminist thought and practice have articulated very different responses to the politics of difference. Liberal feminists, for example, have focused on how multicultural liberal states should best respond to the claims made by minority groups for the recognition of, and respect for, cultural difference, and have sought to mediate between what are often viewed as competing demands for cultural rights and sexual equality (e.g., Deveaux 2006 ). Feminists of color and ethnicity have embraced identity politics as a source of empowerment, community, and intellectual development, while poststructuralist feminists question the notion of coherent identities and view freedom as resistance to categorization and identity (Coleman 2009 :4). Postcolonial feminists, meanwhile, have rejected both the notion of universal “woman” and power-infused discourses of “Third World difference” that construct monolithic representations of women in the global south (Mohanty 1991 ). Insisting that feminists in the global North shake off orientalist and ethnocentric modes of thought, postcolonial feminists have worked to highlight the historical and cultural specificity of women's lives, to uncover the intersections of race, class, nationality, religion, sexuality, etc. with gendered forms of subordination and inequality, and to contest political, economic, and sociocultural hierarchies of power both locally and globally (Rajan and Park 2000 :54).

Contributions by Women of Color and Ethnicity

The scholarship and activism of feminists of color and ethnicity in the global North, as it emerged from the late 1960s, has been paramount in challenging the “hegemonic” (Spivak 1985a :271) or “imperial” feminisms (Amos and Parmar 1984 ) of the second wave movement. Evolving from “the matrix of the very discourses denying, permitting, and producing difference” (Sandoval 2004 :196) and “frequently speaking simultaneously from ‘within and against’ both women's liberation and antiracist movements” (Frankenberg and Mani 1993 :302) this strand of third wave feminism played a crucial role exposing the parochial yet falsely universalist nature of Anglo-European feminist analyses as narrowly constructed from the lived experiences of white, middle-class, educated, heterosexual women (Zinn and Dill 1996 :321). Variously described as “multicultural feminism” (Jaggar and Rothenberg 1993 ), “US Third World feminisms” (Sandoval 2004 ), “black feminism” (Collins 2000 ), and “multiracial feminism” (Zinn and Dill 1996 ), the term “women of color and ethnicity” is used to reflect the fact that this strand of feminist theory and activism emerged from the interaction and alliance of women of many races and ethnic backgrounds, from different histories and cultures, within the so-called “Western,” “developed” world, and also underscores the commitment of these women to highlighting “race as a power system that interacts with other structured inequalities to shape genders” (Zinn and Dill 1996 :324). Different in race, class, language, ideology, religion, culture, and ethnicity, women of color and ethnicity developed gender analyses that were fundamentally shaped by their unique experiences as “outsiders-within” (Collins 2004 ). As women who were doubly marginalized as women and as racialized subjects, they have “produce[d] distinctive oppositional knowledges that embrace multiplicity yet remain cognizant of power” (Collins 1998 :8) and that therefore situate women and men in multiple systems of oppression and domination (Collins 2004 ).

The work of women of color and ethnicity has laid bare the racist underpinnings of the feminist movement in the global North (Dubois 1978 ; Davis 1982 ; Smith 1982 ), its historical connections to imperial ideologies, institutions, and practices (Amos and Parmar 1984 ; Ferguson 1992 ; Melman 1992 ; Midgley, 1992 , 2007 ; Ware 1994 ; Lewis 1996 ), and its propensity to marginalize, exclude, and erase the experiences and voices of women of color and ethnicity from its theories and practices (hooks 1981 , 1984 , 1989 ; Hull et al. 1982 ; Lorde 1983 , 2007 ; Moraga and Anzaldúa 1983 ; Amos and Parmar 1984 ; Anzaldúa 1990 ). Accordingly, women of color and ethnicity compelled the women's movement in the North to acknowledge and confront the destructive, divisive, and oppressive effects of its “culture-blindness,” obliging feminists to recognize the cultural particularity of their theories and analyses, to make space for the marginalized voices of culturally marginalized groups (Burton 1998 :562), and ultimately to destabilize or “decenter” (hooks 1984 ) the dominant discourses and practices of “hegemonic” feminisms through intersectional analyses focused on critically explored political issues of cultural diversity and differentiation.

Crucially, the feminist movement was exhorted to examine the forms of cultural imperialism, discrimination, and oppression that it had internalized, and to focus on building a movement that embraced difference rather than homogeneity (Mann and Huffman 2005 :60). Thus, in their groundbreaking book This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa ( 1983 ) charted the main foci for a broad-based political movement of women of color and ethnicity in the United States:

(1) how visibility/invisibility as women of color forms our radicalism; (2) the ways in which Third World women derive a feminist political theory specifically from our radical/cultural background and experience; (3) the destructive and demoralizing effects of racism in the women's movement; (4) the cultural, class, and sexuality differences that divide women of color; (5) Third World women's writing as a tool of self-preservation and revolution; and (6) the ways and means of a Third World feminist future. (Moraga and Anzaldúa 1983 :xxiv)

One of the most significant contributions made by this strand of third wave feminism has been its deconstruction of the “essentialist woman” of second wave feminism and of the unitary theories it promotes – e.g., those privileging a single aspect of social relations in the construction and reproduction of gendered identities, such as reproduction (O'Brien 1983 ), caring (Gilligan 1982 ), production (Hartsock 1983b ), or sexuality (MacKinnon 1989 ). This assumption of sameness and commonality of oppression (1) ignores or obscures the differences that exist between women, based on nationality, race, class, religion, language, sexual orientation, etc; (2) conceals the significance of such heterogeneity for feminist theory and politics; (3) wrongly regards the lived experiences of white, educated, middle-class, heterosexual women as representative of, and normative for, the experiences of all women (Spelman 1990 :ix); and (4) works to enable and maintain the domination of feminisms that are culturally located in white, Eurocentric, and Western political thought (Amos and Parmar 1984 ). It also reflects and reproduces what Adrienne Rich ( 1979 ) calls “white solipsism” – the tendency of much of feminist theory “to think, imagine and speak as if whiteness described the world” ( 1979 :299) and to view social reality with “a tunnel-vision which simply does not see non-white experience or existence as precious and significant, unless in spasmodic, important guilt-reflexes, which have little or no long-term, continuing momentum or political usefulness” ( 1979 :306). The task for feminism, as articulated by women of color and ethnicity, was not only to deconstruct and dismantle the hegemonic and exclusionary theories and practices that had dominated the women's movement, but also to provide space for the formulation and construction of “autonomous, geographically, historically, and culturally grounded feminist concerns and strategies” (Mohanty 1991 :51).

The exclusionary manner in which “women's experiences” were being constructed by white, middle-class, heterosexual women prompted black feminist Frances Beale ( 1970 ) to warn that second wave feminism was developing into a “white women's movement” by insisting on narrowly organizing along the binary gender division male–female alone (Beale 1970 , cited in Sandoval 2004 :198). Many feminists in the global North were guilty of sidestepping, rather than confronting head-on, the racism and ethnocentrism at the center of the women's movement, and relegating the ideas and experiences of women of color and ethnicity to the margins of feminist theorizing and activism (hooks 1984 ). As bell hooks ( 1984 ) asserts:

All too frequently in the women's movement it was assumed that one could be free of sexist thinking by simply adopting the appropriate feminist rhetoric; it was further assumed that identifying oneself as oppressed freed one from being an oppressor. To a grave extent such thinking prevented white feminisms from understanding and overcoming their own sexist–racist attitudes toward black women. They could play lip-service to the idea of sisterhood and solidarity between women but at the same time dismiss black women. (hooks 1984 :8–9; cited in McEwan 2003 :407)

The feminist movement was therefore challenged by women of color and ethnicity to move “away from the celebration of universality and sameness” and toward the recognition of “the implications of differences among women's experiences and understanding the political factors at work in those differences” (Amos and Parmar 1984 :7). On the one hand, feminists were urged to confront the personal prejudices that were dividing the feminist movement – to “reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives there” (Lorde 1983 :98). The message was that racism, and all other forms of intolerance and prejudice, could no longer be ignored in feminist theory and practice if the feminist movement was not merely to be an exercise in “female self-aggrandizement” but rather a movement committed to a struggle “to free all women: women of color, working-class women, poor women, disabled women, lesbians, old women – as well as white economically privileged, heterosexual women” (Smith 1982 :49). On the other hand, the very phrase “women of color” was redefined not as the negation of whiteness but rather as the acclamation of a positive identity (McCann and Kim 2003 :154). Consequently, Collins ( 2004 ) celebrates black female intellectuals in the United States for making creative use of their marginality (or “outsider-within” status) to generate a distinctive standpoint on self, family, and society – by affirming the importance of black women's self-definition and self-valuation, drawing attention to the interlocking nature of oppression, and asserting the importance of Afro-American women's culture. Likewise, Gloria Anzaldúa ( 1987 ) credits her shifting identity as a Mexican-American lesbian moving through multiple cultures and locations as productive of a “higher” consciousness, a new mestiza consciousness – one that develops “a tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity” and which “operates in a pluralistic mode … [so that] nothing is thrust out, the good, the bad and the ugly, nothing rejected, nothing abandoned” ( 1987 :79). The perception and celebration of differences between groups of women in terms of race, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, etc., combined with a desire to destabilize the ethnocentrism and heterosexism of predominant feminist assumptions, resulted in moves toward “identity politics” by groups who felt linked by a common culture, experience, or language (Phillips 1993 :146–7; Evans 1995 :22).

The 1980s thus brought a sustained critique of feminist theoretical frameworks grounded solely in the concept of gender, as women of color and ethnicity sought to build feminist theories of differences among women, to consider the ways that women's lives are shaped by the multiple identities that women negotiate in their lives, and to understand the complex relationships that exist between gender domination and other dimensions and modalities of social relations and subject formations, such as nationality, race, class, religion, language, sexual orientation, etc. (Yuval-Davis 1997 ; Yuval-Davis and Anthias 1989 ; McCann and Kim 2003 :148–9; McCall 2005 :1771). Debates emerged regarding whether to interpret these relationships in terms of an additive process, in which each axis of identity or discrimination is distinct and viewed as internally homogeneous, or as a constitutive process, where each social division is viewed as having a different ontological basis and as irreducible to the others (Yuval-Davis 2006 ; Squires and Weldes 2007 :187). The additive model of oppression, which interpreted the combinations of race and gender and other identities/oppressions as productive of a “double-jeopardy” (Beale 1970 ) or “multiple jeopardy” (King 1988 ), was critiqued for its tendency to treat each axis as isolated or separable and to obscure the relations between gender and other elements of identity, and between sexism and other forms of oppression (Spelman 1990 :115). This model later gave way to the recognition of the simultaneity of systems of oppression and inequality in shaping women's experience and identity, and a theoretical framework of intersectionality (McCann and Kim 2003 :150) in which gender is “constructed by a range of interlocking inequalities” (Zinn and Dill 1996 : 326) – what Collins ( 2000 :23) terms a “matrix of domination” – and redefined “as a constellation of ideas and social practices that are historically situated within and that mutually construct multiple systems of oppression” (Collins 2000 :263). The intersectional framework aims to provide a more thorough understanding of the complexity of women's lives and to destabilize unitary theories and categories of gender through an exploration of the relationality of dominance and subordination and of the relationship between social structure and women's agency. To achieve this it draws upon a wide range of methodological approaches and studies drawn from the lives of diverse groups of women in order to maintain “a creative tension between diversity and universalization” (Zinn and Dill 1996 :327–9). Through such analyses, feminists were exhorted “to go beyond a mere recognition of [cultural] diversity and difference among women to examine structures of domination, specifically the importance of race in understanding the social construction of gender” (Zinn and Dill 1996 :321).

Contributions of Postcolonial Feminist Theory

Postcolonial feminists, like feminists of color and ethnicity, have also insisted on the vital significance of cultural and historical particularity to understanding gender relations, urging feminists in the global North to abandon hegemonic theories of universality in favor of the recognition of cultural difference and diversity (Jordan and Weedon 1995 :185–6). Their work has emerged both from within and against the feminist movement and mainstream postcolonial studies – as a reaction against the universalizing tendencies of “imperial” feminisms and against the neglect of gender analyses by eminent postcolonial theorists (Mills 1998 :98) such as Said ( 1979 , 1993 ), Fanon ( 1968 , 1986 ), and Bhabha ( 1994 ), scholars whose work has been influential in exposing and deconstructing the discursive hierarchies of power and domination through which nineteenth-century imperialism was conceptualized and made possible, and which continue to influence present-day behavior and modes of thought in both former colonial and colonized lands. (See Geeta Chowdhry and L.H.M. Ling's essay “Race(ing) International Relations: A Critical Overview of Postcolonial Feminism in International Relations” in the Compendium for a fuller account of postcolonial feminism in IR and its relationship with both feminist IR and postcolonial studies scholarship.)

Postcolonial feminists have highlighted the gendered and gendering nature of colonial(ist) discourses and practices, uncovering the ways in which colonial(ist) policies and practices relied upon the mobilization of hierarchically ordered gender identities. As McClintock ( 1995 ) asserts, “imperialism cannot be understood without a theory of gender power … gender dynamics were, from the outset, fundamental to the securing and maintenance of the imperial enterprise” (cited in Mills 1998 :100). Thus, Sharpe has drawn attention to the positioning of white British women in India as passive and “rapeable,” in need of protection against the aggressive “barbarism” and “savagery” of indigenous men, in order to “permit [violent] strategies of counterinsurgency to be recorded as the restoration of moral order” ( 1993 :6). Moreover, Pettman has problematized the infantilizing attitudes of colonizer women, especially missionary women, toward colonized women, arguing that “even where the former saw the latter as sisters, in a precursor to global sisterhood, they retained notions of difference in race and cultural hierarchy that represented ‘other’ women as little sisters or surrogate daughters” ( 1996 :29; see also Ramusack 1990 ). Colonialist attitudes continue to resonate in contemporary international relations, both within the discipline of IR and within contemporary practices of global politics. For Agathangelou and Ling, the discipline of IR resembles a “colonial household” that arrogantly seeks to impose “order” and establish “civilization” within “a space that is already crowded with local traditions of thinking, doing and being … by appropriating the knowledge, resources, and labor of racialized, sexualized Others for its own benefit and pleasure while announcing itself the sole producer – the father – of our world” (Agathangelou and Ling 2004a :21). Several others have highlighted how policies and practices of international intervention (e.g., of democracy promotion, development, foreign aid, peacekeeping, etc.) by the global North in the global South are conceptualized, legitimized, and made possible through the discursive mobilization of hierarchically ordered and racialized gender identities. Interventionist discourses generally seek to promote the notion that the global North has a duty or moral obligation to “modernize,” “democratize,” and “develop” societies in the global South (Doty 1993 , 1996 ; Orford 1999 , 2003 ; Whitworth 2004 ; Krasniqi 2007 ). Whilst the Northern/Western “self” is constructed as “democratic, freedom-loving, and humanitarian” (Doty 1993 :125), Southern/non-Western “others” are depicted as “disordered, chaotic, tribal, primitive, pre-capitalist, violent, exclusionary and child-like” (Orford 2003 :43), thereby enabling western intervention to be legitimized as benevolent acts of “rescue” and “salvation” rather than manifestations of realpolitik .

The problematic history of colonial(ist) intervention on behalf of “other” women, coupled with a concern for the power that colonial(ist) discourses continue to hold over “white feminist” theories and practices, has led postcolonial feminists to spotlight the politics of cultural representation, the ethics of speaking and writing for or on behalf of “others,” and questions of agency within feminist analyses (McEwan 2003 :406–10; Wilson 2007 :129; see also Alcoff 1991–2 ). Mohanty famously problematized “the construction of ‘third world women’ as a homogeneous ‘powerless’ group often located as implicit victims of particular socioeconomic systems” in Western feminist discourse rather than as agents (Mohanty 1991 :57). She highlights the ways in which feminist scholars in the global North depict the “average third world woman” as someone who “leads an essentially truncated life based on her feminine gender (read: sexually constrained) and her being ‘third world’ (read: ignorant, poor, uneducated, tradition-bound, domestic, family-oriented, victimized, etc.)” ( 1991 :56). Comparing the self-presentations of “Western” feminists with their representations of women in the “third world,” she asserts that “universal images of ‘the third world Woman’ (the veiled woman, chaste virgin, etc.), images constructed from adding the ‘third world difference’ to ‘sexual difference,’ are predicated upon (and hence obviously bring into sharper focus) assumptions about Western women as secular, liberated and having control over their own lives” (Mohanty 1991 :74).

Similarly, Narayan ( 1998 ) argues that feminist attempts to avoid gender essentialism, by taking into account issues such as class, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc., can result in “culturally essentialist” images of differences among women when “[s]eemingly universal essentialist generalizations about ‘all women’ are replaced by culture-specific essentialist generalizations that depend on totalizing categories such as ‘Western culture,’ ‘Non-Western cultures,’ ‘Western women,’ ‘Third World women,’ and so forth” ( 1998 :87). This is, in her view, a form of “‘cultural imperialism’ … [which operates through] an ‘insistence on Difference,’ by a projection of Imaginary ‘differences’ that constitute one's Others as Other” ( 1998 :89), which she traces back to the colonial era. Narayan argues that such constructions are problematic given that they are often used by “traditionalists”/“fundamentalists” in the global South in political movements that are detrimental to women's interests. Consequently, she contends that feminists must adopt a stance of anti-essentialism in relation to both women and culture – by combining “criticisms of the adverse effects of particular ‘traditions’ on women … with a critical stance toward ahistorical and essentialist pictures of those ‘traditions’” ( 1998 :96) and by “pointing to the internal plurality, dissension and contestation over values, and ongoing changes in practices in virtually all communities that comprise modern nation-states” ( 1998 :102).

Postcolonial feminists have also pointed to the need for feminists in the global North to acknowledge the “situatedness” of their knowledges (Haraway 1988 ) and to appreciate their cultural specificity and partiality (McEwan 2003 :409). For Spivak ( 1990 ), this entails “unlearning … one's privilege” in relation to the “much larger female constituency in the world” so that:

not only does one become able to listen to that other constituency, but one learns to speak in such a way that one will be taken seriously by that other constituency. And furthermore, to recognize that the position of the speaking subject within theory can be an historically powerful position when it wants the other to be able to answer back. (Spivak 1990 :42)

The scholarship of women of color and ethnicity and of postcolonial feminists has been paramount in gaining greater recognition of the need to decenter the feminisms produced in the global North – “to reorient western feminisms, such that they are perceived no longer as exclusive and dominant but as part of a plurality of feminisms, each with a specific history and set of political objectives” (McEwan 2003 :407). Their insights have also led to greater awareness of the diverse histories of women's struggles and feminist activism throughout history and across the globe, drawing attention to a multitude of campaigns, strategies, and forms of organization utilized by women in a variety of historically and locationally specific sociocultural contexts to advance specific interests and improve the circumstances of their lives (Basu 1999 ). As a result of such analyses, the formation of women's identities and interests within particular structural, political, and cultural contexts has been brought into greater focus – highlighting not only the complex conditions in which women become mobilized but also the temporal and spatial specificity of local discourses and practices of gender which work to obstruct or facilitate women's and feminist movements (Ray and Korteweg 1999 ).

Contributions of Liberal Feminists: The Politics of Multiculturalism

As noted above, feminists of color and ethnicity have problematized the tendency of second wave theories to deny differences among women in ways that overlook intersecting forms of subordination and discrimination, while postcolonial feminist scholars have critiqued “Western” feminism's propensity to emphasize difference (Jaggar 2005b :187) through practices of knowing, interpreting, and speaking about gendered and racialized “others” in ways that divest (post-)colonial subjects of both subjectivity and agency, thereby perpetuating (neo)colonial forms of domination (Spivak 1988 :272). Liberal feminists, on the other hand, have expressed concerns that moves within multicultural liberal states to recognize cultural difference and to formally accommodate the customs, norms, beliefs, and practices of cultural minorities may clash with the goal of achieving gender justice and equality (e.g., Okin 1994 , 1995 , 1998a , 1998b , 1999 , 2005 ; Shachar 2001 ). Susan Moller Okin ( 1999 ), for example, has argued that multiculturalism may be “bad for women” because the liberal feminist goal of protecting the fundamental rights and freedoms of women is often relegated by liberal states in favor of accommodating the claims of cultural minorities to group rights and protections. She asserts that “group rights are potentially, and in many cases actually, antifeminist” because “they substantially limit the capacities of women and girls of that culture to live with human dignity equal to that of men, and to live as freely chosen lives as [men] can” ( 1999 :12). In her view, those advocating group rights for cultural minorities within liberal states firstly fail to recognize that such groups, like the wider societies in which they exist, “are themselves gendered , with substantial differences in power and advantage between men and women,” and secondly do not pay adequate attention to the forms of gendered inequality and discrimination that emanate from the private sphere of domestic and family life ( 1999 :12), thereby enabling “culturally endorsed practices that are oppressive to women … [to] remain hidden … [and] perceived as private family concerns” (1998b:680). Listing a number of culturally or religiously sanctioned practices such as polygamy, clitoridechtomy, child marriages, and forced marriages ( 1999 :24) which she regards as violations of women's human rights, Okin questions the idea that feminist and multiculturalist goals are compatible. While acknowledging that “Western cultures … still practice many forms of sex discrimination,” and that “virtually all of the world's cultures have distinctly patriarchal pasts,” she nevertheless claims that some, mostly liberal, cultures “have departed far further from [these pasts] than others” ( 1999 :16). Consequently, she asserts that women in “a more patriarchal minority culture” may “be much better off if the culture into which they were born were either to become extinct … or … encouraged to alter itself so as to reinforce the equality of women” ( 1999 :22–3; for critical responses to this controversial claim see in particular Volpp 2001 ; Benhabib 2002 ).

This question of how feminists in the global North should respond to cases where the claims of cultural minorities to recognition and protection conflict with the liberal feminist principle of gender equality has generated a substantial level of debate (for critiques of Okin see especially Norton 2001 ; Shachar 2001 ; Volpp 2001 ; Benhabib 2002 ). Many feminists would endorse Okin's view that “we need to strive toward … a form of multiculturalism that gives the issues of gender and other intragroup inequalities their due – that is to say, a multiculturalism that effectively treats all persons as each other's moral equals” (Okin, quoted in Phillips 2010 :2). However, diverging opinions have surfaced regarding the most appropriate strategies for feminists to adopt. One strategy has been to identify certain nonnegotiable rights or equalities that must be upheld and which set limits to the claims that can rightly be accommodated within multicultural societies (Phillips 2010 :2–3). In this vein, Martha Nussbaum ( 2002 ), drawing on the work of Amartya Sen, has advocated a “capabilities approach” to gender justice, outlining “basic constitutional principles that should be respected and implemented by the governments of all nations, as a bare minimum of what respect for human dignity requires” ( 2002 :49). She identifies a list of “necessary elements of truly human functioning” ( 2002 :59) that are cross-culturally applicable, including:

bodily health;

bodily integrity;

ability to use the senses, imagination, to think and reason;

emotional development;

practical reason;

the ability to engage in a variety of forms of affiliation, whether social or political;

the ability to live with concern for and in relation to other species;

the ability to play and enjoy recreational activities; and

the ability to exert control over one's political and material environment ( 2002 :60–2; see also Nussbaum 1988 , 1992 , 1995 , 1997 , 2000 ; Nussbaum and Sen 1993 ; Nussbaum and Glover 1995 ).

Nussbaum deploys the concept of capabilities to counter the “politically correct,” anti-essentialist strands of feminism which in her view rationalize “ancient religious taboos, the luxury of the pampered husband, ill health, ignorance, and death” and other forms of injustice experienced by women across the globe (Nussbaum, quoted in Jaggar 2005a :58). Similarly, Anne Phillips has identified three guiding principles which can help societies to classify cultural practices as in accordance with or violation of principles of gender equality. Practices are not defensible when they (1) inflict grievous and irreversible harms to a person's well-being or self-esteem; (2) violate the principle of equality, e.g., by discriminating against women; and (3) do not provide individuals with the substantive conditions (political and civil freedoms, educational and employment opportunities) required for genuine consent.

Another approach is to divide jurisdictional authority for contested issues (such as family law) between national governments and cultural minorities in order to balance respect for cultural difference with the protection of individual rights, and to force both states and minority groups to compete for women's allegiance by promoting policies and practices geared toward gender equality (Phillips 2010 :4; Shachar 2001 ). Ayelet Shachar ( 2001 ), for example, advocates a system of “joint governance” to foster “ongoing interactions between different sources of authority, as a means of eventually improving the situation of traditionally vulnerable insiders, without forcing them into an ‘either/or’ choice between their culture and their rights” ( 2001 :13). She promotes transformative accommodation as the “most optimistically practical” form of joint governance because it aims “to encourage group authorities themselves to reduce discriminatory internal restrictions” on the choices and actions of group members ( 2001 :14) by convincing them to enact three principles: (1) the allocation of jurisdictional authority along the lines of “sub-matters,” e.g., separable legal components such as education, family law, immigration (119–20); (2) the “no monopoly rule” which states that neither the state nor the minority can acquire exclusive authority over a contested issue that affects individuals both as citizens and as group members (120–2); and (3) the establishment of clearly delineated options which allow individuals to choose between the jurisdiction of the state and the group (122–6).

A third approach is to look to democratic deliberation and intercultural dialogue to resolve conflicts between multicultural and feminist goals (Phillips 2010 :4; for examples see Young 2000 ; Benhabib 2002 ; Deveaux 2006 ; Song 2007 ). Accordingly, Seyla Benhabib has proposed a “complex multicultural dialogue” ( 2002 :101) that enables individuals to engage in “processes of cultural communication, contestation, and resignification … within civil society” ( 2002 :81). Similarly, Monique Deveaux has argued for a deliberative democratic approach which ensures that women from cultural minorities “have a voice in evaluating and deciding the fate of their communities' customs, both by including women in formal decision-making processes and developing new, more inclusive, forums for mediating cultural disputes” ( 2006 :5). In addition, Nancy Fraser's “ critical theory of recognition, one that identifies and defends only those versions of the cultural politics of difference that can be coherently combined with the social politics of equality” ( 1997 :12), highlights the importance of public contestation and deliberation, and promotes the idea that all affected parties should be enabled to fully and freely participate in public debate on questions of justice (Fraser and Honneth 2003 :43). The recognition of cultural difference, in Fraser's view, should be treated as an issue of social status where “what requires recognition is not group-specific identity but the status of individual group members as full partners in social interaction” ( 2000 :113). Fraser's conception of justice thus centers on the principle of “participatory parity” – a norm of social justice that “requires social arrangements that permit all (adult) members of society to interact with one another as peers” (Fraser and Honneth 2003 :36). Participatory parity depends on two conditions: the “objective condition” of a distribution of material resources such as to ensure “participants' independence and ‘voice’;” and the “intersubjective condition” of “institutionalized patterns of cultural value [which] express equal respect … and ensure equal opportunity for achieving social esteem” ( 2003 :36). This norm provides a justificatory standard against which claims by individuals and groups for recognition and/or redistribution, as well as the proposed remedies for injustice, can be evaluated at both the intergroup and intragroup levels. By requiring that claimants in struggles for cultural recognition demonstrate not only that present economic arrangements and/or institutionalized patterns of cultural value prevent them from participating on a par with others in social life, but also that the social changes they advocate will promote rather than impede parity of participation, legitimate claims and remedies can be distinguished from false or pernicious ones ( 2003 :38–42).

This stress on using democratic deliberation and intercultural dialogue to resolve conflicts of “multiculturalism vs. feminism” (Okin 1998b ) or “multicultural accommodation vs. women's rights” (Shachar 2001 ) contrasts with Okin's investment in John Rawls's ( 1999 , 2001 ) concept of the “original position” in which individuals engage in hypothetical dialogue behind a “veil of ignorance” in order to formulate rational and objective principles of justice within society. Okin worries that “interactive” or “dialogical” approaches may not be up to the task of achieving gender justice because, in her view, many oppressed people internalize their oppression and are “likely to rationalize the cruelties” they suffer, meaning that “ committed outsiders can often be better analysts and critics of social injustice than those who live within the relevant culture” ( 1994 :19). Yet speaking for others in this way is dangerous. As Linda Alcoff notes, it entails “the possibility of misrepresentation, expanding one's own authority and privilege, and a generally imperialist speaking ritual,” dangers that may be reduced by instead speaking with and to others (Alcoff 1991–2 :23). In an era in which debates on women's rights are often used to reinforce cultural stereotypes (e.g., the idea that certain cultural minorities are particularly prone to sexism), to construct hierarchical binaries between “Western” and “non-Western” values (e.g., rational/irrational, traditional/modern, backward/progressive, civilized/barbaric), and to rationalize and make possible the global “war on/of terror” (Masters 2009 ; see also Ferguson 2005 ; Hunt and Rygiel 2006 ; Nayak 2006 ; Shepherd 2006 ), speaking for others may reinforce rather than challenge racialized orders (both global and local) in which proclamations of adherence to “progressive” and “liberal” policies on gender equality and the treatment of women have become both markers and sources of superiority, domination, and privilege (Phillips 2010 :3–4, 14). Moreover, the exclusive attention paid to the oppression suffered by women in the global South or by female members of cultural minorities in the global North also deflects attention from the fact that women in the most “developed,” “progressive” societies continue to be politically, economically, and socially marginalized, and suffer from myriad forms of gender-based violence and discrimination (Phillips 2010 :25; Volpp 2001 ). A myopic focus on “cultural” explanations for the suffering experienced only by “Third World” and “minority” women is problematic because it not only masks the relevance of culture in explaining/understanding the violence and injustice experienced by “Western” and “majority” women, but also obscures the ways in which “Third World” and “minority” women articulate agency and subjectivity even in the most constraining and coercive circumstances (Volpp 2001 ), e.g., by depicting them in dehumanizing and infantilized terms as objects at risk of “death by culture” (Narayan 1997 ). It also blinds us to the ways in which citizens in the global North are implicated in many of the injustices suffered by Southern and minority women, for example due to the legacies of Western colonialism, or contemporary forms of injustice generated by neoliberal globalization (Jaggar 2005a , 2005b ).

Contributions of Poststructural Feminist Theory

The process of destabilizing the universalizing claims and unitary concepts of “second wave” feminisms has been a key concern of poststructural feminism – also termed postmodernist, deconstructionist, linguistic, or French theory – as articulated by scholars such as Cixous, Kristeva, and Irigary, and influenced by the psychoanalytic and linguistic theories of male writers such as Derrida, Foucault, and Lacan. However, in contrast to the theories and practices promoted by women of color and ethnicity, poststructural feminists, like postcolonial feminists, call into question attempts to mobilize around unitary categories such as race, ethnicity, class, or sexual orientation, arguing that identity groups are made up of individuals with heterogeneous rather than shared or essential experiences (Mann and Huffman 2005 :62). Rejecting “metanarratives” or all-encompassing theories that claim to be capable of explaining women's subordination or oppression across historical and geographical contexts, poststructural feminists have problematized feminist attempts to build theories about “woman”/“women,” arguing that when women are defined, characterized, or “spoken for” they continue to be naturalized, essentialized, or normalized as a category, thereby reinvoking a key mechanism of gender oppression (Alcoff 1988 ). The task, as Alcoff asserts, is to replace theories of gender or sexual difference with “a plurality of difference where gender loses its position of significance” (Alcoff 1988 :407). Non-universalist feminist theories have therefore been proposed which are inimical to essentialism through their unequivocal insistence of historical and cultural specificity – as such poststructural feminists “replace unitary notions of ‘woman’ and ‘feminine gender identity’ with plural and complexly constructed conceptions of social identity, treating gender as one relevant strand among others, attending also to class, race, ethnicity, age, and sexual orientation” (Fraser and Nicholson 1989 :101). In doing so, poststructural feminists strive to uphold an ideal of political inclusiveness, rejecting any search for first principles or ultimate causes of women's oppression as totalizing and dangerously prone to marginalizing women whose perspectives and experiences differ from our own (Flax 1990 ). As Gayatri Spivak ( 1990 ) has argued, “We cannot but narrate … [but] when a narrative is constructed, something is left out. When an end is defined, other ends are rejected, and one might not know what those ends are” (18–19).

A key focus of poststructural feminist theorizing is on the processes of gendered subjectification – the “historically [and culturally] specific processes whereby one is subjected to the discursive regimes and regulatory frameworks [and] through which gendered individuals and their social contexts are … constructed” (Davies and Gannon 2005 :318; see also Foucault 1980 ; Butler 1990 , 1992 , 1993 ). The subject is conceived in these analyses not as transcendental (as a stable, coherent self that exists before and beyond the social realm) but rather as culturally constituted and discursively produced by “relations of power” (Foucault 1980 :118) within a given society. As Mouffe ( 1992 ) asserts, the subject is:

… constituted by an ensemble of “subject positions” that can never be totally fixed in a closed system of differences, constructed by a diversity of discourses among which there is no necessary relation but a constant movement of overdetermination and displacement. The identity of such a multiple and contradictory subject is therefore always contingent and precarious, temporarily fixed at the intersection of those subject positions and dependent on specific forms of identification . ( 1992 :372; my emphasis)

This “multiply constituted subject” is understood as having multiple identities which are constituted through discourse in relation to difference and achieved “through the inscription of boundaries that serve to demarcate an ‘inside’ from an ‘outside,’ a ‘self’ from an ‘other,’ a ‘domestic’ from a ‘foreign’” (Campbell 1998 :9) As Connolly argues, “identity is established in relation to a series of differences that have become socially recognized … [and] are essential to its being … its distinctiveness and solidity” ( 2002 :64). Consequently, poststructural feminists have noted the importance of oppositional binarisms in the construction and reproduction of gender identities – masculinity as a fluid, relational , and contextualized construction is defined in binary opposition to femininity, with connections to other modern dichotomies such as rationality/emotion, active/passive, war/peace, culture/nature, objective/subjective, competitive/caring, and order/anarchy, and with the first “masculine” term in each pair often being valued above the second “feminine” term (Hooper 1998 :31–2). These “masculine” and “feminine” characteristics play a crucial regulatory and disciplinary role – they denote an “ideal” or “hegemonic” type of masculinity or femininity which not only defines what men and women ought to be, but also supports male power and female subordination and reinforces the power of dominant groups due to the hierarchy of masculinities in which gender interacts with race, class, and other social divisions (Tickner 2001 :16; Connell 1995 ; Hooper 1998 ; Schippers 2007 ). As a result, the multiple models of masculinity and femininity that exist across time and space do so in relations of hierarchy, hegemony, and exclusion (Connell 2001 :57; see also Cornwall and Lindisfarne 1994 ; Hooper 1998 ; Lloyd 1999 ; Kimmel and Messner 2001 ; Whitehead and Barrett 2001 ; Schippers 2007 ).

An appreciation of the diversity, complexity, and multiplicity of gender identity, together with a more complex understanding of power has led poststructural feminists to challenge long-standing assumptions that sex is a stable category upon which gendered identities are constructed (Squires and Weldes 2007 :186). Butler's extension of the Foucauldian notion of power as performative, for example, leads her to argue that gender is both a material effect of the way in which power takes hold of the body, and an ideological effect of the way power “conditions” the mind (Squires and Weldes 2007 :187). Gender is thus not something humans acquire , but something we do (Lloyd 1999 :195; Butler 1990 , 1992 , 1993 ); it exists only so far as it is ritualistically and repetitively performed “through a stylized repetition of acts ” (Butler 1990 :140; see also Stone 2005 ). The performative nature of gender leads Butler to argue that

[g]ender ought not to be conceived merely as the cultural inscription of meaning on a pre-given sex; gender must also designate the very apparatus of production whereby the sexes themselves are established. As a result, gender is not to culture as sex is to nature; gender is also the discursive/cultural means by which “sexed nature” or a “natural sex” is produced and established as “prediscursive,” prior to culture. (Butler 1997 , cited in Squires and Weldes 2007 :187)

As a result, essentialist appeals to the existence of a true gender identity can be viewed as part of the strategy that conceals gender's performative character and the result of regulatory practices that seek not only to render gender identity uniform through compulsory heterosexuality, but to restrict performative possibilities for alternative gender configurations (Butler 1990 ; Kantola 2007 :278). Furthermore, understanding how the category of “woman”/“women” is produced and restrained through structures of power, using methods such as genealogy, deconstruction, intertextual readings, and the exploration of “subjugated knowledges,” allows for the possibility of subversive agency through which gender norms can be transgressed (Stone 2005 ). As Scott ( 2005 ) argues, treating subjects as discursively constituted does not result in linguistic determinism, given that there are contradictions within and among discursive systems and a multitude of possible meanings for the subject positions they deploy ( 2005 :212). Indeed, the “subject is neither a ground nor a product, but the permanent possibility of a certain resignifying process” (Butler 1992 :13). Nor does rejecting Enlightenment conceptions of subjects as stable, autonomous individuals exercising free will deprive individuals of agency. Rather, their agency is “created through situations and statuses conferred upon them” (Scott 2005 :212). As Butler asserts, “the constituted character of the subject is the very precondition of its agency” ( 1992 :12). Consequently, poststructural feminist analyses explore how individuals negotiate, resist, embrace, and potentially transform the multiple and conflicting discourses through which they are constituted as subjects and subjected to relations of power, noting the ways in which agency is articulated vis-à-vis discourses of enablement and constraint.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 on the World Trade Center in New York, and the Pentagon, and the subsequent US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, have thrown debates on cultural difference, division, diversity, and differentiation into sharp relief (Brah and Phoenix 2004 ). In the aftermath of 9/11, many policy makers and ordinary citizens alike turned to Samuel Huntington's ( 1996 ) “clash of civilisations” thesis to make sense of the traumatic events, interpreting the attacks in essentialist terms as a clash between Islamic and Western cultures, and as proof of Huntington's claim that “the most pervasive, important and dangerous conflicts will not be between social classes, rich and poor, or other economically defined groups, but between people belonging to different cultural entities” ( 1996 :28). The wars that followed have posed grave dilemmas for feminist scholars and activists who found feminist discourse on women's human rights being strategically coopted by the Bush administration to legitimize violence directed at racialized “others” in Afghanistan and Iraq (Ferguson 2005 ; Moghadam 2009 ) with disastrous effects on the well-being of many women, men, and children living in these societies (see Al-Ali and Pratt 2009 ). The conceptual frameworks and methodological tools provided by women of color and ethnicity, by postcolonial feminists, and by poststructural feminists, and the debates between liberal feminists and their critics on the gender politics of multiculturalism have helped feminist IR scholars to untangle and problematize the ways in which discourses of gender, race, class, sexuality, and culture are part a product of and part productive of these practices of violence. By pointing to historical and contemporary connections between the “woman question” and (neo)colonialism, highlighting the intersection of gender with other constructions of identity, spotlighting the role of language and representational practices in constructing “self” and “others” in orientalist terms and the politics of speaking for and claiming rights on behalf of others, adopting a skeptical stance vis-à-vis totalizing metanarratives of “civilization,” “progress,” and “development,” and by recovering the agency and subjectivity of those marginalized and/or oppressed (see Agathangelou and Ling 2004b ; Farrell and McDermott 2005 ; Ferguson 2005 ; Hunt and Rygiel 2006 ; Nayak 2006 ; Shepherd 2006 ), feminists have worked to contest the depoliticizing discourses of “muscular humanitarianism” (Orford 1999 ). One of the greatest challenges for feminists, as Vivienne Jabri ( 2004 ) asserts, is to “reclaim the political in feminism” in resistance to “a hegemonic neoliberal order and a matrix of war” – by adopting a feminism of “dissension and contestation” rather than “complicity … [or] cooptation into the discourses of the powerful” ( 2004 : 265; see also Jabri 1999 ). The conceptual, theoretical, and methodological tools deployed by third wave feminists to highlight the politics of difference provide, in my view, an excellent starting point for problematizing the seductively liberal theories and policies of academic and policy-making elites and for reinvigorating the feminist movement's sustained campaign for gender justice and positive peace.

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Links to Digital Materials

African Feminist Forum (AFF). At www.africanfeministforum.com , accessed October 2011. AFF is a biennial conference that draws together African feminists to discuss key issues affecting the advancement of women's rights on the African continent.

Amnesty International (AI) – Stop Violence Against Women Campaign. At www.amnesty.org/en/campaigns/stop-violence-against-women , accessed October 2011. AI is an international human rights organization. AI campaigns to end violence against women, to remove laws that discriminate against women, and to push for the enactment and implementation of laws that protect women's human rights and guarantee women access to justice and services for survivors of gender-based violence.

Association for Women's Rights in Development (AWID). At www.awid.org , accessed October 2011. AWID is an international feminist organization composed of researchers, academics, students, educators, activists, policy makers, development practitioners, donors, and others. It aims to advance gender equality, sustainable development, and women's human rights around the world. One of its key initiatives focuses on resisting and challenging religious fundamentalisms and their impact on women's rights across regions and religions.

Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). At www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/cedaw/ , accessed October 2011. CEDAW is the body of independent experts on women's rights that monitors the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

Consortium on Gender, Security and Human Rights. At http://genderandsecurity.umb.edu , accessed October 2011. The Consortium specializes in building knowledge of gender, conflict, and security, and aims to contribute toward ending violent conflict and building sustainable peace. The website includes a bibliography of feminist academic work in international relations.

Human Rights Watch (HRW). At www.hrw.org , accessed October 2011. HRW focuses on defending and protecting human rights around the world, including women's rights and LGBT rights.

OpenDemocracy. At www.opendemocracy.net , accessed October 2011. “The Dignity of Women” section of openDemocracy publishes articles highlighting the voices of women working to end violence against women in the Arab region and to promote women's rights. At www.opendemocracy.net/50-50-tags/arab-region-the-dignity-of-women , accessed October 2011. The “Religion Gender Politics” section examines the prospects for gender equality and women's human rights in the context of a resurgence of religion in public life across the world and multiculturalist claims to difference. At www.opendemocracy.net/5050/religion-gender-politics , accessed October 2011.

United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women). At www.unwomen.org , accessed October 2011. UN Women was created by the UN General Assembly in July 2010. UN Women promotes the elimination of discrimination against women and girls, the empowerment of women and gender equality via development, human rights, humanitarian action, and peace and security interventions.

United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). At www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Women/SRWomen/Pages/SRWomenIndex.aspx , accessed October 2011. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights appointed in March 1994 a Special Rapporteur on violence against women, including its causes and consequences.

Violence is Not Our Culture (VNC). At www.stop-stoning.org , accessed October 2011. VNC is a global campaign to stop violence against women that is justified in the name of culture or religion. Arguing that violence against women manifests itself in all cultures in diverse forms, the campaign challenges and opposes the legitimacy given to legal, religious, and cultural systems that promote or aid discrimination and violence against women and girls.

Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition (WHRDIC). At www.defendingwomen-defendingrights.org , accessed October 2011. WHRDIC is an international resource and advocacy network that provides protection and support to women human rights defenders worldwide, including women activists, men who defend women's rights, and LGBT defenders and groups committed to the advancement of women's human rights.


Research for this essay was supported by the Economic and Social Research Council (grant number ES/G013993/1). Thanks are due to Laura Sjoberg and anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments, and to Vivienne Jabri for encouraging the author to take on this essay. All errors, of course, remain the author's sole responsibility.

1. Alcoff cites Mary Daly ( 1978 ) and Adrienne Rich ( 1977 , 1979 ) as influential proponents of radical (or “cultural”) feminism given their tendency to invoke universalizing and essentialist conceptions of “woman.” Echols also names Susan Griffin, Kathleen Barry, Janice Raymond, Florence Rush, Susan Brownmiller, and Robin Morgan.

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UN Women Strategic Plan 2022-2025

New feminist activism, waves, and generations

Publication year: 2021.

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Over the last decade, young women have taken the lead in a new wave of feminist and democratic protests in a wide range of countries, North and South. These movements raise a range of political and analytic questions:

  • To what extent is it useful to identify the recent wave of activism in terms of a new generation of activists?
  • How different are these new feminist movements to earlier forms, and what differences and continuities divide and unite the generations?
  • How useful is the idea of feminist “waves” as a way of periodizing the history of feminism?

These questions are explored first through examining the characteristics common to past and contemporary feminisms and dissecting the issues associated with periodizing feminism in terms of “waves”.

In the second part of the paper, the focus is on understanding the most recent wave of feminist activism by considering its antecedents and main characteristics.

Part three presents three case studies of movements in the Global South; the cases of Brazil, India, and Malawi illustrate some of the ideas, campaigns, and organizational forms of “new feminists”. They focus on three prominent themes in feminist activism:

  • Campaigns to defend democratic rights (Brazil);
  • Gender-based violence (India); and
  • Sexual and identity rights (Malawi).

This paper is part of the  “UN Women discussion paper series” .

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The problem with gender is that it prescribes how we should be rather than recognizing how we are. – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Sisters, you are here to learn to serve, to fight, to be fierce, to be fearless. – Aneka, to the Dora Milaje initiates in Black Panther: World of Wakanda

Recently, several moments in media have indicated that feminism is alive and well in popular culture. Thanks to streaming services coupled with network television, shows such as Shrill , Orange is the New Black , Parks and Recreation , Scandal , One Day at a Time , 30 Rock , The Mindy Project , Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt , and Superstore have given viewers exposure to smart, funny and diverse women and men. In music, one doesn’t have to look any further than Beyoncé standing in front of a massive sign reading “Feminist” while performing at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards. A statement that, as Amanda Morcotte from Slate notes, in an image-driven culture where the five second sound bite rules and meme’s are more popular than books, the image of Beyoncé declaring her feminism to the world just felt amazing.

What may have had the largest feminist impact on popular culture in recent memory comes from a duo of super hero films, 2017’s Wonder Woman and 2019’s Captain Marvel. Wonder Woman , directed by Patti Jenkins and staring Gal Gadot, was an unrivaled success when it hit theaters. As Angela Jade Bastien describes the character,

Wonder Woman has always been at her best when her stories lean into the feminist ethos at her core. When artists treat her compassion as the key to understanding her – rather than her brutality in battle – audiences are privy to a superhero who offers what no other can: a power fantasy that privileges the interiority and desires of women. (2017, para. 1)

In the book The Secret History of Wonder Woman , Jill Lepore chronicles the history of the character and the man who created her. She writes,

Wonder Woman isn’t only an Amazonian princess with badass boots. She’s the missing link in a chain of events that begins with the woman suffrage campaigns of the 1910s and ends with the troubled place of feminism fully a century later. Feminism made Wonder Woman. (2015, p. xiii)

For generations, Wonder Woman had been linked with feminist messages whether it was through the comic strip, or through the countless number of Wonder Woman merchandise available. And yet, when it came to film renditions of Justice League characters, Batman and Superman received much more attention. When Gadot’s Wonder Woman makes her appearance in the 2016 film Batman vs. Superman , many people sat up in their seats at the introduction of a new warrior princess. (Even if she was only “new” to this series of films.) In 2017, upon the release of her own film, the audience was treated to more images of women warriors on screen than most people have seen in their lifetime. As the images of Amazonian women practicing their battle skills, juxtaposed with women in positions of political authority, and women leading the island of Themyscira, it became clear to the viewer that Wonder Women’s story stands on the shoulders of many iterations of femininity. Add to this the diversity present in the casting of the Amazon women, including Gadot, an Israeli actress, and audiences were treated to the power of intersectional images present on a screen. Further, the character of Wonder Woman was portrayed as compassionate, curious, intellectual (she speaks dozens of languages) as well as strong, and relentless.

These characteristics are also present in 2019’s Captain Marvel , part of the Marvel Universe series based on the comic characters. Captain Marvel, aka Carol Danvers, has become known throughout the Marvel Universe as the most powerful Avenger. During the film follows her origin story the viewer learns that Marvel’s powers have been suppressed by her male mentor, Yon Rogg. A realization that leads to a quite satisfactory fight scene in which Yon Rogg tells Captain Marvel that she has learned all of her skills from him, taking credit and challenging her to fight without her powers. Captain Marvel sends him flying into a mountain.

Naturally, as one of two super hero movies which feature women as leads, comparisons have been made between Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel. In his review of Captain Marvel, Peter Travers writes,

A Riot Grrrl power pulses through every frame, not to mention humor, heart and the thrill that comes from watching a genuine game-changer. Wonder Woman, the 2017 epic from DC Comics, may have thrown the first punch for comic-book-movie equality among the sexes. But Captain Marvel should have its detractors on the ropes. (2019, para. 2)

Yet, the largest similarity that both movies share is the gender-based treatment they have received online. When Wonder Woman premiered in 2017 David Edelstein, reviewer for the website Vulture, was widely criticized for his write-up of the film. Edelstein’s remarks focused widely on Gadot’s looks, describing her as a former model, with a “superbabe-in-the-woods innocence and mouthiness.” What seemingly upset readers the most was the comment,

She looks fabulous in her suffragette outfit with little specs, but it’s not until she strips down to her superheroine bodice and shorts, pulls out her sword, and leaps into the fray, that she comes into her own. (para. 5)

Edelstein’s use of gendered language presented an image of a woman removing her clothes in a suggestive manner. (Which the character does not do.) Additionally, the critique placed emphasis on the character’s body and looks, two things which are overwhelmingly dominant in discussions of female characters. Backlash on Edelstein was swift, he printed an explanation defending his review a few days later. But, this dynamic is emblematic of a larger issue for gender and film. Does the sex, gender, race, age, sexual orientation, etc. of the reviewer affect the way they see a film? With Captain Marvel , we got the answer. Of course it does.

Prior to its release in March of 2019, Captain Marvel’s Rotten Tomatoes page began to see a downward spiral of reviews. At one point, the film was rated as “29% fresh.” Considering the film had yet to be released, many were curious about the source of these reviews. All signs pointed to trolls attempting to tank the film’s box office numbers. Seemingly, their motivation was to spite Brie Larson, the star of the film, who had spoken out against the dominant narrative of white, male, filmmakers, reviewers, and storytellers.

Captain Marvel found itself in the crosshairs with some largely in response to Larson’s advocacy for diversity in film and in those who write about it. A USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative study last year found that, for the 100 top grossing films in 2017, 77.8 percent of the critics counted on Rotten Tomatoes were male and 86 percent were white. ( Coyle, 2019 , para. 13)

These examples of Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel are easily connectable to the roots of feminist theory. Essentially, feminist theory is associated with women’s inequality and subordination. However, as you will see in these pages and in the history of feminism, as culture has developed and changed so has feminist theory. It is not surprising to see feminist theory linked with concepts like queer theory (aimed at gender identity in heteronormative societies) or theories related to women of color which are often based in how race and ethnicity shape experiences. Additionally, theories of masculinity, such as C.J. Pascoe’s 2007 book Dude You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High Schools , posit that there are many different approaches to masculinity and that men simultaneously benefit and suffer from patriarchal culture. (Thus the troll reaction to Captain Marvel .) Regardless, each incarnation has roots in similar parts of history. As bell hooks writes “Before women’s studies classes, before feminist literature, individual women learned about feminism in groups. The women in the groups were the first to begin to create feminist theory which included both an analysis of sexism, strategies for challenging patriarchy, and new models of social interaction” (2000, p. 19). Congregating in groups to talk about feminist theory was also how activism and consciousness raising became synonymous with feminism. Consciousness raising, or raising awareness of a topic/idea/revolution in order to get a better understanding is often the link between theory and activism. This is why feminist theory and feminist activism often work in tandem.

What is more, defining feminism has become especially difficult in contemporary society as many women now arrive at adulthood having gone their entire lives benefiting from feminist movements and scholarship. When asked “Who is a feminist?”, responses will probably vary depending on how one conceptualizes the term. However, most people will say that there are characteristics of feminists, founded in personal politics or the need to dismantle patriarchal structures, which are indicators of feminist identity.

Additionally, the juxtaposition of feminist theory and popular culture has an inevitable impact on the consumption of culture mainly because popular culture has the power to put up a mirror to our lives and show connections between media, socialization and identity. Pop culture is generally the images, narratives and ideas that circulate widely in contemporary culture. What makes something “popular” is its general availability to the masses and, from a social science point of view, it is usually something that we can consume ( Trier-Bieniek, 2019 ). Additionally, the impact of pop culture is often subject to debate in academic communities. While some feel that the masses get a say in production of culture and the direction of media, like Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer find that pop culture works to support the interests of those in power ( Milestone & Meyer, 2011 ). This text is largely situated in the latter, particularly when we consider the definition of feminism as a movement focused on the political and economic equality of the sexes. Pop culture’s tendency to simultaneously celebrate and neglect this concept is one of the reasons why it is so ripe for exploration. To that end, a grasp of feminism becomes necessary in order to see how inequality and gender are linked in culture. Understanding how feminism came to be is key, especially so that we can deconstruct the ways feminism has been received by diverse groups of women.

The Waves of Feminism as a History of Feminist Theory

Feminism is defined as happening in “waves.” Just like a literal wave, as one wave moves out another moves forward, retaining much of the structure of the original wave. As such, feminist movements are characterized as first, second and third waves respectively, with recent discussions happening regarding what makes a fourth wave. Perhaps the intention behind the wave analogy was a demonstration that women have not yet received equal rights and the women’s movement is an ongoing process. If this was the case, the analogy for the waves of feminism can also act as a perfect illustration for the generations of women who make it up.

Historically, the work of Mary Wollstonecraft is often cited as the beginning of the first wave of feminism as it is one of the first writings which discuss women’s liberation. In her 1792 essay, A Vindication of the Rights of Women , she writes “I may be accused of arrogance; still I must declare what I firmly believe, that all the writers who have written on the subject of female education and manners from Rousseau to Dr. Gregory, have contrived to render women more artificial, weak characters, then they would otherwise have been; and, consequently, more useless members of society” (1986, p. 7). Wollstonecraft began a discussion of women’s place in society, a conversation which evolved into the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848.

The Seneca Falls Convention produced the Declaration of Sentiments . Based on the Declaration of Independence , the Declaration of Sentiments was primarily authored by Elizabeth Cady Stanton. In part it reads “The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her” (2000, p. 64). The purpose of this declaration was to establish a list of ways women have been deprived of rights and ends with resolutions, mainly contending that women must receive the right to vote. It was with this declaration that the first plans were made for suffrage and the convention lead to the work of suffragette women like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and eventually Alice Paul and Lucy Burns and ending with the 19th amendment.

While for most this period of feminist history is marked with women fighting for the right to vote, simultaneously there were rumblings of freedom for the enslaved. Perhaps the most noted women who had a hand in both movements was the African-American abolitionist Sorjourner Truth, a former slave and the first women of color to successfully sue a white slave-owner to reclaim the child he owned.

Truth’s famous speech “Ain’t I a Woman?” an extemporaneous speech given to the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio in 1951, was a response to men in the audience discussing how women are delicate and should be treated as such. In part, Truth stated “That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriage, and lifted over ditches and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman?” (2000, p. 66) She goes on to respond to a man who asserted that women cannot have the same rights as men because Jesus Christ was a man. Truth states, “Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him” (2000, p. 66). Truth’s legacy is indefinitely linked with the foundation of feminist theory. It connects the activism of women of color to the role they often played by being on society’s margins, something that became a focus of later waves of feminism. Many years later, Kerry Washington, an American actress, would perform this speech as part of Voices of People’s History of the United States gathering.

Some notable works and events to emerge from the first wave:

The book Women in the Nineteenth Century by Margaret Fuller in 1845.

Married Women’s Property Act -first passed in New York 1839, extending rights of property and to earn a salary.

Oberlin College, the first American co-educational college/university, was founded in 1833.

First birth control clinic was founded in Brooklyn, New York in 1916 and Planned Parenthood was incarnated as the American Birth Control League in 1938. (It would become Planned Parenthood in 1942.)

Some notable works and events in first wave pop culture:

Mary Shelly publishes the novel Frankenstein in 1818, first anonymously and then under Shelly’s name in 1823. Shelly, is also the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and Frankenstein contains many references to her mother’s writing and ideas.

Jane Austin publishes multiple stories centered on female characters and their resistance to depend on men.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman publishes The Yellow Wallpaper in 1892, address the lack of attention paid to women’s physical and mental well-being.

Hattie McDaniel becomes the first African-American to win an Academy Award for her portrayal of Mammy in Gone with the Wind in 1939.

The 2004 film Iron Jawed Angels depicts suffragette Alice Paul’s crusade in the ten years before women were awarded the right to vote. Alice Paul is played by Academy Award winner Hilary Swank.

In 2015 Meryl Streep and Carry Mulligan starred in the film Suffragette .

Feminism’s second wave is characterized by the women’s rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s with the mantra “The Personal is Political.” This wave became focused on women pursuing careers, reproductive rights, addressing violence against women and pay equality (to name a few) as well as a focus on laws like the Equal Rights Amendment. Spurred by Betty Friedan’s 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique , many women of this time read about and related to the “problem which has no name.” A graduate of Smith College, with a degree in psychology, Friedan was dismissed from her journalism job in 1952 because she was pregnant with her second child. While she was a stay-at-home mom Friedan began to question why women were shelving their education in order to raise families. In 1957 she surveyed women at her college reunion, asking about their education and satisfaction with life. What she found was that, while women were more likely than their mothers to attend college, they were also shelving their careers to stay at home and, as a result, felt under stimulated, constantly asking the question “Is this all?” Seemingly these women had everything, but found themselves intellectually unfilled, wanting careers and feeling guilty for not being thankful for their lives.

One of the main theoretical frameworks which characterized the second wave of feminism is Simone de Beauvoir’s book The Second Sex in which de Beauvoir declares that women are categorized as the Other. She writes, “The category of the Other is as primordial as consciousness itself. In the most primitive societies, in the most ancient mythologies, one finds the expression of a duality-that is of the Self and Other” (1948, p. xxii). Simone de Beauvoir writes of women’s position in society as secondary, almost as an afterthought and, as a result, women involuntarily participate in oppressive social norms. She writes, “Why is it that women do not dispute male sovereignty? No subject will readily volunteer to become the object, the inessential…” (1948, p. xxiv). What makes this work central to the second wave of feminism is Simone de Beauvoir’s contention that women stay in a subordinate position because they have been made to feel complacent. The work of women like Friedan and de Beauvoir, combined with the changing political climate of the 1960s, created a sense of urgency for feminists to develop a second generation of women who were willing to carry on, and expand upon the work of previous generations of women. Commonly referred to as “women’s lib,” the second wave took on many areas of women’s rights, particularly violence against women, prostitution and pornography, birth control and access to contraception and the growing need for more women in the work force and in political office.

However, criticism of the second wave has focused on its contradictions, particularly relating to race, sexuality, and social class. Women of color have reported feeling like they were placed on the margins of the waves of feminism in general and the second wave of feminism in particular. Kinser writes, “Second-wave feminism may have been better at making decisions about what was in the purview of feminism, but it may have silenced voices that should have been part of the feminist dialogue” (2004, p. 145).

Perhaps it is best to start with bell hooks’s critique of Betty Friedan, particularly her essay’s on feminist theory in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center which discusses the marginalized experiences women of color have with feminism. hooks writes, “Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique is still heralded as having paved the way for contemporary feminist movement-it was written as if these women did not exist… (It) actually referred to the plight of a select group of college-educated, middle and upper class, married white women-housewives bored with leisure, with the home, with children…” (1984, p. 1). hooks, and many women of color theorists, found much fault with the work of Friedan whose pool of interviews, friends and neighbor’s she knew, were (for the most part) white, middle class women living in affluent neighborhoods. The assertion that these women wanted to step away from their homes and work was almost offensive to hooks because, as she contended, women of color have always worked. “She did not discuss who would be called in to take care of the children and maintain the home if more women like herself were freed from their house labor…” (1984, p. 1). Whether it be in the fields, or as a caregiver to white women’s children (see Ehrenreich & Hoschild, 2003), or on the front lines of equality battles women of color were present in the work world, mainly because the choice to stay at home and raise children was something that, hooks argues, was left to white, upper class women.

Patricia Hill Collins 1990 book, Black Feminist Thought , while not specifically situated in the second wave but certainly influenced by it, addressed the need to place the voices and experiences of women of color at the forefront of feminist theory. Black Feminist Thought became situated in critical social theory as it was born out of a critique of oppression and aimed to find ways to survive in economic injustice. Hill Collins argues that, particularly for African-American women, critical social theory is about bodies of knowledge and industrial practices that struggle with questions facing Black women. Black Feminist Thought catapulted questions of contradictions between dominant ideologies and their devalued status. Topics like the merit of “good” mothering being based on stay-at-home motherhood, a standard rooted in race and class, became part of discussions of feminism. Hill Collins connected these scenarios to being “the outsider looking in,” defining Black Feminist Thought as a metaphorical margin, a place where Black women could see the world they are supposed to exist in but could not quite participate. The experiences of women of color produce their own category of knowledge which can be used to advance understanding of what it is like to be a marginalized group within an already marginalized group.

Gloria Anzaldua’s contribution to feminist theory, and the second wave, rested in the U.S. borderlands as physical and metaphorical boundaries faced by women of color. She uses the examples of human trafficking to illustrate Mexican women being used as monetary gain. “The Mexican women is especially at risk. Often the coyote doesn’t feed her for days or let her go to the bathroom. Often he rapes her or sells her into prostitution” (1987, p. 34). Additionally, Audre Lorde’s 1984 book Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches chronicled her journey to discover her sexuality through the lens of identifying as a Black feminist poet. Lorde contends that the feminist movement, which had largely been comprised of white women, ignored the aspects of race and class present in the struggle for women’s rights. She also contends that Black and Third World people, people who are the working poor and who are elderly took on the role of the “dehumanized inferior.” She questioned why it must be that members of oppressed groups should be the ones reaching out to educate White America.

Essentially, writing like Lorde, Hill Collins, hooks and Anzaldua laid the groundwork for an intersectional approach to future discussions in feminist theory. Intersectionality, as it is commonly called, can be traced to the work of Kimberle Crenshaw but may have deeper roots in a statement by the Combahee River Collective (CRC) who wrote A Black Feminist Statement in 1977. Crenshaw’s contention is that forms of oppression are connected, as the CRC said, they are interlocking. Thus, it becomes difficult to address oppression simply based on one category of oppression (i.e. race, gender, social class, sexuality etc.) This theory argues that examining the oppression of women cannot happen in a vacuum, rather we must be examining the whole of women’s experiences using their standpoint.

Some notable works and events to emerge from the second wave:

Mass production of oral contraceptives.

Equal Pay Act of 1963, Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX is passed in 1972 and Roe vs. Wade is passed in 1973. Additionally, Laws passed against marital rape, limiting access to contraception and repealing “help wanted” ads which were arranged by sex.

Creation of the National Organization of Women (Originally headed by Betty Friedan) in 1966.

The Redstockings Group, who will later publish the radical feminist work, The Redstockings Manifesto is formed in 1969.

Sexual Politics by Kate Millett is published in 1970, critiquing sexual theory posited by researchers such as Sigmond Freud and John Stuart Mill.

Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape is published in 1975 by Susan Brownmiller. The book is one of the first to address rape myths in contemporary society.

Laura Mulvey publishes Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema in 1972, addressing the male gaze and its prevalence in film.

Some notable works and events in second wave pop culture:

Gloria Steinem and Letty Cottin Pogrebin founded Ms. Magazine in 1972.

Tennis player Billie Jean King defeats Bobby Riggs in the televised “Battle of the Sexes” in 1973.

The Mary Tyler Moore show premieres in 1970, depicting the single woman as independent, career driven and politically aware.

The television show Maude becomes one of the first to address abortion as a story line.

In 2016 the film Hidden Figures would chronicle the women of color mathematicians who worked at NASA during the Space Race of the 1950s and 1960s.

Many feminist writers relate the beginning of the third wave of feminism to 1991 and the work of Naomi Wolf who, in The Beauty Myth, stated that feminism needed a rekindling. Others point to a statement made by Rebecca Walker in Ms. Magazine in 1992. Walker, infuriated by the Clarence Thomas hearings and the implications they had for minority women, declared that “I am not a post-feminism feminist, I am the Third Wave” ( Walker, 1992 , p. 41).

Amy Richards and Jennifer Baumgardner, via their 2000 book Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future are also credited with bringing the third wave of feminism into the forefront. In Manifesta they argue that feminist and political theory has as much a place in third wave feminism as the impact of pop culture. Third wave’s use of activism via pop culture was particularly evident in much of the music in the early to mid 1990s, especially with the Riot Grrrl movement. The Riot Grrrl music scene was a grouping of bands which started in the Washington D.C. area in the early 1990s as a way for young women to participate in the male-dominated punk rock scene. ( Trier-Bieniek, 2013 ) The “Riot Grrrl” title was conceptualized as a way to “[r]eclaim the validity and power of youth with an added growl to replace the perceived passitivity of ‘girl’” ( Rosenberg & Garofalo, 2001 , p. 810). Essentially, the combination of pop culture and feminism signified the third wave because it allowed new generations of feminist women to be who they want to be, but with a political consciousness.

The third wave of feminism has had a broad focus as it is the first generation of feminists to grow up in the cyber age and because there has been much focus on eliminating notions of post-feminism and contentions that feminism is for white women. Because current generations of women have grown up with feminism perhaps it is for this reason that the emergence of the third wave of feminism is often confused with the “post feminist” era. “For these women, and for anyone born after the early 1960’s, the presence of feminism in our lives is taken for granted. For our generation, feminism is like fluoride. We scarcely notice that we have it – it’s simply in the water” (Richards & Baumgardner, 2000, p. 17). Because young women growing up around this time were benefiting from the second wave’s work by having the ability to play sports, get birth control etc. there was a concern that the rights they had were being taken for granted. In fact, Richards and Baumgardner write in their dedication to Manifesta “To feminists everywhere-including those of our generation who say, ‘I’m not a feminist, but…’ (2000, p. vii). A result of this contention is the third wave’s focus on allowing feminists to define the term for themselves.

At the forefront for the third wave has been the inclusion of non-Western women in discussions of women’s rights. Particularly through the work of Chandra Talpade Mohanty whose 1986 essay Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses took a postcolonialist view of Western feminism and critiqued the view of “Third World woman” as hegemonic. Mohanty states that Western feminisms have tended to gloss over the differences between women of the global South, ignoring the diverse experiences of oppression, particularly how they are contingent on geography, history, and culture. Vandana Shiva’s work is another example of the impact of non-Western women in feminism. Shiva’s collection of research and theoretical positions was the basis of her 2008 work Soil Not Oil , which addresses the growing environmental problems in India and uses an ecofeminist approach to the environment. Ecofeminim contends that when women-focused systems are used to solve community problems there are higher rates of success.

Some notable events and works to emerge from the third wave:

Family Medical Leave Act becomes law in 1992.

Violence Against Women act becomes law in 1995.

The Fourth World Conference on Women was held in China in 1995. Here Hillary Clinton gave a speech contenting that “Women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights.”

In 2004 the March for Women’s Lives was held on the Washington D.C. National Mall in support of reproductive health.

Judith Butler publishes her seminal work on gender, Gender Trouble , in 1999.

Some notable works and events in third wave pop culture:

Eve Ensler, writer of The Vagina Monologues , founds V-Day, an international effort to end violence against women. V-Day, to date, has raised over 100 million dollars for local, national and international women’s groups via performance of The Vagina Monologues .

BUST magazine enters into publication with a focus on feminism and pop culture in 1993.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (TV show) premiers in 1997 giving audiences a feminist, female character on a major television show.

30 Rock premiers in 2006 with the character of Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) declaring her third wave feminism in the pilot episode. Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) would soon follow in Parks and Recreation .

The combination of Tori Amos, Ani DiFranco, Liz Phlair and Sarah MacLachlan mark a changing tide in music during the early 1990s.

Queen Latifah selects of number of historical Black women’s images in her 1992 video for Ladies First .

Madonna cultivates discussions of sex, “artistic integrity” and feminism with her albums and concerts.

While there are few major declarations supporting the idea, there is a push for a fourth wave of feminism, including a chapter in this text. Currently, two major schools of thought have been proposed to define this wave. One, as discussed by Wyre (2009) contends that

The Fourth Wave of feminism brings us into the 21st century as women who focus our attention on a question that earlier waves may have addressed but not to the extent now required: the limits of materialism; the need to turn from concerns about ‘me’ to concern for the planet and all its beings; and the sense that, for us in the Fourth Wave, what is most important is to put ourselves in the service of the world. (p. 187)

Indeed, understanding not only how inequality affects us locally but world-wide as well has been examined in the third wave but does merit more study by new generations of scholars. However, perhaps the most agreed upon aspect of the fourth wave of feminism is the use of technology and digital culture.

Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, blogs are just a few of the ways contemporary feminism has taken to the internet. Activism and feminist theory present themselves in the form of websites like Feminist Frequency which is dedicated to addressing gender’s representation in media. Run by Anita Sarkeesian, Feminist Frequency presents videos breaking down troupes such as the presentation of women in video games or the use of violence against women as a backdrop in gaming communities. In a 2014 interview with Rolling Stone Sarkeesian relays that Feminist Frequency was founded as a way to move feminist theory out of academia and into the public sphere. Feminist theory is also present in the use of meme’s with websites such as Beyoncé Voters which takes quotes from Beyoncé songs and repurposes them with images of powerful political women. Blogs such as Girl W/Pen and the Gender & Society Blog work to connect feminist theory and research with contemporary culture. Facebook pages like Pop Culture Feminism present scholarly ideas about feminism with current pop culture icons. Yet, one could hardly argue that this is exhaustive. There needs to be much more exploration of what this new generation of feminists is and what they can be. While some may contend that this can happen under the heading of the third wave, others declare that a fourth wave is here (i.e. Baumgarnder, 2011 ).

A few examples of works and events constructing the fourth wave are:

Jessica Valenti creates the feminist blog Feministing.

Malala Yousafzai’s image and message of education for girls world-wide goes viral after a 2012 assassination attempt. In 2014 she become the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Patrick Stewart (of Star Trek: The Next Generation ) declares his feminism and support for lgbt rights while also speaking out against violence against women.

Beyoncé stands in front of a glowing “Feminist” sign at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards.

The film Frozen becomes the number one animated film of all time.

Lena Dunham creates, stars in and directs the HBO series Girls in 2012 and releases a book of essays on feminism and young women in 2014.

The 2017 (and subsequent) women’s march on Washington in protest of the Trump Presidency.

The rise of blog writers and activists like Luvvie Ajayi, and Glennon Doyle.

The use of social media by celebrities to circulate intersectional feminist ideas. (For a few examples, see the accounts of Aidy Bryant, Busy Phillips, Aisling Bea, Alison Desir, Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, America Ferrera, Dax Shepard, Kristin Bell, Jameela Jamil, Ronan Farrow, and John Legand.

More women in comedy are featured on streaming platforms. (For a few examples, see Nanette by Hannah Gadsby and Baby Cobra by Ali Wong.)

Feminist Approaches to Research

When discussing feminist theory it becomes necessary to mention how theory connects to research. Feminist methodology was constructed as a response to sexism in research, particularly the ways women were treated while being studied. A main argument is that those who participate in social research should be viewed not as “subjects” but as key components to understanding social phenomena. By considering the people we study from a feminist point of view, we place the stories and positions of these people at the forefront of our research. These positions are particularly important when researching popular culture. As Leavy writes, “By investigating culture in general, and popular culture more specifically, dominant narratives, images, ideas and stereotyped representations can be exposed and challenged” (2007, p. 224).

One of the theoretical approaches feminist researchers take as a tool to combat patriarchal foundations and critiques of feminist methods is to argue for a feminist standpoint, a theory used to state the importance of all women’s voices being brought to the forefront. One purpose of a feminist standpoint is to create a situated knowledge. Starting from the position of women’s lives who are different than our own allows us to understand a great deal about the impact of dominant groups. When feminist analysis is done from the perspective of a marginalized woman, or her standpoint, the research becomes enhanced and strengthened by her point of view.

Situated knowledge leads to Harding’s concept of strong objectivity. Essentially, when considering research from a feminist standpoint, strong objectivity “Requires that the subject of knowledge be placed in the same critical causal plane as the objects of knowledge” (2004, p. 36). In order for a researcher to truly begin to understand a phenomena, she must start from the position of people (in this case, women) who have traditionally been left out of research. Strong objectivity happens when there is an increased motivation for the researcher to become knowledgeable of power structures within their methodologies and research. Additionally, understanding how our positions affect our research is key because researcher position leads to the introspective element found in feminist analysis. Identity cannot be ignored in feminist research because part of conducting feminist research is understanding where and how the standpoint of women has been neglected.

Construction of Feminist Theory and Pop Culture

Feminist Theory and Pop Culture is composed of a combination of chapters addressing many of the theories and topics covered in this introduction. The book begins with “Unveiling the Gaze: Belly Dance as a Site of Refuge, Re-Envisioning and Resistance” by Angela M. Moe. In this chapter Moe deconstructs the male gaze through an extremely in-depth research on the history, use and contemporary popularity of belly dance, particularly in Western communities. The chapter utilizes the theoretical components of Laura Mulvey’s concept of the gaze and addresses how belly dance fits with the “to be looked at ness” described in Mulvey’s seminal work.

In Chapter 2, “Lena Dunham, GIRLS, and the Contradictions of Fourth-Wave Feminism” April Kalogeropoulos Householder addresses the changing tides of feminism, a point in history when the lyrics of pop songs are as connected to feminist theory as the writing of historical feminist theorists. Using the HBO series Girls , Householder contends that new generations of women are finding their feminism in pop culture and that the future of feminist theory might be reflected in celebrity.

Chapter 3, “Olivia Pope as Problematic and Paradoxical: A Black Feminist Critique of Scandal’s ‘Mammification’” relates the theoretical approach of Black feminist thought with the wildly popular television show Scandal . In this chapter, Rachel Alicia Griffin explores both sides of the Mammy image presented by the show’s main character, Olivia Pope. Connecting Black feminist thought with images in pop culture is also present in Chapter 4, “The Un-Quiet Queen: An Analysis of Rapper Nicki Minaj in the Fame Comic Book.” Here Melvin Williams and Tia Tyree utilize the images of Nicki Minaj in the Fame comic book series as examples of both Black feminist theory and the sexual scripts present for women of color. Williams and Tyree contend that these sexual scripts are present through a lens which receives popular culture as a source of power heavily based in preconceived racial and gender roles.

Addressing theories of power and the position of power in popular culture is central to Chapter 5, “Queerness (Un)Shackled: Theorizing Orange is the New Black .” Using queer theory present in the work of Judith Butler and Adrienne Rich, Lauren J. DeCarvalho and Nicole B. Cox consider how the Netflix series Orange is the New Black utilizes both gender performance and compulsory heterosexuality. They contend that the queer-based storylines and narratives of the show often act as morality tales combining queer theory with contemporary characters.

Examining gender roles in television shows is also a focus of Chapter 6, “Warning! Social Construction Zone!: Exploring Masculinities, Femininities and Gender Roles in Cop Shows.” Here Carrie Buist and Jean-Anne Sutherland deconstruct the television shows Chicago P.D. , The Shield and Rookies in order to expose the many layers of hegemonic masculinity on television. Buist and Sutherland argue that masculinity and femininity on these shows are mutually exclusive and that the performance of manhood found in police-themed shows is also linked to how masculinity will be interpreted by viewers.

Chapter 7, “ Girl Rising and the Problematic ‘Other’: Celebritizing Third-World Girlhoods” by Emily Bent analyzes the popular documentary Girl Rising . Through the use of feminist standpoint theory, Bent contends that the use of celebrity in telling the story of third world girls’ experiences shapes humanitarian aid efforts for girls’ education. This juxtaposition problematizes the ways in which experience, identity, and voice can result in ‘celebritized’ knowledge about third world girls, rather than their stories being told in their own voices.

With Chapter 8, Patricia Boyd utilizes postfeminist theory to address contemporary views of sex. “Paradoxes of Postfeminism: Coercion and Consent in Fifty Shades of Grey ” uses the conflicting feelings found in the popular novel Fifty Shades of Grey to illustrate complicated choices present when navigating a feminist identity. She contends that, in part because feminism has had its conflicts, that this tension is reflected in the book and in the reception of the book. These themes, which are a growing part of defining the fourth wave, are also present in Chapter 9, “From Street to Tweet: Popular Culture and Feminist Activism.” In this chapter Jenn Brandt and Sam Kizer explore the future of feminism in the face of its current challenges and potential identity crisis. Brandt and Kizer address cyberfeminism as a potential marker of the fourth wave of feminism and assert that digital culture is the future of feminist activism.

While Feminist Theory and Pop Culture consists of many diverse essays, it is not meant to be an exhaustive anthology. Rather, this text should serve as introductory discussions of feminism reflected in popular culture. Much is still to be learned about the impact of pop culture on feminism and, because culture is ever-evolving, so will theories of feminism. If a fourth wave is upon us, perhaps this text can be a jumping off point into the next ocean of knowledge relating feminism, gender and pop culture.

Discussion Questions

What examples of feminism in pop culture can you think of?

What social media pages, blogs, or websites do you follow that relate to feminism and pop culture?

How can feminist theory be used to explore contemporary gender roles?

Discuss song lyrics which you relate to gender and/or feminism. Are there musicians who are challenging patriarchal standards through their music?

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  • Developing a Research Question
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  • Asian American and Pacific Islander Philosophies
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  • Feminism & Feminist Philosophies
  • Introduction

Critique of the 'Waves' of Feminism

Feminist philosophies.

  • Introduction to Queer Theory
  • Environmental Ethics & Aesthetics
  • Metaphysics of Gender
  • Other Features
  • Women Philosophers
  • Islamic Philosophies
  • General Readings
  • Scholarly Resources

Feminism is the belief in the social, economic, and political equality of all genders.  

This feature covers some of the history and individual movements within feminism. Scroll down to learn more about the waves of feminism and several different philosophical movements.

Activists at a women's emancipation march.

Image:  John Olson, The LIFE Picture Collection, via Getty Images

As with many of these national commemorations, one month is never enough to fully honor and celebrate the history and culture of marginalized communities, let alone heal the legacies (and ongoing reality) of harm and systemic oppression they've experienced. We recognize that resisting and rejecting misogyny and cisheteropatriarchy cannot be manifested simply through resource lists and guides, however important and well-intentioned, and that justice and liberation for women, expansively defined, and all who challenge and live outside of binary gender is the work of generations. We are, nevertheless, committed to doing what we can to work towards a different, more equitable and caring future.

If you'd like to engage more deeply with Women's History Month, units across the Libraries have created a number of interrelated resources and features to provide more holistic coverage of this commemoration. You'll find those, below:

  • Feminist Media Studies (Media Studies)
  • The Sounds of Women's History Month   (Media Studies)
  • Transfeminine Worlds: Works by Trans Women (Gender Studies)
  • Spotlight on Sex Work (Gender Studies)
  • In Memoriam: bell hooks   (Philosophy)
  • Spotlight on Victorian Women Writers Project   (English & American Literature)
  • Women-led Architecture Firms (Art, Art History, & Architecture)
  • Art & Gender (Gender Studies + Art, Art History, & Architecture)
  • Women of Ukraine (Area Studies)
  • Women's History Month Streaming and DVD Resources (Media Services)
  • Primary Sources on Women in University Collections (Archives & Special Collections)
  • Youth Materials on Women's History and Women’s Lives (Education Library)

Online Readings

  • "Four Waves of Feminism"   (Martha Rampton,  Pacific Magazine )
  • "Feminist Philosophy" ( Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy )
  • "Transnational Women's Movements"   (Leila J. Rupp, European History Online)
  • "The Waves of Feminism, and Why People Keep Fighting Over Them, Explained"   (Constance Grady,  Vox )

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Online Resources

  • Women's Liberation Movement Print Culture (Duke University)
  • American Women    A Gateway to Library of Congress Resources for the Study of Women's History and Culture in the United States (LOC)
  • Sisterhood and After   Oral history interviews featuring activists of the Women’s Liberation Movement (British Library)

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  • Society for Women in Philosophy   The Society for Women in Philosophy was created in 1972 to support and promote women in philosophy. Since that time the Society for Women in Philosophy or "SWIP" has expanded to many branches around the world, including in the US, Canada, Ireland, the UK, the Netherlands, Flanders, and Germany.
  • Society for Analytical Feminism   The Society for Analytical Feminism is an official society of the American Philosophical Association , and was founded at the Central Division APA meetings in 1991. The Society for Analytical Feminism provides a forum where issues concerning analytical feminism may be openly discussed and examined. Its purpose is to promote the study of issues in Feminism by methods broadly construed as analytic, to examine the use of analytic methods as applied to Feminist issues and to provide a means by which those interested in Analytical Feminism may meet and exchange ideas. The Society meets yearly at the Central Division meetings of the APA, and frequently organizes sessions for the Eastern Division and Pacific Division meetings.
  • philoSOPHIA   philoSOPHIA exists to promote continental feminist scholarly and pedagogical development, and is committed to civic and community engagement.  Continental feminist philosophy is construed broadly to include feminist work on major figures and themes from the continental philosophical tradition, as well as feminist work inspired by continental philosophy more generally.
  • Minorities and Philosophy   MAP’s mission is to address structural injustices in academic philosophy and to remove barriers that impede participation in academic philosophy for members of marginalized groups. Through our international organizing team and graduate student-led network of autonomous chapters around the world, we aim to examine and dismantle mechanisms that prevent students from marginalized groups from participating in academic philosophy, as well as to promote philosophical work done from marginalized perspectives, and help improve working conditions for scholars from marginalized backgrounds.
  • International Association of Women Philosophers   The International Association of Women Philosophers is a professional association and network that provides a forum for discussion, interaction and cooperation among women engaged in teaching and research in all aspects of philosophy, with a particular emphasis on feminist philosophy. Founded in 1976 in Würzburg (Germany) as “Association of Women Philosophers” (APh), the IAPh has gradually grown into an international organization with members all over the world. Currently the IAPh has more than 380 members from more than 35 different countries.
  • Association for Feminist Ethics and Social Theory   Feminist Ethics and Social Theory is a professional organization dedicated to promoting feminist ethical perspectives on philosophy, moral and political life, and public policy that centers decolonized, intersectional, and interdisciplinary approaches.  Our aim is to further the development and clarification of new understandings of ethical and political concepts and concerns, especially as they arise out of feminist concerns regarding underrepresented and marginalized women — including BIPOC, Third World, disabled, and LGBTQIA — as well as those arising from marginalized identities and marginalized issues. We will interrogate and address the philosophical and practical underpinnings of white privilege and racist violence in its many forms, including in feminist theory and practice.
  • Second Wave
  • Third and Fourth Waves
  • Criticism of the Waves Metaphor

First Wave Feminism

Lasting from the late 19th century to the early 20th century, the start of the feminist movement in the United States focused primarily on property rights and women's suffrage. Many feminists felt a connection between their cause and the abolitionist movement.

  • 1848 - Seneca Falls Convention
  • 1916 - Margaret Sanger opens America's first birth control clinic
  • 1920 - 19th Amendment passed, granting women the right to vote

Influential Figures

  • Susan B. Anthony
  • Elizabeth Cady Stanton
  • Lucretia Mott
  • Carrie Chapman Catt
  • "Declaration of Sentiments and Revolutions"   by Elizabeth Cady Stanton (Seneca Falls Convention, 1848)

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Second Wave Feminism

Following a lull in feminist activism during the world wars, the second wave of feminism (1960s-90s) focused on gaining political equality and putting a stop to gender-based discrimination. Women began to seek greater participation in the workforce as well as equal pay. The movement also brought attention to issues of domestic violence and reproductive rights. Feminism was beginning to integrate itself with issues of patriarchy, capitalism, and class. 

  • 1960 - The Food and Drug Administration approves the birth control pill
  • 1963 - The Equal Pay Act is enacted
  • 1966 - Founding of NOW (National Organization of Women)
  • 1972 - Title IX is passed to protect people from sex discrimination in schools
  • 1972 - Helen Reddy's song "I Am Woman" becomes an anthem of the movement
  • 1972-79 - The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) is approved by the U.S. Congress but fails to receive the required number of state ratifications
  • 1973 - Roe v. Wade gives women the right to have an abortion
  • Gloria Steinem
  • Bella Abzug
  • Judith Butler
  • "The Second Feminist Wave"  by Martha Weinman Lear ( New York Times , 1968) [Requires IU login to view]

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  • "Prospects of Mankind with Eleanor Roosevelt: What Status for Women?" (1962) (GBH Archives)

Third and Fourth Wave Feminism

In the 1990s, a new wave of feminism emerged that challenged the perceived privileging of straight white women by the second wave movement. The movement also brought to the forefront sex positivity and issues of violence against women. The distinction between the third and fourth waves of feminism is unclear. While some believe we're still in the third wave, others argue that the newest fourth wave, starting in the 2010s, is defined by the fight against rape culture.

  • 1991 - The riot grrrl punk subculture begins
  • 1991 - Anita Hill accuses Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment
  • 1992 - The "Year of the Woman" sees a significant number of women elected to U.S. Senate
  • 2017-present - Me Too Movement
  • 2017 - Women's March
  • Audre Lorde
  • Rebecca Walker

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  • "Feminism in 'Waves': Useful Metaphor or Not?"   (Linda Nicholson, New Politics)
  • Laughlin, K. A., Gallagher, J., Cobble, D. S., Boris, E., Nadasen, P., Gilmore, S., & Zarnow, L. (2010). Is It Time to Jump Ship? Historians Rethink the Waves Metaphor. Feminist Formations , 22 (1), 76–135.
  • Postcolonial
  • Environmental

Liberal feminism, a term that widely overlaps with "mainstream feminism," is the movement to gain gender equality through political and legal reform. The first and second waves of feminism were mostly led by proponents of this movement. Issues that liberal feminism focuses on include voting rights, equal pay, reproductive rights, and access to education.

  • Judith Sargent Murray
  • Frances Wright
  • Betty Friedan
  • Martha Nussbaum

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Socialist feminism considers the interconnectivity of patriarchy, capitalism, and women's oppression. This movement applies Karl Marx's ideology to feminism and argues that class oppression and gender oppression are fundamentally tied together.

  • 1972 - The Wages for Housework campaign begins
  • Clara Zetkin
  • Eleanor Marx
  • Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
  • Johanna Brenner
  • Silvia Federici
  • Selma James
  • "Socialist Feminism: A Strategy for the Women's Movement" (Chicago Women's Liberation Union, 1972)
  • "Socialist Feminism: What Is It and How Can It Replace Corporate 'Girl Boss' Feminism?"   (Sarah Leonard, T een Vogue )
  • "Aren't Socialism and Feminism Sometimes in Conflict?"   (Nicole Aschoff, The ABCs of Socialism )
  • "Trickle-Down Feminism"  (Sarah Jaffe,  Dissent Magazine )

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Radical feminism is a more militant form of feminism which seeks to dismantle the capitalist patriarchy. Radical feminists argue that we must completely restructure society in order to fulfill feminism's goals.

Emerging as a challenge to radical feminism, transfeminism argues that transgender women deserve to be represented in mainstream feminist movements. Transfeminists use the term "terf" (trans-exclusive radical feminist) to call out and hold accountable radical feminists who only fight for the rights of cisgender women.

  • 1969 - Redstockings, a radical feminist group, is founded
  • Shulamith Firestone
  • Kathie Sarachild
  • Ti-Grace Atkinson
  • Carol Hanisch
  • Ellen Willis

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Also called anarcha-feminism, this movement believes that women's oppression is bound together with the "involuntary hierarchy" of government. The removal of this hierarchy through anarchy is called the "feminization of society."

  • 1896-99 - The anarcha-feminist newpaper La Voz de la Mujer is published in Argentina
  • 1936-39 - Mujeres Libres, an anarcha-feminist group in Spain, sought recognition in the Spanish anarchist movement
  • Emma Goldman
  • Federica Montseny
  • Voltairine de Cleyre
  • Maria Lacerda de Moura
  • Lucy Parsons
  • L. Susan Brown
  • "Anarchism: The Feminist Connection"   (Peggy Kornegger, 1975)
  • Anarcho-Feminism: Two Statements (1971) ["Who we are: an Anarcho-Feminist Manifesto" (Chicago Anarcho-Feminists) and "Blood of the Flower: An Anarchist Feminist Statement" (Black Rose Anarcho-Feminists)]
  • Quiet Rumours: An Anarcha-Feminist Reader (AK Press, 2012)

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Many Black women felt alienated by second wave feminism. Black feminists argued that sexism, classism, and racism are part of the same hierarchical system (the "imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy"), and that therefore Black women have a unique understanding of oppression.

  • 1973 - National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO) is founded
  • 1974 - Barbara Smith founds the Combahee River Collective
  • 2013-present - #BlackGirlMagic movement celebrates the accomplishments of Black women
  • Alice Walker
  • Patricia Hill Collins
  • Kimberlé Crenshaw
  • The Combahee River Collective Statement (1977)
  • "Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color"   (Kimberlé Crenshaw, Stanford Law Review, 1991)

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Emerging in the 1980s, postcolonial feminism moves the focus to nonwhite, nonwestern women and their experiences in the postcolonial world. This movement criticizes the ethnocentrism of mainstream feminism and sees parallels between colonization and women's oppression.

  • Nawal el Saadawi
  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • "Feminist Perspectives on Globalization" (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
  • "Under Western Eyes" Revisited: Feminist Solidarity through Anticapitalist Struggles   (Chandra Talpade Mohanty,  Signs , 2003)
  • "The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House"  (Audre Lorde, 1984, printed in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (2007)
  • "Femen's obsession with nudity feeds a racist colonial feminism" (Chitra Nagarajan,  The Guardian , 2013)

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Like Black feminism, Indigenous feminism(s) is an intersectional perspective and movement that centers the rights, needs, and experiences of Indigenous people, with a particular focus on human and civil rights for Indigenous women, legal and land-based sovereignty for all tribes and communities, environmental justice, and decolonization.

  • 2012 - Idle No More protest movement is founded
  • 2016 - Canadian government establishes the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls
  • Myrna Cunningham
  • Aileen Moreton-Robinson
  • Leanne Betasamosake Simpson
  • Haunani-Kay Trask
  • Winona LaDuke
  • Leslie Marmon Silko

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Ecofeminism is a social movement and philosophy that looks at the connections between nature and women. As a social movement that centers on the protection of nature, it is a movement led by decolonial and indigenous movements, primarily by women of color activists ( Rai, 2022 ).

  • 1973 - In India, in the state of Uttarakhand, women took part in the Chipko movement to protect forests from deforestation
  • 1977 - In Kenya, the Green Belt Movement was initiated by environmental and political activist Professor Wangari Maathai
  • 1978 - In New York, mother and environmentalist Lois Gibbs led her community in protest after discovering that their entire neighborhood, Love Canal, was built on the site of a toxic dump
  • 1980-81 - Women like ecofeminist Ynestra King organized Women's Pentagon Actions
  • 1985 - The Akwanese Mother's Milk Project was launched by Katsi Cook
  • 1989 - Bernadette Cozart founded the Greening of Harlem Coalition 
  • Françoise d'Eaubonne
  • Greta Gaard
  • Susan Griffin
  • Carolyn Merchant
  • Wangari Maathai
  • Bernadette Cozart
  • Vandana Shiva
  • Feminist Environmental Philosophy ( Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy )
  • Ecofeminism: toward global justice and planetary health ( Society and Nature )

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essay on new waves of feminism and our culture

The past, present and future of feminist activism in Pakistan

The Aurat March slogans have been a subject of a big controversy | Aun jafri, White Star

Interviews conducted by Manal Khan and Sameen Hayat.

Aurat March 2019 was one of the most exciting feminist events in recent years. Its sheer scale, magnitude, diversity and inclusivity were unprecedented. Women belonging to different social classes, regions, religions, ethnicities and sects came together on a common platform to protest the multiple patriarchies that control, limit and constrain their self-expression and basic rights. From home-based workers to teachers, from transgender to queer — all protested in their unique and innovative ways. Men and boys in tow, carrying supportive placards, the marchers reflected unity within diversity, seldom seen in Pakistan’s polarised and divisive social landscape.

Carried out in many cities across Pakistan, the march took both its supporters and detractors by surprise. No one expected such a big turnout and in so many cities with truth-laden and daring placards. The intensity of the vitriol seen in the backlash to the march testifies to its enormous success — it certainly managed to hit patriarchy where it hurts.

Aurat March 2019 also marks a tectonic shift from the previous articulations of feminism in Pakistan. It would not be far-fetched to say that it has inaugurated a new phase in feminism, qualitatively different from the earlier movements for women rights. While the past expressions of feminism laid the foundation for what we see today, the radical shift of feminist politics from a focus on the public sphere to the private one – from the state and the society to home and family – manifests nothing short of a revolutionary impulse. Feminism in Pakistan has come of age as it unabashedly asserts that the personal is political and that the patriarchal divide between the public and the private is ultimately false.

The social, political and historical context of each previous form of feminism was different and the feminist issues of each era arose from particular moments in national and global histories. In the early years of Pakistan’s formation, the wounds inflicted by the bloodstained Partition were fresh. Women activists were focused on welfare issues, such as the rehabilitation of refugees, because that kind of work had social respectability within the traditional cultural milieu.

Pakistan also inherited many social issues – such as polygamy, purdah, child marriage, inheritance, divorce and the right to education – from the pre-Partition times. Many of the demands for social and legal reforms on these issues were acceptable even within the bounds of religion. So, there was no fear of women upsetting the applecart when they asked for these reforms.

Participants of Aurat March in Karachi holding a symbolic funeral of patriarchy | Shakil Adil, White Star

The 1960s saw the proliferation of women’s welfare and development organisations but it was the All Pakistan Women’s Association (APWA) that became the face of the women’s movement in the country in that decade. The passage of the Muslim Family Laws Ordinance, pushed by APWA, reflected a minor ingress by the state in the private sphere as it placed certain procedural limits on the men’s arbitrary right of divorce and gave women some rights regarding child custody and maintenance. Even the small changes repeatedly stirred public controversy with clerics clamouring for the reversal of the ordinance.

APWA’s approach was characterised by two salient features: one, the focus on social welfare and development work involving girls’ education and income-generation activities; two, the collaboration with the state to achieve its aims. APWA shied away from an overtly political position in that it did not contest dictatorship. It did not ruffle any religious or political feathers and preferred to play it safe even when Fatima Jinnah, a woman, remained the sole campaigner against dictatorship. The cooperation and collaboration of women leaders with the state to attain women’s rights continued during the civilian rule of the Pakistan Peoples Party (1971-1977).

The feminist movement and the women’s rights struggle that arose in the 1980s, spearheaded by Women’s Action Forum (WAF) in the urban areas and Sindhiani Tehreek in rural Sindh, were significant for their overtly political stance. As both these movements were formed in the context of a hypernationalist absolute dictatorship that relied on a particular version of religion for legitimacy, they consistently challenged both the military rule and the incursion of religion in politics. WAF struggled for a democratic, inclusive, plural and secular state while Sindhiani Tehreek strove for an end to feudalism and patriarchy, sought the restoration of democracy and championed the principle of federalism and provincial autonomy.

These movements represent a significant break from the former paradigm of collaboration and cooperation with the state. They challenged patriarchal power in every domain — political, religious and legal. Unlike the welfare and social uplift-oriented movements of the 1960s, the struggles launched by women in the 1980s were essentially political movements anchored in the ideas of democracy, basic rights and sociopolitical change. As they confronted the authoritarian state, women in these movements could ill-afford to play it safe like their predecessors. They, therefore, engaged in frequent street protests and demonstrations. They took risks and were occasionally beaten, jailed, baton-charged and otherwise threatened by the dominant religious-military patriarchies of the time.

WAF had to respond quickly and frequently because of the rapid pace at which the regime was promulgating discriminatory laws and taking anti-women measures. The focus of the WAF members was squarely on the public sphere where the state machinery was utilised to brutally repress anyone who dared to stand up to the dictatorship. The aggressive and intrusive reconstitution of the private sphere, through instruments such as the Hudood Ordinances, had to be resisted at the public level by fighting legal cases, speaking up and protesting on the street.

Given the dizzying pace at which the regime and its religious allies had to be countered, there was little room for internal reflection in WAF. Although most of its founders had a strong feminist background and a feminist lens for unpacking the dominant narratives, the space for interrogating private life had shrunk. WAF members knew that patriarchies work through the bodies of women and write their strictures on those bodies. They also understood that the traditional family, which controls and organises the human body and sexuality, is the mainstay of patriarchies. Yet they were constantly occupied with contesting the state’s laws being drawn from a singular interpretation of religion. In private conversations, the politics of the body in the body politic were often discussed but, publicly, WAF was only engaged in countering the imperious state.

Some of the reasons for the reticence were internal. WAF was composed of a diverse set of organisations and individuals with differing perspectives on religion, culture and tradition. This diversity grew out of the necessity to have maximum numbers to confront a heavy-handed regime. WAF was reluctant to take too radical a stand on the body, sexuality and the family as many of its members were religious, conservative and deeply embedded in traditional family systems. The conversations on the body, sexuality and the freedom to express oneself in one’s own way did not become a part of the official public agenda of WAF.

Ironically, while WAF members avoided public discussions on the body and sexuality, the state and religious clerics had no such qualms; their focus was squarely on the woman’s body — the need to conceal it, cover it, protect it and preserve it for its rightful ‘owner’. The state was consistently referring to sexuality (for example, in laws on fornication, zina), the veil and the four walls of the house — all designed to control the rebellious and potentially dangerous female body capable of irredeemable transgression.

This is where the new feminists break from the older generation and mark a powerful shift in the feminist landscape. Even as new feminism retains many of the older critiques of the state, fundamentalism and militarism and reflects the desire for equality and democracy, it reaffirms the personal and injects it right into the heart of the political. ‘My body, my will’, it tells patriarchy to its crestfallen face. ‘Warm your own food’, ‘I don’t have to warm your bed’, ‘don’t send me dick pics’ — in curt one-liners, the new young feminists reclaim their bodies, denounce sexual harassment, stake a claim to public space and challenge the gender division of labour on which rests the entire edifice of patriarchy.

The new wave of feminism includes people from all classes, genders, religions, cultures and sects without any discrimination or prejudice. The young feminists are diverse, yet inclusive, multiple yet one. There are no leaders or followers — they are all leaders and followers. The collective non-hierarchical manner of working and the refusal to take any funding is similar to the functioning practised by WAF and represents continuity with the past. But the entire framing of the narrative around the body, sexuality, personal choices and rights is new. The young groups of women say openly what their grandmothers could not dare to think and their mothers could not dare to speak.

They say what women have known for centuries but have not been able to voice. They have broken the silences imposed by various patriarchies in the name of religion, tradition and culture. They have torn down so many false barriers including the four walls of morality built to stifle their selves and curb their expression.

The backlash has been swift, fierce and expected. Patriarchy began to shake in its boots and masculine anxiety reached a peak as women hit it where it hurt. The self-appointed guardians of morality, who in the past never touched the issues of violence and inequality, have been quick to condemn the marching women in their television chatter shows, puny little newspaper columns and silly tweets. The blowback from little people is not new for feminists.

The critics certainly cannot stop the marchers. Will money hinder their path? There are questions about the sustainability of the feminist movement given that the young feminists do not take any funding from corporate, government or foreign donors. The tremendous energy and passion generated by the march, however, are enough to ensure that these activists will continue marching into unknown but exciting futures.

Reactions to Aurat March, held on the International Women’s Day on March 8, 2019, ranged from supportive to condemnatory and everything in between. The national conversation that followed raised some important questions not only about the role and status of women in the Pakistani society but also the significance of the issues highlighted by the marchers.

Partaking in this conversation, we devised a set of questions and sent them to different feminist activists, all aged below 30, who had taken part in the march. Our endeavour is aimed at finding – as well as recording – their responses to the criticism of the issues raised by the marchers. It is also an attempt to explore their personal and ideological reasons for joining feminist activism.

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The questions follow:

Q1. How and when did feminist activism become relevant to you and why?

Q2. How do you view the evolution of feminism in Pakistan? Do you see any difference between the movement launched for women’s rights during the era of General Ziaul Haq and the contemporary feminist activism?

Q3. There are always social, cultural, religious and even economic costs of being a feminist in Pakistan. How do these challenges impact your activism?

Q4. What else, besides Aurat March, should women activists in Pakistan do to make themselves heard?

Q5. Do you think feminist activism in Pakistan can succeed in securing women’s rights without addressing the divisions caused by class, caste, ethnicity and religion?

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Atiya Abbas

A 29-year-old communications expert based in Karachi; a member of Girls at Dhabas, a feminist initiative aimed at claiming public spaces for women

A1. Feminist activism became relevant to me in 2015 when I joined Girls at Dhabas. What became central to my understanding of feminism was the basic and the most tenuous idea that even the ability to breathe freely in a city that has very little space for solitude is a radical act.

A2. Zia-era feminists launched movements to bring changes in laws and policies. Many of those changes were subsequently implemented which is why we enjoy some freedoms. Even asking questions about these freedoms was not easy 30 years ago. Younger feminists are asking such questions everyday — whether these are about unpaid domestic labour, inequality in marriage, sexual harassment at workplace or the right to access the streets without fearing for safety. The tool they wield is social media which is a quick way to disseminate information. That is why conversations around feminism and equality have mushroomed so quickly in our cultural conscience.

A3. I am speaking from a perspective of immense privilege when I say that my father is a feminist and I have a circle of feminist friends who are my source of solace and comfort. Ultimately, I go back to a loving home where I feel safe.

A4. Taking to the streets, marching, protesting, going to talk shows, writing columns, sharing thoughts on social media — women activists are doing a lot to form a feminist discourse in Pakistan. From taking former minister Kashmala Tariq’s tweet that “Good morning messages are also harassment” out of context, to calling women names in the legislative assemblies, to the structure of our courts having misogyny built right into them — it is the male and patriarchal detractors of equality that keep hindering progress. Maybe they should start listening and lean in.

A5. A feminism that is not intersectional is no feminism at all. Aurat March was one way of bringing women from all backgrounds on one platform. There, however, is an unnecessary burden on middle class women to also ensure the empowerment of women from other disenfranchised groups as nothing is being done at the institutional level in this regard. As feminist academic Tooba Syed wrote: “It has been particularly interesting to witness bourgeoisie men engage in an entirely selective class critique when it comes to women — an intellectual inconsistency that has never been more transparent. The critique is particularly insincere because it puts the entire burden of working-class representation on the shoulders of middle-class women [activists] instead of having a nuanced debate about concerted efforts to weaken the left [in] the country’s wider political spectrum.”

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Huda Bhurgri

A 26-year-old academic based in Islamabad; a member of the Women Democratic Front, a political association

A1. I was born in a feudal family where men held all the sociopolitical and economic power and privilege. In a way, I myself was privileged — not because who I was or what I had done but only because I was the daughter of someone and belonged to a specific class. This class structure is deeply rooted in patriarchy but I realised that, no matter where a woman is born, she does not exist in a society as a free human being. Her existence is a mere shadow which is directed and cast by men who control her life either as her father, brother, husband or son. Feminist activism became relevant to me after my exposure to experiential reality as a woman born and raised in a patriarchal society.

A2. Feminist movement during Zia’s era focused on resistance politics against tyrannical rule of a despot who tried to control the conduct of women. It helped to awaken collective consciousness about patriarchy and also helped to create debates against the draconian [anti-women] law of evidence [promulgated by Zia]. The contemporary feminist movement, on the other hand, is demanding social, political and economic justice from the society, the state and the judiciary. This home grown feminism is no more for the rights of women alone. It also focuses on the right to self-determination of transgender and non-binary people. The contemporary feminist movement of Pakistan is very inclusive and speaks against both patriarchy and capitalism.

A3. Most of the people are not ready to listen to a woman who speaks for equality so, usually, we have been labelled with derogatory names. But we know that ours is a resistance politics and it can never be easy. No matter what it costs, this resistance against patriarchy is a worthy cause. Obstacles cannot deter the true consciousness of women.

A4. Other than Aurat March, women from the legal fraternity, political parties, academia and media should work on politicising women folk across Pakistan through different channels. There is a dire need for an alternative discourse which supports laws and social and economic policies that are women-friendly. This is not possible if women are not given positions where power resides; women, therefore, have to step outside domestic roles to attain their human rights.

A5. The present feminist movement in Pakistan is not ignoring other contradictions such as the class conflict, casteism, religious extremism and racial differences. Patriarchy draws its power from all these sources, therefore the fight for women’s rights is also a fight against every type of discrimination at all levels of society.

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A 24-year-old based in Peshawar; co-founder of Daastan.com, an initiative to promote literary activities

A1. I had just moved out of an all-girls school and shifted to an all-girls college which meant I had more freedom than before to go out, explore and learn about the world. It was during this time that I often saw catcalling, stalking and a lack of opportunities for girls. My rebellion against such behaviour started when I began writing small poems and stories about hypocrisy in our society. Later on, after I had more exposure towards social problems, I came to realise that these had been rooted in our history and I had to fight against them come what may.

A2.I believe social media has helped us come a long way. We have started to speak about personal autonomy, class differences, a more transparent political presentation, equal wages and much more. While feminism in Zia’s era was political, today it is becoming intersectional due to its development both globally and nationally. We have more freedom of speech than the past and the moment is, slowly and gradually, becoming inclusive. It is addressing the rights of all genders.

A3. Life is difficult for feminists in our society. One of the major reasons for this is a lack of awareness in our society. We do not see feminism as a movement that ensures equality but one that will provoke conflict among genders. At Daastan.com, we frequently face backlash for bringing marginalised voices forward. We faced massive threats when we published an e-zine called Outcast. We had to seek legal support against those threats.

At the Peshawar Book Club, we faced heated arguments for presenting a selection of books written by feminists. Those books were disliked. The society had a negative perception about them regardless of their brilliance. Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood’s book, The Handmaid’s Tale, made us face the wrath of some members of the club. They called feminists as delusional for believing that women are oppressed

A4. Aurat March is a brilliant initiative. It should be followed by monthly dialogues, workshops as well as political movements. We need more women in the legislature who are responsive to our demands for gender equality. We need to rally support for all those women who came forward to raise their voices during the march so that they continue doing so all year around. This can help us in building a curriculum for consciousness raising and awareness on a deeply rooted misogyny and its implications.

A5. Pakistan has a pluralistic but a highly stratified society. The problems of every class, caste, ethnicity and gender vary and cannot be seen through a single lens. A more diverse representation of women is needed in the feminist movement to have a better understanding of their problems. We cannot only be the voice of young upper middle class women. We need to expand our activism. Aurat March 2019 has improved on the previous edition of the march by integrating voices of women from all ethnicities, religions and classes but we still have a long way to go. Such an integration can play an enormous role in the growth of the movement and eventually in its impact.

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Minahil Baloch

A 19-year-old aspiring film-maker born in Khairpur but studying in Karachi

A1. Two years ago, I did not take much interest in feminist activism or feminism in general but, with time, I realised how I had been conditioned into thinking that it was okay for the society to work in a certain way. When I unlearned this and learnt about how a patriarchal system works, I could see how relevant activism was to my life. I started analysing my life and noticed how a patriarchal system has normalised sexist behaviour in our daily lives. What I heard a lot was: tum baiti naheen ho, baita ho hamara (you are not our daughter but our son). According to parents, this is a very progressive thing to say but it is not. It is not their fault though. They have been conditioned into thinking that way.

The other reason why my interest increased in feminism is that I want to reclaim the freedom Baloch woman have enjoyed historically. There is this stereotypical perception that Baloch women are not independent and free but this is not true. If we see historically, Baloch women have always been free women.

A2. We have evolved a lot [since Zia’s time]. We have become clearer about the problems we face in a typically patriarchal Pakistani society. Feminists under the Zia regime were fighting a battle against the man himself but the contemporary feminist movement is fighting against the mindset that he has left behind. This mindset is now more intense and extreme than what feminists faced then.

Also, opportunities for online activism were not available back then but these are a [big thing] now, making it easier for feminists to educate themselves through the internet — something that itself comes with a lot of cyber bullying, harassment, rape/death threats. The contemporary feminists have to fight online harassment as well along with harassment on the ground.

A3. Why people around us have issues with feminism and feminists is because they have been conditioned into believing that feminism is a ‘western’ concept. We need to understand their mindset in order to change them. That in itself is a fight and a half, and requires a lot of emotional labour to fight. So, yes, there are some challenges but if we understand that people are conditioned to see feminists in a particular way and that we are here to change that mindset, that will make things a lot easier.

A4. As a film student, I feel like films have a huge impact on the minds of their audiences. More films, therefore, should be made that revolve around women’s issues. This will help film audiences change their perspectives on these issues. At the very least, this will help them have a rethink.

A5. A feminist movement cannot succeed without including a struggle against class, caste, ethnicity and religion because these are the ingredients of a typical patriarchal system. For example, religion is often rubbed into our face when we put forward a valid feminism argument. People belonging to the elite class are privileged enough to not have the same problems as those belonging to the middle class have, so I have seen them invalidate the problems of the lower classes. Feminism cannot work without bringing these issues into its framework.

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Sana Lokhandwala

A 27-year-old based in Karachi; co-founder of HER Pakistan, a charity working on improving menstrual hygiene awareness

A1. I have always been aware of the strict gender roles and gender bias around me but I have been more a passive feminist than being a ‘feminist activist’. I was never out there fighting for it like a lot of other strong women but I was doing my part quietly in my own way. It was only when HER Pakistan came into being that I realised that there is a need to actively fight against the oppression. Women in Pakistan do not even have the right to make decisions about their own bodies and health. They have to rely on men in their households to procure something as basic as a sanitary pad. Menstruation, which is a natural process, is termed ‘dirty’ and ‘disgusting’ only because it is about a woman’s body.  

A2. Feminism has been very much a part of Pakistan since the independence. Fatima Jinnah and Begum Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan struggled for the rights of women in the earliest times. Zia’s era was more challenging. Parts of Hudood Ordinances that pertain to rape and adultery and the impact these had on female rape victims forced feminists of the time to step up and protest for their rights. Present-day feminism, however, is more pluralistic and accepting in terms of gender, sexuality, race, class and religion than its past editions. But, although a number of laws on women’s empowerment, sexual harassment at the workplace, honour killings and even domestic violence have been passed in recent times, Pakistani feminists still need to continue to protest over violence against women, raise awareness about women’s education, work for political, legal and health rights of women and struggle for more women-friendly laws.

A3. The negativity around feminism in Pakistan is frustrating. It takes an emotional toll on everyone who is struggling to create a better society for women, but good things do not come easy. It is a fight worth fighting. Personally, negativity and backlash just give me more strength to keep going. When people tell me there is no need to talk about menstruation in public, I go on and educate 100 more people about it.

A4. Although Aurat March is a relatively new phenomenon in Pakistan, women have always done one thing or the other to get their voices heard. Be it through art or dance or poetry or social media, Pakistani women have never shied away from standing up for their rights. Although a lot of women are doing amazing work in order to create a more balanced Pakistan, I believe all activists should join forces every now and then to create a powerful statement — just like Aurat March did.

A5. Feminism is not only a movement, it is also a way of life. It cannot work in isolation. You cannot solve the problem of gender bias without solving the problems of class, caste, ethnicity and religion. Women of colour and those who come from underprivileged backgrounds have always been exploited. Gender equality is for everyone regardless of their class and race.

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Sadia Baloch

A 19-year-old studying at the University of Balochistan, Quetta

A1. I was raised in a society where women are used to being manipulated, exploited and violated. They are considered the property of males in their families, irrespective of which class, ethnicity or religious group they come from. The owner of the property has the right to decide its fate. This concept of men owning women has turned women into a commodity which can be exchanged, bought and sold. In a tribal society like Balochistan’s, a woman’s shame is the shame of her husband; her honour is her man’s honour. A man can do anything and go anywhere but a woman’s leg is broken if she breaks the society’s laws. She is not free to go where she wants. A man can be bad and no one will say anything but everyone knows when a woman is bad. This is what urged me to fight against patriarchy in Balochistan.

A2. There was a time when we had WAF which encouraged feminist activists of a whole generation. On the contrary, in contemporary times, one can see movements in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi which have a bit of elitist notions of freedom and equality. The sufferings of being a feminist, especially in Balochistan, are still beyond [the pale of the current movement]. There is a need to expose different facets of oppression which women of different classes and oppressed nationalities face on daily basis. Still, I see an umbrella of sisterhood as the only way out.

A3. Women’s freedom is often considered as being against the teachings of Islam as well as against many cultural norms. This is especially so when one is fighting against strict patriarchal norms in a tribal society. The mullahs, the deciders of the fate of women and the self-proclaimed guardians of Islam, have lynched women in order to save Islam. Religion and patriarchy are the toughest enemies of women. They both place women in a subordinate position, allowing men to control their access to material resources as well as to their own sexuality. So, definitely, fighting against such suppression is tough and there are challenges.

A4. To make ourselves heard, we must make noise first. Aurat March was that noise. Now our voices can be heard even by the deaf. No matter what platform we use, everyone will have to pay heed. We should, however, realise that a disciplined struggle under an organisational structure has always proven effective so women should start participating in political activities by joining political parties at every level. Instead of joining mainstream and elite-ruled parties, however, they should join leftist student organisations or they should join women-only groups where they can meet like-minded women with common aims. Women who might find it hard to become a part of political organisations should never forget that they can make a difference even individually. One daring girl can change what thousands might fail to change. So, women should start standing up for themselves at their offices, schools, colleges and even at public places that they usually avoid going to.

Women activists should run awareness campaigns. Women who are political activists and who are knowledgeable should teach other women that there is nothing wrong with them but it is the society and its norms that make them think so, and that they need to join hands and start breaking norms. They should continue doing so until breaking norms becomes a new norm.

A5. As long as women do not realise the need for a social revolution, including for the demolition of patriarchal and tribal tyranny, they will not succeed. For feminist activism in Balochistan to succeed, it is a necessary requirement to end violence against women, to empower them, to break the cycle of their oppression and exploitation. Male members of the society must take a step back from their patriarchal mindset in order to give women the space to enjoy their freedom and have agency in their own lives. Feminist activism both has a place and a role to play in national struggles in political and cultural spheres.

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Yusra Amjad

A 25-year-old poet and stand-up comedian based in Lahore

A1. I grew up with an abusive father so I have witnessed the ugliness of patriarchy since childhood. I became more and more confident about owning the label of feminist as I grew older. When I was a teenager, it was much less acceptable to call oneself a feminist than it is now but I have always been staunchly passionate about standing up for, and having solidarity with, other women. I grew up in very women-centric spaces and I found them positive and nurturing for me. In college, I started to write about harassment and the patriarchal elements of institutionalised religion. Then I met Sadia Khatri who got me involved with Girls at Dhabas, a collective focused on reclaiming public spaces for women. I started to become more organised in my activism through that. Since then I have also helped organise Aurat March in Lahore both in 2018 and 2019. Activism is important to me because I want to play a part in levelling the playing field for women in whatever way I can. I am incredibly privileged in multiple ways as well and I consider it my responsibility to use my privilege for the benefit of the marginalised communities.

A2. Feminist activism was a very ‘niche’ thing in the 1980s, pursued by committed individuals. It was not the common talking point than it is today. In its own way, it was also a lot more dangerous back then. The focus back then was on challenging misogynist laws and legislation whereas the current wave of feminism is challenging [other] forms of misogyny — such as social attitudes, the policing of women’s bodies, their movement and their sexuality and social evils such as dowry culture. And, of course, feminist activism now has become a ubiquitous conversation because of the social media which was not the case before. 

A3. I really think social media has made life dangerous for feminist activists (though, of course, it is also a great tool for activism). It is a new – and endlessly accessible – platform for violence against women. Think about it: if a dupatta burning protest had happened today, women would have been threatened not just by the state and the police but their social media profiles would have been targeted too. They would have faced a barrage of online rape threats. They would have had their faces photo-shopped onto pornographic images. This, of course, is not to say the challenges the previous generation of feminists faced were any less scary or daunting but, nowadays, the backlash does not end in the physical space. It continues in online spaces. Every feminist I know deals with the backlash in their own unique way. My preferred coping mechanism is wilfully ignoring many of the risks and consequences. Social media is also a democratic space for us to fight back. [Our detractors] can censor print and television media but they cannot, at least so far, stop us from putting up a Facebook status.

A4. Aurat March is aimed purely at women who are socially privileged like myself — who can challenge men in their drawing rooms, who can challenge men in their bedroom and who can challenge men at dinner parties. I am so tired of seeing privileged women sharing #MeToo posts and then inviting harassers to their events and parties just because the said harassers are wealthy, well connected and popular. I am tired of women sharing feminist memes and giggling while their husbands tell women-belong-in-the-kitchen jokes. Listen to working-class women. We are complicit in their oppression. Give them their rights, their minimum wage, their sick leave, their maternity leave. And speak up when someone abuses their servants. 

A5. To quote [Dutch feminist writer] Flavia Dzodan, our feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit. In Pakistan, we especially have to consider our Sunni Muslim privilege. That being said, the most financially privileged men will use their faux concern over ‘class politics’ and ‘the proletariat’ to silence issues of gender politics. It is not for privileged men, however leftist they claim to be, to tell any woman how to address intersectionality. If it comes down to it, giving a platform to a privileged woman is still more subversive than giving a platform to a privileged man.

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In China, Ruled by Men, Women Quietly Find a Powerful Voice

Women in Shanghai gather in bars, salons and bookstores to reclaim their identities as the country’s leader calls for China to adopt a “childbearing culture.”

Du Wen sits on a motorbike parked outside a bar at night, with another women sitting on a chair next to her.

By Alexandra Stevenson

Reporting from Shanghai

In bars tucked away in alleys and at salons and bookstores around Shanghai, women are debating their place in a country where men make the laws.

Some wore wedding gowns to take public vows of commitment to themselves. Others gathered to watch films made by women about women. The bookish flocked to female bookshops to read titles like “The Woman Destroyed” and “Living a Feminist Life.”

Women in Shanghai, and some of China’s other biggest cities, are negotiating the fragile terms of public expression at a politically precarious moment. China’s ruling Communist Party has identified feminism as a threat to its authority. Female rights activists have been jailed . Concerns about harassment and violence against women are ignored or outright silenced .

China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has diminished the role of women at work and in public office . There are no female members of Mr. Xi’s inner circle or the Politburo, the executive policymaking body. He has invoked more traditional roles for women, as caretakers and mothers, in planning a new “ childbearing culture ” to address a shrinking population.

But groups of women around China are quietly reclaiming their own identities. Many are from a generation that grew up with more freedom than their mothers. Women in Shanghai, profoundly shaken by a two-month Covid lockdown in 2022, are being driven by a need to build community.

“I think everyone living in this city seems to have reached this stage that they want to explore more about the power of women,” said Du Wen, the founder of Her, a bar that hosts salon discussions.

Frustrated by the increasingly narrow understanding of women by the public, Nong He, a film and theater student, held a screening of three documentaries about women by female Chinese directors.

“I think we should have a broader space for women to create,” Ms. He said. “We hope to organize such an event to let people know what our life is like, what the life of other women is like, and with that understanding, we can connect and provide some help to each other.”

At quietly advertised events, women question misogynistic tropes in Chinese culture. “Why are lonely ghosts always female?” one woman recently asked, referring to Chinese literature’s depiction of homeless women after death. They share tips for beginners to feminism. Start with history, said Tang Shuang, the owner of Paper Moon, which sells books by female authors. “This is like the basement of the structure.”

There are few reliable statistics about gender violence and sexual harassment in China, but incidents of violence against women have occurred with greater frequency, according to researchers and social workers. Stories have circulated widely online of women being physically maimed or brutally murdered for trying to leave their husbands, or savagely beaten for resisting unwanted attention from men. The discovery of a woman who was chained inside a doorless shack in the eastern province of Jiangsu became one of the most debated topics online in years.

With each case, the reactions have been highly divisive. Many people denounced the attackers and called out sexism in society. Many others blamed the victims.

The way these discussions polarize society unnerved Ms. Tang, an entrepreneur and former deputy publisher of Vogue China. Events in her own life unsettled her, too. As female friends shared feelings of shame and worthlessness for not getting married, Ms. Tang searched for a framework to articulate what she was feeling.

“Then I found out, you know, even myself, I don’t have very clear thoughts about these things,” she said. “People are eager to talk, but they don’t know what they are talking about.” Ms. Tang decided to open Paper Moon, a store for intellectually curious readers like herself.

The bookstore is divided into an academic section that features feminist history and social studies, as well as literature and poetry. There is an area for biographies. “You need to have some real stories to encourage women,” Ms. Tang said.

Anxiety about attracting the wrong kind of attention is always present.

When Ms. Tang opened her store, she placed a sign in the door describing it as a feminist bookstore that welcomed all genders, as well as pets. “But my friend warned me to take it out because, you know, I could cause trouble by using the word feminism.”

Wang Xia, the owner of Xin Chao Bookstore, has chosen to stay away from the “F” word altogether. Instead she described her bookstore as “woman-themed.” When she opened it in 2020, the store was a sprawling space with nooks to foster private conversations and six study rooms named after famous female authors like Simone de Beauvoir.

Xin Chao Bookstore served more than 50,000 people through events, workshops and online lectures, Ms. Wang said. It had more than 20,000 books about art, literature and self-improvement — books about women and books for women. The store became so prominent that state-owned media wrote about it and the Shanghai government posted the article on its website.

Still, Ms. Wang was careful to steer clear of making a political statement. “My ambition is not to develop feminism,” she said.

For Ms. Du, the Her founder, empowering women is at the heart of her motivation. She was jolted into action by the isolation of the pandemic: Shanghai ordered its residents to stay in their apartments under lockdown for two months, and her world narrowed to the walls of her apartment.

For years she dreamed of opening a place where she could elevate the voices of women, and now it seemed more urgent than ever. After the lockdown, she opened Her, a place where women could strike friendships and debate the social expectations that society had placed on them.

On International Women’s Day in March, Her held an event it called Marry Me, in which women took vows to themselves. The bar has also hosted a salon where women acted out the roles of mothers and daughters. Many younger women described a reluctance to be treated the way their mothers were treated and said they did not know how to talk to them, Ms. Du said.

The authorities have met with Ms. Du and indicated that as long as the events at Her didn’t become too popular, there was a place for it in Shanghai, she said.

But in China, there is always the possibility that officials will crack down. “They never tell you clearly what is forbidden,” Ms. Tang of Paper Moon said.

Ms. Wang recently moved Xin Chao Bookstore into Shanghai Book City, a famous store with large atriums and long columns of bookcases. A four-volume collection of Mr. Xi’s writings is prominently displayed in several languages.

Book City is huge. The space for Xin Chao Bookstore is not, Ms. Wang said, with several shelves inside and around a small room that may eventually hold about only 3,000 books.

“It’s a small cell of the city, a cultural cell,” Ms. Wang said.

Still, it stands out in China.

“Not every city has a woman’s bookstore,” she said. “There are many cities that do not have such cultural soil.”

Li You contributed to research.

An earlier version of this article misstated Tang Shuang’s former role at Vogue China. She was a deputy publisher, not a deputy editor. 

How we handle corrections

Alexandra Stevenson is the Shanghai bureau chief for The Times, reporting on China’s economy and society. More about Alexandra Stevenson

A War Of Words: The West’s Over-Complication Of A Genocide 

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As Of May 14, 2024, Israel has launched their Rafah operation , taking control of Gaza’s Rafah crossing, killing civilians in their wake. In their brutal project of genocide, much like the Nazi’s ‘Final Solution’, they are backed by the the USA, the UK and the geopolitical construct of the West.

In their brutal project of genocide, much like the Nazi’s ‘Final Solution’, they are backed by the the USA, the UK and the geopolitical construct of the West.

However, as pro-Palestine protests take over US Universities, starting from Columbia and spreading all across the nation, with students calling for the immediate divestment from Israel and organising peaceful rallies and encampments on campus in support of the Palestinian cause, it becomes imperative for the West to oppose and obstruct these protests, whether by brute physical force or by constructing strawman arguments within neo liberal intellectual circles to ideologically oppose the calls to end genocide. 

The call for justices versus the cult of the Western liberal intellectual 

Perhaps what alarms Israel and their Western cronies, after all, is the simplicity of the Palestinian cause. Only years after former colonised people in Asia, Africa and America have gained independence, does the West opine that maybe, colonialism was bad, and simply that. Western liberals concede that the colonialist project was a simple issue of the oppressor versus the oppressed. They make grand performances of their apologies , right from the Vatican issuing public statements regretting their historical justification of colonialism to European monarchs professing their regret, and promise reparations to the post colonial nations. At international diplomatic events, the West hangs out their guilt to dry for all to see, as if in a feeble attempt to assure the world that they have changed, that they are the good guys now.

Falling Off The Map: Media's Betrayal Of Palestine

However, it is only in retrospect that colonialism evokes liberal guilt. Perhaps, only when news becomes history, when it is temporally so far removed from their immediate present, the West can put up a show of their penance. Biden’s recent admission of the war on Iraq being a mistake makes one almost certain, that in thirty or forty years’ time, the genocide in Palestine would cease to be a “complex geopolitical issue” and be known for what it has always been, simply a mass ethnic cleansing of indigenous people by the Zionist state of Israel supported by Western imperialism. It is regrettable that for the West, hindsight is clearer than foresight.

Zadie Smith’s war of words on the Palestinian cause

On May 5th, The New Yorker published an op-ed by author and academic Zadie Smith, titled ‘ Shibboleths ’, which discusses the “war” in Gaza and the damaging potential of the language and rhetoric used in pro-Palestine protests in Universities. Despite being a woman of colour herself, who has written extensively about race and the effects of colonialism in a post modern West, Zadie Smith, best known for White Teeth , authors a piece which is ignorant at best and insensitive at worst.

Smith’s tone deaf dismissal of the importance of campus protests in favour of the over-intellectualisation and jargonisation of the genocide of Palestinians is testament to the West’s fear of the simplistic nature of the Israel-Palestine issue. 

On May 5th, The New Yorker published an op-ed by author and academic Zadie Smith, titled ‘ Shibboleths ’, which discusses the “war” in Gaza and the damaging potential of the language and rhetoric used in pro-Palestine protests in Universities.

At a time when thousands of civilians, including children, are being killed and maimed by Israeli forces in Palestine and several young students are being arrested for protesting against this gross violation of human rights in “the land of the free” and “home of the brave”, it is crucial for liberal thinkers and intellectuals to read what they are writing once before publishing them for the world to see.

essay on new waves of feminism and our culture

In her essay, Smith writes: ‘ But, when I open newspapers and see students dismissing the idea that some of their fellow-students feel, at this particular moment, unsafe on campus, or arguing that such a feeling is simply not worth attending to, given the magnitude of what is occurring in Gaza, I find such sentiments cynical and unworthy of this movement. For it may well be—within the ethical zone of interest that is a campus, which was not so long ago defined as a safe space, delineated by the boundary of a generation’s ethical ideas—it may well be that a Jewish student walking past the tents, who finds herself referred to as a Zionist, and then is warned to keep her distance, is, in that moment, the weakest participant in the zone .’

Here, Smith draws up hypothetical situations and creates purported victims to back her strawman argument. In her very claim about seeing and understanding both “sides” of the Israel-Palestine issue, she over-complicates the starkly simplistic realities of a genocide. By sitting on the fence and making great proclamations, Smith, and the cult of Western liberal intellectuals have picked the “side” of the oppressor. 

The jargonisation of a genocide: how Western intellectualism disrupts the Palestinian cause

Perhaps, this is the most gruesome Western fallacy- the assumption that every issue has two “sides”, both of which must be carefully heard out and measured against each other on the scales of justice. However, the geopolitical issue concerning Israel and Palestine can not be called an “argument”, a ”conflict” or even a “war”. Euphemism aside, the “issue” is simply a genocide, and we must remind ourselves, that a genocide does not involve two opponents, equal in power and demands. A genocide involves the oppressor and the oppressed. 

The West’s over-complication of this simple truth and their persistence of this being a “grey area” can not just be brushed aside as mere stupidity or ignorance.

The West’s over-complication of this simple truth and their persistence of this being a “grey area” can not just be brushed aside as mere stupidity or ignorance. Its effects run deeper. Western liberal ideas and opinions, manufactured by the intelligentsia and the government, permeate into the psyche of the common man, through media and literature. A person who is actually unaware of the real context of the US University protest and Israel’s war on Palestine, who reads Smith’s essay in The New Yorker , will take her claims at face value and interpret that the genocide is indeed a “grey area” which requires a deeper geopolitical knowledge to decipher.

essay on new waves of feminism and our culture

When they see pro-Palestinian protests, they would proclaim how the issue is “much more complicated and complex than that” and dismiss the politics of the protests. Essays like Smith’s op-ed breed willful ignorance and deters people, with or without popular influence from speaking out unconditionally against a genocide. It is clear therefore, that more than wanting the people to believe that there is no “genocide”, the West wants the world to believe that the situation is a complex geopolitical issue, replete with grey areas and ambiguity. 

In her conclusion, Smith writes:

‘ It is my view that my personal views have no more weight than an ear of corn in this particular essay .’

While one can only wish that it were true, the truth is that Smith is one of the most influential intellectual voices of our times. While she dismisses the weight her words hold, it cannot be denied that most readers would mould their politics around them. Therefore, it becomes her ethical duty to use her influence and power for good and empower the Palestinian cause by supporting the US University protests. 

Smith writes in her essay:

‘ In the campus protests over the war in Gaza, language and rhetoric are—as they have always been when it comes to Israel and Palestine—weapons of mass destruction. ’

essay on new waves of feminism and our culture

It is true that words are powerful in today’s world of catchphrases, often more so than actual bullets and missiles. Keeping this in mind, intellectuals like Zadie Smith must put them to good use and instead of dismissing and diluting the call for justice, must empower and energise the quest for equality, one shibboleth at a time. 

essay on new waves of feminism and our culture

Ananya Ray has completed her Masters in English from Jadavpur University, Kolkata, India. A published poet, intersectional activist and academic author, she has a keen interest in gender, politics and Postcolonialism.

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