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Harvesting our strengths: third wave feminism and women's studies.

When we approached the directors of the Institute for Feminist Theory and Research ( about organising a conference on third wave feminism we were not even sure what we meant by the term. What we did know was that our theory and praxis of feminism was not the feminism of the second wave, although it was inextricably informed and enabled by it.
 We have seen that interrogating cultural and sexual behaviour has
 not led to a thoroughgoing change in the balance of power. Feminism
 has many, too many, critiques of dress and pornography, of poetry
 and film-making, of language and physical behaviour. It has sought
 to direct our personal lives on every level. And yet women have
 still not achieved fundamental equality; they are still poorer and
 less powerful than men. Rather than concentrating its energy on the
 ways women dress and talk and make love, feminism now must attack
 the material basis of economic and social and political inequality.
 (Walter 4)

We recognised that the feminist entry into the academy in the 1970s was an unprecedented historical moment, but one which resulted in an abstracted "feminism" which was understood largely as a theoretical-academic discipline. This feminist discipline was revealed--through exposure to criticism by a generation familiar with poststructuralism, postmodernism, and postcolonialism--as an elitist, colonising, and heterosexist hegemony in the name of feminism. Our objective for the Third Wave Feminism conference (July 2002, University of Exeter) was to examine this particular moment in feminist theory and history that has come to be understood as the "third wave," and to do so without acceding to the defeatism implicit in the backlash politics of post feminism.

The debates at the conference were informed by the following questions:

* Is there a third wave of feminism at all? If so, what has happened to the first and second waves?

* "Second wave" feminism is characterised at least in part by the praxis of activism: getting real things changed in the name of feminism. Social activism appears to have given way to academic practice as the dominant mode of "Western" feminism at the turn of the Millennium. Since the aims of the Women's Movement have not been fully endorsed (e.g. equal pay for equal work, free childcare, wages for housework, autonomy of sexuality and representation), what has happened to the political agendas of the feminist project? Is this a strategic retreat, a postmodern fragmentation of metanarrative, or a backlash against the social shifts achieved during the 1960s and 1970s?

* If feminism is predicated on the social fact of the relative oppression of women, and poststructuralist modes of thought have deconstructed sexual identity, why do academics and artists persist with the unfashionable notion of feminism?

* "Equality" has given way to "difference" in contemporary feminist work. How can this lead us anywhere but into static cultural relativism? If essentialism is anathema to feminism, what kind of common ground is available to women, given the proliferation of difference under contemporary social and theoretical conditions?

There were no easy and obvious answers to any of these questions, but the debates which they raised and encompassed allowed us to understand more precisely that, while the crucial work of feminist activists and scholars over the past four decades has impacted greatly on our lives, we are no longer in a second wave of feminism. Interrogating the monolithic assumptions of the waves of feminist history, the conference brought together those factions which had been gen(d)erated by the polemics of second wave feminism--including Women's Studies and Queer theory--in order to define a feminism which could no longer, in any way, be identified as "victim feminism."

What place can, or do, Women's Studies and third wave feminism have within the academy if they are no longer "victims"? The starting point for this discussion inevitably begins with an interrogation of the tensions between Women's Studies and third wave feminism, and centres on two key questions: what place does third wave feminism have within Women's Studies? And, what place does Women's Studies have within the academy in light of third wave feminist thinking? In spite of the increasing inclusion of third wave texts on Women's Studies syllabi, especially in the US, the intergenerational antagonisms between second wave and third wave feminisms are similarly played out in this uneasy relationship. Yet, given the common ground between Women's Studies and third wave feminism--a shared concern with the politics of female experience and identity--the polarity between the two is at times mystifying. The raw anger we experienced from some Women's Studies scholars when organising the conference--largely directed towards the very notion of the "third wave," as if it somehow stood for the outright demise of second wave feminism--testified to the need to readdress this schism in order to rethink not only the causes of this antipathy, but possible bridges that would enable a constructive dialogue between Women's Studies and third wave feminism.

If Women's Studies emerged as a result of second wave feminism's "demands for a 'space' and a 'voice'" in the academy (Brooks 122), then the third wave critique of the limitations of Women's Studies has focused on its "anachronistic" insularity, separatism and endorsement of "victim feminism." Christina Hoff Sommers, for example, lampooned Women's Studies as trite. At the same time, Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards argue that second wave activists' denial of younger feminists' "knowledge and experiences" (222) is mirrored in the university institution by what Diane Elam describes as the "Dutiful Daughter Complex." This phenomenon, Elam proposes, occurs when senior feminists maintain that junior feminists be dutiful daughters and defend those feminisms which their mothers supported. Should these "dutiful daughters" propose new agendas they are greeted with hostility. In particular, in the Women's Studies imaginary third wave feminists' focus on popular culture has been construed as a form of postfeminist backlash, one advocating a generation of Ally McBeals and Bridget Jones. Debbie Stoller, an editor of BUST magazine, positions an indulgence in the popular modes of femininity as a feminist statement: "We love our lipstick, have a passion for polish, and, basically, adore this armor that we call 'fashion.' To us, it's fun, it's feminine, and, in the particular way we flaunt it, it's definitely feminist" (Stoller 47; emphasis in original). However, there are those in Women's Studies who, for example, regard Madonna as suspicious: does she "offer a mockery of conventional femininity, or just another way to be fashionable and 'sexy'?" (Marshment 147). This opposition between the canonical and the popular has been largely dismissed in Cultural Studies as irrelevant but still manages to disrupt exchanges in feminist debates. Yet is this mutual suspicion not itself a product of the rhetoric and the stereotypes of the backlash--that old trick of setting generations of women against one another?

Those articles in this special issue which engage with popular culture indicate the ways in which a rigorous and scholarly encounter with the popular--one that moves beyond criticising or celebrating the "new" feminist's supposed obsession with fashion, make-up and sex--can illuminate our understanding both of the condition of woman and the history of feminism. Meryl Altman's analysis of the sexual and textual politics of the popular, mass-market 1970s feminist fictions of Erica Jong, Alix Kates Shulman and Marge Piercy offers an account of the limits of the second wave polemics while interrogating the notion of the waves of feminism. Similarly, Colleen Deuney problematises the figure of the royal mother in third wave feminism. Tracing its lineage, she indicates how the theoretical positions of third wave feminism allow a reading of the maternal royal--as exemplified in Princess Diana--that is powerful rather than conforming. Karen Dias addresses one of the most contentious points of argument in second wave feminism--the body--and reconfigures it within cyberspace and third wave feminism. Her article on pro-anorexia websites makes claims for a positive dialogue about anorexia and female-centered communities. These arguments provide a model of how to integrate third wave feminism's celebration of the popular with the academic scholarship promulgated by Women's Studies.

The place of Women's Studies within the academy has, of course, always been a site of contestation. Women's Studies found itself in a double bind: on the one hand charged with "not being academic enough" within the university and, on the other hand, accused of being "too academic" by feminist activists outside of the academy--not to mention the debates about essentialism and difference, politics and praxis, and the marginalisation of race, ethnicity, sexuality and class taking place within Women's Studies itself (see Robinson 17-24). The position of Women's Studies was further problematised by the emergence of Gender Studies, queer, transgender and postcolonial theories in the 1980s and 1990s. The challenge to the very category of "woman" posed by these insurgent positions threw into question the founding premises of its identity politics. Do we, then, need to think beyond the monolithic frameworks of academic "disciplines" to move towards a more encompassing field of feminist studies? "Shaped by hegemonic privileges, white women's paths to a coalition-based feminist consciousness have often been based in ignorance, contradiction, and confusion" (Heywood and Drake 12). To move beyond the contradictions would mean accommodating some of the criticisms levelled at second wave feminism.

One criticism repeatedly and resoundingly directed at second wave feminism was its exclusion of Third World and black feminisms. This has, to some degree, been recuperated by the political axis of Women's Studies. Those articles in this special issue that address non-Western feminisms indicate the extent to which third wave feminism has learned how to incorporate, rather than to exclude. E. Ann Kaplan's interrogation of the futures of feminism in light of the traumatic impact of 9/11 foregrounds the changing social and political contexts for feminist theory and practice. Focusing on the relevance of feminist ideology and perspectives, the histories and futures of knowledge-making in the academy, and the consequences of globalization and new technologies, Kaplan asks how links with non-US feminisms can occur in an era of globalization and terror. Daphne Grace explores representations of female space in Indian and Algerian literature. She draws upon third wave feminist arguments--specifically the reformulation of the personal to meet contemporary political agendas--to problematise "traditional" concepts of female space behind the screen of purdah, and within the confines of the harem or haveli. Finally, Winnie Woodhull's piece attacks what she perceives to be the limits of third wave feminism and, returning to Kaplan's US-orientated argument, argues that third wave feminism could repeat the exclusionary errors of the history of feminism. Her textual analysis of Nuruddin Farah, Lilia Momple, and Nadine Gordimer indicates how neocolonial domination and the flow of capital, labor and commodities are addressed by feminists in Africa. These three articles offer a challenge to the argument that feminism excludes as they posit a third wave feminism that might account for all women and for all women's conditions.

As is demonstrated by the articles included in this special issue, the theoretical challenges posed by third wave feminism allow for a reconsideration of Women's Studies. We need a Women's Studies which is not "victim feminism," a feminism which does not, as Daphne Patai suggests, "[hurt] itself with identity politics ... simplistic stereotyping and ideological policing" (9). This form of Women's Studies can embrace the possibilities of third wave feminism, including its interrogation of popular cultural forms, and thus open up a space in which to ask what can be gained from the dialogue between Women's Studies and third wave feminism. This should be positioned as part of a broader interrogation of what "feminism" can mean under contemporary academic and social conditions.

Three of the articles in this special collection do precisely this. They interrogate what it means to be a feminist, both in theory and in practice. Ashleigh Harris' article confronts the backlash politics of media and popular production and the myth of feminist politics. Foregrounding the ways in which "political correctness" has damaged feminism, she engages with the backlash rhetoric of media and popular production to re-examine the relationship between patriarchy and feminism. The very question of the "waves" is opened up by Agnieszka Graft in her discussion of the historical and political paradoxes of contemporary Polish feminism. Relying upon the inadequacies of Anglo-American constructions of feminist history (as laid out by Kaplan), Graft explores the inconsistencies and contradictions characterising the trajectory of Polish feminism. Although Polish feminism is engaged with typically second wave concerns (including founding Women's Studies programmes), Graft highlights how its activism employs strategies and forms associated with third wave feminism--which are undertaken against the backdrop of a "backlash" rhetoric. Finally, a resounding response to the myth of the "death of Women's Studies" is provided by Marysia Zalewski in her provocative account of the debates surrounding its putative demise, within the context of the third wave. Turning around the deconstructive critique of Women's Studies, she redeploys poststructuralist arguments to propose a model for its reanimation. It is by working with, rather than against, the paradoxes and contradictions of Women's Studies and third wave feminism, Zalewski proposes, that Women's Studies can become "exciting again." The strategies and anxieties in these three articles emphasise that truth that many feminists are reluctant to acknowledge--feminism does not exist. But feminisms do.

Feminisms can incorporate, and embrace, the points of convergence and divergence between Women's Studies and third wave feminist positions. The quest for equality and representation has been sustained by the powerful activism and scholarship of Women's Studies scholars over the past twenty-five years. The awareness-raising of Women's Studies gave birth to third wave feminism--just as second wave feminism had given birth to Women's Studies. However, Elam's model of "dutiful daughters" is a reminder of the divisions that have riven feminism. Women's studies can live within this version of feminism but must sustain itself through a dialogue with third wave feminism, rather than turning its back on it--whether academic or activist. As Lynne Segal argues, "[i]t is only by finding ways to foster effective vehicles for change that feminists can still hope to open spaces for more women to flaunt the diverse pleasures, entitlements and self-questioning to which recent feminist thinking has inspired us" (232). These articles testify to the vigorous possibilities of a constructive dialogue between Women's Studies and third wave feminism by highlighting how the two need not be defined against one another, but in terms of their shared politics. After all, allowing these fissures to expand is in the best interests of the patriarchy.


Baumgardner, Jennifer, and Amy Richards. Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.

Brooks, Ann. Postfeminisms: Feminism, Cultural Theory and Cultural Forms. London: Routledge, 1997.

Elam, Diane. "Sisters Are doing It to Themselves." Feminisms and Generations: Academic Feminists in Dialogue. Ed. Devoney Looser and E. Ann Kaplan. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1997. 55-68.

Heywood, Leslie, and Jennifer Drake. Introduction. Third Wave Agenda: Being Feminist, Doing Feminism. Ed. Leslie Heywood and Jennifer Drake. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1997. 1-20.

Marshment, Margaret. "Representations of Women in Contemporary Popular Culture." Introducing Women's Studies. Ed. Diane Richardson and Victoria Robinson. 2nd ed. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 1997. 125-151.

Patai, Daphne. "Will the Real Feminists in Academe Please Stand Up?" Chronicle of Higher Education 6 Oct. 2000: 7-9.

Robinson, Victoria. "Introducing Women's Studies." Introducing Women's Studies. Ed. Diane Richardson and Victoria Robinson. 2nd ed. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 1997. 1-26.

Segal, Lynne. Why Feminism? Cambridge: Polity, 1999.

Sommers, Christina Hoff. Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Destroyed Women. New York: Touchstone, 1995.

Stoller, Debbie. "Introduction: Feminists Fatale: BUST-ing the Beauty Myth." The BUST Guide to the New Girl Order. Ed. Marcelle Karp and Debbie Stoller. New York: Penguin, 1999. 42-47.

Walter, Natasha. The New Feminism. London: Little, Brown, 1998.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Aaron, Jane, and Sylvia Walby, eds. Out of the Margins: Women's Studies in the Nineties. London: Falmer, 1991.

Alexander, M. Jacqui, Lisa Albrecht and Mals Segest, eds. The Third Wave: Feminist Perspectives on Racism. New York: Kitchen Table/Women of Color, 1998.

Bobo, Jacqueline, ed. Black Feminist Cultural Criticism. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.

Bronfen, Elisabeth, and Misha Kvaka. Feminist Consequences: Theory for the New Century. New York: Columbia UP, 2001.

Coward, Rosalind. Sacred Cows: Is Feminism Relevant to the New Millennium? London: HarperCollins, 1999.

Faludi, Susan. Backlash: The Undeclared War on American Women. New York: Doubleday, 1991.

Findlen, Barbara, ed. Listen Up: Voice From the Next Feminist Generation. Seattle, Seal, 1995.

Kramarae, Cheris, and Dale Spender, ed. The Knowledge Explosion: Generations of Feminist Scholarship. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf. 1993.

Maynard, Mary, and June Purvis, ed. New Frontiers in Women's Studies: Knowledge, Identity and Nationalism. London: Taylor & Francis, 1996.

Oakley, Ann, and Juliet Mitchell. Who's Afraid of Feminism? Seeing Through the Backlash. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1997.

Walker, Rebecca, ed. To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism. New York: Anchor, 1995.

Walter, Natasha, ed. On the Move: Feminism for a New Generation. London: Virago, 1999.

Stacy Gillis and Rebecca Munford (1)

(1) Gillis is a Research Fellow in the School of English, University of Exeter, UK. For comments contact Stacy Gilllis at Munford completed her Ph.D. in French and Comparative Literature in the School of Modern Languages at the University of Exeter. For comments contact Rebecca Munford at
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Author:Gillis, Stacy; Munford, Rebecca
Publication:Journal of International Women's Studies
Date:Apr 1, 2003
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