What Makes a (Third) Wave? How and Why the Third Wave Narrative Works for Contemporary Feminists.
Elizabeth Evans is a Senior Lecturer in Politics at Goldsmiths, University of London firstname.lastname@example.org As a feminist activist and scholar I read A LOT of books about feminism. Since the 1990s there has been an explosion in feminist publishing, especially in the US. Much of the academic writing has been accompanied by popular books and feminist magazines; it has been written for a wider audience, an audience that doesn’t require a degree in women’s studies to understand the terminology or debates. Such a trend is exciting because it means that feminist ideas are travelling beyond the ivory towers of academia, and, in theory, it makes feminist publishing more open and democratic. Much of the last two decades’ worth of US writing has been dedicated to the documentation and exploration of ‘third wave’ feminism. Many writers agree that there is no straightforward definition and that this is a good thing; however, analyses tend to stress its emphasis on intersectionality as well as its broader links to global social justice movements. At the same time, discussions I would have with friends and activists in the UK tended to be rather critical of US ‘third wave’ feminism, suggesting that it was an individualistic ‘brand’ of feminism in contrast to ‘our own’ resurgent movement which emerged about a decade later in the early 2000s. Indeed, ‘third wave’ feminism was not really used to frame or analyse feminist activism in the UK - I was interested in finding out why and wanted to compare. how feminist activists on both sides of the Atlantic responded to and interpreted the term ‘third wave’ feminism. More broadly I was also interested in why the third wave narrative seemed to be considered ‘problematic’ for UK feminists, given that so many activists themselves explicitly used the wave framework and seemed happy enough to acknowledge the first and second waves. In order to explore these issues, I undertook a number of interviews with activists in the US and UK based in locations which are well-known hives of feminist activity (London, Bristol, New York, and Portland, OR). Choosing cities with plenty of feminist activism was important in order to ensure that I could speak to a diverse range of activists – both in terms of their demographics but also ideological leanings (e.g. radical, liberal, socialist). The findings set out in this article draw upon this research, and is expanded upon in my book which provides a more comprehensive comparison of feminist activism in the US and UK. The first step in the research process involved drawing together all of the varying interpretations of ‘third wave’ feminism from academic and popular accounts. I then produced a list of the five key ways in which the term tended to be used: 1) chronological, describing a specific moment in time; 2) oppositional, stressing the differences between the waves; 3) generational, suggesting a shift towards a younger generation of activists; 4) conceptual, symbolising the arrival of new ideas - especially intersectionality; and 5) activist, emphasising the importance of inclusion. These categories can and do interact but they represent the dominant ways in which the ‘third wave’ is presented in feminist writing. During the interviews I was interested in which (if any) of these frames the interviewees might use to explain ‘third wave’ feminism. The key findings from the research are as follows: • The dominant frame in the US is chronological, whereas in the UK they were more likely to offer generational explanations. • There was a relative lack of confidence in defining third wave feminism in the UK compared with the US. • Activists in both the US and UK frequently cited intersectionality as an important conceptual characteristic of third wave feminism. • More activists in the US were willing to identify as third wave than in the UK. • Few activists in either the US or UK sought to define the third wave in opposition to the second wave, thereby differentiating the views of activists from those presented in popular feminist texts • Critics of ‘third wave’ feminism in the UK interpreted the term as reflective of a (neo)liberal individualist form of feminism. The research in the article stresses the importance of exploring how the narratives we use to describe and analyse feminism are understood by activists. In particular, it highlights the problem of blanket terms such as ‘Anglo American’ feminism that do not take account of how feminism differs by geographical and historical context. Researching this paper necessarily gave me pause to reflect upon my own ‘waved identity’. Too young to ‘belong’ to the second wave and unsure of what the third wave really represented, I found the process of writing this article helpful in clarifying my own position, on both the wave narrative and third wave feminism. A chronological approach to wave framing that acknowledges ideological difference, and does not try to pit one wave against another, is to my mind a useful and helpful way of thinking through feminist continuities and disruptions.