“I’m Not a Feminist, But . . .”: Postmodern and Third-Wave Feminism

We hear people say this all of the time, and yet they often go on to express “feminist” ideas and could identify as a feminist. There are many reasons why people distance themselves from the feminist movement. I can’t possibly explain or guess them all. But I can explain the different types of feminism according to Rosemarie Tong’s book Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction (2009). There are many types of feminism, and we know that “all feminists do not think alike” (p. 1). However, labeling different schools of thought help us to “mark the range of different approaches, perspectives, and frameworks a variety of feminists have used to shape both their explanations for women’s oppression and their proposed solutions for its elimination” (p. 1).

This series will outline and define the many feminisms. Maybe you’ll be able to identify where you agree and disagree with feminist thought.

feminist thought cover

Today’s focus is Postmodern and Third-Wave Feminism. Last week I posted on Ecofeminism.

Feminist thought is changing, and two contemporary ways of thinking about it are postmodern and third-wave. Postmodern feminists “reject phallogocentric, thought . . . [and] reject any mode of feminist thought that aims to provide a single explanation for why women are oppressed or the ten or so steps all women must stake to achieve liberation” (emphasis in original, p. 270). I like the idea that there is “no single formula for being a ‘good feminist’” (p. 270). This type of feminism is a result of postmodernism, which rejects Enlightenment (modern) ideas. Theorists that inform this type of thinking are Jacques Derrida, Hélène Cixous, Michel Foucault, and Judith Butler.

These feminists disapprove of “cosmetic surgery for the purpose of women’s beautification” (p. 279). They see it as a way to keep women in line and to convince them to participate in their own Panopticons (see Foucault). Butler posited the ideas of performance and performativity when it comes to gender and identity. However, those critical of postmodern feminism claim that “Resistance to injustice is not a matter of personal sniping. It is a matter of public outrage” (p. 283). They want to see postmodern feminists do more than just theorize about feminist problems with academic jargon.

Similar to the postmodern feminist belief that there is no one way to be feminist, third-wave feminists “are more than willing to accommodate diversity and change. They are particularly eager to understand the ways in which gender oppression and other kinds of human oppression co-create and co-maintain each other” (p. 271). They are “feminist sponges” who accept that all women are different (p. 284). They recognize multiracial and multiethnic issues and also sexual differences. They also approve of women who participate in pornography, if they chose it, or women who “wear makeup, have cosmetic surgery, wear sexually provocative clothes, sell her sexual services . . . provided she feels empowered by her actions and now somehow demeaned, diminished, or otherwise objectified by them” (p. 288). Critics say this sort of feminism may be too messy and that it “needs a list of core values” (p. 289). “[J]ust because some women feel empowered does not mean all women feel this way” (p. 289).

Third-wave feminism seems to have a strong connection to what Tong wrote about multicultural feminism and the inclusion of difference. This relates to Claire Snyder’s (2008) idea that third-wave feminism means “There is no one way to be a woman” (p. 185). There is no one issue for women and no one way to be a woman. The third-wave movement seems to be focused on American issues, which distinguishes it from multicultural feminism. Perhaps it has some work to do in really encompassing the value of differences.

Third-wave feminism is also interested in preserving women’s voices, and oral history has become a big part of this. Allowing women to share their stories is important, and I see this as connected to the radical feminist consciousness-raising.  I also see it among my own religious group, with feminists starting the Mormon Women Project in which they highlight different women’s experiences in their own words in order to create identification and a diversification of experiences.

I like that third-wave feminism focuses on the fact that there’s no one way to be a woman. I think it helps me to see how my own research on women is a valid. I also see value in embracing femininity, but not imposing that on everybody. I do see some problems with the beauty culture because of that.

This section makes me wonder: if feminism is so messy, how do we then unite for common causes? Is there no such thing as activism any longer because as long as we all have choices, there is no need to change the status quo?

Next week I’ll post about a book called Jesus Feminist.


21 thoughts on ““I’m Not a Feminist, But . . .”: Postmodern and Third-Wave Feminism

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  1. Emily, I like your quote that there is “no one way to be a woman.” I think that says it all. Regarding feminists, they can and do range over a wide spectrum of religious beliefs, ethnic groups. racial make-up, and socio-economic status.

    Yet, we should also understand, people in poverty or close to it, have fewer choices and sometimes may need to acquiesce to bosses and jobs they do not care for, but must have. It should be noted the fastest growing group of homeless people is single mothers. This is a key reason why birth control and education is so vital, as so many women have dug themselves a hole before they get out of high school.

    Sorry for the digression, but with my volunteer work with homeless families, I see far too many women who have had children before they are ready. These young women are tough, hard-working and devout and just need a helping hand to find a path forward. All the best, BTG

    1. I love your digressions. You add depth to the discussion and give a face to the people behind these theories. Thanks for applying this to your own work and for helping me to understand one way that feminist theory is important to everyday people.

  2. I’m going to check in with you from time to time here, and add some of your books on Goodreads for me to remember to read them. I’d like to delve into feminism once again. Something that has been lacking in my life since university, Naomi Wolf, and a TA that I had in art history. Feminism hasn’t been lacking, just my reading and studying and that may lead to not truly knowing where I stand. Education is knowledge, freedom, accessibility and unshackles. Thank you for this post.

  3. The messiness exists because there is no one way to be a woman, and that’s the trouble. Simultaneously, we want labels, concrete ideas to grasp on to, to create an identity and a conscious, forward-moving community from that shared identity, and then we want the fluidity to determine femininity (and feminism) for ourselves. However, not every woman wants to be a feminist, and not every woman wants to be a housewife, and not every woman wants to be a porn star, etc. Not having a “set idea” of femininity allows a kind of looseness in the concept that makes it an easy target for people who want rigidity, or just one idea of femininity for women to fit into.

    What I like about post-modern and third-wave feminism is the desire to include, explore, and understand the idea that no two women’s ideas of femininity/feminism are the same but are both valid. I don’t think that situation eradicates [the need for] advocacy as much as highlights the importance of it. All womens’ voices need to be upheld, celebrated, and acknowledged for all of us [men, too!] to reap the benefits of equality and civil rights.

    1. Ah very nice. I love what you are saying here, and you are helping me to make sense of how importance it is to embrace difference and a lack of unity. We can celebrate each other without putting everybody in neat and tidy boxes.

  4. here’s a thought from a man who could be regarded as a feminist, as u well know: maybe the problem is that ‘first-wave feminists’ were pretty much man-haters. and, like a lot of other things, feminism has been politicized. really, liberals think they are the only ones who can be feminists. that’s ridiculous! but it’s reality. NOW is nothing but a political interest group, not a feminist group. at least, that USED to be the case. from what i’ve been reading, that may have changed. i hope so. and, truth be told, so-call feminists have historically been VERY patronizing regarding women who CHOOSE to have families and be stay-at-home moms, which, i might add, is the hardest & MOST IMPORTANT job in the entire world. feminists have NOT been friendly to that segment of the female population. that’s why guys like me do NOT call ourselves feminists.

    1. Alex, so you are a feminist but you don’t call yourself one? I swear you’ve told me that you are. 😉 I think you need to read my other posts on the different types of feminism. Feminists, as a group, have never been about man-hating, but instead about equality for women and choices for women. Some theorists and writers have said, “Hey, what if equality means we can do X without men?” Not all of them think that way. Most want to include men in solutions. But they do generally agree that patriarchy is a pretty big factor in women’s oppression, even the religious feminists in the 1500 and 1600s (see this post https://thebookshelfofemilyj.com/2014/05/15/a-history-of-feminist-thought-the-essential-feminist-reader/). I think that’s what is great about third-wavers; they see the messiness and contradiction that stereotyping doesn’t. So saying that feminists historically have been patronizing to women who stay home with children, while true in some circumstances, doesn’t represent the movement(s) as a whole. It doesn’t even represent a fraction of it. That was an issue for some in the 70s and 80s, but feminists in the late 1800s and early 1900s worked on suffrage and education for women. They had no time or inclination to sit around belittling the only option available to them. There are entire movements that focus on the importance of “women’s” work and the ethic of care, and some of them maybe even demand that we value it by PAYING for it. That’s how we value everything else, right?

  5. This aligns with what I’ve been reading so far in, “How to be a woman,” by Caitlin Moran (emphasis on so far, I’ve only read two chapter of it.) I think this movement provides a variety of interpretations and considerations for feminism andyou do address an important question. Even though there’s no one definition to being a woman, what do we unite on then if there’s so many ideas/mentalities? I imagine that implementing core issues to give “shape” to this movement is a contradiction to its ideals; yet, I strongly feel that I identify with this movement the most and appreciate that the definitions of feminism is being redefined and evolving. I’ve been really enjoying this series!

    1. Thanks! I think I identify with this version too because it tends to bring all of the others together, while still recognizing difference. Thanks for commenting. I’ll have to read some Moran!

  6. Great post. I think most people, regardless of politics, religion, or background, can agree that the universal status of women needs to be improved. We still live in a world where women aren’t allowed to be educated, divorce abusive husbands, or leave their homes without a male escort. We don’t have to agree on everything, but uniting for the common cause of human decency and respect is a good starting point.

    I look forward to your post about Jesus Feminist!

    1. Nice way to make feminism united by what we can agree on, and that we can agree to disagree. I love what you’ve said here. But yes, human decency and respect are a great place to start, and in some cases, where we want to end up. Thanks for uplifting me with your hope!

  7. This stuff confuses me. Not that your post was confusing; it was written beyond well. It’s just that, well, labels confuse me. To me, it’s as if we have moved from a world where black was clearly distinguished from white, male from female, gay from straight. To a (social) world that is intricately nuanced, but ultimately, black and white. Now, it’s a world where black and white have merely been gradated, chopped down into narrower and more complicated ravines. Today, I’m not just a feminist, I’m a XXX feminist. Not just a Christian, I’m a XXX Christian. Such is the way of a reductionist society (lol – the irony has not gone over my head), I suppose.

    We’ve kept the boxes, but made them more enigmatic. I don’t really identify as a feminist, or any other ist or ism, merely because I’d rather not box myself in to any one line of thought, even if that line of thought is essentially, almost down to the last syllable, one that represents what I believe. But I’m sure that there’s a label for this sort of thinking, too. A recalcitrant-ist? A post-modern contrarian? Hmm.

    Nice post. Sorry for digression. I get sidetracked when my attention is piqued. Although I don’t and won’t ever identify with these labels, I love reading about what’s out there.

    1. I really like what you are saying. Yes, we should move beyond labels. I guess I should explain why these feminisms are “labeled.” It is the attempt of the author (and I guess accepted historical movements) to explain the evolution in feminist thought. So it isn’t necessarily a way of labeling each other nowadays or dividing into camps, but instead a way of understanding where feminism has been and how it has moved and changed. I hope that makes more sense, and perhaps answers your questions a little. Great insights, though. Postmodern contrarian? That would make a great blog. 🙂

      1. Yeah – I figured that. It’s really fun to read about. I honestly had absolutely no idea that there were different types of feminists until now. Well, I knew that that was the case. I just didn’t know it was, like, official. Hah. Thanks for the chat. Much needed. Has been a weird day. And yeah – a great blog ‘t’d make, indeed.

  8. Despite “messiness”, it is possible to unite around a common cause, such as equal pay for equal work or protection from violence and abuse. Many of these issues benefit some boys and men, even though girls and women may be the focus. There is also still a place for activism because we don’t all have choices. Many are still constrained by legal strictures, custom, societal mores, etc., depending on individual circumstances. There is still a lot to do.

    Thanks for this series. I came in midway and haven’t caught up with all the earlier posts, but I hope to look back for them all soon.

    1. Nicely said. Agreed! I like that you put the focus on a particular cause or social issue, rather than the broad “equality for everybody.” It is the small causes that make change and that we can by systematic about. Great clarification for me! Glad you are here.

  9. The authors you cite under post-modern feminism would surely agree that there is no one way to be a woman? Difference is a key concept in Butler’s work on drag, for example. Also, preserving women’s voices would seem to concur with Lyotard’s work on language and the way that established phrase regimens suppress the voices of anyone whose worldview is constructed around other regimens. I’m not sure I get what (Tong says) the third wavers do differently to the postmodernists.
    Is it down to empowerment? The idea that selling sexual services can be empowering, for example, strikes me as a break with (so-called) postmodern thinkers because their Marxist influences would typically lead them to say that any such empowerment would be illusory – the person becoming commodified, the idea of empowerment being an ideological standpoint borne of capitalist economic necessity, and so on. Another point about empowerment would seem to be personal sniping vs public outrage. Isn’t there a type of feminism that argues that personal evasions of structural oppression lack solidarity and legal power?
    Sorry to go on, but I’m not sure I get how Tong separates the two groups of feminisms.

    1. I don’t quite know either, I guess. I like your idea of empowerment. I’ll have to review the chapter in more detail and get back to you. Good point that postmodernists would agree with the third-wave idea of there being no one way to be a woman. I suppose Tong grouped these together because they are so similar. She did that with other types as well.

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