“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.