Over two decades ago in the January 1992 issue of Ms. magazine, Rebecca Walker called for a Third Wave of feminist consciousness. Walker was incensed by a collocation of events hinging on race, gender, and class ideologies. With Shannon Liss, she mobilized a collective and foundation to promote voting rights, education, wage, and prison reform. They provided those in need with emergency funding for abortions, women-led projects, and reproductive rights activism (Walker and Liss 2012). Although she coins the term, Walker is less interested in developing a coherent, new feminist theory than in building coalitions with other social justice leagues through the Third Wave Foundation. Hers is a feminism of intersectionality, but one that also proffers self-empowerment, lived experience, and the plurality of pleasure. To Be Real, an anthology of stories and testimonials from women and men, reflects the confessional and individualist drive of the Third Wave.
The work of conceptualizing this new feminism continues to be negotiated by feminist academics and practitioners for whom the core of Third Wave feminism is its rejection of Second Wave’s seeming essentialist and rigid positioning of women’s politics and lives.
But Third Wave feminism is troubled by divisions within its still-forming body of activism and theories, as well as by postfeminist seductions. While Third Wave feminists such as Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards reject the label of “postfeminist,” a skein of their Third Wave feminism that advocates embracing the pleasures of “girl culture” coincides with postfeminist tenets. The term “postfeminism” first appears in Susan Bolotin’s 1982 article “Voices from the Postfeminism Generation,” in which the [End Page 157] author contends that the battle for equality has been won, and it is time to stop “harping” on women’s oppression (29).1 Naomi Wolf would go so far as to assert that Second Wave feminism victimizes women and exaggerates claims of women’s suffering and gender inequalities (1993, 135). For Wolf, who is situated in both Third Wave and postfeminist camps, the alternative is “power feminism,” which “believes women deserve to feel that the qualities of starlets and queens, of sensuality and beauty, can be theirs … [and which] knows that making social change does not contradict the principle that girls just want to have fun” (137–38). Wolf’s glide from “women” to “girls” resonates with Baumgardner and Richards’s statement that “while it’s true that embracing the pink things of stereotypical girlhood isn’t a radical gesture meant to overturn the way society is structured, it can be a confident gesture” (2000, 136). Power feminism, or girlie feminism, envisages not women combating institutional sexism, but girls experimenting with personal choices in a perpetual state of youth and innocence.
But where is the political power in feeling the starlet or talking to friends at a dinner party? In Manifesta, while drawing on the critical challenge to normative perceptions of female sexuality by Judy Chicago in her installation The Dinner Party (1979), Baumgardner and Richards proceed to encourage a depoliticized version of Chicago’s work by commenting that “a good dinner party (or a gathering of women) is just as likely to be a place to see politics at work as is a rally” (2000, 15). Third Wave feminists and postfeminists encourage “girls” to immerse themselves in the pleasures of femaleness, to find self-fulfillment and carnality, rather than to dismantle, critique, expose, or challenge systematic discrimination and violence. In Third Wave Agenda, Leslie Heywood and Jennifer Drake acknowledge that “despite our knowing better, despite our knowing its emptiness, the ideology of individualism is still a major motivating force in many third-wave lives” (1997, 11). The contradictions within and between these new feminisms have, nevertheless, powerfully shaped young feminists as well as popular perceptions of young women in the twenty-first century who are taught that loving “feminine trappings” does not equal being duped (Baumgardner and Richards 2004, 60). True, but it also does not equal a threat to the status quo. As the Third Wave matures, it must struggle to clarify its core feminist values so that women’s sexual...