Postfeminism vs. the Third Wave

Postfeminism vs. the Third Wave

Alison Piepmeier
Riposte to: 

Alison Piepmeier examines the differences in postfeminism and third-wave feminism.

In reading the essays on postfeminism in this section of EBR, I’m struck by the imprecision of the term. Some of the essays - like Stobb’s - seem not to be discussing postfeminism per se, but just younger feminist negotiations with the conditions of life in the early 20th century. Others, like Guertin, use the term postfeminism but without a particular sense of its significance; this piece seems more to be discussing feminism in general, or perhaps third wave feminism - I find the discussion of cyberfeminism fascinating, but I don’t buy that it’s equivalent to postfeminism. Helford, Yaszek, and Mazza seem to be engaging with the idea of postfeminism in ways that I find most interesting and useful; they’re identifying something other than third wave feminism, and they’re considering the significance of the “post” rhetoric as it applies to feminism in an era of backlash.

The term “postfeminism” always makes me wary - it’s a suspect term, a catchphrase from the early ’90s that was used to suggest that we no longer need feminism, that we’re past it. I don’t hear it that much anymore, but when I do, it’s often problematically used in a way that suggests it’s synonymous with third wave feminism.

Now, speaking of imprecise and suspect terms, third wave feminism is right there with them - it’s a highly contested term that loosely defines a generational and political cohort born after the heyday of the second wave women’s movement. Although I’ve edited a collection of essays that both embraces and interrogates the term,Catching a Wave: Reclaiming Feminism for the 21st Century (Northeastern University Press, 2003) others - like Bitch publisher Lisa Jervis - have argued that it’s time to get rid of it altogether.

The controversies surrounding the use of the term “third wave feminism,” however, are different from those surrounding “postfeminism.” When feminists debate the third wave, generally they’re trying to determine if there’s enough of a generational divide between older and younger feminists to warrant a whole new label. The question seems to be, have we moved far enough from the social issues that propelled the women’s movement in the 1960s and ’70s to be able to suggest that there’s a new wave? The rhetoric surrounding postfeminism, by contrast, tends, as Lisa Yaszek notes, “to describe the contemporary moment as one in which the goals of feminism have been achieved” and “to invoke a `blame-the-victim’ mentality.” Often arguments made from a postfeminist perspective rely on what Elyce Helford identifies as “the belief that personal choices and `bootstrap’ efforts can bring a woman (and hence all women) empowerment and equality.” While the third wave says, “We’ve got a hell of a lot of work to do!” postfeminism says, “Go buy some Manolo Blahniks and stop your whining.”

Postfeminism relies on competitive individualism and eschews collective action; it obscures or makes invisible the many ways in which women are often fearful, subjected to rape and other kinds of violence, and politically and economically underprivileged. The third wave, however - in texts from Third Wave Agenda to Manifesta to Colonize This! - grapples with women’s intersectional identities and demands an end to all the forms of oppression that keep women from achieving their full humanity.

Postfeminism and the third wave, then, are entirely different entities. Rebecca Walker’s 1992 essay, “Becoming the Third Wave,” articulates these differences powerfully; the essay documents the virulent and persistent sexism of the early 1990s and calls young feminists to rally to the cause, and the final paragraph of the essay consists of this declaration:

I am not a postfeminism feminist. I am the Third Wave.

Reading that always makes me want to make a fist and say, “Hell, yeah.”

So, thirteen years after Walker’s declaration, are we not finally past postfeminism?