The Third Wave: The New Definition of Feminism

The CWI (Committe for Workers Internation) use International Women's Day to highlight their fight for democracy in Malaysia

Though International Women’s Day has just celebrated its centenary, the word feminism seems to have drifted out of political focus. PM David Cameron was flummoxed by the word during his campaign last year, suspecting himself to be “probably not” a feminist, even when challenged by the Fawcett Society’s Jenny Westaway. By admitting, however, that he didn’t really know “what it means anymore” Cameron did highlight one of the main problems with the equality movement today.[i] The breadth and diversity of third wave feminism makes it difficult to be identified as a strong, unified political ideology: many have also argued that feminism died years ago.

The word ‘feminism’ comes from the French ‘féminin’ and ‘~isme’, to mean “the women’s movement”.[ii] The Fifth Edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Current English, published in 1969, defines feminism as the “influence of women; belief in or advocacy of it”.[iii] The most contemporary version, published online, has changed this definition to “the belief and aim that women should have the same rights and opportunities as men; the struggle to achieve this aim”.[iv] To Tracey Chevalier it means “giving equal opportunities to men and women.”[v] Marilyn French defined it as “the belief that women matter as much as men.”[vi] These definitions, however, seem too vague for such a provocative word and not quite able to account for a complete political ideology.

The meaning of the word is further confused by the idea that it is a kind of reverse sexism aimed at victimising men. MP David Willetts, for example, recently argued that it has “reduced social mobility for men’ and ‘trumped egalitarianism”.[vii] However, egalitarianism is an umbrella term under which feminism comes as an actualisation of this, by giving equal rights to a half of the global population.  The vagueness of the word means that it is very difficult to define, however, and does not have potency that it could. The negative stereotypes that surround feminism are multifarious.  The word itself has no true meaning or absolutism; because everyone is affected by sexism in so many different ways, its definition is always subjective and culturally relative. There are vast and varied issues the world over that feminism can and will solve, but if feminism is to be allowed out of the kitchen and gain genuine political leverage, the definition needs to be clarified.

It has also been argued that feminism doesn’t need a new definition- that it is petty, prudish, passé. Outdated, irrelevant, obsolete.  In 1994 Katha Pollitt said “feminism, like the novel, God, and Broadway, has been declared dead many times.”[viii] The issue has been, and continues to be, widely debated and yet feminism can now be both dismissed and taken for granted. Less than a century since the 1928 Representation of the People Act, which gave women the right to vote subject to the same conditions as men, Britain is considered to be a ‘post-feminist’ idyll.[ix] On the one hand this in itself is a compliment, considering that a hundred years ago women were considered too intellectually inferior to be given the vote, and celebratory as it considers the achievements of the first and second waves – free education, contraception and abortion, the right to vote as well as to equal pay. However, these are only true in theory and have yet to be effectively implemented. There are myriad statistics that show that feminism is far from over: that in fact, it has only just begun. While in the UK alone the rape conviction rate stands at 7%, a quarter of women will be victims of domestic violence, and the gender pay gap rests at 22.6%, the feminist’s job is far from finished.[x] As Annie Lennox rightly asked “Why aren’t we valuing the word feminism when there is so much more to be done?”[xi] The perception of a ‘post-feminist’ zeitgeist has a modern day Plato’s Cave effect, and evidence in itself that sexism is still too easily accepted. The word ‘post-feminist’ implies ipso facto that the feminist fight is something old and redundant. This fallacy has been bolstered in recent years by the fashion for ‘Men-are-from-mars’ pseudo-science, which argues that the male and female brain differs cognitively from birth.[xii] That gender inequality is learned through socialisation, however, is well known in the industries targeting gendered markets: UK MD for Lego, Marko Ilincic, announced plans to exploit the gap in the market that consists of girls of age five and over, because soon after reaching primary school, girls account for merely a fifth of Lego users, down from half between the ages of two and five. “Most girls rapidly lose interest as they become more conscious of their gender”, says Ilincic.[xiii] This is supported by Harvard Professor Elizabeth Spelke, who, in a conversation with Natasha Walter said that experiments in the field of cognitive development in young children have found “no consistent evidence” for genetic gender differences.[xiv] Whilst the concept of gender still exists as a social construct, men and women cannot be considered equals. Thus, there can be no doubt then that the ideal of post-feminism is yet to be achieved, and that as of yet this word is redundant. The meaning of feminism in some way lies in aspiring to achieve this post-feminist society.

One of the main provocations of scepticism towards feminism is the limitation of its definition. The stereotypes surrounding feminism are off-putting and it seems that the popular impression of a true feminist as somebody ranting, hairy and angry, who must have suffered horribly at the hands of men, who rejects make-up, femininity and even sex in pursuit of equality is widely accepted. The most famous feminists, the suffragettes or the 70s radicals – are idealised and venerated, but were exceptional in their actions. The courage of Mukhtar Mai (who challenged the Pakistan judicial process) is inspiring but also intimidating.  It is daunting enough to acknowledge subjugation and repression, let alone to actively protest against it, especially when the stereotypical feminist image is so unappealing.  Julien Assange’s accusation of Marienne Ny as being a “malicious radical feminist” reflects the use of the term as an insult through this lack of understanding. The refrain ‘I’m not a feminist but…’ followed by a pro-feminist principle appears with alarming regularity.  The danger of this is in it becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy: that feminism has become a derogatory label, encouraging stereotypes to the point of prejudice.  The media often exacerbates this by publicising feminism and gender equality in a negative light so as to portray its decline, for example through headlines such as “Who wants to be a feminist anyway?”[xv] and “The failure of feminism”.[xvi] However, there is proof that the feminist movement is gaining popular support and that the ugly, miserly stereotype is outdated. For example, a 2006 survey in Cosmopolitan magazine discovered that a quarter of the UK’s women call themselves feminists. [xvii] In Stella magazine this figure was 40%.[xviii] These large numbers suggest that feminists are rejecting the narrow and limited stereotype.

The difficulty with defining the third wave comes from its globalised nature. Unlike the first and second waves, which were dominated by the white, middle class female, the third wave has many different causes and no exclusive popular base.  Feminism is even harder to define now because it takes so many different forms and has so many different goals and ideals.  This in itself is problematic because there are so many different issues in every society that it is impossible to know where the priority should lie. Germaine Greer clarified this in The Whole Woman by calling on each new generation to “produce its own statement of problems and priorities”.[xix] Although the breadth and diversity of the women’s movement across the world could be seen as more of a weakness than strength, this scope brings greater awareness of global issues to the movement.  The Internet – Facebook in particular – is now the most useful tool for mobilising and developing ideas in its ability to raise awareness and reach places and peoples that in the past were hard to reach.  As well as an advantage that the previous waves of feminism did not have, it changes the dynamic and meaning of the third wave.  All over Africa, for example, feminism is seen as a vital form of emancipation from conflict and poverty not dismissed as the “embarrassing old aunt” it is in the UK.[xx] The African Union has declared this the Decade of African Women. Rwanda, where numbers of women and men in parliament are equal, has led the way; geographic neighbour Liberia boasts a Nobel Prize winning, female president.[xxi] Since women work twice as many productive hours as men, eradicating poverty and inequality are intertwined.[xxii] Alex Cobham, Christian Aid’s chief policy adviser, says that “Redressing inequality must be at the heart of development policy.”[xxiii] This is supported by research from The International Food Policy Research Unit, which found that equality for women would lower levels of child malnutrition by 13% in South Asia and 3% in Sub-Saharan Africa.[xxiv] Equality between the sexes, then, is vital for progress as a political movement as well as a belief. As a political movement it therefore cannot be defined simply in terms of ‘feminism’ because it means much more and brings many different things to different people – it has no one pattern.

One of the primary problems with feminism is that it has the tendency to exclude men. The ‘feminine’ element of the word implies something womanly and thus emasculating, as well as that it requires only their participation: reflected in the scarcity of male feminist academics compared to female. However, it is clear that equality brings the same benefits to men as to women because it forms a basic civil right.  “Women’s rights are political rights” says Mozn Hassan, director of the Cairo-based group Nazra for Feminist Studies in TIME.[xxv] This is exemplified in the strong participation in revolutionary action women play in times of political upheaval. International Women’s Day celebrations in Russia in 1917 became a catalyst for Bolshevik revolution, the French tricoteuses symbolic of the French guillotine and so on. In the recent revolutionary action in the Middle East too, women played a key part: female lawyers were among the earliest anti-Gaddafi coordinators in Benghazi, and Asmaa Mahfouz became known as the Leader of the Revolution after posting her call for arms on YouTube, telling young people to demand justice in Libya.[xxvi] If the word feminism is reclaimed to be inclusive of men, then it will become less of a parody. The eradication of sexism should be understood not as some sort of reverse sexism or oppression of men, but as a basic human right. That men play a key part in this has been proved through the Program H series in Mumbai and Uttar Pradesh. In lower-income areas, the model of a “gender-equitable man” has been promoted in order to encourage participation in sexual and reproductive health, respect for sexual diversity as well as understanding of the body and sexuality.[xxvii] The pilot evaluation of Yaari Dosti: Young Men Redefining Masculinity found that, compared with the initial 36%, only 9% of men continued to believe that a woman should tolerate violence. There was also a definite decline in sexual violence, from 51% to 39%.[xxviii] This is proof that feminism should not and cannot exclude men and that with increased awareness of everybody, men and women alike, equality will be achieved sooner. Feminism is actually as much of a men’s movement as women’s.

There is, therefore, no universal definition for feminism. Feminists of the third wave have no true prototype, nor any single target. Whereas the first and second waves fought for political and socio-economic rights respectively, they focussed mainly on white, Western women. The third wave, however, is globalised and not exclusive of class or race. Feminism is a lot more than a dictionary definition. It means resisting oppression, freedom of choice and freedom from gender pressures. Feminism can signify women’s rights, gender equality, past achievement, or simply be an insult. With so many different definitions and interpretations for a principle that is essentially the same the world over, and no identifiable archetype, it is of little wonder that feminism has been so difficult to define. The third wave brings a whole new meaning to the word ‘feminism’.

[ii] Freedman, E., No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women (New York: Ballantine, 2002)
[iii] (Fowler, 1969)
[viii] ‘Feminism at the Crossroads’, Dissent Magazine Spring 1994
[x] (Banyard, 2010)
[xiii] (Bawden, 2011)
[xiv] (Walter, Living Dolls, 2010, p. 163)
[xvii] %3F
[xviii] Andrew Alderson and Jonathon Wyne-Jones, ‘Revealed: The values, habits and role models of modern women,’ Daily Telegraph, November 19 2008.
[xix] (Greer, 1999)
[xx] (Aune, 2010, p. 10)
[xxi] (Frostrupp, 2011)
[xxii] (Ibrahim, 2011)
[xxiv] (Frostrupp, 2011, p. 20)
[xxv] (Power C. , 2011)

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