Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Generation F - Reflections on Third Wave Feminism

For a new generation of feminists, the battles are strangely familiar

Coming out as a feminist isn’t easy. The word is loaded with baggage and politics—people often look away nervously when I drop the “F-word.” Feminism is misunderstood and feared, but in spite of that, feminists are not an extinct or even an endangered species. Canada still boasts a strong feminist movement, and it is as relevant and necessary as ever.

Feminists of my generation—or “third wave feminists”—are in their 20’s and 30’s and have grown up in a world where women and men are equal on paper, but not always in practice. The first two waves had clearly defined objectives and goals, but it’s difficult to pinpoint the collective aim of the third wave.

First wave feminists emerged at the turn of the last century. These determined suffragettes fought for women’s right to vote, to run for political office, and to be legally defined as persons.

Second wave feminists of the 1960’s and 70’s battled for reproductive rights and paid maternity leave. They established women’s shelters and reformed laws regarding rape, equal pay and more. Feminists of the second wave accomplished many legal victories, and by the 1980’s, women seemed – in theory - to have it all.

So what causes do third wave feminists espouse? The movement began in the 1990’s and has invited criticism for lacking a common goal, and for being disjointed and disorganized. At the same time, the newest generation of feminists have expended significant efforts defending the rights won by second wave feminists. The battles our mothers fought are not over, and the victories they won are under constant threat. We’ve been so busy trying to keep up with the unfinished business of second wave feminism that we’ve hardly had the chance to set a third wave agenda.

Access to abortion and reproductive health services remain under attack, even though abortion has been legal for 24 years, and enjoys the support of the majority of Canadians. Since the Supreme Court struck down the law banning abortion in 1988, at least 35 pro-life private members’ bills and one government bill have attempted to curb access to the procedure. It can still be difficult and expensive to obtain an abortion, especially for women who don’t live in or near a major urban centre.

Canadian laws requiring equal pay for equal work have existed since the 1950’s, yet in 2011 are still a major preoccupation for feminists. In 2007, Canada became the first modern economy with more women working than men. Women today comprise more than half of our university students. However, studies show that a Canadian woman doing the same job as a man will still earn only 63-83% of his wage.

Second wave feminists lobbied to change laws about rape and were once again successful - on paper. Since 1983, rape victims no longer have to defend their reputations in court: their sexual history or their attire cannot be used against them. Yet in February 2011, a Winnipeg judge let a convicted rapist off with no jail time because the victim was wearing skimpy clothes and “wanted to party.”

It’s discouraging that third wave feminists must still defend rights our mothers thought were settled. Although many of our politics and battles have remained unchanged since the second wave, much has changed about feminists themselves.

Young feminists are less aggressive because we know that despite the remaining inequalities, Canadian women’s situation and status is among the best in the world. We have a better sense of humour about feminism than our mothers did, but we’re completely, sometimes ridiculously, obsessed with political correctness. We’re open-minded about contentious feminist issues of the past like prostitution, pornography and gender queerness. And one of the most significant shifts has been embracing the involvement of men in the movement.

The feminist movement is not in crisis—it is just being pulled in two directions at once. The unresolved issues of the second wave keep drawing the third wave into old battles, while issues such as the career-motherhood balance continue to arise and demand our efforts and attention. As Generation F looks to the future, we still have to keep one eye on the past.


  1. I am from the Second Wave and would love for those of the Third to look at how gender role socialization has not changed with respect to personal relationships between males and females. Girls are still taught to be pretty and compliant, and that appearance and attracting men is more important than academic and employment success. When you look at who victimized women the patterns have not changed in the 40 years since the Second Wave: they are hurt or killed by males who they know and feel they love. Ban all that 'princess' crap (princesses expect a man to support and rescue them...even if he turns them out as prostitues).

    We had an old saying "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle". Stop raising girls to need a man, so they can take time to find a high one like the man I've shared over 30 years with. Good luck to you.

  2. That should be 'high-quality"

  3. I am third wave- but I am 45. Most Gen-X women are third wave. I went to university in 1985 and wrote an editorial entitled 'Genderism'in 1988 which was blasted at the time by feminist professors at my university (St-Francis Xavier). The article called for more involvement in feminism by men. We started a feminist oriented group and had one fellow male student. We had to have a professor as an advisor who made the guy very uncomfortable and accused us of just trying to look for 'male approval' for our feminist perspective.
    I would say that third wave feminist were young women growing up hitting adulthood in the nineties. As girls we were the first generation to believe all the battles were won; we could travel the world; we could become anything; we could be sexually free if we wanted to; we had madonna and we could dress and dance without fear of being raped; we had access to contraceptives and abortion and the guys we were involved with were more than happy with that too!! In fact - and I think this is an important issue for third wave feminism- THEY expect us to be on contraceptives; they expect us to have an abortion if we got pregnant at the 'wrong' time; and they certainely expect us to work to pay bills, not get a 'free ride' and pop a kid(when it is the right time) and be back at work like nothing happened.

    First wave and second wave feminists fought for freedom FROM the REPRODUCTION realm of society and freedom to access the PRODUCTION realm of society. They did not fight to have the power differential shifted in the REPRODUCTION realm of society- nor having it valued or the work valued that is associated with it.

    As a result we are now faced with a major power struggle that is rearing its head. We live in a different time yet we are still using old genderized language to convey that reproduction is WOMEN's power. Well yeah it was...once, when that is all the power we had....

    All inventions around reproduction have aimed at controlling women's bodies and leaving men off the hook. They were invented at a time when that was of course true- reproduction was all women did, it was a woman's problem and thus all solutions to deal with it were genderized. We are still stuck in that paradigm and our language reflects being stuck there. When are we going to shift our mantra to "Hey Dude control your sperm, not women's bodies". When are we going to demand that men control THEIR bodies, invent realiable and effective ways of controlling their sperm dissemination? If they don't they should be paying penalties for any woman that gets pregnant (on top of child care payments) and for abortions. The best defense is a good offense...
    Hopefully we will get to a point in the future where both men and women control their reproductive roles before they choose to have kids together. (Men are having more vasectomies, but only after they have children and to limit child care payments.) There is some hope like the new trials on the reversible vasectomy. Women need to stop beign expected to be the sole one's controlling ovas and sperms getting it on. Until men start seeing their role in the reproductive side of society, and we shift power there, we will not have a shift in power on the productive side.