Rethinking Feminism

Sarah Guayante
Faculty Instructor: Derek Owens

I am a feminist. I’ve admitted this to myself only recently. It was one afternoon when I was walking home from class with a friend. He was complaining about all the “feminists” in his Introduction to Women’s Psychology class. He spat the word feminist out of his mouth like it implied some despicable race of bra-burners and men-bashers. I must have been giving him a curious look because he paused and asked if I was a feminist. My first reaction was to say no. However, in my head I asked myself: didn’t I support equality for women? Of course I did; who in the 21st century wants sexual inequality? So, I said that I was. He immediately started apologizing as if he had insulted “my people.” I didn’t feel insulted; after all, I had just started to associate myself with the term so there was nothing to feel insulted about. I wondered, though, where that negative attitude towards feminism stemmed from. Frankly, people cringe more upon hearing the word feminism than any four-letter word. Why is feminism a bad word?

To start my investigation, I began to look into the history of feminism, looking in particular at the differences between first, second, and third wave politics. The progress of the feminist movement throughout these three eras has caused a branching effect in the movement. Now, there are hundreds of subdivisions, individualizing and fracturing the movement. While I consider myself a feminist, I find that I am critical of many third wave positions, specifically stemming from the individualized approach that these positions take. I believe, though, that third wavers have brought an enlightening idea to the movement concerning the oppressive role that gender plays, and the elimination of the notion of gender entirely.


It is impossible to give a complete history of the feminist movement in such a short paper. To give at least a little background, I have pulled out what I consider to be key points from the first three waves of the feminist movement.

Charles Fourier, a utopian socialist, coined the word feminism in 1837. The first definition of the term appeared in an Oxford-English dictionary in 1895: “advocacy of the rights of women (based on the theory of equality between the sexes)” (Larson Orlandic). Historians cite 1848 as the official “start” of the first wave of feminism in America, when over 300 men and women formed the draft for the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments at the Seneca Falls Convention (Rampton). In the original Declaration of Sentiments, written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and seen as the basic foundation of the feminist movement, the convention calls for women’s basic “inalienable rights,” modeling their demands after the Declaration of Independence. The convention asked for the right to vote, representation in congress, right to property, right to ownership of wages, right to power in marriage, right to equality in marriage, right to equality in divorce, right to attend college, right to public unwarranted participation in religion, and the abolishment of two-sided moral principles and standards (Stanton).

Looking at the list Stanton and her associates compiled, one could argue that most of the demands have been met, demonstrating the phenomenal progress the feminist movement has made. Women have the right to vote. There are twenty female senators and seventy-nine female representatives currently serving in congress (“Women Serving in the 113th Congress 2013-15”). Women have the right to own property, as well as to wages (although they are still not equal to those of men). Women have equal educational rights; in fact, there are now more women earning college degrees than men. Women are allowed to voice their religious views, and there are twenty-one US church denominations that accept women in the position of leadership roles (“US Denominations”). It seems that there are only two demands of the Declaration of Sentiments that have not been met.

“[Man] has created a false public sentiment by giving to the world a different code of morals, for men and women, by which moral delinquencies which exclude women from society, are not only tolerated, but deemed of little account in men”


“[Man] has endeavored, in every way that he could, to destroy her confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependent and subject life”

Thus, the feminist movement continues.

As with all movements and trends, each generation of feminism is built to either value or combat the beliefs of the generation prior to its own. Feminism is usually referred to in three waves. The first wave of feminism began in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the feminism of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. A second, more radical, wave of feminism began in the 1960s with the civil rights movement.

The major success of the first wave of feminism was the passing of the 19th amendment in 1920, giving women the right to vote. In the 1960s, women were still struggling for equal working opportunities, equal payment, equality in marriage and divorce, and the abolishment of social stigmas such as the acceptability of domestic violence, gender roles, and moral double standards. Thus, the second wave of feminism was focused on expanding rights to women not only on a political level, but on a personal level as well (“The 1960s-70s American Feminist Movement”).

If the major feminist text that sparked the first wave was the Declaration of Sentiments, then the second spark came in Betty Friedan’s The Feminist Mystique, which called for women to seek fulfillment outside of their jobs as housewives. It challenged women to break down the gender roles that confined them to the home, and their positions as child bearers and bed-makers (“The 1960s-70s American Feminist Movement”). The movement originally focused on passing the Civil Rights Act with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission attached. This was accomplished in 1964; however, the commission did not enforce laws protecting women workers. So, in 1966 the National Organization for Women (N.O.W.) was launched to fight discrimination against women on a legislative level (“The 1960s-70s American Feminist Movement”). Although N.O.W. was a prominent organization in the second wave, it is not possible to say that N.O.W. was the leading organization of the second wave. It was in the second wave that feminism split up into many factions, each with different perspectives on the methods that the movement should adopt. From the 60s to the 70s, there arose a plethora of feminist groups: anarcho-feminists, Amazon feminists, separatist feminists, liberal feminists, black feminists, cultural feminists, and, finally, radical feminists (“feminism”). Therefore, the second wave began the branching and splitting up of the movement into several factions.

The third wave of feminism started in the mid-1990s. Those who founded it were the daughters of the second wave feminists, who were brought up on ideas of questioning the patriarchal systems they lived in. The fight of the third wave feminists didn’t necessarily take place through literature, in courts, or on the streets, but instead manifested within the media and pop culture through blogs, movies, photographs, and magazines (“feminism”). The third wave is where much of what we consider “feminism” lies today.

Third wave feminism has grown out of the two sentiments that still haven’t been met. Feminists are no longer fighting for the right to vote nor a more diverse range of job opportunities. They’ve already gained those. Now, feminists are fighting for respect and autonomy. They are fighting to be treated as equals. Yet in exploring examples of third wave feminism, I find myself questioning the degree to which their methods are really helping the cause.


Before I begin to question hindrances stemming from the third wave, I would like to assert that I am in no way “bashing” all of third wave feminism – only a select few ideas and perspectives. It is important to keep in mind that the third wave expands far beyond the ideas mentioned here. The arguments issued below are primarily concerned with ideas rising out of the third wave of feminism that can be seen as hindrances to the feminist cause as a whole.

In exploring examples of third wave feminism, I found myself encountering many strategies and positions that can be seen as problematic. My biggest fear is that these strategies are causing feminists to lose the respect of the general population. Although the original intentions behind these strategies are justified, many seem to be too extreme an action to take, causing much critique from outside and within the feminist population itself.

Because of the accomplishments of the first and second wave, third wave feminists are left with the more difficult job of changing the cultural perception of the sexes. Now, feminists are not concerned with the legislative rights of women as much as changing the gender roles in America’s cultural structure. Gender roles are, “the social and behavioral norms that are generally considered appropriate for either a man or a woman in a social or interpersonal relationship” (“gender role”).  So, a gender role that feminists would commonly fight against is the woman being confined to the household as a mother and “homemaker.” Progress against the stereotype was made in WWI. When men went off to war, women flooded into factories to take their places. After the war, women returned to their homes. Although a Women’s Bureau did appear after the war to protect women workers, most women gave up their jobs and returned to their homes. It wasn’t until WWII that Rosie the Riveter began to abolish the stereotype that most women should stay at home (“Women in the Progressive Era”).

Although some may argue that women occupy the same position today that they held in the 20th century, women have made significant progress in breaking down these gender roles. It is less common for a woman to be “just” a housewife. The U.S. economy is not in a state where families can be supported on a single income. (The woman, though, is often still expected to do the cooking and cleaning, as well as work a full-time job.)

The gender roles that continue to exist are a large part of the reason why the feminist movement has become so radical today. Today, feminism has taken a radical turn from its origins. Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s Declaration of Sentiments would be seen as rudimentary in comparison to the demands feminists make today. Feminists nowadays are not fighting for the vote; rather, they are fighting for respect and autonomy. Because these rights are not tangible in the form of a law or a bill, there is no rigid procedure to accomplish this goal. Thus, there is no “correct” method to achieving the third wave’s goals. Although there is no “right way” to achieving these goals, there are responses to this gender standard that can be seen as problematic.

Consider, first, responses to “slut shaming”, the degrading or mocking of women who participate or are rumored to participate in a lot of sexual activity. The double standard is obvious – men who have a lot of sex are “players”, while women who do are “sluts.” Third wave responses include methods such as “slutwalks,” adopting an I-can-wear-what-I-want attitude, and even more extremist responses like FEMEN International. For a moment, I would like to focus on FEMEN as I believe that they demonstrate the extreme activist feminism that I want to fight against. FEMEN, originally established in the Ukraine, has become a widespread movement over the past couple of years, gaining an uproarious amount of media attention in their protest. Mainly, because they are topless. FEMEN calls their form of protest “sextremism,” using their bodies as canvases for their “feminist” message. When looking at the list of objectives on the FEMEN website, their first objective is, “to provoke patriarchy into open conflict by forcing it to disclose its aggressive antihuman nature and to fully discredit it in the eyes of history” (“FEMEN”). This is only the first of their overly vague five objectives that don’t specify how or why they are fighting, only that they are. When reading these goals, I couldn’t help but think of an episode of Spongebob Squarepants, “Squid on Strike.” In it, Spongebob and Squidward go on strike against the Krusty Krab and near the end of the episode Spongebob takes a comical protest speech too literally, “I will restore the working man to his full glory. I will dismantle this oppressive establishment board by board. I will saw the tables of tyranny in half. I’ll gnaw at the ankles of big business!” Although humorous, Spongebob allows us an accurate lense to view FEMEN’s goals, which are nothing more than a call for social chaos. FEMEN is almost a “fight club-esque” project to bring chaos to our social structure and completely dismantle it. Although FEMEN is an extreme example, it does embody ideals that arose during third wave feminism, such as the ideas about “dismantling the patriarchy”. If one were to ask a hundred people to explain what this meant ninety-nine people would give ninety-nine different answers. At least one would say that the phrase means absolutely nothing.

I think a large part of the reason for this branching off comes in the form of the individualization of the feminist movement. Astrid Henry in Solidarity Sisterhood: Individualism Meets Collectivity in Feminism Third Wave has also narrowed in on the problematic concerns of the individualism: “Third wave feminists rarely articulate unified personal goals, nor do they often represent third wave as sharing a critical perspective of the world”. Here, the third wave is about individualism; each woman sees herself as her own embodiment of feminism (Kaplan). Being a part of the third wave of feminism is about taking advantage of the opportunities that the first two waves achieved. The new individualism of the movement seems to be where my problems with third wave feminism arise. A lack of solidarity in the third wave is where feminists tend to fall out of line with a core movement. These are the “millennial feminists” – the feminists of my generation. The focus, as I read it, is all about how the “individual embodies feminism”, not women as a group. The lack of a core focus is what has lead to the extreme branches and ambiguous objectives that have become problematic.

Stemming from the lack of a comprehensive focus, the third wave has begun to focus on the term “patriarchy”. In Sociology, patriarchy is defined as, “a family group or government controlled by a man or a group of men” (“Patriarchy”). Applied to modern terms, patriarchy is a government run solely by men. Obviously, the United States is not a patriarchy (although we’ve only had male presidents and our congress is majority male). However, feminists have redefined patriarchy to imply a culture in which females are continually oppressed.  In this redefined patriarchy, men have created the gender roles that bind women to “feminine” norms. So, the movement screams to demolish the patriarchy, hoping that by flipping the system on its head, somehow their gender roles will be demolished as well. Unfortunately, I believe that the “patriarchy” isn’t really the problem. I see the term as created to define an enemy in the movement. Unfortunately, the movement does not have a definable enemy. The movement’s enemy is the construct and creation of gender. The term patriarchy is too vague, with too many different meanings and definitions. To some, patriarchy implies government. To others, it’s purely sociological. Some even believe that the patriarchy is an oligarchic class of males. Thus, even with its “core” adversary, the feminist movement is still fractured.  Therefore, I believe the term “patriarchy” should be eliminated. Instead, feminism needs to focus purely on fighting gender roles. In doing so, it should eliminate the rebellion that stems from such a vague term, while focusing the movement in on a more important goal.

In my examination of this “millennial” feminist movement, I have found it to be too often focused on fighting against this vague notion of a “patriarchy”. Instead of mislabeling the enemy as the patriarchy, the movement needs to refocus its efforts on the idea of gender. Then, the movement would not be the vague fight of rebellion that it is viewed as today. Otherwise, the movement is viewed as the war between the “bra-burning band of feminists” and the “civil and righteous patriarchy”, a myth that we have been trying to demolish for over forty years. The procreation of this myth is where feminists lose the most respect, thus where our goals are stalled. I don’t feel that extreme organizations like FEMEN help the feminist cause. Nor am I sympathetic with third wave feminists who argue that men can’t be considered feminists, or feminists who support misandry – the hatred of men – both being prospects that further separate the two genders more than anything (“Feminism, Writing, and  Doing Womanhood Wrong”). I wonder how much more respect women have gained at the hands of millennial feminists. If anything, I wonder if such tactics cause some to lose respect for women.


In order to understand why I think elements of third wave feminism have hindered the feminist cause, I must make it more clear what I think the “goal” of feminism is. Yes, I do believe that the movement centers on finding equality for both genders. However, with the expansion of feminists into the poststructuralist age, the goal of feminism reaches down into the basis of our gender classifications. Thus, the goal of feminism expands far beyond finding “equality” for both genders. The separation between male and female genders implies that there will never be complete equality, as long as people are looked at differently on the basis of gender. Thus, “gender” as a means of defining one another must be eliminated.

One may argue that it is impossible not to define one another on the basis of gender. The division between the sexes is apparent from birth. In order to counter this, we must first define the difference between “sex” and “gender”. Sex is defined as, “either of the two major forms of individuals that occur in many species and that are distinguished respectively as female or male especially on the basis of their reproductive organs and structures” (“Sex”). So, sex is primarily biological, based purely on the sex organs that a person is born with. On the contrary, “gender” is, “the behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with one sex” (“Gender”).  So, gender stems from sex and is composed of the traits that are associated with different sexes.

The differentiation between the two words suggests that gender is a social construct. In other words, gender is not “natural”. Gender is not something that a person is born with (sex), but that is developed over time. It is wrong to say that it is the person that develops gender; it is socialization that enforces the construct of gender on a person.  To expand on the role that socialization plays in the concept of gender, we must look into queer theory and the concept of “performativity”.

Queer theory understands that there is no “natural” sexuality. In other words, every sexual orientation or status that is appointed as a “norm,” for example heterosexuality, is really a site of hegemonic power (Bertens 184). In Touching Feeling, Eve Sedgwick suggests that this power is gained through imposing shame on what we see as the “minority” class. Shame, though, seems too simple a concept to have a huge impact on the shaping of social groups. In order to understand how shame affects the individual, we must first understand what shame is in relation to the individual. Sedgwick suggests that unlike guilt, which attaches to what one does, “shame attaches to and sharpens the sense of what one is” (Sedgwick 37). Thus, shame creates identity within a person, operating on the concept of “I” and “other.”

In order to combat shame, people operate on a means of “performativity.” Performativity is the creation of an “I” in a person. In Judith Butler’s terms “I” is “the effect of a certain repetition, one which produces the semblance of a continuity or coherence” (Bertens 189). Performativity is the means of this repetition. However, it does not operate for the individual’s own profit; instead, it operates for the eyes of outsiders, or the “Other.” The individual cannot shape their own identity without approval, or disapproval, from an outside eye. Butler emphasizes that the “’Other’ installed in the self thus establishes the permanent incapacity of the self to achieve self-identity”, making the self reliant on the view of the “Other” (Bertens 191). Thus, the individual creates a series of outside acts, to define themselves through the eyes of the “Other,” which in turn gives them a feeling of self-identity. The need to establish self-identity is where shame comes back into the picture. Sedgwick talks about shame being a spectator act, one which thrives on the view of the audience (Sedgwick 69). In order to explain this, I’ll use the idea of an actor performing Shakespeare. For the actor, it is not important that they themselves believe they are Othello. Instead, it is the audience that must believe that the actor on stage is Othello. The audience’s belief in the actor’s identity defines whether it was good or bad acting, not the actor’s belief in their role’s identity. Good acting would be to solidly fit into an acceptable role, creating a sense of self-identity. Whereas, bad acting is to not fit into a role, and to lack self-identity. So, the individual is the actor on stage, trying to find roles of self-identity through the observer’s eye. Shame tells the actor that they must fit into the “proper” role. The actor must affirm to the audience that they reject the despicable role of Iago and accept the angelic role of Desdemona. Thus, shame sets up, “a binary opposition in which it turns itself into the centre by relegating other sexualities to the margins” (Bertens 190). The most basic “binary opposition” of all would be the distinction between the two sexes.

In a sense, it can be said that the roles that we attribute to each sex that creates gender are fake. These roles are part of the “performativity” aspect that creates self-identity.  Thus, gender is created through these roles. Feminist movements seek to abolish these roles, as not only do they establish gender, but they also create stereotypes between gender classes. These stereotypes are what have created the unequal views between men and women. If it was the manifestation of gender that created unequal roles between men and women, then the abolishment of gender should, in turn, dismiss these negative stereotypes. Now, the complete abolishment of gender is utopian, in a way that seems impossible. Maybe, it’s impossible for our generation, or even our kids’ generation. We are still socialized in a world where our toys are separated by gender. However, there may be a point in time where it is possible that the idea of gender does not exist.

Although this goal is not in the near future, it is still possible to make advancements towards that goal. If we want to make advancements toward this goal, women should work in conjunction with others toward gender equality: working together towards a communal goal, not against “patriarchal society.” This is why I find the fractured individualism of third wave feminism to be such a large problem. A core feminist movement fractures and strays away from a central goal. The goal should not focus on reversing the patriarchy or getting rid of gender roles, but getting rid of the entire idea of gender. There needs to be an organized, informed movement that is comprehensively moving toward gender neutrality.

Madonna recently said, “I’m not a feminist, I’m a humanist”. In other words, she fights for the right of all “humans.” In fact, there are many female celebrities, ranging from Sarah Jessica Parker to Sandra Day O’Connor who don’t associate themselves with the term “feminist” (Dries). Since our celebrities stand as representatives of the “popular culture,” their views demonstrate the harsh sentiment that feminism has gained at the hand of third wave feminists. I think we need to readjust feminism to a new wave of terms. Instead of the feminist movement focusing on the female and the female trying to turn “patriarchal society” on its head, the movement should focus on the role gender has played in cultural constructions. The movement should focus on trying to eliminate discrimination by gender, not to expand the powers of one gender. By these new terms, the words feminist and humanist should be interchangeable. Then, feminism may again be a noble cause. I would be proud, then, to stand up and say, “I am a feminist.”

Works Cited

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