Harvesting Our Strengths: Third Wave Feminism and Women's Studies

Article excerpt

When we approached the directors of the Institute for Feminist Theory and Research (www.iftr.org.uk) about organising a conference on third wave feminism we were not even sure what we meant by the term. What we did know was that our theory and praxis of feminism was not the feminism of the second wave, although it was inextricably informed and enabled by it.

   We have seen that interrogating cultural and sexual behaviour has
   not led to a thoroughgoing change in the balance of power. Feminism
   has many, too many, critiques of dress and pornography, of poetry
   and film-making, of language and physical behaviour. It has sought
   to direct our personal lives on every level. And yet women have
   still not achieved fundamental equality; they are still poorer and
   less powerful than men. Rather than concentrating its energy on the
   ways women dress and talk and make love, feminism now must attack
   the material basis of economic and social and political inequality.
   (Walter 4)

We recognised that the feminist entry into the academy in the 1970s was an unprecedented historical moment, but one which resulted in an abstracted "feminism" which was understood largely as a theoretical-academic discipline. This feminist discipline was revealed--through exposure to criticism by a generation familiar with poststructuralism, postmodernism, and postcolonialism--as an elitist, colonising, and heterosexist hegemony in the name of feminism. Our objective for the Third Wave Feminism conference (July 2002, University of Exeter) was to examine this particular moment in feminist theory and history that has come to be understood as the "third wave," and to do so without acceding to the defeatism implicit in the backlash politics of post feminism.

The debates at the conference were informed by the following questions:

* Is there a third wave of feminism at all? If so, what has happened to the first and second waves?

* "Second wave" feminism is characterised at least in part by the praxis of activism: getting real things changed in the name of feminism. Social activism appears to have given way to academic practice as the dominant mode of "Western" feminism at the turn of the Millennium. Since the aims of the Women's Movement have not been fully endorsed (e.g. equal pay for equal work, free childcare, wages for housework, autonomy of sexuality and representation), what has happened to the political agendas of the feminist project? Is this a strategic retreat, a postmodern fragmentation of metanarrative, or a backlash against the social shifts achieved during the 1960s and 1970s?

* If feminism is predicated on the social fact of the relative oppression of women, and poststructuralist modes of thought have deconstructed sexual identity, why do academics and artists persist with the unfashionable notion of feminism?

* "Equality" has given way to "difference" in contemporary feminist work. How can this lead us anywhere but into static cultural relativism? If essentialism is anathema to feminism, what kind of common ground is available to women, given the proliferation of difference under contemporary social and theoretical conditions?

There were no easy and obvious answers to any of these questions, but the debates which they raised and encompassed allowed us to understand more precisely that, while the crucial work of feminist activists and scholars over the past four decades has impacted greatly on our lives, we are no longer in a second wave of feminism. Interrogating the monolithic assumptions of the waves of feminist history, the conference brought together those factions which had been gen(d)erated by the polemics of second wave feminism--including Women's Studies and Queer theory--in order to define a feminism which could no longer, in any way, be identified as "victim feminism."

What place can, or do, Women's Studies and third wave feminism have within the academy if they are no longer "victims"? …