Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Writings of the Third Wave: Young Feminists in Conversation

Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Writings of the Third Wave: Young Feminists in Conversation

Article excerpt

As someone who came of age during feminism's second wave, I was intrigued when guest columnist Jennifer Gilley approached me with the idea of developing a column around the subject of third-wave feminism. The result is an insightful review of the major themes of third-wave feminism, and practical suggestions that academic and public librarians can use to develop a collection of books and magazines on this topic.

Gilley considers herself a part of this third wave. She has an academic background in the subject: she holds a master's degree in women's studies from The Ohio State University as well as a master's degree in library and information science from the University of Illinois. She is an active member of the Women's Studies Section of the Association of College and Research Libraries. She has published several articles relating to gender and technology in College and Research Libraries News, Tech Trends, and the Women's Studies Section Newsletter. She also served as a discussion leader for a session on this topic at the 2003 Annual Conference of the American Library Association.--Editor

While the popular press has declared feminism dead, unnecessary, or trivial since its inception, the June 29, 1998 Time cover story took a fresh stab at an old topic. Under the headline "Is Feminism Dead?" Time printed a montage of four individual photographs: Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and actress Calista Flockhart as television character Ally McBeal. Inside, writer Ginia Bellafante bemoaned the frivolousness of young feminism in the 1990s as represented by McBeal, a ditzy, self-obsessed lawyer with a penchant for miniskirts. Waxing nostalgic for her feminist foremothers, Bellafante argued that while "feminism of the '60s and '70s was steeped in research and obsessed with social change, feminism today is wed to the culture of celebrity and self-obsession." (1) However, one need only look at the cover images to see what is wrong with Bellafante's picture. McBeal, lest we forget, is not a real person. While Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem were real feminists who were singled out by the media as spokespeople for a grassroots movement, McBeal was entirely a media creation--a TV character on the Fox network, no less. For the popular media to decry young feminism based on popular media depictions of it is truly a postmodern example of pop culture eating itself.

Is feminism alive and well? Do young feminists exist? What issues are of central importance to young feminists? To explore these questions, it is necessary to look to the writings of young feminists themselves. Such a body of work was launched throughout the 1990s and has rapidly proliferated in the early 2000s. These writers, while not following any unified stance, define themselves as the third wave, an appellation that serves to distinguish them from the first and second waves of feminism while simultaneously marking them as a continuation thereof. The first wave of feminism is considered to have begun at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 and ended with the passage of women's suffrage in 1920. The second wave, which arose in the 1960s and 1970s as women involved in the civil rights struggle began to recognize their own oppression, has, as yet, no official ending date. The "waves" metaphor is used to denote continuity of movement containing swells and troughs rather than discrete, isolated periods of political involvement.

Origins of the Third Wave

The defining characteristic of the third wave is coming of age in the 1980s and 1990s. The theoretical underpinnings of the third wave, therefore, come from three widely divergent streams of thought that coexisted during this time. First, both popular culture and personal experience gave young women the notion that contemporary feminism was unnecessary because equality had been achieved. They grew up knowing about feminism and benefiting from its gains, such as Title IX access to sports programs, entrance to higher education, and access to reproductive health care. …

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