A "telling" uproar: Young women, feminism, and the making of the third wave
Russell, Hope L.
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In the late 1980s and early 1990s, young feminists burst onto the social, cultural, and political scene in the United States. Hailed as the "next" generation of feminism, third wave feminists, as they became known, were born in the 1960s and 1970s and came of age in the 1980s and 1990s. As the third wave began to coalesce across the country, these young women stood at a powerful and unprecedented moment in American history. They were the first generation to grow up female during and after the extraordinary gains of second wave feminism. As such, they possessed more rights and freedoms than any previous generation of American women. While these girls often grew up feeling empowered and entitled to their rights, their experiences with sexism and other forms of oppression in their teens and twenties made them realize that feminism was still needed in contemporary society. Third wave feminism emerged out of these personal experiences as well as in response to, and against the backdrop of, the legacy of second wave feminism, the antifeminist backlash, and the myth of postfeminism. Forged within the crucible of these changing social conditions, what do the emergence, development, and practice of third wave feminism mean on the ground to the young women who built and participated in the movement? What stories have they told about third wave feminism? What stories have others told about it? This dissertation investigates the complex and often competing stories that surround third wave feminism through a close textual analysis of third wave anthologies and academic collections in addition to supplementary texts written by scholars, journalists, and other writers. Three particular types of stories are examined: the stories that third wave feminists have told about themselves and their feminisms; the stories they have been told, and have subsequently retold, about feminism in general and second wave feminism in particular; and the stories that second wave feminists, scholars, and journalists have told about third wave feminism. While some of these stories are relatively accurate and fair, others are largely inaccurate, biased, exaggerated, and limited in scope. Overall, the cumulative effect of these disparate stories misrepresents and maligns third wave feminism in ways that are damaging to the young women in its ranks and to feminism as a whole. Throughout this study, I argue that the telling and retelling of these various stories have profound implications for how we understand and historicize third wave feminism. First, the origin stories, debates, and criticisms associated with third wave feminism marginalize the experiences and contributions of women and girls of color by primarily focusing on those of white feminists. Consistent with the early historicization of first and second wave feminisms, these narrow and incomplete stories distort the diverse realities of women's lives as well as feminist history. Second, the wide range of stories told about third wave feminism mischaracterizes its members as self-absorbed, politically indifferent, and dismissive of second wave feminism/feminists. These problematic stories obscure the very motion, and complex emotion, of this wave as it unfurled throughout the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Through my intervening narrative, I argue that a radically different picture emerges if we focus on three critical dynamics of third wave feminism: young women's process of coming to feminism, their formation of the third wave through renaming and redefining feminism, and their creation and participation in various activist cultures. Together, these dynamics reveal the generational difference and desire that informs and complicates third wave feminism. This intervention is critical because it allows us to more fully understand third wave feminism and its complex relationship to the movement that came before it and the ones that are yet to come.