Third Wave Feminism: Where It Has Been and Where It Still Has to Go

by Lucia Zheng

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art by sofia sears

Recently, in a conversation with a group of highly accomplished, intelligent young men, I was told, with great insistence and conviction, that “third wave feminism has no place in the 21st century”.

I’ll give them some credit for their investment in this conversation. They cited women’s suffrage, Title IX and access to birth control as major accomplishments of the feminist movement. But they mocked modern feminist causes: gendered children’s toys, payment disparity and underrepresentation in the workplace. But what shocked me most was how clearly their male privilege, consciously or unconsciously, colored their picture on these feminist issues. They saw the classic feminist in caricature, as man-hating, angry poster-wielding, unshaven woman. Though the conversation remained light-hearted as I continued to try to articulate my opinion on the value of third wave feminism to these boys, I realized that they lacked the ability to truly acknowledge my identity as a feminist and the origins behind my commitment to feminism, in its current form.  

For me, feminism lies beyond the big, explicit issues. It exists in the small everyday occurrences that shape my experience as a woman, particularly as a woman who finds herself frequently visiting the “boys club” due to my interests and extracurricular commitments.

In the political arena, I’ve frequently walked out from a heated debate only to hear girls and boys alike criticize me for being “overly emotional” or “crazy” simply for using common debate tactics such as raising my voice or incorporating loud hand gestures. All the while, my male peers receive praise for the same behavior. I’ve had to reassert ownership for bills and resolutions I draft that my male colleagues are given credit for. I see the lack of females at conventions and conferences, deterred by the culmination of small inconvenience borne out of a male-dominated environment.

In business, I observe how my ideas are crowded out in group settings. I find myself having to be say “I just said that” when ideas I suggest are ignored and then immediately accepted why they are repeated by men sitting to my left and right. I have learned that employing aggressive strategy is viewed as “bitchy” when it originates from me, but “clever” if it originates from my male teammates. I understand that when I walk into another room filled with men of equal caliber to myself, I find myself have to prove my worth in a way that they do not. I know that the professional standard of dress for women includes a full face of makeup, while the professional standard of dress for men includes a shower.

In science, I enter engineering programs with the same fascination for trains and planes, but a shortened timeline of experience with them because they only sold Barbies and play house sets in the girl’s toy section, as opposed to model train sets in the boy’s toy section. I see great initial female interest in science, especially among young girls, but I also see such interest diminish as girls get older and discover the barriers to entry into elite science activities grow due to their gender. I’ve seen close female friends of mine hide their gender on virtual platforms to be taken more seriously and avoid harassment in the computer programming and video gaming worlds.

But I refuse to become cynical in the face of these problems. I have immense passion for the activities I do in the “boys club” and love what I do there, despite the challenges related to my gender identity. I’ve built strong relationships with the other women in these male dominated fields. I am incredibly humbled when younger girls look to me for advice and tell me about the similar experiences they’ve encountered. And most of all, I am encouraged by the other boys and men who are my friends, peers, teammates and mentors, who recognize the gender inequality that still persists and consider my perspective on feminism with an open mind.

I don’t see myself as a feminist hero by any account. I haven’t won any famous historical battles for women. I consider myself a quotidian feminist, one who fights the small, unflattering feminist battles that emerge from my everyday experiences as a woman. For this reason, I still see third wave feminism as alive and well, and necessary, in the 21st century and beyond. Certainly, feminism has come a long way, and has evolved in its function as a result. But what is happening now in the feminist movement plays just as important of a role in breaking down the social constraints that continue to affect women today. 

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