Feminist Movement's Future In Question After The Third Wave

"I do believe in equality. Why do you have to choose what type of woman you are?"

- Beyoncé

Something about the word "feminism" seems to have Generation Y running for the hills. But are Millennials throwing out the baby with the bathwater? Or is feminism just plain over?

Everywhere you turn these days, there's another celebrity shrugging off the concept, and another group of women that feels feminism has become too academic, too white, too something.

Somewhere in contemporary feminism's limbo, the movement has stagnated, and it seems to be because no one really knows what the fight is for anymore.

For as long as I can remember, I have been a feminist and proud of it. You could say I fell in love early, and like one who had found a high school sweetheart, I barely turned my head to see what other options were available.

But now that I'm in my mid-20s, things seem a lot murkier. While I will always consider myself a feminist at heart, it's no longer the simple movement I signed up for as a child. It isn't just peace signs, birth control pills and that extra 30 cents on the dollar. What I once saw as a solid rock of ideals turned out to be a prism. And the more light that shines on it, the more the idea splinters into areas I can't reach or even begin to understand.

This is both exciting and difficult. I'm not sure where I fit in anymore, since, as it turns out, I was born into the white, upper-middle class section of feminists. We're not always the most popular, and some say we have the least to be angry about.

According to Statistics Canada, "Gen Y women are working more and doing less housework than their Gen X counterparts," and the number of us who outearn our husbands is also steadily growing. That's good, right? So why is it that police officers still tell us not to "dress like sluts" as if that were a legitimate rape prevention strategy? Why did 15 per cent of aboriginal women who are married or in a common-law relationship report spousal violence in the past five years? Why do women still spend more than twice as much time than men on childcare?

The more I discuss this subject, the more I believe feminism may be the only F-word young people shy away from.

Kate* is not a feminist. In fact, the 27-year-old would be all too pleased to put the term to rest for good.

"I would be perfectly happy if feminism became this thing in the history books like, 'feminism was a movement from the late 19th century to the beginning of the 21st century and then something different happened with women,'" she said. "That would be completely fine with me."

For the English as a Second Language teacher, it wasn't always this way. In fact, every so often – when something particularly empowering or horrifying happens to women, such as the gang rapes in India – Kate still feels an urge to get up and do something about it.

"I have this moment of 'I must fight for my sisters,'" she said, "and then I'm like, 'Oh, God, I wonder if that person likes me.' I'll probably spend the next little while thinking about that.

"I feel very strongly about a lot of ideals that are wrapped up in feminism. It's just the word itself that has no personal meaning to me."

While there are no hard data on whether it's the word itself that makes people feel icky, it would appear Kate is not alone in her views.

Take the comment section of an op-ed by noted feminist Naomi Wolf in The Globe and Mail, "Why feminists need to challenge themselves, too": one commenter contends Wolf is in fact "Just a middle class, smug and dumb dilettante with delusions of importance who has set back the cause of real feminism by 50 years," because of a comment Wolf made about burqas.

And when the concept of "having it all" went viral with Anne-Marie Slaughter's widely-read manifesto on balancing career and family, single moms, working moms, stay-at-home moms, soon-to-be moms and never-to-be moms all had their say about the holes in Slaughter's work with pieces like "Men can't have it all either," "Why women shouldn't want to have it all," and "Fine, women can't have it all. Isn't that called compromise?"

It is difficult to come to some kind of resolution when not every answer is good for every woman, and maybe that's why we can't all get along and just end up angrily commenting on Facebook instead of going out and doing something about it.

Or in Kate's words: "In middle and upper-class society, we have attained just enough rights to not want to fight, but not enough to stop thinking and complaining about it."


It's for good reason that the word "feminism" is at the centre of the conversation – women of the past needed a rallying point.

Generations of feminists are often broken into waves by historians, each wave with its own goals and characteristics, but all working to overcome patriarchy. The first wave, also known as the suffragette movement, began in the late 1800s to early 1900s, and was focused on securing the most fundamental women's rights – the right to vote and the right to own property.

Then came the second wave, the source of much of feminist iconography. This was the 1960s and 1970s, when issues such as sexual harassment, rape and reproductive rights were in the spotlight.

Finally, third wave feminism arrived in the 1990s, and with it a backlash against the previous waves for the many gaps they left. Race, class, queerness and gender identity took centre stage, and many groups found a voice for the first time.

This is perhaps when the splintering began to come about. The definition of feminism was broadened to today's full-spectrum movement. The intersection of gender, race, class and sexuality is a mainstay of feminist academics today, but, like much in the ivory towers, that theory does not always replicate itself in reality, leaving cracks for many to fall through.

Like Kate, Sheila Sampath does not place herself within the traditional confines of feminism. The 31-year-old editorial director for Shameless, a national feminist magazine for teens, finds some definitions of feminism to be too narrow.

"I've found feminism to be a very scary place at times," she said. "You kind of feel like you have to choose between your race or your gender."

Sampath isn't satisfied with measuring the success of the movement today with metrics such as the number of lead female TV characters, or even seeing more women in politics. For her, feminism relies on the intersection of many factors of oppression beyond one's gender.

"Within feminism, I've had a lot of experiences of upper-middle class, straight, white women kind of talking about gender oppression like it's the be all and end all," she said. "And it's important to talk about, for sure, but as a woman of colour, for example, it's a lot more complicated than that for me, and there's not always a space for that."

For women who have more than just gender to think about – women of colour, transgender women, sex workers, and the like – the issues of traditional feminism may seem too limited. And because it is more complicated to discuss feminism with someone who does not share your experiences, people begin to shift away from one another.

"My definition of feminism is anti-oppression, but I understand that that's not the common definition of feminism so ... I've personally kind of splintered off, and I organize with people that have some more political views, and I think that's great," she said.

With a movement that looks much different today than it did in the 1990s, how is it possible that Generation Y is still slotted into the third wave? Even Wikipedia concurs: For this generation "there is no all-encompassing single feminist idea."


Janice Fiamengo, an English professor at the University of Ottawa, is one woman speaking out about the muddled turn that modern feminism has taken, and it has got her in some trouble. At a recent talk on academic feminism at the University of Toronto, she was greeted with protesters, and a fire alarm that interrupted her presentation.

She says the movement today is about claiming victim status for women, when it's men who are often victimized by programs such as affirmative action in hiring.

"I just can't really believe that our society is a patriarchy anymore," she said in a phone interview. "Maybe I'm naive now, but I look around and I see the many ways in which women are actually advantaged."

"There seems a kind of fundamental contradiction in claiming to be marginalized and oppressed while at the same time achieving all of these successes and support and institutional approval and everything else," she said.

In academia, where Fiamengo has spent many years, she has seen women's studies professors mould the brains of young, impressionable undergraduates.

"You galvanize a base of people by convincing them that in some way they have had an injustice done to them, and I think that's what women's studies does," she said.

For Gen Y, Fiamengo doesn't really see what all the feminists are fussing about.

"I think the vast majority of young women growing up in Canadian society today have certainly unprecedented opportunities to make of themselves what they want, to 'have it all' if that's what they want – you know, to marry, have children, also pursue a career. We have boundless opportunities for self-fulfillment," she said.

"I think it would be difficult for feminism to go forward if it said 'well we're in basically a good spot now.' It has to claim that there are lots of fights still to be fought."

Steph Guthrie, founder of Women in Toronto Politics and feminist-about-town, is one of those asserting that there are more battles ahead.

"It baffles me how many people think that because we can vote that everything's cool," she said. "There's a perception that because these super, super basic foundational elements have been taken care of that 'well, that's it, okay, women and men are equal'."

The 28-year-old self-described real-life Lisa Simpson has a staggering media presence, including thousands of Twitter followers. She can often be found engaging online with trolls and allies alike when it comes to sexism on the Internet.

Steph Guthrie. Photo by Alex Cairncross

She's a great example of someone who is using social media as a tool in her modern feminist pursuits, and who is getting real-time feedback.

"In some ways," she said, "the access to a platform and the ability to project your voice to a larger audience of people has been democratized through things like blogs and Twitter. And so, I think this can help us to be more inclusive, because we have access to these voices on a broader scale than feminists in the past may have."

She was especially vocal about an online game, "Beat up Anita Sarkeesian," which was created after the titular video blogger successfully funded a Kickstarter to create a video series about female gamers called "Tropes vs. Women." Guthrie held the offending game creator – Bendilin Spurr – to account, exchanging many tweets with the man himself, resulting in her receiving death threats on Twitter.

That far-reaching voice can be a boon to the movement or a huge step back, depending on who's talking. Female celebrities, among them Beyoncé and Taylor Swift, have deftly diverted questions about feminism in recent magazine interviews. When asked whether she was a feminist, Swift answered, "I don't really think about things as guys versus girls." The parody Twitter account @FeministTSwift now has more than 100,000 followers.

"Unfortunately, people like Taylor Swift have a pretty huge influence over the way a lot of young women think about themselves," Guthrie said. "It's definitely very distressing to me whenever I encounter a young woman who doesn't feel that feminism has anything to offer her."

And it's not simply the next generation of women who Guthrie hopes will carry the feminist torch.

"Men stand to gain quite a lot from the push for gender equity as well," she said. "There have been some pretty narrow boxes within which men have been allowed to develop and express and understand their masculinity, and these kinds of things will change as well as feminists work to achieve their goals."


Psychologist Warren Farrell, author of The Myth of Male Power, was a major player in feminism's second wave in the early 1970s. After serving for years on the board of National Organization for Women in New York City, Farrell noticed there were men's issues that were not being addressed – including support for fathers in the post-divorce boom of the 1970s. This led him to break away to focus on the modern men's movement.

"Feminists today ... are the people who are the most uneducated about men and about the male-female tango of relationships. They're excellent at creating opportunities for women, which I applaud, but they're terrible at two things. One is the tendency to demonize men," he said.

"And the second thing is, they tend to ... really undervalue the family. Meaning, the importance of children needing both parents and the involvement of both parents in their lives, throughout their lives."

This type of thinking has not made Farrell the most popular among feminists, to say the least. The concept of men's rights is one that either evokes laughter or flat-out anger. With book titles such as Does Feminism Discriminate Against Men? and Why Men Earn More, many are quick to react.

Students taking action!! Don't co-opt equity language to promote your misogyny. twitter.com/KSiewrattan/st...

— Kavita Siewrattan (@KSiewrattan) November 17, 2012

When Farrell visited the University of Toronto in November, 2012, to give a talk titled "Boys to Men: Beyond the Boys' Crisis," an "anti-sexism rally" erupted outside the Medical Sciences Building. But the protest may have been as much in response to the hosts of the event, the controversial Men's Issues Awareness at University of Toronto organization, which also hosted Fiamengo when she spoke. The men's issue organization is vocal in the university community, demonstrating that the concept of men's rights is beginning to become less of a fringe issue.

Farrell, an active father to two daughters, hopes to see the future of feminism become more of a gender transition, meaning "a movement from the rigid roles of the past to more flexible roles for our future.

"I think it will be a very slow evolution toward understanding that our sons are falling significantly behind our daughters and that part of the solution of that problem is fathers' and mothers' being more equally involved," he said.

And he may not be far off the mark. Sheryl Sandberg's hit new book, Lean In, explores some of the very concepts Farrell has touted – a focus on empowerment for women in the workplace, and a greater role in the home for men.

And so we've come full circle. When a best-selling author of an arguably feminist text shares beliefs with a men's rights advocate, the definition of feminism today is clear as mud.


The movement is still alive and well, but Rosie the Riveter might not be able to pick it out of a line-up. The issue of gender equality has grown increasingly complicated over the years, as we create the vernacular to express new identities and ideas that were once ignored or undiscovered. No wonder feminism itself is going through an identity crisis.

But maybe nothing is broken. Maybe feminism has been irrevocably altered to make space for the many voices and experiences that it didn't previously include, and now instead of one unified group, it's composed of many little groups. Maybe that makes it stronger, maybe it really is the beginning of the end for the movement as we know it.

In speaking with five different people for this story, I have found five very different definitions of feminism, rife with caveats and asides.

"It's too bad that it's at the centre of the dialogue, that one word," ESL teacher Kate said. "In a way, it does stop things from moving forward. It clogs up the dialogue a little bit, and I think that it weighs it down.

"I even look forward to the idea that we could have a crisis in feminism and put it to rest for a little while ... and out of that crisis, build something new."

*Kate requested that her full name be withheld for fear of career repercussions

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