This is part of an ongoing series. In case you missed them, here are Part 1 and Part 2.
Wave Three: 1990 – 2016 – Women Fight for Multiple Ideas and Individuality
Key Figures: Anita Hill, the Riot Grrrl bands, Sarah McLaughlin, Hillary Clinton, and others.
It can be argued that Anita Hill’s testimony against Clarence Thomas before the Senate Judiciary Committee was the beginning of this wave, as it brought high profile sexual harassment into American homes through the nightly news and newspaper headlines. The Pacific Northwest punk movement that came to be known as Riot Grrrl is also credited with starting the third wave. These bands helped open a discourse on feminist subjects through their unabashed lyrics that took on rape, the patriarchy, sexuality, women’s and empowerment. In addition, the divisive issue of sex and sexuality blossoming into the so-called “feminist sex wars” in the early 1990s was another force driving feminism into a third wave.
The popularity of the all-female music festival Lilith Fair and the goddess movement of the 1990s placed a cultural emphasis on Girl Power (Spice Girls, anyone?) and gave women safe havens (both spiritually and at traditionally male-dominated music festivals) that were difficult to ignore. At the same time, The Vagina Monologues drew attention toward female sexual desire and raised money for support services for battered women.
The late 1990s and especially the early 2000s were marked by a backlash against feminism, which caused some in the media to name it the “post-feminist era.” Within the realm of popular imagination, feminists had gained a reputation for militancy and man-hating, which many women wanted to distance themselves from and Rush Limbaugh famously termed “feminazis.” Celebrities came out as openly saying they did not identify has feminist, even though they were for equal rights. It many ways, it began to look as though the movement was dead.
Controversy stalked the third wave in the form of accusations of creating a “culture of raunch,” which grew up around the sex-positive aspects of the movement. Pornography, strip clubs and risqué fashions were taken by many feminists and turned into symbols of female sexual empowerment, rather than being seen as degrading. In a similar vein, in 2015 and 2016, women sought to take back the word “slut” and to end the practice of “slut shaming” through public “slut walks” in which they proclaimed their sexuality and spoke out against victim-blaming and rape culture.
It was into this chaos that Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign marched, reigniting the hopes of many and reviving the call for women to vote. Clinton’s election to the presidency was seen by many as the inevitable crowning achievement of the feminist movement. While she was certainly not universally adored and many societal issues still remained against women, the idea of finally having a woman in the highest role in the land – 144 years after Victoria Woodhull first tried – trumped (no pun intended) those concerns for those who viewed her election as the strongest victory for women, perhaps since we were granted the right to vote nearly a century before. This sense of optimism reigned until results started coming in and the unthinkable began to suddenly appear unavoidable.