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  • Elizabeth Gramely

Third-Wave Feminism and the Future of Intersectionality

When Kimberlé Crenshaw developed her theory of intersectionality, the third wave of feminism was just beginning. Crenshaw’s theory stated that experiences of Black women cannot be understood in terms of race and gender separately, but must be viewed as an intersection of the two, shaping a different experience than those marginalized only because of their race or gender. While Crenshaw’s original theory focused primarily on the intersection of race and gender, the concept of intersectionality has expanded to include class, sexual orientation, religion, and ability as well as many other identities. And although Crenshaw’s research on intersectionality and Black feminism were seemingly well-timed to be adopted by the next generation of feminists and intersectionality did eventually become one of the primary goals of third-wave feminists, the movement still has a long way to go before it is fully intersectional. 

Unlike first- and second-wave feminism, third-wave feminism lacks a clear goal, defining achievement, or even leading figure - while previous generations had the 19th Amendment and Gloria Steinem, for instance, third-wave feminists lacked that sort of unifying goal or representative. Instead, third-wave feminism theoretically focused on personal narratives and inclusivity over a singular narrative or ideology. As a result, there is no real theme of third-wave feminism, although it is sometimes characterized as a rejection of or response to some of the flaws of second-wave feminism, although this is reductive. In fact, in their mission to be more inclusive, many third-wave feminists cited the work of feminists such as Audre Lorde and Gloria Anzaldúa as being primarily part of the third wave despite their major roles in shaping second-wave feminism. 

Without the legislative focuses that were at the core of earlier feminist movements, third-wave feminism doesn’t receive the cultural recognition that previous waves did, and it proves the limitations of the “wave” metaphor, which constricts certain movements to certain generations (although it is very useful when describing first- and second-wave feminism) and time periods. There’s also debate as to whether the feminist movement is still in the third wave or whether the beginning of the 2010s and the increased importance of the internet and social media as tools of the feminist movement marked the start of fourth-wave feminism. However, despite the cohesion of the preceding movement, third-wave feminists continued to fight for greater equality and the acceptance of all womxn, especially as intersectionality became a more widely understood concept. 

Third-wave feminism definitely presents itself as more inclusive than previous feminist movements, and due to its focus on individual experiences and position as a primarily cultural, not political, movement, it mostly is. More inclusive, of course, still doesn’t mean completely inclusive, and white feminist narratives are still often the most mainstream representations of feminism. Recent controversies surrounding the Women’s March are another example of the progress that still needs to be made. As the next generation of feminists, it’s our duty to make sure that we are part of a movement that is truly intersectional and learn from the mistakes that have been made in the past. 

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