• Overview
  • Third Wave Feminism
  • Fourth Wave Feminism
  • Media
  • Key Scholarship

What is Feminism?

Commonly used symbol for feminism.

Sometimes called womanism, OED defines feminism as the “advocacy of equality of the sexes and the establishment of the political, social, and economic rights of the female sex.  Yet, from its inception, feminism’s definition and scope has been widely contested. As different voices within the movement range widely on its meanings, purposes, and values, feminism becomes difficult to define. We can see this variety of voices in the four historical waves of feminism.

Feminism emerged in the 18th century and has in that time gone through four different “waves,” which are united by shared ideological and historical meanings . Over time, feminism’s definition has expanded to include gender nonconforming, nonbinary, and transgender people, allowing it become more and more intersectional. As subcultural participants, women find ways to resist forces of patriarchy and misogyny. Yet, they often find themselves marginalized, as these forces act in subcultural space. Studying feminist theory can help us understand how and why subcultures become sites of both feminist resistance and oppression.

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Second Wave Feminism

Black and white photo of women holding a banner that says "equality the time is now"

Marchers in the Women’s Liberation Parade, New York 1971

Most scholars place the Second Wave of feminism between the 1960s and the 1980s. As men returned home from World War II, they joined the workforce again. The women who had filled their positions found themselves without work, forced to return to the household.

While First Wave feminism focused on enfranchising women and overturning gender inequality in the law, Second Wave feminism found women “seeking equal rights and opportunities for women in their economic activities, their personal lives, and politics.”  For many women Betty Friedan‘s book The Feminine Mystique sparked this desire for change. Friedan spoke about the lack of fulfillment and boredom experienced by housewives. As time went on, female empowerment groups, such as NOW (National Organization for Women), arose and fought to bring awareness to women’s plight. In this era, women’s rights touched on sexuality, family, the workplace, domestic violence, marital rape, and a host of other equalities. In particular, feminists of this era worked to label issues like domestic violence and sexual assault as deviant. They sought to construct stigma around these behaviors, moving them out of the realms of normalcy and acceptability. Interestingly, authority figures also applied the deviant label to feminists during this time.

While there was success in this wave of feminism, it did have significant failures. Mainstream white feminist groups often left Black women out of the fight for equality (Collins 1990). This racial discrimination was explained away by white women saying that gender should be the focus first and race second. This left many Black women organizations without the majority’s support due to their race, and they found little support from Black men due to their gender. Collins describes this phenomenon with the term “outsider-within,” claiming that black women can hold membership in neither black social thought nor feminist thought, as both assume maleness or whiteness, respectively. However, Collins argues that black women then occupy a unique and valuable vantage point, from which they can offer meaningful and useful perspectives to both movements.

Hip-Hop

Three young women in very similar, brightly colored outfits pose in front of white background

The all-female hip-hop group Salt-N-Pepa

Tricia Rose defines rap music, a subset of hip-hop, as ”a form of rhymed storytelling accompanied by highly rhythmic, electronically based music.” Rap, along with breakdancing and graffiti, constitute the hip-hop subculture. Black and Brown people in the Bronx, overlooked and underserved, developed hip-hop out of frustration with this marginalization of their communities. Hip-hop in its origin was a very male-dominated field, with misogynist, sexist, and homophobic lyrics. Due to the overwhelming amount of men in the genre and the negative views toward women, female rappers often found it hard to make room for themselves in the game.

Woman standing, making a "peace sign" with one hand

Roxanne Shanté, highly influential early hip-hop feminist

In the 1980s, Roxanne Shante arose as an early and powerful female in hip-hop. Her debut song “Roxanne’s Revenge” was a female reply to the UTFO’s song “Roxanne Roxanne,” a woman-hating song. Following Roxanne’s rise, female rappers were able to enter the rap scene and forge their own path. Solo acts like MC Lyte and Queen Latifah promoted female empowerment and focused on lyricism to show that they should be respected as equals to male rappers, and groups, like Salt-N-Pepa, talked about sexuality in their music, refuting negative stereotypes about “promiscuous” women. Though the number of female rappers increased, women still did not receive as much attention, notoriety, or recognition for their contributions to hip-hop.

The most apparent characteristics from Second Wave feminism that can be found in hip-hop feminism are women’s sexual advocacy and general calls for equality. Some female MCs made it a point to express their sexuality and demand respect by their male rapper counterparts and the general public. However, female MCs often found themselves in a tense position, trying to express racial sympathy and solidarity with black men, while on the other hand criticizing them for their role in sexual oppression. Born from this balancing act, hip-hop feminism is complex and contradictory. For instance, Salt ‘N’ Pepa spoke out against 2 Live Crew’s sexist lyrics, but framed their condemnation as a call for men to respect women, not end sexism.

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Third Wave Feminism

Third wave feminism emerged in the early 1990s, initially as response to sexual harassment allegations made against Clarence Thomas during his Senate nomination hearings by former colleague Anita Hill (Bobel 2010). Driven by outrage and anger over Thomas’s confirmation, young women activists began to form the third wave. This new wave sought to emphasize female power, intersectionality, and change on the personal level (Bobel 2010). Dicker and Piepmeier characterize third wave feminism as “a movement that contains elements of second-wave critique of beauty culture, sexual abuse, and power structures while it also acknowledges and makes use of the pleasure, danger, and defining power of those structures.” Studying third wave feminism can help us deepen understanding of subculture as a space to rework, disturb, and sometimes paradoxically, uphold structures of power.

Riot Grrrl

Black and white image of a young white woman in a dress raising her fists over her head. The text to her right reads "riot girl is a free weekly mini-zine. please read and distribute to your pals."

The cover of the first issue of “riot grrrl” zine, put out by Molly Neuman of the influential band Bratmobile

Growing out of the punk subculture and born alongside third wave feminism, Riot Grrrl emerged as an explicitly feminist subculture. It sought to offer safe, empowering, and subversive spaces for women to perform and consume music. In DIY efforts like zine-making and music making, Riot Grrrl encouraged young women to be active creators of culture, exemplifying the third wave feminist ethos of the individual as the site of political change (Schilt 2003). At Riot Grrrl concerts, participants took to writing ‘slut’ on their bodies to demonstrate their own sexual agency, bodily autonomy, and resistance to patriarchal oppression (Attwood 2007). However, some women were made to feel marginalized within the scene, and often behaviors upholding hetero-patriarchal oppression. To create safe space, riot grrrl sometimes held women-only shows. At these shows, the policy of

Woman singing into microphone wearing a bra with "slut" written across her stomach

Kathleen Hanna of the band Bikini Kill performs. This photo shows the practice of body writing

checking audience members’ gender at the door ended up reinforcing essentialist ideas of gender presentation that excluded queer participants. At times, shows became sites for misogynistic acts of violence against performers and attendees (Downes 2012). Additionally, Riot Grrrl subculturists were overwhelmingly white and middle-class, and Riot Grrrl’s feminist discourses frequently excluded the experiences of people of color (Nguyen 2012). Though their contributions were often erased, content created by people of color and queer people was deeply impactful and influential to the subculture. They left a legacy of DIY music and zine-making, often in response to marginalization within the scene. Overall, Riot Grrrl provided a space for third wave feminist thought to develop and express itself, yet minimized and excluded women of color, queer women, and non-binary people.

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Fourth Wave Feminism

A man and woman, shown topless with "society says ok" written on the man's chest and "society says not ok" on the woman's chest

Participants in the Free the Nipple Campaign pose shirtless

Fourth Wave feminism is the most recent wave of feminism, born around 2012 (Cochrane). It is not recognized by all scholars as its own separate wave. Some have suggested the Fourth Wave was born through the internet. (Solomon) Large parts of Fourth Wave feminism include movements like #MeToo, #FreetheNipple, and End Rape on Campus. Much of Fourth Wave feminism centers itself around dismantling rape culture.

While there are no subcultures have emerged during Fourth Wave feminism many of the Fourth Wave movements have subcultural aspects to them. Online jargon and the use of hashtags have become a large part of Fourth Wave feminism. Words like mansplaining (Solnit) and manspreading were also born during the Fourth Wave. Publications like feministing.com and bitch magazine, which feature feminist content written by young women, build off of a lot of the work of Third Wave feminism and Riot Grrrl. These publications continue traditions of reclaiming misogynistic slurs and using print media to spread the ideas of young women. Additionally, hardcore bands like War on Women and hip-hop artists like Cardi B promote Fourth Wave feminist values in their work.

Goth

A goth woman stands with arms crossed, presumably outdoors

Goth woman shows typical style for subculturists

Goth emerged in the ‘80s from the U.K. Punk scene, but since then has spread worldwide. Participants’s black clothes, dramatic makeup, and macabre view on life generally characterize the Goth subculture. However, Goth has undergone many changes since its inception and there are now many subtypes of Goth. Adherents to the classic aesthetic type themselves as Trad Goth. Beyond fashion, subculturists create Goth aesthetics in music, literature, and film.

Unlike many subcultures, these Goth aesthetics tend to favor the feminine, which makes Goth a fascinating subculture to study through a feminist lens. Goth women use sexuality as a means for empowerment, actively expressing and owning their desire and desirability. However, this also plays into the objectification of women, as many Goth women feel pressure to perform a very rigid and highly sexualized version of femininity (Wilkins 2004). While Goth aesthetics subvert hegemonic beauty standards and narratives of femininity, affirming larger bodies and more subversive styles, harmful power structures still persist within scenes. For instance, many women within the scene see sexy dress as empowering, but the scene almost mandates that their clothing expresses this strict, sexualized femininity. Members of the Goth subculture sometimes refer to themselves as “neo-feminist.” (Wilkins 2004) In Amy Wilkins study, Goths saw themselves as gender egalitarians who challenge gender norms. Goth scenes are seen as sexually liberating but also sexually safe. For instance, the community will quickly disavow any man at a goth club who touches a woman without her consent. One subculturist from Wilkin’s study, Alyssa, says: “If a guy dances closely to you, people will come down on him with a vengeance. They don’t say, ‘Oh, you wore a corset, what did you expect?”

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Riot Grrrl

The song “Rebel Girl” by Bikini Kill, one of the most well-known and influential pieces of music to come out of the subculture. 

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“The Punk Singer,” a documentary that centers on Kathleen Hanna, an important figure in Riot Grrrl. It highlights the Third Wave concept of feminism that centers on the individual as a cite of resistance, offering personal narratives and information.

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Hip Hop

Roxanne Shanté’s song Roxanne’s Revenge, which took aim at U.T.F.O.’s Roxanne Roxanne, an openly misogynistic song about a woman who refuses the group members’ advances. This song launched the Roxanne Wars, a series of rap rivalries surrounding women and feminism.

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U.N.I.T.Y. by Queen Latifah addresses key Second Wave issues like harassment and domestic violence, while also critiquing the treatment of women within hip-hop culture. The song frames equality for women within a wider narrative of black solidarity, giving us important insights into black feminist discourse of the Second Wave.

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Goth

An advice video from a female Goth subculturalist on approaching Goth women romantically. She addresses stereotypes, consent, sexualization, and other topics that are relevant to a feminist reading of Goth.

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Interviews and footage of Goth subculturists at a Goth club in the 1980s. While not centering specifically on the experiences of women or feminism within Goth, the viewer can gain insight into Goth aesthetics and spaces. Several women are profiled in the film.

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Books

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Marcus, Sara. “Girls to the Front.”

By Sara Marcus, Girls to the Front, tells the story of the subcultures creation, rise, and fall. It provides good insight into the feminist dimensions of the movement. 

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Collins, Patricia Hill. “Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment.”

Patricia Hill Collins’s book Black Feminist Thought explores intellectual traditions associated with Black womanhood. It offers a powerful framework for studying intersectional oppression and identities, specifically as they tie into Second, Third, and Fourth Wave feminisms.

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Rose, Tricia. “Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America“.

Black Noise, By Tricia Rose, discusses rap/hip-hop and black culture, politics, and identity in the United States. Chapter Five, titled “Bad Sistas: Black Woman Rappers and Sexual Politics in Rap Music” is particularly relevant.

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Illustration of two young women standing outside, leaning on each other. One, wearing sunglasses, holds a boombox in one hand.

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McRobbie, Angela. “Feminism and Youth Culture: from ‘Jackie’ to ‘Just Seventeen.'”

This book brings together eight articles that study the lives of young women through a feminist lens. The material synthesizes sexuality, class, subculture, and pop culture into a fascinating sociological portrait of youth and female identity.

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Articles

Attwood, Feona. 2007. “Sluts and Riot Grrrls: Female Identity and Sexual Agency.” Journal of Gender Studies16(3):233–47.

Feona Attwood traces the history of the word “slut,” attempting to make sense of how Riot Grrrl and others reclaim and re-contextualize the word. Within subculture, media, and pop culture, she examines the power and meanings behind the word, understanding how feminists have wrestled with it through time.

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Durham, Aisha, Brittney C. Cooper, and Susana M. Morris. 2013. “The Stage Hip-Hop Feminism Built: A New Directions Essay.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 38(3):721–37.

Durham, Cooper, and Morris seek to define and understand the emergence of hip-hop feminism. They place hip-hop feminism as a dialogue within the art, subculture, feminism, and Black discourses. This article looks to the future of hip-hop feminism as the Fourth Wave continues to grow, while firmly grounding the movement within its Second Wave and Third Wave roots.

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Wilkins, Amy C. 2004. “So Full of Myself as a Chick.’” Gender & Society 18(3):328–49.

Amy Wilkins studies a local, contemporary Goth scene to gain insight into how the subculture simultaneously challenges and upholds patriarchy. She looks at how feminine sexuality, expectations, and scripts are reified within Goth, but also understands Goth as a space to resist and escape these same societal structures.

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Other

https://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/15/magazine/15fob-q4-t.html

The New York Times interviews Jessica Valenti, founder and editor of feministing.com. The concise interview addresses feminist media and publications, touching on the meanings and history of the new Fourth Wave.

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https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/dec/10/fourth-wave-feminism-rebel-women

The Guardian gives a substantial history of emergent Fourth Wave Feminism. The article discusses politics, values, and significant voices within the wave.

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Further Reading

The Expansion of Punk Rock: Riot Grrrl Challenges to Gender Power Relations in British Indie Music Subcultures” by Julia Downes.

Geek Hierarchies, Boundary Policing, and the Gendering of the Good Fan” by Kristina Busse

Claiming Queer Territory in the Study of Subcultures and Popular Music” by Jodie Taylor.

“‘I’ll Resist with Every Inch and Every Breath’: Girls and Zine Making as a Form of Resistance” by Kristin Schilt.

Show or Tell? Feminist Dilemmas and Implicit Feminism at Girls’ Rock Camp” by Danielle M. Giffort.

My Little Pony, tolerance is magic: Gender policing and Brony anti-fandom” by Bethan Jones.

by Lily Dawson, Ty Pratt, and Amari Brooks