The history of feminism in the West is a familiar one. And yet, despite many complaints about the current lack of organized direction in feminism, there is little or no discussion about where feminism should proceed next, no vision of what a ‘Fourth Wave’ should look like. Perhaps this is because of feminism’s diverse reach: since it is now an ideology, a social movement, and an academic discipline, it may be more and more difficult to come up with a new, unified direction. Indeed, when feminists were a small minority, organized in tight-knit groups, and rallying against a proudly patriarchal society, finding a common approach must have been considerably easier than in the current conditions of institutional and organizational dispersion. My contention, however, is that feminism has failed to engender “a Fourth Wave” for ideological reasons: feminists have not yet come to grips with the legacy of the Third Wave, which questioned many of its taken-for-granted assumptions shook the ideology to its core. Indeed, if we take seriously the contributions of the Third Wave, then the very need for more ‘waves’ and definitive directions is placed seriously into doubt.

The main contribution of the Third Wave was to question feminists’ claims about representation. Second Wave feminists claimed to speak for all women, to represent the interests of all women. And yet, ‘woman’ is a diverse and unstable category – do the claims of the white, middle-class, heterosexual feminists living in the West (who dominated the Second Wave) necessarily apply to all women? Certainly not. For example, a classic feminist claim for much of the 20th Century has been that the patriarchal family is the primary locus of women’s oppression: the authority exercised by male “heads,” and the domestic labor that only women are expected to do, have fatally undermined women’s autonomy and have placed them in a subordinate position. Black feminists challenged this claim: in the face of a racist society, in which Black women could not expect to exercise autonomy or authority, the “household” was actually a place where they had considerable freedom. Black women were usually the main breadwinners, and for them, families served as a source of strength against structural racist oppression, a locus where they could exercise authority. Thus, the White feminist critique of the family/household does not apply unproblematically to Black women. Furthermore, Second Wave feminists have focused almost exclusively on altering and reforming Western state structures – they have portrayed (necessary) policy changes, such as free state-sponsored child-care and equal pay as essential ‘women’s’ demands. And yet, how can this resonate with Third World women? Their needs may well include other issues, such as reduction of infant mortality, access to clean water and access to education. Moreover, the fact that they live in a different kind of cultural context may require a more flexible feminism, with some fundamentally different core assumptions.

Overall, the Third Wave resisted the homogenizing and universalizing tendencies of feminism and criticized the notion that men and women are always already constituted as subjects. After the 1980s and 1990s, claims to speak for ‘all women’ are no longer so easily accepted and more care is taken to specifically address the needs of women of color, lesbian women, disabled women, Third World women, transgender women and working-class women. It is no longer possible to portray the demands of Western, middle-class, White and heterosexual women, as the essential expression of women’s needs and interests. And this is where the confusion comes in. If feminism needs to be so radically diverse, if it needs to adjust itself and question its core assumptions every time that a different subject position is invoked, then how can it maintain internal unity? How can it claim to be a unified perspective? Indeed, this intellectual dispersion of feminism has disturbed many of the ideology-discipline’s practitioners, with feminists such as MacKinnon, calling for a return to an “unmodified” feminism, united in its approach and centralized in its direction.

What kind of form would such a united and centralized feminism take? How would it be possible to avoid the racist, ethnocentric, heteronormative and classist biases of Second Wave feminism, whilst maintaining a central direction? Few scholars and activists have provided effective answers to these questions, although there has been much clamoring about them. One possible alternative for a “new direction” in feminism is Mohanty’s argument that feminism must “begin from and be anchored in the place of the most marginalized communities of women – poor women of all colors in affluent and neo-colonial nations; women of the Third World/South” (Mohanty 2003). She believes that this kind of anchor would provide the most inclusive paradigm for thinking about social justice and would focus feminists towards areas where they are most needed.

On the other hand, some have criticized the very need for “a definitive new paradigm” in feminism as not being exactly congruent with the lessons of Third Wave feminism. As Judith Butler points out in Undoing Gender, attempts to create a reified feminism with a firm direction may in fact be succumbing to oppressive, phallocentric tendencies. Third Wave feminism taught us about the difficulty of making blanket statements and about the value of democracy within a movement. Would it be possible for the feminist movement to actually be strengthened by a commitment to diversity within it, by an emphasis on dialogue and difference, rather than a programmatic adherence to a particular direction? Why does feminism even need to be centralized and united? This is the key question for feminists and the answer to it is likely to have a major impact on the future of the movement.

***For More Information***
There are many books that provide excellent overviews of the history of feminism. I would particularly recommend Bonnie Smith’s Global Feminisms Since 1945. For critiques of racism and ethnocentrism, definitely check out anything by bell hooks or Angela Davis, as well as Levine and Campbell’s Ethnocentrism: theories of conflict, ethnic attitudes and group behaviour. For works about the future ‘direction’ of feminism, have a look at Mohanty’s article “Under Western Eyes” from Signs (issue 28, Volume 2), Judith Butler’s Undoing Gender, as well as Catherine MacKinnon’s Feminism Unmodified.

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