Third Wave Feminism’s Cultural Feminist Roots: An Underanalyzed Topic

Many MHRM and Men’s-Issues-supportive voices criticize contemporary, Third Wave feminist thought for rejecting gender essentialism and being critical of traditional femininity. Christina Hoff-Sommers, Camille Paglia and even Milo Yiannopoulous have advanced this critique.

According to this narrative, Third Wave Feminism is the intellectual progeny of Radical Feminism. Radical Feminism is defined by the proposition that, to quote Cathy Brennan, “gender is a war on women” – that the very notions of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ were created by men as a tool of class oppression against women. From this narrative, it follows that the primary goal for those opposed to Third Wave Feminism is to validate some form of gender essentialism and to disprove the notion of “gender is a social construct,” thus demolishing the shared intellectual underpinning of both Radical and Third Wave Feminisms.

I believe this to be a substantial error, based on a mischaracterization of Third Wave Feminism and a complete neglect of the Third Wave’s other intellectual ancestor: the Cultural Feminism of Carol Gilligan. Cultural Feminism is not against gender essentialism and indeed seems to endorse such essentialism. As such, the focus on the issue of gender essentialism and the Radical Feminist heritage of Third Wave feminism functions as a red herring that diverts men’s issues advocates away from actually discussing men’s issues, or pointing out the ways in which traditional masculinity has hurt men, and instead leads them to try and defend the kind of gender essentialism which the MHRM has often criticized.

In this article, I will focus on how Third Wave Feminism has been influenced by Cultural Feminism. I will show that Third Wave Feminism has an inconsistent love/hate relationship with traditional femininity and gender essentialism. If we are to truly refute Third Wave Feminism, we must first understand it, and to postulate that Third Wave Feminism is a genuinely anti-gender-roles movement is a misunderstanding.

The Intellectual Heritage of Third Wave Feminism
Third Wave Feminism has two immediate intellectual ancestors within Feminist theory; the first of these ancestors is Radical Feminism. Radical Feminism is characterized by a rejection of gender essentialism (the idea that the universals ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ are objectively real), and a belief that the notion of gender essentialism (and the roles which spring from such a notion) was invented by men as a class to control and exploit women as a class.

Radical Feminism thus viewed femininity as a social control mechanism. To be feminine was to submit to male rule. As such, Radical Feminism encouraged women to reject the trappings of traditional femininity as a method of personal liberation. Women were encouraged, in other words, to ‘butch it up’ (so to speak).

But the second parent to Third Wave Feminism is the Cultural Feminism (or “Difference Feminism”) of Carol Gilligan and Riane Eisler. This kind of Feminism is based on the idea that there are “masculine qualities” and “feminine qualities” and that we live in a society which values the former and disparages the latter. Therefore, the problem our society faces is a “patriarchal values system” and that the solution to gender inequality is to hold “feminine qualities” such as caring, empathy, emotional expressiveness and nurturing in higher esteem.

In this way, Cultural Feminism opposes Radical Feminism; whereas Radical Feminism sees femininity as slavery and disdains it as such, Cultural Feminism praises femininity and sees it as socially undervalued. Cultural Feminism sees a patriarchal society that punishes femininity whereas Radical Feminism sees femininity as a punishment inflicted by the patriarchs. To a Radical Feminist, the idea that women are less rational and more emotional than men is a stereotype used to justify throwing women into lunatic asylums for “hysteria,” yet Third Wave Feminism produces PhD candidates arguing that objectivity and rationality are masculine (

Third Wave Feminism adopts the Cultural Feminist view of Patriarchy as a masculinity-privileging values system (Sarkeesian (2010), ). Therefore it argues that anything which attempts to distance itself from traditional femininity is implicitly misogynist (see, for example, this paper which argues that Vivian James is anti-feminine due to her allegedly being ‘tomboyish’ and ‘androgynous’ – Whilst many Third Wave Feminists give voice to the position that gender is a social construct, their insistence that “feminine qualities” need to be valued more highly presupposes that qualities-traditionally-considered-feminine are objectively feminine; if gendering personality traits is indeed arbitrary the solution to privileging one set of gendered traits over another is to analyze said traits from a gender-neutral ethical perspective and ask which traits, in general, should be privileged (i.e. valued) irrespective of gender.

Third Wave Indecisiveness
Many MHRM commenters, particularly the Honey Badgers, have noticed that for a movement which claims to believe gender is a social construct, Third Wave Feminism has often relied upon, reinforced and even outright advocated traditional gender roles. From safe spaces and trigger warnings (which seem premised on Victorian views about feminine fragility), to the positioning of victimhood/moral patiency as the defining trait of women in our society coupled with the demand that it is men who must take responsibility and act in order to help women (which just reinforces the subject-object dichotomy at the base of the gender system), Third Wave Feminism seems to be quite comfortable with much of traditional femininity.

Taking a look at Third Wave Feminists like Anita Sarkeesian and Laci Green shows that, at the very least, these specific Third Wavers do not cultivate the masculine or androgynous appearance which Radical Feminists often strived for.

This isn’t surprising given the intellectual history of Third Wave Feminism; the conflict between Radical Feminism’s anti-feminine standpoint and the pro-femininity position of Cultural Feminism has never been truly resolved. In addition, it is arguable that despite the declared preference for social constructivism held by Third Wavers, their revealed preference is for gender essentialism (at the very least when it says something flattering about women).

Why This Matters
I am frankly sick of the MHRM constantly getting involved in arguments about gender essentialism. The justness of equality under law and equality of opportunity are not premised on any particular position with respect to gender essentialism.

In addition, gender essentialism is not something that the MHRM should support, because gender essentialism is used to justify the gender roles that inflict suffering upon men. Traditional gender roles demand men live up to an ideal of disposable hero-slave willing to give his life for the sake of women, children and society in general, and these roles punish any deviance.

Thirdly, whilst the MHRM is anything but ‘anti-woman,’ an embrace of gender essentialism creates the impression that the MHRM wants to return to the days of “barefoot and pregnant.” This is not what the MHRM wants. The MHRM is about freeing both sexes and treating every individual as a unique human being with the right to live their own lives on their own terms no matter their genitals.

Finally, and most importantly, because it is inaccurate to treat Third Wave Feminists as enemies of gender essentialism. If we do not understand the enemy we cannot effectively neutralize them. If we do not correctly locate the problems in their theories we won’t be able to formulate appropriate counterarguments.

In other words, the relevance of gender essentialism is tangential at best to the MHRM’s legal and social goals. Gender essentialism is no friend to men, even though the Radical Feminists characterized it as such. Gender essentialism creates a huge problem in terms of first impressions. And since Third Wave Feminists are, in fact, very ambivalent over gender essentialism, it is wrong to critique them on the basis that they genuinely reject it.

Amongst the strongest arguments that the MHRM has developed is that feminism reinforces rather than rejects traditional gender roles. This argument is premised on the idea that traditional gender roles are suboptimal and should not be enforced. For us to argue for gender essentialism undermines this line of critique.

It is time for the MHRM to pay serious attention to Third Wave Feminism’s other intellectual ancestor. We need to turn our sights onto Carol Gilligan’s poisonous, female-flattering “sugar-and-spice” essentialism.

And One Final Unrelated Thought…
Many in the MHRM and MHRM-sympathetic voices have argued that feminism has “feminized” classrooms (i.e. encouraged educational techniques which favor a ‘typically feminine’ style of learning over a ‘typically masculine’ style of learning). But if both sexes learn the same way (as Radical Feminists insisted upon), why was it necessary to change educational techniques in the first place? Surely, if the ‘typically masculine’ style was the real style and the ‘typically feminine’ style was a form of socialization designed to damage women’s learning (as Radfem theory would imply), shouldn’t women adjust to a ‘typically masculine’ style?

I have written in the past that feminists tend to use a Dialectical Pseudo-Monism in terms of gender, where they establish a gynocentric/femmecentric model (that positions femininity as the ‘norm’) and defines masculinity as a negation of the feminine rather than an independent concept (thus defining masculinity in terms of its relationship to femininity, and therefore treating masculinity as a sex-specific deviation from the norm).

In the change towards female-favoring educational techniques, this is precisely what happened. If men and women do learn differently then the obvious way to address this is through educating each sex in the manner best suited to them, rather than shifting to female-favoring methods. However, according to the aforementioned Dialectical Pseudo-Monism, the feminine style is the norm and the masculine style is the deviation; the feminine is the human style and the masculine style only emerged because men had contempt for women and thus tried to differentiate themselves from women.

This is a reverse of classical androcentrism, and it is no better. In education it has resulted in the mindset that to the extent that boys differ from girls (for whatever reason), boys are problematic or damaged. It also seems completely inconsistent with the feminist insistence that women are socially brainwashed and brutally controlled by traditional gender roles; if these roles are so controlling that they ‘reformat the self’ then why is traditional femininity framed as a universal human norm?

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  • mh

    There is a giant glaring difference between gender essentialism and what are considered traditonal gender roles. Unless you’re going off of the feminist redefintion of gender essentialism all it really means is there are inherent differences between men and women.

    • YetAnotherCommenter

      Here are my definitions:

      Gender Essentialism: “The position that the universals ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ are mind-independently real.”

      Gender Roles: “Different moral obligations placed upon each individual on the basis of their gender/sex.”

      And the position that there are SOME general ON AVERAGE differences AT THE STATISTICAL LEVEL between the sexes is a much softer claim than Gender Essentialism.

      • mh

        I guess the question that matters here would be: Do you think people should be allowed to self-determine without outside pressure for or against gender norms?
        My answer is: Yes, but within reason.

        There are outliers in terms of gender conformity, but they are the exception and not the rule. Enforcing strict adherence will cause numerous problems, especially when you start letting traditions affect the gender roles (the decline of marriage and birth rates). Trying to enforce the opposite is untenable and will result first in idiots co-opting the ideal (the gender Xer), and later in trolls ridiculing the ideal (the gender Attack Helicopter).

        • YetAnotherCommenter

          “Do you think people should be allowed to self-determine without outside pressure for or against gender norms?”

          To an extent, the issue depends on what constitutes “pressure.” According to some the mere presence of a statistical norm constitutes “pressure” but that’s basically impossible to avoid since most people skew towards an average by definition.

          I would absolutely say that there should be no social shaming or stigmatization on the basis of gender typicality or atypicality, however.

          I agree with you that there should be no social shaming/stigmatization against either the non-traditional OR the traditional. That said, I know a lot of MHRM people seem to think that traditional choices are the ones that are stigmatized, but I don’t think they really are since a lot of feminists DO make at least SOME very traditional gender choices, and they often demand men live up to traditional demands as well. They just demand different facets of traditionalism.

          As I see it, our world still hates truly gender nonconforming behavior but has a love-hate relationship with gender conformity.

  • Danlantic

    I dunno… The only pix I’ve seen of Sarkeesian below the neck was where she was wearing a shapeless flannel shirt.

  • Ginkgo

    “(which just reinforces the subject-object dichotomy at the base of the gender system),”
    The terminology is set in the discussion of gender and it isn’t going to change any time soon, but this usage misunderstands its antecedents in linguistics (I’m going to call the Latin grammarians linguists.)
    “Subject” and “object” refer to syntax in a sentence. They are syntactic categories. The way they are used in gender studies is semantic, as a reference to the nature of the roles, which is a matter of semantics. The terminology used on the semantic level is “agent” and “patient”. The only reason this matters at all is that you use “moral patiency” in that paragraph and this would make the connection lexically obvious.

  • AdVader

    3rd&4th wave thrive on 2nd, 2nd wave feminism is about pro-choice, about bc-pill, abortion, no-fault divorce and adoption as “women’s rights”, nowadays even as “human rights”, while sociopathic/inhumane, pseudological postmodern lies, the world upside down, an insane reality..