God’s Grrrl — Biblical Feminism and the Secular Third Wave

by Alena Amato Ruggerio

College Students

Welcome to my world. In my world, feminism has always existed. In fact, it’s always been taught in Women’s Studies departments. Title IX and Roe v. Wade are established realities. Women have always been ordained ministers in some denominations. Ice blue nail polish is a fashion staple, the Spice Girls rejoice in their Girl Power, and the eighteen-year-old students I teach proclaim, “I’m not a feminist, but…” Welcome to the world of third wave feminism.

Third Wave Feminist Characteristics 

I don’t claim to speak for third wave women. That’s one characteristic of the movement — resisting spokespersons. All I can give you is a sense of my own experiences as a young, female, fat, straight, white, Christian, working-class American feminist. That’s another very important characteristic of the third wave, avoiding generalizations about women in favor of telling (sometimes gut-wrenching) first-person stories that celebrate our individuality and multiple, conflicting identities.

Most self-identified third wavers share my first two characteristics, youth and gender. Generally third wavers are members of Gen X, those currently between the ages of about 15 and 30. But the age limit keeps going up as the original third wavers get older. Despite the absence of an exact age range, there is a strong perception of a generation gap within secular American liberal feminism.

The description of my own perspective illustrates that many of the young women of today did not experience the same kinds of struggles as the pathbreakers of the second wave. Our ah-ha! introductions to feminist consciousness didn’t happen as we cooked and cleaned as Feminine Mystique housewives, or as we survived back-alley abortions. Our ah-ha! moments often happened in Women’s Studies classes or from alternative band lyrics. The way we “do” feminism is also different. While political protests and consciousness-raising groups still exist, we also utilize music (nineties bands like Hole and Bikini Kill, as well as the Lilith Fair concerts), art (the Guerilla Grrrls), and theInternet. A favorite website of third wavers is “Bitch Magazine.”  [Ed.note: If the name turns you off, check out the website before you pass judgment. The reason for the name can be found in the “about” section. It may help you understand the thinking of younger feminists.]  In addition to this and other responses to pop culture, they are committed to the activism for equality and justice emphasized by the Third Wave foundation.

However, to some mainstream second wave feminists who pioneered the women’s movement that emerged in the 60s and 70s, many of the third wave expressions don’t look like activism. And the lament, “Young women don’t care about feminism,” has risen like an accusation.

Understanding the Gaps

So, the gap in age and experience has caused rebellion against some of the second wave foremothers. Rebecca Walker, daughter of Alice Walker and goddaughter of Gloria Steinem, explains that she tried hard to toe the line of what she thought feminism should be, but she continually failed — or felt like rebelling inside even when she succeeded. In To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism (Anchor Books, 1995), Walker writes that her experience of feminism felt too constricting to her complex, flawed, unique personality. Many of the essays in To Be Real imply that second wavers expect all feminists to be angry all the time, asexual or at least prudish, ugly in their rejection of traditional feminine adornment, racist in their goals of homogenous community and meritocracy, too exhausted from trying to “do it all” when juggling workplace and family life, and too limiting in all their exhortations about what a woman shouldn’t do. This caricatured, ahistorical version of what our mothers’ generation of feminism represented has caused some feminists to work against each other instead of working against oppression.

In response to this tension, young women have been writing about their perspectives in third wave self-published zines, books, and music. Inspired by bell hooks’ critique of racism and classism within feminism (Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, South End Press, 1981), third wavers are exploring the relationships between multiracial or postcolonial identity and feminism. For instance, one of the essays in Listen Up: Voices from the Next Feminist Generation (Seal Press, 1995), depicts a young woman, Bhargavi C. Mandava, struggling with the length of her hair as an indicator of the cultural influences of both her United States and Indian heritage.

Reacting against their perception of Andrea Dworkin’s anti-sex stance (Intercourse, Simon & Schuster, 1987), third wavers are celebrating their sexual desire in all its variations. One example is Naomi Wolf’s statement:

Male sexual attention is the sun in which I bloom. The male body is ground and shelter to me, my lifelong destination. When it is maligned categorically, I feel as if my homeland is maligned. (Naomi Wolf, Fire with Fire: The New Female Power and How to Use It, Fawcett Columbine, 1993)

It should be noted that this paean is not representative in its heterosexuality, only in its embrace of consensual sex. In addition, Wolf’s book is controversial because it presents power feminism as a critique of her perception of second wave victim feminism. I include her because she is a familiar face in the media and because there’s a difference between anti-feminism and critiquing feminism.

Feeling pressured to eschew adornments and the consumer trappings of femininity, many third wave women are embracing makeup and stiletto heels, the girlie or the punk femme look. In Adios, Barbie: Young Women Write about Body Image and Identity (Seal Press, 1998), one of my favorite essayists, Nomy Lamm, writes that spending hours carefully adorning her hair, face, and body for an evening out is a form of “guerilla activism” through which she is proclaiming that primping women are not necessarily the dupes of patriarchy.

The very notion of a third wave feminist era is itself controversial. Not everybody believes third wave feminism exists as a discrete movement; instead, Leslie Heywood and Jennifer Drake (Third Wave Agenda: Being Feminist, Doing Feminism, University of Minnesota Press, 1997) cite this as a time of transition much like the era between first-wave suffragists and second-wave liberationists. A related possibility is that the race, class, sexual orientation, and postcolonial critiques of the second wave movement by such feminists as bell hooks and Gloria Anzaldúa are now being actualized. Heywood and Drake argue that what we call the third wave is actually a continuation of second wave feminism as it reacts to its internal reformers. Further, Gloria Steinem, in the prologue of To Be Real, states that second wave feminism is far from dead. She challenges young women to have, in addition to individual liberation and pop culture posturing, theory and political action and structural analysis. Perhaps the difficulties in defining third wave feminism, and in differentiating it from second wave forms of feminism, lie in the fact that it is easier to understand a movement in hindsight than it is to analyze it from the middle of the story.

Into this breach step Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, authors of Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000) Baumbardner and Ricards are both thirty-year-old former interns at Ms. and veterans of the generational battles within secular liberal feminism. Until their book was published, a handful of edited compilations of personal accounts served as the central texts of third wave feminism, all of which I’ve previously mentioned: Barbara Findlen’s Listen Up: Voices From the Next Generation; Rebecca Walker’s To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism; and Leslie Heywood and Jennifer Drake’s Third Wave Agenda: Being Feminist, Doing Feminism.

Baumgardner and Richards go beyond those original individual perspectives to address the broader feud between feminist mothers and daughters. These authors articulate a general third wave feminist theory and inspire political activism in young women. Their book argues that if young women truly understood the history of the women’s movement, their political action and internal unity would more closely reflect their sense of feminist entitlement. Many young women who grew up with feminism already “in the water” (like fluoride) are focused on individualized cultural critique rather than collective political protest. Thus, Manifesta aims to both correct for the resulting generational antagonism and mobilize young women into organized activism, using their media savvy to meet the needs of equality in the new millennium.

Does God Have a Place in Third Wave Feminism?

But where is God in the third wave? Most of the first-person accounts in these young women’s volumes ignore religion, citing it as neither a barrier against liberation nor a potential source of it. For example, Baumgardner and Richards demonstrate no more than a passing familiarity with the Christian struggle for equality (they still think Mary Magdalene was a prostitute and only men were present at the Last Supper), and admit that they have left their own religions behind.

Of course, we know many in the first wave era did not look so strangely at the intertwining of Christianity and feminism. But during the second wave, mainstream liberal feminists chose to bracket religion out of public issues like workplace equity and reproductive freedom; likewise, radical feminists abandoned Christianity as intrinsically patriarchal. The third wave, on the other hand, presents the perfect moment for a feminism informed by Christianity. If difference, contradiction, and personal situated experiences are at a premium right now, what a wonderful opportunity for biblical feminism to reassert itself. As Rebecca Walker says, third wavers can accept just as many feminisms as there are feminists. And this should include the Christian path to gender equality.

Baumgardner and Richards further challenge young women to reclaim a consciousness of feminist history, yet their recounting of that history does not include Christianity as both a source of feminist struggle and as a site of feminist inspiration. In a womenwriters.net book review (2000), Lisa Johnson encourages young women to fill in the gaps of the third wave theory just beginning to emerge: “Feminist heterosexuality, campus lesbians, rural third wave America – whatever has not been written about adequately is up to us to address.” To this list, we are in a special position to add egalitarian Christianity. We can invite another generation to realize that loving God and advancing feminism are not mutually exclusive goals. For this generation, however, textual arguments about the ancient Greek connotations of headship and the convert behavior at Ephesus are less important than our personal stories of all the different ways God has influenced our identities as feminists, and how we have struggled toward our feminist commitment to equality among God’s people.

From the third wave conversation we can learn about strategies for intergenerational dialogue. As a young woman and new member of EEWC, I have never felt condescension or tension from my own “second wave mothers.” Instead, I was embraced by a welcoming spirit, encouraged to speak (and write!), and invited to serve. Rather than reinvent the wheel every generation as secular liberal feminism threatens to do, biblical feminists have an opportunity to show a particular openness to sharing resources and leadership across age groups.

So, in typical third wave fashion, I stand up and declare myself one of God’s Grrrls. Won’t you join me in my world?

© 2002 Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus volume 25 number 4 Winter 2002

Alena Amato Ruggerio
Alena Amato Ruggerio, Ph.D. is Professor of Communication in the Department of Communication, Media, and Cinema at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Oregon. She is a longtime member of SOU’s Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Council, including serving as the Interim Coordinator of Women's Studies for one year. She also served for eleven years on the EEWC-Christian Feminism Today Council, and has delivered plenary addresses and workshops at several CFT conferences. Dr. Ruggerio is the editor of Media Depictions of Brides, Wives, and Mothers (Lexington Books), and the coauthor of Feminism in Practice: Communication Strategies for Making Change (Waveland Press). She lives in the southwestern corner of Oregon with her husband Bradley and their astonishingly adorable cats.