The role of women in contemporary Turkey is defined by an ongoing gender equality struggle, contributing elements of which include predicate conditions for EU membership candidacy, prevalent political tides that favour restrictive patriarchal models, and woman's rights activism. Women in Turkey continue to be the victims of rape and honor killings; furthermore research by scholars and government agencies indicate widespread domestic violence in Turkish population.
Women in Turkey also face significant disparities in employment, and, in some regions, education. The participation of Turkish women in the labor force is less than half of that of the European Union average and while several campaigns have been successfully undertaken to promote female literacy, there is still a gender gap in secondary education and an increasing gender gap in higher education. There is also widespread occurrence of childhood marriages in Turkey, the practice being especially widespread in the eastern and central parts of the country.
Discrimination based on gender is banned by the Turkish constitution. The Turkish feminist movement began in the 19th century during the decline of the Ottoman Empire. This movement was embraced after the declaration of the Republic of Turkey by the administration of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, whose modernizing reforms included a ban on polygamy and the provision of full political rights to Turkish women by 1934.
In the course of the 16th and 17th centuries during the Sultanate of Women, women of the Imperial Harem had extraordinary influence on politics of Ottoman Empire. Many of the Sultans during this time were minors and it was their mothers, like Kösem Sultan, or sometimes daughters of the sultan as Mihrimah Sultan, leaders of the Harem, who effectively ruled the Empire. Most of these women were of slave origin. The period started in 1520 during the reign of Suleyman the Magnificent until 1656, the reign of Mehmed IV.
During the decline of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century, educated women within the elites of Istanbul began to organise themselves as feminists. With the Tanzimat reforms, improving women's conditions was considered as part of a wider modernisation effort. Ottoman women's movement began to demand rights. They fought to increase women's access to education and paid work, to abolish polygamy, and the peçe, an Islamic veil. Early feminists published woman magazines in different languages and established different organizations dedicated to the advancement of women. The first women's association in Turkey, the Ottoman Welfare Organization of Women, was founded in 1908 and became partially involved in the Young Turks Movement. Writers and politicians such as Fatma Aliye Topuz, Nezihe Muhiddin and Halide Edip Adıvar also joined the movement. In her novels, Halide Edip Adıvar criticised the low social status of Turkish women and what she saw as the lack of interest of most women in changing their situation.
During the Turkish War of Independence, Kara Fatma a widow proved herself as a successful milita leader.
After the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923, the feminist movement gradually became part of the Kemalist modernization efforts. Polygamy was banned, divorce and inheritance rights were made equal. In the 1930s, Turkey gave full political rights to women, including the right to elect and be elected locally (in 1930) and nationwide (in 1934). There still remained, however, a large discrepancy between formal rights and the social position of women. In the 1980s, women's movements became more independent of the efforts to modify the state. After the 1980 Turkish coup d'état, women from both urban and academic milieus began to meet in reading groups and discuss feminist literature together. In these "awareness-raising groups", which were established notably in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, they criticized the standard construction of the family as well as the gender-specific role behavior that was forced on women. Independent feminist women's magazines were founded to expose the frequency of sexual harassment and violence against women. In 1987 feminists organized the first public protest against male violence, followed by campaigns against sexual harassment, "purple needle", and campaigns seeking the right of self-determination over the female body. These campaigns arose due to women's wish to reject the traditional patriarchal code of ethics, honor, and religion which left men to decide the fate of the female body. The second wave of the women's movement in Turkey reached a wider and more diverse group of women than the first women's movement.
The acceptance of women's issues as an independent political and planning problem was discussed for the first time in the Fifth Five Year Development Plan (1985–1990), and "the General Directorate for the Status and Problems of Women" was established as a national mechanism in 1990. The General Directorate, which was connected to the Prime Ministry in 1991, has been carrying out its activities under the responsibility of a State Ministry. It conducts a large variety of activities with the objective of protecting women's rights, of strengthening the position of women in social, economic, cultural and political life, and of providing the equal utilization of rights, opportunities and capacities. Since the 1990s, feminist discourse has become institutionalized, with the foundation of women's studies centers and university programs at universities such as Marmara University or as Istanbul University. In 1993, Tansu Çiller became the first female Prime Minister of Turkey.
In 2002 the Turkish government reformed Turkish criminal and civil law, and since then, the rights of women and men during marriage, divorce, and any subsequent property rights have all been equalized. A criminal law has been established that deals with the female sexuality as a matter of individual rights, rather than as a matter of family honor. Additions to the Turkish constitution oblige the state to use all the necessary means to promote the equality of the sexes. Family courts were also created, labour laws were instituted to prohibit sexism, and programs were created to educate against domestic violence and to improve access to education for girls.
Turkey is a party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women since 1985, as well as to its Optional Protocol since 2002.
Article 10 of the Turkish Constitution bans any discrimination, state or private, on the grounds of sex. It is the first country which had a woman as the President of its Constitutional Court, Tülay Tuğcu. In addition, Turkish Council of State, the supreme court for administrative cases, also has a woman judge Sumru Çörtoğlu as its President.
The article 41 of the Turkish Constitution was revised to read that the family is "based on equality between spouses". The new code also granted women equal rights to property acquired during marriage, which was supposedly meant to give economic value to women’s labor within the family household.
The minimum age for marriage was also raised to 18 (17 with parental consent). In cases of forced marriage, women have right to ask an annulment within the first 5 years of marriage. In 2004, an update to article 10 of the constitution placed the responsibility for establishing gender equality on the state: "men and women have equal rights. The state shall have the obligation to ensure that this equality exists in practice".
In 2005, the Turkish penal code was changed to criminalize marital rape and harshen the sentences for those convicted of honor killings, which previously carried reduced sentenced because of "provocation". The Human Rights Directorate reported that the number of honor killings committed in Turkey rose to 220 in 2007, with most of the killings occurring in major cities.
The Islamic headscarf, worn by more than 20% of Turkish women, is allowed to women working in public offices during the practice of their functions. Girl students in primary and secondary education also are allowed to use headscarf.
The first wave of Turkish feminism occurred in the early 20th century, when women's organizations began to demand equality in civic and political rights. During this early period, the women's rights claims overlapped with the Kemalist reform process in the aftermath of the Republic.
Second wave feminism reached Turkey in the 1980s, bringing up issues common to the movement which had emerged in the West in the 1960s, such as the elimination of violence against women, the oppression experienced in the family and the challenge against virginity tests, then a common practice for women who were about to get married or who had been subjected to sexual assault.
The rise of a global civil society and the internationalization of women’s organizations and the accession of Turkey to the European Union have given women’s organizations the possibility of accessing foreign funds. The number of women’s organizations as well as the projects that these organizations conduct have increased.
Main article: Women in Turkish politics
In 1930s for the first time Turkish women entered politics. The first elected female mayor was Sadiye Hanım (1930). In the elections held on 8 February 1935 18 women entered the parliament. One of them, Hatı Çırpan was a muhtar (village head) of a village prior to entrance to parliament. The first female city mayor was Müfide İlhan in 1950. Although representation of women in political and decision making bodies is relatively low, Tansu Çiller has been Prime Minister between 1993 and 1996. The number of women in the Turkish parliament has increased to 14.3% after the Turkish general election, 2011 (79 individuals in the parliament), most of them are affiliated with the Justice and Development Party. In 1975 the percentage was 10.9 and in 2006 it was 16.3. Only 5.58 percent of mayors are women and in the whole of Turkey there is one governor (among 81) and 14 local governors.
Crime against women
See also: Crime in Turkey, Pippa Bacca, and Murder of Özgecan Aslan
The murders of women in Turkey increased from 66 in 2002 to 953 in the first seven months of 2009. In the Eastern and Southeastern Anatolia regions in particular, women face domestic violence, forced marriages, and honor killings. Şefkat-Der, a Turkish non-governmental organization, has suggested granting licensed, tax-free guns to women as a way to combat domestic violence. On 8 March 2017, a mob illegally entered the Istanbul Bilgi University campus and attacked students celebrating International Women’s Day, also, students mentioned that they had been threatened on Twitter before the incident.
Between 2002 and 2009, the murder rate of women skyrocketed by 1,400 percent.
On 2010, the Turkish anti-violence group Mor Cati created a video attempted to raise awareness of violence toward women in a public way. The group placed large posters of women jumping for joy, their arms and legs splayed out beyond the frame's borders, all around Istanbul. The text next to the women reads, "I want to live in freedom." The organization then set up hidden video cameras, which purport to show male passersby kicking and ripping off the cutouts' arms and legs.
On 2013 about 28,000 women were assaulted, according to official figures. Of those, more than 214 were murdered, monitors say, normally by husbands or lovers.
On November 2015, Izmir Bar Association’s Women’s Rights and Legal Support Office said that the last decade has not only seen the increase in the numbers of women subject to violence, but that the violence itself has become more intense and barbaric, "bordering on torture.". They also stated that the number of femicides in the last few years has ranged between 5,000 and 6,000, adding that the State either cannot or do not disclose exact records, so different platforms try to fill in this gap in terms of adequate data through media monitoring,". The journalist Ceyda Ulukaya, made an interactive ""Femicide Map" of Turkey. The project, supported by the Platform for Independent Journalism, contains detailed data about 1,134 femicide victims between 2010 and 2015, including the victims, the identity of the accused/murderer, the reason and links to newspaper stories about their murders. Both qualitative and quantitative data showed that the majority of the victims were killed by husbands/ex-husbands (608 cases) and boyfriends/ex-boyfriends (161). The most often-cited reason of the murder is that the woman wanted a divorce or refused reconciliation.
On 15 March 2017, Turkish Interior Ministry has announced that a total of 20 women were killed while under temporary state protection between 2015 and 2017. An average of 358 women a day applied to law enforcement officers after suffering violence in 2016. Around five women every hour, or 115 a day, were faced with the threat of murder. The Umut Foundation, released statistics regarding violence against women in Turkey on International Women’s Day, showing that 397 women were killed in Turkey in 2016. A total of 317 women were killed with weapons in 2016, a slight increase over the 309 women killed with weapons – out of a total of 413 – in 2015. On 6 July 2017, a pregnant Syrian woman was raped and killed with her 10-month-old baby in the Sakarya Province, Turkey.
In the monthly report of the group "We Will Stop Femicide", in May 2017, it mention that 328 women were killed in 2016 while in the first five months of 2017, 173 women were killed across Turkey compared with 137 in the same period of 2016. Also, 210 Turkish women killed or forced to commit suicide in 2012 in misogynist attacks by men. Women’s activists told that the rise in killings had come as more women sought to exercise their rights, including divorcing abusive partners.
294 women killed in 2014 and 237 in 2013.
From 2010 till May 2017, 118 women have been killed in İzmir alone.
On December 2016, a man attacked a pregnant woman, in Manisa for jogging at a park.
In March 2018, the Social Fabric Foundation head, Nureddin Yıldız, said that “Women should be grateful to God, because God allowed men to beat women and be relaxed,” Erdoğan responded on the International Women’s Day that religious rules dating back to “14 or 15 centuries ago” cannot be implemented in today’s conditions and “should be updated,”
A 2002 study by Ayranci, et al. observed that in Turkey, 36.4% of women complained about physical violence and 71% mentioned physical, psychological or sexual assault during pregnancy.
According to report by the Turkish government dating from 2009, 42% of the surveyed women said they had been physically or sexually abused by their husband or partner. Almost half of them never speaking to anyone about this, and only 8% approach government institutions for support. When they do approach them, police and gendarmerie sometimes prefer to attempt to "reconcile" the families rather than protecting them. While the rates of violence are particularly high among poor, rural women, one third of the women in the highest economic brackets have also been subject to domestic violence.
A 2009 survey conducted by a leading Turkish university stated that some 42 percent of women over age 15 in Turkey and 47 percent of rural women have experienced physical or sexual violence at the hands of a husband or partner at some point in their lives.
According to a United Nations report published in July 2011, 39% of women in Turkey had suffered physical violence at some time in their lives, compared with 22% in the United States. Even though every municipality with more than 50,000 inhabitants is required by law to have at least one women’s shelter, there are just 79 in the whole country.
On May 2011, the Human Rights Watch said in a report that Turkey's flawed family violence protection system leaves women and girls across the country unprotected against domestic abuse. The 58-page report, "‘He Loves You, He Beats You': Family Violence in Turkey and Access to Protection," documents brutal and long-lasting violence against women and girls by husbands, partners, and family members and the survivors' struggle to seek protection.
In 2012, Turkey was the first country to ratify the Istanbul Convention.
Over 37% of Turkish women said they had experienced physical or sexual violence - or both - according to an exhaustive 2014 survey of 15,000 households by the country’s family ministry.
According to the We Will Stop Women Homicides Platform, 294 women were killed in 2014, and 60% of them perished at the hands of husbands and boyfriends.
On 3 October 2017, a woman who took refuge in a women’s shelter due to being subjected to violence from her husband was killed by him at Kastamonu.
On 9 October 2017, Habertürk reported that the number of electronic bracelets given for domestic violence incidents throughout Turkey is only 30, although some 120,000 women are subjected to violence by men every year in the Turkey.
On November, 2017, according to a study conducted by a student at Muğla Sıtkı Koçman University, mentioned that 28.5 percent of the respondents said they have witnessed domestic abuse. In the same study 52.9 percent of those who were involved in a relationship said they were subjected to "dating abuse," described in the report as "psychological harassment or physical aggression." The report also revealed that 6.25 percent of victims said they were touched without their consent and 4.54 said they were raped. The study also showed that abusers are overwhelmingly men.
A total of 365 women were killed by men in the first 11 months of 2017, according to data compiled by the "We Will Stop Femicide" activist platform based on news reported in the media. The report also stressed that women who are victims of sexual abuse tend to be neglected by their families, which pushes them to undertake independent measures for their self-protection. Among many victimized women, some end up committing suicide. The report stated that in 15 November percent of the women killed were victims of murder for "wanting to get a divorce," 11 percent were killed for "taking decisions about their lives independently," 7 percent were killed for "financial reasons," 4 percent were killed for "turning down [the man’s] reconciliation efforts," and another 4 percent were killed over "debates about their children." Most of the women killed in Turkey in November were aged between 25 and 35, with 75 percent of the women in this age range becoming victims after wanting to get divorce.
In 2017, a total of 409 women were killed and 387 children sexually abused in Turkey, according to data compiled by the group "We Will Stop Femicide".
According to a report released by the group "We Will Stop Femicide", 28 women were killed and 25 others were subjected to sexual violence on January 2018, added that also 147 children had been sexually abused during the January. Twenty one percent of the women killed were murdered for making decisions regarding their own lives, while four percent of women were murdered for refusing to reunite with their former partners. 43 percent were between 36 and 65 years old, 14 percent were older than 66, and 11 percent were between 25 and 35 years old. The majority of the women were killed at home. The platform said the total number of femicides fell slightly compared to the final months of 2017.
Violence for choice of clothing
On September 2016, Ayşegül Terzi, was called a "devil" and kicked by a man in face on a public bus, for wearing shorts. Footage showed the man telling her that those who wear shorts "should die." In protest at the attack, the hashtag #AyşegülTerzininSesiOlalim, which translates into English as "let’s be the voice of Aysegul Terzi", was used thousands of times. Women in Turkey also posted images to social media of themselves wearing shorts in solidarity. On 18 September 2016, campaigners gathered in Istanbul to protest the attack and put pressure on authorities to focus on ending violence against women.
On June 2017, a female university student, Asena Melisa Sağlam, was attacked verbally and physically by a man on a bus in Istanbul for wearing shorts during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The incident was caught on security cameras. Also, later on the same month a woman was harassed on the street in Istanbul when a man accused her of wearing provocative clothing, saying she should be careful because she was "turning people on."
On July 2017, hundreds of women marched in Istanbul on to protest against violence and animosity they face from men demanding they dress more conservatively. Protesters say there has been an increase in the number of verbal and physical attacks against women for their choice of clothing in Turkey in recent years. Also, later on the same month the security chief of the Maçka Democracy Park in the Şişli district of Istanbul verbally abused a young woman for the way she was dressed and he also called the police. On 30 July 2017, Women’s rights associations protested in the Park against such actions.
On 10 August 2017, two men on motorbikes sexually harassed two women, at İzmir. Then the women asked for help from two police officers in the street, but one of them started beating one of the women, according to the woman's testimony the "officer said the harassers were right because we were ‘dressed inappropriately,’". Security footage showed one of the police officers starting to beat one of the women.
In September 2017, at Ankara, neighbors complained to the manager of a apartment building about a woman for wearing shorts at her home, demanding that she must keep her curtains closed. The manager warned the woman to keep her curtains closed for her own sake.
In March 2018, a teacher at a religious vocational high school in Konya was dismissed from his post over comments he made about female students wearing gym clothes. He also wrote that physical education classes should be an optional class for students, as it “prepared girls for the devil.”
According to a study, some commonly-expressed views on rape were given to individuals from various professions, who were asked to agree or disagree; results recorded that 33% of the police officers agreed that "some women deserve rape", 66% of police officers, as well as nearly 50% of other professional groups except the psychologists about 18% and 27% of psychiatrists, suggested that "the physical appearance and behaviors of women tempt men to rape."
In 2015, Turkish university student Özgecan Aslan was murdered as she resisted a rape attempt on a minibus in Mersin. Her burnt body was discovered on 13 February. The murder was committed by Turkish minibus driver Ahmet Suphi Altındöken, his father Necmettin Altındöken and his friend Fatih Gökçe. According to Turkish Daily Sabah, Özgcan Aslan became a symbol for Turkish women who are the victims of violence.
In 2013, The Guardian reported that 'the rape and torture of Kurdish prisoners in Turkey are disturbingly commonplace'. According to a report from Amnesty International in 2003, Hamdiye Aslan, who was accused of supporting the Kurdish separatist group, the PKK, had been detained in Mardin Prison, south-east Turkey, for almost three months in which she was reportedly blindfolded, anally raped with a truncheon, threatened and mocked by officers.
Reporting on cases of sexual abuse in Turkey is often difficult; the issue is still taboo in Turkish culture, as well as the fact that much of Turkish media don't report on such cases as they tarnish the country's modern and secular image. The result of this is that many injustices within Turkey, including systematic rapes carried out in prisons to maintain power over communities, go unheard by the rest of the world.
A July 2008 Turkish study by a team from Dicle University on honor killings in the Southeastern Anatolia Region, the predominantly Kurdish area of Turkey, has so far shown that little if any social stigma is attached to honor killing. The team interviewed 180 perpetrators of honor killings and it also commented that the practice is not related to a feudal societal structure, "there are also perpetrators who are well-educated university graduates. Of all those surveyed perpetrators, 60 percent are either high school or university graduates or at the very least, literate". In 2010 a 16-year-old girl was buried alive by relatives for befriending boys in Southeast Turkey; her corpse was found 40 days after she went missing. There are well documented cases, where Turkish courts have sentenced whole families to life imprisonment for an honor killing. Such a case was on 13 January 2009, where a Turkish Court sentenced five members of the same family to life imprisonment for the honor killing of Naile Erdas, a 16-year old Kurdish girl who got pregnant as a result of rape.
A June 2008 report by the Turkish Prime Ministry's Human Rights Directorate said that in Istanbul alone there was one honor killing every week, and reported over 1,000 during the previous five years. It added that metropolitan cities were the location of many of these, whilst the perpetrators of these crimes in such cities mostly originated from Eastern Turkey. The mass migration during the past decades of rural population from Southeastern Turkey to big cities in Western Turkey has resulted in cities such as Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, and Bursa having the highest numbers of reported honor killings.[unreliable source?] Most honour-related crimes happen in the rural Kurdish region, where a feudal, patriarchal system survives, but as Kurds have fled these regions, the crime is also spreading into cities across Turkey. Honor killings continue have some support in the conservative parts of Turkey, especially in southeastern Turkey, where most of the crimes take place. A survey where 500 men were interviewed in Diyarbakir found that, when asked the appropriate punishment for a woman who has committed adultery, 37% of respondents said she should be killed, while 21% said her nose or ears should be cut off.
Main article: Human trafficking in Turkey
In 2008, critics have pointed out that Turkey has become a major market for foreign women who are coaxed and forcibly brought to the country by international mafia to work as sex slaves, especially in big and touristic cities.
See also: Education in Turkey
While still trailing male literacy rates, female literacy rates in Turkey have grown substantially to 91.8% in 2015. Illiteracy is particularly prevalent among rural women, who are often not sent to school as girls. Half of girls aged between 15 and 19 are neither in the education system nor in the workforce. The government and various other foundations are engaged in education campaigns in Southeastern Anatolia to improve the rate of literacy and education levels of women. In 2008, 4 million women were illiterate, as opposed to 990 thousand men. A 2008 poll by the Women Entrepreneurs Association of Turkey showed that almost half of urban Turkish women believe economic independence for women is unnecessary reflecting, in the view of psychologist Leyla Navaro, a heritage of patriarchy.
In the 2012-2013, the schooling ratio of girls (at 99.61% as of 2014 according to the Turkish Statistical Institute) exceeded that of the boys for the first time in Turkish history. The gender gap in secondary education (5.3% lower than boys) remained, albeit at much lower levels in comparison to the 2002-2003 educational year (25.8%). However, the gender gap in higher education increased between 2002 and 2012 to 9.5%. Significant regional differences still persist, with only 15.9% of girls attending secondary school in the Muş Province as of 2010, as opposed to 82.4% in the Bilecik Province, the province with the highest percentage. In 2009, the provinces with the lowest schooling ratios for girls were Bitlis, Van and Hakkari, all in southeastern Turkey, while those with the highest ratios were Ankara, İzmir and Mersin, all in western Turkey. Dropout rates for girls at primary level are higher than boys, especially concentrating at the fifth and sixth years.
Daily Habertürk reported on 9 January 2018, that only three state universities in Turkey have women rectors, despite women making up 43.58 percent of all academics in the country. According to education specialist Alaaddin Dinçer, the absence of women among universities’ boards of directors is the result of a "consciously made decision."
The employment rate (for ages 15–64), as of 2015, was 30.5% for women, much lower than that of men which was 69.8%. In 2011, out of 26 million employable women, only 5.9 million were in the labor force. 23.4% of women have either been forced by men to quit their jobs or prevented from working. The rate of women not covered by social security is 84% in the East and 87% in the Southeast.
Women’s employment has decreased since 2000 and the participation of women in the workforce lags behind some Islamic countries as well as western countries. One of the reasons for this is the increased migration of rural women, who would otherwise have been employed in the agriculture sector. Compared to other Islamic countries, including Saudi Arabia and Iran, Turkey is the only one with a diminishing rate of women’s employment.
According to World Bank, women made up 30.5% of the labor force in 2014 (roughly unchanged from 1990 when they made up 30.8%).
On the other hand, it is possible that the involvement of women in the labour force is very underestimated, due to women working in the informal economy
The third wave of feminism
The third wave of feminism emerged in the mid-1990s. It was led by so-called Generation Xers who, born in the 1960s and ’70s in the developed world, came of age in a media-saturated and culturally and economically diversemilieu. Although they benefitted significantly from the legal rights and protections that had been obtained by first- and second-wave feminists, they also critiqued the positions and what they felt was unfinished work of second-wave feminism.
The third wave was made possible by the greater economic and professional power and status achieved by women of the second wave, the massive expansion in opportunities for the dissemination of ideas created by the information revolution of the late 20th century, and the coming of age of Generation X scholars and activists.
Some early adherents of the new approach were literally daughters of the second wave. Third Wave Direct Action Corporation (organized in 1992) became in 1997 the Third Wave Foundation, dedicated to supporting “groups and individuals working towards gender, racial, economic, and social justice”; both were founded by (among others) Rebecca Walker, the daughter of the novelist and second-waver Alice Walker. Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, authors of Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future (2000), were both born in 1970 and raised by second wavers who had belonged to organized feminist groups, questioned the sexual division of labour in their households, and raised their daughters to be self-aware, empowered, articulate, high-achieving women.
These women and others like them grew up with the expectation of achievement and examples of female success as well as an awareness of the barriers presented by sexism, racism, and classism. They chose to battle such obstacles by inverting sexist, racist, and classist symbols, fighting patriarchy with irony, answering violence with stories of survival, and combating continued exclusion with grassroots activism and radicaldemocracy. Rather than becoming part of the “machine,” third wavers began both sabotaging and rebuilding the machine itself.
Influenced by the postmodernist movement in the academy, third-wave feminists sought to question, reclaim, and redefine the ideas, words, and media that have transmitted ideas about womanhood, gender, beauty, sexuality, femininity, and masculinity, among other things. There was a decided shift in perceptions of gender, with the notion that there are some characteristics that are strictly male and others that are strictly female giving way to the concept of a gender continuum. From this perspective each person is seen as possessing, expressing, and suppressing the full range of traits that had previously been associated with one gender or the other. For third-wave feminists, therefore, “sexual liberation,” a major goal of second-wave feminism, was expanded to mean a process of first becoming conscious of the ways one’s gender identity and sexuality have been shaped by society and then intentionally constructing (and becoming free to express) one’s authentic gender identity.
Third wavers inherited a foothold of institutional power created by second wavers, including women’s studies programs at universities, long-standing feminist organizations, and well-established publishing outlets such as Ms. magazine and several academic journals. These outlets became a less important part of the culture of the third wave than they had been for the second wave.
In expressing their concerns, third-wave feminists actively subverted, co-opted, and played on seemingly sexist images and symbols. This was evident in the double entendre and irony of the language commonly adopted by people in their self-presentations. Slang used derogatorily in most earlier contexts became proud and defiant labels. The spirit and intent of the third wave shone through the raw honesty, humour, and horror of Eve Ensler’s play (and later book) The Vagina Monologues, an exploration of women’s feelings about sexuality that included vagina-centred topics as diverse as orgasm, birth, and rape; the righteous anger of punk rock’s riot grrrls movement; and the playfulness, seriousness, and subversion of the Guerrilla Girls, a group of women artists who donned gorilla masks in an effort to expose female stereotypes and fight discrimination against female artists.
The third wave was much more inclusive of women and girls of colour than the first or second waves had been. In reaction and opposition to stereotypical images of women as passive, weak, virginal, and faithful, or alternatively as domineering, demanding, slutty, and emasculating, the third wave redefined women and girls as assertive, powerful, and in control of their own sexuality. In popular culture this redefinition gave rise to icons of powerful women that included the singers Madonna, Queen Latifah, and Mary J. Blige, among others, and the women depicted in television series such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003), Sex and the City (1998–2004), and Girlfriends (2000–08). Media programming for children increasingly depicted smart, independent girls and women in lead roles, including Disney heroines such as Mulan (1998) and Helen Parr and her daughter, Violet (The Incredibles, 2006), and television characters such as Dora (Dora the Explorer, 1999–2006), Carly and Sam (iCarly, 2007–12), and Sesame Street’s first female lead, Abby Cadabby, who debuted in 2006. The sassy self-expression of “Girl Power” merchandise also proved popular.
The increasing ease of publishing on the Internet meant that e-zines (electronic magazines) and blogs became ubiquitous. Many serious independent writers, not to mention organizations, found that the Internet offered a forum for the exchange of information and the publication of essays and videos that made their point to a potentially huge audience. The Internet radically democratized the content of the feminist movement with respect to participants, aesthetics, and issues.
Predictably, third wavers faced critics. Even as the third wave found its voice, some writers were declaring themselves postfeminist and arguing that the movement had lived beyond its usefulness. Meanwhile, established feminists of the earlier generation argued that the issues had not really changed and that the younger women were not adding anything of substance. By about 2000, some writers from inside and outside the movement rushed to declare that the wave had broken. In addition, questions of sexualized behaviour raised debate on whether such things as revealing clothing, designer-label stiletto heels, and amateur pole dancing represented true sexual liberation and gender equality or old oppressions in disguise.
As with any other social or political movement, fissures and disagreements were present in each wave of feminism. The third wave, to an extent almost unimaginable to the members of the first and second waves before it, was plural and multifaceted, comprising people of many gender, ethnic, and class identities, experiences, and interests. As such, its greatest strength, multivocality, was attacked by some as its greatest weakness. Third-wavers countered this criticism by stating that the creation of a unified agenda or philosophy—or at least, one that was unified beyond the very general statements offered by groups such as the Third Wave Foundation noted above (“groups and individuals working towards gender, racial, economic, and social justice”)—was a goal that was not only unrealistic but undesirable.