Is the “4th Wave” of Feminism Digital?

coding girl

“Error_in_Time,” © Nancy Mauro-Flude, 2012.

Today, digital media have reconfigured the face and interface of feminism. The activity and community of our blog, the diverse composition and vast readership of the feminist blog-o-sphere, and their interwoven and interdependent public influence attest to the vitality of feminism today. Overall, the participation in feminist activism and criticism has grown manifold due to the invention and popularization of digital media technologies. The decidedly digital feminism we engage in today operates quite differently than those of our former feminist predecessors. Every person who has some form of access to digital media technologies, whether limited or permanent, has the potential to engage in the various feminist communities that exist and persist today. A greater amount of people are presented with feminist issues in some form, from Facebook activity to smartphone ads, and their capacity to engage with them through digital platforms has significantly increased. Previous feminist activism and criticism was necessarily limited by the pre-digital forms of communication methods of attaining and sharing information but also by the lacking access to likely affiliates and allies that are imperative for the consciousness-raising of feminism’s individual struggles. Feminism has left the Academy and spilled into the world wide web. Today, one can Google the majority of concerns pertinent to feminism, thereafter learn of different communities already at work in comparable fields, possibly join their efforts via digital or live labor, and thus operate for and by a larger public. Feminism has changed; the practices of its feminists as well.

Before now, within feminism, we can often speak of its different “waves”, where three separate waves are to an extent easily distinguishable in the 20th century. These waves are not necessarily historical, geographic, or otherwise correlative periods; they are moments in history in which the face of feminism was for some irrevocable reason altered. Nevertheless, these “waves” are to an extent limited to the U.S. and parts of the West, which certainly neglects the important work of other feminists and their work. Digital media will to an extent amend this via its globalizing project of universal expansion, when code can overcome lingual hybridity.

march-suffragettes
“First-Wavers,” better known as suffragettes, march for the right to vote

The emergence of the first-wave feminists, suffragettes, came out of the necessity for ‘the second sex’ to gain property and voting rights in order to claim for themselves autonomy and liberty. They tended to be the most daring of women in spaces that usually prized female submission and disparaged vocal disobedience. Many were poets, thinkers, politicians, activists and educators, while others were in more precarious positions who were forced to necessarily fight for their rights in order to simply live their lives. They did not indeed identify as “of the 1st wave” or even as “feminists.” But because of their valiant efforts to dismantle the literal patriarchy of the time, equity between the sexes slowly but surely began to transpire. Of course, the term “1st wave feminist” erases preexisting feminisms, such as Native women’s struggles with racism and sexism after colonial contact or black women’s involvement with ending slavery and segregation, but the “wave” conception of feminism posits an incremental, amassed buildup in feminism.

Since the earliest suffragettes fought for their rights to autonomy and “first-class” citizenship status throughout the world, feminists have been at the forefront of the fight for all women’s – and all people’s – struggles with, and indeed because of, their identities and bodies. The efforts of these suffragettes occurred alongside the innumerate protests and activist groups who fought for such issues as racial equality, class reformation and the freedoms to express different sexual and gender identities, though these certainly were not the only prevalent activist work. Aiming to end discrimination, oppression and all forms of injustice, these groups and individuals altogether have reformed, to an extent, many of the commonplace forms of inequity and violence. Before the introduction and popularization of digital media platforms, these reforms were stalled by the inability to organize as easily as with these new media forms.

The 2nd wave was the extension of this first collectivized movement to action, which was shored up by the institutionalization of feminism within academia to counteract the rampant sexism and discrimination its academics faced. It was further augmented by the innumerate activists who latched on to feminism as a political form of action and theoretical venue for critique. It led to an increased awareness of and criticism against a number of women’s issues, though, as the 3rd Wave particularly has been critical of, far from all of them. It explored the unequal and inequitable distribution of labor on the basis of sex and gender, the pitfalls of American consumerism and middle-class ideals for middle-class women, and the unethical treatment of sex workers (though many inadvertently only further polemicized the issue.) It initiated an entire conversation on feminism and women’s issues, albeit imperfectly and often paternalistically.

womens movement
Second wave feminists march for women’s liberation

The primary problem with the 2nd Wave was that its activists were given disproportionate access to the discourse of feminism.

Women in academia and others given political potency, notably Gloria Steinem, were overall more privileged than their unspoken, unheard supposed allies. These women were, for the most part, white, middle- to upper-class, able-bodied, able-minded, well-educated, literate, heterosexual- and cisgender-identifying, English speakers, religiously and politically able to assimilate, documented and naturalized, of their country of origin, and so forth, and thus were not always attuned to the myriad issues that the vast diversity of women and people experience and believe should be redressed. In its efforts to problematize sexism, its activists sometimes tried to speak on the behalf of marginalized women instead of providing them with a platform to represent themselves. Worse still, other feminists unconsciously and other times actively even hostilely persecuted certain groups, particularly trans people, sex workers, and people of color. “Womyn-born womyn’s” spaces, for instance, excluded trans women from their premises, prejudicially presuming that their gender identity was somehow more valid or authentic than trans people’s identities. Overall, the women who were given access points to the dialogue within the new moniker of feminism tended still to focus on the women’s issues that do not cover the most violent and severe systems of discrimination in place against the most heavily abjected communities within the U.S.

Since the access to engage in feminist discussions has been disproportionate and thus centered on some issues over others, much of the feminist movement has lacked inclusivity and intersectionality, and thus the drives for diversity and community.

Feminism has not been an appropriate political vehicle for all women historically. The 3rd Wave arose in part to criticize these tendencies in feminism and served more importantly to discuss previously marginalized concerns. Instead of laundry-listing the complex array of pressing matters pertinent to these critiques, which would inevitably prioritize certain issues over others, the key concern is that these criticisms opened the debate of feminists to new concerns. Therefore, feminism has become adopted by a more diverse audience and activist sphere. This diversity has become more nuanced and cogent, moreover, as a result. Examining the intersections of identity has proven crucial for the success of feminist advocation, since it fosters community while still being attuned to difference and the tensions therein.

femfuture1
A graphic from Feminist’s presentation on Online Feminism

Many groups, writers and activists have argued that we have by now entered the “4th Wave” of feminism, yet few if any have written publicly about what exactly marks such a new historical, spatial, philosophical, ecological, social or economical juncture in feminist politics and practices. The Fourth Wave Feminism blog, for instance, recounts Hilary Clinton’s attempt at presidency in its inaugural post, yet it does little to redress the needling question of what, exactly, is “4th Wave Feminism?” As Jessica Valenti, founder of Feministing.com, however, noted in a 2009 interview entitled “Fourth Wave Feminism” with the New York Times, “Maybe the fourth wave is online.” The question remains whether a determinable paradigm shift indeed has taken place due to the rise of digital media and online platforms, and, more importantly, on what the repercussions of this contemporary state of feminism entails for those involved in its practice. Indeed, while the necessity of feminism has recently been once more evidenced by aims to restrict abortion access, prevent violence against women, secure the rights of all women regardless of their backgrounds, ensure the most fundamental right to life for sex workers and trans* women, among a myriad of equally compelling and pressing matters that have troubled activists and others alike, the need to redefine and streamline “feminism” as an icon of equality and paragon of activism becomes more salient in our efforts to render mainstream the previously secluded spaces of feminism.

For there to be a so-called “4th Wave” of feminism and to conjecture the existence of different ‘currents’ or ‘waves’ of feminism, at least for a moment, there would need to be a certain kind of fundamental paradigm shift in the ideology or operations of feminism. Such a ‘wave’ would require a historical shift in the previous views and values of those people and objects that encompass what “feminism” supposedly is and ought to be. It would have to be in part discursive and would require a restructuring of legal, institutional, educational, economic, social, religious, geographical, corporeal and cultural barriers.

Is then, perhaps, the “fourth” wave of feminism, if such a change of current could be set to have caused a paradigm shift within the majority of feminist activism and criticism, in fact intimately intertwined with its digital platform?

From the prolific activity of the blogosphere and digital news media to the equally vivacious bustle of social media, digital media have entirely changed the operations, economics, communications, readership, outreach and presentation of feminism. These instances of feminist media, moreover, are aiding feminism against the specter of second-wave feminism: a lack of inclusivity and diversity in its demographic. The vast variety of “schools of thought” within online feminist communities showcase the new faces of feminism, oftentimes each of them individually coming to terms with their own definitions for and ideal practices of their own individuated yet multiple feminisms.

Feminism, in fact, perhaps no longer can even be said to exist – each and every individual has their own views, values and beliefs regarding what the status of people’s rights should be, creating as many “feminisms” as individuals. Some women blame others for crimes committed against them, some decry lesbianism, others still see trans women as men, many shame women in some way and perpetuate girl-on-girl hate, and most are not fully attuned to the entire array of issues that women and minorities in all parts of the world face in their everyday lives. None of us are.

Digital media have the potential to destabilize these entrenched views on the status of (some) women by educating wider publics about the struggles they otherwise do not themselves face or hear of via their communities or families. More importantly, maybe, is that those issues which are most heavily marginalized, those people whose voices rarely are heard, those bodies and ideas that are least often comprehensively and positively represented, all are given the potential for a wider readership because of these media. This is evidenced by the variety and popularity of feminist-inflected digital sites such as Jezebel and Bustle, and platforms that revolve around certain recurrent themes or issues, such as Black Girl Dangerous, Colorlines and The TransAdvocate. These and a myriad of other sites are paving the way for increased visibility of the experiences and identities that we otherwise hear least about and thus have little agency in therefore advocating for.

black girl dangerous

With the introduction, mass manufacturing and distribution, normalization, extensive and ongoing development and institutionalization of the usage of digital media technologies, digital feminism now has a near-infinite possible amount of operating channels for information dissemination and communication systems. Issues that were previously sidelined in the name of the ‘greater good’ of feminism – such as classism, racism, LGBTQ+ discrimination and mental and corporeal ableism – are now featured in more articles, on more sites, receive more readership, are more frequently mentioned and discussed by users, and are covered by a more diverse group of people than ever before.

From gaming consoles, mobile devices, computers, iPads, and countless other apparatuses, digital media have quite literally begun to materialize and encroach upon our everyday lives. Many professions, particularly those staffed by higher-paid citizens, oftentimes even require some form of access to a digital device. Digital technologies have become actual prosthetics that change our very ability to navigate the world we live in when we act, learn, and communicate as people. Whether or not any person owns either a digital or mobile device that enables further communicative, informative and regulative possibilities than they would have access to otherwise becomes one of the more urgent questions for such a 4th wave. Agency has taken a revamped form in the new digital structures of our decade.

feminist looks like

Of course, not everyone has access to digital technologies, and what comes to be the greatest limitation of this proposed “4th Wave” paradigm shift is the continuity and stability of this access. The key problem that this “4th Wave” will face will be the disproportionate access to and ownership of digital media devices. It will have to first and foremost come to grips with the inherent classism and ableism of the very access to digital media devices. Not only that, all other economically and otherwise socially disadvantaged minorities – particularly trans, queer and disabled people as well as communities of color – too will face the fatal blow of capital’s desire to gross more and extend itself geographically. The “4th Wave” of feminisms must come to grips with what has recursively become the central factor to the installation of inequitable hierarchies and institutional shoring up of power: the perennial and perpetual conflicts of class struggle. While this does not mean it must turn to a strict Marxism, it requires rather that we must conceive of a complete restructuring of social relations and operations. It will center, as always, on our false belief in the common currency of our day, money, and perhaps more importantly on the distribution of property and ownership. In a time when 80% of Americans are currently living in poverty in the U.S., class and income differences impact all communities to some degree, especially women and disadvantaged minorities. It will disadvantage, in particular, low-income earners, disabled people, people who speak non-dominant languages, non-coders and people who lives hinge upon these disadvantaged facets of identity.

Since the ownership of the digital industry has remained, like the gaming industry, primarily male-produced, coders are increasingly powerful in their profession and the Silicon Valley has become an unexpected Mecca of digital futurity. Since coding is also taught in mostly wealthier schools and communities, depending on your geographic locality, people producing digital goods are and will continue to be persistently privileged. (This is why organizations like Girls Who Code are vital for the 4th Wave.) Finally, in a post-PRISM digital world, all of these political sentiments can now easily be logged, stored, tagged, and reviewed, and with a quick search made the reason for disciplinary punishment, as has already been done with environmental activists in an effort to stop climate change activism and silence necessary concerns. These are only a few of the problems these new digital feminisms shall face; let’s start the dialogue.

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