How 8 Songs from the '90s Define Third-Wave Feminism

Editor’s Note: See part I here in Amelia Hamilton’s series exploring the transformations in feminist history and ideology: The Relevant and the Ridiculous: A Guide Through Feminist History


The third wave of feminism got started in the 1990s as a reaction against the second wave fought by their mothers (both figuratively and, sometimes, literally). There were some central tenets at the heart of third-wave feminism, and they can be illustrated in contemporary music. Join me on a walk through ’90s music, and the ways in which these songs illustrate third-wave feminist ideals.

1. Third-wave feminism went beyond legal equality for women, but empowered women to fight for other social issues as well.

One key way in which third-wave feminism differed from earlier waves was that it wasn’t just about women. Take, for example, the Third Wave Direct Action Corporation, founded in 1992. One of the founders was Rebecca Walker, daughter of second-wave feminist Alice Walker. In 1997, the group became the Third Wave Foundation, and was not only dedicated to traditional women’s rights issues, but worked to “explicitly connect women’s issues to issues of race, sexuality, class, and ability.” This was bigger than simply legal equality for women.

Arrested Development’s “Mama’s Always on Stage” (1992)

Key lyrics:

Mama’s always on stage

Can’t be a revolution without women

Can’t be a revolution without children

2. ’90s women were embracing terms which were formerly seen as negative

In the third wave of feminism, women were turning stereotypes upside-down. They fought against perceived male domination in ironic and sarcastic ways, playing on these common perceptions to prove that women could do more.


No Doubt’s “I’m Just a Girl” (1995)

Key Lyrics:

‘Cause I’m just a girl, a little ol’ me

Well, don’t let me out of your sight

Oh, I’m just a girl, all pretty and petite

So don’t let me have any rights

Oh, I’ve had it up to here

I’m just a girl, I’m just a girl in the world

That’s all that you’ll let me be

 3. What’s in a name? Power.

In the tradition of “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me,” third-wave feminists embraced terms that were seen as derogatory or sexist against women. They co-opted these terms, defiantly using them to label themselves.  For many women, they wore these terms as badges of honor, proof that they were living their authentic selves, a multi-faceted person with depth rather than as a feminine ideal.

Meredith Brooks’s “Bitch” (1997)

Key Lyrics:

So take me as I am

This may mean

You’ll have to be a stronger man

I’m a bitch, I’m a lover

I’m a child, I’m a mother

I’m a sinner, I’m a saint

I do not feel ashamed

I’m your hell, I’m your dream

I’m nothing in between

You know you wouldn’t want it any other way

4. From victimhood to strength

Violence and the poor treatment of women are issues against which feminists have always fought. In the 1990s, feminists showed a different side of women, as empowered survivors, rather than as victims. Women were saying “enough is enough” and realizing that they didn’t have to accept poor treatment.


Queen Latifah’s “U.N.I.T.Y.” (1994)

Key Lyrics:

But don’t you be calling out my name

I bring wrath to those who disrespect me like a dame

Bad days at work, give you an attitude then you were rough

And take it out on me but that’s about enough

You put your hands on me again I’ll put your ass in handcuffs

And I was scared to let you go, even though you treated me bad

But I don’t want my kids to see me getting beat down

By daddy smacking mommy all around

You say I’m nothing without ya, but I’m nothing with ya

A man don’t really love you if he hits ya

This is my notice to the door, I’m not taking it no more

5. Grassroots changes

Third-wave feminists worked for women to be included in activities that were once seen as male spheres. They worked at a grassroots level to see that women took part in anything in which they’d like. These could be small things, like simply signing up for something in which they were interested. These seemingly inconsequential steps had the power to  change perceptions and break barriers even more than grand gestures.

L7’s “Shirley” (1994)

Key Lyrics:

How much times must you be told?

There’s nowhere that we don’t go

She’s got good records

What’s a beautiful girl like you

Doing racing in a place like this?

6. Fighting against traditional gender attributes.


Male sphere vs. girl stuff? Nah. Not for ’90s feminists. The idea that there were characteristics that were inherently male or female was being challenged, while a continuum of gender was being promoted.

Ani DiFranco’s “Not a Pretty Girl” (1995)

Key Lyrics:

I am not a pretty girl

that is not what I do

I ain’t no damsel in distress

and I don’t need to be rescued

so put me down punk

maybe you’d prefer a maiden fair

isn’t there a kitten stuck up a tree somewhere

and what if there are no damsels in distress

what if I knew that and I called your bluff?

don’t you think every kitten figures out how to get down

whether or not you ever show up?

7. Sexual liberation, in different ways

Second-wave feminism brought about sexual freedom for women, but this was expanded in the third wave. Women were already sexually free — whether that meant sex before marriage, homosexuality, or whatever else a woman desired — but third-wave women were looking at the ways in which gender and sexuality were shaped by society. This allowed them to break out of those boxes.

Madonna’s “Human Nature” (1995)

Key Lyrics:

You wouldn’t let me say the words I longed to say

You didn’t want to see life through my eyes

(Express yourself, don’t repress yourself)

You tried to shove me back inside your narrow room

And silence me with bitterness and lies

You punished me for telling you my fantasies

I’m breakin’ all the rules I didn’t make

Would it sound better if I were a man?


8. Girl Power

Third-wave women of the 1990s were empowered and assertive. They were proud to be able to take care of themselves.

Destiny’s Child’s “Independent Women, Part I” (1999)

Key Lyrics:

Question: Tell me how you feel about this

Try to control me boy you get dismissed

Pay my own fun, oh and I pay my own bills

Always 50/50 in relationships

Tell me how you feel about this

Who would I want if I would wanna live

I worked hard and sacrificed to get what I get

Ladies, it ain’t easy bein’ independent


Trending on PJ Media Videos

Join the conversation as a VIP Member