Toward a Third-Wave Feminist Legal Theory: Young Women, Pornography and the Praxis of Pleasure

70 Pages Posted: 13 Mar 2006


This article critically examines a growing body of non-legal writing by women who have proclaimed a third-wave of feminism and suggests the ways that legal theory might be enriched by this work. Scholars typically label the nineteenth-century woman suffrage movement as the first wave of feminism, and view the legal and social activism of the 1970s as the second wave of feminism. The third wave of feminism, with its intellectual origins in the response to the Clarence Thomas Senate confirmation hearings, is a reaction to the popular stereotype that feminists are humorless man-haters. Third-wave feminists proclaim their difference from second-wave feminists and celebrate girl power, the joys of make-up and femininity, the complexity of human desire and the importance of fun.

Using pornography as the central focus, this article explores the main themes of third-wave feminism and interrogates the claim that third-wave feminism departs in substance and method from its predecessors. Third-wave writings about pornography and other issues express: (1) dissatisfaction with earlier feminists; (2) the multiple nature of personal identity; (3) the joy of embracing a traditionally feminine appearance and feminine attributes; (4) the centrality of sexual pleasure and sexual self-awareness; (5) the obstacles to economic empowerment; and (6) the social and cultural impact of media and technology. The principal methods of third-wave feminism are personal story-telling, coalition-building and harnessing and interpreting the media.

The third wave's substantive goals organize into five subsets: politics, education, health, the economy and - somewhat amorphously - law. The least developed of these is law. Apart from broad aspirations for equality between women and men, it is not clear what role third-wave feminists imagine the law should play in improving women's lives.

There are four possible explanations for the absence of meaningful consideration of the law in most third-wave writings. One hypothesis is that third-wave writing is pre-legal; third-wave feminists simply have not thought enough about the law in order to articulate its function in achieving third-wave feminist aims. Another hypothesis is that third-wave feminists take a limited-means view of the law, i.e., that the legal system has inherent limitations in what it can accomplish for women. A third possibility is that third-wave feminists take a limited-ends view of the law, i.e., that the accomplishments of second-wave feminists (largely achieved through the legal system) have failed to translate into enough change (or enough of the right kind of change) in women's lives. Finally, third-wave feminists may take an extra-legal view of change, seeking to abandon the law entirely, and instead transform society through culture. The article concludes by suggesting how this extra-legal approach may set the stage for the development of a vibrant third-wave feminist legal theory.

Keywords: feminism, feminist, jurisprudence, women, third wave feminism, third-wave feminism, pornography, legal theory

JEL Classification: K10

Suggested Citation

Crawford, Bridget J., Toward a Third-Wave Feminist Legal Theory: Young Women, Pornography and the Praxis of Pleasure. Michigan Journal of Gender & Law, Vol. 14, 2007, University of Pennsylvania Law School, Public Law Working Paper No. 06-31, Available at SSRN:

Bridget J. Crawford (Contact Author)

Pace University School of Law ( email )

78 North Broadway
White Plains, NY 10603
United States

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