Third Wave Feminism for Computer Scientists (especially straight cis-male ones)

Table of Contents

I wrote the first version of this page as an email to a pair of friends of mine. One male, one female, both computer scientists, neither had heard the word "cis" before. I originally intended my email to be a gentle introduction to some terms, with some links for further reading. But I kept imagining well-intended objections that might come from one of my two intended readers, and felt the need add more detail and one or two little counter-arguments. If those anticipated objections aren't already present in your mind, I hope that my little counters don't entirely spoil this page for you.

Someone in a pub once asked me about third wave feminism. I'm by no means well versed in the subject, but the rough impression I have of the overall lay of the land goes like this:

There are "waves"?

  1. First wave feminism is about really direct stuff. Getting women equal rights in law - chiefly the ability to vote. In UK society it seems to me that this wave spans the suffragettes through to the 60s.
  2. Second wave feminism seems to be what many people in our society think of when they hear the word "feminism". Think the 60s and 70s. This is when it became illegal to pay a woman less for doing the same job than you would pay a man. This is when rape crisis and battered women's shelters started to appear. Another important thing that came from this wave was the idea that equal rights in law are not enough if there are non-legal systems of oppression as well. For example, it doesn't matter that a woman is legally allowed to be a particle physicist, if none of the existing (male) particle physicists will take girls seriously enough to teach them.
  3. Everything from now on, I'm going to call "third wave feminism". I want to be clear though, that there seems to be some debate about whether a line has yet been crossed into something that may be called "fourth wave". I have a vague notion that some people may think of trans-rights and the deconstruction of sex and gender as being a milestone of that sort. I'm not going to get into that debate here. You can read about it yourself from primary sources if you wish. I'm a poor enough tour guide of the well trodden paths without attempting to take you to the current frontiers.

A good jumping off point into those primary sources might be good old wikipedia:

  1. First Wave
  2. Second Wave
  3. Third Wave

There's also a Geek Feminism wiki.

Patriarchy and Privilege

So, in the third wave we seem to start to get at least two important concepts: "Patriarchy" and "Privilege". 1 These are intertwined concepts. "Patriarchy" is a word used to describe the kind of non-legal system I alluded to earlier, when I talked about a young girl wanting to learn physics, but being unable to find a teacher who will take her seriously. "Privilege" is what you have if that non-legal system is arranged in your favour. Do practical real-world examples of these notions exist? Perhaps you can't bring any to mind? If you can't, the evidence seems to suggest that this is because of your privilege. The patriarchy is working so well in your favour that it is invisible to you. What evidence am I talking about? Studies such as these.

It's difficult to see these things because they are both subtle, and normal. No-one involved has to be aware that they are treating different classes of people differently. Human introspection is exceedingly difficult, and we are all riddled with biases. We are not perfectly rational agents. This is the subtlety. The normality of it is the kicker. White men are usually brought up with different expectations to black women. It takes serious effort to question things that you've taken for granted all your life. And you have no reason to go to that effort if it's all working in your favour anyway. Most people find that they have a knee-jerk reaction to defend their normality when other people question it. If you're interested in the truth, it might be an idea to try to learn to recognise that reaction in yourself.

There have been a few good analogies written about these intertwined concepts. Here are a couple of my favourites:

Here's another analogy I like about a very specific kind of male privilege:

That's related to this person's experience:

I described Patriarchy above as being a word to describe a system, but often you will see it written as "The Patriarchy". This phrase is used to describe the complex social system that we all live in, with an emphasis on the many different aspects of the system that tend to privilege some and not others. This does not imply that the system is wholly undesirable or unfair, just that there are significant parts of it which certainly are unfair, and hence undesirable.

A Detour Past "Mansplaining"

Sinfest on the patriarchy Now, there are a few common reactions that a lot of folk (well - mostly guys) have to being introduced to this stuff. I tried to head one of them off earlier with a cunning footnote1. Another reaction is particularly common among the scientifically trained. A lot of us have spent a great deal of time and effort training ourselves to treat all new ideas with scepticism. I think this is a good thing, and I'm emphatically not asking you to leave science at the door2. I am going to ask you to think on an analogy of the quantum uncertainty principle. You can't find out what photons are doing by shining a searchlight on them. In a similar way, if you are a white male scientist, and you come across a tale of discrimination from someone with far less privilege than you: grilling that person for all the details in an attempt to confirm their story may not be a good idea. It may be that it takes a great deal of effort on their part to tell even the parts of the story that you've heard so far. Be aware in your quest for knowledge that it is your quest. No-one else has a duty to explain it to you. One might argue that since the patriarchy gifts the more privileged with a better return on their expenditure of effort than the less privileged, perhaps it is the duty of the more privileged to research the nature of patriarchy and privilege themselves.

Here's what happens if (perhaps as a result of your privilege) you get too loud and confident too quickly, without spending enough time listening to what folk have to say.

Here's what hopefully happens if you take some time to listen, and start asking questions about the social structures around you.


If you start to question the patriarchy, you may find that your line of questioning leads you to the concepts of sex and gender themselves. In case you're unaware of the common definitions, the word "sex" is usually used to refer to a person's physical reproductive characteristics, while the word "gender" is usually used to refer to the social construct surrounding a particular sex. Hair length, clothing style, social status, etc. Starting with these definitions we might attempt to define a "transvestite" as a person of one sex who behaves (some or all of the time) according to the other gender. This is not a good idea for several reasons. First and foremost: it's a good way to offend a lot of people who have a lot less power than we do, and I was just arguing that we should be trying to listen more. Secondly: this definition of "transvestite" rests on some assumptions about those other two words "sex" and "gender", which seem not to be 100% true. If you looked at the first of those two articles you may have noticed that it used the word "trans" rather than "transvestite". You may also see "transsexual", "transgender" and "trans*". In my extremely limited experience people seem to use transsexual when they want to emphasise a physical experience, transgender either as an umbrella term or possibly when they want to emphasise a social experience, and trans* when they want to be inclusive. Transvestite in recent usage seems to be different again, and seems to have less to do with gender experience than it does to do with what someone feels comfortable wearing. For example, I think Eddie Izzard identifies as transvestite but not transgender.

I don't claim understand the subtleties of any of these words or the experiences they describe, and so I tend to default to using the word "trans*" in my own writing.

Another potentially unfamiliar word you may have noticed in that last article is "cis". The word "cis" is to "trans*" what "straight" is to "gay". It means you have a body that easily fits into a "sex" box, and a mind that easily fits into the "gender" box that corresponds with your "sex" box. If you've never really thought about which box you want to squeeze into, then it is your privilege to be cis. You might like to read a blog by someone who has thought, deeply and eruditely, about which boxes they want to crowbar themself into.

Did my last sentence sound a bit "icky" to you when you read it? See how I used "they" as a singular gender neutral pronoun, and compounded the sin with the almost entirely made-up-word "themself"? We actually don't have ready-made singular gender neutral pronouns in English, which makes it extremely difficult to speak or write about folk like Ganymede, who writes the blog I linked to there. How rubbish is that? Some people prefer to use something like the spivak pronouns. I personally prefer the singular "they", for the simple reason that I think you can understand my meaning when I use it without my needing point you at a wikipedia link. If you think I'm being overly finickity and should stick to the good old gendered pronouns we're all used to, then I invite you to consider how offensive that might be to someone who doesn't share our privilege:

Further Reading

Viruscomix 'Subnormality' on sexuality

Thus far each link I've shown you has been to demonstrate one point or another. But what general stuff is worth reading?

Well, there's "Lashings of Ginger Beer Time" - a queer feminist burlesque collective, who go to some effort to try to spread around these sorts of ideas. That link is to their blog - If you want a general picture of the area, take a look at their links roundups. There's often cool stuff on that blog. Here's a particularly cool post about the non-heteronormative throughout history.

There are also magazines like these3.

If you want to see what happens when you take cutting edge feminism and combine it with left wing politics, internet culture and some sort of seriously powerful force of nature - take a look at Laurie Penny. You can also follow her on twitter, read her stuff in the guardian and the new statesman, and buy her books.

I think that's probably enough to be going on with.

I've tried here to write what I can without falling into the "mansplaining" trap. This is difficult, because I'm a man writing about something I've never experienced (and can never experience) myself. I think I might mail it around a few friends to see if they'd like to correct me on anything. But I'm aware that I've made you two fine folk wait quite a long time for these links already, so I'm sending this email unedited. Please do call me out on it if you see something offensive in what I've written. In fact, that's a good general rule for life. If you see something offensive in any of my actions - I may not be aware of it! I shall endeavour to always be grateful for having been called out. Sometimes when people do that, awesome things happen.



If your intuitions about those words come from a general understanding of the English language, forget them. Treat these words as technical terms in academic literature - defined exclusively by that literature, and separate from the words used by the general population that are coincidentally spelled and pronounced exactly the same. This is no different from the way computer scientists use words like "tree" and "induction". They have their roots in the general meaning, but have since become distinct technical words. An important corollary of this fact of language is that there is no point whatsoever in arguing with the choice of these words to refer to these particular technical concepts. If you were around when Alonzo Church was formulating the lambda calculus, you may have had a shot at convincing him to call it the "phi calculus" because "phi" corresponds to "f" for "function", and therefore makes far more sense. But you weren't, so you can't. By the same measure, you have no hope of changing the words "Patriarchy" and "Privilege".


Notice how I linked to a couple of peer reviewed studies up there.


Disclaimer: I have sometimes heard Jezebel described as "mostly awesome with occasional argh". If you are still developing your argh-detector, I suggest you read through the stuff linked from the lashings blog first.

Date: 2013-05-08 Wed 00:00

Author: Gareth Smith

Created: 2021-01-31 Sun 16:29