Third Wave: The Early Years

“So I write this as a plea to all women, especially women of my generation: Let Thomas’ confirmation serve to remind you, as it did me, that the fight is far from over. Let this dismissal of a woman’s experience move you to anger. Turn that outrage into political power. Do not vote for them unless they work for us. Do not have sex with them, do not break bread with them, do not nurture them if they don’t prioritize our freedom to control our bodies and our lives. I am not a post-feminist feminist. I am the Third Wave.” – Rebecca Walker

The early 90s were packed with events that riveted and shocked young people, like the Rodney King trial and decision, the William Kennedy Smith rape trial, Clarence Thomas’s confirmation to the US Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court’s decision on Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, which upheld mandatory 24-hour waiting periods and other restrictions to abortion. What did all of these events have in common? They were about pressing issues that affect young women: sexual harassment, rape, race in America, reproductive health, economics, and class.

And yet, when you turned on the television, read the news, or listened to the radio, no one was talking or listening to young women. The pundits and experts were almost always white men discussing the ramifications of various legal arguments, not the reality of these issues, not the impact they would have on young women’s lives.

In January 1992, Rebecca Walker wrote an article for Ms. magazine examining the impact of the Clarence Thomas confirmation. Her article was titled “Becoming the Third Wave.” Walker articulated a rage, anger, and hunger for action that resonated with young women and men across the country who wrote to Ms. declaring themselves part of the Third Wave. By May 1992, Walker and Shannon Liss had started the Third Wave Direct Action Corporation. The organization’s initial mission was to fill a void in young women’s leadership and to mobilize young people to become more involved socially and politically in their communities.

Before the organization had time to solidify, it was already at work on its inaugural project, Freedom Summer ‘92. In addition to registering or reaching out to more than 20,000 new voters, the result was a strong sense of community, empowerment, and leadership among the Freedom Summer Riders. For the next two years, Third Wave Direct Action Corporation continued to work with the nucleus of Freedom Summer alumni and other young women and men.

By 1995, Third Wave Direct Action’s priorities were responding to letters from young feminists around the country, enlarging the organization’s membership base, responding to the media’s misrepresentation of Gen X, and creating a lasting organization. In addition, much of Third Wave’s energy went toward finding creative ways to raise money for projects led by and for young women.

At the same time, research from the philanthropic world was showing that less than four percent of all philanthropic dollars were directed to programs serving women and girls. Recognizing that even fewer dollars were making it to the innovative programs that Third Wave Direct Action members were leading across the country, Amy Richards and Rebecca Walker began having conversations with Catherine Gund and Dawn Martin about the need to have a fund for young women. Out of these conversations, the Third Wave Fund was born.

In 1997, and with much support from the philanthropic community and generous individuals, Third Wave Fund morphed into the Third Wave Foundation. Under the guidance of a multi-class, multi-gendered, multi-racial board comprised of 25 young people, Third Wave Foundation distributed almost $13,000 in grants its very first year. The initial individuals and groups supported and laid the base upon which future grantmaking would be built: emergency funding for abortions, scholarships, building young-women-led reproductive rights organizations, and providing general operating support for young-women-led groups and projects.

From the beginning, it was clear that Third Wave was a multi-issue feminist organization. The experiences of board members as activists, the calls from our membership, and the types of requests we received all indicated that Third Wave would support the leadership of young women as they worked on issues like environmental justice, prison reform, living wage campaigns, as well as on more traditional feminist issues like reproductive rights. Third Wave’s definition of feminism would explicitly connect women’s issues to issues of race, sexuality, class, and ability.