Second Wave feminists like myself are feeling adrift because their platform is old news, even if it is still germane. Women are making better money and getting promoted more often than they used to. They have gained entrance to some of the former male bastions like politics, medicine, law, sports, science and the military. Girls’ scores are going up in math and science and more than half of all college graduates are women. Women can get credit in their own name and earn their own credit scores. More women own their own homes than ever before. Marriage is a more equitable institution than it used to be (as is divorce). Pregnancy is no longer grounds for dismissal.
And there have been some unintended consequences, which conservatives are fond of blaming feminism for. It’s no longer de rigeur to give women full custody of their children or life-time alimony. Single mothers are expected to work, even (especially?) those on welfare. More women are having children out of wedlock. Women in the military are not exempted from deployment when they have minor children. More women are working outside of the home and still doing most of the housework (although you can hardly blame feminism for the latter). And since feminism tried to erase the difference between men and women, both sexes are less sure of their sexual identities. (I love it when conservatives levy these charges against feminism but won’t give the movement credit for the good things it has accomplished.)
Considering the mixed bag of results, it’s no wonder that people are divided about the positive aspects of feminism. No woman wants to be branded as a man-hater or an old maid. Women want to be able to be feminine without being accused of shallowness. They want the security of sex roles and male protection. They don’t want to be alone.
At the same time, they want to be their own person. And that, in a nutshell, is what feminism has come to mean today. It is all about the personal. Freedom to wear make-up and high heels. The right to enjoy sex and the interplay between the sexes. Not being forced into the marketplace just because that’s the feminist thing to do. Being able to be a woman in the fullest sense of the word, not some androgynous being who is cold and selfish. Not having to be like a man.
It’s a confusing time to be a feminist. It could be argued that you don’t have a movement unless the personal becomes political. Today’s young women may be interested in politics, but not as a way to espouse feminist ideology. The problem with today’s movement, such as it is, is that today’s feminists see yesterday’s feminists as their enemies. They’re fighting for their rights to be feminine, to stay at home with their kids, to be protected by their men, to not have to work 60-hour weeks. In other words, they’re reacting against us. What we’re experiencing is the effects of the generation gap.
But because no one is disputing their rights to be themselves in these ways, feminism has lost its message. Of course no one is telling them that they can’t be “girly,” that they can’t stay at home with their kids, that they don’t have to work their lives away. Our society-at-large agrees with them. There’s nothing for today’s feminists to react against.
Of course that’s not true. There are still plenty of things wrong with this society that can and should be addressed by feminism. But until Third Wave feminists see the battles that truly need to be won, they’re not going to win the war. Second Wave feminists aren’t the enemy. Get over it.