Second Wave Feminists: We’re Not Dead Yet

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As I navigate the Internet searching for feminist resources, I come to an unpleasant conclusion: Second Wave feminists are either all dead or might as well be.

I understand about the generation gap. I do. I know that younger feminists are eager to find their own way in the world. They don’t want to do feminism the way their mothers (and grandmothers!) did it. But do they have to shut us out so completely?

Everything I read is seems to be geared toward girls (or Grrls). Which in itself is weird to me, since feminists from the ’60s and ’70s fought so hard to get people to stop using “girl” or “lady” for “woman.”  (Can you imagine Helen Reddy singing “I Am Girl, hear me roar”? Do you even know who Helen Reddy is??) We felt that to be called a girl was a way of infantilizing us. We wanted to be treated like grown-ups.

I also understand that young feminists don’t give a shit what others think of them, including other feminists (especially older ones). If they want to dress sexy or be obsessed with fashion and makeup, that’s their right. If they want to stay home with their children instead of having careers, that’s their right, too. That doesn’t make them less feminist in their way of thinking.

But what they don’t realize is that older feminists get that. We even admire it to some extent. What we resent is being treated as if our take on being feminine is obsolete. We stress(ed) not getting caught up in the societal attitudes that objectify us.  We didn’t want to be seen as just another pretty face or to be judged by our appearance. We worry that younger feminists are playing into the hands of men who want to keep us in categories they approve: sexual partner, mother, wife, girlfriend, servant.

Which brings us to another difference between Second Wave and subsequent waves of feminists: we blamed men for everything. Or at least we are characterized that way. Actually, we felt that men were as trapped as women were by role expectations and that everyone would be better off if we could break free from those expectations.

I’m not saying that today’s feminists don’t see the sexism in our society. They’re just less likely to blame it on patriarchy. They believe that women have been somewhat complicit in the downgrading of women. And they’re all about taking responsibility for their own choices in life. They don’t want to be hemmed in by what older feminists think is acceptable feminist behavior.

We should have anticipated the generation gap and prepared for our own obsolescence. But instead it seems as if Second Wave feminists have retreated into our middle-aged shells. There’s barely a peep from us on the Internet.

Is it just because we’re old fogeys who haven’t kept up with the times? Is our age to blame for our lack of relevance in the world today?

I’ve used the past tense almost all the way through this post to describe Second Wave feminists. That just goes to show you how even we have bought into the idea that we’re has-beens.

But I for one refuse to lie down and die. I think the Second Wave still has a lot to offer. I even think that Third and Fourth Wave feminists owe us. Without us, they would have neither the opportunities nor the respect that younger women enjoy today.

First Wave feminists prepared the ground for women’s advancement. Second Wave feminists planted the tree. And now today’s feminists are grafting other species onto that tree. What that will mean for the future is anyone’s guess. But we could all use each other’s help to tend what is being created.

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Ellen Keim

Ellen is a freelance writer, essayist and copy editor, living with three cats and a husband in Columbus, OH.

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