Second Wave Feminists and Sex Appeal

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Ah, the good old days! I sure miss the time when feminists would come out in force to protest something they felt strongly about. For example: a little over forty years ago, on Sept. 7, 1968, 150 women protested the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City. This was one of the first large demonstrations of the Second Wave of feminism in this country, aka the Women’s Liberation Movement. The reason for this protest seems self-evident to me, but then, as a Second Wave feminist myself, I can relate to the thinking of the protesters. To wit: beauty pageants exploit women.

Am I showing my age here? From what I’ve read of Third Wave feminism, beauty pageants may well be a dead issue for them. They may even see them as a form of feminine empowerment. I suppose they could be seen that way, but I lean toward feeling that women sell their souls in order to become icons that are pleasing to men. That may be putting it a little strongly, I admit. I am not immune to the artifices women use to retain a sense of their feminine power; as a way to stave off my concerns about aging I have turned to make-up and fashion to make me feel that I am still somewhat desirable. But why should I have to feel that I am a shadow-woman if I no longer have sex-appeal?

The difference between Second Wave and Third Wave feminists is that Second Wave feminists were ahead of their chronological age when they protested the Miss America pageant. They could see into their futures when a woman would be discarded as no longer important when she begins to visibly age. They could relate to women who were already there. They were also concerned with those who came behind them: they didn’t want their children and grandchildren to be caught in the same trap.

But now we find that younger feminists are no longer worried about this issue. They are claiming their right to be “grrls,” to be feminine in defiance of what men think about them sexually. I can see their point but I still worry about the insidiousness of the way men project their ideal of feminine beauty onto women. Second Wave feminists were protesting the process by which women are made to feel inferior by not measuring up to that ideal. Third Wave feminists may well be fooling themselves if they think they are not affected by this process.

It’s easy for young women to feel complacent about and protective of their womanly wiles. All they have to do is be young, and they are considered to be appealing. They won’t relate to Second Wave feminists’ concerns about using sex appeal to gain acceptance until they themselves reach middle age. I guarantee it. And by then it may be too late to recapture what they lost when they were trying to be feminine according to society’s standards.

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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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