Second and Third Wave Feminists

If anything typifies the modern young woman it is her ability to take her rights as a woman for granted. This is even true of young feminists. They may acknowledge, if pressed, that there are still issues that need to be addressed, but they don’t seem to have any personal misgivings about whether or not they will be. If anything, they are critical of earlier incarnations of feminists (usually the Second Wave feminists) for being too pessimistic about society. They feel that SW fems are trying to make a tempest in a teapot. Women’s problems have largely been solved. Society has seen the error of its ways. End of story.

When I took Women’s Studies courses a year ago, I was struck by the past tense status of SW feminism. It was as if we were merely an entry in a history book. I suppose to young people we are. But I usually don’t think of someone’s life as “history” until she’s dead. I’m not dead yet, although I may seem to be ancient to the 20 and 30-year-olds of today.

I’m not exactly sure where the lines of demarcation are for Second and Third Wave feminists, but surely anyone born after the ’60s would qualify for Third Wave status. That puts all my daughters in that category. I think they would all identify themselves as feminists, but they don’t talk about it much. Maybe that’s one difference between Second and Third Wave feminists. SW feminists talked, wrote, and protested openly and constantly. Third Wave feminism is almost an underground movement. There are leaders out there, but they don’t have the visibility that leaders in SW feminism had.

That could be a mistaken perception on my part. There is the generation gap to consider. I may not see the leaders and the things that are being done for the sake of feminism today because I’m out of touch with the younger generation. But I don’t think that accounts for all of it. During the Democratic campaign for presidential candidate, whenever there was a discussion about feminist principles, it was always SW feminists who were quoted and reported on. Whenever the discussion came up, it was about SW feminists who were for Clinton. I never heard a young woman say, “I’m for Obama because I’m a feminist.” I’m not saying that no young woman ever said that, but it certainly didn’t seem to be newsworthy. Is that because TW feminists are so low-key about their feminism?

It seems to me that TW feminists treat their feminism the way many people treat their religion. They say that they’re religious but they never go to church, synagogue, or mosque. They don’t read and write and speak about their religions. And they certainly don’t go out and protest as representatives of their religions. It’s as if feminism is a personal decision which has nothing to do with society and the world at large. And yet I realize that it does have to be personal first, just as religious belief should be (ideally). Institutionalized feminism just isn’t going to be as passionate as the grassroots movement was during the 60s and 70s.

What do I mean by institutionalized feminism? More about that in a later post.

Second Wave Outrage

I just read Rebecca Traister’s article on Salon.com about Hillary supporters. The title is “Why Clinton Voters Say They Won’t Support Obama,” and the subtitle is “The Attack of the PUMAs, Or A Dozen Reasons Why Clinton Voters Are Too Angry To Come Home.” I thought she hit the nail right on the head. And then I read some of the comments.

I was appalled at the ones which railed against white middle class Second Wave feminists as if we were a bunch of racists, just because we wanted Hillary to get the nomination. I wasn’t for Clinton because she was white and I wasn’t for her just because she was a woman. But her gender influenced me, sure. Are you going to tell me that Obama’s race doesn’t influence some voters (i.e., black ones) to vote for him? Why else would it be said that he has a loyal voting bloc among African-Americans? Oh, but it’s okay to want to be loyal to your race. What isn’t okay is being loyal to your gender!

I wouldn’t have voted for just any woman for President, although I admit that I would give a female candidate a little more leeway than I would a man, because I think it’s about time we had a woman president. So sue me.

So will I switch my vote to Obama? Yes, because as Traister points out in her article, there is nowhere else to go. There’s no way in hell I would vote for McCain. But that doesn’t mean that I’m happy about Obama, and it has nothing to do with the fact that he’s black or male. I feel that we (white middle class Second Wave fems) are having to settle for second best. I’m not a PUMA (“Party Unity My Ass”), because I will remain true to my party. But I’m still angry. I know I have to get over it in order to give Obama all the support he will need to beat McCain. But for now let me stew in my juices.

Division in the Ranks

I was reading an article this morning in Salon about the divide among feminists when it came to the vote between Obama and Clinton. The writer divided feminists into optimistic feminists and pessimistic ones. Second Wavers tend to be pessimistic: they saw the Clinton campaign as the one chance in a generation for a woman to get close to the Oval Office. (Geraldine Ferraro was in 1984). The optimistic feminists tend to be mostly young women who just don’t think that sexism is a big issue anymore.

Although I agree that Clinton’s campaign has broken new ground for women in politics, I still think this is a much more patriarchal (and white) society than people want to admit. For one thing, the infusion of immigrants has done little to dispel that: many of the immigrant groups are just as patriarchal in their structure as American society has ever been. Many are even more patriarchal. While it can be argued that second-generation immigrants often become assimilated to their new country and its mores quite quickly—which means that they put their family’s patriarchal outlook behind them—there are still going to be vestiges of their parents’ prejudices toward women in their attitudes for at least another generation. I don’t think the battle is won yet. For all the women who have broken the gender ceiling there are hundreds more who wouldn’t even think of trying.

I’m probably displaying my Second Wave sentiments with that last statement. Not every woman has to try to break the gender ceiling. Women should be as free to choose the kind of women they’re going to be as men are free to choose what kind of men they’re going to be (which, admittedly, is not as often as or to the degree that even they would like). What I want for women is that they can genuinely feel that they have choices, and more significantly, that their daughters have even more choices. A woman who stays home with the children by choice but still feels unfulfilled is not investigating all her choices. She could work part-time or get child-care while pursuing an interest. She could get her husband to take on more child-rearing responsibilities while she takes advantage of income-making opportunities. But for many women it’s easier to “just” be a mom. Thus a free choice becomes somewhat of a trap.

Then there are the women who work out of economic necessity. Where is the quality and affordable child care that makes it possible for them to be mothers as well as workers? That is another manifestation of sexism. Those women are not being well-served in this society. Their needs are being left out of the equation, because, after all, no one made them have children, or go to work after they had them. Right.

Yes, things are better than they used to be for women. But as long as biology dictates different responses to reproduction and sexuality, there are going to be differences in the way that women are treated as compared to men. As long as women and men look at each other from across a broad divide, there will be a certain amount of competition between them. And the men are used to winning. They won’t give up their power easily. They may play lip service to the idea of sexual equality, but they don’t really believe it and they undermine women in subtle ways. And in a post-feminist world (as many see it), they are even more careful to keep their sexism under wraps.

If this sounds like I’m paranoid, it’s because I’ve tried to function in a sexist world all my life. I graduated from high school in 1970, I was married by 1972 and by 1980 I had four children. I’ve been married four times and divorced three. I was married to a minister the first time (instead of becoming one myself) and was made to feel inferior for being a woman. (For instance, I wasn’t supposed to talk in adult Sunday School discussions.) I’ve fought for custody and lost, gotten poorer after each divorce while the man went on with his life unscathed (or even flourished), and found myself directed toward womanly pursuits and livelihoods at every turn.

Maybe the feminist movement is divided because it’s not the same world it was for Second Wavers. We’re not going to breathe easy and young women are not going to be cautious. We need to understand each other’s worlds. Older feminists are being made to feel extraneous and younger feminists are being made to feel naive. As each new generation comes along they have a tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater: their parents’ ways have no validity for them. And the older generation finds it difficult to transition to what is a very different world than the one they grew up in.

My generation would love to be more optimistic, but we fear that the younger generation is too optimistic. A healthy balance between the two would be the way to go. The worlds each inhabit are neither black nor white. Life has a tendency to be shades of gray. We need each other to make it through the danger zones to our destinations. And we need to remember that each woman’s destination is her own to choose.

Definitions of Feminism

“I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is. I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute.” –Rebecca West, journalist and suffrage campaigner, 1913.

Ninety-five years later, feminism is still having that crisis of identity. No one can agree on what feminists believe. After all, anyone can call herself (or himself) a feminist. There are Second and Third Wave feminists, New Feminists (a Catholic Church phenomenon), Liberal Feminists, Radical Feminists, Marxist and Socialist Feminists, Cultural Feminists, and Eco-Feminists, to name a few.

See here for definitions.
For a more exhaustive list of types and definitions, go here.

What worries me the most about modern-day feminism is that it is largely ignored. It’s not much of a movement if no one is paying attention to it. While it’s true that it’s better to have many categories of feminism than no feminism at all, I do think that all the split-offs dilute the feminist message. Say what you will about Second Wave (and First Wave) feminists, they were a force to be reckoned with.

What can be learned from the Women’s Liberation Movement for today’s feminist movement? Was it Women’s Libbers’ ideology or their solidarity that made them so influential? Why don’t we have that same power today? Could it possibly have to do with the fact that we’re more concerned with categorizing ourselves than with working for common goals?

Female Politicians

It’s increasingly looking like Obama is going to win the nomination. But I haven’t counted Clinton out yet. I worry because I don’t think Obama could beat McCain, and I think Clinton could. But they both have serious “flaws”: Obama is inexperienced and black and Clinton is well, a Clinton, and a woman. One reason I think Obama will win the nomination is because, from a bigot’s point of view, Obama is the best kind of black and Clinton is the worst kind of woman. I also think that Clinton’s hurting herself with her stance on health care. Hers is the most expensive and includes the word “mandatory.” Americans don’t like being told what to do, even if it’s for their own good. (I remember the furor over mandatory seat belts and safety helmets.)

What I can’t understand is feminists who are for Obama. I wonder how many of them are second wave feminists and how many are third wave (and therefore younger). There could be a sort of ageism going on. Just like in the 60s when everyone over 30 was considered suspect, now it’s everyone over 50. I do hope that when the presidential election rolls around, the younger people in this country will come out in droves to vote. To judge by my own children, only 50% will. Maybe their ageism also makes them suspicious of politicians in general, most of whom are older than they are.

When I took one of my Women’s Studies courses, I made a plea in one class that the young women there consider a life in politics. None of them seemed interested. I understand that, but in my opinion it has to be changed. Too many people think that public office is unattainable, but it isn’t. Initially it takes preparation and perseverance. The money will follow if they get the following and the support of those already in office. There are organizations who will fund female candidates, like EMILY’s List and the Barbara Lee Family Foundation.

Click here for the story of a woman politician in Buffalo, N.Y.

Click here for facts about women legislators in the U.S.

Click here for something that will make your blood boil!