Second Wave Feminists: We’re Not Dead Yet

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 What we resent is being treated as if our take on being feminine is obsolete.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.

10 Fascinating Sub-movements Within Feminism

Jena Ellis of Online Certificate Programs suggested that I share this article which was recently published on their website:

Since the first organized feminist movement in the 1850s, feminism has changed the face of women’s civil rights in the United States. From legal protection, political participation and social progress, feminism has brought women closer to overall equality. While the goals of feminism appear to be simple, the feminist movement is actually quite complex. Feminism is categorized into three distinct waves and each of these waves contains several sub-movements that have their own ideology within the overall feminist movement. Here are 10 fascinating sub-movements within feminism:

  1. Liberal Feminism
    Liberal feminism promotes equality for men and women though political and legal reform. This feminism movement focuses on women’s ability to demonstrate equality through their actions and choices, without altering the structure of society. Liberal feminism promotes gender equality by looking at the interactions between men and women, in order to make changes that will benefit both sexes and implement better laws. Liberal feminists focus on important issues like reproductive rights and abortion access, sexual harassment, voting, education, affordable healthcare and childcare and equal pay for work and other equality rights.
  2. Socialist Feminism
    Socialist feminism centers on the public and private areas of a woman’s life. It claims that liberation can only be achieved by ending economic and cultural sources of women’s oppression. Socialist feminism encompasses Marxist feminism’s belief that capitalism has a role in women’s oppression, as well as radical feminism’s belief that gender and patriarchy also play a role. Followers of socialist feminism critique traditional Marxism for not making the natural connection between patriarchy and classism, and instead Marx put class oppression first hoping gender oppression would vanish thereafter. Today, social feminists put most of their efforts toward separating gender oppression from class oppression.
  3. Radical Feminism
    Radical feminism is based on the idea that the male-controlled capitalist hierarchy is the root of women’s oppression. Unlike liberal or socialist feminism, radical feminism zeros in on the root cause of women’s oppression from patriarchal gender relations and feminists seek to abolish patriarchy. Radical feminists believe the only way to change the system of power is to analyze the underlying causes of oppression through revolution and taking direct action.
  4. Anti-Pornography Movement
    The anti-pornography movement is backed by many feminists, who believe pornography has many harmful effects on society and encourages serious issues like human trafficking, pedophilia, sexual assault and dehumanization. Feminists, along with religious groups, psychologists and ex-porn stars, reject the belief that pornography promotes sexual expression and sexual freedom, but rather exploits women and contributes to the male-centered objectification of women, which leads to sexism. Feminists who support the anti-pornography movement believe that pornography is a central example of women’s oppression. This early 1980s movement gave way to the sex-positive feminism movement that had opposing views about pornography and sexual expression, causing what was called the “Feminist Sex Wars.”
  5. Sex-Positive Feminism
    Sex-positive feminism, also called pro-sex feminism, sex-radical feminism and sexually liberal feminism, is an important movement from the early 1980s that promoted sexual freedom for women and opposed the anti-pornography feminists’ belief that pornography causes desensitization, sexual exploitation and dehumanization of women. Sex-positive feminists are against legal or social efforts to control sexual activities of consenting adults and support sexual minority groups. They also embrace human sexuality in its entirety, while rejecting the patriarchy limits and control of sexual expression.
  6. Cultural Feminism
    The cultural feminism movement derives from radical feminism by expanding on an ideology of a female nature or essence that sets women apart from men. Cultural feminism highlights undervalued female attributes and focuses on individual lifestyle. Instead of urging women to go against social norms and participate in mostly mail-dominated work, such as politics, the cultural feminism movement focuses on explaining the differences in women and men by using biological comparisons. Critics of cultural feminism find it to be an unrealistic transformation and non-progressive way of thinking because it advocates independence rather than coalition to end oppression.
  7. Separatist Feminism
    Separatist feminism is a form of radical feminism, which focuses exclusively on women and girls while opposing patriarchy entirely. Separatist feminists do not support heterosexual relationships, nor do they condone working with or having personal or casual relationships with men. Separatist feminists believe that men offer no positive contributions to the feminist movement and will only keep patriarchy alive. This movement, as well as lesbian feminism and lesbian separatism have been highly criticized for being sexist in and of itself.
  8. Conservative Feminism
    Conservative feminism is a less radical movement that shares views closer to the majority and even sometimes questions whether gender difference, discrimination or women’s oppression truly exist and to what extent. Conservative feminists may be conservative to their society or take a less aggressive approach to oppression.
  9. Postmodern Feminism
    Postmodern feminism incorporates both postmodern and post-structural theory that believes sex and gender are socially constructed, and it’s unjust to generalize women’s experiences across the board. Postmodern feminism challenges previous feminist theories and discounts the essentialist definitions of femininity from modern feminism. Postmodern feminism breaks away from the traditional thinking of overemphasizing the experiences of upper middle-class white women in America and explores the oppression experiences of women from other cultures and time periods.
  10. Ecofeminism
    Ecofeminism is based on the idea that man’s control of land caused gender inequality and destruction of the natural environment. Ecofeminism makes a correlation between environmentalism and feminism, in which the oppression of women in society and the degradation of nature paved the way for patriarchy and male domination over women, nature and other races. Ecofeminism has been criticized for misandry and pinpointing men as the root of most problems, but it also discusses the oppression of minority males by other men.

The Feminist Generation Gap

How is it that a feminist can look so different depending on her age? I don’t just mean physical appearance, but also behavior and attitude. Obviously, Second Wave feminists are older than Third or Fourth  Wave feminists. But that isn’t the only difference.

My daughters would probably consider themselves feminists, but they don’t talk about it. They take a lot of things for granted that Second Wave feminists fought for. They’re so busy going after the things they want out of life, they don’t stop and think that if they’d been born thirty years earlier, they wouldn’t have all the options they have today.

When I was growing up, babies born out of wedlock were called illegitimate. Couples didn’t live together without being married. Married women didn’t keep their names. Help Wanted ads were divided by gender. A doctor, lawyer or minister was almost always a man. Nice girls didn’t talk about sex. (They might be engaging in it, but they weren’t talking about it.) Abortions weren’t legal anywhere. Single people, including gays, couldn’t adopt children. There were no female Supreme Court justices. No one in his (or her) right mind would have considered voting for a woman for President. High schools had dress codes. (I was a sophomore before we were allowed to wear slacks—not jeans—to school.) If one parent stayed home with the kids, it was always the woman. You never heard a swear word on television or in song lyrics. And women always wore bras.

And I haven’t even touched on the technological changes!

The world looks a lot different these days. Movies and even television are much more explicit, in language, violence and sexual activity. Girls are openly giving blow jobs at high school parties. Women’s clothing is see-through, peek-a-boo, and barely there. Couples often have children before (or instead of) getting married. Not one but two women have had their names bandied about as possible Presidential candidates.  Lesbians and gays and single people of either sex can adopt children. Children are started in test tubes. There are more single mothers than ever and living together before getting married is so commonplace, we see unmarried (and gay) couples buying houses together on HGTV!

It’s no wonder that Second Wave feminists seem out of touch with present day-reality. We’re in shock. We can’t imagine growing up in a world where women don’t automatically put their husbands’ careers before their own, where they keep their own names, talk freely about sex, become astronauts and CEOs, wear maternity wedding dresses, have the same amount of access to sports as men do, and often make more than the men in their lives.

Some people pronounce feminism dead just because things are so different than they were in the past. But not everything has changed, or changed all that much. Women still do more of the housework and child-raising than men do. They are still ghetto-ized in low-paying jobs. There is still a double standard where sex is concerned. Little girls still dream of their wedding day. Female participation in politics is till far below the percentage of females that there are in society. Women still worry more about their appearance than men do. And, at least for the forseeable future, women still have the babies.

Considering all the changes that have taken place since I was a girl, I can’t help but wonder what the world will be like for my grandchildren. My grandson talks naturally about getting married and having children (a girl and twin boys). He can clean a bathroom better than I can. I don’t have any granddaughters (yet), so I don’t know how their lives will reflect even more of the changes that feminism has wrought. Maybe someday feminism will be an archaic term and no one will feel the need to label themselves as feminists.

But somehow I doubt it.

Interview With Rebecca Traister

Illustration by Sarah Karnasiewicz

Rebecca Traister is a senior editor at who writes about women in media, politics and entertainment from a feminist perspective. Her new book, Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election That Changed Everything For American Women, is being released tomorrow as a hardback and an ebook. I plan to get my hands on a copy as soon as possible, for two reasons: 1) I really like the way Traister thinks and writes; and 2) I believe this will be an important book not only for feminists, but for anyone who is interested in American politics.

Below is a video of Traister talking about some of the issues she deals with in the book: also just published Curtis Sittenfeld’s  interview with Traister about the book, which you can read here.

The Hidden World of Girls


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