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 What we resent is being treated as if our take on being feminine is obsolete.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

Lament of an Old Woman

It’s a curious thing, getting old. When I was younger I thought it would feel like slowly walking into a blank future, a kind of nothingness. Instead, it feels like life is sliding out from under me as it races backward. I’m not moving; I’m staying exactly the same. It’s my context that keeps changing. I continually find myself in a completely new environment but I’m the same person: from the inside, I think I look the same, I’m the same eternal (but indeterminate) age, I have the same values,  and I live by the same rules.

That’s why it’s such a shock sometimes to look around me and see others aging. My daughters are all over 30 now. My grandson is almost 12 already. But me? I can’t quite grasp the fact that if others are getting older, so am I.

I went to an office party the other night and I was the oldest person there by almost 30 years. I didn’t feel out of place, but I afterward I wondered if the others felt funny being around me. When they looked at me, were they thinking: this woman could be my mother! When I opened my mouth to make a comment or tell a story, did they brace themselves for something irrelevant and stuck in the past? Do I seem as old to them as a 90-year-old person seems to me?

I was reading a book the other day where one of the characters referred to a 40-year-old woman as “middle-aged.” Wait a minute, I thought, that’s not middle-aged. I’m middle-aged. But by some guidelines I’m practically a senior citizen. Now that I’m almost 59, I don’t think you should be considered a senior citizen until you’re 70.

What bothers me the most about aging is the presumption that I don’t know anything, when in reality the older you are, the more you know. I at least know what it’s like to be young. But young people don’t know what it’s like to be old. That gives older people an edge when it comes to life-wisdom. Old people have lived through almost everything. The only thing that’s new for them is new technology. Even history repeats itself.

Young people think they’re changing everything, but in reality, they’re only reinventing the wheel. Every old person remembers what it was like to drive the older generation crazy. It’s only the particulars that have changed. What our parents thought was shocking may seem old-hat to our children and grandchildren, but the feelings of shock were just as real as the shock that they will feel when the next generation comes up with its own brand of language, art and fashion.

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Jane Addams: Woman For Her Time

It’s so easy to think of history as something stuffy and irrelevant.  This is nowhere more true than when we’re reading about people who lived and died before our lifetimes. But if these same people were somehow transported into today’s reality, we would see more clearly how much influence they had in their own time.

Jane Addams is one of those people. She was born in 1860 and died in 1935. If she had been born a hundred years later she would be considered a Third Wave feminist. But she was much more than that. She started the settlement house movement* here in America.  Besides her charitable work, she became a mover and shaker in politics. She was the first vice president of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association,  a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and a charter member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She organized the Women’s Peace Party and the International Congress of Women. She was the first woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

With her accomplishments, if she were alive today, she would be more influential than all the present-day Third Wave feminists put together. She would be known internationally. And she would only be 50 years old. Her first book, Twenty Years at Hull House, was published exactly one hundred years ago this year and became a bestseller.

We still have the problems she worked so hard to combat: unemployment, lack of medical care and education for the poor, unfair and unsafe labor practices, discrimination against women, African-Americans and immigrants, and last but not least, war. But, unlike most of us, she would be doing something about them. About all of them.

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Thursday Thoughts: On Being a Young Feminist

Ah, to be a young feminist today! Wait, what would that look like? The 2010 National Young Feminist Leadership Conference that was held last weekend in Washington, D.C. provides us with one picture: 390 young feminist leaders came from 122 colleges in 30 states plus D.C. and Canada to learn more about what they can do as feminists to support abortion and reproductive rights, international family planning, the LGBTQ community, climate change, organizing on campuses, and feminist issues in general. (For a schedule of all events, see here.)

How does this kind of event compare with what was going on when I was a young feminist?

For one thing, there were no leadership conferences in Washington, D.C.  Instead, there were protest marches and consciousness-raising groups. Oh, the National Organization for Women (NOW) had just been formed, but its founders were older than women in my age group. I went to college in 1970, before Roe v. Wade, when abortion was illegal in every state except for a handful that allowed it in cases of rape, incest or the physical disability of the mother. New York became the first state to allow abortion for any reason up to the 24th week of pregnancy just a few months before I had my abortion in 1971. I was lucky, not because I was able to have an abortion (or because I needed one), but because I didn’t have to resort to an illegal abortion which might have jeopardized my health and future fertility.

Countless young women came to feminism via the same route I did. Finding ourselves pregnant and unable to obtain a legal abortion made us angry. Or if we had had abortions, it made us angry that we had to go through legal and medical hoops to get them (if we were able to get legal ones at all). The anti-abortion movement had not yet found its impetus; that would come with Roe v. Wade.  The mood was ripe in the country for a woman to have a right to privacy as to what she did with her own body. And that had a lot to do with the feminist movement.

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Post-Feminism

What is post-feminism and are we experiencing it? One of my favorite blogs, Finally, A Feminist 101 Blog, discusses post-feminism thoroughly in its FAQs. The article on Post-Feminism, by tekanji, explains in part:

“According to Wikipedia post-feminism began in the early 1980’s, though the origins, according to Hawkensworth, seem to be from as early as the 1970’s, when journalists and academics began proclaiming that feminism is dead. The basic idea behind the movement is that feminism has achieved its goals and now it is time to distance ourselves from the movement…

No matter what form it may take, however, it is clear that the movement arose out of a backlash against feminism. This backlash is often ascribed to the specialization and splintering of feminism, which is seen by many post-feminists as one of the root causes for feminism’s decline. Regardless of which frame is put on it, though, this backlash carries one primary notion: post-feminism’s rise signals a world ‘in which feminism has been transcended, occluded, overcome’ (Hawkensworth).”

I suppose whether or not we’re in a post-feminist world depends on who you ask. Second Wave feminists like me, while acknowledging that the tenor of feminism has changed, are hardly likely to pronounce feminism is dead. This is partly because of the way Second Wavers saw the problems of women in our patriarchal society. Some people think that feminism has served its purpose because so many advancements fought for by Second Wave feminists have been achieved.

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Does Coloring My Hair Make Me A Bad Feminist?

ClairolI started coloring my hair when I was 15 by using Summer Blonde. It gave my hair that “sun-kissed” look which was de rigueur among teens in the ’60s. But the main reason I used it was because the blonde hair I was born with was darkening and I just didn’t feel like myself with brown hair.

However, at the same time that I was lending nature a helping hand, feminists were proclaiming that women should stop altering their looks just so they would be considered desirable by men. As I grew into the feminist mindset in my late teens, I became conflicted about coloring my hair and I let it grow out to its natural color for a while. I couldn’t stand it. I went back to lightening my hair.

Was I coloring my hair for myself or for men? And is there a difference?

What I mean by that last question is that women may find it so important for men to think of them as beautiful that it actually becomes a psychological need. Their self-image is not based solely on what they personally like but what they think men will like.

I’ve seen this need push women into changing their hair color with unfortunate results. Brittany Murphy (God rest her soul) is a case in point. She apparently believed the old advertising slogan that “Gentlemen prefer blondes” and set out to make herself over as one. But she was much more attractive as a brunette, which was her natural coloring.

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