Third Wave Feminism – Drowning in the Shallow End (Comment from USA)

… I’ve puzzled for most of my adult life about the third wave of feminism, longing for a connection with an organized and active women’s movement that always seemed just beyond my vantage point. I searched diligently for it in my undergraduate and graduate careers, in quests that led me to join women’s groups and co-found a feminist blog. I read countless collections and many first-person essays. And after almost 15 years of searching, I’ve finally come to the disappointing conclusion that the designation third wave is a profound misnomer, and that looking for a groundswell is a fool’s errand. Even as I had that thought last year, calls for the fourth wave began in earnest, though again, as of this writing, no feminist tsunamis are evident.

After a disappointing wade into the shallow third wave, I’ve come to think that the watery metaphor should be tossed out altogether, and our focus aligned away from the coming of the next bout of sisterhood-is-powerful. Instead, we should set our sights on tangible, civic-minded outcomes: documenting and protesting the inequality that still structures women’s lives in the United States and abroad, for example, rather than debating the nature of feminism itself. In this work we can perhaps inspire generations to come, but more importantly, we will create productive action today. Feminism has been so utterly focused on the engagement of new generations and the faults of the past that it has for some time misplaced its sense of purpose in the now. …

The focus on newness inherent in our current use of the wave metaphor has made feminism vulnerable to consumerism. The quickest way for younger feminists to appear as the next new hot thing has been to call the second wave passé. “Strident feminism can seem out of place — even tacky — in a world where women have come so demonstrably far” … The passé problem is particularly evident in the third wave’s output, as it seeks to truss up feminism as desirable and sell it to women in their thirties and younger by defanging the political edge of the movement, essentially making feminism marketable. Mainstream feminists organizations are also guilty of trussing up feminism for a new age. … The result of such fuzzy campaigns, says feminist scholar Jane Elliott, author of the recent book Popular Feminist Fiction as American Allegory, is a level of feminist engagement comparable to green-minded consumers who call themselves environmentalists after buying a bar of herb-infused eco-friendly soap.

If an easy and palatable feminism is antithetical to feminism’s real task—to incite major, structural change—then what has been the use of third wave feminism? At this point, its major accomplishment seems to have been selling books and supporting speaking tours of minor celebrities who have attached themselves to the third wave brand. Where earlier generations of feminism formed press collectives to circulate their work to eager audiences, third wavers find themselves at home in major publishing houses, from Random House to Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Viewed kindly, the third wave of feminism ensured that women’s rights remained an issue in the public’s mind, despite these shortcomings. Viewed uncharitably, a position I am inclined to take, the third wave channelled what was left of the women’s movement into mainstream banality. …

The quality—and the significance—of work offered by third wave feminism suffers from this intermediary position. For example, both second and third wave feminists are concerned with violence against women. But while second wave feminist Susan Brownmiller’s groundbreaking book Against Our Will: Men Women and Rape helped institutionalize legislative and procedural changes and attacked the idea that women “were asking for it,” Jennifer Baumgardner recently began a multimedia public awareness campaign about the continued prevalence of rape to “inspire discussion”. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with public discussions of rape; indeed there is so little wrong with it, so little controversial about it some thirty years after Brownmiller’s game-changing book, I wonder if a third wave campaign is needed to make the point, particularly as it sheds little new light on rape today, other than to point out it still occurs and is still painful, facts noted on an annual basis by the Take Back the Night rallies on college campuses across the U.S.

These marked contrasts and sharp exchanges between the second and third wave of feminism result from a larger cultural conversation from the turn of the century post-backlash years. The argument engaged in intergenerational spats and the softer approach of the third wave is primarily about popular perceptions of feminists: Are they militant, sexless, and dogmatic or sexy, freethinking, and label-less advocates for equal rights for women (and men)? The problem is, as others including Faludi have noted, this is a false dichotomy. The vision of 1970s feminists as eunuch cranks is not actual history, it’s a fantasy produced by the widespread cultural rejection of and ridicule for feminists, perhaps best exemplified by the label feminazi, popularized by Rush Limbaugh’ radio show and still widely used to discount any feminist conversation challenging enough to cause discomfort. In this definition, feminism seeks not equality but domination, and feminists are unappealing shrews who systematically stomp out the traditional joys of life: beauty, sex, children, love, and pleasure altogether. …

Rather than dismissing ridiculous claims about the feminists and proceeding with the work at hand, feminists—younger feminists in particular— responded to the caricature of feminists as if it was a reality. To make feminism more appealing and less dogmatic, “choice feminism” arose as a defining element of the third wave …

Choice feminism, also called lifestyle feminism, marked a transition from addressing social inequity to a celebration of the individual, focusing so much on personal choices that first-person narrative defines much of third wave writing. Indeed, its genesis was a 1992 first-person article in Ms. Magazine where college sophomore Rebecca Walker, daughter of famed novelist Alice Walker, declared herself the third wave (quite baldly: “I am the third wave,” she wrote). …

The basic problem with this vision of feminism, as Faludi noted in her exchange with Lehrman, is that “for most women, the choices you are talking about are a bourgeois luxury.” Women who chose to stay at home or work, to crank out the zines and websites that Manafista touts, even to spend their time reflecting leisurely on their life choices, are for the most part women of a particular class. “My idea of feminism is all about changing underlying socioeconomic conditions,” Faludi says pointedly, asking “Is yours?” Lehrman freely admits that it is not, saying that women need equal opportunity, not an equal outcome.

The lack of a broadly imagined social justice continuum in which feminism is placed robs the first person reflections of the third wave of a rightful claim to the slogan “the personal is the political.” “Feminism promised that one could become more conscious of the social forces limiting one’s life, and that from this new awareness positive change could come. That is what the much-maligned slogan ‘the personal is political’ meant,” Katha Pollitt explains in The Atlantic in 1997. “It’s precisely the presence of sisterhood and a women’s movement,” Faludi argues, “that keeps personal improvement from becoming navel-gazing or consumerism.”

Choice feminism’s focus is profoundly misplaced, taking up the wrong issues, and not only in its anger directed at earlier feminists. Rather than displacing the idea that feminists are all the same—presumably this was the point of Baumgardner and Richards’ description of their dinner party guests—what falls by the wayside is the idea that gender inequality exists, that it affects women disproportionately depending on class status, race, and nationality, and that feminists have a responsibility to address this inequality. …

Perhaps the neglect of these serious chasms is why feminists of color and feminists from working class backgrounds dismiss the third wave out of hand. “In my experience, I have not met people of color in my age group who identify as third wave feminists,” said Daisy Hernandez, managing editor of Colorlines and co-editor of Colonize This!, in an interview for this article. “The whole third wave thing—and I’m willing to say that this may be limited of me—but I just really think of that as a white conversation. That’s their thing.” Adding that she identifies as a woman of color feminist, Hernandez said much of the discussion of the newness of third wave feminism comes out of an active desire from daughters to separate themselves from the previous generation: “A lot of it is in opposition, a very particular mother-daughter dynamic,” Hernandez said, noting many women of color have a very different attachment to the older generation: “We very much see ourselves as proud daughters.” (This is perhaps why Walker, who famously fell out with her mother, noted novelist Alice Walker, felt inclined to proclaim a new movement.) …

… contrast the treatment of feminism in our national culture to the canonization of the civil rights movement, noting that no statues, national holidays, or annual tributes mark feminism in our cultural history. Women’s rights are the “result of a hardcore struggle and that isn’t out there in the way that the race narrative is,” Simmons argued.

This historical erasure, replaced with a caricature of feminism, is one of the serious challenges posed by the popular backlash against feminism. “I think the major accomplishment of my generation has been in keeping feminism alive in a very difficult political climate,” Elliott said. “Although we have had the advantage of the gains second wave feminism made for women, we have also had to face the ascendancy of the neo-cons, the general conservatism created by a declining economy, and the exhaustion and defeatism of the Left.”

My take is more pessimistic than Elliott’s: rather than reaching a critical tipping point of anger, our generation was redirected. What might have emerged if third wave writers hadn’t rushed to respond to the backlash against feminism with partial acquiescence and marshmallow fluff? I ask this question not to lay the blame for women’s inequality at the feet of third wave feminists, but rather to urge us not to rush into calls for a new wave of feminism, not to replace the organic and deeply felt with a feminism that is packaged and sold. …

a fourth wave of feminism cannot help but repeat the mistakes of the third. Calling for a wave does not a movement make, and manufacturing one will only invite us to continue drowning in the shallow end. Broadening the third wave’s general focus on women’s rights invites the likes of Sarah Palin to brand herself as a quasi-feminist role model, as if “strong woman” and “pro-women” were interchangeable terms. Continuing with the wave metaphor damns us to replicate the same ineffectual model of early twenty-first century feminism. The wave metaphor should not splash along at the expense of the progressive change we still desperately need.

We have long passed the time to stop our navel-gazing as feminists and resume our work on behalf of ourselves and other women; we can wait for and argue about the coming of another wave no longer. Our rights, such as they are, were won by the tireless work of earlier generations of feminists, and obligate us to correct the inequality that continues to structure women’s lives, starting right now.

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Edited version of longer article in which Heather Tirado Gilligan explores this issue through interviews with feminist scholar Jane Elliott, Colorlines managing editor Daisy Hernandez, lesbian filmmaker Aishah Simmons, and Chicana feminist Cherrie Moraga. Gilligan proposes feminists drop the wave metaphor and organize around the less socially palatable but more pressing goal of addressing inequities printed at http://www.conducivemag.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=76:drowning-in-the-shallow-end-710&catid=38:innovative-thinking&Itemid=61

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