Friday, October 24, 2008

Washed out (by Suzie)


        I’ve never liked the labels “second wave” and “third wave” because they are so ill-defined.
        Some describe the first wave as the early 1900s, culminating in the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. If that’s the case, how do we characterize the suffragists of the 1800s? Others see the first wave as stretching from the first women’s rights convention in 1848 until 1920. But this period contained multiple generations. Activism rose and fell and changed course several times.
          Echidne wrote recently (sorry, I can't remember from which comment thread I lifted this): 
I'd say that the First Wave was mostly aimed at women's political participation rights and the Second Wave mostly at women's rights to participate in the labor market and women's reproductive rights.
This is oversimplified, because all waves contain lots of different goals and lots of different campaigns, but in hindsight the two waves succeeded in those aspects the most.
          I think that’s a good description, but note that laws were changed to let married women own property, including their earnings, during the 1800s. Although not a matter of laws, many occupations also began to open up to women during the first wave.
         The second wave generally refers to the activism of the 1960s and ’70s (although Wikipedia includes the '80s.) Describing the first and second waves as time periods is easier because few women active in the early 1900s remained so in the 1960s. Such a division is more difficult with the third wave because it overlaps with the second. 
         If we classify feminists by age, what do we say about one who has been active from the 1960s until now? If a 60-year-old woman becomes a feminist today and embraces the latest theories, how does she get categorized? Using age as a criteria would lock older women into the second wave, no matter how their views and activism have changed. Philosopher Judith Butler would be dumped into the second wave, while Sarah Palin could claim the third wave. (For the purposes of this post, I’m not arguing who deserves to call themselves a feminist.) Does the third wave lump together women in their 40s with teens?  
         Chilla Bulbeck questions universalizing by age:
The third waver privileges the commonality of age over all other aspects of her complex and contradictory identity. … She is torn between a desire to deconstruct an essentialised feminist "we" and the political need to confirm common bonds.
         Some see third-wave women as bonded through experiences, especially growing up with feminist mothers in a time that accepts, at least superficially, the idea that women should have equal rights. But what about women who grow up in towns or countries where feminism isn't the norm?
        If it's difficult to define third-wavers by age or experience, what about issues? Bulbeck writes that feminism shifted its focus from economic and political issues to culture and sexuality in the third wave. But she notes the discrepancies in that theory. For example, the first project of Rebecca Walker’s Third Wave Direct Action Corporation was Freedom Ride 1992, a bus tour to register voters in poor communities of color.
        The second wave can claim enormous influence on culture. Think of the rise of feminist artists, authors and musicians. Nor do younger feminists have a lock on sex. The first wave had Victoria Woodhull and ideas of “free love” in the 1800s, and the second wave brought the sexual revolution and “pro-sex” feminists, such as Betty Dodson.
          Cathryn Bailey writes:
It should be emphasized again that second wave feminism is regarded as a definable phenomenon, as embodying a more or less coherent set of values and ideas which can be recognized and then transcended. Yet even a cursory look at the literature of the feminism of the 1970s and 1980s undermines this assumption. Introductory feminist texts, for example, have long struggled to gather coherently the myriad theoretical perspectives from which feminists have approached problems. Such perspectives have been described, for instance, as Radical Feminism, Liberal Feminism, Marxist Feminism, Womanism, Lesbian Feminism, and so on. The fact that there is no one feminism has been apparent for some time.
          Wikipedia says the third wave encompasses virtually every leftish political theory since the 1980s. If so, someone needs to pass out cheat sheets because I guarantee not everyone who identifies with the third wave can rattle off the definition of post-structuralism or queer theory, for example. 
          Nevertheless, some third-wavers do suggest that feminism = fighting all oppressions, as I mentioned in this post. See also the Third Wave Foundation and the link above for Rebecca Walker. No feminist could argue against her organization's first project,  registering poor people of color to vote. But ... what if the newly registered people vote against gay rights, for example? In my state, there's some concern that a higher black turnout in this election might mean we get stuck with a constitutional amendment barring same-sex unions. The world is frustrating in its complexity. Not everyone sees the same oppressions or the same solutions. 
        Many have described the second and third waves as a mother-daughter split. Does that mean that every generation gets its own wave? Or, that there will be no conflict between third-wave mothers and their daughters? 
An ethical negotiation of the relationship between generations requires us to recognize and resist the vicious circle of contempt.
          That quote comes from Madelyn Detloff, who also notes that, in academics, “one’s work must be ‘original,’ meaning that it must present the appearance of newness, which is often achieved by attacking the old.” This goes beyond universities. People must claim new ideas, if not new identities, to attract members and money to their organizations, sell books or attract the media. Thus, women who want to make their mark may feel the need to set themselves apart from the women who went before, and older women may welcome younger voices who can make their enterprises look hip, new and attractive.
         There has been discussion here and elsewhere about a fourth wave. There's even a blog by that name. I think I'd rather work issue by issue, cobbling together whatever coalition I can. "Feminist" is enough of a label for me.