Saturday, June 20, 2009

Fourth Wave, Part 1: My history of feminism

Over at Reclusive Leftist, they (formerly “we”) are discussing how to define the fourth wave of feminism. I have to admit I was a little out of my depth over there. My view of United States feminist history pretty much goes like this:

First, there was Abigail Adams who wanted her husband to help the ladies out a little when the Constitution for the new country was written. He didn’t.

Then, way back before the Civil War, there were women like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucy Stoner who thought it would be nice if women could at least vote and, hey, maybe even own their own property and not be beholden to men for every single thing in their lives. They made the mistake of diverting some of their attention from the struggle for Women’s Rights to the Abolition Movement and boy did they get the short end of that stick. Women finally got the right to vote in 1920, fifty-five years after abolition. This is now called “first-wave” feminism although I have a sneaking suspicion those involved sincerely hoped it would be “only wave needed” feminism.

In the early part of the 20th Century, we had flappers, who were independent young ladies but seemed to be mostly about drinking in speakeasies and dancing on tables. Then came the Great Depression when men and women were equally poor. This was followed by Rosie the Riveter who did everything a man could do and more but when the War ended she was consigned to suburbia and told to have 3 children and buy a station wagon. This is how we got the 50’s.

In 1963, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was published and the phenomenon I personally know as The Woman’s Movement began. I was too young in 1963 to understand what had happened but the echoes of the book rang down through my teenage years. Then the first issue of Ms. magazine appeared in January, 1972, halfway through my freshman year in college and I was in.

I did consciousness-raising groups, one all-woman, one men and women together. Since I came within an inch of marrying one of the guys in the mixed group, I think in retrospect that the group did not exactly do what it was supposed to. The all-woman group, however, was a fabulous experience and whatever fourth-wave feminism turns out to be, I hope consciousness-raising groups are once again part of the the movement. Anyhow.

I was seriously, actively feminist all through my college years, reading, agitating for the Equal Rights Amendment, rejoicing at Roe v Wade, all the usual stuff. Then came graduate school and feminism faded into the background. I was still a feminist but feminism wasn’t really front and center in my life. My time and my mental energy were more than accounted for by my class work.

Somewhere in here I read Games Mother Never Taught You by Betty Lehan Harragan and found it amusing, helpful, and fascinating. I also read John T. Molloy’s Women’s Dress for Success Book and it made perfect sense to me. Men had a uniform - suit, tie, shoes - that signaled they were to be taken seriously in the business world. Molloy’s thesis was that women should develop their own uniform that signaled the same thing. To me, these were both “feminist” reading which I guess shows pretty clearly that I was not really interested in changing how the world worked - I just wanted to play on equal terms.

After graduate school came my first serious full-time job which also took all the time and energy I had, then being a partner in my own company, ditto. I was still a feminist but I didn’t read about feminism, interact with other feminists, or participate in feminist causes. It was just what and who I was. I didn’t even know that the era of feminism I personally experienced and participated in was known as “second-wave” feminism.

As I said, I remained a feminist through all this. The core of my feminism consisted of two pretty simple ideas:

1) Women’s professional, political, social, and personal lives should be a consequence of their circumstances, interests, and abilities - not their gender.

2) Women should have each other’s backs. That doesn’t mean women should never criticize each other. It means sexist criticism, sexist slurs, sexist attacks against any woman should be unacceptable to all women. Situations pitting one group of women against another for the benefit of a man or men should be unacceptable to all women. When one woman is attacked, insulted, denigrated, or shamed because she is a woman or because she is a particular kind of woman, all women suffer. Sisterhood is powerful.

Sometime in the late 80’s or early 90’s I found myself involved professionally with Incredibly Large Megacorp and it occurred to me, looking around, that it might be a good idea to sort of brush up on my feminism. I accordingly bought an issue of Ms. magazine. Imagine my shock at discovering that while I hadn’t been paying attention, the magazine had switched its focus from supporting women’s rights to supporting Third World peoples who had been oppressed by the Western European patriarchy. It had apparently escaped the notice of the editors at Ms. that an uncomfortably large number of oppressed Third World countries were run quite ruthlessly by men who not only oppressed their fellow countrymen but treated their fellow countrywomen far, far worse than any Western European patriarch would dream of doing.

Recovering from my shock at what had happened to Ms., I started taking notice of the wider feminist arena. Some feminists no long considered pornography or even prostitution anti-woman. I promptly swooned. When I revived, I noticed that a number of professional women - especially the female news anchors on cable TV - had clearly abandoned any type of universal female professional dress code. (Or, as an extremely liberal friend of mine put it, “Why do all the women in cable TV news shows dress like hookers?”) Much of feminist discussion now seemed to revolve around including gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered concerns as an intrinsic part of feminism. Much of the rest of it seemed to revolve around, “Oh, goody. Sex!”

The idea that supporting pornography and prostitution had a place in feminism was anathema to me. The fact that large numbers of professional women were dressing to accentuate their sex appeal rather than their professional standing was disturbing. Sure, the idea that there’s nothing wrong with being attractive and people should be treated with respect regardless of how they dress sounds great. But I didn’t see lots of male newsmen showing up on camera in tight white T-shirts and tighter black jeans.

Sharing GLBT concerns is one thing but including those concerns as an intrinsic part of feminism gave me pause. Were women once again making the mistake of diverting some of their attention from their own struggle to that of another disadvantaged group? Or, given Ms. magazine’s current focus, the even worse mistake of diverting all of their attention to the struggles of every single disadvantaged group on the planet except women? As for sex, my generation of feminists liked sex, too. We just didn’t think that the single most important thing the Women’s Movement accomplished was letting women screw around as much as men did.

So all in all, it never occurred to me that what I was witnessing was third-wave feminism. It didn’t really seem to have anything to do with feminism and to the extent I gave it any thought, I viewed it as young women kicking over the traces - something they had the freedom to do because my generation of feminists had knocked down so many barriers for them and, beyond that, because Susan B. Anthony’s generation of feminists had knocked down the most important barrier for all of us. After all, I was old(er) and rather curmudgeonly and if this was what women wanted to do with their lives, so be it. If they wanted to call it “feminism”, perhaps that was an homage acknowledging their debt to those who had gone before.

Then came the Clinton administration. I’ve written before about my distress with women who were happy to support a man who facilely divided women into his own modern Madonna and whore groups: well-educated professional women who were honestly respected as colleagues and and less-educated pink-collar women who were sexual prey. Sisterhood was indeed powerful but now that power was mobilized against other women to benefit one man. Not exactly what I had in mind all those years ago.

As far as I was concerned feminism was dead, killed by the Clintons and the legions of women who were perfectly happy to attack other women, provided those women could somehow be labelled as “other”. I was still a feminist but my feminism had little to do with what I came to think of as Institutional Feminism, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Democratic Party. Instead it was just me and my beliefs.

Then came the 2008 Presidential campaigns. Hillary Clinton’s grace and grit in the primaries awakened the more tribal aspects of my feminism and watching other women rally around her made me hope that perhaps my version of feminism had merely been sleeping rather than being dead and gone. Unfortunately, that hope didn’t last long, killed by (mostly) young women who thought the misogyny directed at Clinton by the Obama campaign and by Obama’s lickspittles in the media was just fine because, OMG, Barack Obama is just so dreamy. My distress soon turned to horror as I watched the blitzkrieg of misogyny unleashed against Sarah Palin by women young and old who did the bidding of their Democratic masters, brutally attacking a woman simply because their men told them she was the enemy, not really their kind, “other”.

My heart broke. When I first became a feminist, we fought a fierce battle against the idea that women could be divided into two groups. One group, the good girls, were protected by society, treated decently, and allowed to live well. The other group, the bad girls, had no claim on society’s protection, were treated like dirt, and lucky to be allowed to live at all. Feminism would sweep that all away. We understood this division was just a way of keeping women in their place: bad girls were a warning of what would happen to women who didn’t toe the line. In order for women to be free to choose their own path, we had to protect bad girls as well as good girls. After all, bad girls were just good girls who didn’t do what they were told and every feminist on the planet was not doing what she had been told.

Madonnas and whores, the pedestal and the gutter. With the attacks on Sarah Palin we were right back where we started and once again being a good girl meant being a woman who did what she was told by men - in this case the men running the Democratic party - and being a bad girl meant being a woman who had the guts to forge her own path. Little Miss Attila put this better than anyone else I’ve read. She begins by writing about the Letterman attacks on Sarah Palin and her daughters but is making a broader point (emphasis hers):

They will rationalize what they are doing, and say that this is not American Sharia law: after all, we only enforce our notions of sexual purity when it comes to Republican women, or women and girls related to Republican women. [snip]

This is American Sharia, assholes. The practitioners of Sharia in Muslim countries are at least consistent in their contempt for women and in their practice of gender apartheid: you, on the other hand, want sexual slavery for some women in this country; others, whose opinions you prefer, can live in relative peace and freedom. You will allow it.

If you are giving women and girls the “gift” of not being badgered for being female, and threatened with misogyny and sexual assault, they are not truly free—only living in a state of grace, contingent upon performing the right tricks, spouting leftist verbiage like seals at Sea World, balancing balls on their noses in the hopes of getting fish thrown into their mouths.

This is what feminists knew all those years ago when we fought to so hard to support all women. In 2008 women claiming to be feminists, claiming to wear the mantle of their foremothers, tossed that hard-learned knowledge aside in their eagerness to please their owners; in their willingness to sell their souls for a seat at the table; in their fear that if they spoke up, talked back, didn’t play along, they’d be treated just like Palin and any other woman who dared deviate from Democratic political orthodoxy: thrown off the pedestal and into the gutter.

I had been correct back in the 90’s: feminism was dead.

Now it seems there is stirring in the underbrush. Fourth-wave feminism is lurking, not quite visible but clearly closing in. The problem is, no one seems to know exactly what’s out there. This is the question Reclusive Leftist is trying to answer: How would you define the fourth wave of feminism? Since she states firmly that the fourth wave “started last year with the auto de fe of first Hillary Clinton and then Sarah Palin” I hope, of course, that the fourth wave will re-establish the principle that women do not participate in or consent to misogynistic attacks on other women. I also hope that the fourth wave will be more inclusive, more willing to detach itself from liberalism, no longer tied to the Democratic party. A large part of this will be acknowledging that a vast array of positions, on everything from equal pay to abortion can be viewed completely differently by feminists who are also liberals than by feminists who are also conservatives.

I’m not sure what the final outcome will be with regard to reconciling the views of liberal and conservative feminists; sadly my experience in the discussion at Reclusive Leftist has dimmed my hope with regard to abortion. But that’s a story for the next episode.



The Feminist Awakening: Hillary Clinton and the fourth wave: This whole article is interesting - note that it was written before Clinton finally lost the primary campaign and long, long before Palin appeared on the scene. I was particularly struck by the discussion of how to dress on page 4. If women had taken Molloy’s advice all those years ago, we’d have a standard “powerful professional woman” dress code established by now and we could all stop worrying about what to wear when running for President.

How Feminism Became the F-Word: By Amy Siskind, one of the founders of The New Agenda, an attempt to define the fourth wave as uncoupling feminism from the Democratic Party and from a hard-line pro-choice stand. This is worth a look just for the contrasting Ms. magazine covers but do read the whole thing.

One small quibble: Ms. Siskind wants to know where the outrage is over “the fact that women still earn 78 percent of what men do” or “the fact that our representation in politics, academia, and corporate leadership tends to hover around 16 percent.” Perhaps if women had taken Harragan more seriously and learned to play the games necessary to get ahead instead of expending energy demanding the rules be changed to suit us, we’d be earning more money and accruing more power. Furthermore, it’s been a while since I read Games Mother Never Taught You but I seem to remember that part of Harragan’s argument was that if women learned to play by the rules we would eventually amass enough power to change them. (I expanded on this topic and ended up with about a gazillion words. This current post is long enough so I’ll leave that expansion for a future episode.)

How Will We Know When The Fourth Wave Has Begun?: Written in response to Siskind, this piece explicitly rejects any move away from “the Democratic, pro-choice agenda that has furthered the movement in many substantial ways.” To which I am inclined to reply: For what is a woman profited, if she shall gain the whole world, and lose her own soul?

A Fourth-Wave Manifesto: A fairly random selection to give a little flavor of how much the idea of what fourth-wave feminism should/will/can be varies.

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