May 25, 2013
What Does Your Feminism Look Like?
Posted on Dec 7, 2011
Excerpted from “F ’em! Goo Goo, Gaga, and Some Thoughts on Balls” by Jennifer Baumgardner.
THE FIRST WAVE (approximately 1840-1920)
The First Wave grew out of the movement to abolish slavery. That movement, and the ensuing one dedicated to women’s rights, drew from the ideals and disappointments of the new democracy. These Americans, many of them Quakers, believed that it was their moral responsibility to oppose slavery. The women who were active in this movement soon discovered that they, as females, didn’t have the rights that they were agitating for black men to have. As just one example, many women traveled with their husbands across the Atlantic to a historic abolitionist conference in London, only to be barred from entering once they arrived. They applied their raised consciousness, organizing skills, and philosophical template to themselves and fought this exclusion. Their strategies and technology included creating the Declaration of Sentiments (based on the Declaration of Independence, but including women), making speeches, writing books, and organizing marches.
If the First Wave had to be boiled down to one goal, it was rights of citizenship. The most important symbol of citizenship in a democracy is the right to vote, which suffragists asked for in July 1848, to universal ridicule, and achieved seventy-two years and one month later, on August 20, 1920. En route to the vote, these feminists changed our culture, shepherding in dress reform, birth control, and granting to women the right to own property, get divorced, be educated, keep their income and inheritance, and retain custody of their children. Alice Paul, a crucial organizer for women’s suffrage, quickly identified that a vote in such an unequal nation was less powerful than it could or should be. In 1923, she introduced the Lucretia Mott Amendment, also known as the Equal Rights Amendment, or ERA.
THE SECOND WAVE (APPROXIMATELY 1960-1988)
Like the First Wave, the Second Wave grew out of an enormous social justice movement—the civil rights movement, which was reaching its apex in the early 1960s. Young people of all races flocked to the movement, eager to be a part of finishing the work of ensuring rights to black Americans. Once again, women in this movement—as well as the peace, free speech, and gay rights movements—found that they themselves didn’t have the rights that they were agitating for on behalf of others. They turned their raised consciousness and organizing skills on themselves and created an independent women’s liberation movement (the preferred term of this band of feminists). The radical feminists of this era believed in full-scale revolution for the common good. The liberal feminists fought for women to share in the opportunities and responsibilities men had, including creating a career, pushing off the drudgery of housework, and refusing to be held hostage by their reproductive systems.
The dominant goal of these feminists might be boiled down to equality—valuing equally that which was marked as female or feminine, such as knitting or childbirth, and having access to domains that had been exclusive to men. Second Wave feminists demonstrated that, given the opportunity or necessity, women could do what men did. They also made women’s activities visible and valuable. Their core beliefs stemmed from Marx, identifying women as an oppressed class and patriarchy as the illegitimate power over them. These feminists declared that they were the experts—not male doctors, shrinks, religious leaders, fathers, or husbands—when it came to abortion, rape, pregnancy, and female sexuality. They created language and resources for atrocities once just called “life”—such as date rape, domestic abuse, and illegal abortion. They lobbied for laws and court decisions to strike down legal inequality, such as Title IX, the Equal Pay Act, and Roe v. Wade.
By the 1980s, the concept of women as a class with over-arching shared values and experiences was deeply splintered. Black women, women with disabilities, Latinas, lesbian and bisexual women, and others began critiquing the broad philosophies of the movement from within, causing splits that were rife with both tension and detailed feminist theory. The Combahee River Collective, a black feminist lesbian group that included Barbara Smith and Alexis De Veaux, created the theory of “interlocking oppressions.” This necessary deepening and expanding of feminist definitions coincided with a general backlash against feminism by people who wanted to undo the gains of the Second Wave.
THE THIRD WAVE (APPROXIMATELY 1988-2010)
The Third Wave grew out of an enormous cultural shift. By the late 1980s, a cohort of women and men who’d been raised with the gains, theories, flaws, and backlash of the feminist movement were beginning to come of age. Whether or not these individual men and women were raised by self-described feminists—or called themselves feminists—they were living feminist lives: Females were playing sports and running marathons, taking charge of their sex lives, being educated in greater numbers than men, running for office, and working outside the home. For those who were consciously feminist, the splits of the 1980s formed the architecture of their theories. Kimberle Crenshaw’s description of “intersectionality” drew on the work of the Combahee River Collective and advanced the idea that gender might be just one of many entry points for feminism.
The Third Wave rejected the idea of a shared political priority list or even a set of issues one must espouse to be feminist. It inherited critiques of sexist dominant culture (having grown up in a feminist-influenced civilization) and embraced and created pop culture that supported women, from Queen Latifah to bell hooks to Riot Grrrl. Girlie feminists created magazines and fashion statements (and complicated the idea of what a feminist might look like). Sex positivity undermined the notion that porn and sex work are inherently demeaning, and revealed a glimpse of the range of potential sexual expression.
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