May 23, 2013
What Does Your Feminism Look Like?
Posted on Dec 7, 2011
Trans feminism, both the idea (from Judith Butler) that gender is performed and the belief that gender exists on a spectrum, complicated the legitimacy of women-only spaces as sites of unadulterated liberation. Reclaiming words like “slut” and “girl” replaced protests. Transparency about whether a feminist had worked out her body image issues, felt upset by an abortion, or believed that any hair could be unwanted replaced strong, black-and-white statements. Activists spoke from personal places, not to overshare, but to tell the truth about their lives and what had happened to them.
Third wave feminism was portable—you didn’t have to go to a meeting to be feminist; you could bring feminism into any room you entered. Where the Second Wave radicals believed in mass movement and the liberal feminists believed in creating women’s institutions to influence men’s, a Third Waver might say, “Every time I move, I make a women’s movement,” indicating a feminism that is more individually driven. Institutions like NOW and Ms. Magazine attenuated, in part because Third Wave feminists didn’t need any members to be feminist. And while they were committed to a pro-girl and pro-woman line, that didn’t preclude empathy for or interest in men’s experience of, for instance, sexual assault or abortion.
THE FOURTH WAVE (APPROXIMATELY 2008-ONWARD!)
By the time Obama and Hillary were facing off in the Democratic primaries, a critical mass of younger feminists began expressing themselves. They were tech-savvy and gender-sophisticated. Their youth was shaped by the 1980s backlash, Take Our Daughters to Work Day initiatives (also known as the Girls’ Movement, led by Second Wave women) of the 90s, and 9/11. Perhaps most significant, though, their experience of the online universe was that it was just a part of life, not something that landed in their world like an alien spaceship when they were twenty or fifty.
Much like the Third Wave lived out the theories of the Second Wave (with sometimes surprising results), the Fourth Wave enacted the concepts that Third Wave feminists had put forth. The Doula Project made sure the phrase “all-options” was more than just rhetoric, by creating doula services not just for childbirth, but for women placing an adoption or getting an abortion, too. Drawing from their own experiences, young activists created after-abortion talk lines, such as Exhale and Backline, to enable women and men to get the support they needed after a procedure—no enforced political line included. Trans-health initiatives (like that at the Feminist Women’s Health Centers in Atlanta) and trans-inclusive organizations like Third Wave Foundation (helmed by feminists in their twenties and thirties) reinforced the potential for all people to access feminine and masculine genders.
In place of zines and songs, young feminists created blogs, Twitter campaigns, and online media with names like Racialicious and Feministing, or wrote for Jezebel and Salon’s Broadsheet. They commented on the news, posted their most stylish plus-size fashion photos with info about where to shop, and tweeted that they, too, had had an abortion. “Reproductive justice,” coined by women of color in the 1990s, became the term of choice for young feminists. Transgenderism, male feminists, sex work, and complex relationships within the media characterized their feminism.
WHAT DO ALL of these waves add up to? Some analyze the era-specific crests of feminism as merely more splits, keeping feminists fighting with one another so that they don’t see the much larger and more challenging issues that unite them. A Second Wave friend of mine, Rosalyn Baxandall, notes that the First and Second Waves were part of larger social movements—abolition and civil rights—and were thus different than the trickles of activity she sees as having come later. But I see the cultural transformation that my generation harvested from the Second Wave’s ideas and revolution was the social movement of our day. Likewise, the Fourth Wave’s deployment of social media has once again transformed politics and feminism.
Personally, I believe that the Fourth Wave exists because it says that it exists. I believe the Fourth Wave matters, because I remember how sure I was that my generation mattered.
Because of media advances and globalization, waves of mass change are coming faster and faster. The waves are all part of the same body politic known as feminism, and combine to become a powerful and distinct force. “One aspect of the ‘waves’ metaphor that I kinda like,” the historian Louise Bernikow wrote on our Second Wave-dominated LISTSERV, “is the idea that waves recede and gather strength and come back stronger, don’t they?”
“Tsunami!” replied Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, the professor who resented Martha Lear’s coinage of “Second Wave.” “Let’s do it.”
Excerpted from “F ’em! Goo Goo, GaGa, and Some Thoughts on Balls” by Jennifer Baumgardner. Available from Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. ©November 2011.
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