It is easy to be cynical about feminist activism today. The quest for equality — in the workplace, at home, on the street and particularly in the corridors of power — is far from what advocates of the 1970s women’s movement, the so-called Second Wave, fought for. There are few women in government; a glass ceiling in the workplace, although wearing thin, still looms overhead; and perhaps most important of all, American women — though mostly free of the centuries’ long economic dependence on men — are now hamstrung between the pressures of making money or pursuing a profession and raising children.
Go to the magazine shelves, pick up any glossy rag — Redbook, Mademoiselle, Cosmo — and there you will read one benumbing article after another in reaction to (though rarely insightful about) the hackneyed belief that “You can’t have it all”; that Second Wave feminism, with its derogation of marriage and emphasis on social and economic justice, has sold out a whole generation of women, who can’t get hitched in the booming marketplace of sexual liberation.
It’s no wonder that people aren’t even familiar with the term Third Wave feminism. The more general assumption is that feminism is dead, that the Second Wavers did their work — and not particularly well — and now we’re stuck with a bucket-load of unsolvable problems.
But hark! Feminism is not dead, nor has it ever found itself in the throes of final expiration. It just, like all movements, has mutated and transformed.
Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards know this implicitly, which is one of the reasons they wrote Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000), a book that argues for the continued importance of feminism in politics, education and culture.
The other reason they spent five years dissecting the state of the women’s movement is to define the controversial ascendance of “girlie culture,” a phenomenon of female self-empowerment that emerged in the 1990s with movies like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, activist groups like Riot Grrrl and books like Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Bitch.
Baumgardner and Richards advocate girlie culture. They have done so as journalists (both 30-year-olds got their start at Ms. magazine) and as activists (both are leaders of the Third Wave, an activist group for young women). But their main problem is that Second Wave feminists, and especially Second Wave politicians and journalists, are largely against their advocation.
Women like former New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen have argued that equating lipstick with empowerment, however playful or ironic, and reclaiming such words a bitch and slut makes a mockery of feminism’ longtime and still unachieved goals of social and economic equality. Second Wavers bemoan girlie culture’s focus on the personal and the cultural over the political.
So an intergenerational struggle has sprung forth between mothers and daughters. On the one side are Second Wavers who lashed out against their sexually limiting roles as wives and mothers in exchange for equal pay and egalitarian partnerships. And on the other are Third Wavers who, perhaps dismissive of the battles fought and often won by their mothers, aspire to be Madonna, the woman who rose to fame as the ultimate virgin whore. Third Wavers, say Baumgardner and Richards, want to continue the fight for equal rights, but not to the detriment of their sexuality. They want to be both subject and object, when it comes to their sexual roles, their political power and their place in American culture.
As you will discover in the following interview and accompanying excerpt, Baumgardner and Richards believe the generational struggle over feminism marks a new era: the tapering off of the Second Wave and the growing pains of Third.
The question to ask as you read along is: Can a Third Wave that tries to push forward urgent feminist issues — such as national heath care and child care as well as the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment — also champion girlie power with its penchant for adolescent role playing? Can Baumgardner and Richards’ Third Wave manifesto be taken seriously not only by the Second Wave but also by young American women in general?
Why is sex or sexual self-esteem so important for this generation rather than issues of economic and social equality? Why has so-called lipstick or girlie feminism emerged?
Richards: What people don’t understand is that talking about sex and sexual self-esteem is talking about equality. When I meet with high school students and they want to discuss sex, I realize we are talking about equality. It’s just a different path to the same goal. In our book, we put emphasis on the “Do-Mes,” the lipstick feminists, because that’s been our culture. I think we’ve seen women in our generation — Bust magazine is a great example of this — who say, adamantly, “I’m going to be female, and being female is just as valuable as being male.” I don’t think these women are saying, “I’m going to be female, going to be objectified, going to wear sexy clothes and so on and be part of the backlash against feminism.” I think they’re saying, “I’m going to do all these things because I want to embrace my femininity.”
Baumgardner: They’re also not saying, “I am inherently female. I am essentially female.” They’re saying, “I am not going to put on this female dress, role, what have you, because I do not want this thing that’s called female to be considered stupid. And I like it!” What we were responding to [in Second Wavers’ accusations that girlie culture is not real feminism] is that they are doing to younger women what men have done to them. Second Wavers are saying to us, “You’re silly. That isn’t an important issue. What you talk about is dumb. Let me tell you what real feminism is. It’s what we talk about.” We focus on the intergenerational issue because we think it has gone unexamined.
You embrace several new, and for some, outrageous feminist epithets: girl, bitch, slut and cunt. What does the use of these words by Third Wave feminists mean?
RICHARDS: Well, I think it stems from the perception that the discussion of sex was shut off to feminists, except if it involved violent or invasive sex. But I think there’s also a question of who is in control of those words. For so long those words were used against women. Now using them is women’s attempt to reclaim them and to say, “Yes, I am difficult. I am a bitch. Call me a bitch. I’m going to reclaim bitch and make it my own word, because the word has more hostility when it’s being used against me than when it’s being used by me.” Slut too. Slut is just a girl with a libido, whereas a boy with a libido is just a boy.
BAUMGARDNER: You also have to remember that the word feminist is used against us and is entirely different when we use it ourselves. Often women, younger women especially, refuse to use the term feminist to describe themselves. They do this for really good, self-protective reasons, because they see the term being used against women and perhaps they see it as too confining. In our chapter on girlie culture, “Barbie vs. the Menstrual Kit,” we argue that young women’s primary expression these days is a joy and ownership of sexuality and that’s a form of power, a type of energy.
Why is competition so difficult for women who see themselves as feminists? And is the recent focus on pre-adolescent girls’ self-esteem — by Harvard psychologist Carol Gilligan in particular — a way for feminists to address the issue of female power, to teach girls to be competitive and not feel uncomfortable about it?
Richards: What’s difficult for feminists is that competition implies a winner and a loser. Since for so long women have been the losers in society, the notion of competition is very threatening. But I think young women are giving older women an alternative. We do not say, “Get over your differences,” but we show them that there can be disagreement that’s productive. I was on a panel recently for a documentary called “The Strength To Resist,” based on Jean Kilbourne’s book on women and advertising, and the question posed to me was: “What would your advice be to girls to help them find their strength?” I said, “Play sports. Be athletic.” And all of these older women jumped on me because they thought I implied competitive sports and that’s not what we should be teaching girls. So there’s fear of competition.
Baumgardner: I don’t think feminists talk about self-esteem in terms of competition and maybe that’s a mistake because girls should know what we really mean. Competition would be a very good word for the struggle for self-esteem. But Amy is right: competition isn’t so much a feminist word because it implies a winner and a loser and so it runs counter to feminist cooperation. I’m in an intergenerational feminist activist group and the women in it, many of whom are prominent writers, fight constantly, and competition is one of the issues that comes up. They say, “God, we never had these conversations in front of each other.” And even though these fights are hard for me to watch, I can appreciate that they’re trying to work out demons from 30 years ago. What used to happen in feminist activism was that there was a fight and women would form different groups and keep dividing because it was too painful to disagree.
In this way, do you think Second Wavers did not come to grips with the power of their sexuality, that since it had been practically the only source of their power, they had to repress it in order to fight for economic and social justice — and now what has been repressed is resurfacing?
Richards: Yes, I think it’s also that we realize there’s more than one way to be sexual. Historically, there was only one way, at least it was perceived that way, and that’s what people were resisting. And I think now there are many ways to be sexual — athleticism is sexy, different body types are sexy, androgyny is sexy.
Does defining Third Wave feminism raise problems?
Baumgardner: Yes, If we had defined Third Wave activism in strict terms in the book we would have been criticized for it. People always ask us what the most important issue is and my response is: “Name an issue, if that’s what you’re interested in, then it’s the most important, whether it’s eating disorders, sexual harassment, child care, etc.” This insistence on definitions is really frustrating because feminism gets backed into a corner. People keep insisting on defining and defining and defining and making a smaller and smaller definition — and it’s just lazy thinking on their part. Feminism is something individual to each feminist.
Does the Third Wave movement need a leader, someone like Gloria Steinem?
Richards: Steinem didn’t maker herself a leader, the media did, which is more and more the case. We live in a culture dominated by a cult of celebrity, in which leadership is based on who gets the most face time and who gets the most PR time. But a leader is made because she or he does something different. This is muddied now — leadership is dependent on who gets the most press. Hollywood actors are treated like leaders because they get the most PR. I’m constantly screaming: “What did Leonardo DiCaprio ever do?” And so while it’s wonderful that certain celebrities put their money and personality behind a certain cause, it masks who really is fighting for that cause.
Baumgardner: The other way I’ve always read the quote Amy mentions is: The people who in one generation are totally singular because they were brave enough to challenge the system, in the next inherit their victories. We are all Gloria Steinems now — without the fame, of course — because we all have the rights that she fought for: to be single and financially independent and so on. So we are the private citizens who have the same rights as yesterday’s public heroines.
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