Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon

One day in 1993, twenty-seven-year-old Lisa Silver took the Delta shuttle from New York to Washington, D.C., for a meeting of Second Wave feminists. The author and chronicler of male-female communication problems Deborah Tannen, CNN correspondent Judy Woodruff, inside-the-Beltway journalist Sally Quinn, political strategist Ann Lewis, and other luminaries had assembled to discuss the women's agenda for the Clinton era. "I walked into that room and was faced with all of these red blazers, brass buttons, and sensible high-heeled shoes, and I was like, This is not me," Silver says, recalling the meeting in early 1999. "I thought, What am I doing here?"

Silver was working with Betty Friedan's Women, Men, and Media research group, which produced The Front Page Report. As a graduate student in journalism at New York University, she had been thrilled to hook up with Friedan ("I mean, Betty Friedan!!"), the "mother of the movement." She began as an assistant on a staff of three and soon moved up to program director, the No. 2 spot. Silver was excited to be in the thick of feminist journalism, exposing the still-unequal situation of women. She respected Friedan and the troop of glass-ceiling shatterers at the D.C, meeting, but she also felt alienated from them. Some of the disconnect was simply generational. At twenty-seven, she was working with women ranging in age from their fifties to their seventies. And some of it was aesthetics; a conflict of style, approach, or even emotion: "There I am, going to this meeting with all of these women who are highly successful, but where's the excitement? Where's the spark?"

The backbone of feminism isn't so different from one generation to the next. We want to distinguish ourselves from dormats, as nineteenth-century feminist Rebecca West and her cohorts did, and as Betty Friedan's generation did. And our values are similar, although suffragist Alice Paul was surely horrified when some early Second Wave feminists, including Shulamith Firestone, wanted to stage an action in D.C. to give back the vote as part of a 1969 Vietnam protest. The difference between the First, Second, and Third Waves is our cultural DNA. Each generation has a drive to create something new, to find that distinctive spark that Silvers couldn't locate that day in D.C. The word "generation" is an apt pun here, because what distinguishes one era from the next is what we generate -- whether it's music, institutions, or magazines -- and how we use what has already been produced. Marlo Thomas grew up on Toni dolls and Nancy Drew stories. In her mid-thirties, she created one of the Third Wave's first glimpses of feminist culture, the 1973 book and record Free To Be ... You and Me. When Thomas and Friends created this early manifesto of freedom, in which a football player sang about crying and girls wanted to be firemen, they couldn't have imagined the guys with the earrings and girls with tattoos and shaved heads who would emerge a decade or two later -- their former readers.

Thomas didn't choose to be influenced by Toni dolls any more than we chose to be influenced by Free To Be -- or by MTV. Our generation watched powerful, fashionable private detectives solve crimes and bond together in prime-time sisterhood on Charlie's Angels but couldn't help noticing that they did all the work while a male voice, always out of reach, told them what to do. We were a generation in which many girls grew up thinking that Playboy was for them, too, to sneak peaks at while Mom and Dad were occupied, or to lead tours of neighborhood kids out to the garage for the unveiling of an old copy featuring Miss November 1972. As girls, we saw the culture reflect a bit of our particular vernacular: Valley Girls who shop and register pronouncements about the relative grodiness or radness of all things. We were a generation that was forced to experience equality when it came to the newly coed gym classes, and reveled in title IX's influence on sports for girls. These products of culture are mundane to us, simply the atmosphere in our temporal rank.

The fact that feminism is no longer limited to arenas where we expect to see it -- NOW, Ms., women's studies, and red-suited congresswomen -- perhaps means that young women today have reaped what feminism has sown. Raised after Title IX and "William Wants a Doll," young women emerged from college or high school or two years of marriage or their first job and began challenging some of the received wisdom of the past ten to twenty years of feminism. We're not doing feminism the way that seventies feminists do it; being liberated doesn't mean copying what came before but finding its own way -- a way that is genuine to one's own generation. For the generation that reared the Third Wave, not only was feminism apparent in the politics of the time but politics was truly the culture of the time -- Kennedy, the Vietnam War, civil rights, and women's rights. For the Third Wave, politics was superseded by culture -- punk rock, hop-hop, zines, product, consumerism, and the Internet. Young women in the early nineties who are breaking out of the "established" movement weren't just rebelling; they were growing up and beginning to take responsibility for their lives and their feminism.

The Girlie culture, from Madonna to Bust, is different from the cultural feminism of the seventies. It promoted a gynefocal aesthetic (rather than politics), too, but sometimes in the service of "separate but equal" alternative world. (In keeping with the previously proposed Femitopia.) Cultural feminism put the y in womyn and brought us women-owned Diana publishing, and the Olivia Records and all-ladies collectives such as the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, which has been going strong annually since 1976 and allows only males under the age of six to grace "the Land" (as the nature preserve upon which everybody camps is always called, with reverence). But for this generation, having or loving our own culture isn't the same as cultural feminism -- a separate ghetto for women -- it's just feminism for a culture-driven generation. And if feminism aims to create a world where our standard of measurement doesn't start with a white-male heterosexual nucleus, then believing that feminine things are weak means that we're believing our own bad press. Girlies say, through actions and attitudes, that you don't have to make feminine powerful by making it masculine; it is a feminist statement to proudly claim things that are feminine, and the alternative can mean to deny what we are. You were raised on Barbie and soccer? That's cool. In a way, establishing a girl culture addresses what Gloria Steinem was trying to address in Revolution from Within--the huge hole that grows in a woman who is trying to be equal but has internalized society's low estimate of women. "It was as if the female spirit were a garden that had grown beneath the shadows of barriers so long," she wrote, "that it kept growing in the same pattern, even after some of the barriers were gone."

What does the Third Wave garden look like? Planted near Madonna, Sassy, Wolf, Riot Grrls, and Bust are influential xerox-and-sample zines such as I (heart) Amy Carter, Sister Nobody, Riot Grrls, I'm So Fucking Beautiful, Bamboo Girl; the glossy-but-still-independent zines such as HUES, Roller Derby, Bitch, Fresh and Tasty, WIG; chickclick and estronet Web sites like Disgruntled Housewife, Girls On, gURL; webzines such as Minx and Maxi; feature films like Clueless, Go Fish, All Over Me, The Amazingly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love, Welcome to the Dollhouse, High Art; art films by Elisabeth Subrin and Sadie Benning and Pratibha Parmar and Jocelyn Taylor; musicians such as Ani DiFranco, Brandy, Luscious Jackson, Courtney Love as the slatternly, snarly singer, Courtney Love as the creamy Versace model, Erykah Badu, Meshell Ndegéocello, Biukini Kill, Missy Elliott, the Spice Girls, Salt-N-Pepa, TLC, Gwen Stefani, Team Dresch, Foxy Brown, Queen Latifah, Indigo Girls, and all those ladies featured at Lilith Fair; products galore, Urban Decay, Hard Candy, MAC, Manic Panic; on the small screen, Wonder Woman (in comic book form, too), Buffy the Vampire Slayer, My So-Called Life, Xena, Felicity, and Alicia Silverstone in Aerosmith videos; Chelsea Clinton; the New York club Meow Mix and other joints with female go-go dancers getting down for women; funny girls loving Janeane Garofalo and Margaret Cho; angry women loving Hothead Paisan and Ditty Plotte comics; Jeanne McCarthy, who some satirizes being a pinup even as she is one; controversial books like Backlash and The Morning After; uncontroversial one likes The Bust Guide to the New Girl Order and Listen Up; the West Coast mutual-aspiration society of sex writers Lisa Palac and Susie Bright; Monica Lewinsky, the Women's World Cup, the WNBA; and hundreds more films, bands, women, books, events, and zines.

We, and others, call this intersection of culture and feminism "Girlie." Girlie says we're not broken, and our desires aren't simply booby traps set by the patriarchy. Girlie encompasses the tabooed symbols of women's feminine enculturation -- Barbie dolls, makeup, fashion magazine, high heels -- and says doing so isn't shorthand for "we've been duped." Using makeup isn't a sign of our sway to the marketplace and the male gaze; it can be sexy, campy, ironic, or simply decorating ourselves without the loaded issues. Also, what we loved about as girls was good and, because of feminism, we know how to make stuff work for us. Our Barbies had jobs and sex lives and friends. We weren't staring at their plastic figures and dynelle tresses hoping to someday attain their pneumatic measurements. Sticker collections were no more trivial than stamp collections; both pursuits cultivated the connoisseur in a young person.

While it's true that embracing the pink things of stereotypical girlhood isn't a radical gesture meant to overturn the way society is structured, it can be a confident gesture. When younger women wearing "Girls Rule" t-shirts and carrying Hello Kitty lunch boxes dust off their Le Sportsacs from junior high and fill them with black lipstick and green nail polish and campy sparkles, it is not as totems to an infantilized culture but as a nod to joyous youth. Young women are emphasizing our real personal lives in contrast to what feminist foremothers anticipated their lives would -- or should -- be: that the way to equality was to reject Barbie and all forms of pink packaged femininity. In holding tight to that which once symbolized their oppression, Girlies' motivations are along the lines of gay men in Chelsea calling each other "queer" or black men and women using the term "nigga."

In creating a feminism of their own, Girlies are repeating a pattern as old as patriarchy: rebelling against their mothers, sometimes immaturely. For instance, Debbie Stoller calling Gloria Steinem a dinosaur in the dumb and now defunct Gen-X magazine Swing or Katie Roiphe writing books that seem to be a direct response to her seventies-feminist mother Anne Roiphe. In the same way that Betty Friedan's insistence on professional seriousness was a response to every woman in an office being called a girl, this generation is predestined to fight against the equally rigid stereotype of being too serious, too political, and seemingly asexual. Girlie culture is a rebellion against the false impression that since women don't want to be sexually exploited, they don't want to be sexual; against the necessity of the brass-buttoned red-suited seriousness to infiltrate a man's world; against the anachronistic belief that because women could be dehumanized by porn (and we include erotica in our definition), they must be; and the idea that girls and power don't mix. Although rebelling appears to be negative we think it's natural -- and the result leads to greater diversity and, in turn, produces a strong feminist movement.

Excerpted from MANIFESTA: Young Women, Feminism and the Future by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright 2000 by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards. All rights reserved.

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