Young Feminists Fight Back


Reviewed: The Fire This Time: Young Activists and the New Feminism edited by Vivien Labaton and Dawn Lundy Martin. New York: Anchor Books, 2004, 346 pp., 14.95 paper.

For the past decade, mass media and young women have been duking it out over whether feminism still has a pulse. Corporate media seems pretty sure that it doesn't, proclaiming that feminism is either "dead" (Time cover story, 1998) and a "failure" (Newsweek, 1990; New York Times Magazine feature, 1988), or, alternately, that "Women's Issues Face a Tough Sell" (Florida Sun-Sentinel, 2002) in our "golden age of post-feminism – Wonderbras, not burning bras" (London Independent, 1995). As far back as 1982, the New York Times Magazine claimed to have identified a "post-feminist generation" who supposedly rejected the quest for equality as irrelevant and passe. Young women, the media tells us, are apathetic about their rights, preferring the watered down version of "girl power" hawked in Hollywood chicks-kick-ass products like Alias and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and bare-booty music videos from L'il Kim and Foxy Brown.

The Fire This Time: Young Activists and the New Feminism, edited by Vivien Labaton and Dawn Lundy Martin, is the most recent entrant in a 13-year effort to refute these misrepresentations. Mid-'90s anthologies, such as Barbara Finden's Listen Up: Voices From the Next Feminist Generation (1995) and Rebecca Walker's To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism (1995), offered generational and identity-based perspectives on young women's political ideology and activism. By 2000, Manifesta, Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards' optimistic call-to-arms, had become a women's studies staple. Each in its own way, these texts proved that – as I wrote in the anthology Catching A Wave: Reclaiming Feminism for the 21st Century (2003) – "postfeminism is a fiction. Far from the media spotlight, girls and young women are undertaking exciting, creative, and uncompromising activism every day.

The Fire This Time attempts to advance a broader concept of what the third wave is and what it can become. Martin and Labaton are, respectively, the cofounder and first executive director of the Third Wave Foundation, the country's only national, multiracial, multi-issue, young women's philanthropic and activist organization, created in the mid-'90s to make feminism "hot, sexy, and newly revolutionary." They may not have commandeered "hot and sexy" from airbrained, miniskirted GOP pundettes like Ann Coulter and her ilk, but they have spent a decade on the front lines of a multicultural movement informed by antiracism, queer rights, labor organizing, and international justice. Their contributors are mobilizing to protect the rights of undocumented female laborers; securing legislative victories for transsexuals; and challenging male hierarchies in hip-hop culture. These young women and men are splitting open the borders of feminism so that, the editors write, "race, sexuality, nationality, and geography can move beyond being simply 'tolerated' or 'included.'" The result is "a new movement evolving from one in which there is a dialogue about feminism and race to a feminist movement whose conversation is race, gender, and globalization." The strongest illustration of these new open borders can be found in the essay in the book by Katherine Temple, "Exporting Violence: The School of the Americas, U.S. Intervention in Latin America, and Resistance." This hefty and powerful essay that should be required reading for every American studies student. The author embodies the multiplicity of priorities and strategies embraced by the third wave: she has done community development work in Guadalajara, Mexico, was challenging corporate corruption years before targeting Starbucks was cool, and currently serves on the board of a rape crisis center in North Carolina. A painter, Temple uses fine art, civil disobedience, and media to raise national awareness of the role the School of the Americas (SOA, now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation),, a US-funded combat center, has played in training, arming, and propping up military war criminals who commit violent massacres in Nicaragua, Mexico, El Salvador, Panama, and other Latin American countries. Applying tools she acquired through working in a shelter for battered refugee and immigrant women, Temple develops a "Corporate Globalization Power and Control Wheel" to illustrate the impact of structural adjustment policies, anti-democratic trade agreements, and military aggression on millions of individuals, numerous governments, and the environment:

"Like batterers, those who design U.S. foreign policy understand that someone who is strong and self-sufficient cannot be easily controlled... Like individual abusers, U.S. foreign policy makers, multinational corporations, and international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank use tactics that compromise and limit the internal resources of Latin American countries. At the same time, these countries increase their dependency upon international lending bodies and U.S. aid and currency. Domestic and global abusers use tactics of relabeling violence, inverting blame, and renaming the victims. Soldiers who rape and stab children call their victims 'little guerrillas.' A man who batters and rapes his girlfriend calls her 'slut.'"

Noting that women and children bear the brunt of the malnutrition, disease, health care shortages, denial of education, and violence that accompany these tactics, Temple completes the analogy by describing how SOA manuals instruct soldiers to use rape and torture "to target people who are threatening to empower themselves to 'leave' the abusive relationship" through union organizing; protests against companies, dictators or the US; preaching liberation theology; or using nonviolent civil disobedience.

Fire is most effective when contributors, such as Temple, use a women's rights framework to go beyond those issues traditionally associated with feminism. However, this is, as the editors say, "not to suggest...that a new set of feminist issues is supplanting the old. Sweatshop labor and police brutality are not new, and the defense of reproductive rights is certainly as necessary as everYoung female activists are bringing a feminist sensibility to wide-ranging social justice work, but their gender is not necessarily what brings them to the movement.Contributors' execution of these ideas is inconsistent. Some pieces – such as Joshua Breitbart and Ana Nogueira's "An Independent Media Center of One's Own: A Feminist Alternative to Corporate Media", Ai-Jen Poo and Eric Tang's "Domestic Workers Organize in the Global City", and Robin Templeton's "She Who Believes in Freedom: Young Women Defy the Prison Industrial Complex" – deliver research-intensive analyses that show the underexamined relevance of various progressive topics for women. Others offer mostly recaps of information the educated progressive already knows. When an anthology's title includes the words "activism" and "new," it would be fair to expect each piece to offer significant insight into innovative organizing efforts. But where Elisha Maria Miranda's heartfelt essay outlines the impact of US colonialism and bombings on the people and environment of Vieques, and immerses readers in the author's personal connection to the subject, she has very little to say about the role of young women in this struggle, whatever that may be. And Syd Lindsley's useful history lesson on the cooptation of environmentalist rhetoric to advance hateful anti-immigration agendas leaves many important questions unanswered: How are young progressive women taking action against "the greening of hate"? What are some of the initiatives that have worked, have failed, can stand as models for others? A little less on the history of eugenics and a little more on contemporary political responses would have been illuminating.

One interviewee told Templeton that while her youth education group employs a feminist leadership structure, "'Traditional feminist issues... have not been on the same level of priority for me as building a movement against racial and class oppression.'" Ironically, the broadening of feminism's boundaries could have one unintended consequence. If second wave feminism's biggest weakness was its failure to fully prioritize a plurality of race and class issues, third wavers must be careful not to replicate this problem in reverse: Young female progressives who eliminate themselves from more "mainstream" battles like abortion, rape, and equal pay risk leaving fundamental rights undefended or, similarly problematic, in the hands of centrists who do not share their belief in the interconnectedness of social justice concerns. But if Fire's contributors are any indication, our "feminist future is not 'either this or that' but 'this and' that," as Labaton and Martin write. Judging from the million or so women who participated in the March for Women's Lives in D.C. last spring - a third of whom were young women - the fire this time is being fueled by queer leaders and anti-war protesters, environmentalists and sexual assault survivors, mediamakers, radical cheerleader bootyshakers, and every young activist fighting for a world in which women matter.

Fire's wide-ranging table of contents reads like what The Nation could look like if the lefty weekly's index page was less pale and less male and its subject matter a little less stale. If you're looking for a book focused primarily on the hows and whats of young feminist organizing, some of the essays may leave you wanting. But as a primer about the ever-broadening domain of progressive feminist ideology and activism, Fire succeeds well enough to warrant inclusion in Women's Studies 101 reading lists, where it should spark debate about the future of feminism.

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