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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Washed Over by a Wave

In response to my post about feminist blogging as activism, a tweet from ShelbyKnox questioned whether we were really in a "third wave." On the same note, Ashley at Small Strokes tipped me off to an article at Conducive entitled "Drowning in the Shallow End: Third Wave Feminism" by Heather Tirado Gilligan. I found this article very interesting and it has inspired me to address my views on third wave feminism.

I don't identify myself as a "third wave feminist," even though I would probably fall into that category. I am a feminist, plain and simple. That's simply how I identify. Using identifying characteristics to define my feminism does not work for me like it does for others. It just doesn't work for my personal approach to feminism, but certain identifying characteristics are important to others' investments in feminism. But that's neither here nor there right now.

I use the term "third wave" to signify the shift in feminist between the 70s (or "second wave") and today. The term may not be perfect, but it works for these purposes.

Gilligan completely denounces the use of the wave metaphor.

I've come to think that the watery metaphor should be tossed out altogether, and our focus aligned away from the coming of the next bout of sisterhood-is-powerful. Instead, we should set out sights on tangible, civic-minded outcomes: documenting and protesting the inequality that still structures women's lives in the United States and abroad, for example, rather than debating the nature of feminism itself.
While I agree that feminists need to focus on "tangible, civic-minded outcomes," I don't know if the wave metaphor itself is the one causing the problem. Or maybe it is if we are now concerned with the fourth wave.

But I think that the call for a "fourth wave" is the result of a handful of people reading too much into the wave metaphor. I think the wave metaphor can be appropriate and that Gilligan's main problem is with the state of feminism today rather than with the use of the term "third wave."

Using the term "third wave" is a way for feminist to disidentify with the "second
wave," who they saw as an old-fashioned, white woman's movement. Gilligan talks a lot about the demonizing of the "second wave" and (or by) making feminism marketable.

Rather than situating feminism in the context of this remarkable history, the focus on newness inherent in our current use of the wave metaphor has made feminism vulnerable to consumerism. The quickest way for younger feminists to appear as the next new hot thing has been to call the second wave passe.
There are generational differences. Feminism evolves. But where Gilligan sees a problem in this is how today's feminists (whether we call them "third wave" or not) reinterpretation/revisioning of the past to promote their own agenda. Today that is done by demonizing the second wave to promote the "differences" between them. There is also a view of the women's movement of the 70s as a monolithic entity, which it wasn't, but it is easier to oppose this way.

Making feminism marketable has diluted feminism generally. Trying to make feminism appealing to everyone (or a wide range of people) takes the "edge" off of feminism (but there is definitely still a perceived edge since people are afraid of the word).

This everyperson definition of feminism is so broad as to be meaningless - what action is expected of women as a result of calling themselves feminist?

Overall, I agree with the major points of Gilligan's article about what feminist should be focusing on or trying (and succeeding) to accomplish. Gilligan claims that...

what falls by the wayside is the idea that gender inequality exists, that it affects women disproportionately depending on class status, race, and nationality, and that feminists have a responsibility to address this inequality.
But I think that feminists today are all too aware that gender inequality still exists. More so that anyone else.

What Gilligan is arging for in abolishing the wave metaphor is what my feminism is. Like I said, I don't identify myself as a "third wave feminist." And maybe what we need is a new term for feminists today but feminism today has changed from the feminism of the 70s and the suffrage movement. I'm not going to debate whether or not it was a good change right now, but there is no denying that there has been a change.

Gilligan discusses "third wave feminism" as another white women's movement, just one of the things that the second wave was criticized for. The term "third wave" might just be another alibi for white, middle class women to feel like they are discussing diversity. And maybe it is. But I think an important part of feminism today is the different identities that can fit into it (ex: African American feminism, working class feminism, Middle Eastern feminism, etc.). Because feminism is about examining the intersection of different oppressions, feminism can work with other types of oppressed identities.

So with the different kinds of identity feminism, do we need a term like "third wave" to classify all types of feminism? Maybe not. But I do think it is important to differentiate from the feminism of the 70s.

Gilligan would classify this need to differentiate as daughters trying to separate from their mothers of the second wave.

Much of the discussion of the newness of third wave feminism comes out of an active desire from daughters to separate themselves from the previous generation.
But what is so wrong with trying to separate from the previous generation? Every generation generally rebels from their predecessors in some way. Feminism today needs to create its own identity or identities. This doesn't mean forgetting the feminism of the 70s, just building on it and making it our own.

There still has to be a connection with the creation of a new identity. We have to realize that...

Our rights, such as they are, were won by the tireless work of earlier generations of feminist, and obligate us to correct the inequality that continues to structure women's lives, starting right now.
This is why the wave metaphor can work. It implies connection but still a separate identity. I am not attached to the term "third wave" as an identity. I understand the concerns of Gilligan, but I see that more as a result of people as opposed to the term "third wave." And I definitely see the value in the wave metaphor (or some other appropriate term) as a way to differentiate between the suffrage movement, the feminism of the 70s, and today...because there is definitely a difference.

Suggested Reading: Gilligan references the book The World Split Open by Ruth Rosen. I read it for my feminist theory class. It's a good book about the history of feminism and the women's movement.


RMJ said...

Great post, Laura. Really thoughtful.

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