In the midst of this”third wave” of Feminism, it seems as though the movement is becoming more fractured than ever. Womanism, Chicana Feminsim, Radical Feminism… There hardly seems to be anything coherent left. Compared to the movements that came before us- the shoulders upon which we stand- we seem to have less in common with one another and fewer tangible goals that we can all agree upon. Are prostitutes sex workers or victims? Can a woman choose the wear Hijab? What role should the West play in supporting middle eastern feminist efforts? Should we even be involved at all? Do women across cultures and socioeconomic levels and races have enough in common to all work together for a common goal? What would that goal look like?
A Quick History-
The First Wave
There have always been rifts in the feminist movement. History has the effect of dampening the sound of conflict, leaving out the complicating details so much that past eras seems always to be simple times when victory for the good guys was obvious and inevitable. The first wave was characterized, in the story we tell, by the fight for the vote. Originating in the U.K., this is the classic wave that you might have touched upon in history class. At this point, a hundred years later, these women are finally considered uncontroversial heroes of civil rights. This was the time of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Victoria Woodhull, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Susan B. Anthony, Margaret Sanger, and others. These (mostly white) ladies fought for and won the right to own property, vote, enter university, manage money and own businesses, and run for office. The big controversy, and the reason suffrage took so long to achieve, was a question of priorities: Do we fight for the right of women to vote first or African- Americans? Ultimately, the women took the backburner. But it was a huge controversy at the time, dividing women:
“Elizabeth Cady Stanton herself complained about the prospect of black voting rights in 1865. “Now,” she wrote, “it becomes a serious question whether we had better stand aside and see ‘Sambo’ walk in the kingdom first.” (Tom Head)
Ultimately, it came to pass than African-Americans gained voting rights (on paper) first, possibly because rich white politicians knew they had a bag full of tricks like poll taxes and literacy tests that would effectively silence the Black vote for decades. (As an aside, the literacy tests given are seriously impossible. Take one here. The Supreme Court made a ruling in June to remove federal oversight on these tests, meaning that the south may decide to rise again and get all ugly and racist again. Something to keep a lookout for).
The Second Wave
The Second Wavers focused less on the legal aspect of equality and more on gaining equity in the workplace, in the family, and in sexuality. Margaret Sanger’s dream of reliable oral contraception was realized on the dime of Katherine McCormick, who funded research that was too ‘out there’ for drug companies who somehow missed the fact that women would very much like to have sex and not get pregnant. Released in 1960, it changed the face of human sexuality. Betty Friedan dared mention that all women might not be entirely fulfilled by children and marriage in her 1963 book. Much of the second wave was characterized by discovery- the discovery of how deeply entrenched in patriarchy we are, of who we could become as we freed ourselves from it.
Like the First Wave before it, though, it was not without internal controversy. The Feminist Sex Wars, considered the end of the second wave, have been dividing feminists since the 1980s and are only now beginning to be reconciled. The central controversies all related to sex- Can prostitution be considered work? Is pornography inherently degrading to women? Are some sexual practices “unfeminist”?
The Third Wave
Beginning on such turbulent ground, we of the third wave have taken a step back and made efforts to include as many people under our banner as possible, recognizing differences. Earlier movements had failed to enfranchise poor women and women of color, as well as men. The struggle for the acceptance of women working outside the home seems laughable to the millions of poor women who have always had jobs in addition to housework as members of the working poor. Yet these women need feminism too.
So feminism has splintered into a channels in attempts to deal with all the very different needs of many groups of women. In addition to demographic groups, there remain the ideological groups left over from the Sex Wars- anti-sex feminists like Andrea Dworkin who believe that heterosexual intercourse is inherently oppressive to women, pro-positive sex feminists like Gloria Steinem who believe that sex is not oppressive to women when it is mutually respectful, pro-sex feminists like Carol Queen and Nina Hartly who think that sex is only oppressive when one party feels it is… it seems there are as many Feminisms as there are feminists. As we try to break down gender entirely, the nice binaries and titles that made Feminism an entity are broken down too. It seems sometimes as though Feminism is ripping up the deck while we’re still standing on it trying to put together outdoor furniture- in the name of consciousness raising and checking privilege.
Even as we use queer theory to question, in the classroom, the very existence of gender, third wave feminists haven’t entirely abandoned the pursuit of change: like our 1st wave grandmothers we fight for legal change- protecting Roe v. Wade, getting sexual harassment laws on the books, and increasing women’s presence in politics. Like our 2nd wave mothers we fight for social change- for child care and universal preschool, for equitable wages for women who choose work outside the home and respect and social security benefits for women who choose work unpaid in the home. We, too, emphasize choice.
So where do we go from here? That’s a hell of a question. Feminists continue to support the LGBQI community and their efforts for legal change and social acceptance. We’re fighting to end rape culture and to secure our reproductive rights. We’re trying to include men. We are invading the academic sphere. Sometimes the most important thing is to say “We’re still here!” in a culture that would like to think that it is “post-racial” and “post-feminist”. The third wave is happening now, around you. You can be a part of it and be a feminist for your own personal Feminism. It is what we make it, ladies and gentlemen.