Subject to Debate
By Katha Pollitt
This article appeared in the June 15, 2009 edition of The Nation.
May 27, 2009
Can we please stop talking about feminism as if it is mothers and
daughters fighting about clothes? Second wave: you're going out in
that? Third wave: just drink your herbal tea and leave me alone!
Media commentators love to reduce everything about women to catfights
about sex, so it's not surprising that this belittling and
historically inaccurate way of looking at the women's movement--angry
prudes versus drunken sluts--has recently taken on new life,
including among feminists. Writing on DoubleX .com, the new Slate
spinoff for women, the redoubtable Linda Hirshman delivered a
sweeping attack on younger feminists for irresponsible partying, as
chronicled on Jezebel.com, a Gawker-family blog devoted to
"Celebrity, Sex, Fashion for Women. Without Airbrushing." Likewise, a
silly "debate" over whether Sex and the Single Girl did more for
women than The Feminine Mystique followed the release of Jennifer
Scanlon's Bad Girls Go Everywhere: The Life of Helen Gurley Brown. As
Naomi Wolf wrote in the Washington Post, "The stereotype of feminists
as asexual, hirsute Amazons in Birkenstocks that has reigned on
campus for the past two decades has been replaced by a breezy vision
of hip, smart young women who will take a date to the right-on,
woman-friendly sex shop Babeland." Pick your caricature.
What's wrong with parsing feminism along a mother/daughter divide? Everything.
First of all, it's chronologically off. If second wavers are those
who made the women's liberation movement in the late 1960s and '70s,
they are not the mothers of today's young feminists but their
grandmothers. Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug, Barbara Seaman and Del
Martin are dead. Adrienne Rich is 80, Robin Morgan is 68. Gloria
Steinem, still fabulous, celebrated her seventy-fifth birthday on
March 25. The wave construct obscures the perspective of women ten or
even twenty years younger, like, um, me--in 1966, when NOW was
founded, I was a junior in high school--or Susan Faludi (b. 1959),
bell hooks (b. 1952) or Anna Quindlen (b. 1952).
The same thing happens at the other end. "Third wave" was indeed
intended to define a new generation--it was coined by Rebecca Walker,
Alice Walker's daughter--in 1992. The original third wavers, with
their reclaiming of "girl culture" and their commitment to the
intersectionality of race, class and gender are now touching 40; they
hung up their Hello Kitty backpacks some time ago. Many, like Walker,
have children: they are the mothers who, today's "young feminists"
complain, use up all the air in the room, according to Nation writer
Nona Willis Aronowitz. But the term continues to be used to describe
each latest crop of feminists--loosely defined as any female with
more political awareness than a Bratz doll--and to portray them in
terms of their rejection of second wavers, who are supposedly starchy
and censorious. Like moms. Somebody's mom, anyway.
The wave structure, I'm trying to say, looks historical, but actually
it is used to misrepresent history by evoking ancient tropes about
repressive mothers and rebellious daughters. Second wave: anti-porn;
third wave: anything goes! But second wave was never all
anti-porn--think of Ellen Willis, for heaven's sake. It even gave us
the propaganda term "pro-sex." The ACLU is jampacked with feminist
lawyers of a certain age. In fact, feminists in the '70s and '80s had
the same conflicts over pornography that are playing out today among
young women over raunch and sex work. You wouldn't know it from the
media, but there are plenty of young feminists who do not see
pole-dancing as "empowering" and do not aspire to star in a Girls
Gone Wild video. Ariel Levy's Female Chauvinist Pigs sold very well
on campus. These women don't fit the wave story line, however, so
nobody interviews them. The pairing up on sex issues is old/young,
with the older feminist representing sour puritanical judgment.
And that's really strange. After all, today's "asexual, hirsute"
60-year-olds were the original sex-drugs-and-rock-'n'-rollers. In
some ways, they were more sexually radical than today's youth,
because they made a bigger break with conventional ideas of sexiness.
Many a gray-haired women's studies professor was a braless free
spirit back in the day. In fact, some of them still are. Nobody wants
to hear, though, from middle-aged women with relaxed and generous
views about sex, let alone who are still having it. Relaxed and
generous do not a catfight make.
There is a generational struggle going on, but it isn't over sex;
it's over power. For twenty years, young feminists have complained
that older women have kept a lock on organizational feminism. Robin
Morgan famously told young women who protested that her generation
wasn't passing the torch to "get your own damned torch. I'm still
using mine." So, tired of being assistants and tokens, they did.
Branding themselves as a wave was part of it. By staking their claim
on youth, they branded older feminists as, well, old. And old, in
America, is not a good thing to be.
While a tactical success for the young, the wave construct has the
effect of overemphasizing peripheral issues, like exactly how
adventurous a young woman can be before Linda Hirshman thinks she's
asking for trouble. Why not acknowledge that there will never be a
bright line between pleasure and danger, personal choice and social
responsibility, open-mindedness and judgment? The fine points of
sexual freedom will all be there waiting for us--after we get
childcare, equal pay, retirement security, universal access to birth
control and abortion, healthcare for all and men who do their share
at home, after we achieve equal representation in government, are
safe from sexual violence and raise a generation of girls who don't
hate their bodies.
Let's just not call them the fourth wave.
About Katha Pollitt
Katha Pollitt's writing has appeared in many publications, including
The New Yorker, The London Review of Books, the Washington Post and
the New York Times. Her new book of poems, The Mind-Body Problem, has
just been published by Random House.
Her most recent books are Learning to Drive: and Other Life Stories
(Random House), a collection of personal essays, and Virginity or
Death! (Random House), a collection of her Nation columns. The
Mind-Body Problem, a collection of poems, will be published by Random
House in June.
Visit her website at www.kathapollitt.com.