Birth of a Third-Wave Feminist

by Kim Allen

I can remember the day I became a third-wave feminist. I heard that Sheila Tobias was coming to the UCSD Women's Center to showcase her new book, "Faces of Feminism." As a physicist, I was acquainted with Tobias' work on girls and mathematics ("they're not dumb, they're different") and science outreach ("breaking the science barrier"), so I was interested to see and hear her in person.

The warm, homey conference room of the Women's Center was packed. Women students, staff, and faculty crowded around the table and lined the walls. Even a few men lurked in the back. Tobias was given the position at the head of the table, where she perched on the edge of her chair in anticipation of a lively discussion. A few copies of her new book circulated among the attendees as we shifted into stable positions. I caught the excitement; this was a big event!

First Tobias led us through the table of contents and motivation behind "Faces of Feminism." She felt she had reached some turning point in the feminist struggle, now that she was "older," and the world was quite different from how it had been in the 1960's and 70's. Enough change had been wrought that she felt the need to summarize, to tie up the strands, to answer the question, "where are we now?"

As a person who likes synthesis and unification, I completely understood. Projects move in erratic ways-- building momentum and then suddenly idling, or veering off in unexpected directions. Every now and then you hit a calm time in your schedule, and that's a good opportunity to look back and figure out where you came from-- and where you're going. I was pleased that Tobias had done that synthesis for feminism, especially since she had been there through the heyday of the second wave.

But my enthusiasm faded a bit as she outlined the book. As she described the chapters, it became clear that the structure she saw behind the Women's Movement was not one of continuous building in ever-expanding directions, but rather one of culmination in the second wave and subsequent decline. For her, the 1970's were the glory days not of second-wave feminism, but of all feminism. Whatever existed now was just leftover momentum from the burst of speed that came from her generation. I had that strange experience that all bright students have at one time or another: the sudden realization that the teacher is wrong. A little voice in your head says, "But wait-- the teacher is supposed be right. Can this really be happening? Am I completely off-base, or is this lecture bullshit?"

As I tried to reconcile my knowledge of many fresh young feminists with Tobias' assurances that Gen-X is dead, the question-and-answer session started. All over the room, hands shot up: everyone wanted a chance to participate-- aging Boomers and young Gen-Xers, men, grad students, women of color, and lesbians. If no one was picking up the standard of feminism, why were all these people so dynamically involved in Tobias' lecture? At first, I just listened. I didn't agree with everyone, and was vaguely annoyed that so many people seemed to fawn over Tobias, speaking in that breathy voice that involuntarily takes over in moments when we unexpectedly run into Harrison Ford at Starbucks. But then I smiled inwardly: this was great! Here were all these people from different backgrounds, studying different subjects, with different values and tastes, and all of them took an interest in feminism and its many faces. Surely the Movement was all the stronger because of its diverse participants. I felt no need to agree with everyone.

But Tobias did. In answering one woman's question, she pointed out how "fragmented" feminism has become-- as if it were reasonable to expect that everyone who is pro-woman shares the same opinions. Then came the clincher: Tobias didn't like that fact that women are actually enjoying the freedoms the second wave worked so hard to win for us.

What??? Let me get this straight: you won us these freedoms, but don't want to see us enjoying them? What, pray tell, was the point then? (Personally, I would think it was rude if someone didn't enjoy something I had worked hard to make possible for them).

I jumped in without raising my hand. I said, "But I don't understand. Why shouldn't young women enjoy the freedoms that we now have?"

It was clearly the wrong thing to say. There was one of those awkward-- I might even say pregnant-- silences, like when you announce that you're dropping out of college to tour with the Lilith Fair, or when you ask your mom if you can borrow her diaphragm for the evening.

Tobias ignored me. She blew right by my question with some sort of dismissive comment indicating that I clearly had no grasp of the situation. (And why would I? In her view, I was just another Gen-X slacker without a clue about the Real World[tm]). The scary thing was, apparently everyone in the room agreed with her. So either I was completely off-base, or everyone else had been so brainwashed by the star power of this prominent second-waver that they would swallow whatever she said about feminism, even if it meant agreeing that their entire generation consisted of a bunch of non-feminist losers.

And so a third-wave feminist was born. Sorry, Sheila, but I've never been especially adept at believing my teachers just because they are teachers. If the lecture is bullshit, it's time to drop the class. I know that there are plenty of young feminists champing at the bit, ready to take on the world in their own style, addressing the issues that they care about. I know there is a whole cadre of third-wave feminists who have the power to reshape the world to as great a degree as the second-wave, in their own areas of expertise, using their own tools and methods and strategies. I know because I am one of them.

In the end, I read "Faces of Feminism." (And then I reviewed it :-) ). In fact, I've read plenty of second wave works, as well as some feminist classics from before even Tobias' time. They have all served to cement my belief that The Third Wave is something new and exciting, and just as powerful as any movement before it.

And I haven't set foot in the UCSD Women's Center since then.

Copyright © 1998 by Kim Allen

07/04/07 at 22:28