"Faces of Feminism: An Activist's Reflections on the Women's Movement"
by Sheila Tobias

A Review by Kim Allen


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Sheila Tobias' latest book, "Faces of Feminism," combines historical and cultural analysis with personal recollection of the "waves" of feminism from the 1850's to the present. Part hard statistics and stark facts, part revealing anecdotes and moving stories, the book is highly readable for feminism novices and experts alike. The issues Tobias addresses, however, are anything but simple. "Faces of Feminism" makes the reader stop and think-- to put her or his own experiences in context.

Tobias writes for a wide audience: older feminists will pick up her nostalgia for the early days of second wave feminism (the 1960's and 1970's), while younger feminists get a valuable history lesson about events never covered in school. Those not familiar with feminism will gain an understanding of the theoretical structure underpinning the movement-- concepts of patriarchy, the male standard, and the rigidity of gender roles. In short, everyone can get something out of this book.

Tobias' viewpoint is unapologetically subjective; although her historical facts are accurate and well-referenced, she presents them in her own voice and offers her personal analysis. I was amused to notice that her book does not read so differently from other historical books which claim to be objective. How refreshing to see a little honesty!

After an introduction to the general principles behind feminism, Tobias describes the rise of feminism in the "first wave" (which of course is only called such with the benefit of historical hindsight)-- namely, the fight for women's suffrage and other social and health issues of relevance to women. This sets the stage for the main part of the book: the second wave of feminism (familiar to all of us as the Women's Movement of the 1960's and 1970's).

Through the middle chapters, we learn how women in the postsuffrage era entered the workforce in significant numbers, where they encountered outright prejudice in pay inequity and lack of promotions. Pregnancy was grounds for dismissal from a job, women were routinely paid less than men for the same work, and many "Rosie the Riveters" lost their positions when men returned from World War II. Women remaining at home fared little better. They whiled away the hours mopping the floor, shopping for groceries, and preparing endless arrays of chocolate cakes, meatloaf, and fried chicken for their families. They languished in the formica- and polyester world that was supposed to be every woman's dream. Even the women who had broken into the coveted "high-level" jobs requiring advanced degrees (such as government positions, science, and business) found the men unenlightened and unreceptive to the concept of women's equality. Because such diverse groups of women were experiencing sexism over such a wide range of activities, the time was ripe for all of them to unite and start a Movement. The chapter "Three Strands and an Accident" tells the tale of the birth of the second wave.

Not all women joined in, however. Tobias takes special note of the conservative reaction against the women's movement, which included women in its ranks (indeed, she devotes an entire chapter to explaining the behavior of Phyllis Schlafley). The second wave encountered greater resistance to feminism than the first wave, which she attributes to the fact that second wave feminism, by its latter stages, was starting to address issues of role change, not simply role equity. Everyone can agree that women and men should be paid the same salary if they are indeed doing identical work (role equity), but not everyone is comfortable with adjusting the fundamental roles that women and men fill in society. As Tobias puts it, the split between liberal and conservative is deeper than the second wave anticipated: not all women will agree with feminist ideas (and not all men will oppose them, incidentally).

The book is full of the type of insights that help you make sense of seemingly convoluted turns of history and culture. Despite the different nature of the issues addressed, the first- and second waves of feminism are united neatly into parallel movements displaced in time, part of the same spiral that will rise again in the third wave. For instance, Tobias notes that feminism has arisen out of other social movements (such as the temperance movement and the anti-Vietnam War protests) as women realize just how little power they actually possess. She draws together the various strands that contributed to the sudden and widespread support for the second wave. She chronicles the complex feedback between law (and enforcement of law) and feminism, between the personal and the political, between desiring a separate existence from men and desiring the rights men enjoy. Social movements defy simplicity, but Tobias at least organizes the complexity.

The third wave puzzles her, however. Still in its infancy, it doesn't quite fit the pattern yet. Like the feminism she chronicles, Tobias' analysis tightens and focuses around the second wave, then diffuses as she moves into the 1990's in the final chapters. The description of the first wave is mainly historical-- setting the stage. The second wave, her domain, is addressed in rich detail, with a clear message: Feminists were never monolithic, but for the most part they could set aside their major differences and work toward the common goal of role equity. As the battles shifted toward role change, however, small fissures began to open in the Movement, which at first signalled a more "diversified" feminism, but later served as dividing lines for an increasingly "fragmented" feminism. And in the third wave, feminists are beginning to address issues that even go beyond the second wave's questions about role change: issues such as pornography and "the mommy track" about which even feminists cannot agree, much less women and men in general. She seems not to know what to make of these new developments.

Her concluding chapter ("The End of a Movement") is less analytically tight than the previous chapters. Surely part of the reason comes from lack of historical perspective; tidy summaries cannot be made while the action is going on. But still, her inconclusiveness indicates that she is still working through these ideas in her own mind. She experiences conflicting emotions about what has become of the second wave's Movement and how the third wave is picking up the standard, and she throws these out to the reader with little intellectual filtering.

For example, she states explicitly, "[T]he mood of the country is different now than it was coming out of the rebellious 1960s. If feminism is going to survive in the coming decades, it has to be different." (p. 245). She acknowledges the presence of a third wave of feminism which will have to address different issues than the ones she and her cohort dealt with: "In the early 1990s groups of women in their twenties appeared willing, even quite proud, to call themselves 'the third wave' and to identify as actual or spiritual progeny of second-wave feminism... Third-wavers are mindful that the second wave got the reputation, earned or not, of being 'hateful to men, focusing on too narrow a set of goals, and marginalizing minority and low-income women'... young feminists are looking to eradicate the image of feminism is a rich white women's club." (pp. 252-253). And yet, you can hear the lament in her voice when she says, "It was inevitable that the single vision of the second wave would eventually be diffused into several and that the energies of its pioneers would eventually give out. But it was hoped, certainly expected, that younger women, the beneficiaries of the changes being wrought, would stay the course. Maybe they will. But the 'Movement' as we knew it, loved it, and lived it in the 1960s and 1970s may well be over...." (p. 244). And indeed, the very chapter title belies her feeling of loss for the good old days of protest and sisterhood. Tobias isn't sure what to make of the present, much less the future.

On the one hand, one can hardly blame her; she describes the early days of the second wave as "heady", and no doubt they were. Anyone who has experienced powerful bonding with a group of like-minded friends knows the stimulation and joy that comes from such collaborations. And the second wave's far-reaching accomplishments testify to their drive, organization, and perseverance. Feminism today is not like the early second wave.

But from my perspective as a third wave feminist, this is a classic generation gap, and the third wave does not deserve the scorn Tobias gives it. As the cycle of life goes forward, and children grow into adults, the fact that they were raised in different times from their parents can become significant. It happens in individual lives, in political and social movements, and even in international relations. Feminism is no different.

Where Tobias sees "fracture" among young women and frustration among the old guard, I see a group of energetic 20- and 30-somethings realizing that there are new issues confronting women now that the second wave cannot deal with (or won't?). Such differences in perspective are inevitable. For instance, nowhere does Tobias mention the Internet as a powerful means of communication and idea-spreading for women; instead, she recalls the excitement and glorious exhaustion of campaiging across the US in a VW bus (or maybe it was a Dodge Dart). Coming of age before the computer revolution of the 1980's, the second wave does not fully appreciate such feminist inventions as womanspaces (women's email lists) and websites devoted to women's information. Our legal battles will involve "cyberlaw" as well as abortion and employment law. As more women enter the professional workforce and earn significant income, we become an economic force through the goods and services we choose to buy as well as through donations and investments. Also, we can set up an "old girls' network" to help each other find jobs. We're not playing the same game that our mothers did, so it's not surprising that our strategies are different.

But Tobias knows this, even if she hasn't articulated it yet. Her analysis indicates a keen understanding for the twists and turns of politics and history-- and the interplay between social movements and these other factors. There has never been a generational cycle in which the elders didn't worry about the youngsters' capacity to carry on responsibly, didn't complain about their "mixed-up priorities", didn't express concern about where things were headed. I doubt the suffragists would have enthusiastically approved of 1960's counterculture as a legitimate extension of their feminist activities. So I'm not surprised that the second wave frowns at the third wave's harder-nosed, harder-boiled, more capitalist attitudes.

"Faces of Feminism" is a must-read for budding third wave feminists for the simple reason that you have to know where you've been in order to grasp where you're going. Since we don't learn feminist history in school (something the third wave will have to remedy since the second didn't), it is especially important to gain pespective from those who not only lived through the second wave, but have the analytical prowess of Sheila Tobias. Her condemnation of the third wave's efforts so far as puny and ineffective seems narrow-minded and a bit curmudgeonly, but otherwise she conveys the complexity of feminism in a very readable way. And of course, many people can benefit from this book, not just young feminists.

Copyright 1997 Kim Allen.