Is feminism dead? Do young women care about equality with the same passion that their mothers did in the 1970s? Are they doing anything about it?
The answers are No, Yes, and Yes, dammit!
"ManifestA" is a key publication in the growing body of third wave feminist literature. Jennifer Baumgartner and Amy Richards are smart Gen-Xers who have been in the thick of the women's movement (through posts at Ms. magazine and through their own activism). They, like many young feminists, are grappling with how to take feminism forward to the next level, the next generation of change. "ManifestA" serves as a cogent summing-up of where we are and where we could be headed. I highly recommend it.
The First Wave of feminism began with the Seneca Falls convention in 1848 and culminated with the passing of the 19th Amendment (women's suffrage) in 1919. The Second Wave is the one many people think of when they hear the word "feminist": the swell of women's activism in the 1960's and 70's. The Third Wave is gathering steam right now; it consists of women born during the peak of the Second Wave (early 60's through mid-70's). These women are special-- we are the first generation to grow up with the concept of feminism "in the water" (as Baumgartner and Richards say eloquently). We expect equality in areas that our mothers couldn't. We expect to be able to pursue our own interests and to have the protection of many laws that our mothers had to fight for. And we are now adults-- who vote, and have kids, degrees, and money.
But as simple as it is to tell the story of feminism as a smooth expansion of the movement, the reality is far more complex. Like any social movement, feminism is organic and dynamic. It contains conflict and compromise, bitter divisions, powerful unions, and a few steps backward amidst the steps forward. The current transition from Second Wave to Third Wave is an interesting, if painful, one. It is characterized by some glaring miscommunications between aging Second Wave feminists and their ambitious, independent Third Wave daughters. Baumgartner and Richards present the state of feminism today from the eyes of young women. "ManifestA" works both as a rallying point for Third Wavers and a lesson in appreciating young womens' perspective for Second Wavers. It is a crucial bridge to both the past and the future.
Baumgartner and Richards come from the world of traditional media (zines, magazines, and newspapers) and are based in (of course) New York. This viewpoint colors much of their analysis-- the reader gets the impression that not much happens west of the Ohio River, and that magazines and TV have an enormous influence on people's knowledge and opinions. While the former is certainly not true, the latter may be, so this limited media-based perspective may in fact capture a large chunk of the state of feminism today. It certainly captures an important part of it that I am less aware of, as a West Coast woman with a technical degree who doesn't watch much TV or read popular magazines.
[One area where I think the authors' perspective limited their vision is in discussing the role of the Internet in feminism. The Internet is not even mentioned until page 106, where it is dismissed with the criticism of having too little fact-checking (which somehow doesn't make TV, magazines, and books useless as feminist media also). Later they admit that the Internet might be good for "organizing," which is about as creative as believing that computers are primarily useful because they are fast typewriters. But that's OK-- publications from authors more attuned to online life describe the power of the Internet.]
The main message of "ManifestA" is that feminism is very much alive, that it is being carried forward by young women everywhere-- and that this is a good thing. There are plenty of Second Wave books that also discuss what young feminists are up to, but they mostly present our efforts in a negative light, as puny, misguided, or confused. Baumgartner and Richards reply:
There will never be one platform for action that all women agree on. But that doesn't mean feminism is confused (p. 47).These quotes and countless others made me say out loud, "Yes! Thank you for saying that." Again and again, I heard Baumgartner and Richards expressing the same thoughts that we express here on the 3rd WWWave site. If we can have such similar ideas while coming from such disparate walks of life, surely many other young women share them too.
The fact that feminism is no longer limited to arenas where we expect to see it-- NOW, Ms., women's studies, and redsuited Congresswomen-- perhaps means that young women today have really reaped what feminism has sown. Raised after Title IX and "William Wants a Doll," young women emerged from college or high school or two years of marriage or their first job and began challenging some of the received wisdom of the past ten or twenty years of feminism. We're not doing feminism the same way that the seventies feminists did it; being liberated doesn't mean copying what came before but finding one's own way-- a way that is genuine to one's own generation. (p. 130)
"ManifestA" goes on to present an excellent analysis of young women's relationships with (and sometimes conflicts with) older feminists. In the past few years, the code of silence among feminists has begun to break down, as women have acknowledged that they didn't totally agree with things that happened and sometimes felt slighted or prejudged by others in the movement. In particular, young women have begun to speak up about abuse at the hands of the elders in the movement-- being ignored or patronized (I use that term deliberately). The young women make coffee and play the supporting roles while being expected to worship the divas and icons of the Second Wave. This relationship sounds a lot like how men in general expect the women around them to behave. Other young feminists have had to resolve issues with their mothers, as both they and their mothers figured out how to incorporate feminism into their personal lives.
Baumgartner and Richards do not simply gripe about older feminists, tit-for-tat style, but instead write a reasoned view of what is happening within feminism during this changing of the guard. After all, feminism has survived generational changes in the past; the First Wave spanned nearly two full generations of women. But then, as now, the changes have opened some rifts. "ManifestA" lays out the lines of conflict and suggests ways for all of us to avoid making them too large. As Baumgartner and Richards state explicitly, "To do feminism differently from one's mother, to make choices that are our own, and not simply a reaction or a rejection, is the task of our generation" (p. 215).
"ManifestA" also neatly addresses many of the concerns and ideas of young women from a much-needed young women's perspective. This book contains the most lucid analysis of the Girlie movement I have ever seen, as well as deliciously on-target comments about sex, rape, marriage, education, and activism. It is refreshing to see the Second Wave analyzed from a feminist perspective, also. Second Wave publications, of course, take their own viewpoint as a given, and outside analyses of the movement are usually anti-feminist. Kudos to Baumgartner and Richards for giving us an intelligent third view.
So far I have discussed the summing-up of feminism that is most of "ManifestA." In the final chapters, Baumgartner and Richards look forward to the future of Third Wave activism, presenting their 13-point "manifesta" of the third wave. The manifesta is Baumgartner and Richards' vision of the key issues facing Third Wave feminism along with a stated position on each issue. This is followed by a section on concrete ways for young women to become activists and bring about real change.
Their suggestions of vital areas in need of feminist attention and ways to go about achieving real ends are practical and even inspirational. But ironically, the weakest part of "ManifestA" is the manifesta itself. Without this 13-item laundry list, the book would have been stronger. At best, the list represents a particular set of issues from which most Third Wavers would find at least one to ignite her passion. At worst, it is just another rigid agenda or platform like the Second Wave had-- and which ultimately alienated a lot of women from the movement. Recall the quotes above about breaking away in new directions from the 70's feminists-- do we really need lists of acceptable issues like our mothers had?
The list encapsulates what much of the rest of the book implied in prose: Feminists, according to these authors, are supposed to be old-style liberals. Pro-choice, pro-gay, anti-big-corporation (which these days includes anti-globalization), and various other positions you can guess. OK, fine. It's hard to imagine a feminist who agrees with even half of what Pat Buchanan says, but I was mildly disturbed at the tone implying that there is no wiggle room on these "key issues." It seems blindlingly obvious to me that truly liberated women can disagree-- no one expects men to vote as a bloc. That should be a goal for women too.
Modern feminism, like all social movements (and indeed, like feminism of a century ago), faces a tradeoff between unity and numbers. Mass movements cannot adhere to an ideological agenda thought up by aloof party theorists or even by a few intellectual activists. Will feminism remain small and pure, as the aging Second Wavers are trying to accomplish, or will it expand to include types of women who aren't even interested in reading books like "ManifestA"? Baumgartner and Richards seem to want the best of both worlds-- a broad feminist movement wherein everyone agrees with their 13-point list. One can't help but be skeptical that this is possible.
So ultimately, "ManifestA" is an articulation of how the Third Wave can be a new manifestation of the Second Wave. In this sense, it is a "conservative" radical feminist publication-- it explains how young feminists can work within the framework set up by older feminists to accomplish new goals. This sort of work will probably be the dominant part of the Third Wave. At times, "ManifestA" left me hungering for the other part of the story-- an articulation of the ways in which young feminists and the Third Wave movement are truly different from what has come before. The new things we can do that were impossible for our mothers, and how the movement can be made stronger by seizing these new opportunities and powers. But that wasn't Baumgartner and Richards' purpose.
"ManifestA" is a bridge. It connects the past to the future, and enables young women at last to see themselves as separate travelers on the road their mothers began constructing several decades ago. Young readers will have to wait for the sequel to get a view of Third Wave feminism that goes beyond the trail blazed by the Second Wave. Or better yet, they can write that book themselves through the creative feminist work that is already going on worldwide.
Baumgartner and Richards are savvy, smart, and valuable Third Wave activists. Their book "ManifestA" should be read by both young women and aging Second Wave feminists because it provides a valuable bridge between the two movements, highlighting our fundmental similarities even as they discuss the different issues that we face. Feminism is far from dead; in fact, to my ears, the voices are growing louder every day, with this book just the latest example.
Read it to get yourself up to date on feminism.
Copyright © 2001 Kim Allen.