Thursday, May 28, 2009

But Mom! All the Other Kids Are Going to School in Thongs!

Katha Pollitt has a good column at The Nation about the supposed Second Wave / Third Wave rift in feminism, between the supposedly sexless hippie chicks of the Second Wave and their supposedly riot grrls-gone-wild Third Wave daughters.

This division only holds up in a few cases, if at all, like Katie Roiphe and her mother Anne. In general, as Pollitt says,
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. ... 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.

Good stuff, and worth reading in its entirety. It reminded me, first, of similar confusion I've encountered about the gay movement. "Back in your generation, they were all activists!" some younger gays have told me. Not by a hell of a sight, unfortunately. I suppose it's not surprising that people believe such things, since by definition the people who turn up in old video clips about Gay Liberation were activists; and those who don't, though not all were closeted, are invisible. But the movement was the tip of the iceberg of queers in America, and I think that's still true, though probably the gay marriage issue has gotten more of us involved than ever before.

Pollitt's remarks also reminded me of this bit from a 1979 article by Joanna Russ, which I think supplements Pollitt's arguments nicely. It's this dynamic that the media try to exploit with the Second Wave / Third Wave trope:
Every women’s studies teacher, for example, knows the female student who comes into her office and announces defiantly that she’s going to get married – the world is still full of girls who think that heterosexual alliances with men represent a form of rebellion against sexless Mommy. How do these young women imagine their mothers ended up where they were? Yet the hope persists that heterosexual activity (a little wilder than stuffy Mom’s) will provide access to the men’s freer, wider world. Mother’s function as the forewoman who polices Daughter’s sexuality, in many American families, gives some color to this notion – that an alliance with men is an alliance against Mother – and yet these girls must have at least the suspicion that Mom made the same bargain. And surely they know that heterosexual alliance can’t confer membership in the men’s world but only a place (Mother’s place, in fact) on the sidelines. But they don’t. And so they end up married, leading the same life as Mother, or – if unlucky – a worse one with less bargaining power. And their daughters repeat the process.
(From her review of Dorothy Dinnerstein's The Mermaid and the Minotaur, reprinted in The Country You Have Never Seen [University of Liverpool Press, 2007], page 162.)