Labours left unfinished: third wave feminism

The third wave and riot grrrl may be inspiring, but risk ignoring feminist history and swapping radical action for gigs and zines. In a fiery essay, Red Chidgey poses some difficult questions

Red Chidgey, 10 March 2008

The Seven Demands of the Women's Liberation Movement

The women's liberation movement asserts the right of every women to a self-defined sexuality and demands:

  1. Equal Pay
  2. Equal education and job opportunities
  3. Free contraception and abortion on demand
  4. Free 24-hour nurseries, under community control
  5. Legal and financial independence
  6. An end to discrimination against lesbians
  7. Freedom from intimidation by the threat or use of violence or sexual coercion, regardless of marital status. And end to the laws, assumptions and institutions that perpetuate male dominance and men's aggression towards women.

The British Women's Liberation Movement started with history. Or maybe it started with the sound of men's laughter.

We are still feeling the effects of what it turned into: its call, its promise and its failures. Yet we don't know our feminist history. That's the paradox of the third wave feminist movement.

Let's back track. It's 1969. Sheila Rowbotham, a longhaired, mini-skirted, history student at Oxford, is attending a workshop organised by Marxist historian Raphael Samuel. The content is male-driven as usual, with trade union men arguing that women should stay at home, not work. Sheila states the need for women to earn an independent wage. The men laugh. Sheila jumps up and announces a meeting for those interested in considering women's lives and histories. The men laugh. The first National Women's Liberation Conference is conceived right there to the sound of male laughter. At Ruskin College, February 1970, a swell of women turn up and some graffiti "WOMEN IN LABOUR KEEP CAPITALISM IN POWER, DOWN WITH PENILE SERVITUDE" on the campus walls (and some women get mad at that).

Eight years of national women's liberation conferences and thousands of alternative feminist media projects provide the oxygen and the adrenalin of a new movement. A spectrum of feminist projects, protests and identities circulate.

The second wave didn't start with the first national women's liberation conference. There were strikes, free universities, radical childcare groups, reading groups, and New Left groups, with women organising as women and for women. Feminism came out of a feed culture of social unrest, collective struggle, a belief in the possibility of social change.

The misrepresentation of our feminist past is part of a poverty of the 'new wave' of activism

In the 1970 best seller The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer announced: "This is the second wave."

Dale Spender replied across the decades with her 1983 book, There's Always Been a Women's Movement this Century.

So, what is this third wave of feminism?

The third wave responds to the opinion that feminism is dead and buried. That women no longer care, no longer recognise oppression, no longer feel the affiliate bond of urgent politicisation with their sisters. It is a response to the different set of social orders we live in under late capitalism, and an almighty challenge to gender binaries to make sure feminism includes transgender and intersex people too.

Yet the women's liberation movement, the second wave, has become a caricature of fashion sense, censure, prejudice and in-fighting in the imagination of both young feminists and the general public.

Whenever dominant narratives surface - such as it wasn't until the 1980s when women of colour joined the movement and voiced their critiques - one should remain slightly sceptical. This is where knowing your feminist history comes in: you are not bound to repeat the mistakes nor the inventions of the past. And you are not so likely to be seduced by capitalism's sentiment of what is truly revolutionary.

It is not revolutionary to make 'feminism cool again' (riot grrrl). To give the movement an 'image make-over' or 're-branding' (Fawcett Society). To assert personal truth and only personal truth, without an understanding of how that is framed structurally and economically. It is not revolutionary to change your lifestyle, or your buying habits, or the people you date, solely.

Although what we do sends thousands of lines of motivation and inspiration into the world, circulates a vision of possibility and empowers more women to take up that baton, it still feels cheap, underwhelming and lacking

Through riot grrrl I became a feminist, but it taught me nothing about feminist history. I'm now figuring this out myself and with like-minded women from archives, from women's voices and stories, and from working within the Feminist Activist Forum.

I see the misrepresentation of our feminist past as part of a poverty of the 'new wave' of activism. Third-wave feminism can act like it came from a glorious point zero (even in terms of trans-inclusion feminism). It thinks its reclamation of feminism is itself a point of revolt, a shake off from the dour movement of before, a big splash, just because it has feminist pride. This is a mistake.

Feminism is an ethic of care. A sense of radical possibility. A commitment to change those structures which say that we can't, that condone and escalate the spiritual, physical and emotional assault that gender puts on us to dumb us down and cut us up into little units of consumable flesh and labour.


"with a calm which even though intermittent is better than nothing but not so fast and considering what is more that as a result of the labours left unfinished"

Lucky's rant in Waiting for Godot reminds me of contemporary feminism's sometimes unintelligibility, its tragicomedy aspect and its unfinished project of total social revolt.

As a fringe feminist, a grrrl feminist, a queer feminist and now a leaning anarcha-feminist, I want to see the underground rise up and make more patterns and confrontations outside of the bedrooms and the gig halls.

Born from a zine world of feminist theory, exploration, direct action and confession, I want that potential amplified. I want us to consider feminist temporality and consequence.

Even as I write this, at night with books pulled off my bookshelf, I want there to be a point that surfaces from this writing. I want a translation into action, further than the action of writing. I don't just want to voice discontent, to puff and flap my arms around in cyberspace.

Can you have a movement without goals? Are we too diffuse? Too happy to make some noise occasionally, showing our protest in marches only, moving critical thought into action with little heard words and acts of art?

I want to ask feminists in my community, in my life, whether they feel satisfied with the work that they/we are doing. Our focus on cultural activism mostly, though not exclusively. Aren't we selling ourselves short? Organising one-off events, creating a dance-hall culture just for ourselves. I feel this hunger for something more unwieldy. How to articulate that? How to measure this with the need to pay rent, to do work, to maintain and develop relationships, to avoid burn out?

Maybe I need fiercer feminist spectacle, real conversation starters, actual lived change - for the benefit of women I don't know as much as for myself and my community of interest.

I feel like what we do, though it sends thousands of lines of motivation and inspiration into the world, circulates a vision of possibility and empowers more women to take up that baton, still feels cheap, underwhelming and lacking. Because I think a feminist movement should be in confrontation with the State, it should highlight everything which is unacceptable in this culture and specifically, publicly, create alternatives. How to do that and not go mad? Through strong political collectives and alliances. I feel too individual, too small, too comfortable, too late modern.

Can you have a movement without goals? Are we too diffuse? Too happy to make some noise occasionally, showing our protest in marches only, moving critical thought into action with little heard words and acts of art?

I can't help but feel cheated if personal rants and opinion, like this, are the full stop of our political publishing. If we draw ourselves an enclave, only remove the ribbons from our own eyes. I don't have answers, I don't have concrete plans. But I have a sense that we are being too compliant in our feminist identities. And that there's a fuck load of work to be done by the new generations of Emma Goldmans, Emily Wilding Davisons, Annie Kenneys, and Sojourner Truths. So let's keep channelling.

Feminist Activist Forum

FAF's Feminist History Working Group will be meeting for an informal study day on April 19th 2008, 12-4pm, at the Feminist Library, London. All welcome to attend.

About the author

Red Chidgey

Red is a DIY feminist historian and a bit of a zine geek

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