68th Carnival of Feminists, and some thoughts on waves

// 18 November 2008

The 68th Carnival of Feminists went up last week at Fourth Wave. Highlights for me include a brief retrospective of the life of Olympe de Gourges, who in 1791 wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Woman as a counterpoint and protest to the male-centric French revolutionary Declaration of the Rights of Man, and a frank and moving rape narrative (may trigger) from little light which highlights the prejudice and appalling treatment that trans women suffer as both trans people and women. The piece also appears in the 59th Carnival Against Sexual Violence at abyss2hope.

The name of the blog currently hosting the carnival reminds me of my concerns surrounding this concept of different feminist waves. While I can see a distinction between the first wave, which focused on women’s right to vote, and the second wave, which pushed for women’s full liberation, a third or even a fourth wave seems more difficult to define. After all, we still haven’t achieved many of the aims of the second wave, perhaps best summed up by the Seven Demands of the British Women’s Liberation Movement:

1. Equal Pay

2. Equal Educational and Job Opportunities

3. Free Contraception and Abortion on Demand

4. Free 24-hour Nurseries

5. Legal and Financial Independence for All Women

6. The Right to a Self Defined Sexuality. An End to Discrimination Against Lesbians.

7. Freedom for all women from intimidation by the threat or use of violence or sexual coercion regardless of marital status; and an end to the laws, assumptions and institutions which perpetuate male dominance and aggression to women.

In the UK at least we have free contraception, but no equal pay, no free nurseries, no abortion on demand, continued discrimination against lesbians and attitudes and institutions which help perpetuate male violence. Where the third wave concept comes in is with the recognition that while white, able bodied, cis gendered, middle class women may have equal or close to equal educational and job opportunities with men (and even that’s highly debatable), women who do not fall into these privileged categories do not. Third wave feminism, then, should be about discarding the second wave’s perceived focus on white, middle class, Western women. But do we need a new term in order to do that? Why separate ourselves from women who have so much experience and have worked so hard to achieve the rights many of us enjoy today? What do we achieve by splitting feminists along generational fault lines?

Reading the Third Wave bible, Manifesta, I was completely underwhelmed by the focus on pop culture and young women’s right to paint our fingernails and be girly (and if we don’t want to? if we make a political decision to reject stereotypical femininity?). There are so many more pressing issues, most of which would be much better addressed by working with the women who have began tackling them long before I was born. I just don’t feel the need to symbolically renounce my connection to these women by referring to myself as part of a third – or fourth – wave. In fact, it seems rather disrespectful. I may not agree with Greer’s transphobia, or Jeffreys’ take on BDSM, but there are feminists my age who are transphobic or think my sexual practices encourage violence against women, so to separate along generational lines makes little sense to me.

What do other people think? Maybe I’ve just been reading too much American theory…

Photo by crl!, shared under a Creative Commons License

Comments From You

Zenobia // Posted 18 November 2008 at 5:07 pm

Actually, there was quite a lot more to the first wave than the right to vote: there were reproductive freedoms, and involvement with anti-racist and labour organisations (calling them ‘anti-racist’ might be a bit of an anachronism, of course), as well as reproductive rights, etc. And even in terms of political representation, since it wasn’t even done for women to speak in public, there was a lot more to it than just the vote. It was also a lot of different movements which were very conflicted, much like now. In fact, I’d say some of the freedoms from the first wave definitely haven’t been won yet.

I do agree with you though, I understand the temptation to just shake your head and go ‘no no no’ and start again. But we’d be depriving ourselves of everything previous feminist movements have learned. So really, we need to take it all on board, conflicts and all.

What gets me is the ‘why can’t we all get along? they did back in the day!’ argument. Yeah, right. Transport yourself into the suffragettes for one moment and get on the wrong side of Christabel Pankhurst, and you’ll find out all about sisterhood! Not to mention that she chucked out her own sister. Or try being Sojourner Truth. We get to inherit the golden, glowing speech, but she had to get up there and deliver it in front of people who didn’t even think she should be allowed to speak. And that’s if you only take the speech into account.

Laura // Posted 18 November 2008 at 5:13 pm

Thanks for that, Zenobia, it’s an area I really need to read up on.

Davina // Posted 18 November 2008 at 10:09 pm

Laura, I’m a little confused as to how some feminists think your sexual practices encourage violence against women… Unless you get your rocks off by beating up women? Sorry, I just really don’t understand!

I was put off the definition of feminism through ‘waves’ when I was writing my dissertation – at one point in my reading I found a quotation by bell hooks, which said something along the lines of how the black female slave was the original feminist, only it didn’t have a name back then. And yes, you can say the same for any age (and any place; hooks was coming from a US-centric pov) in history: there were feminists before feminism existed. But for me, who’d at that point been constantly reading feminist theory and thinking Gilbert & Gubar were the bomb – it came as a real revelation.

I don’t think we need a new term, or a term at all really, for the work we’re doing now. The term ‘third/fourth wave’ has been hijacked by the press anyhow to mean that we all just want to be as ‘good as a man’ at drinking, fighting, having sex etc. (which, as we know, is tosh).

We just shouldn’t forget that, as much as the first and second wavers did for us, there were problems then that still exist now. Marie Stopes – amazing scientist and pioneer of birth control – but also rather the advocate of racial purity. Virginia Woolf – amazing writer of the polemic ‘A Room of One’s Own’ – but which, in that very same polemic, writes about hoping to make a woman out of a ‘Negress’. And yes, they are attitudes of their time, but there’s still a whiff, or should I say stench, of these kinds of attitudes hanging around feminism – that one type of woman is better than another. Different, yes, but not superior. (Although, actually, not from any feminist I’ve ever met – just certain blogs I’ve read). So – recognise the achievements of the past but recognise the conflicts too – as Zenobia said.

Laura // Posted 18 November 2008 at 10:34 pm

Sorry, Davina, I guess that was a little obscure! Without getting into all the gruesome details, I have basically been told on a number of occasions, both directly and through theory generally written by people who haven’t got a clue what they’re talking about (although I think there are some interesting and pertinent critiques of BDSM out there) that engaging in any sexual act with a man which could fall into the category BDSM (bondage/dominance/sado-masochism – so that covers a hell of a lot of things) reinforces the gender power imbalance and the idea that women enjoy and want violence/pain, so encouraging violence against women. It’s a bit of a sore point for me.

Mary Tracy9 // Posted 18 November 2008 at 11:06 pm

I think a wave is defined in retrospective by what women have achieved. Because of that, the third or fourth waves do not really exist, since women haven’t really achieved anything that wasn’t a consequence of the second wave “leftovers”.

Zenobia // Posted 19 November 2008 at 10:55 am

I think the whole waves thing is an oversimplification, and like any oversimplification, it means that a lot of things get forgotten or written out of history. Like the fact that the third wave was meant to be when women of colour magically became involved. And there are a number of ideas that we tend to take for granted that are actually quite wrong, like the idea that women were expected to be housewives until feminism came along in the 60s and 70s – in fact, most women did work outside the home, just not middle-class ones, and also, if the oppression in housework comes from the fact that it’s economically unimportant, then it wasn’t always oppressive. Or anything that supposes that there was a universal ‘olden days’ and then everything changed.

For that reason, I tend to think the theory of waves comes about to mark the points when white middle-class women became involved in feminism, or when ‘important’ people notice, or in the case of third and fourth wave, when the media start writing about it. I mean, the media have practically invented the fourth wave. The reason I think this is because the concept of waves tends to obscure the contribution of everyone but white middle-class women.

Although I also suspect that that idea itself is something of an oversimplification.

PsychoStorm // Posted 19 November 2008 at 12:31 pm

Well said, Zenobia. We have the idea it was all about suffrage but within the first wave there were also abolitionists, anti-vivisectionists, vegetarians, writers/ practitioners of free-love, co/equal housekeeping advocates, advocates of protection and others of autonomy, who all tied their particular causes in with the first wave ‘mission’. Olive Banks has a nice book on it.

Wow Laura, that’s really disappointing and I’m sorry you’ve experienced it. Comments or critiques like that deny individual agency, which I find bloody infuriating. One of the most beautiful things about my feminist sisters and brothers is how open they are to all ways of expressing one’s sexuality- that is not reflected as much as it perhaps should be in writing, though.

Zenobia // Posted 19 November 2008 at 1:35 pm

I think a big reason that a lot of first-wave feminism tends to get forgotten about or erased is that things like free love, vegetarianism, birth control, and so on, were very tied up in the eugenics movement. What was ‘free love’ for middle-class women tended to translate into ‘birth control’ for working class women and women of colour, which meant a lot of rhetoric about how the poor, inferior, and feeble-minded shouldn’t reproduce quite so much – whereas the white and middle-class should fuck and be merry and raise wonderful children.

And they didn’t all tie their causes in with the first wave ‘mission’ either, it’s not that simple, in fact there was a lot of conflict based on class and race. Even within the suffragettes, Emmeline and Christabel wanted to attract a better class of woman while Sylvia was away in East London working with working-class women. Even those three couldn’t work together – and their sister Adela basically left them to go and start the Australian suffrage movement (oversimplifying from memory). A lot of women got alternatively pushed away or encouraged to join “the cause”, based on what the middle-class women, who were deciding what “the cause” was, wanted them to do. Much like now, really. There were feminist movements, plural, and as ever you have to avoid one dominant branch calling itself ‘the feminist movement’. And it’s okay if we all have different goals, because there are different types of women. It doesn’t mean we can’t support each other, although that should be based on mutual trust and respect, rather than a duty to like what someone’s doing just because it’s feminist.

Michelle // Posted 20 November 2008 at 11:34 am

I too echo people’s ambivalence towards the ‘wave’ concept. Firstly, it’s only used to describe Western feminist herstory, excluding feminist movements in other parts of the world.

And as has been pointed out, it tends to universalise feminist struggles, so the first-wave is only associated with the fight for suffrage, excluding other struggles taking place at that time for better pay and working conditions etc (which many of the British suffrage campaigners were involved in prior to their involvement in Votes for Women, they were already politically active), and the second-wave is boiled down to white, middle-class women’s demands for equal pay and access to abortion, ignoring the anti-racist and anti-poverty work women of colour and poor women were involved in throughout the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s.

I also agree with MaryTracey9, in that it’s harder to determine what ‘third wave’ is because we’re allegedly in the midst of it. That’s a problem I have with writing and theory about third-wave feminism, because unlike first-and second-wave feminism which are associated with clear examples of campaigning goals and activism, the third wave isn’t. So, you get these books all about third-wave feminism which just focus on what it may mean and who/what it includes, with little reference to any grassroots feminist activity or a political agenda.

If we spent less time self-consciously examining our place in feminist herstory, maybe we might get something done that could justify calling it a wave in a few decades to come, but not at the moment.

Deborah Siegel // Posted 20 November 2008 at 6:11 pm

Just a quick comment to say I so appreciate this conversation and just linked to it in a post on Feminism 4.0 over at Girl with Pen, here: http://girlwpen.com/?p=1350

More on all this in my book, Sisterhood, Interrupted: From Radical Women to Grrls Gone Wild — which I swear I could have kept writing forever if there hadn’t been a deadline last year!

I LOVE the writing you all do here on The F-Word, by the way.

Zenobia // Posted 21 November 2008 at 12:09 pm

I also agree with MaryTracey9, in that it’s harder to determine what ‘third wave’ is because we’re allegedly in the midst of it.

I think MaryTracy is a bit harsh. I mean, I can see where that comment is coming from – if there is something called third or fourth wave, it’s largely the media that has generated it. However, that’s exactly the problem with the concept of waves, to say that ‘women have achieved nothing!’ seems a bit harsh, especially as women never stop struggling and having little achievements that maybe don’t register with all of us. For most women, to keep struggling is an achievement in itself. I’ve seen women come out of horrible situations, and still be incredibly strong, a great influence to everyone around them, and even continue to believe in God – I don’t myself, but to see someone come out of absolute horror and still believe in anything at all and have the same ethical position and approach to their lives as they did before is something I can’t help but admire.

And, even what Catherine was saying about the Ladyfest the other day, it’s important to retain critical distance, to not attribute too much (or too little) importance to a group of people putting something together like that, I might personally think it’s a lot of bullshit that I wouldn’t touch with a barge pole, but that doesn’t change the effort and the commitment that goes into organising it and having it run smoothly, these events can so easily be a disaster if they’re not well-organised. I think it would be a mistake to say that Ladyfest liberated women or rescued them from oppression or gave them a bigger political influence, but still, a group of women got together to listen to tunes and make zines: goal achieved.

It just seems a bit harsh to say *McBain voice* “Zee women! Zey do nossing!” when the women are doing as much as they ever have done.

I mean, essentially, MaryTracy, you are saying that the assignment of a ‘wave’ is deserved in retrospect. So, how come they only seem to come about when white middle-class women get involved? How come the first wave in the states, for instance, happened after abolitionists, black women and indigenous women had been fighting for their own rights for ages? How come the achievements we remember address the priorities of white middle-class women? What makes these more important than everything else?

And, if we’re trying to point out that women are oppressed and that there are barriers to them achieving stuff and being full members of society, isn’t it kind of, well, a bit liberal feminist to talk in terms of achievement? The basis of liberal feminism is that all women need to do is pull themselves up and assert themselves so they can achieve on the same level as men. As a radical feminist, you would be more inclined to examine the structures of oppression, wouldn’t you?

Or alternatively, if you were just saying that we simply haven’t got any further in the struggle for women’s rights, as Laura pointed out in her post, it’s debatable whether we (or previous feminists) ever did. I mean, yeah, life is easier for me than my mum. But, since my everyday security and standard of living depend on the oppression of millions, I would question whether that was a blow successfully struck for womankind.

Aviva // Posted 21 November 2008 at 3:39 pm

This is an incredibly interesting discussion and one I wished I’d had a chance to weigh in on a little sooner (since my blog is the one used to start the discussion!), but I’ve been traveling and only just was able to sit down and catch up on my blog roll. That said, here are some off-the-cuff thoughts on my end from reading the post and all the other thoughtful, compelling comments:

There were several reasons I decided to call the blog Fourth Wave Feminism, and I admit that one of those reasons was because it located the blog and its aims conveniently in feminist terms (and the definition through waves that is so prevalent), even though I’m not entirely sure if I believe in “fourth wave” feminism, let alone know what it stands for that. That said, the other main reason FWF is named what it is was to act as a kind of counter to the third wave, or, rather, to differentiate itself from third wave feminism, which I have found, in my experience, lacking. That is not to say that third wave feminists, those who would use those words to describe themselves, are wrong or not feminist enough–far from it! Just to say that I personally wanted to set FWF apart from a third wave mandate (whatever that may be).

Laura, you write: Reading the Third Wave bible, Manifesta, I was completely underwhelmed by the focus on pop culture and young women’s right to paint our fingernails and be girly (and if we don’t want to? if we make a political decision to reject stereotypical femininity?)

I completely agree. The third wave’s “permission to be pretty” grates especially on my nerves (though, of course, I think feminists should feel free to dress however they like, be it with heels or braless or in combat boots–but why make a big deal out of it? “Feminists can be pretty, too!” What’s that suggesting?). And while I personally think pop culture is vastly important (if for no other reason than its unavoidable ubiquity), I also think that the emphasis on pop is over-stated. As you say, there are still so many aspects women’s lives in general (equal pay, et al) that haven’t been addressed.

Davina, you write, I don’t think we need a new term, or a term at all really, for the work we’re doing now. And I think you may very well be right. But I pine for a named, recognizable feminist community… something more than an abstract feeling of feminism still being out there somewhere. Perhaps I’m naive to wish for more of a feminist movement again (sans the exclusive white heterosexism often ascribed to the second wave) and to wish that many young women didn’t balk at labeling themselves as feminists, but I hope not.

And, Mary Tracy 9, you wrote: I think a wave is defined in retrospective by what women have achieved. Because of that, the third or fourth waves do not really exist, since women haven’t really achieved anything that wasn’t a consequence of the second wave “leftovers”.

Again, I totally agree in terms of the first part of your statement, but I’m not certain if one can discount generations or waves of feminism just because the goals of the second wave haven’t been achieved. I think, like it or not, we have to somehow be able to recognize/name the changes in feminism, its evolution over time, and the shifting balance of generations/culture(s) in the 20th/21st century. Feminism is not the same today as it was in 1970 (or, in fact, as it was in 1905 or 1995). It’s ever-shifting. And I understand why people want to label that shift in some way, though I completely agree that tossing out the old in exchange for the new isn’t the way to go.

I once heard a feminist writer (I wish I could remember who) discuss how she thought of the feminist wave concept as a literal set of waves, like in the ocean, constantly washing over each other, each wave both new and part of all the other waves before and after it. That’s how I like to think of feminism’s waves. Not as singular, but inexorably intertwined and dependent while still being somehow distinct.

Aviva // Posted 24 November 2008 at 3:32 am

If you all are interested, my co-contributor, Brianna, just posted her thoughts on the state of modern feminism. We’d love it if others weighed in!

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