It may seem, and possibly is, something of an absurdity for a man to write on this subject. My excuse is that I keep coming upon the terms 1st, 2nd and 3rd wave feminism, along with ‘post-feminism’, and am never very clear as to what exactly is meant. It would therefore be helpful for me to have at least my own notes to fall back on, so this is one of those blogs intended mainly to help me clarify my own thought.
Now undoubtedly part of the problem is that there are no common definitions. This becomes perfectly clear when one has a look at Wikipedia (and I am sure would be even clearer if one Googled!). Another part of the problem is that the leading definitions are American while feminism has also gone through a number of stages in Britain (and other European countries); heavily influenced by America, but also with their own distinctive features. The lack of clarity in definition increases as one comes closer and closer to the present; that is to say it is fairly clear what first-wave feminism was, but very unclear as to what post-feminism is. In part this is a natural reaction to the gaining of historical perspective which is gained with all subjects.
My decision to embark on this blog was sparked by my reading my good and wise friend Ellen Moody’s thoughts on the subject which are part of a blog at http://ellenandjim.wordpress.com/2010/05/10/areas-of-research-interest-or-this-long-changing-life/. Feminism is deeply ingrained into everything that Ellen discusses so I treat her as a considerable authority on the subject. She writes….
The first phase: officially visible started in 1848, in the US, by a conference in upper New York State, familiar to us in the suffragette movement where women asked for what in the western world is mostly at least in lipservice granted:
the vote, for career and education equality, for prohibition, critiquing the family structure strongly as such for hurting women physically and financially; this phase includes a demand for prohibition because when men, husbands and fathers are drunk, they don’t work and make money for the family, and they are frequently violent;
The second phase I’d sum up as the most radical and what makes feminism an object for attack, and is still hotly contested (this area includes discussions of say rape). Voices here are Catherine MacKinnon, Andrea Dworkin, Simone de Beauvoir, Lilian Robinson, lots of famous names:
they moved to a demand for freedom for their bodies, they analyzed the role of sexuality and wanted to change the terms of sexuality and indeed the experience and said society was structured to give men power over women in each particular (the analogy would be with Marxists showing the economic basis of oppression), so a strong socialism model underlies this. It is this group of women who are called man-haters and prigs and accused of not liking sex. Well, they don’t like to be raped.
Third-phase sometimes seen as a reaction against feminism, and a qualification by women in order to deflect the backlash; here you paradoxically also find people like Linda Hirshman so insistent on getting power, be in corridors of power and angry too:
Motherhood is power once again (at least to some), if women find power in sexuality the way it’s done, that’s power (the argument against is this is no power the way it’s experienced, or only fleetingly); strong individualism (an US value), seek power for yourself and use it as you please; pro-families (best or to me most valued argued on the basis of how lower class and working women only get their self-esteem through their function in a family or as a mother); here you find women trying to reach out too beyond their class and race and ethnicities.
And now post-feminism:
Refuge seeking, eclectic, sometimes seen as no feminism and a retreat, if so a sophisticated one. Examples found in Karen Joy Fowler’s Sister Noon, also Austen.
I say least about the last since the last has been least written about — as far as I know. I’d be grateful for any discussions of “post-feminism” others know of.
As I say, first-wave feminism is reasonably clear, centres above all (especially in the UK) on the suffragette movement, and as Wikipedia remarks “It focused on de jure (officially mandated) inequalities, primarily on gaining women’s suffrage (the right to vote).”
Second-wave feminism also seems reasonably clear to me though there does seem to be, from reading very briefly, something of a tension between the demand for ‘a seat on the Board’ and a wish to abolish the Board (there is a fine short interview with Kate Millett at http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/70sfeminism/10426.shtml in which the latter position is clearly and cogently expressed).
It is with the third-wave that I start to become lost. I will add Wikipedia’s definition to Ellen’s….
Third-wave feminism is a term identified with several diverse strains of feminist activity and study from 1981 to the present. The movement arose as a response to the failures of and backlash against initiatives and movements created by second-wave feminism of c. 1960s through the 1970s and the realization that “women” are of “many colors, ethnicities, nationalities, religions and cultural backgrounds”. The third wave embraces contradictions and conflict, and accommodates diversity and change. There is, in this wave, no all-encompassing single feminist idea.
Now one of the no doubt simplifying divides which is created between the second and third waves is over attitudes to sex and sexuality. Quoting Wikipedia again…
Also considered part of the third wave is sex-positivity, a celebration of sexuality as a positive aspect of life, with broader definitions of what sex means and what oppression and empowerment may imply in the context of sex. For example, many third-wave feminists have reconsidered opposition to pornography and to sex work of the second wave and challenge existing beliefs that participants in pornography and in sex work cannot be empowered.
(this is one bit I always get wrong because I think of it as post-feminist – I hope I will remember now!). I also see how important anti-racism, anti-colonialism and so on are in the third-wave. It also seems to me that it is highly contested in terms of meaning and some deny that any such thing exists.
Then with post-feminism I get completely lost. As do many others it seems. Indeed if you try searching for it on Wikipedia you just get directed to third-wave feminism! I did find a feminist blog which is specifically designed to answer foolish questions about feminism which has a very useful definition of post-feminism http://finallyfeminism101.wordpress.com/2007/08/25/faq-what-is-post-feminism/. However I would have to say that what I read there is not post-feminism but anti-feminism, as the definition concludes…
No matter what form it may take, however, it is clear that the movement arose out of a backlash against feminism. This backlash is often ascribed to the specialization and splintering of feminism, which is seen by many post-feminists as one of the root causes for feminism’s decline. Regardless of which frame is put on it, though, this backlash carries one primary notion: post-feminism’s rise signals a world “in which feminism has been transcended, occluded, overcome” (Hawkensworth).
Post-feminism is in fact part of the Backlash identified twenty years ago by Susan Faludi in her book of the same name. As such I am not actually interested in it here because my concern is with real feminisms.
Now of course this chronological approach is in many ways limiting. Wikipedia has the most wonderful list of varieties of feminism (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feminism#Movements_and_ideologies ). But it is the waves which are most often spoken of and which I so often have problems in understanding.
In terms of comments I want to make three…
- The most obvious point is that even in the Western world the goal of complete political and economic equality has not been achieved. I don’t think I need to start details. And in very large parts of the world what is immediately needed is First-wave feminism (although this will have to come from within those countries and in its own form of course). But First-wave feminism has not achieved all its goals, let alone the second and third waves.
- One of the most obvious conflicts within feminism, or between different varieties, is that about whether the desired end is an equal share of the cake or a completely different cake (to steal from Millett); whether what is sought is equality within capitalism, or some kind of replacement of capitalist structures. This may be more likely to be associated with the particular varieties of feminism than with any of the waves, although I was always under the impression, perhaps wrongly, that it was especially associated with the Second-wave. I now see that it would be more accurate to speak of say Marxist feminism, or radical feminism or anarcha-feminism when talking of this.
- The other big conflict which I often trip up on concerns the attitude to sex. I find that these were actually the site of what are called the Feminist Sex Wars (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feminist_Sex_Wars) and that many see in these arguments the reason behind the ending of Second-wave Feminism. However for my purposes none of the waves can be identified with a particular attitude as far as I can tell.
No doubt this entire blog is simplistic and naive but my primary purpose was in composing a simple aide-memoire to myself. I would however welcome any corrections or amendments.