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Friday Facts: Feminism in America: a Retrospective Part 3

In Sexual Assault Awareness on July 15, 2011 at 9:33 am

Second Wave Feminism View on popular culture

 Second-wave feminists viewed popular culture as sexist, and created pop culture of their own to counteract this. Artist Helen Reddy’s song “I Am Woman” played a large role in popular culture and became a feminist anthem; Reddy came to be known as a “feminist poster girl” or a “feminist icon.”  “One project of second wave feminism was to create ‘positive’ images of women, to act as a counterweight to the dominant images circulating in popular culture and to raise women’s consciousness of their oppressions.” (Arrow, Michelle. 2007).

 

1972: Unbought and Unbossed

Photo: Library of Congress.

Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-NY) was not the first woman to run for president on a major-party ticket–that was Sen. Margaret Chase Smith (R-ME) in 1964–but Chisholm was the first to make a serious, hard run. Her candidacy provided an opportunity for the women’s liberation movement to organize around the first (and, to this date, only) major-party radical feminist candidate for the nation’s highest office.

Chisholm’s campaign slogan, “unbought and unbossed,” was more than a motto. She alienated many with her radical vision of a more just society–but she also befriended infamous segregationist George Wallace while he was in the hospital. She was completely committed to her core values, and didn’t care who she ticked off in the process.

 

 

 

 

 

1973: Roe v. Wade

The right of a woman to terminate her pregnancy has always been controversial, mostly because of religious concerns regarding the potential personhood of embryos and fetuses. A state-by-state abortion legalization movement had achieved some success during the late 1960s and early 1970s, but in most of the country–most notably the so-called Bible Belt–abortion remained illegal.

This all changed with Roe v. Wade in 1973, angering social conservatives. Soon the national press began to perceive the entire feminist movement as being concerned primarily with abortion, just as the emerging Religious Right appeared to be. Since 1973, abortion rights has remained the elephant in the room in any mainstream discussion of the feminist movement.

 

1982: A Revolution Deferred

Photo: National Archives.

Originally written by Alice Paul in 1923 as a logical successor to the Nineteenth Amendment, the Equal Rights Amendent (ERA) would have prohibited all gender-based discrimination at the federal level. But Congress alternately ignored and opposed it until it finally passed by overwhelming margins in 1972, and was quickly ratified by 35 states. Only 38 were needed.

But by the late 1970s, the Religious Right had successfully mounted an opposition to the amendment based largely on opposition to abortion and women in the military. Five states rescinded ratification, and in 1982 the amendment officially died. Since that time, opposition to the amendment has been so strong as to effectively remove it from the national policy debate.

 

Third-Wave Feminism

Third-wave feminism seeks to challenge or avoid what it deems the second wave’s “essentialist” definitions of femininity, which often assumed a universal female identity and over-emphasized the experiences of upper-middle-class white women. A post-structuralist interpretation of gender and sexuality is central to third wave ideology. Emphasizing discursive power and the ambiguity of gender, third-wave theory usually incorporates elements of queer theoryanti-racism and women-of-color consciousness; womanism; theory; critical; postmodernism; transnationalism; ecofeminism; libertarian feminism; new feminist theory, transgender politics and a rejection of the gender binary. 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.[2]

Third-wave feminists such as Elle Green often focus on “micro-politics”, and challenge the second wave’s paradigm as to what is, or is not, good for women.

 Proponents of third-wave feminism claim that it allows women to define feminism for themselves by incorporating their own identities into the belief system of what feminism is and what it can become through one’s own perspective. In their introduction to the idea of third-wave feminism in Manifesta, authors Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards suggest that feminism can change with every generation and individual:

“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 [sic], 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.”[7

 

The roots of the third wave had begun, however, in the mid 1980s. Feminist leaders rooted in the second wave called for a new subjectivity in feminist voice. They sought to negotiate prominent space within feminist thought for consideration of race-related subjectivities. This focus on the intersection between race and gender remained prominent through the Hill-Thomas hearings, but was perceived] to shift with the Freedom Ride 1992, the first project of the Walker-led Third Wave Direct Action Corporation. This drive to register voters in poor minority communities was surrounded with rhetoric that focused on rallying young women.

The fundamental rights and programs gained by feminist activists of the second wave – including the creation of domestic-abuse shelters for women and children and the acknowledgment of abuse and rape of women on a public level, access to contraception and other reproductive services (including the legalization of abortion), the creation and enforcement of sexual-harassment policies for women in the workplace, child-care services, equal or greater educational and extracurricular funding for young women, women’s studies programs, and much more — have served as a foundation and a tool for third-wave feminists.

Some third-wave feminists prefer not to call themselves feminists, as the word feminist can be misinterpreted as insensitive to the fluid notion of gender and the potential oppressions inherent in all gender roles or perhaps misconstrued as exclusive or elitist by critics. Others have kept and redefined the term to include these ideas. Third-wave feminism seeks to challenge any universal definition of femininity. In the introduction of To Be Real, the Third Wave founder and leader Rebecca Walker writes:

“Whether the young women who refuse the feminist label realize it or not, on some level they recognize that an ideal woman born of prevalent notions of how empowered women look, act, or think is simply another impossible contrivance of perfect womanhood, another scripted role to perform in the name of biology and virtue.”[9]

Third-wave feminism deals with issues that seem to limit or oppress women, as well as other marginalized identities. Consciousness-raising activism and widespread education is often the first step that feminists take toward social change. In their book Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future, Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards write:

“Consciousness among women is what caused this [change], and consciousness, one’s ability to open their mind to the fact that male domination does affect the women of our generation, is what we need… The presence of feminism in our lives is taken for granted. For our generation, feminism is like fluoride. We scarcely notice we have it—it’s simply in the water.”[7]

Feminist scholars such as Shira Tarrant object to the “wave construct” because it ignores important progress between the so-called waves. Furthermore, if feminism is a global movement, the fact that the “first-, second-, and third waves time periods correspond most closely to American feminist developments” raises serious problems about how feminism recognizes the history of political issues around the world.[12]

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