Tuesday, April 20, 2010

What’s Happened to Feminism?

Tuesday afternoon I met with a half dozen colleagues who comprise the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, Illinois. It’s something of a remnant organization of a national organization, RCRC that is itself retrenching because of cutbacks by major institutional donors.

Historically, RCRC has been a pro-abortion umbrella organization drawing together a number of liberal religious institutions, including our Unitarian Universalist Association. But in recent years it has added initiatives for reproductive health (particularly women) generally, comprehensive sexual education, and anti-domestic violence. It‘s an organization that has evolved. Its shifting, actually expanding, interests reflect the course of contemporary feminism in the context of an unsettled American culture.

I looked around the table. Presiding was a sixty-something, salt of the Chicago South Side, Dominican nun who’s been advocating for the ordination of women for more than a quarter of a century. She’s also an unrepentant Catholic for Choice, meaning she’s in favor of legal abortion. (Of course her church’s recent attempts to corral feminist demands within the Catholic Church has gotten her in trouble.) There was an American Baptist minister, who once headed a theological school, and in retirement is a consummate social justice operative. He works with SEICUS (Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S.), a national organization dedicated to comprehensive sex education, is the so-called resident theologian for the Chicago based, four square Protestants for the Common Good, and has strong ties to the Chicago ACLU. There was a youngish Methodist lay woman from Aurora and an older Jewish woman, a member of the National Council of Jewish Women, from Olympia Fields. Rounding out the gathering was a newly minted black lawyer interning at the Chicago office of ACLU and a mid-life black woman, who also works at the ACLU, but whose primary identity for our group relates to the large South Side black church where she is a volunteer youth worker. (Other interesting colleagues who were absent included a fellow UU, a black woman from First Unitarian in Chicago, a long time activist for adolescent and young women, particularly in the Chicago schools.)

RCRC IL has been seeking a focus in recent months, and we’ve been planning a relevant program in October. We’ve looked at sexual and physical violence perpetrated on school age girls, coerced sex and date rape. We’ve thought about a panel discussion by representatives of pro-choice and anti-choice positions on the shared topic of how to reduce unplanned pregnancies. This week we’ve settled on working with an ad-hoc coalition of Catholic woman gathering in Chicago in September who seek to reform their church, adding to their gather a co-sponsored public meeting to look at reproductive health and choice, violence, comprehensive sex education, and other front burner concerns.

At the Tuesday meeting I was also thinking about this sermon on contemporary feminism, musing on how this little gathering provided in its midst and in light of its broad interests a window into the past two generations of evolving feminism. What a change feminism has wrought and what changes in feminism are taking place!

First Wave Feminism

In looking at feminism in the American experience commentators have adopted a three part scenario, often called first, second, and third wave feminism. (Some prefer to use the term post-feminism instead of third wave.)

First wave feminism refers to a relatively long span, from the late 18th century and the publication of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women through the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment of the Constitution, after World War I, giving women the right to vote. This hundred plus years of activism began with opposition to chattel marriage (the ownership of women and children by the husband) and generally included issues of equal contract and property rights for women. By the end of the nineteenth century the suffrage movement, seeking the political equality of women, had become the primary issue. In the American Experience on the suffrage road, the famous Seneca Falls Woman’s Convention of 1848 was an epochal event. We are now familiar with mid-century feminists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, Lucretia Mott, and Susan B. Anthony, though their histories (herstories as the radicals feminists said in the 1960s and 1970s) had to be recovered from the cultural dustbin when the Second Wave transformed American Society a hundred years after Seneca Falls.

Second Wave Feminism

In the 1920s through World War II the image of an independent, career minded “New Woman” had cachet. Think of the movies roles c. 1930 sometimes played by Katherine Hepburn or Rosalind Russell—the wise cracking newspaper reporter or imperious business executive.

However, after the War, at least to the analysis of the emerging second wave feminists, American women had adopted a consistent persona, so cogently characterized by Betty Friedan, in arguably the most influential nonfiction book of the second half of the twentieth century, The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963. Ms. Friedan, wife and mother, graduate of Smith College 1942, and famously a resident of suburban Peoria where she had been raised and where she spent her married life, had intended to write an article (she was a freelance journalist) about the happy lives of fellow Smith graduates—well-educated and capable women who’d happily lived a well adjusted domestic life, wife and mother, in the suburbs 15 years after graduation. Her initial interviews, however, revealed “a nameless, aching dissatisfaction” that she called the “problem that has no name.” She gave it a name that reverberates through forty plus years: the feminine mystique. Here’s an excerpt from the book.

The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night — she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question — "Is this all?"

For over fifteen years there was no word of this yearning in the millions of words written about women, for women, in all the columns, books and articles by experts telling women their role was to seek fulfillment as wives and mothers. Over and over women heard in voices of tradition and of Freudian sophistication that they could desire no greater destiny than to glory in their own femininity. Experts told them how to catch a man and keep him, how to breastfeed children and handle their toilet training, how to cope with sibling rivalry and adolescent rebellion; how to buy a dishwasher, bake bread, cook gourmet snails, and build a swimming pool with their own hands; how to dress, look, and act more feminine and make marriage more exciting; how to keep their husbands from dying young and their sons from growing into delinquents.

In the fifteen years after World War II, this mystique of feminine fulfillment became the cherished and self-perpetuating core of contemporary American culture. Millions of women lived their lives in the image of those pretty pictures of the American suburban housewife, kissing their husbands goodbye in front of the picture window, depositing their stationwagonsful of children at school, and smiling as they ran the new electric waxer over the spotless kitchen floor. They baked their own bread, sewed their own and their children's clothes, kept their new washing machines and dryers running all day. They changed the sheets on the beds twice a week instead of once, took the rug-hooking class in adult education, and pitied their poor frustrated mothers, who had dreamed of having a career. Their only dream was to be perfect wives and mothers; their highest ambition to have five children and a beautiful house, their only fight to get and keep their husbands. They had no thought for the unfeminine problems of the world outside the home; they wanted the men to make the major decisions. They gloried in their role as women, and wrote proudly on the census blank: "Occupation: housewife.

Ms. Friedan was among the founders of the National Organization for Women in 1966 and was NOW’s president through 1970. This period in retrospect seems the high tide of what is now called second wave feminism. It ebbed through the 1980s. The objectives of Women’s Liberation, as the movement was often called, sought to attain equal social, political, legal and economics theretofore granted to men. Its unfulfilled goal was the passage of an Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, introduced by Congress in 1972 and failed 3 states short of ratification, in 1982.

A mantra of second wave feminism was: “The personal is political.” The larger objective, once again, involved righting cultural and political inequalities.

Second Wave feminism suffered from several judgments by different groups, including a new generation of women. First, Women Libbers were considered to be strident and uncompromising, bitter spirited, men haters who denied the traditionally feminine roles of wife and mother. Second, the essentialist vision, that all women were the same and suffered equally, began to lose solidarity. Third, an easy criticism saw the second wave feminist leaders as representing the classist views of middle class, white, heterosexist suburban women. Neglected were women of color, working class women, and the lesbian community. Yet there was a popular belief that radical lesbians had hi-jacked the movement. Fourth, in addition to the culture war issue of homosexuality there was also the even hotter issue of abortion. Certainly there was no lock-step by American women regarding the moral issue of abortion.

A second generation, removed from Mothers who’d championed woman’s equality and succeeded in making considerable gains, by the 1980s began to balk at the designation of feminist. Recognizing a shift and even rift among younger women, Betty Friedan began to write and talk about a “second phase” to the revolution she’d started that took into account a woman’s child-bearing and child-raising interests. In a 1982 NY Times article, 20 years after The Feminine Mystique, Ms. Friedan wrote, “But the power of this desire to have a child—when women no longer need to have a child to define themselves as women—seems to be as great as or even greater than ever.”

The reality c. the mid-1980s through today is clear. Second wave feminism changed the cultural landscape forever; and there’s no going back. That landscape certainly includes political rights and economic justice. (That women have entered the workplace in unprecedented numbers and position of power [the glass ceiling notwithstanding] is one of the abiding and great cultural changes of contemporary American society.) It also includes undeniable sexual freedom, since the spectrum of woman’s control over her biological destiny in the 1960’s and 1970’s was transformed by the birth control pill and abortion on demand throughout the first trimester.

Third Wave Feminism

So, in response and through evolution, post-second wave women have a new model of feminism, usually called third wave. There is less solidarity as a group, as well as perhaps a lack of appreciation of the struggles by an earlier generation that gave newer generations assumed rights. Third wave feminists claim that women are now individually free to incorporate their attitudes and values into a unique understanding of what it means to be a woman in contemporary culture. If third wave is a valid moniker, perhaps it only applies to the youngest women who have grown up in a feminist culture and who do not see themselves in terms of their mothers and yes, grandmothers, and assertive ways for political, economic, and cultural rights.

Here are characteristics of third wave feminism that help clarify where our society is now (from an article on suite101.com)

  • Third Wave feminism celebrates women’s multiple and sometimes contradictory identities in today’s world. Third Wave feminists are encouraged to build their own identities from the available buffet, and to not worry if the items on their plate are not served together traditionally. Women can unapologetically celebrate a plate full of entrée choices like soccer mom, career woman, lover, wife, lesbian, activist, consumer, girly girl, tomboy, sweetheart, bitch, good girl, princess, or sex symbol.
  • Third Wave feminism encourages personal empowerment and action. Third Wave feminists like to think of themselves as survivors, not victims.
  • Although Third Wave feminists do not reject political activism, the emphasis is more on using one’s personal empowerment as a starting point for societal change.
  • Third Wave feminism celebrates emotions and experiences that traditionally have been labeled as “unfeminine.” Women are invited to be angry, aggressive, and outspoken.
  • Third Wave feminism celebrates women’s sexuality and encourages women to explore sexual options and express themselves in whatever ways they feel comfortable. The double standard and titles like “slut” are discarded. The female characters from Sex and the City can be seen as Third Wave feminist icons who do not apologize for their sexual relationships and adventures.
  • Third Wave feminists celebrate diversity. The Women’s Liberation Movement often was criticized for focusing too narrowly on the experiences of middle-class, white, heterosexual women.
  • As is characteristics of Generation X and Generation Y, Third Wave feminists express themselves through popular culture and use it in their personal journeys to define identity. They look for women, images, and musicians who represent their own struggles. They also take ironic pleasure in outrageously sexist or sexualized representations, like Paris Hilton or reality shows like America’s Next Top Model.

Since my remarks are more of a review and status report, I really have no great conclusion to offer other than how incredibly fast and transformative has been the impact of women’s self-understanding since 1963, the publication of The Feminine Mystique and the beginning of second wave feminism. No one here has remained unaffected in our day to day lives and in our common life. The American Experience has been and will continue to be transformed.

Here in this church of the human spirit we are still learning what the human spirit is—as it ranges across a spectrum from female to male, with no normative single measure of what is human.

We’ve come a long way. The journey continues.

Look at your daughters and granddaughters with awe; and yes, wonder at their possibilities. And don’t neglect to celebrate the successes of the grandmothers and mothers who made their way!

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