Feminism is in flux these days.
As the waves lap at the shore, generational differences are crashing into one another and creating a lot of white water. I’m not old enough to remember the start of the second wave, but I am almost certain that there would have been conflict between first wavers who concentrated on the political and legal situation of women, and the next generation who explored the social and sexual. Not, of course, that these are necessarily in conflict: the legal framework of any group defines its social position, and indeed it was only at the start of the second wave that the Equal Pay act was introduced, and well into it before women got the right of independent taxation.
In the 90s, as the second wave ebbed and the third was not yet in flow, feminism ran aground. At a time when women were making ever greater strides into the establishment, behaviours such as working while a young mother and having children out of wedlock, which would have been shocking a generation hence were becoming commonplace, feminism with its image of dungarees and hairy legs was rejected by the majority of young women, the ideological attacks on women’s rights were escalating and the Men’ Rights Activist (MRA) movement emerged.
What Kaitie Rolphe dubbed “victim feminism” had reached its zenith. A trajectory of the analyses of difference feminism which saw women as a class at the mercy of the class of men, high profile domestic violence campaigns, and the development of “Reclaim the Night” complete with tortuous confessionals, saw women painted as victims of their circumstances to be protected from men and their violence. At the same time the “power feminism” advocated by Naomi Wolfe emerged in ladette culture with the Spice Girls asserting “Girl Power” and that girls could do anything, while in the media the emergence of strong female characters such as Buffy, Xena and the Powerpuff girls combined youth, a single lifestyle and an individual telios.
Sidestepping or negating the practicalities of womanhood, periods, childbirth, contraception, abortion, childrearing, violence, menopause which had come to the fore in the 70s – initially as issues of note and recognition and later as evidence of female superiority, power feminism sent out the message that women could be just as good as men, so long as they were just like them – staying single and childfree; unburdened with the chains of wifely marriage or motherhood; purpose driven, ambitious and self-driven.
It is into this world that the third wave emerged. The third wave is an amorphous creature – no one really knows what it is, but they know it when they see it. The bastard daughter of victim and power feminism, attempts by rad fems to strangle it at birth have failed. Never the less, some key themes have emerged.
Gender and Sex Fluidity
Many second wavers re-asserted women’s weaknesses as strengths – their pacifism a superior counterweight to mens warmongering; their reproductive ability a capacity to be celebrated rather than be derided; their consensus based style of communication more productive than aggressive debate. Within this narrative of women as different and better, challenges to the binaries posed by intersex; trans-sexualism and bisexuality pose problems.
A key third wave text, is the very wonderful “Gender Trouble” by Judith Butler. Discussing biological sex, gender construction and sexual identity, she notes how rigid assumptions do not hold true on closer inspection and that any attempt at gender essentialism is doomed to failure. Lesbian separatism and woman identified womanhood proved a dead end on a planet half-populated and still ran by men. In its place is the destruction of womanhood. The trans-sexuals and their empire are challenging biology as destiny, carving out space for new genders within their corporeality.
Sexual Agency and Consent
Apart from possibly trans-sexualism, nowhere has the clash of ideologies been more in evidence in the arena of sexuality. Sex work in particular has proven a particular battle-ground. The anti-PIV stance of some radical feminists and a condescending attitude toward women in the sex industry as the paid recipients of male sexual violence has clashed violently with the sexually assertive Slutwalk movement and the acceptance of BDSM, pornography and sex work as legitimate activities.
Yet within the BDSM sub-culture, where the tacit models of assumed consent cannot be held, new models of explicit consent are emerging; the sexual abuse of women in the porn industry has been separated from prudish attitudes to viewing explicit imagery and voices from the sex industry made possible by the anonymity of the internet have allowed an insight into the agency of women in the industry and their conflicted position.
Intersections of power structures
A major criticism of the second wave was its focus on the pre-occupations of the white middle-class women who had the time, resources and education to devote to the cause. With the exception of homosexuality, which was fetishized within the movement, other systems of power such as class and race became de-prioritised to the point of non-existence. Narratives of black men as particular predators, resonanated with the racism of the US, where a southern belle had considerably more power than young black men .
In response many women of colour rejected the feminist movement choosing to stand with their brethren, while women of the third world facing death in childbirth and child marriage had little in common with the priorities of privileged white Western women. A development of thinking on the intersecting power structures which play on and interact in any given situation is the adoption of the term “Kyriarchy” by third-wavers. A development of the concept of patriarchy, it acknowledges that while women are subject to a discriminatory power structure that this is not a unique position: circumstances of race, nationality; class; sexuality and many others all come to bear on an individual’s agency and autonomy.
Merger of the Silicon and the Organic
The second wave women’s movement had a strong anti-military theme and a strong link with the emerging ecology movement. Neo-paganism, primitivism and pacifism all found their corner within the womens movement. The emergence of the Dianic Wicca, a concern with handcrafting and the Greenham Common Peace Camp all stand testimony to the direction of travel towards the Earth, the Goddess and the mother. Technology was seen as a man’s invention designed to pollute the planet, steal the fire of the Goddess and supplant women’s role of life creator.
The third wave embraces technology and its potential for creating affinity across boundaries, extending the possible and overcoming shortcomings. Technology enhances possibles blurring the differences and margins, extending capacity to those without and eradicating drudgery which tends to fall on the most marginalised within the community. The merger of wo/men and machine offers possibilities to overcome corporeal limitations and with it the destiny written on the body.
First published on Village Aunties on 24th January 2012