First thoughts on the second wave

This is the first of two guest posts by students responding to classic texts from the early second wave–in this case, the Manifesto put out in 1969 by the New York City-based feminist group Redstockings. 

Reading the Redstockings Manifesto for the first time, I was struck by the careful attention its authors paid to distinguishing between individual and institutional responsibility for women’s oppression. Three of the manifesto’s tenets are as follows: that all forms of exploitation flow from the original sin of patriarchy and men’s domination of women; that there is no individual absolution of men for the crime of sexism; and sexism is not the work of institutions, but of individuals.

This was surprising to me because it diverges from and even inverts the way we talk about women’s oppression today. Intersectionality, which to me underpins much of contemporary feminist discourse, would suggest that it is anathema to rank oppressions, much less to suggest that one of them is the “original” and most important oppression. Even if the oppression of women is the oldest oppression of all, I have an inculcated aversion to asking people to subordinate any aspect of their marginalised identity to another, whether because of the Black Lives Matter movement, reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, or witnessing discussions of the male-female wage gap that do not address the chasm between white women and black women.

The other statement, that sexism is the work of individuals rather than institutions, was also striking to me because it seems the opposite of where we place discursive emphasis today: on the idea that individuals are principally players in larger systems of oppression. It is a semantic difference, but it feels like a significant one. It made me wonder whether this specific shift in discourse stems from the dramatic changes in the status of women in the United States between that time and now.

At that time, it seems to me, the circumscribed spheres of women’s lives meant that women felt most oppressed by male figures in particular: the husband or the father, for example. And yet, at the same time, second wave feminism seems to me to have been born out of a collective awakening to the fact that women’s experiences of oppression by these figures were not accidental but universal. Hence the striking intention in the Redstockings Manifesto to build a systematic analysis from the basis of aggregated individual experience.

Nowadays when women have much greater freedom in their educational, professional, and social lives, it no longer rings so true to target every individual man for equal responsibility for oppression. An American woman today might no longer feel so much that her father or husband (if she has one) is the gatekeeper of her opportunities and liberty, but nonetheless feel constrained by the demands that patriarchy as a system continues to make of women.

This aforementioned dynamic – that second wave feminism was born of the realisation that the trees constituted a forest, and the need to insist upon that forest by collecting individual testimony – produces an effect unlike any other text of contemporary feminism that I have read. With forceful, righteous anger, the authors manage simultaneously to decry men in general and every man in particular.

I was positively surprised, given the reputation of second wave feminism today as “white feminism,” that in this text and others there were definite gestures towards intersectionality, even if history has judged them unsuccessful (the Redstockings Manifesto retains – perhaps most honestly of all – vestiges of division, speaking as it does as a “we” that repudiates any prejudices they may have against “other women”). I was unpleasantly surprised that evidently many things feminists said then continue to need saying today: the manifesto declares, for example, that

the most slanderous evasion of all is that women can oppress men.

Lastly, I was fascinated in reading all the texts assigned in the first week of the course to observe the different motives and systems to which different groups attributed their feminism: most decried the socialist revolution of men, but pushed therefore for an alternative revolution. The Redstockings Manifesto, however, contains one of the most striking statements of purpose:

We will not ask what is ‘revolutionary’ or ‘reformist,’ only what is good for women.

I am intrigued to learn more about what defined that good for second wave feminists.

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Author: debuk

Feminist, linguist, writer