Talking about our generations

The title of this blog (and the course it relates to) trades on the familiar notion that feminism has historically come in waves: the first wave began in the mid-19th century (ending when women won the vote after World War I), the second wave happened in the 1960s and 70s, and a third wave started in the early 1990s.

Although this model is widely used, it’s also widely acknowledged that there are problems with it. For instance, it’s very first-world (and especially US) centred; it also gives the misleading impression that there was no feminist activity at all between the 1920s and the 1960s. (The histories on the reading list by Dorothy Sue Cobble and Annelise Orleck are good on what was really going on during this time.)

In the first week of the course we read parts of a book–Astrid Henry’s Not My Mother’s Sister—which focuses on another wave-related problem: the way both feminism and our understanding of its history may be affected by conflict between generations.

The term ‘second wave’ was coined by second wave feminists themselves: they used it to portray their emergent movement as a new chapter in an ongoing political struggle, taking its cue from the earlier feminist tradition which became, in retrospect, the ‘first wave’. In this case there was no overt generational conflict, since the women of the first wave were no longer around to say what they thought about their self-declared successors. But it was a different story when young women in the 1990s proclaimed the advent of a third wave.

Third wave rhetoric was less about reviving an older tradition and more about breaking with the existing one—moving beyond a kind of feminism which was seen as outmoded and unsatisfactory. And since the representatives of that feminism were still very much alive, this did (and still does) cause conflict. It also meant that the term ‘wave’ began to be used in a different way. It was no longer understood in purely temporal/historical terms (‘the feminism of the 1960s vs the 1990s’), but also as a matter of age and generation (‘the feminism of older women vs younger ones’).

Astrid Henry sees the third wavers’ sometimes harsh criticisms of their predecessors as an expression of the need felt by every generation to differentiate itself from the one before. ‘For many younger feminists’, she writes,

it is only by refusing to identify themselves with earlier versions of feminism—and frequently with older feminists—that they are able to create a feminism of their own.

More specifically, Henry suggests that the way younger women create a feminism of their own is by rebelling against their (real and metaphorical) mothers. This has some consequences which are arguably positive—it means that feminism is continually being reimagined and renewed—but it also has a downside: it can distort our understanding of history and stop us learning from past experience.

What creates the distortion is the need to make a sharp distinction between the bad old feminism of the previous generation and the brave new feminism of the present one. In reality, feminists of every generation have had a range of beliefs and political goals; but to make each new wave look like a great leap forward this diversity must be downplayed, and the shortcomings of the old wave must be accentuated. The result is a set of stereotypes which may become, through repetition, orthodox wisdom—in the case of the second wave, for instance, that it was all about ‘white feminism’ or ‘victim feminism’ or ‘essentialism’. These statements are true in some cases, but false in others. They are over-generalisations, glossing over the fact that feminism is not, and never has been, all one thing.

I don’t want to suggest that this negative stereotyping is a one-way street. The rejection of ‘mothers’ by ‘daughters’ gets more attention because it’s the rising generation who represent feminism’s future. But older feminists can also do it to younger ones (‘they’re a bunch of over-protected, self-absorbed individualists!’ ‘They don’t understand x, y and z!’)

In 2014 the New Statesman ran a series with the same title as this blog, ‘Re-reading the second wave’, in which various writers (most of them in their 30s and 40s) reflected on some of the foundational texts of 1960s and 70s feminism. According to one contributor, the philosopher Jane Clare Jones, they were attacked from two sides simultaneously. Some commenters were outraged that they hadn’t just condemned the feminists of the past as over-privileged bigots; others criticised them for disrespecting their foremothers, and presuming to judge something they hadn’t been part of.

Jane Clare Jones has an answer for both sets of critics:

We do not have to kill our mothers to make ourselves anew. And at the same time, we are not just dutiful daughters. It is absolutely – literally – vital, that we remain in relation, and indeed honour, the work of the women that gave us life. But the life that they gave us is our own, and it is also honouring them for us to live it.

Astrid Henry believes that the antagonism Jones describes is not inevitable. Both sides, she says, share ‘a desire to both listen and be heard’, and this offers a basis for dialogue between them. Older women cannot assume the right to define feminism on the basis that ‘mother knows best’, but nor should younger women assume that there’s nothing to be learnt from their elders. Henry concludes:

When all our voices… can be part of the dialogue, feminism will truly move forward.


Catching a wave

A few years ago, a student asked a question that stayed with me. She’d been wondering why the reading list for her feminist theory course jumped straight from Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949) to Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990). What, she asked, had happened in between?

The lives of young women like this student have been shaped in all kinds of ways by what happened in between–the feminist ‘second wave’ of the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Yet to most of them it is, quite literally, a closed book. Even those taking women’s studies courses (which were themselves a second wave creation) will rarely have studied its history, or read its foundational texts. What they know about it tends to come either from the general stock of cultural mythology—sometimes historically accurate, sometimes garbled or apocryphal—or from the retrospective summaries in more recent feminist commentary, which are usually very selective, and not infrequently dismissive or hostile.

I decided I wanted to run a course on the second wave, which would give students the opportunity to engage directly with the ideas and texts of the time. The course is now underway, and I’ve started this blog to share what we’re doing with others who may be interested. I’ve posted the course syllabus, with links to the readings that are available online. I’ve also posted a list of further reading. And in the coming weeks I’ll be posting some reflections on a few of the texts we’ve been (re)reading.