Thursday, September 08, 2005

Wave or Wavering?

I had an interesting discussion this morning with a friend and political science professor. She commented on a work she recently read. The work argued that the individualism promoted during the Reagan era contributed to the individualistic, seemingly unconnected, Third Wave feminist movement.

Some of you may be unfamiliar with the waves of feminism, as I was until last spring. The First Wave was the struggle for suffrage. The Second Wave hit its high point in what are referred to as the golden years of feminism, where women made great legislative strides toward the realization of gender equality.

Third-Wave feminists are often thought of as Gen X-ers: “cool” about differences in race, classes, and affectional orientations. They are known for their individualism and lack of cohesion. For example, an essay from Listen Up, a Third-Wave book, aptly illustrates the complexity of the generation: an educated, married, monogamous, feminist, Christian, African American mother reflects, “I suffer from an acute case of multiplicity.” Uncomfortable with seeing herself as just a feminist, she reiterates, “We should be able to bring our whole selves to the table.”

Within the Third Wave, postfeminism is the subject of great debate. One scholar, Kinser, argues, “It is seductive. It co-opts the motivating discourse of feminism but accepts a sense of empowerment as a substitute for the work toward and evidence of authentic empowerment.” She poses the two pitfalls of “false feminism” and “weak feminism.” False feminism, she argues, such as Naomi Wolf’s work Fire With Fire, reduces feminism to personal transformation, without addressing the political work of dismantling the power of patriarchal systems. She goes on to say the elements of a political movement are missing here--debased to simple resistance and consumption, empowerment through style.

A recent acclaimed third-wave work is Manifesta. In an attempt to position third-wavers, Manifesta asserts, “Born with feminism simply in the water, the Third Wave is buoyed by the confidence of having more opportunities and less sexism.”

Has this confidence turned into complacency?

Patriarchal systems that enforce, or at least condone gender inequality are still alive, giving these Third-Wavers fuel. Threats to reproductive rights, gender discrimination, lack of access to healthcare and day care, the alarming wage gap, and discomforting instances of violence against women all tell us that this movement is far from finished.

In a democracy that is based on citizen participation and political organization as the means of affecting change, has the third wave been duped into believing a distorted form of individualism is the solution to women’s problems? Or is the political climate just not receptive to the political organization of feminists?

My fear is that many young women believe the ultimate benefit of feminism is that their individual efforts and struggles will enable them to surmount the challenges that they may be faced with. My fear lies in what single women, poor women, and minority women will face. I have little doubt that the women at my private college can make it on their own; they have support and resources at their disposal. But what about those who are less fortunate, who have less support? Shouldn't we change the unjust system instead of simply trying to stay afloat in it? Shouldn't the movement ensure that women do not need greater resources or initiative to get by?

Additionally, if the best we can hope for is cases of women succeeding despite the societal injustices and unbalances they face, we have reached a sad point. The goal is not creating a system that is manageable for some women. The goal is creating a system, a society, which empowers all women, which tears down the arbitrary barriers to women's advancement, and supports and protects women's rights.

I suspect individual initiative is not enough to be the engine that drives change. As feminist, Sara Evans stated in her work Tidal Wave, “Title waves occur when strong forces coincide.” In this political climate, the Third Wave may just need to be a tidal wave to affect change.