Riding the Third Wave
I have been waiting for Manifesta to come out. I had certain hopes for this book. In particular, I was looking forward to using it as a corrective addition in a course I'm teaching on "Third Wave Feminism and Girl Culture." When I first taught this class last spring, my students became increasingly frustrated with the overwhelmingly personal tone of the contemporary feminism we were reading. Our central texts, and until now they have been the central texts of the self-proclaimed Third Wave, were three anthologies, all published in the past five years: Barbara Findlen's Listen Up: Voices From the Next Generation; Rebecca Walker's To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism; and Leslie Heywood and Jennifer Drake's Third Wave Agenda: Being Feminist, Doing Feminism. While each of these collections takes its own approach to the Third Wave, they share an emphasis on the singular experience of young women and the occasional young man as grounds for a new generation of feminist politics ("young" in this context generally designates those born between 1964 and 1980). Specifically, all three anthologies grapple with how to combine some version of feminist politics with what Third Wave Agenda calls the "lived messiness" of real life. After reading assorted articles in which individual Third Wavers describe their intimate struggles with eating disorders, gender dysphoria, racial difference and antifeminist workplaces or, conversely, their sustaining attachments to various punk rockers, my students begin to ask, "Isn't there some Third Wave theory we could read?"
Last spring I suggested to my students that, for the moment, this return to experience in all of its messy multiplicity might be the unifying theory of the Third Wave (we might see it, for instance, as a historically necessary return to the "personal" moment of "the personal is political"), but I share their longing for a militant, argumentative feminism--one that would abandon the personal essay with its fetishization of contradiction and get on with elaborating a political program. Contemporary feminism needs the kind of intervention Manifesta purports to be. Billed as "a powerful indictment from within of the current state of feminism, and a passionate call to arms," Manifesta aims to challenge the experientialism and fragmentation of the emerging Third Wave with history, political argument and activism. These are, to my mind, exactly the grounds on which to confront the Third Wave, but how effectively Manifesta manages this confrontation is another question entirely.
Written by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, both journalists, activists and Third Wavers themselves, Manifesta turns out to be a strange book. Some of this strangeness no doubt derives from its collaborative production. The two writers seem to be trying to repress, rather than sharpen, their differences, and this results in a book that is, narratively, both bland and contradictory by turns. This general atmosphere of forced consensus extends to the content as well. As Richards outlines in her introduction (each writer provides an introduction, not to the book but to herself), she and Baumgardner created Manifesta by combining their separate book projects, one on activism and the other a cultural analysis of current feminism, into one text. The end result is a long, wide-ranging and episodic book that touches on everything from Barbie and Riot Grrrls to voter registration and Title IX without ever fully integrating its cultural and activist components. Perhaps the strangest thing about the book is its title, for Manifesta is neither short nor scrappy like the best of its genre (e.g., the SCUM and Communist manifestoes). I was, however, encouraged to find that the book does contain (finally! on page 278) an actual "thirteen point" manifesta that distills its uncontroversial pro-choice, pro-ERA, anti-domestic violence agenda.
Its structural peculiarities aside, Manifesta does supply several potentially powerful correctives to contemporary feminism--the first of which is a historical perspective. One of the striking features of works of Third Wave feminism published so far is their general impatience with, and desire to break from, the feminist past. (Although the editors of both Listen Up and Third Wave Agenda make a point of pledging their allegiance to the Second Wave, their contributors for the most part do not.) Third Wavers frequently accomplish this break by declaring the Second Wave outmoded, unrealistically militant and irrelevant to the lives of young women. Melissa Klein describes this renunciation in her contribution to Third Wave Agenda, "Duality and Redefinition":
Many young women hesitate to take on the mantle of feminism, either because they fear being branded as fanatical "feminazis" or because they see feminism not as a growing and changing movement but as a dialogue of the past that conjures up images of militantly bell-bottomed "women's libbers."
In Third Wave writing, reductive caricature--those "bell-bottomed feminazis"--often displaces and deters real historical knowledge about the politics, accomplishments and legacy of the Second Wave, not to mention earlier feminisms. (For an especially sharp and poignant instance of the Third Wave's failure to recognize the Second, see the foreword and afterword to Rebecca Walker's To Be Real, in which a bewildered Gloria Steinem and Angela Davis wrestle with the treatment that feminism of the sixties and seventies receives in the book.)
Baumgardner and Richards reject this species of feminist ahistoricism. Point 5 of their manifesta aims
To tap into and raise awareness of our revolutionary history.... To have access to our intellectual feminist legacy and women's history; for the classics of radical feminism, womanism, mujeristas, women's liberation, and all our roots to remain in print; and to have women's history taught to men as well as women as a part of all curricula.
Against the Third Wave's rebellious declarations of independence, Baumgardner and Richards insist on a cross-generational, continuous understanding of feminism secured through the study of feminist history. "Having no sense of how we got here," they write, "condemns women to reinvent the wheel and often blocks us from creating a political strategy." Manifesta works throughout to supply some of this prehistory by linking current feminist cultural forms and figures to earlier ones. The Lilith Fair, for instance, is presented in the tradition of the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, and prosex profemininity Girlie feminists are recognized as descendants of Helen Gurley Brown.
The authors systematize their version of feminist history in a chapter titled "What Is Feminism?" Here they produce a sketchy, breakneck overview of United States feminism from Seneca Falls, through the Nineteenth Amendment, the Second Wave and the ERA, up to the Third Wave. They make some attempt to be multiculturally and politically inclusive by mentioning Native American matriarchies, Sojourner Truth and Emma Goldman, but what they call feminist history here is fundamentally the history of white, middle-class liberal feminism and its record of US governmental reforms. Manifesta's restricted focus on liberal feminism is, unfortunately, systemic. In the rest of the book, where Second Wavers provide most of the historical counterpoint, Baumgardner and Richards repeatedly offer up liberal feminists as representative of all feminism: Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Carol Gilligan, Gloria Steinem... Please note that our authors met while interning at Ms.
Feminists on the left and feminists of color will not find their history represented in Manifesta. The contributions of Audre Lorde, Barbara Smith, Lydia Sargent, bell hooks, Heidi Hartmann, Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga, to name only a few, go pretty much unmentioned. This historical prejudice is especially striking, given that recent anthologies tend to date Third Wave feminism from the critiques that women of color launched against liberal feminism toward the end of the Second Wave. In this context, Manifesta's historical sensibility reads as reaction, as a call for a return to some imagined white, homogeneous Second Wave feminism. On the few occasions that Baumgardner and Richards deign to mention leftish feminisms, they criticize leftists not for their politics but for being unnecessarily divisive, for undermining some presumed feminist consensus. Barbara Ehrenreich and Katha Pollitt, for instance, receive sharp criticism for having the gall to "[point] their fingers" at other feminists.
This anxiety about feminist dissent permeates Manifesta. Like a mantra, Baumgardner and Richards repeat phrases like "everyday feminism," "the same old feminism" and "organic" feminism, as if there were some reassuring common sense that united all feminists. For our authors, this "same old feminism" designates the same old liberal reformism, and while I praise their historical instincts--the Third Wave needs its past more than it knows--I wish Baumgardner and Richards had worked harder to be more fully historical. Not only do they provide the feminist history that is most likely to be familiar to readers without their help (through mainstream institutions like Ms., NOW and the Democratic Party) but their reductive version of the feminist past is unlikely to speak to the interests and experiences of women of color, working-class and radical women, or queers (though of all differences among women, they give the most lip service to sexual difference). Manifesta's history simply isn't adequate for comprehending, much less galvanizing, the actual class, racial, sexual and political heterogeneity of American women.
The second correction that Manifesta brings to the Third Wave is an insistence on political argumentation. If Third Wavers are vulnerable to charges of navel-gazing, of musing endlessly and confessionally over the contradictions between feminism and life, the authors adamantly resist this deferral of political consciousness. Throughout Manifesta they insist on making feminist sense of the world, using anecdotal narratives and statistical data (they admit to being obsessive fact-checkers) to remind us that the pay gap between women and men persists and remains substantial (74 cents to the dollar, by current calculations), that rape and domestic violence still operate to restrict women's independence, that the sexual double standard continues to distort female sexuality and that reproductive rights are only partially and tenuously secure. Although their political consciousness remains disappointingly close to their own experiences and needs as young professional white women (they give an inordinate amount of time to the injustices that face female journalists in New York City, while other feminist issues, like daycare, racism, gay-bashing and collective bargaining in the pink-collar ghetto, receive little to no treatment), at least Baumgardner and Richards model the process of politicizing experience, of seeing the personal as political. "Consciousness-raising," they argue, "must precede action."
At a deeper level, however, Manifesta simply isn't argumentative enough. In fact, the argument we most expect from a work of contemporary feminist theory--a systemic analysis of the causes of women's oppression today--is entirely absent. If the Third Wave intends to remake feminism for this generation, then it needs a comprehensive account of the specific material conditions that currently determine (and determine differentially) the social and economic position of women in the United States and outside the United States as well. Such an account requires thinking through systems (capitalism, patriarchy, racism, homophobia) in the way many Second Wavers did, although it does not require that the Third Wave simply redeploy arguments generated in the seventies. After all, material conditions change. Instead of systemic argumentation, however, Baumgardner and Richards offer up a loose platform of issues: prison reform, pay inequality, military access for women, negative body images, the ERA, egalitarian healthcare, etc. Because Manifesta lacks a coherent structural account that could link these disparate issues (e.g., through the underlying socioeconomic processes that produce them), readers are unlikely to recognize any inner logic in this collection of so-called women's issues. Nor can Manifesta provide an argument for prioritizing one issue over another. In Baumgardner and Richards's account, feminism becomes analytically rootless, seemingly implicated everywhere, but no more effective or necessary in one arena than another.
In the absence of sustained structural analysis, our authors use large quantities of populist boosterism to hold the book together. Their populism underwrites two of Manifesta's larger claims, the first of which is that despite what critics say, feminism is everywhere in contemporary culture, just waiting to be acknowledged. The authors announce the existence of what they call a contemporary "Feminist Diaspora"--a large, dispersed population of "everyday" feminists who embody the Second Wave's success in establishing feminism as part of our cultural common sense. "For anyone born after the early 1960s," they assert, "the presence of feminism in our lives is taken for granted. For our generation, feminism is like fluoride. We scarcely notice that we have it--it's simply in the water." Of course this is a controversial proposition, as it assumes that the feminism of the sixties and seventies was disseminated uniformly to young women throughout the United States, irrespective of class, racial, educational or geographical distinctions. You get a very different picture of feminism's reach if you talk to women who, although "born after the early 1960s," were raised in rural areas, in immigrant families or in working-class neighborhoods. But if it's true, as our authors say, that feminism can now be taken for granted, that it has become part of popular consciousness, this presents Baumgardner and Richards with a unique dilemma. "The only problem," they acknowledge, "is that, while on a personal level feminism is everywhere, like fluoride, on a political level the movement is more like nitrogen: ubiquitous and inert." So even though they see "a generation of [young women] leading revolutionary lives," our authors concede that these same women are "best known for saying, 'I'm not a feminist, but...'"
Point 1 of the manifesta contains their plan for attacking this lack of feminist self-identification: "To out unacknowledged feminists, specifically those who are younger, so that Generation X can become a visible movement and, further, a voting block of eighteen- to forty-year-olds." As far as I can tell, "outing," in this context, consists of making feminism so enticingly broad and nondemanding that young women, realizing they are in no way required to interrogate themselves or their social practices, will claim feminism for themselves. "Maybe you aren't sure you need feminism," Baumgardner and Richards coax,
...or you're not sure it needs you. You're sexy, a wallflower, you shop at Calvin Klein, you are a stay-at-home mom, a big Hollywood producer, a beautiful bride all in white, an ex-wife raising three kids, or you shave, pluck, and wax. In reality, feminism wants you to be whoever you are--but with a political consciousness.
By asserting that young women are already feminists, if unconscious ones, Baumgardner and Richards feel empowered to claim that there is, indeed, a feminist "movement" afoot today. Although they admit that it does not consist of "a huge force of conscious feminists" (i.e., it does not look like anything we'd recognize as collective action), they repeatedly refer to "the movement" as if saying the word could call the social form into being. I share Manifesta's desire for a movement (the fizzled Riot Grrrl was arguably the closest--and it wasn't very close--we've come to collective feminist action in the last decade), but I don't believe that calling whatever women do to survive "a movement" or trying to swell the feminist ranks with prepolitical young women is the most effective way to get us there.
Baumgardner and Richards's populist strategies also emerge in the second of their larger claims, namely that political differences between types of feminism really don't, and ideally shouldn't, matter all that much. Our authors take a staggeringly latitudinarian approach to feminism. They stage extended defenses of Naomi Wolf and Katie Roiphe, both of whom most feminists consider conservative backlashers, in order to assert their rightful membership in the feminist camp. "We have to put down our relentless search for feminist purity," they argue,
...and look at Katie Roiphe, Elizabeth Wurtzel, Naomi Wolf, and the rest of the emerging young women as what they are: feminists, the next generation.... Yes, all feminists deserve critique and debate, but save your political vitriol for the young babes who are right-wing and political.
Baumgardner and Richards also extend feminist inclusion to "Girlie" types, those young women, vaguely associated with Bust's readership, who find personal empowerment in the cultural trappings of traditional adolescent femininity. They even make a case for Monica Lewinsky as a contemporary feminist icon, calling her "a twenty-three-year-old White House intern who owned her own libido and sexual prowess."
What our manifesta writers hope to gain by stretching feminism to its outer limits in order to include Roiphe, Wolf, Girlies and Lewinsky is a kind of "big tent" feminism that could take on "right-wing babes" like Christina Hoff Sommers, Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter. And they are not the first Third Wavers to promote this kind of feminist populism. Rebecca Walker, in To Be Real, argues that we should "[broaden] our view of who and what constitutes 'the feminist community,'" so as to "stake out an inclusive terrain from which to actively seek the goals of societal equality and individual freedom." What they lose in the stretch, however, is any real content to feminism, other than the crudest and too often imaginary distinction between the right and left wing. Baumgardner and Richards would do for feminism what Clinton did for the Democrats over the past eight years: try to absorb, rhetorically, everyone from left-liberals to centrists in order to build a strategic coalition against the radical right. But why should the broad spectrum of feminists be forced to define themselves negatively and homogeneously against a few shrill right-wingers? While feminists need to be able to come together around issues that concern us, and I think we do, our differences are politically meaningful and, to my mind, ultimately productive. Roiphe, Wolf et al., for instance, raise important questions about the Third Wave revalorization of beauty, sexual power and femininity. What happens to feminism when it reclaims the very sources of power the patriarchy has always been happy to grant us? Why is it difficult to recognize feminist "agency" in the circumstance of a young female intern, smitten with male presidential power, dropping to her knees? Rather than subordinate our differences in the service of the flabby populism Manifesta promotes, I would like to see contemporary feminism embrace contention, sharpen its differences and strengthen its analysis.
There are limits, however, even to Baumgardner and Richards's feminist magnanimity. Their inclusionism breaks down not only around the "divisive" left but in their engagement with psychoanalytic Second Waver Phyllis Chesler. Chesler elicits their ire for, apparently, using the wrong tone of voice. In her 1997 Letters to a Young Feminist, Chesler draws on her longstanding engagement with feminism to delineate what she sees as the Second Wave's "legacy" to the next generation. Specifically, she focuses on the contradictions produced by Second Wave feminisms (e.g., between the ideology of "sisterhood" and the reality of female competition, between movement egalitarianism and the hierarchies "professional" feminism reproduced) and presses younger feminists to learn from and supersede these contradictions. In keeping with her training, Chesler approaches her Letters through the lens of the family drama and uses the persona of a feminist mother to address imagined feminist daughters (and, in the last chapter, her real-life feminist son). The phony intimacy of this address makes for some serious rhetorical melodrama: The reader is regularly addressed as "darling" and "my dear" by an overbearing Ma Chesler. Despite its stylistic goofiness, however, Chesler's book remains one of the few Second Wave feminist "memoirs" (and there are now many) that work to instrumentalize, rather than glorify or recant, the feminist past in order to serve the feminist future.
Baumgardner and Richards are unable to recognize how Chesler's book, like their own, attempts to build a bridge between the Waves. Instead, in an angry "Letter to an Older Feminist," our authors perform their rebellion against Chesler and her cohort, exclaiming "You're not our mothers." "We let you off your mother trip," they announce, "Now you have to stop treating us like daughters. You don't have the authority to treat us like babies or acolytes who need to be molded." As much as our authors say they want to connect with the Second Wave, they clearly want the connection on their own terms. It's OK for Chesler to participate in the Third Wave as an icon, as an inspiring bit of history, but Baumgardner and Richards would rather she quit trying to contribute her own work. "Read our books, buy our records," they command the Older Feminist. Ever vigilant of ageism when it's directed at younger feminists, here Baumgardner and Richards themselves, unnecessarily, reproduce a generation gap.
My favorite part of Manifesta, and the final corrective it offers to the Third Wave's nearly exclusive focus on cultural critique, is its insistence on activism. In the final section of the book, in a chapter titled "What Is Activism?" Baumgardner and Richards push young feminists to take action. "Activism," they write, "starts with the acknowledgment of injustice, but it doesn't stop with the rant...or even with the manifesta." To insure that their readers develop realistic expectations, the two debunk what they say are four myths about activism: that "activism will bring an immediate and decisive victory," that activism "has to be huge," that activism requires "superleaders" and, finally, that contemporary feminism is "politically impotent." Baumgardner and Richards also challenge the common preconception that volunteering is necessarily the highest form of activism. They make a fabulous distinction between "activist" and "charity" types of volunteer work, defining the latter as those positions (like candy stripers and literacy instructors) that have a long tradition of relying on unpaid female labor. Readers are directed away from the feminized sector and are encouraged instead to turn their efforts toward the "activist" groups--those "organizations that are too ahead of their time to be funded by the government"--and to continue to lobby for pay for their work. Central to successful activism, Baumgardner and Richards suggest, is a "clear intention, a realistic plan, and an identifiable constituency," and they provide steps for developing these strategic elements. In addition to an appendix containing contact information for numerous activist organizations (along with record labels, makeup brands and sex-toy shops), Baumgardner and Richards also provide a series of "creative social justice" issues that they think warrant activist involvement, such as political asylum for female refugees who have suffered gendered forms of violence, getting female reproductive care into prisons and pressing the National Honor Society to strike down its exclusion of pregnant women. For each issue they provide concrete avenues for action: Lobby the President, recruit Ob-Gyns to go into prisons, petition the NHS with lists of male members who have impregnated women.
While I love its demystification of activism, I remain unenamored with Manifesta's overall political vision, which never moves much beyond liberal reformism. For all their talk of "revolution," Baumgardner and Richards are primarily interested in, as they call it, putting the "participatory back into participatory democracy." The book, moreover, contains no clear sense of how issue-by-issue reformism of the type they advocate could lead to the "revolutionary movement" and larger social transformation they often invoke as their long-range goal. Despite its political tunnel vision, however, Manifesta works productively, in my view, to reorient the Third Wave toward action, particularly action beyond just the cultural level. Baumgardner and Richards encourage young feminists to engage with politics, the law and (to some extent) the economy, and they supply concrete strategies and realistic expectations for beginning this kind of activist work. Manifesta provides a solid starting place for reformist-style activism, and in the current moment, any activism is better than none. Who knows how young feminists might be revolutionized through the types of activism Baumgardner and Richards advocate; Manifesta could lay the groundwork for more radical forms of political action.
All in all, I think Manifesta suggests a formula, if not the specific content, for a better version of Third Wave feminism. We need to build on the feminisms that have preceded us, but we need the history of all feminisms, not just the least controversial, most mainstream forms. We need to embrace political argument, but we need to root our arguments in a larger understanding of the conditions that oppress us--all of us. We also need to be able to argue among ourselves about what feminism at this historical moment ought to look like, and to do that we have to dispense with the idea--itself an artifact of the backlash--that feminism needs warm bodies more than it needs theory or principles. We need to fight the seemingly widespread preconception that a state of feminist grace is prerequisite to action and that essay writing should be our preferred mode of activism. We need to get busy in the ways Manifesta urges and in many more. Without meaning to, Manifesta also prompts us, through some of its engagement with "older feminists," to think about how the Third Wave may be founding itself on unexamined ageism. In the end, a better version of Third Wave feminism might involve changing the name as a first step toward unloading altogether the dubious politics of generationality.