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Riding the Third Wave | The Nation

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Riding the Third Wave

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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.

About the Author

Michelle Jensen
Michelle Jensen teaches at the University of Chicago and has published on queer theory.

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.

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