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.)