Can we please stop talking about feminism as if it is mothers and daughters fighting about clothes? Second wave: you’re going out in that? Third wave: just drink your herbal tea and leave me alone! Media commentators love to reduce everything about women to catfights about sex, so it’s not surprising that this belittling and historically inaccurate way of looking at the women’s movement–angry prudes versus drunken sluts–has recently taken on new life, including among feminists. Writing on DoubleX
.com, the new Slate spinoff for women, the redoubtable Linda Hirshman delivered a sweeping attack on younger feminists for irresponsible partying, as chronicled on, a Gawker-family blog devoted to “Celebrity, Sex, Fashion for Women. Without Airbrushing.” Likewise, a silly “debate” over whether Sex and the Single Girl did more for women than The Feminine Mystique followed the release of Jennifer Scanlon’s Bad Girls Go Everywhere: The Life of Helen Gurley Brown. As Naomi Wolf wrote in the Washington Post, “The stereotype of feminists as asexual, hirsute Amazons in Birkenstocks that has reigned on campus for the past two decades has been replaced by a breezy vision of hip, smart young women who will take a date to the right-on, woman-friendly sex shop Babeland.” Pick your caricature.

What’s wrong with parsing feminism along a mother/daughter divide? Everything.

First of all, it’s chronologically off. If second wavers are those who made the women’s liberation movement in the late 1960s and ’70s, they are not the mothers of today’s young feminists but their grandmothers. Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug, Barbara Seaman and Del Martin are dead. Adrienne Rich is 80, Robin Morgan is 68. Gloria Steinem, still fabulous, celebrated her seventy-fifth birthday on March 25. The wave construct obscures the perspective of women ten or even twenty years younger, like, um, me–in 1966, when NOW was founded, I was a junior in high school–or Susan Faludi (b. 1959), bell hooks (b. 1952) or Anna Quindlen (b. 1952).

The same thing happens at the other end. “Third wave” was indeed intended to define a new generation–it was coined by Rebecca Walker, Alice Walker’s daughter–in 1992. The original third wavers, with their reclaiming of “girl culture” and their commitment to the intersectionality of race, class and gender are now touching 40; they hung up their Hello Kitty backpacks some time ago. Many, like Walker, have children: they are the mothers who, today’s “young feminists” complain, use up all the air in the room, according to Nation writer Nona Willis Aronowitz. But the term continues to be used to describe each latest crop of feminists–loosely defined as any female with more political awareness than a Bratz doll–and to portray them in terms of their rejection of second wavers, who are supposedly starchy and censorious. Like moms. Somebody’s mom, anyway.

The wave structure, I’m trying to say, looks historical, but actually it is used to misrepresent history by evoking ancient tropes about repressive mothers and rebellious daughters. Second wave: anti-porn; third wave: anything goes! But second wave was never all anti-porn–think of Ellen Willis, for heaven’s sake. It even gave us the propaganda term “pro-sex.” The ACLU is jampacked with feminist lawyers of a certain age. In fact, feminists in the ’70s and ’80s had the same conflicts over pornography that are playing out today among young women over raunch and sex work. You wouldn’t know it from the media, but there are plenty of young feminists who do not see pole-dancing as “empowering” and do not aspire to star in a Girls Gone Wild video. Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs sold very well on campus. These women don’t fit the wave story line, however, so nobody interviews them. The pairing up on sex issues is old/young, with the older feminist representing sour puritanical judgment.

And that’s really strange. After all, today’s “asexual, hirsute” 60-year-olds were the original sex-drugs-and-rock-‘n’-rollers. In some ways, they were more sexually radical than today’s youth, because they made a bigger break with conventional ideas of sexiness. Many a gray-haired women’s studies professor was a braless free spirit back in the day. In fact, some of them still are. Nobody wants to hear, though, from middle-aged women with relaxed and generous views about sex, let alone who are still having it. Relaxed and generous do not a catfight make.

There is a generational struggle going on, but it isn’t over sex; it’s over power. For twenty years, young feminists have complained that older women have kept a lock on organizational feminism. Robin Morgan famously told young women who protested that her generation wasn’t passing the torch to “get your own damned torch. I’m still using mine.” So, tired of being assistants and tokens, they did. Branding themselves as a wave was part of it. By staking their claim on youth, they branded older feminists as, well, old. And old, in America, is not a good thing to be.

While a tactical success for the young, the wave construct has the effect of overemphasizing peripheral issues, like exactly how adventurous a young woman can be before Linda Hirshman thinks she’s asking for trouble. Why not acknowledge that there will never be a bright line between pleasure and danger, personal choice and social responsibility, open-mindedness and judgment? The fine points of sexual freedom will all be there waiting for us–after we get childcare, equal pay, retirement security, universal access to birth control and abortion, healthcare for all and men who do their share at home, after we achieve equal representation in government, are safe from sexual violence and raise a generation of girls who don’t hate their bodies.

Let’s just not call them the fourth wave.