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Generations in Conflict - Grappling with the Feminist Wave Metaphor

Join MatriFocus in exploring Feminist Wave Dynamics

In the Beltane issue of Matrifocus we will be introducing an exciting new section called Feminist Wave Dynamics. In each issue, writers from the different generations of feminism will address a common theme.

To begin with, we will have a second-wave and a third-wave representative, as well as a woman writing from the viewpoint of a particular first-wave feminist. Each issue, the writers and the theme will change. Topics will be far-ranging and partially determined by writer input. The goal of the series will be to get an overview of the way these topics are viewed by women from different generations, in an attempt to see not only where we differ, but also how we are connected.

The topic for Beltane will, of course, be Sex in the Waves.

Calling writers!
If you are a scholar of first-wave feminism or a woman who would be interested in representing your own generation in one issue of Feminist Wave Dynamics, we would like to hear from you. Please contact Sarah Bebhinn for more details:

"Manifest this, motha fucka number one!" The crowd at the 2002 Michigan Women's Music festival roared in response to their first-ever hearing of Bitch and Animal's Pussy Manifesto. I loved feeling that energy swell, and although I'm not a huge fan of their music, I took the song in, as did every one of the 4,000 women sitting at the Night Stage that night.

It wasn't until later, on the wagon ride back to the tent, that I realized not everyone had appreciated this blunt condemnation of the patriarchy. Many women didn't hear any of the lyrics past the first phrase. They were stuck on that word. How could women singing at Festival possibly think that that word was appropriate to use? "It degrades women!"

I have to say I was somewhat shocked. "Actually," I offered, "they're using the word in its literal sense. They're addressing the people who fuck women over in order to further their own agendas." A dozen or so sets of eyes blinked back at me. "You know," I continued, "our oppressors." Some nodded skeptically, but the overall tone seemed to be that the use of the word was unforgivable and context didn't matter. What I realize now is that my peers, the other ones who understood what the song was, were young and mostly able-bodied and walking back to their tents instead of taking the wagon. The third-wavers hoof it at Festival.

Learning about and identifying with the third wave has been a liberating experience for me. It has helped me realize why my points of view are often so much different from those of my older friends. It's given me a generation and peers. Despite of, and in many ways, because of the second wave of feminism, the world is a much coarser place than it was thirty years ago. I see this reaction to the Manifesto as symbolic of the greater tendency among second-wave feminists to not understand the influence their own movement has had and to dismiss what younger women are doing out of an almost willful lack of understanding.

Unfortunately this tendency runs both ways. I know that many young women in the movement dismiss their elder feminists as out-of-touch, outdated, and obsolete. In this article I will explore the wave metaphor and try to define what differentiates second-wave feminism from third-wave feminism. Is the "wave" system a beneficial tool or simply another way we fight ourselves rather than our oppression?

Why the Wave Metaphor?
The term "wave" is used by social scientists to identify peak moments within a movement. It was first adopted by feminists in the 1960s who sought to root the women's movement in historical context. In her article "Waves in the History of Feminism," which appears in an excellent anthology entitled Crossing Over, Elisabeth Lønnå explains that:

"It was women involved in Women's Liberation who started calling themselves the second wave and ... the reason for this was lack of historical insight. Though many had heard about the suffrage movement -which then became the first wave - they did not know much about the work that had been going on immediately before their time." (Lønnå p.42)

She goes on to theorize that by any real historical reckoning, what is commonly acknowledged as the second wave of feminism is technically the third wave. She also points out that the women's movement has never rested or come to a stop between waves.

I'll be post-feminist in the post-patriarchy! (Margaret Sullivan)

The term "third wave" began to be used in the early 1990s to define a new group of feminists. In her landmark article, Becoming the Third Wave, published in 1992 by Ms. magazine, Rebecca Walker concluded with the declaration "I am not a postfeminism feminist. I am the Third Wave." (Walker p.41) After the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment and throughout the 1980s, the predominant voice of feminism had belonged to post-feminists. When I stated this to a second-wave friend of mine, she snorted and said, "I'll be post-feminist in the post-patriarchy!" While talking to another second-wave friend, a woman who has dedicated her life to political feminism, she asked me, quite seriously, what post-feminism was. With angry denial and oblivion as typical responses to post-feminism among second-wavers, it's no wonder that there is confusion about why there should be a third wave.

Throughout the 1980s, given this post-feminist betrayal within the movement and a strong cultural and media backlash against feminism, young women began to distance themselves from the term feminist. Thus the rise of the phrase "I'm not a feminist, but…." In an article written by seven young women at Holy Cross College in response to an anti-feminist review of the book Only Words, the authors explain that, "Through subtle and blatant attacks, the media have been successful in pushing many of our generation away from identifying as feminists who are portrayed as anti-sex, man-hating extremists." (Good p.197) In defining ourselves as third wave, young women were rejecting these post- and anti-feminist voices, acknowledging that there was still work to do, and aligning ourselves with our feminist predecessors. In Writing the Waves, the authors write, "[the third-wave distinction] allows us to distinguish ourselves as a separate entity with a specific generational identity. This is especially important for third wavers since we are a generation that is often forgotten about." (Licona)

Third-wavers: women who were born and raised during the second wave.

As difficult as it is to explain why we use the terms second wave and third wave, it is more difficult still to define who belongs in the third wave. Well… we can start with a broad category like "women," right? Not at all. Men are taking a more and more noticeable role in feminist politics, activism, and theory. In many cases, they are welcomed into the women's movement. Furthermore, what we have learned from the gender movement is that the terms "woman" and "man" are symbolic of cultural constructions and don't really mean anything anyway. Can age be used as a definer? I have seen the age of third-wavers defined as anything from people between thirty and forty years of age, to "young women," to people college age and older, and my favorite: women who were born and raised during the second wave.

Here is where the wave metaphor becomes difficult for me to embrace. Why would I willfully choose to separate myself into a group that excludes other feminists based on age? The answer is simple: I wouldn't. I think it's much more useful to use the wave metaphor to describe a period of time rather than a group of people. In that case, we would all be in the third wave of feminism, working together. But that's my own hope for understanding and working within the wave metaphor. It doesn't really do much to help untangle the confusion that already exists.

Improving on a Classic
Whether or not we acknowledge that there is a third wave of feminism, there are a lot of really great things about the way feminism is changing. We are finally learning to be inclusive. Women of color have always been at the forefront of the women's movement, but until recently they have been pushed to the side in mainstream feminist decision-making and visibility. In her summation of The Fire this Time, Wilma Mankiller neatly identifies some key differences between second- and third-wave feminisms. She points out that the third wave seeks to "broaden the definition of what it means to be a feminist, and to reinvent feminism for their generation," and to "create a more expanded and interconnected definition of feminism." She praises the third wave for its inclusive nature, especially of women of color, and acknowledges that the second wave, her own generation, fell short of this inclusion. (Mankiller p. 292)

We can't afford to pick apart each other's choices when the very freedom to make those choices is at stake.

Another example of inclusion in the third wave is the acceptance of each other's issues. In defining third wave during a presentation of her paper entitled "Are you woman enough to be my man? Pearl Jam as Third Wave Feminists," Judy Brady, a musicology grad student at the University of Wisconsin, said, "We acknowledge that we all have issues. An activity that I take part in may oppress you and an activity you participate in may oppress me." As a movement we are learning to work around this. We are an issue-driven culture and if we allow everything we disagree with to become a deterrent to working together, we will never get any work done. In a world as diverse and varied as ours, those of us in the know must do whatever we can to turn the tide. Feminism covers at least a thousand different issues. We can't afford to pick apart each other's choices when the very freedom to make those choices is at stake.

I have seen so-called feminist tools, such as consensus decision-making and political correctness, used to drive women out of community.

Raiding the Master's Toolbox
Audre Lorde's famous title, The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House, is often quoted by second-wave feminists. When I started doing research for this paper, that phrase popped into my head and I thought to myself, "Why not?" We have been trained on the master's tools; we know how to use them. Does it benefit our movement to start from scratch trying to come up with alternative ways to change reality? I was delighted to see my thoughts echoed in Delombard's article entitled "Femmenism" and several other third-wave sources. I have seen so-called feminist tools, such as consensus decision-making and political correctness, used to drive women out of community. Can't any tool be used as a weapon? I think that some second-wave women have a tendency to go straight into defense mode as soon as a younger woman begins to question second-wave theory, thought, or practice. But there is a danger in repeating mottos out of habit instead of examining them in light of a new generation to see if they still make sense. I would never say that the third wave owes nothing to the second wave. On the contrary, we owe our very existence to the second wave. But conversely, the lessons of the second wave will wither and die if they can't be reinterpreted and restructured by the next generation of feminists.

So why do we need to differentiate the waves? Can't we all just work together? My response to this is that yes, we should all be working together and many of us are. Although, generationally speaking, I belong to the third wave, I consider myself inter-wave. Any time a woman chooses to turn her energies against the ideas of another woman, we help the patriarchy. As a feminist, I believe my job is to evaluate ideas and decide for myself if they are valid for me. I may challenge an idea, but my goals are understanding and synthesis.

However, when I hear a young woman say "I don't think we should label," I cringe. For millennia now, women have been labeled. We have been labeled by men, and by other women using men's labels. Now, just as we have taken the power to determine our own labels for ourselves, is not the time to limit each other in our labeling abilities. Naming is power. The second wave taught us that. If we name the atrocities perpetuated against us — sexism, rape, incest, discrimination — then they become visible. Then we have the power to change them! So who am I to say we can't use the term "third wave" or even "fourth wave" if it's meaningful and empowering to another woman?

All of this convolution reminds me of an absurd scene in Monty Python's Life of Brian in which members of the People's Front of Judea, an anti-Roman faction, tell Brian that "The only people we hate more than the Romans are the… Judean People's Front… and the Judean Popular People's Front… and the People's Front of Judea." Of course they then realize that they themselves are that last group. How much energy is spent defining and arguing amongst ourselves that could be used to change the world for the better? Does it really matter whether or not the third wave or the fourth wave exists?

By identifying as sisters, we deny our differences, while by identifying as mothers and daughters we create an antagonism between the waves.

Use their Tools, Lose their Definitions
In Not My Mother's Sister, Astrid Henry explores the complicated relationships between second- and third-wave feminists. She points out that by identifying as sisters, we deny our differences, while by identifying as mothers and daughters we create an antagonism between the waves. Either way, when we adopt the metaphor of patriarchal family structure and focus on our generational differences, we lose sight of the real battles we should be fighting, such as racism, sexism, homophobia and so forth. I wholeheartedly agree with this assessment. I can't tell you how many times, as a young, outspoken feminist, I have been "put in my place" by an older woman. More often than not, I think these women respond out of a lack of understanding about what I am trying to say, which often manifests in their thinking that I'm the one who doesn't understand. I must say that I have to stay consciously present, focused and open to avoid slipping into the resentful, sullen daughter role when this happens. Unfortunately I do not always succeed.

Rather than abandoning the mother/daughter metaphor altogether, some suggest that we reexamine and redefine it for ourselves, using what works and is helpful. In Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future, the authors write:

"Many daughters are scared of falling prey to the indignities we witnessed our mothers suffer. This fear is a challenge to younger feminists. Young women should understand where that fear comes from, rather than simply avoiding it. Unwrapping motherhood from the swaddles of patriarchy means that we will no longer have to work so hard to be different from our mothers." (Baumgardner p.208)

It's strange for me now, being of an age and in a situation where I could be assuming a mother role. In working with students ten to twelve years younger than myself, I often feel that I have a broader base of knowledge from which to critique. I find myself dismissing someone else's opinion without really listening or taking it in. I kick myself afterwards, if I realize it's happened. Can we all be expected to fully listen, and to really process what other people are saying in a world full of sound-bites and talking-points? I think we must if we are to do anything but alienate each other. People involved in progressive movements are, as a rule, very quick to think critically. Most of us can pick apart an argument to its fundamental pieces before even registering whether or not we agree. But it is far easier to just accept or reject out of hand than it is to sit with information and synthesize it into our belief system. Astrid Henry wisely writes, "When all of our voices - and all of our ways of being feminist - can be part of the dialogue, feminism will truly move forward." (Henry p.180)

In the forward to To Be Real, an anthology of writings by third-wave feminists, Gloria Steinem warns against some of what she feels are misconceptions about the message passed down from second-wave feminists. She writes:

I want to remind readers who are younger or otherwise new to feminism that some tactical and theoretical wheels don't have to be reinvented. You may want to make them a different size or color, put them on a different wagon, use them to travel in a different direction, or otherwise make them your own - but many already exist.(Steinem p. xix)

I think we must take these words to heart, not only in reference to what the second wave has done for us, but in light of the entire history of the women's movement. Everything is illuminated in the light of the past, and to deny this is to start the whole battle over again every generation.

In her article, "Negotiating Space For/Through Third-Wave Feminism," Amber K. Kinser observes that, "Social change has always been an ongoing process, ebbing and flowing… [social change] and advocacy are hardly 'movement' or even 'wave' bound, but instead are a continuous cycle of living in the world comprised of many and diverse and overlapping efforts." She goes on to explore the relationship between the second and third waves, and notes, "Every era of women's movement has been made up of multiple feminisms." She concludes "Our job as second-, mid-, and third-wave feminists will be to construct feminist identity in a culture where post-feminist voices are amplified so that we can spot their lies, avoid their errors and reject their false dilemmas. Only through this work will we be able to explore the depths of the third wave." In short, if we are to succeed as a movement, and not just become an interesting factoid about a quirky social movement at the end of the 2nd millennium, we must stop fighting each other and really focus on the goal of transforming patriarchy.

A big enough wave can change the shoreline.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "third-wave," in association with Plato's metaphor in The Republic, has come to mean "the last and most forceful of three successive arguments or propositions." (OED) I think this could be an excellent example of using the master's tools. Is the wave metaphor useful? It could be. If the third wave is used to gather the knowledge, passion, and power of all previous waves, and if its inclusive nature is expanded to integrate people of all ages, we could truly turn the tide for good. As my fellow Women's Studies student Austin Nerge put it, "A big enough wave can change the shoreline."

Works Cited

  • Baumgardner, Jennifer, and Amy Richards. Manifesta: young women, feminism, and the future. 1st ed. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.
  • Delombard, Jeannine. "Femmenism." To be real telling the truth and changing the face of feminism. Ed. Rebecca Walker. New York: Anchor Books, 1995. 21-33.
  • Good, Patricia, Michele Gagne, Elizabeth Daake, Sharon Cox, Deirdre Carraher, Marjorie O'connor, and Jessie McManmon, "Generation X", The "Third Wave", or Just Plain Radical: Reviewing the Reviewers of Catherine MacKinnon's Only Words." Radically speaking feminism reclaimed. Ed. Diane Bell and Renate Klein. North Melbourne, Vic: Spinifex P, 1996. 193-202.
  • Henry, Astrid, Not my mother's sister generational conflict and third-wave feminism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2004.
  • Kinser, Amber K. "Negotiating Space For/Through Third-Wave Feminism." NWSA Journal 16.3 (2004): 124-154.
  • Licona, Adela C., and Krista Jacob. "Writing the Waves: A Dialogue on the Tools, Tactics, and Tensions of Feminisms and Feminist Practices Over Time and Place." NWSA Journal 17.1 (2005): 197-206.
  • Life of Brian. Dir. Terry Jones. Writers: Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin. DVD. Warner Brothers, 1979.
  • Lønnå, Elisabeth. "Waves in the history of feminism." Crossing borders: re-mapping women's movements at the turn of the 21st century. Ed. Hilda Rømer, Christensen, Beatrice Halsaa, and Aino Saarinen. Odense: University P of Southern Denmark, 2004. 41-58.
  • Mankiller, Wilma. "Coda." The fire this time: young activists and the new feminism. Ed. Dawn Lundy Martin and Vivien Labaton. New York: Anchor Books, 2004. 291-293.
  • Steinem, Gloria. "Foreword." To be real: telling the truth and changing the face of feminism. Ed. Rebecca Walker. New York: Anchor Books, 1995. xiii-xxviii.
  • OED. "third wave." Def. 6. Oxford English Dictionary Online. 15 Nov. 2005 <>.
  • Walker, Rebecca. "Becoming the Third Wave." Ms. Jan.-Feb. 1992: 39-41.

Graphics Credits

  • ripples, courtesy of the author (from her source of royalty-free images).
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