Second Wave Feminism Is Dying (Slowly)

Posted: August 31, 2012 in Feminism, Reading, Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

Shulamith Firestone,   radical feminist and author of Dialectic of Sex, died this week. And, it appears she died having lived her last years quite isolated and miserable.

The accounts of her death remind me of the latest film by Carol Morley, Dreams of A Life. More than a ‘true story’, Dreams… is a documentary about a British woman who, like Shulamith, was found dead in her flat. But not days or weeks after she died. This young woman was not discovered till THREE YEARS later.

Shulamith is part of a generation, which happens to be my parents’ generation, which is on its way out. My stepfather died eighteen months ago. My Dad goes to more funerals than weddings. I feel death hanging over me in a way I never did before.

And with the demise of this generation, comes the demise of its ideologies and politics. Shulamith joins a growing roster of ‘dead feminists’ that includes Marilyn French,  Andrea Dworkin and Mary Daly.

These women were part of what we call ‘second wave’ feminism, which was at its peak in the late sixties, early seventies. I have a very strong, VERY ambivalent relationship with second wave feminism, because I was born into it. My mum did not go to yummy mummy cafes and pilates classes in her spare time when I was little, she went to Women’s Liberation conferences and ‘consciousness raising’ groups. I am still recovering, literally, from childhood trauma that I can’t separate in my psyche from that period of feminist history. And when I was still a feminist I was often lonely and isolated, even when surrounded by my ‘sisters’.  Shulamith’s life and death reminds me that feminism is not a ‘cure all’ or a guarantee of being  successfully integrated into a group who share an ideology. It isn’t a guarantee of anything at all.

I am not celebrating individual deaths. Unlike feminists such as Cath Elliott, who cheered when Sebastian Horsley, who she believed was a ‘misogynist’ died, I feel sad when anyone shuffles off this mortal coil. At the risk of mixing my quotes up too much, do not ask for whom the bell tolls and all that.

But I am glad that second wave feminism is a dying creed. The ‘sisters’ who in my view invented concepts such as ‘patriarchy’ and ‘all men are rapists’ and the idea that one solution to gender inequalities is eugenics, have a lot to answer for.

A couple of years ago I might have finished this piece on a positive note, saying that the new generation of ‘third wave’ feminists are changing things, and making feminism into a more positive, more diverse, less man-hating movement. But as most readers will know, I won’t do that now.

Third wave feminism in some ways, takes the basic, misandrous tenets of second wave feminism and turns them into ‘memes’. Any thought or philosophy is removed and all we are left with is a bunch of white women screaming ‘RAPE CULTURE!’ and STREET HARASSMENT! and ‘MISOGYNY’! Technologies producing social media sites such as facebook, twitter and tumblr have meant political campaigns become very simplified and do not allow for intellectual debate. All you have to show your support is press the ‘Like’ button. This ‘dumbing down’ of feminism makes it particularly crude and lacking in rigour.

On some particularly dark days I even miss Andrea Dworkin!

However there are positive aspects to our contemporary world, in which radical feminism is seen by many as a joke. It does not have quite the power it did when I was a kid. But its younger, more manicured, less well-read sisters are dangerous. And I am stuck with them till I die.

  1. redpesto says:

    QRG: Third wave feminism in some ways, takes the basic, misandrous tenets of second wave feminism and turns them into ‘memes’. Any thought or philosophy is removed and all we are left with is a bunch of white women screaming ‘RAPE CULTURE!’ and ‘STREET HARASSMENT!’ and ‘MISOGYNY’!

    Interesting (and worth expanding on?). Is that a legacy of the internet, or a lack of intellectual rigour and original critical thought of contemporary feminist writers? Or because so much of the groundwork (for good or ill) had already been done, plus the social, economic and cultural changes that have changed women’s lives for the better, so that recycling the attitudes, politics and slogans of the 1970s just won’t cut it any more?

    PS: A fiver says Bindel gets to write the Guardian obit or a big tribute piece.

  2. Oh QRG. You’re so mean!

    I wouldn’t hold Shulamith Firestone responsible for the sins of second & third wave feminism any more than I’d hold Patti Smith responsible for the sins of Suzi Quatro & Avril Lavigne.

    “On some particularly dark days I even miss Andrea Dworkin!”

    I know how you feel.

    The Dialectic of Sex though was a careful and seriously radical analysis of the realworld workings of biological essentialism, which sadly sounds meme-like, but which is one of the roots of all evil: That’s where sex and gender get historically fucked, in the reproductive logic of the hetero.

    Firestone looked at this with a far more visionary eye than most of her contemporaries. Her immediate frame of reference… her interest in it… was of course feminist. But as I parse it, she comes early enough in second wave that she seems set off from the main course(s) the second wave feminism ultimately took. The work itself is just as easily proto-queer, which is where all the action went when the third wave abdicated.

    That radical anti-essentialist, post-family, “post-reproductive” analysis was endlessly more radical than the feminist analysis and politics that followed.

    • redpesto says:

      …except wasn’t their another strand of radical feminism that regarded reproductive technologies (up to and including artificial wombs) as means for the patriarchy to do away with women altogether?

      • Well the simple answer to that is, yes, there were stands of radical feminism that did indeed regard reproductive technologies as extensions of patriarchy.

        But to complicate that, since nothing is that simple…

        Two of the terms in that statement — “radical feminism” and “patriarchy” — are pretty much exhausted of any real meaning. For me, those who *today* claim the label “radical feminist” seem as Luddite as the reproductive right wing that would ban not just abortion but contraception and modern sexuality altogether. In both cases, there’s no real engagement with the actual world.

        As for “patriarchy,” it’s an overused term with little current analytical value. The social structure it ostensibly refers to is far more complicated than the term is able to capture.

        The thing that gets called patriarchy is better conceptualized as institutionalized reproductive essentialism. That’s a mouthful and not as easy to toss around as patriarchy. But it’s gets directly to the core of a system that “patriarchy” merely names, and in so naming, ultimately misidentifies.

        Basically, “patriarchy” is itself a term of patriarchy.

        Patriarchy fucks itself. As does a feminism wedded to the concept.

  3. Copyleft says:

    Dang, I hate to celebrate anyone’s death too (even Bin Laden’s).

    But Andrea Dworkin? Umm… she will not be missed strongly, or for very long.

    Second-wave feminism had some legitimate goals, which it achieved. And some illegitimate ones, which came to predominate once the important issues were successfully resolved. Academic, gender, and radical feminism then took over… and the movement died. Some would say that death is welcome too.

    • “Second-wave feminism had some legitimate goals, which it achieved. And some illegitimate ones, which came to predominate once the important issues were successfully resolved. Academic, gender, and radical feminism then took over… and the movement died.”

      I wouldn’t say the movement died.. it certainly generates plenty of verbiage… but it lost coherence and effectiveness, and got girded in and bogged down by its own rhetoric and pet memes. It’s not simply that the old slogans don’t cut it anymore, it’s that the slogans, new and old, have taken the place of actual analysis while inhibiting internal criticism

      This is why the recent (context: I’m writing this from the US) attacks on reproductive rights, which has to be the bottom line of any feminist analysis and politics, is being met with the kind of reaction that would be more expected following a surprise attack, despite decades of heightened sensitivity to and being on the lookout for “backlash.”

      If it’s OK with QRG, a link to a recent post at my blog on the subject: Reproductive Rights & the Macroeconomics of Pussy, or, Why Is Feminism’s Image So Unpretty?

      • thanks Nico will read. Nice to see you again!

      • redpesto says:

        This is why the recent (context: I’m writing this from the US) attacks on reproductive rights, which has to be the bottom line of any feminist analysis and politics, is being met with the kind of reaction that would be more expected following a surprise attack, despite decades of heightened sensitivity to and being on the lookout for “backlash.”

        But feminists have been shouting ‘backlash!’ for the last two decades at least (and maybe ‘backlash’ has just become another meme?). Perhaps this time, honest, it really, really is a backlash – as opposed to the Republicans shooting their mouths off in an election year. Right-wing hostility to abortion is a given, not a pretext to recruit more activists.

        • Right. That’s pretty much my point.

          “Backlash” describes a political dynamic, but it’s not in itself an analysis. Describing backlash and identifying instances of it is much easier but not remotely the same as countering it, or doing the political work that would render attempts at backlash ineffective.

          Two decades after “backlash” became a feminist watchword and catchphrase (and bestseller) reproductive rights are being systematically rolled back to where they were before the second wave really got rolling. The people behind that backlash are doing their jobs as expected and predicted, and to the extent they’re successful, the people over whom the backlash rolls have… somehow… obviously… failed to do theirs.

          The “backlash” against reproductive rights is ultimately a backlash against modern sexuality, an attempt to reassert reproductive logic in a post-reproductive age.

          But I also trace popular feminism’s failure to counter this backlash to its own problematic relationship to modern sexuality. On the one hand, modern sexualities and gender identities are premised on reproductive rights. On the other hand, the sexualized culture that “carries” modern sexuality is often identified as backlash itself — often justifiably so. But when this institutional ambivalence marinates in decades-old analysis and rote rhetoric, feminism languishes and reproductive rights are lost.

          • feminism comes
            not in waves but in whirlpools.
            faster, pussycat.

          • redpesto says:

            The “backlash” against reproductive rights is ultimately a backlash against modern sexuality, an attempt to reassert reproductive logic in a post-reproductive age.

            I’m more inclined to this view, mainly because it allows for the battle over LGBT civil rights and sexuality (e.g. ‘gay marriage’). Unfortunately, the ‘war on women’ rhetoric excludes pro-choice men, fails to allow for pro-life women, and leaves feminists in a hopeless mess over issues such as sex work or freedom of sexual expression.

  4. You might like Camille Paglia’s take on feminism.

  5. Matthew says:

    The problem with ALL these baby boomer ideologies is they have quickly become a concrete static metaphysics without calling it a concrete static metaphysics. Wheather a feminist ideology, a gay ideology, or whatever they in and of themselves are about identity as an agency of power. So like you said people now press the “like” button without even thinking what is said. And no rigger of analysis is even necessary.

    Oddly ALL of this was born from radical individualism, which then became radical conformism, which then results in radical isolationism. I say this because the “danger” you speak of is Nietzche’s “herd mentality” with a twist. A herd of people pressing a “like” button alone.

  6. Dean Esmay says:

    It’s hard not to note that underlying her work, and the work of a lot of her generation, was not just based on a dislike of men, but an intense dislike of women. In their radicalism they wanted to make us rethink many things, which I think we can count as a positive, but the result of much of what they did and said… well, it wasn’t completely without good, but then, the Communist revolution against Tsarist Russia wasn’t completely without its good side either. It’s hard for me to feel much angst at this generation of feminism’s passing, and I agree they have much to answer for, but I admit to feeling sorry for someone who dies alone and miserable due to a flawed, miserable ideology.

  7. Clarence says:

    The hatred of reproduction (post-reproductive age? WTH is that? If not enough baby humans are born *whether by artificial means or natural* the society or population eventually goes extinct. Last I heard we haven’t invented technologies that enable current humans to live forever, and even then there’d be accidents and murder) evinced by many Second Wave feminists was one of the reasons Second Wave feminism ultimately failed to become anything but a hate movement after its rather few egalitarian goals were largely reached. When you can’t conceptualize your desires ( or at least a majority of other womens) for children as anything but gender essentialist oppression, one is left with a rather cold, bereft world that places tremendous strains on ones friendships and psyche.

    And as for “gender essentialism” (which I will strictly use to mean your personal sexual orientation for the sake of this argument) I would argue it is, indeed, unchanging, Bisexuality itself being an orientation.

    People whose ideologies lead them to deny:
    A. People’s sexual preferences are not infinitely adjustable
    B. Arguably a majority of straight people would eventually like to have children or a child

    risk doing tremendous harm to themselves and others should they ever be in position to impose their way on society.

  8. paul says:

    Hi Clarence, I agree with your point B and your general idea regarding the desire for children needing to be genuinely positive. This is the reason I struggle with Lee Edelman’s recent work so much, his fight against the very notion of futurity. Some of his thought I understand and agree with there–devolving so very much onto “the Children” as we do–but then it starts going off the wall, it seems to me (though very possible I don’t understand him well enough).

    Regarding your point A though, I can’t agree. I see our current sexual taxonomies as self-fulfilling, tautological. We reduce everything that is “sexuality,” “desire,” “love,” all those dimensions–which do also, very much, contain the additional dimension of time, as change, development, growth are inescapably present–all the way down to a point. Not even two dimensions, but a point!–one set of genitals, or the other. And then we ask people: give me one or the other of those points, or say both. And having given people three choices: lo and behold, people choose one of those three choices! But there is soooo much more to it than this. And that is where a little cultural humility might go a long way…

  9. Clarence says:

    You are not arguing with me, but with a misunderstanding of my argument.
    My argument is that individual sexual desires are largely, if not entirely NOT cultural. Now how we choose to conceptionalize those desires, as well as deal with individuals with various desires IS cultural, along with how we choose to deal with people who present as opposite gender or have hermaphroditic anatomy, etc.

    My argument is that someone who likes cis boys and cis girls will always like cis boys and cis girls, barring some sort of hormonal or otherwise drug based intervention. Someone only interested in other boys – assuming they have cultural “permission” to be attracted to either or both or none – will always be interested in boys. Culture can constrain choice by closing out exploration, but culture cannot dictate what the result of that exploration will be.

    • paul says:

      Hi Clarence–in haste for now, but:

      Several things are being conflated here. Firstly, you use the phrase “desires,” “someone liking,” someone “interested in,” and my first point is that these words are actually quite vague and have a multitude of meanings. Two people saying “I like this” or “I am interested in this,” or even “I have sexual desire for this” are simply not making singular kinds of statements. These kinds of phrases are not quantifiable, equatable, or often–when we really go beneath the surface–terribly pindownable. I “like,” “am interested in,” and “desire” all kinds of things, in all kinds of ways. We as a culture just happen to be fantastically hung up on sex and on gender, and we both highlight what we wish to highlight (are obsessed with) as well as hide or pass over or euphemize what we don’t want to delve into terribly much. So we reduce it all down to one set of genitals or another, leaving out 90% of what sexuality … *is,” is all about.

      Secondly, to take merely one example: as far as we can tell at present, in ancient Greece, men really and truly were turned on by young men and women both. There were endless debates about which love was the best, the most spiritual etc, as well as which sex was the most beautiful. We have become, as a culture, very scientistic, meaning we don’t trust commonsense, intuition, basic reasoning, but rather we have to find a way to reduce everything down to the measurable–but many, many things simply aren’t measurable. The so-called “science” on sexuality, if one takes the time to go through it, is I would say utterly awful, appalling (a good starter on this is the book Brainstorm, by Rebecca Jordan-Young, recently published. She spent over a decade meticulously going through every major publication in what she calls “brain organization studies” since the late 50s.

      Finally, I don’t disagree with you when you say that someone who “is interested in boys” “will always be interested in boys.” Well, not always *always*, but very largely. But to me that’s like saying that someone who likes the sun will always like the sun. Once we have seen, clicked with, the beauty and desirability of ourselves as human beings, how is that gonna go away? *This* is the reason why attempting to “cure” people of same-sex feeling is idiotic apart from, well, kind of evil. What I would say is: sexuality doesn’t tend to contract, true, but it absolutely can and does shift and develop, and expand.

  10. Papi50 says:

    As always, QRG, I love reading your posts, and have particularly enjoyed this exchange. Susie Bright has a remarkably touching defense of Andrea Dworkin in one of her Best American Erotica volumes from a few years back. Her central idea was, and I know how loaded this is, that a lot of American feminists started thinking about pornography because of her work.

    Her defense made me imagine that we always think our new thoughts like cracks in a mirror, in a thousand directions at once, but always on one surface. I remember being in my 30s when Dworkin spoke at Berkeley, and having to “be” the rapist in all my graduate classes for months afterward. Right now, I’m confused and disheartened by my female students campaigning for Romney and Ryan, mostly because of what’s happening to women’s reproductive rights in my country. I’ll admit it is hard for me to imagine any woman who would support that ticket, no matter how committed to life/personhood or any of the ideologies embedded in it. New thoughts always jolt us, and require a certain violence of mind that will always pull us out of the pieties guiding whatever we’re trying to think at the moment. I’m sure that’s why you’re such a troublemaker yourself.

    • QRG says:

      Thanks for stopping by Papi!

      well I wont give dworkin credit for my interest in porn. I’d put that down to my own sexuality and desire as expressed in and understood through culture.

      I don’t envy you having been cast as ‘the rapist’ at college. But then I think I have been cast in that discursive role too so I can probably get what it may be like.

  11. Cudobhair says:

    @Nico: ” institutionalized reproductive essentialism” Incredibly succinct. Doesn’t roll off the tongue (or a hand painted banner) as well as “patriarchy” but it’s damn well more accurate.

    @QRG: Dying? I think not. There’s a few feminists I’d identify as being 3rd wave, which I’ll broadly define as being “in any way different to the 2nd wave.” But the vast majority of them seem to be committed to some utopia-founding revolution that never quite seems to happen.

  12. […] that a lot of contemporary feminists spout a kind souped-up retro  mumsy cupcake version of  70s feminism. It is another that an actual relic of that era has come back to haunt […]

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