The (Feminist) Times, They Are A-Changin'

Courtney E. Martin has called for an end to the idea that there is but One Feminist Movement, and one way to be a feminist, and one small set of feminist issues. Thank goodness.

She says:

[Some second wave feminists] spoke longingly about the exuberant past, characterized by abundant energy and "sisterhood." They lamented that no locatable movement exists anymore, that no one is organized, that no one is out in the streets. At one point, Broner even admitted, "I interpret everything through that time."

Oh, wait, I think both Courtney and I have heard this before, from one Debra Dickerson. Apparently, it's not just Debra who wonders where all the angry, yelling feminists who got things done have gone. Courtney has an answer, though.

We march in the streets when we're called to (the March for Women's Lives in 2004, Take Back the Night each year on most college campuses) but more as a matter of solidarity and fun than out of any real conviction that protesting still creates change. Many of us, myself included, believe that change is created through strategic communication, alliance-building, and a million little grass-roots movements all over the country that fight for justice and may or may not call themselves feminist (I don't actually care much).

You mean, you can be for women's rights without calling yourself a feminist, because labels don't matter? You can effect change without a march — or not effect any change with a march?

Courtney understands why the second wavers wants to Good Old Days back again.

Members of the second-wave generation developed their feminist identity during the heyday of direct action. They had ecstatic, very physical experiences of feminism. They went to meetings — so, so many meetings. They pounded the pavement. They participated in direct-action spectacles like taking over the offices of The Ladies Home Journal. They yelled until their vocal chords were raw.

In other words, feminism was almost their religion — it was a shared experience, a group experience based in a shared ideology — and they miss it. Which is all well and good, but it misses the point that feminism doesn't have to be a group experience, or even a coherent ideology on which everyone agrees (radical thought: internal debate can be good for a cause!).

In other words, we don't have a leader because it's hard to even pin down who "we" are. Leaders are useful for galvanizing movements, but they also rise to fame at a critical cost. Young feminists should count ourselves lucky that we don't have one face representing our generation — which would mean one race, one socioeconomic class, one ideological bent. Nothing could be less representative, actually.

One of the major criticisms of second wave feminism — and one of the most painful, I think, for feminists young and old — was that women of color didn't feel represented by the feminist movement for a very long time (and some still don't). They wondered what was so important about abortion rights when women of color were being derided as "welfare queens" for keeping their children, for instance, or why the gender pay gap mattered more than the larger racial pay gap. Maybe, as Debra Dickerson basically said in her piece, there are women who only have enough in them to fight for social justice for the groups with which they self-identify — but many of us can support LGBT rights without being L, G, B or T, or the struggle of women of color while being practically colorless because we believe that it is all one struggle for social justice in which we are engaged. And maybe The Women's Movement cannot encompass all those things at once with one leader, but it might be able to do so, as Courtney suggests, with many leaders, and many people simultaneously doing the work.

Instead of pining over days far gone or talking about how we might resurrect them, we could put our energy into supporting the good work on the ground going on right now — the Young Women's Empowerment Project in Chicago, the Student Action with Farmworkers in Durham, Exhale after-abortion counseling in Oakland, Domestic Workers United in New York, and more. We could revise our expectations — not a few giant fireworks but so many little sparks; not worldwide protests but effective public-awareness campaigns and advocacy and service provision; not a unified body but a courageous and creative culture.

The End of the Women's Movement [The American Prospect]

Earlier: Blogger Annoyed By Drunk, Pole-Dancing, Workaholic Women Writers
Update: Blogger Now Annoyed By Drunk, Pole-Dancing, Arrogant Feminists Under 30