It's Time For No-Wave Feminism

If we want to get anywhere, feminists need to quit fighting about waves, generations, and other nonsense. Luckily, we've already started.

Like many other bloggers, I was psyched to read Susan Faludi's cover story for Harper's Magazine about the state of American feminism — not least because any day feminism gets a cover story in a major magazine is a good day for me. And I was intrigued by Faludi's historical analysis of early feminist movements and their discontents. But — like many feminists my age — I was upset that Faludi seemed to cast modern feminism as trapped in a morass of conflict between older and younger generations, with younger women bearing a disproportionate amount of the blame. She quotes New School anthropology grad student Chelsea Estep-Armstrong: "If we could only make a clean break with the past — create a new wave, a new school, a new theory — we could shed the weight of history." Faludi's response, and her assessment of feminism today:

But to what end? To create a tabula rasa, where the past is no longer usable and one can become or unbecome anything? Where everything is relative, indeterminate, and a "choice" as valid as any other choice? In other words, the weightless, ahistorical realm of the commercial, a realm that promises its inhabitants a perpetual nursery where no one has to grow up. The nineteenth-century feminist dream of "the empire of the mother," which gave way first to the hope that "sisterhood is powerful" and then to the hokum of "girl power," now faces displacement from an even more infantile transgressiveness ("the brave new world of Gaga girliness"?), a cosmetic revolt that has less in common with feminism than with 1920s flapperism. It posits a world where pseudo-rebellions are mounted but never won nor desired to be won, where "liberation" begins and ends with wordplay and pop-culture pastiche and fishnet stockings, and where all needs can be met by the bountiful commercial breast, the marketplace's simulacrum of the mother.

Ouch. On the one hand, I sympathize with Faludi's frustration at feminist infighting, especially her story of the feminist studies professor ousted after students complained that she taught "dated" material. I've been criticized for getting my feminism from "Women's Studies 101" (I never took a women's studies class) or from a Seven Sisters school (I didn't attend one, though I've dated guys who did) — being a "younger feminist" is actually no protection against being called (sometimes rightly) out of touch. And as someone who started writing about feminism on a personal blog that no one read, then moved to a site that has grown a lot over the past few years, I've learned that becoming part of a public conversation on something as controversial as feminism basically guarantees a periodic soul-strafing. On bad days, it's easy to feel like the minute you really get a voice is the minute you start getting shouted down.

But I had a hard time identifying with the young feminists in Faludi's piece who supposedly hate their feminist foremothers (though not, Faludi admits in an aside, their "personal mothers") and are obsessed with commercialism (Faludi cites a "contemporary 'feminist' urge toward shopping and retail culture"). Many feminists of my generation didn't recognize themselves in Faludi's piece either, and they've said so. But interestingly, they've said it without much of the back-biting or mother-hating Faludi attributes to them. Amanda Marcotte, for instance, points out that most movements experience general conflict, neatly refuting the common stereotype that women are uniquely crappy at supporting each other. And she writes,

In my experience, dialogue is perfectly possible in situations where [...] self-interest is removed from the equation. I talk to women older than myself all the time, and I feel like everyone has a good time and learns from it. I see a lot of young feminists who work cheerfully under the leadership of older women, and I see many older women who aren't about to let the times pass them by. There's more of this going on than you'd think.

Courtney Martin, the source of Faludi's dig about "fishnet stockings" — she once mentioned being inspired by a young feminist wearing fishnets — does directly rebut some of Faludi's criticisms. But she also offers a refreshing look at feminism today that has nothing to do with infighting:

Faludi searches for the center of feminist struggle at academic conferences and organizational elections. Of course the field of Women's Studies is critical, and institutional feminism has brought all sorts of stability to the movement, but if you want to find feminism-in-action, you need to go where some of the most dynamic work is–environmental justice meetings where young leaders are talking about the disproportionate effects of climate change on women of color, safe houses for former sex workers where young women are helping one another get out of "the life," veterans who are bonding together to fight back against military sexual assault etc. There are young, feminist-identified women doing community and political work every single day, aware of their legacy and confident about their future.

In responding to a piece that's essentially about squabbling, it was savvy for these writers not to take the bait. But there's more than media smarts at work here. We actually can have a productive conversation if we respond to internal criticism openly, honestly, and rigorously, but without vitriol. The personal may be the political, but taking shit personally often gets you politically nowhere, and there's no worse way to answer a critique than to construe it as an attack. Sure, Martin and especially Marcotte get critical right back, but they don't get nasty, and they never call Faludi a Bad Feminist or accuse her of kicking them out of the club.

This is not to say that young feminists are always reasonable, that I've never been nasty to one of my critics, or that Faludi's the bad guy (lady?) here. Rather, I'd like to champion a particular way of talking about feminist issues, one that's less about what kind of feminist you are (Good, Bad, young, old, second-wave, third-wave, post-) and more about how you see yourself, how you see society, and how you can find common ground with others. I disagree with Estep-Armstrong that we need "a new wave, a new school, a new theory" — I think we need a No Wave feminism, one that understands and respects that people and movements are complicated, that we're all going to have different beliefs, and that we can talk about these and even disagree without having an enormous schism. This will take trust, and calm, and a thick skin — the best way to have a productive debate is not to get pissed off in the first place, a lesson I'm still learning. Most of all, it will take an understanding that feminism isn't one ideology or platform or women's studies curriculum — as Martin points out, it's something that millions of women are doing, every single day.

American Electra: Feminism's Ritual Matricide [Harper's Magazine, Excerpt Only]
Electras Talk Back: Responses To Susan Faludi's Harper's Piece [Feministing]
I Expect To Be Writing This Same Post When People Are Discussing The 16th Wave [Pandagon]