Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future.
Feminism has never had a single voice, strategy, or unifying tactic, but it has inspired people, and inspires them still, with the grand, radical notion that a baby should not have its future determined by its gender any more than by the weather.
That vision has motivated people to transform their society in dramatic ways (gaining women the right to vote or get an education) and in incremental, even symbolic, ways (like choosing your haircut or keeping your own last name).
Everyone, it seems, has her own definition of feminism. Here's mine: Feminism's not a group or a membership oath or an action plan. Like Marxism, it's a way of thinking: When you study power--who's got it and how it's used--you consider gender. Feminists taught us to look at power relations between people as well as between races or states; within families, as well as within worksites; in bed, in church, or in the movie studio, as well as on Capitol Hill.
The modern feminist movement has been a lightning rod. Organized reactionaries of the Pat Robertson ("feminists kill children ") school are quieter now than they once were, but in their place are media-friendly females who claim to oppose gender discrimination but aren't for equality, either. (I'm thinking of people like Linda Chavez, Ann Coulter, and Danielle Crittenden, who received lots of media attention for opposing the Violence Against Women Act, Anita Hill, and the Beijing Women's Conference.)
And within the women's movement, the debates have always been rollicking, though the media rarely covered them. Today, those debates rage on, as younger feminists continue to have bones to pick with their forebears.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux calls Manifesta "a powerful indictment from within the current state of feminism and a passionate call to arms." Authors Amy Richards and Jennifer Baumgardner met at Ms. magazine, where they worked alongside some of the luminaries of feminism's so-called Second Wave.
Savvy, conscientious, and ambitious, they represent, in many ways, exactly the bright, brash, and courageous heirs that the Steinem-era Second Wavers sought. But they're angry, too--if not at "feminism," then at a lot of feminists, particularly those who complain that young women "just don't get it."
Many young women do "get it," and Richards and Baumgardner know a lot of them.
In 1992, Richards helped to found Third Wave, a national activist organization for women between the ages of sixteen and thirty. Baumgardner is a freelance writer, mostly for women's magazines including Ms., Marie Claire, and Jane. (By the way, the authors do a great job of analyzing the so-called girl magazines and taking on that part of the "girls' movement" that is run by non-girls.)
As Richards and Baumgardner see it, the problem is that the Third Wave gets no respect. Influential media willfully misrepresent the nineties generation, while the right grooms young conservatives to drown the progressives out. Second Wave leaders, with a few named exceptions (like Steinem), fail to listen to the younger generation, don't read grrrl zines, refuse to check out young feminists' web sites, and don't seek their input.
"Young women have too few opportunities for leadership," they write. "Subconsciously or not, Second Wavers often deny that they could benefit from younger feminists' knowledge and experiences. Instead, they focus on little girls--sweet, young, and as unthreatening to the Second Wave way of doing things as possible--as a not so subtle way of avoiding and ignoring the generation of young-adult feminists."
The result, the authors say, is an enervated movement, peopled by exhausted elders, who are bitter because they failed to pass the ERA, make abortion accessible, fund child care, or get men to wash dishes. Meanwhile, a generation of potential recruits are turned off by their older sisters' actions and inactions and by their narrow, defensive judgments about what's "feminist" when it comes to politics, fashion, music, TV, work, and sex.
An antidote to the pinch of Manifesta is Ruth Rosen's The World Split Open. Want to introduce potential recruits to the movement's history? Assign this book. A refreshing change, it's about feminism written by a feminist who's in a very good mood.
One day in the early 1980s, Rosen, who teaches history at U.C.-Davis, had the impulse to ask her students what they knew about the contemporary women's movement. "Eyes glazed over," she recalls. "I could have been depressed by how little they knew. Instead, I felt a strange sense of elation. It wasn't just the enormity of all that women had challenged that seemed breathtaking. What stunned me was that the changes in women's lives had been so deep, so wide-ranging, so transformative. I realized that the women's movement could not be erased, that it had brought about changes that these young people now took for granted."
The World Split Open links the modern women's movement to the socialist as well as to the suffragist
movements of the first part of the last century, to the civil rights struggle, the anti-war movement, and the New Left.
Perhaps most startling is Rosen's chapter on the FBI's surveillance of feminists in the 1970s. Ignorant of women's history, earnest agents submitted absurd reports about the current activities of long dead suffragist Elizabeth "Katy" (Cady) Stanton and the nineteenth century abolitionists the "Grimshke sisters" (Grimke).
It shows you how much the chroniclers of the COINTELPRO era cared about the women's movement that the documents Rosen unearths have not been examined before. The FBI was convinced that feminists--especially those campaigning for wage equality--were threatening enough to monitor. Most of the contemporary left did not pay that much attention.
Rosen attempts to raise principles over personalities and discuss the political rifts that led to splits and provoked change within the women's movement. While she shies away from offering her judgment on those schisms, her historical perspective puts Manifesta in sharp relief.
In The World Split Open, we find feminist after feminist either complaining about "generational sectarianism" or practicing it. Meredith Tax, author and activist, describes the conflicts that developed within the National Organization for Women (NOW) almost as soon as the group was formed: "My friends and I thought of NOW as an organization for people our mother's age. NOW's demands and organizational style weren't radical enough for us... . We wanted a just society, not get a bigger slice of the pie. Besides, we were generational sectarians; we didn't trust anybody over thirty."
The difference between Tax's time and Manifesta's is that Tax articulates her criticism politically: She and NOW wanted different things. Manifesta talks a lot about representation-younger women want inclusion, want recognition, want to be heard--but in over 400 pages, it's not all that clear what the young women of the Third Wave want said, or want done, that's different from what the movement claims to advocate. Richards and Baumgardner don't critique feminism; they just want to be counted.
But their emphasis on inclusion can blur some important political lines. The authors call on their elders to relax and let more voices in. But they seem to disdain substantive political debate. They say we shouldn't get so upset about what Katie Roiphe or Andrea Dworkin says, but a tent broad enough to cover every corner ends up pretty weak all around.
Rosen, by contrast, is overly happy. The price of ending her account on an up-note is that the (albeit welcome) enthusiasm diminishes some very real failures--such as not securing the basic legal and economic protections that First Wave feminists set out to win. She thus ducks some very real questions about what could have been done differently. For example, while feminism has touched every part of contemporary life, material inequality still exists. Women are still concentrated in low-paying jobs, and violence against women remains epidemic.
As Richards and Baumgardner confirm, in many ways the personal has advanced far more than the political. But both Rosen and the Manifesta women shy away from suggesting that it's time for a shift in emphasis.
There's a movement out there--working to eradicate poverty and secure housing, health care, and education for families, fighting to protect communities from abusive working conditions, discriminatory courts, or brutal police. Rosen shows that it has always been there, feeding in from outside the beltway.
I saw shades of it this summer. Broadcasting daily from both the Republican and Democratic Party conventions, I got to cover the action in the streets and hear what people at home mostly missed, which was activists speaking in their own words about the new movement they're part of and the United States they want. For two full weeks, I watched new leaders fill the air with their laughter and their plans--and you know what? Just as in Seattle and the anti-IMF protests in D.C., what I mostly saw were women--especially young women, in an array of colors and styles.
A victory for feminism? I thought so.
Not because the official women's movement was leading the troops to the barricades. Patricia Ireland of NOW spoke from the overcrowded stage of the Unity2000 rally in Philadelphia and advised us all to "Keep Out of the Bushes." Eleanor Smeal of the Feminist Majority lobbied delegates in L.A. to stiffen Al Gore's spine in defense of Medicare, abortion rights, Social Security, and the women of Afghanistan.
But the official women's institutions weren't the story. They were invisible in the marches for livable wages, an end to sweatshops, police brutality, and so forth.
Women, however, were out there in front, and what used to be called "women's issues"--family poverty, health care, sweatshops, and the macho state--were the hot topics for everyone. This, I thought, was exciting. Feminism is permeating the action. That's not the same thing as a new women's movement arising. But it's great, all the same.
Does it matter that they weren't marching behind a "feminist banner"? Maybe. The force of an explicitly feminist movement could turn up the heat on legislators to go back and pass the ERA, fund abortion for poor women, and force RU-486 into the stores.
Today's activists seem to be practicing feminist principles in a defiantly festive way. Will they navigate the inevitable personality conflicts well enough to pursue their political goals? Who knows?
But avoiding generational sectarianism would help. The leaders of the Third Wave should agree, if for no other reason than there are high schoolers coming up behind them, chomping at their heels.
Laura Flanders, author of "Real Majority, Media Minority: The Cost of Sidelining Women in Reporting" (Common Courage, 1997), hosts a daily program on RadioForChange.com.