As soon as I read Susan Faludi’s essay American Electra: Feminism’s Ritual Matricide (Harpers Oct 2010) I felt a little uncomfortable bunching in my undergarments. Faludi tells a lamentable tale concerning the history of the feminist movement where every succeeding generation denounces those that went before. Her premise is that there have been three significant “waves” of feminist activity and thought: the First Wave who were truly hardcore and suffered incarceration, force-feeding and widespread derision to win the vote for women: the Second Wave who emerged in the ‘60s and ‘70s and worked to establish sexual equality, sexual liberation and rights for women and children: finally the Third Wave who have championed gender issues and delved into race, gender and pop culture studies and scandalized their predessessors by proclaiming Lady Gaga as the future of feminism.
Faludi believes that the First Wave were abandoned by their daughters, who instead of rallying to the cause, sold out to consumerist society which enticed them with the dazzling role of the flapper. Flappers were regaled for their modernity: they smoked and drank with the boys, danced all night and threw their bobbed heads back and laughed callously at their old-fashioned mothers. Images of flappers sold products and endorsed a new carefree identity for women, in turn this generation were sold the accoutrements of modern womanhood: scientific methods of housekeeping, childbirth and child-rearing.
When the Second Wave of feminists emerged nearly fifty years later, they were heaving with contempt for their mothers (those sold-out flappers) whom the considered the dupes of capitalism. As feminist Elaine Showater wrote, “ Hating one’s mother was the enlightenment of the ‘50s and ‘60s”. Second wavers made a huge impact, pushing through legislation and setting the high benchmark for women to work, raise families and be political activists.
In the ’80s the Third Wave emerged, they were not enamored of the activism of the Second Wave, they’ve focused on gender issues, and the subtle interplay of race, sex and popular culture. Despite being criticized by Second wavers for their frivolous taste in footwear and lipstick and their slender political aims the Thirds established themselves in academia. With high-profile proponents like Rebecca Walker who published a memoir about her unhappiness growing up within the feminist movement (her mother is Alice Walker and her godmother Gloria Steinem) this most contemporary wave have conformed to Faludi’s matricidal type, which is to say that they have risen up in opposition to the feminists before them.
Faludi’s conclusion is glum, Feminist Studies is fading away in colleges as the Third Wave academics wobble in stilettos down the corridor to the Dept of Pop Culture Studies. While N.O.W. ( National Organization of Women) is deeply divided and at a low political ebb.
Frankly , it was all news to me and I had to get into some serious reading and contemplation before I could figure out what I thought about the twisted knickers of feminist theory.
In many ways the essay incensed me, Faludi clearly prefers the Seconds and paints a callow portrait of the Thirds, alluding to their excesses (masturbating to gang rape stories) and bizarre intellectualism ( yes USC’s Prof. Judith “Jack” Halsrom did seriously refer to Lady Gaga as the future of feminism).
I had my own little axe to grind: not against the First Wave who I had grown up admiring and secretly wondering, had I been alive then, would I have been brave enough or motivated enough to be a suffragette myself ? It was Second Wave that I felt let down by on a personal level: coming of age in the ‘80s we interpreted the intellectual underpinnings of the sexual revolution prosaically. The societal value of virginity had vaporized and instead there was access to contraception and only social death or Catholicism as an option to bedding one’s male associates. Of course one could always say no but we generally didn’t, we wanted to be modern and liberated and it just seemed that sex, not necessarily casual but definitely unmarried, defined the condition. This kind of behavior made our mothers angry and really concerned for our safety. Our advance out of the patriarchal marriage mechanism had us fortified with hormones against conception and cut off from our mothers’ confidence and wisdom. Sexual liberation for me wasn’t like some enlightened orgy, it was a sometimes pleasant sometimes grueling commitment. It was my friend Jen who spoke up for the achievements of the liberating ladies of the Second Wave late one night as we stood outside a techno club in the Tenderloin. I moaned about my idea that we’d been blind-sided by the gift of sexual freedom and Jen cautioned me that my feelings were the necessary birth pains of the sexual liberation that we had frontlined — subsequent generations had been freed by the speed of social change which soon forgot about the prohibitions of premarital sex and instead worked on a new competence in sexual relations for all to enjoy. Still the proliferation of amateur pole-dancing classes and the mainstream malnourished slut-image loomed darkly in my subconscious — but point taken, we are evolving.
Now I see the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s was like the psychedelic revolution of the same time: brilliant pearls were thrown out to us, we saw their desirability but we didn’t know how to best deploy: Terence McKenna regretted the lack of shamanic direction in relation to the psychedelic experience and similarly neophytes of the sexual revolution lacked a framework for experience.
We, meaning men and women, are unavoidably on our cultural voyage together into our cyborgian future. Though we all profess to the ideals of feminism, in reality we are still working towards equality. A quote from Third Wavers, Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards’ book ManifestA kept coming back to me:
“The presence of feminism our lives is taken for granted. For our generation feminism is like fluoride. We scarcely notice we have it- its simply in the water.”
Like it or not I had to agree, I had not kept up with feminist discourse because it hadn’t engaged me. I consider myself a feminist and I express that as a staunch proponent of the partnership ideal in practice. Riane Eisler first coined the term ‘dominator society’ in her book The Chalice and the Blade to describe the patriarchal systems which had replaced the egalitarian partnership-based culture of the Neolithic age. In The Real Wealth of Nations (Berrett-Koehler 2009) Eisler proposed that sexual equality is the essential key to human development and uses the last hundred years of Swedish history to demonstrate how a society improves when men and women share power: as women become part of the decision-making process, men feel more supported and have less desire to dominate.
I believe that Simone De Beauvoir’s theory of social inequality which stems from women being considered as “Other” to be the basis for all inequalities expressed in society still holds today. It worried me that Faludi had dispensed with the mother-loving feminist contingent in a brief paragraph. The Goddess inspired ideological thread which communicates the ancient wisdom of womankind has a hard time getting credence anywhere: in our time motherhood seems a strange quixotic condition: a woman is neither applauded for being a skillful full-time homemaker nor admired for having nannies to raise her children while she works a full-time job.
I’ve been a mother for nearly eighteen years now and I’ve invariably endeavored to be my kids’ primary caregiver and earn money to help support the family. This is not the road for those who seek status in our society, it is the path for those without substantial resources who want to be actively involved with raising their families. I’ve learned more about humility and multi-tasking by becoming a mother than I ever imagined possible.
This brings me finally to my Queen Eileen, a woman I’ve known for ten years. I don’t know if it was the kids she looks after at a school after-care facility who first called her Queen or their grateful parents who value her calm capable vibe and loving care of their offspring. I know Eileen has inspired me with her down-to-earth attitude and prodigious know-how, I’ve tried to emulate her supportive good-humored approach to life and be the nonjudgmental friend to others that she has been to me. Twelve weeks ago Eileen’s eldest son Sam died in a tragic accident. The family is devastated, everybody who knows this family is devastated. Ten weeks ago the family held a memorial service, there were easily five hundred friends present and none of us could do much except weep. We cried when Sam’s dance teacher and his girlfriend danced, we cried as music was played and we cried as we sang. Then Eileen took the floor, she told us stories of Sam, a funny adorable child, an opinionated youth, her stories grew, each anecdote delicious, we were spell-bound, we laughed though our tears. She told us how much she loved her boy and how hard it was for her and her family to let him go. They needed our help in this letting-go and she asked us to make the biggest noise we could to send her boy the message to be free. Stockhausen would have been proud of us, our cacophonous paean bloomed and soared, melodies that will never be made again rose up through the ceiling to the sky and beyond.
I saw one small woman in her most desolate moment unite us all and start the healing process, the reconciliation of the great mystery of life and death.
To my mind the feminist ideals of equality are not like waves, they are a wellspring. Against the current of the mainstream Israeli women sneak their Palestinian sisters over the border to the beach, Egyptian women are out protesting for freedom alongside their menfolk, my seventy-year old mum takes care of business as my dad recovers from surgery, busy moms and dads juggle many tasks like they’ve been trained at Circe du Soleil.
The fabulous feminists of the past have made a conduit for us and we keep flowing. We, ordinary folk; women and men, sometimes cross-dressing, sometimes changing gender, keep flowing towards equality, not just in books and through college curriculums but in our everyday actions and intentions.