In the Guardian series on feminism a few months ago, Polly Toynbee wrote what I thought was a very interesting (though perhaps controversial) article about feminism in the Seventies. Entitling the article “The myth of women’s lib”, she wrote:
There is a dangerous mythology among young women of good intent who imagine there was once a glorious feminist moment, lost somewhere in the mists of time back in the early 70s. They look at [today’s society] then they sigh for an imaginary yesterday that never was. Where are the great feminist icons now? Where is that sisterhood of solidarity that once marched shoulder to shoulder? Who will raise the consciousness of today’s women?
This struck a chord. In a way, she could have been talking about me.
Whoop with delight as the Radicalesbians rush the stage
I love the 70s. A few months ago, BBC Four showed D.A. Pennebaker’s film of the infamous 1971 debate between Norman Mailor, Germaine Greer and other feminists in New York’s Town Hall. I was in my element – sat in front of the tv with a big grin on my face. Did you see it? Marvel at the young Germaine, riding high on her growing fame, all long hair, pendants and hippy skirts, looking stony-faced and sneering at Mailor’s claptrap as she surveyed the audience in front of her. Watch her take the crowd in the palm of her hand as she speaks, and listen to the audience applaud in delight. And look at the audience – the women with the thick thick eyeliner, flares, wide collars, a mixture of women and men crowding the hall just to hear this debate on feminism. Listen to the shouts, the heckling, the screams, the laughter, the outrage from the audience. And – oh my god – watch as Jill Johnston, lesbian writer, stands up to give her fabulous “stream of consciousness” rambling speech about lesbianism, dressed in patchwork dungarees (oh yes!). Watch her falter, smiling, as the crowd heckles and grows fidgety and uncomfortable, see Mailor try to shut her up, and then whoop with delight as two of her friends from the Radicalesbians rush the stage to perform a group snog-in in front of the outraged crowd before they disappear, still groping, behind the stage curtain.
Or did you see the BBC documentary about the Miss World protest in the 70s, shown a few months ago, Feminists and Flourbombs? It profiled the women who had gatecrashed the event in London and thrown flour bombs and flyers from the circle, shouting and screaming, and totally flumoxing the presenter, Bob Hope. Random half-heard shouts from the circle. Bits of paper fluttering down from above. The thump of the flour hitting the floor.
Or have you read Susan Brownmiller’s memoir, In Our Time? Vicariously experienced the passion, the excitement, the knowing that this was making history, that this really was something incredible happening? Now that was the time to be, surely?
No band has ever been as good as the Beatles – right?
We Gen X’ers always feel we’re in the shadow of what went before. In the same way that our parents (and society in general) always tell us that no band has never – ever, EVER – been as good as the Beatles, we are left with one heck of an anti-climax, a feeling of pointlessness. Well, (sigh, shrug) we missed it didn’t we. We were born after the event. Too late. Nothing can ever beat the time our parent’s generation grew up, we know that now. Nothing can ever beat it. The summer of love, the counterculture, the music, the student protests, the women’s liberation movement – it was all better, more passionate, more exciting, more new, more fresh, just all round better in the good old days. And of course, it goes without saying the summers were warmer, the sky was more blue, the air was more clean and people would smile at you as you walked down the street.
We’re left with a feeling of indescribable disappointment and frustration. That “I wish I lived in the 70s feeling”, as one reader of The F-Word put it. Or as Gaby Wood wrote in the Observer; “Many women of my generation feel they have missed the boat on the great political movements of the twentieth century.” Geethika Jayatilaka, at her talk at the Rebranding Feminism event in late 2001, called it “nostalgia for the glory days of the 60s and 70s…” She said: “we are constantly told that once upon a time feminism was radical, exciting, revolutionary and liberating; it inspired women to march, to protest, and the world stopped and took notice and we are asked – what has happened? What is wrong with young women today?”
And yes, as Polly suggests, a lot of the time we do look around ourselves and despair. Again and again the newspapers, the media ask over and over “why aren’t young women feminists?” or we’re told that feminism is dead. Dead, dead DEAD.
Depressing, depressing, depressing.
How on earth can we be expected to hold up in the face of all this negativity?
But back to Polly Toynbee. And this was the bit that really caught my attention.
They sigh for an imaginary yesterday that never was… The truth is, it wasn’t like that then either. There was no “movement.” There were some dazzling feminists stars… but there was no “movement”. There was precious little unity. There were, to be honest, precious few women involved at all.
If they can achieve so much… why can’t we?
Have you ever heard anyone speak like this about the second wave before? Have you? She may have been exaggerating somewhat, but the idea that actually, it didn’t necessarily feel like a glorious monolithic historical movement at the time, is pretty darn obvious but also provides me with an incredible shift in consciousness every time I think about it. If they felt alone, if they looked around them and felt despair, if they felt disparate and splintered TOO – then they felt exactly as we do. They didn’t feel like big media stars, they felt like ordinary women with different viewpoints and faults and arguments and fall-outs and blind-alleys and mistakes. They weren’t a special breed of woman, these people who changed the world. They were us. And if they can achieve so much… why can’t we?
I have a strong respect and awe for the women of the second wave, and I hope that no one thinks that by focussing this website on young women that it implies a certain disregard for them, a kind of dismissive “yeah I’m a feminist, but I’m not that type of feminist”. If you only knew me, you would realise this isn’t the case. But the thing is, the more we’re told that young women find feminism repulsive, the more we’re told that for our generation it’s dead, the more strongly I feel it is vital to focus on young women and to identify ourselves with our peers. Even if just to scream we do exist.
Second wavers often misunderstand young women’s enthusiasm for the term “Third Wave”. They think it’s because we don’t respect their achievements or want to disassociate ourselves from them. In actual fact I think it simply demonstrates a desire to feel part of a movement with relevance to our own lives and to claim it for ourselves, to stress that feminism is active today, right now. After all, why did the second wave call themselves the second wave – as opposed to thinking of themselves as part of the first wave? Because they wanted to claim feminism for themselves, presumably, to make it relevant to their generation. And even though the period of time between the so-called most recent “waves” has been shorter, a lot has changed between Gen X and the baby boomers, partly because of the achievements of 70s feminism. Having said that, feminism still has unfinished business.
Feminism hasn’t been standing around twiddling its thumbs
Whenever feminism is debated on the radio or elsewhere in the media, the question they are usually discussing is whether second wave (i.e. 70s) feminism is still needed and whether it needs to be active again today; whether it needs to be imported back into contemporary thought to fill a feminist-shaped gap. But this question is redundant. Feminism has already moved on. It is already active today. It hasn’t been standing around twiddling its thumbs since 1979. It’s evolved.
Geethika said in her talk: “The problem with nostalgia for the glory days of the 60s and 70s is that it blinds us to two important facts: that there are young women who call themselves feminists who are running organisations, setting up websites and organising action, and it also blinds us to the work that needs to be done to connect to those who in large numbers reject feminism but embrace wholeheartedly the equality agenda. And these issues are two sides of the same coin.”
I think there is something in that. The more you say young women aren’t feminists, the more it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. You can see this from some of the comments received about this website when they find out they’re not alone. “I was beginning to feel that there were no feminists alive today in Britain” … “I find it both inspiring and reassuring that British Feminism is alive and kicking, and far from dead and buried as many pundits would have the world believe.”
I often think that Gen X women are the most feminist generation of women and, paradoxically at the same time, the least feminist. The most feminist because we grew up with the ideas of feminism lodged deep within ourselves. Erica Jong wrote about the fact that the daughters of her generation don’t use the word feminist to describe themselves, but:
…note that our daughters nonetheless want everything that feminism stands for: equal pay, egalitarian marriages… Feminism is the whole climate of their lives, the air they breathe. It hardly needs a name anymore. This is good.
Does it really matter if women use the “f” word if they believe in everything is stands for? Just think of the potential of a generation of women bred on the ideas of feminism, whether they use the word or not.
I never remember encountering anyone who claimed to be a feminist all my life until recently and yet I still ended up with these ideas deep in my subconscious somehow. Women today expect more, they expect equality. They get surprised and confused when they find out that real life hasn’t caught up to our expectations.
Calling yourself a feminist is like calling yourself a flapper
But this generation is also the least feminist, or so we’re constantly told anyway. And in a way, this is true. But isn’t it inevitable that a movement so located at a certain period of time is bound to be a bit of a turn-off for the generation that comes immediately after? Calling yourself a feminist, to many young people today, is like calling yourself a hippie or a flapper. It’s something that had such an impact at time that it became totally connected to that time. Like a fad, an embarrassing stage we were going through, like glam-rock.
Added to this of course is the BacklashTM which we lived through and are still living through. The media has generally had a scizophrenic relationship to feminism: one moment supportive of the ideas, the next portraying feminists as crazy people. But feminists have lived through the backlash regularly – as documented by Susan Faludi in her book – and eventually survived and came back stronger and evolved. And this thing with the media is not new either. Someone once spoke about the ?the culture?s spongelike genius for either absorbing or merchandizing all dissent?. Who said that? Naomi Klein, Kalle Lasn, Adbusters? No, a bloke called Jack Newfield, in 1966.
People have been saying that feminism is dead since women came out of the caves. They’ve said it before and they’ll say it again. Don’t doubt it. It’s a repetitive cycle. We’re simply living through one of the dips.
Geethika is right. Society in general thinks it knows that young women aren’t feminists, but it obscures the incredible activity that’s going on today amongst the “third wave”. And incredibly, even people like Susan Brownmiller can’t see it.
Just this year, at a conference of 60s & 70s feminists in New York, she said: “I don’t hear strong, clear feminist voices today… I don’t see women coming up with new theories.” Well, hard cheese Naomi Wolf, Natasha Walter, Jennifer Baumgardner, Amy Richards, Rebecca Walker, Inga Muscio, Elizabeth Wurtzel, Lisa Jervis, Merri Lisa Johnson, Barbara Findlen, Marcelle Karp, Debbie Stoller, Kathleen Hanna, you and me, to name but a few – it just isn’t good enough.
Jennifer Friedlin, reporting from the conference, wrote:
Such comments failed to satisfy the smattering of younger women in the audience, who said the second wave of feminists has grown so preoccupied with its achievements that it’s become blind to the real efforts and strides being made by the third wave of feminist organizers. Speaking after the panel discussions, Jennifer Baumgardner, the 31-year-old activist and co-author of “Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future,” assailed the participants for what she described as their failure to see the vibrancy in the feminist movement today.
Germaine Greer also dismissed any activity since the 70s golden age in The Whole Woman, as Merri Lisa Johnson writes in her book Jane Sexes it Up:
Greer fails to distinguish between Spice Girls and Riot Grrrls, lumping all young sexy things together as she takes aim… Her intended audience is clearly not the generation of girls she castigates. She demotes my generation from wavedom – “The Second Wave of feminism, rather than having crashed on to the shore, is still far out to sea, slowly and inexorably gathering momentum.” – and I can live with that, being part of the second wave, but not as its frothy afterthought.
Polly Toynbee again:
The point about this short history lesson is that myths about the past get in the way of the future. That “great movement” of ours was a small, eccentric, fissiparous group of warring tribes… Feminism was never popular.
We should feel excited, hopeful, confident and powerful
Myths about the past get in the way of the future. Yes, I love the 70s, but what about now? Whatever happened to feminism, you ask? It’s happening right now. I can honestly say I feel a sense of excitement building as I talk to my peers and friends about the plans there are to take feminism forward. Can you feel it too? People are getting motivated, yes, even over here in the UK. Riot grrrl chapters are springing up all over the country. Ladyfests are ago-go. People are forming groups, alliances, networks. There’s definitely something in the air (dare I say it – movement)? Remember, women like Susan Brownmiller and Germaine Greer didn’t have a superior sense of the future, they just made it up as they went along and hoped for the best. We are those women. We can, and will, change things. The point of this article is that we should feel excited, hopeful, confident and powerful.
Susan Brownmiller again, from the introductory paragraph of In Our Time:
I was not there at the beginning. Few people were. And although I can speak with confidence of a beginning, of certain documented rebellions sparked by a handful of visionaries with stubborn courage, there were antecedents to those rebellions, and antecedents to the antecedents. This is how things happen in movements for social change, in revolutions. They start small and curiously, an unexpected flutter that is not without precedence, a barely observable ripple that heralds a return to the unfinished business of prior generations. If conditions are right, if the anger of enough people has reached the boiling point, the exploding passion can ignite a societal transformation. So it was with the Women’s Liberation Movement in the latter half of the twentieth century.
And so it will be in the twenty-first. You’d better believe it: in our time.
Catherine Redfern is 24 and is the editor of The F-Word. She lives in London, likes Babylon 5, second hand book shops, nice cups of tea, and reading on the bus on the way to work. She secretly wants to be a hippie, but could never actually bring herself to steal a book entitled “Steal This Book”.