The third wave and riot grrrl may be inspiring, but risk ignoring feminist history and swapping radical action for gigs and zines. In a fiery essay, Red Chidgey poses some difficult questions
The Seven Demands of the Women’s Liberation Movement
The women’s liberation movement asserts the right of every women to a self-defined sexuality and demands:
Equal education and job opportunities
Free contraception and abortion on demand
Free 24-hour nurseries, under community control
Legal and financial independence
An end to discrimination against lesbians
Freedom from intimidation by the threat or use of violence or sexual coercion, regardless of marital status. And end to the laws, assumptions and institutions that perpetuate male dominance and men’s aggression towards women.
The British Women’s Liberation Movement started with history. Or maybe it started with the sound of men’s laughter.
We are still feeling the effects of what it turned into: its call, its promise and its failures. Yet we don’t know our feminist history. That’s the paradox of the third wave feminist movement.
Let’s back track. It’s 1968. Sheila Rowbotham, a longhaired, mini-skirted, history student at Oxford, is attending a workshop organised by Marxist historian Raphael Samuel. The content is male-driven as usual, with trade union men arguing that women should stay at home, not work. Sheila states the need for women to earn an independent wage. The men laugh. Sheila jumps up and announces a meeting for those interested in considering women’s lives and histories. The men laugh. The first National Women’s Liberation Conference is conceived right there to the sound of male laughter. At Ruskin College, February 1970, a swell of women turn up and some graffiti “WOMEN IN LABOUR KEEP CAPITALISM IN POWER, DOWN WITH PENILE SERVITUDE” on the campus walls (and some women get mad at that).
Eight years of national women’s liberation conferences and thousands of alternative feminist media projects provide the oxygen and the adrenalin of a new movement. A spectrum of feminist projects, protests and identities circulate.
The second wave didn’t start with the first national women’s liberation conference. There were strikes, free universities, radical childcare groups, reading groups, and New Left groups, with women organising as women and for women. Feminism came out of a feed culture of social unrest, collective struggle, a belief in the possibility of social change.
In the 1970 best seller The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer announced: “This is the second wave.”
Dale Spender replied across the decades with her 1983 book, There’s Always Been a Women’s Movement this Century.
So, what is this third wave of feminism?
The third wave responds to the opinion that feminism is dead and buried. That women no longer care, no longer recognise oppression, no longer feel the affiliate bond of urgent politicisation with their sisters. It is a response to the different set of social orders we live in under late capitalism, and an almighty challenge to gender binaries to make sure feminism includes transgender and intersex people too.
Yet the women’s liberation movement, the second wave, has become a caricature of fashion sense, censure, prejudice and in-fighting in the imagination of both young feminists and the general public.
Whenever dominant narratives surface – such as it wasn’t until the 1980s when women of colour joined the movement and voiced their critiques – one should remain slightly sceptical. This is where knowing your feminist history comes in: you are not bound to repeat the mistakes nor the inventions of the past. And you are not so likely to be seduced by capitalism’s sentiment of what is truly revolutionary.
It is not revolutionary to make ‘feminism cool again’ (riot grrrl). To give the movement an ‘image make-over’ or ‘re-branding’ (Fawcett Society). To assert personal truth and only personal truth, without an understanding of how that is framed structurally and economically. It is not revolutionary to change your lifestyle, or your buying habits, or the people you date, solely.