women, feminism and the future
An obituary for feminism?
By Steven Martinovich
Those who are not fans of feminism might be tempted to take Manifesta: Young women, feminism and the future as validation of the belief that anytime you have to write a book to prove that a movement isn't dead, you are essentially writing its obituary. Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards try to make it clear that they believe feminism is not only alive and well among young women - a group that often refuses to even call itself feminist - but that they share more with feminists of the 1960s and 70s then they might think.
It's easy to see why many think feminism is dead. Newsweek in 1990 famously declared feminism all but dead, repeated by Time in 1998. In a bid to disprove those and other obituaries for feminism, the authors survey the modern female empowerment scene - populated with symbols like the WNBA, Xena: Warrior Princess and Mia Hamm - and trace their genesis to luminaries like second wave feminist Gloria Steinem (first wave feminists worked for suffrage while third wavers are today's crop of feminists). In a sprawling book, they touch upon everything from underground magazines to Lilith Fair in their bid to prove that the feminist movement is as healthy as it ever was.
It is an ambitious effort but ultimately flawed. With a vitriolic earnestness, the book argues that the problems that women faced before the days of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique have the same genesis of the problems third wavers face today: a pattern of male dominance that causes everything from an uneven division of household chores to rape. To combat the patriarchy - which may be the book's favourite word - the two believe that women should become familiar with the history of the women's movement. Only by understanding the past will women avoid reinventing the wheel and begin moving forward with the main objectives of today's feminist movement.
In order to create that link they attempt to link up the second and third waves: mothers with their daughters essentially. Second wave feminists, who agitated for change during the 1960s and 70s, believe that today's women are more entranced with culture rather than the politics necessary to affect change. It's a belief that Baumgardner and Richards -- perhaps tellingly both are former editors at second wave institution Ms. Magazine with all that implies -- seem to share to some degree despite their promotion of contemporary female activists. Where the second wave had Steinem, Bella Abzug and Ms. Magazine, the third wave spends its time with Naomi Wolf, "girl power" and the Spice Girls. While today's women still believe in a positive and empowering philosophy, it seems only a mile wide and an inch thick. Be whom you want, the authors' message goes, but be politically conscious at the same time.
Despite that, Baumgardner and Richards believe that other aspects of feminist culture prove that the philosophy is alive and well, pointing to magazines like Jane and Sassy and the efforts of countless young women in attempting to radically restructure society. Women like Richards, a founder of the Third Wave Foundation, and Baumgardner, who dates her feminist awakening at a very early age and saw her at 15 raising money for her 16-year old sister's abortion.
They also raise an important point that critics of feminism would do well to remember. Like any movement, feminism is not monolithic. It is a divided force that sees disparate constituencies seek different goals. The major leaders of feminism today, women like Steinem, Patricia Ireland or Eleanor Smeal, are considered the spokeswomen for all women. Baumgardner and Richards validly point out that they may speak for many women, but not for all - including a large number of Generation X feminists.
Manifesta suffers from the double curse of being overwritten -- over 40 pages alone are devoted to decrying "girlie feminism" as a predominantly white phenomenon which sees the use of a woman's sexual power as a tool but carries little in the way of a political ideology -- and a pattern of making claims without sufficient proof, surprising for a book that weighs in at 416 pages. There is also plenty here to make people not on one side or the other uncomfortable, notions like motherhood being oppression because of socio-economic realities, that in an ideal world government should be responsible in picking up the tab for menstrual products and the Equal Rights Amendment should be passed immediately.
Whether Manifesta turns out to be one of feminism's obituaries - which have been running since the 1980s - remains to be seen. As a call for mothers and their daughters to unite and resolve intergenerational differences the book works well. As an argument that feminism isn't reeling from its own excesses and failures, Manifesta seems to validate the popular thought that maybe today's feminists aren't in the same league as their elders, spelling eventual doom for the movement. The personal may be political, as feminists say, but Ally McBeal is an argument that most women don't share the same rigorous attachment to gender politics that Baumgardner and Richards seem to.
Steve Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.
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