Working as an archivist I often come across collection items that change the way I see the world around me. I had such an experience recently when processing a manuscript collection. As I sorted through the papers of a woman who had donated her papers to the library, an article title caught my eye, “Is Feminism Dead?”
Those who are interested in the Feminist movement will remember the Time magazine cover from 1998 that asked this question, featuring the images of four women across a stark black background: Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and…Ally McBeal. The lead article by Ginia Bellafante chastised the newest generation of women for falling down on the job, being frivolous, inactive ingrates generally focused more on their own glitzy appearance than anything substantive. Ally McBeal was presented as the embodiment of the young generation’s lack of mettle.
As one would imagine, the article generated quite a heated debate between the Second Wave Feminists, with their dedication to pushing up against the glass ceiling, achieving pay equity, and guaranteeing reproductive rights, and Third Wavers, interested in these and a wider, perhaps more disparate range of interests. The gist of the argument was that the “old guard” felt (and in some cases, still feels) the movement had been betrayed by the younger generation of women, and the “new guard” felt their predecessors had moved mountains, but had also represented only one image of women: white, middle-class, heterosexual.
Members of the newest wave see themselves as more inclusive, working on a global scale for issues that affect all genders and races—from poverty to the environment to marriage equality—and they argue that their levity and occasional proclivity for wearing lipstick and heels are healthy indicators of their own independence and the ground gained by their foremothers. They enjoy wearing lipstick specifically because they don’t have to.
But I digress. The article that originally caught my eye, “Is Feminism Dead?” wasn’t the Time article that started such a stir. It was an article from Harper’s magazine published in, wait for it…1935. Puts a new spin on things, doesn’t it?
For this reader, it brought to mind Socrates’ famous lament about the downfall of society through the degradation of youth, “Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders….”
In other words, “kids these days!” If even Socrates was heard to complain about the young, this intergenerational feminist debate is nothing new.
So what was our author, Genevieve Parkhurst, saying about the state of Feminism in 1935? She presented a summary of a women’s convention she had recently attended, and the glimpse it gave her of the state of women’s lives in various countries. Parkhurst analyzed how much ground had been lost through the disruptions and economic set-backs of World War I and the Great Depression, particularly in Germany, England and the United States. And some of her summaries will sound very familiar to modern ears:
…it looks very much as if they had fallen down on their job of being their sisters’ keepers
Had they been awake to the real issues at stake in the woman movement, or, being awake, if they could have come to some agreement on principles and procedure….they could have built a stronghold so impregnable that the prevailing injustices of to-day would have been as spray dashing against a rock. Instead of this, with slight exception, they lost sight of their basic need….Their leaders, for the most part, have been uninspiring and lacking in vision.
So what might one conclude from these parallels? Movements change as generations and their predominant discourses shift, and just as scientists and philosophers stand on the shoulders of giants, today’s Third Wave Feminists benefit from the work of their predecessors, while continuing to strive for issues they find pertinent to women. But even believers in the same cohort don’t always agree as to what agendas to pursue, or what tactics to utilize. As illustration of the variety of feminists that have gone before us, and those who are still here today, in three installments I’ll be focusing on the lives and works of feminists from each of the waves. So keep reading.