Feminist “Waves” and the Question of “Post-Feminism”
By Elizabeth Gillis
Feminist scholars have traditionally identified three "waves" or periods in the history of the women's movement. The "first wave" refers to the period from roughly 1830 to 1920 which focused on the legal and social equality of women and culminated with the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920. The "second wave" which began in the 1960s not only addressed political and social equality, but questioned traditional assumptions about gender and sexuality. Finally a "third wave" emerged in the early 1990s that marked a rejection by some younger women of the feminism of their mothers. They also emphasized the intersectional nature of identity. One thing that characterized all waves is a lack of unity as feminism has never been a monolithic concept. Then in the early 1980s, social commentators began talking about a "post-feminist" generation. This term has been used not only to obscure the issues that still face women, but to create a generational divide among them.
Susan Douglas says that the term originated in 1982 in an article that appeared in the New York Times Magazine entitled "Voices from the Post Feminist Generation." She argues that the concept was "manufactured" by the media and the term "suggests that women have made plenty of progress because of feminism, but that feminism is now irrelevant and even undesirable because it has made millions of women unhappy, unfeminine, childless, lonely, and bitter" (Douglas 1).
Another of the famous "post-feminist" media characterization was probably the 1998 cover story of Time magazine which asked the question, "Is Feminism Dead?" The article argued that the success of popular culture icons like Ally McBeal, the Spice Girls and Bridget Jones signaled a change in direction for the women's movement, from an emphasis on social action and change to a "culture of celebrity and self obsession" (57). Young women seemed less concerned with issues of political and legal equality than with the celebration of sex and sexuality (58). The article cited a number of what were termed "post-feminist" books like Lisa Palac's The Edge of the Bed, which pointed out the liberating aspects of pornography and Elizabeth Wurtzel' Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women, which glorified the bitch. In addition, Katie Roiphe's The Morning After (1993) claimed that feminism's focus on issues of violence against women were "creating a culture of fear and hysteria" on university campuses (59). Ironically, while the article addressed the "death" of feminism, it also cited a recent Time poll that found that 50% of women ages 18-34 said that they "shared feminist values" (58). In 2000 Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards wrote Mainifesta, in which they responded to the idea of post-feminism. They argued that women could embrace "girlie" culture and still be feminist (xviii).
Today, when the media talks about post-feminism they are usually referring to the lack of political activism and apathy of the current generation of twenty-somethings. This attitude is reflected in a column by Maureen Dowd in which she criticized what she saw as the "1950's-ification and retrogression of women's lives" (2). Dowd noted the number of books on how to catch and keep a man, and the preoccupation with sex, beauty and romance. "What I don't like now is that young women are dressing alike, looking alike and thinking alike. The plumage is more colorful, the shapes more curvy, the look is more plastic, and the message is diametrically opposite - before it was don't be a sex object; now it's be a sex object" (7).
Much of this post-feminism is blamed on a generational divide (Jervis 57). Second wave feminists made sex and personal relationships into political issues, while today, young women are once again defining themselves in the contexts of relationships. Older feminist critiqued popular culture, while younger women "are obsessed with media representations" (Jervis 57). Second wave feminists fought for economic and political power, while younger women, see sex as the source of their power (Dowd 3). Lisa Jervis summed up the media stereotype of the post-feminist woman as a "sex obsessed young thang with a penchant for lip gloss and a disregard for recent history, [young women] who have moved beyond the dated concerns of their predecessors" (57). Jervis is critical of what she calls "the master narrative of feminist regression" and argues that this narrative keeps us distracted from the work that still needs to be done for equality (57).
In many ways, feminism can be seen as a victim of its own success. That is, many young women today take for granted the hard-fought-for gains of the women's movement. The term feminist itself is rife with negative associations of angry, strident women, who hate men. While many may reject the term because of its baggage, they still accept many of the propositions of feminism. As Jervis argues, "those in their 20s and 30s who don't see their concerns reflected in the feminism of their elders are ignorant of history" (58).
The term post-feminist is applicable to the extent that the values, concerns, and role models of this generation are different than those of both second and even third wave feminists. With that said, that does not necessarily mean that there is a widespread rejection of feminism by the younger generation. Feminist beliefs and feminist movements have never been linear or united. In fact, it is the internal divisions within feminism that have made it stronger. I agree with Jervis, that a focus on post-feminism hides what ties the generations together and the important issues like ending violence against women, creating economic equity and offering affordable child care that still remain to be secured.
There has never been one common idea or ideal of what constitutes "the" feminist movement. Today as always there is little unity or agreement on what feminism is. For every kind of feminism there are critics and supporters. In the end, however, whether they are older or members of the so-called "post-feminist" generation, women still want gender equality, opportunity and justice. We will probably never agree, however, on what exactly that looks like.
Baumgardner, Jennifer and Amy Richards. Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future. NY: Macmillan, 2000.
Bellafonte, Gina. "Who Put the Me in Feminism?" Time 151 29 June 1998: 54-60.
Douglas, Susan. "Manufacturing Post-Feminism." In These Times. 27 May 2002. 17 April 2009
Dowd, Maureen. "What's a Modern Girl to Do?" The New York Times. Sunday 30 October 2005 . 22 April 2009
Jervis, Lisa. "The End of Feminism's Third Wave." 22 April 2009.