A couple of days ago, Twisty at I Blame the Patriarchy got my hopes up. She was about, she said, to “declare war on this whole pro-sex/anti-sex/3rd wave/2nd wave/mix-n-match feminism-fight theme that keeps me awake at night.” But then came a spider. And then she became engrossed with the imagination of sexuality outside of patriarchy, which is of course a very important question I don’t mean to trivialize but… my brain was stuck on this idea of declaring war on “wave” terminology. Because for a long time I’ve hated the whole “first wave/second wave/third wave” paradigm, because it is shorthand, because it is indicative of a dismissive mindset, and because it is just plain sucking the life out of us, and by us I mean women, all women, because that is who we are and should be about.
And I’m hereby calling for a ban on it, at least in this small corner of the feminist blogosphere.
Why? In short, I am bothered by any historical pronouncement on “feminism.” I object to the dominant reading of the movement we get in popular culture and (dare I say it) from many popular feminist blogs. And because I object to it, vociferously and often, I am frequently told I clearly think that the women’s movement pre, I don’t know, Rebecca Walker for example, was all a rainbow of skin colours and fluid sexuality and shared tampons – that I am deliberately obscuring the racism and classism and heterosexism and ableism that have plagued the movement.*
Ahem. I obviously don’t think any of that, because if I did, I would be a complete fucking idiot. And I have flaws aplenty, but complete fucking idiocy is one of them only six days out of seven, and I’d make this argument every day of the week and twice on Sundays.
No, the reason I get all up in keystrokes about internet critiques of feminism masquerading as “history” is not because I think that the women’s movement is or was flawless. It is because so much of what I see people talking about is secondhand. It is because the “wave” terminology has become self-serving for the people who use it. For example, the sex-positive banner is flown by a lot of self-described third-wavers as evidence that feminism does not mean the death of sex. But this effort at distinguishing themselves is more about their acceptance of the media image of feminists as big hairy sex-hating trolls than anything any actual feminist actually ever said or wrote or did. Similarly, intersectionality is often wielded by white third wavers as evidence of their superior enlightenment to prior “racist” iterations of the movement. But that tends to understate the contributions that women of colour like bell hooks, Audre Lorde and Angela Davis made to feminism – and let me tell you, these women were around long before you or I or Rebecca Walker’s self-anointment as a “third waver.” And it also ignores the ways this “new wave” continues to make the mistakes of its elders by refusing women of colour the space to speak for themselves.** And I have to say, lately I have been wondering if my own occasional sneer about “privileged white hetero women” is accepting the patriarchy’s narrative about women in that demographic – about me – without listening to how these women – how I – describe our oppression.
I’m no real fan of postmodern academic feminists like Judith Butler, but one thing they are right about is about how much good stuff in the world gets “dismissed under totalizing signs of the same.” In other words, it’s so easy to label and sweep aside, and so hard to actually grapple with complexity. It’s easy to attribute whole systems of belief to women who were, after all, human beings, with human strengths and human failings, who made mistakes and sometimes learned from them and sometimes didn’t, who thought different things on Friday than they did on Monday (but only the first half of the week made it to print). It’s easy to “know” you would have done things differently. It’s easy to feel like there are obvious solutions to these questions, that you have everything figured out. It’s easy to see a picture of Dworkin, or to hear a teacher you respect denounce MacKinnon, or read one ineptly worded editorial by Steinem, and feel like you know everything about them.
But I can’t help but feel it’s inherently antifeminist – yes, antifeminist, I said it – to take the easy path here. As in the old sawhorse, feminism is the radical notion that women are people. I don’t see how we can discuss these predecessors of ours in anything but highly qualified terms because they are and were people too. That makes for difficult internet discussions, I know. But I think it will get us better places. I, for one, am tired of fighting the fight that patriarchy deniers want us to fight. We have been letting them frame the issue for thirty years now, and I, for one, am exhausted by it. We are better than this. We are more empathetic than they say we are. We are far more distracted from the actual issues facing actual women than their epithet “single-minded” suggests.
In short, when I step into the feminist blogosphere these days, I don’t want to fight about the half-truths patriarchy-deniers tell us about ourselves. I want to fight them. And to fight them properly yes we are going to have to talk intersectionality, and we are going to have to talk sex, and we are going to have to be honest about how we exclude without thinking about it, how we become bigots who consider no harm done where none was intended. But we need to start doing things differently, everybody. We need to shrug off the terms that have become so bloated with implication that they are no longer analytically useful when it comes to finding patriarchy and girlstomping it into oblivion. We need to stop criticizing women we never read carefully in the first place.
As MacKinnon says, it’s okay to refuse to commit suicide before we are murdered.
And that’s all I have to wave about that.
* Diagnoses like this from people who have clearly been online-stalking me are why I am trying to refrain from doing much commenting anymore.
** Yesterday I saw the crap discussion that ensued once Renee at Womanist Musings dared to observe that it is, in fact, disgraceful that there is only one blog written by a woman of colour on a list of the 30 most-linked-to feminist blogs. Highlights include “any women’s studies program that I know of does NO SUCH THING as you claim.” (Because feminism is only about women’s studies programs, one supposes.) Hilariously, the people making these odd comments are just what I might be tempted to call third-wavers! They are all about intersectionality! Just not when it threatens their chances at tenure!