Tomorrow’s Washington Post Book World includes a review of Professor Jennifer Scanlon’s new biography of Helen Gurley Brown, Bad Girls Go Everywhere. The reviewer is none other than Naomi Wolf, vanguard of Third Wave Feminism. I’ve occasionally had differences of opinion with Naomi Wolf, but I think she’s a righteous sister who generally speaks the truth and fights the good fight on our behalf.
So when I saw the title of the review: “Who Won Feminism–Hint: She’s the Diva Who Ran Cosmo” I was crushed. If Naomi Wolf was about to cede feminism to Helen Gurley Brown, I was going to have to sit a feminist shiva and declare Naomi Wolf dead to me. Because y’all know how I feel about Helen Gurley Brown, Traitor to Womanity. (Hint: she is to feminism as Budweiser is to Alcoholics Anonymous).
But I was pleasantly surprised as I read on. While I absolutely do not buy Scanlon and Wolf’s protestation that “Brown is a genuinely important figure who pioneered a feminism that championed women as cheerful, self-empowered individualists” the review goes beyond simply critiquing the book to giving an insightful summation of Second- and Third-wave feminism that I completely agree with. To wit:
Third wave feminism is pluralistic, strives to be multiethnic, is pro-sex and tolerant of other women’s choices. It has led to an embrace of what was once so politically suspect — the notion that you can be a “lipstick lesbian” or a “riot grrrl” if you want to be, that you can choose your persona and your freedom for yourself.
But that very individualism, which has been great for feminism’s rebranding, is also its weakness: It can be fun and frisky, but too often, it’s ahistorical and apolitical. As many older feminists justly point out, the world isn’t going to change because a lot of young women feel confident and personally empowered, if they don’t have grass-roots groups or lobbies to advance woman-friendly policies, help women break through the glass ceiling, develop decent work-family support structures or solidify real political clout.
Feminism had to reinvent itself — there was no way to sustain the uber-seriousness and sometimes judgmental tone of the second wave. But feminists are in danger if we don’t know our history, and a saucy tattoo and a condom do not a revolution make.
The fact is, we know the answers to Western women’s problems: The way is mapped out, the time for theory is pretty much over. We know the laws and the policies we need to achieve full equality. What we lack is a grass-roots movement that will drive the political will. “Lipstick” or lifestyle feminism won’t produce that movement alone.
As Scanlon puts it: “Ever the optimist, [Brown] chose to see pleasure where others saw danger, allies where others saw oppressors, and opportunities where others saw obstacles. If other feminists could be faulted for overemphasizing the ways in which women were victimized, Helen Gurley Brown can be faulted for underemphasizing women’s workplace and personal challenges.”
Well said. Enjoy your weekend, ladies.