I’m a child of the 1980s. I believe the perfect video game is Super Mario Brothers and the best superheroes are the Ninja Turtles. I have said “cowabunga, dude!” with zero irony. And this semester, when I embarked on my personal “educate a Clueless Feminist” project, I went looking for books to fill in the gaps. The first book I read was ManifestA: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future, by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards. The book offers chatty stories from the authors, a brief but helpful summary of the history of feminism, a sketch of the wide range of issues important to feminists, and a call to arms to modern young women—or, more accurately, to the women who were young when the book was published in 2000. ManifestA is a book written for children of the eighties. Though it can be useful for contemporary young women, some of its cultural critiques come across as antiquated or quaint, even to a thirty-three-year-old who ate Christmas Crunch year it first came out.
In 2000, I was a junior in high school and a part of the target audience. I remember the issues ManifestA describes—the long, slow death of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, the frustration of watching people like Christina Hoff Sommers try to bring down feminism from the outside rather than expand it from within, adult women on college campuses (myself included) wearing little-kid clothes and carrying little-kid gear to celebrate their inner girl. While reading, I had the strange awareness that the issues seemed vital and relevant to me—but to today’s young women, they are completely outdated. Naomi Wolf reviewed the book, saying “at last, Gen X takes on feminism.” But Gen X is not the “new” generation anymore, and Millenials have already taken on Feminism. Reading this book was one of the “groan, I’m old!” moments that seem to be a hallmark of being thirty-three.
In spite of its slightly outdated perspective, I found the book useful for getting a broad picture of the growth of feminism. For me, the second chapter, “What is Feminism?”, was the highlight. It’s worth mentioning that most of the information in this chapter is cheaply and easily available on the Internet. Even so, Baumgardner and Richards provided a framework that allowed me to Google more productively and left me with some level of expertise. I’ve created the following outline, and I hope my fellow Clueless Feminists will find it helpful:
American feminist history is typically divided into “waves,” sometimes with lulls between them, sometimes without (69). The First wave began in 1848 among female abolitionists. They planned and ran the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, the nation’s first female-organized women’s rights convention. There, early feminists—both male and female– drafted the “Declaration of Sentiments,” a call for female equality that echoed and often quoted the language of the Declaration of Independence. First Wave suffragists/suffragettes pushed for the vote for the next seventy years, until the Nineteenth Amendment was finally ratified in 1920. Names to know include Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Lucy Stone, and Sojourner Truth.
It’s worth mentioning here that feminism was aligned with equal rights rights for all people from the very beginning. As time progressed, however, a schism developed in the movement. Some leaders (Stanton, Anthony, and Truth) believed that the vote should be given to all disenfranchised citizens at once and refused to support an amendment that would give the vote to Black Men but no women, Black or white. Others (Stone and Victoria Woodhull) believed giving Black men the vote was a step in the right direction. This split underscores one of the primary challenges feminism faces; in spite of the fact that equality is built into its DNA, it has, at times, become a white women’s movement. In addition, the rift proves that feminism has always included differing opinions; it has never been a movement of people with identical beliefs.
During the 1960s and 1970s, The Second Wave emerged from the civil-rights and anti-war movements (73). More radical than the First Wave, this new generation of feminists connected with women through consciousness-raising groups and speak-outs. They supported legal abortions and the Equal Rights Amendment, which would have granted women equal pay, and they also fought isolated, insidious acts of discrimination. For example, airplane stewardesses could be fired for getting married until 1968; in the early seventies, they could still be fired for aging or gaining weight. Women who applied for loans often couldn’t get them without a husband’s signature, and when they did, they sometimes had to sign “baby letters” swearing they wouldn’t get pregnant and leave work (7).
The so-called radicalism of the Second Wave was twisted, exaggerated, and deliberately misunderstood by right-wing groups like Phyllis Schafly’s Eagle Forum, which sought to frighten Americans unfamiliar with feminism and successfully halted the Equal Rights Amendment. Many of the rumors these organizations started are still circulating. However, feminism did not, as these conservatives claimed, ever aim to eliminate the rights of and respect for traditionally-minded women. Rather, it sought to empower women to lead their own lives and come into their own power, regardless of whether they saw themselves as traditional or radical. Names to know include Betty Friedan, who identified the limits many middle-class white women faced as homemakers, and Gloria Steinem founder of eminent feminist magazine Ms.
The Third Wave started in the mid-nineties. Some sources say it continued until 2005ish; others say it’s still going strong. This is “my” wave. It focused on bringing a wide range of human experiences and perspectives into feminist discourse. It sought to expand feminism to a force that advocated for people of color, LGBTQ individuals, children, and men. I’ve always thought of feminism as a campaign that advocated for women first but also for human agency, human individuals, and human stories. I see feminism as a bigger, better, more assertive, less wishy-washy form of humanism, and I see it as a movement meant to create better, safer, more authentic lives for everyone.
There’s talk now of a “Fourth Wave.” The idea that the Millennial Generation has its own feminism isn’t universally accepted, but many see the new, technology-focused world presents feminist problems and solutions of its own. Whether you call it the Third or Fourth Wave, young women are still expanding feminism and still working for a better and more just society. So, whether you like to read books or learn online, grab a piece like ManifestA or get your Google on—there’s a lot to learn, and there’s still work to do.