Does Feminism Need To Get Over The Wave Thing?

I had a conversation with my mother not too long ago about the way many feminists my age and younger use the term “Second Wave Feminist.” I explained to her that the term is often applied in a sneering way, usually to denote that someone is transphobic, or not sex-positive, or not intersectional enough, or only interested in feminism insofar as what it will do for white women. These days, it’s commonly used to describe the “bad” kind of feminism.

She looked at me like I had three heads and said, “Well. I was born in 1948. What other wave is it that I was gonna be in? There weren’t really another wave options. Also, uh–have they heard of Angela Davis by any chance? Do they know who Dorothy Allison is?”

I explained that I didn’t agree with it, but that was just the way people talk about things now — and that when they talk about second-wave feminism they usually aren’t talking about the people who didn’t suck during that time. I mean, I am certainly not going to suggest to my mother that she is either transphobic or racist when she very adamantly has never been either of those things. Feminism, racism, LGBT rights, labor rights, class issues, the amount of evil that Reagan was, etc., were all things we talked about and discussed together pretty much from the time I was a toddler. Not so much because I was especially precocious or anything, but because we lived in a remote area until I was five and she didn’t have too many adults to talk to most days.

But I digress.

Now, it’s hardly as though we didn’t discuss the problems of that era — problems she had, problems other people had. We absolutely did — because her hope for me was that I’d grow up and try to do better. Because that’s what parents want for their kids.

I have tried and tried and tried to pretend like I don’t cringe a little whenever anyone does the “Ew, Second Wavers” thing I see so often on social media. Or when people do the “Ugh, Baby Boomers” thing. Or really, anything like that. But I can’t anymore. Not just because it’s ageist, or because I think it sounds bratty, but because it’s just super reductive and not even that correct. The Second Wave wasn’t an entire school of thought, it was a damn time period.

Shockingly, not all “second-wave feminists” believed the same things. Far from it! There were many different factions. Probably even more than there are today. Yes, there were women like Betty Friedan who feared the “lavender menace” and were worried that lesbians would somehow prevent the movement from achieving serious political change. There were also feminists who believed you couldn’t be a feminist unless you were a lesbian. There were radical feminists and more mainstream feminists.

There were black feminists doing amazing work and trying to manage both feminist concerns and the civil rights concerns, and there were white feminists who were shitty and not at all intersectional, and others who supported civil rights as much as they did feminist causes and ending the Vietnam War. There were feminists, like Janice G. Raymond, who were incredibly shitty to transgender people and pushed an extremely damaging transphobic agenda and those that weren’t and didn’t. Groups like the Lesbian Sex Mafia were made up of feminist lesbians and trans women and men.

Oddly, both Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon — neither of whom I tend to agree with much of anything — were both extremely supportive of trans rights very early on. Hell, Dworkin was advocating for free gender corrective surgery and hormones for people who wished to transition. Give credit where it’s due.

The Second Wave wasn’t a monolith any more than feminism today is a monolith. Even by saying “Oh, well that person wasn’t really a ‘Second Wave Feminist’ even though they came from that era,” you’re leaving them out in a way, and suggesting they were, on some level, not as vital to the movement at large–when I would actually argue that many of those people were even more vital to where we ended up.

I mean, you’re literally talking about every woman who identified as a feminist from 1960 through the 1980s. If you think they all got it together to believe the exact same shit and behave the exact same way over the course of about 30 years–well, I honestly just don’t know what to tell you.

I also don’t know what to tell you if you honestly find it super weird that people who grew up in an entirely different America than you did, and are much older than you are, sometimes have a different take on things than you do. I mean, how are you gonna be surprised (and mad!) that bell hooks, a 63-year-old woman, doesn’t like Beyoncé? I mean, my mom doesn’t like her either — specifically because of the “Eat the cake, Anna Mae*” line in “Drunk in Love” — but also because she’s in her 60s and has her own music that she prefers. Do we really expect our parents to like the same music we do?

To boot, clearly there are people who identify as feminists now, who are young and hold the same views unilaterally ascribed to “Second Wave Feminists,” who end up being referred to as “Second Wave Feminists” despite the fact that they weren’t even around during the actual Second Wave. Megan Murphy, for instance, I’m pretty sure is younger than I am. She can be regressive as hell, but she can’t be a “Second Wave Feminist” any more than I can be a goddamn flapper.

The thing is, I feel like there are other terms and words one can use to describe the positions of feminists they disagree with, or positions that were formerly considered “feminist” but that would now be considered regressive. There are ways to talk about past behavior and actions that were hurtful or wrong, ways that the prominent feminists of the past failed women of color and trans women — and it is very, very important to talk about those things, because we want to keep trying to do better always. There are so many ways to do that without being all “Ewwwww … old people” about shit.

I’m not sure the “wave” system makes sense for us anymore. I think by incorporating feminism into waves and saying “this wave was about this thing and these issues!” we end up erasing and dismissing the work of people who didn’t fit into that particular paradigm, but happened to live in that era. Or hey! Women who were doing feminist work in between the first and second waves? What are they? Chopped liver? Because there was a hell of a lot of awesome work being done by women in the labor movement during that time–work that was done by female labor organizers who were often immigrants like Angela Bambace or women of color like Lucy Parsons. It was damned important work too, because by the time white middle class women wanted to enter the workforce, those women had already done most of the fighting.

I mean hell, I’m not even sure which wave it is we’re supposed to be in now! Are we still in the third? Have we embarked on a fourth?

While we should absolutely critique the movement, and look back and see where things were wrong (as with anything!), I think reducing the whole history of feminism to unnuanced “waves” is too simplistic and, well, reductive, to be accurate or fair. The waves of feminism were not specific schools of thought. They were many schools of thought in different time periods. That is all.

*“Eat the cake, Anna Mae” is a line said by Ike Turner to Tina Turner in a pretty disturbing scene in “What’s Love Got To Do With It.” Cheeky references to serious domestic violence situations is not a thing most of our moms are going to feel OK about. I’m not super into that particular line myself, honestly.