Feminism Surges With A Third Wave
By Jo-Ann Pilardi
This is a slightly shortened version of the original essay titled American Feminism Surges On With a Third Wave, Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Johns Hopkins, Fall/Winter 2017, Vol. 27, No.2.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, an activist women’s movement arose in the U.S., then internationally; it would later be labeled “the Second Wave,” and our 19th century movement—ending in 1920 with the suffrage amendment—would be called “the First Wave.” Reflecting the spirit of the ‘60s, the movement called itself not a “wave” but a liberation movement, the Women’s Liberation Movement: liberation fighters for women’s rights. I was one of them.
In fall of 1969, when I moved to Baltimore and started teaching Philosophy at then “Towson State College” (now Towson University), I jumped right into the movement, joining an energetic collective of women who’d started the magazine Women: A Journal of Liberation. We worked from a modest second story office on Greenmount Avenue. I was active in Baltimore Women’s Liberation (BWL) as well (office: same building—3028 Greenmount Ave., Waverly, also home to the People’s Free Medical Clinic). BWL formed coalitions (e.g., with Welfare Rights); engaged in projects (e.g., Red Wagon Day Care Center; Women’s Growth Center); published a newsletter (Cold Day in August); and created the Speaker’s Bureau, for the numerous requests we received, e.g., from the Kiwanis Club, high schools, community groups.
So much was accomplished during the ‘70s: women’s studies programs were created; rape crisis centers and women’s law centers were founded; critical issues were fought in the courts—reproductive rights and pay equity, to name just two. One of the most famous, the Supreme Court ruling on Roe v. Wade (1973), paved the way for full control by women of their bodies. Sadly, its power was immediately weakened by the Hyde Amendment outlawing the use of federal funds for abortions, meaning poor women were denied that right.
Then came the ‘80s backlash—caused by the Religious Right; Falwell’s Moral Majority and Schlafly’s Eagle Forum were central. New books praised the traditional secondary role of women, some suggesting they use sexual traps to achieve their goals. During this, the Reagan era, many Americans came to share his conservative views. The women’s movement eventually went underground; there was no longer a strong activist presence, though there were important court cases, successful litigation, ongoing projects—even federal legislation: the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, the product of years of activism during the 80s and early 90s. In ‘80s Academia, feminist theory tackled motherhood and incorporated gender difference into its claims of gender equality.[i]
The 1990s saw a re-surgence of feminism develop into what is now called the Third Wave. Twenty years after the women’s liberation movement, and when some said we were post-feminist, our daughters created their own space, issues, and methods. Mothers and daughters don’t always agree, and these daughters disliked the Second Wave’s overriding analysis of oppression; they called it (wrongly, I think) “victim feminism.” They also faulted it (rightly) for its lack of attention to race and class. “Intersectionality” became one of the touchstones of this wave: seeing interlocking connections between race, gender, sexuality, class, religion, abled/disabled, and more. Just before the great Women’s March of January 21, 2017, a Huffington Post article described the Third Wave: “The new feminist icons must include women of all ages, socioeconomic backgrounds, races, religions, sexual orientations, and ethnicities . . . (because) the remedy for the age-old criticism of feminism is so simple—the third wave . . . must be this: when all women (not just the ones that happen to be just like we are) are more equal, we are all more free.”[ii]
Inspired by the success of the gay rights movement, a critical area of this wave has become sexual preference, eventually to be labeled “sexual diversity.” No longer a question of accepting lesbians into the movement (Betty Friedan famously refused to do that in NOW’s early days), today we celebrate sexual diversity—bisexuality, homosexuality, heterosexuality, transgendering—even asexuality, as “LGBTQIA” replaces “LGBT”: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual.
Raised in the rigid ‘50s and early ‘60s when “the madonna and the whore” (Doris Day/Marilyn Monroe) were girls’ only options, Second Wave women objected to the sexual objectification of women as embodied in fashion, makeup, and film, as well as in the behavior of males. But now its daughters decide which fashion, makeup, body decoration (including tattoos and piercings) they’ll use, leading to a “Girlie Culture” of uniqueness in decoration, hair, clothing. And as young women have changed, so have young men; many (not all) are no longer stuck in the “women are sex objects” mind-set of the Mad Men era. They’re more willing to move beyond macho masculinity, allowing themselves to develop as sensitive human beings. Unfortunately, online dating culture is undoing some of this progress.
The Third Wave also influences popular culture, as some performers (indie and mainstream) work out their own brand of feminism, e.g., Le Tigre, Ani DiFranco, Madonna, Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Regina Spektor. The feminist blogosphere is phenomenal as well. (I was introduced to much of this developing my last course before retiring: “American Women and Popular Culture.”)
If you’re looking for a good introduction to the Third Wave, read Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future (2000), the “bible” of the Third Wave, now almost two decades old. Authors Baumgardner and Richards, both born in 1970, fairly credit the Second Wave for its accomplishments but also express the Third Wave’s disappointments in it.
SO: While there have been conservative setbacks in the U.S, there is also a body of feminist accomplishments and legislation that will continue to grow—out of the First and Second Waves, and through the Third Wave, Fourth Wave, and beyond, into what we hope will be a happier and healthier future for all.
Jo-Ann Pilardi is retired from Towson University where she taught Philosophy and Women’s Studies for 38 years. A working-class Italian from Pittsburgh, she moved to Baltimore in 1969 and was active in women’s movement groups through the 1970s. Currently, she teaches for Johns Hopkins and TU’s Osher Institutes, reads and writes, gardens, travels, and studies jazz piano.