Naming the waves

A reader has been asking me about the second and third waves of feminism, and my energetic agreement with Meghan Murphy’s rebuke of knee-jerk disdain for the second wave. The reader was wondering about my insistence that the third wave did not invent intersectionality, because he had read in many places that it had – that is, that 2 wave just didn’t know from intersectionality until 3 wave came along.

Nope. 2 wave was aware of the issue of being too white and middle class all along. There were huge arguments and splits over the issue all along. There were huge arguments over lesbians’ place in the movement all along.

That’s not to say that 2 wave was brilliant at it or that it got nothing wrong, it’s just to say that it wasn’t clueless about it, and it didn’t have to wait for 1980 or 2010 to realize that race and class matter. (It was a bit slow on the sexual orientation part – it was weirdly squicked by lesbians.)

So this primer on intersectionality from Routledge seems off the mark to me.

Second-wave feminism is associated with the women’s liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s. While seeing themselves as inheritors of the politics of the first wave which focused primarily on legal obstacles to women’s rights, second-wave feminists began concentrating on less “official” barriers to gender equality, addressing issues like sexuality, reproductive rights, women’s roles and labor in the home, and patriarchal culture. Finally, what is called third-wave feminism is generally associated with feminist politics and movements that began in the 1980s and continue on to today. Third-wave feminism emerged out of a critique of the politics of the second wave, as many feminists felt that earlier generations had over-generalized the experiences of white, middle-class, heterosexual women and ignored (and even suppressed) the viewpoints of women of color, the poor, gay, lesbian, and transgender people, and women from the non-Western world. Third-wave feminists have critiqued essential or universal notions of womanhood, and focus on issues of racism, homophobia, and Eurocentrism as part of their feminist agenda.

Ennnnnnnh…yes and no. Yes some 2 wavers ignored all those viewpoints, but not all did, and the issue was much discussed. These things are cumulative, so feminism does a better job of it now, but there’s no reason to assume that 2 wave feminists just suddenly froze solid in 1980 while everyone else progressed. Guess what: 2 wave feminists are part of 3 wave feminism, too. There was no break in between. There was a break of sorts between 1 and 2, but not between 2 and 3. Feminism never went underground between 2 and 3 the way it did during the 30s and 40s and 50s, so 2 and 3 are basically the same movement.

Feminist social theory has influenced and been influenced by the agendas and struggles of each of these waves. “First-wave” theorists like Mary Wollstonecraft and Susan B. Anthony were influential for their focus on how women’s lack of legal rights contributed to their social demotion, exclusion, and suffering. “Second-wave” theorists like Betty Friedan and Andrea Dworkin were prominent for their focus on women’s sexuality, reproduction, and the social consequences of living in a patriarchal culture. And “third-wave” theorists like Judith Butler and Gayatri Spivak are significant for critiquing the idea of a universal experience of womanhood and drawing attention to the sexually, economically, and racially excluded.

If you’re lumping Betty Friedan and Andrea Dworkin together as essentially similar theorists, you’re doing something wrong.

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