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on leaving waves to the beach

13 May

Fellow feministhistorynerd Tom and I argued over the utility of the wave framework regularly during prelims. Over wine/beer/coffee my friends and I regularly debate whether to continue talking in terms of “waves.” I engage in ongoing discussions with activists about whether there are any useful indicators of political stance in identifying as a second or third (or fourth) wave feminist. Recently, in the the more formal setting of a Women’s History Month panel, I was asked to describe my relationship to the metaphor. Again and again, I find myself struggling with a concept that once seemed to me a matter of fact.

There has been a good deal of scholarship recently pushing us to reconsider how we do the history of feminisms. It is exciting to see this conversation happening, to engage with the literature, and to consider what theses shifts mean in the world of contemporary activism. A lot has been said that I agree with; I won’t reiterate it here. What I don’t find compelling is the argument that the solution to the limitations of the wave trope comes in recasting our understanding of waves. Reframing waves (such as thinking of them as radio waves) is clever, but it isn’t the solution to a historical framework that creates ruptures, conflicts, and oppositions where they need not exist. We are at the point in which we can do justice to historical specificity without using arbitrary boundaries. In my world, where my roles of scholar and activist are inseparable, there is no longer any place for conceptual waves.

To be sure, I acknowledge the important roles that the concepts of “first wave feminism” and second wave feminism” have served in recovering and legitimating a world of women’s activism. Historians have developed the field of women’s history and created spaces for it in the sweeping narratives of American history by using this concept. Thinking in terms of waves empowered certain feminists in the 1960s and 1970s who found strength in the idea of building on the legacy of past generations. And then there’s the fact that it is simply useful shorthand. It is a lot easier to reference “the second wave” rather than use the wordy descriptions like “women’s rights activism in the 1960s and the 1970s” or “women’s liberation of the post-war era.”

What defines these waves? Periods of heightened activity and accomplishment in advancing gender equality. No doubt I’m grateful for the vote, the right to determine if and when to reproduce (as tenuous as these rights are at present), and the concepts such as sexual harassment that help me to understand when I’m being treated inappropriately, to name but a few of the victories that highlight waves. But the periodization of these waves prioritizes certain advances over others and ignores the uneven access women have to such gains when we consider class, race, and sexuality. Thus, “wave feminism” as a framework is biased towards the liberal, white, middle-class heterosexual woman.

This image of what defines the majority of 20th century feminisms persists even if the face of a growing body of literature that demonstrates a much greater diversity of activism motivated by a desire for women’s liberation. These new works dispute first and second wave periodization by showing us that feminism persisted in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. They also disrupt the persistent narrow image of what sixties and seventies feminism was, showing feminist motivations among women of color working in race politics and in women-driven movements such as welfare reform and housing advocacy. We are beginning to see vast new spaces of gender activism in which diverse groups of women challenged a patriarchal society in ways that addressed the intersectional oppression.

Yet the wave trope that created a narrative of feminisms which excludes women of color, lesbian, and working class activism continues to dominate. What was created to recover one portion of women’s rights activism has come to stand for the entire story. I do not deny the significance of the gains that came from the women who populate this traditional narrative; their accomplishments were remarkable. But they did not work alone and maintaining the false trope of the second wave hides from view the diverse groups of women who fought to create a new system of gender norms and rights for women, whether alongside traditionally recognized feminists or in their own spaces. Focusing critique on the framework specifically is not meant to deny the spaces where racism, classism, or heterosexism marginalized minority women. We have to consider differential access to power and the tools necessary to create change. But a more constructive approach is to consider the specific spaces, organizations, and events where problems erupted as part of a broader, more complex picture of the multiple feminisms that have historically operated in unison. The persistent stereotypes of wave feminism limit our understanding of historical realities of gender activism.

This isn’t just a scholarly issue. The intimate connections between academia and feminism mean that misunderstanding the past influences the ways generations of feminists relate to one another (a misunderstanding that flows in both directions). Scholar Nancy Hewitt astutely describes the ways in which each wave defines itself as righting the wrongs of the previous, particularly with regards to diversity and inclusion.* This need not be defined in generational terms – all engaged, contemporary feminists are capable of seeing ways we can further gender equality given the advancements made over the decades that precede us. We can strive to break down barriers that continue to exist and address the weakness of predecessors without trashing or dismissing those who came before us. And just because rising feminists look to the past to determine how modern feminisms can improve does not mean we lack appreciation and respect for all that came before us. As a historian and an intergenerational activist, I commonly feel myself floating in between opposing camps of feminism. What I find is that there is so much more that unites than divides, if only we would listen to one another and rid ourselves of a metaphor that says our birth date defines our politics. There are veteran feminists in my life who know better than I what it means to put one’s life on the line for racial equality or know their way around queer politics better than many of my own generational peers. For me, defining myself as a third wave feminist (or a second or a fourth) means defining myself in opposition to the very people with whom I want to learn, work alongside, and celebrate successes (and, of course, do shots of tequila with during moments of backlash and defeat).

Feminism is a cacophony. We are better served by seeing the simultaneous multiplicities of women’s activism, past and present. This is why we need to talk and write inclusively about feminisms, not waves of feminism. Rejecting waves has enriched my life as an activist and empowered me to think creatively as a scholar. So no waves in my dissertation, except for maybe the occasional California lesbian feminist beach scene.


*Nancy Hewitt, “Feminist Frequencies: Regenerating the Wave Metaphor,” Feminist Studies 38, no. 2 (Fall 2012)