Second Wave-Hating Feminists
Girlfriends, Warner Bros., 1978
Disrespecting your ideological predecessors is something of a sport in modern American feminism, and it reaches varsity level when it comes to criticizing the second wave. Adherents to second-wave politics are imagined as uncool figures, angry about the wrong things, too wedded to the dated politics of their heyday (imagined as pedantic opposition to femininity and sex) to have any insight into our current moment. On social media, the term is synonymous with social conservatism, with a perverse feminism that espouses only antiwomen sentiments.
Younger feminists can be guilty of incuriosity and hubris, but when it comes to the diminishment of 1968-style radical feminism, the vanguard of the second wave, there’s plenty of blame to go around: misrepresentation and mockery in the media, sabotage and demonization from other powers that be—some New York leaders believe group meetings were seeded with bad-faith agitators—and the movement’s own errors. Animosity toward homemakers and sex symbols, for instance, was not merely an enemy fabrication. (“Listen, you, you dumb broad, you look funny. You stay home, you’re kind of empty . . . and when you get older you disintegrate,” Atkinson vented to Lear for her Times article.) And the movement was rife with anti-blackness. By far the most excruciating aspect of reading radical women’s early documents now is their propensity to analogize women’s oppression to slavery, and the apparent comfort with racial slurs that went along with it.
But today’s young feminists didn’t invent wariness toward (and shame on behalf of) the older ones. The antiestablishment attitude that dominated ’60s youth culture was virtually indistinguishable from distrust of elders (“don’t trust anyone over the age of thirty”; “I hope I die before I get old”), and regardless of whether they identified as feminists, scads of young American women were desperate to create lives that looked nothing like their mothers’. Generational and ideological tensions were baked in from the start, so much so that replicating the same divisions reads as part of feminism’s heritage.