Building The Third Wave:
Reflections Of A Young Feminist

Building The Third Wave:
Reflections Of A Young Feminist

by Laurie Ouellette

I am a member of the first generation of women to benefit from the gains of the 1970s’ women’s movement without having participated in its struggles. I grew up on the sidelines of feminism – too young to take part in those moments, debates and events that would define the women’s movement, while at the same time experiencing firsthand the societal changes that feminism had demanded.

Ironically, it is due to the modest success of feminism that many young women like myself were raised with an illusion of equality. I never really thought much about feminism as I was growing up but, looking back, I believe I’ve always had feminist inclinations. Having divorced parents, and a father who was ambivalent about his parental responsibilities, probably has much to do with this. I was only five when my parents separated in 1971, and I couldn’t possibly have imagined or understood the E.R.A. marches, consciousness-raising groups, or triumphal passing of Roe v. Wade that shortly would make history. Certainly I couldn’t have defined the word feminism. Still, watching my young mother struggle emotionally and financially as a single parent made the concept of gender injustice painfully clear, teaching me a lesson which would follow me always.

My first real introduction to feminism came secondhand. During the height of the ’70s’ women’s movement, I watched my mother become “liberated” after the breakup of yet another marriage. It was she, not I, who sought some answers from the counterculture of the time. It was confusing, if not terrifying, to watch her change her life dramatically – and, by association, mine – during those years, transforming herself into a woman I barely recognized. She quit her job and returned to college and then graduate school, working odd jobs and devoting her time to books and meetings and new-age therapy and talking it all out with her never-ending supply of free-spirited divorced comrades. I was 13 the year I found her copy of The Women’s Room, a book which so intrigued me that I read it cover to cover in the course of only a few nights. Like the heroine of the book, my mother was becoming “independent” and “hip,” but I had never been so miserable.

Like most women my age, though, I never really considered feminism in terms of my own life until I reached college. It was during those years that I first took an interest in feminist classics like The Feminine Mystique, Sisterhood is Powerful and Sexual Politics. As powerful as these texts were, they seemed to express the anger of an earlier generation, simultaneously captivating and excluding me. Reading them so long after the excitement of their publication made my own consciousness-raising seem anticlimactic. These books, and countless others that I encountered, seemed to speak more to my mother’s generation than mine. They explained a great deal about the limited choices awaiting such women, and attempted to guide them in ways to overcome patriarchal oppression. But I, like many of my white, middle-class friends, saw women’s liberation from quite a different perspective. Many of us really believed that we wouldn’t have to worry about issues like discrimination, oppression, and getting stuck in the housewife role. Indeed, many of my friends, considered my interest in feminism “radical,” and irrelevant to the times.

Although I participated in feminist activities sporadically in college, including prochoice demonstrations, it was really my experiences outside that environment where my feminist politics took root. Several events stand out as catalysts. First was an internship I held at a public television station while in college. Armed with an eager attitude and practical experience, I felt my enthusiasm wane when I was given mainly menial and secretarial tasks to perform while my male co-interns, who had less experience than I, were frequently asked to do editing assignments and were invited along on shoots. I had never before experienced sexual discrimination, and, in fact, honestly believed it was something I would never have to face. In retrospect, this experience marked my first realization that there was much work to be done in creating a world where women and men were treated with equal respect, on the job and off.

Living in an inner-city neighborhood, and my involvement in community issues there, was also important. I saw the dire need for drastic political change in the lives of the poor women, elderly women, and women of color who were my neighbors. Watching these women, many of them single parents, struggling daily to find shelter, childcare, and food made me realize that they, unlike me, had not been touched at all by the gains of the ’70s’ women’s movement. How could women’s liberation possibly be perceived as won when these women had been so forgotten? I began to reconsider feminism in an attempt to find the answers.

Today I am among the minority of young women who have committed themselves to feminism in the hopes of achieving social and political goals for all women. While we are attempting to carve out a place for ourselves in a movement still heavily dominated by another generation, the majority of young women have been reluctant to do the same. Confused about their roles in relation to the media stereotypes about feminists or intimidated by the legacy of the women’s movement past, many have become “no, but” feminists . That is, they approve of – indeed, demand – equal pay, economic independence, sexual freedom and reproductive choice, but are still reluctant to define themselves with the label “feminist.” The results of a recent poll by InView, a magazine for college women, is typical of many surveys that report this contradiction. According to the 514 female undergraduates surveyed by InView, 90 percent agreed that men and women should earn equal pay for equal work; 93 percent said that women want equality with men; 84 percent agreed that women should have access to birth control, regardless of age or marital status; 90 percent believed that sexism still exists. Still, only 16 percent of the women said they were definitely feminists.

Yet the evidence clearly shows that young women’s situations are dismal: Roe v. Wade is under fire, and if overturned will impact most on my generation and those to come; parental consent laws, which require parental notification or permission for abortion, have been mandated in many states, date rape and violence against women have become epidemics on college campuses and everywhere; eating disorders, linked to the unreasonable societal standards for women’s body sizes, have claimed the lives of thousands of us; and we still can expect to earn 70 cents on every dollar earned by men. Sure, our chances of having professional careers are greater. However, more of us than in any previous generation have grown up in single-parent families – we have seen the myth of the “supermom” professional “bringing home the bacon and frying it up in a pan” and can call it for what it is. In these hard economic times, young women can look forward to mandatory full-time jobs and second shifts of housecare and childcare in their homes. Where are the parental-leave policies, the flexible schedules, the adequate healthcare, the subsidized daycares, and the male cooperation that will ease these situations? As yet, nowhere to be found, and, considering the present political climate, there doesn’t seem to be much hope for the near future.

Given all this, what can explain why so many young women have shunned feminism? In her survey of young women, Feminist Fatale: Voices from the Twenty something Generation Explore the Future of the Women’s Movement, Paula Kamen found that media fueled stereotypes of feminists as “manbashers” and “radical extremists” were behind the fact that many young women don’t identify with the women’s movement.

But these are not the only reasons. Kamen also points to the lack of young feminist role models as an important factor. The failure of major feminist organizations such as N.O.W. to reach out to a wider spectrum of women, including young women, must be acknowledged as a part of this problem. While individual chapters do have young feminist committees and, sometimes, officers, they, and the national office are led and staffed primarily by older women, and consequently often fail to reflect the interests and needs of a complex generation of young women.

Yet another reason young women have turned away from feminism may lie within its history. If the young women who have gained the most from feminism – that is, white, middle-class women who took advantage of increased accessibility to higher education and professional employment – have been reluctant to associate themselves with feminism, it is hardly surprising that most economically disadvantaged women and women of color, who have seen fewer of those gains, have not been eager to embrace feminism either. The women’s movement of the ’70s has been called an upper-middle class white women’s movement, and to a large degree I believe that is true. More than a few young feminists – many influenced by feminists of color such as Flo Kennedy, Audre Lorde and bell hooks – have realized that feminism must also acknowledge issues of race and class in order to reach out to those women whose concerns have been overlooked by the women’s movement of the past. Indeed, numerous statistics, including a poll by the New York Times, have noted that young African-American women are more likely than white women to acknowledge many of the concerns conducive to a feminist agenda, including a need for job training and equal earning power outside the professional sector. But for them, feminism has not provided the only answer. Only by making issues of class and race a priority can feminism hope to impact on the lives of the millions of women for whom the daily struggle to survive, not feminist activism, is a priority. Will ours be the first generation of feminists to prioritize fighting cuts in Aid to Families With Dependent Children, establishing the right to national healthcare, daycare, and parental leave, and bringing to the forefront other issues pertinent to the daily struggle of many women’s lives? If there is to be a third wave of feminism, we must.

While the women’s movement of the ’70s focused primarily on the E.R.A., getting women into high-paying, powerful occupations and combating sexual discrimination in the workplace, these issues – while still critical – must not be the only goals of feminism. My sister is an example. We have taken very different paths indeed. I have focused on attending graduate school and writing about women’s issues, she has chosen to forfeit similar plans, for now, in favor of marrying young and raising a family. Does she signify a regression into the homemaker role of the 1950s? On the contrary. In fact, she is among those feminists that I most respect, even though she herself believes that the feminist movement may not have a place for her because of the choices she has made. For her, issues such as getting midwivery legalized and covered by insurance plans, providing information about the importance of breastfeeding to rural mothers, countering the male-dominated medical establishment by using and recommending natural and alternative healing methods, protecting the environment and raising her own daughter with positive gender esteem are central to what she defines as a feminist agenda. Who am I to say that she – and other young women like her who are attempting to reclaim the power and importance of motherhood – aren’t correct? If there is to be a third wave of feminism, it must acknowledge and support a wide range of choices for all women.

Surely the greatest challenge facing all young women is the frightening assault on reproductive rights, and if any issue can unite women from all backgrounds it is this. While we have never known the horrors of coat-hanger abortions, we have seen our reproductive rights drastically shrink. If the legacy of the women’s movement has left young women confused about their roles in a structure still heavily dominated by older white women, this is one issue on which the torch must be shared. If feminism is to succeed in challenging this patriarchal assault on women’s bodies, a coalition of women from all backgrounds will have to join forces to address the underlying assumptions of this attack. Young women have been among the first to organize on this fight, witnessed by the proliferation of prochoice activity on college campuses. Still, if this movement is to progress beyond a single-issue campaign, uniting women inside and outside the academy in the name of feminism, it will mean expanding the agenda: Insisting ‘ upon birth control options for all women, and giving equal energy to addressing the lack of educational opportunities, childcare, daycare,and healthcare options fundamental to the campaign for reproductive choice.

Only by recognizing and helping provide choices for all women, and supporting all women in their struggles to obtain those choices, will the women of my generation, the first raised in the shadow of the second wave and witness its triumphs and failures, be able to build a successful third wave of the feminist movement. The initial step must be to reclaim the word feminism as an appealing, empowering term in women’s lives by building a movement that commits to all women, while recognizing their multiple concerns.