Introduction: Waves

Introduction: Waves

2006-03-17

Lisa Joyce introduces this new gathering, titled “waves,” of postfeminist essays.

The women’s movements have been categorized in terms of waves, but these waves are perceived as discrete and isolated sectors divided by time that come to represent differences in generations: the later nineteenth and early twentieth century movement to gain the vote, the nineteen sixties effort to gain equality, the nineteen nineties focus on diversity. Each new push for change turns back towards the previous ones in critical dismissal. The first wave was racist; the second one was classist; and the third one was exclusionary. Many current feminists decry the waves analogy because of this very divisiveness.See Lisa Jervis: “We’ve reached the end of the wave terminology’s usefulness. What was at first a handy-dandy way to refer to feminism’s history and its present and future potential with a single metaphor has become shorthand that invites intellectual laziness, an escape hatch from the hard work of distinguishing between core beliefs and a cultural moment.” “The End of Feminism’s Third Wave,” MS Magazine winter 2004. Instead of depicting itself in ways that separate these endeavors by generation and by faults, these activists suggest, feminism needs to reconceive itself in terms of unity, across generations, across aspirations, and instead of ignoring what has come before or criticizing how achievements were accomplished, feminism needs to applaud what has succeeded and move on to attain those goals that still lay before it.

However, why not use the waves analogy for our own purposes and in positive terms? Waves on water tend to follow the prevailing winds and currents, but over time they erode away the land and reshape it according to their own devices. Because they are cyclical, like radio waves, shock waves, and seismic waves, they return again and again. They are relentless. Periodically, winds or currents shift; the waves break up and lose rhythmic patterns and force, but they always reconfigure, gather themselves together, return to persistent crashing and breaking. Waves by people have a friendly motive, but they are insistent in that while acknowledging the presence of another, they demand recognition and response. These are the waves that feminism produces: joint forces that throw themselves at injustice and discrimination, fall back, and regather, insisting all the while on acknowledgment, much like the nodes that Carolyn Guertin describes in the feminist group, The Old Boys’ Network.“Another cyberfeminist collective, the Old Boys’ Network,” Guertin argues, “defined its local chapters as ‘nodes’ that ‘collide, disintegrate, regenerate, engage, disembody, reform, collapse, renew, abandon, revise, revitalize, and expand’ ” (OBN FAQ 7).

The waves produced by the electronic book review are of this nature - small, insistent, eroding efforts to make a difference, to inch feminism in the direction of its own demise, a terminus coinciding with the end of discrimination against people on the basis of gender, race, class, ability, etc. These small waves surface in the interviews from years ago of women in various media of the arts in ebr’s Forum, so that when Deb Margolin asks an undergraduate woman who insists that she is not a feminist, we hear, “Do you have self-respect? If so, you are a feminist.” Critical Arts Ensemble (CAE) was worried that many people relegate feminism to a segregated world of women’s issues: “To speak about a social concern as a `women’s issue’ is considered a naive if not harmful reduction that tends toward the very universalization of the subject that feminism claims to resist.” It is important, they argue, for feminism to “devise strategies of resistant social action that are not dependent on preexisting identity location.” These strategies are wavelike; they shift over time in focus and shape; they are disconnected from who is arguing, much the way the Guerilla Girls, other participants in this forum, wear gorilla masks to avoid identification and the attendant judgment.

This first wave looked at the new medium of the internet as a potential cathexis for writing through the body in order to permit full immersion in the text while exploring a voice without a body. The second wave on ebr turns to technology again, but this time in order to co-opt it for a feminist’s use. Among other essays in this set, Carolyn Guertin describes wave formation in CAE’s “hacktivism,” the use of the internet and the ability to hack to promote social change. Jess Loseby talks about wave formation in terms of the recognition that women are not, in fact, avoiders of technology, but its primary users, especially in the domestic sphere, and most particularly in the kitchen. Why are screwdrivers perceived as tools, she asks, but blenders are not? Why are some tools valued more highly than others? A wave here picks up the wooden spoon and brandishes it in as much to say that technology in all of its forms can erode over time that patriarchal dominion that persists in multiple insidious forms.

David Brooks, in a recent New York Times editorial, insists that “power is in the kitchen.” He writes in response to Linda Hirshman’s The American Prospect article on “choice feminism,” and not merely in response but in rejection of it. Both he and a later editorial in the same newspaper, one by Patricia Cohen, refer to domestic work as “drudgery,” though, and while his reference is in the part of his essay where he is explaining Hirshman’s argument, his word choice is telling. Cohen further explains Hirshman’s essay by saying that feminism “promised liberation … but actually betrayed women by leaving traditional sex roles intact. In short, women were still stuck with the housework and child-rearing.” How do we know this? Through ample statistics drawn from time use analysis that reveal that not only do women spend more time on housework than men, but married women with children spend more time on it than single women with children do.See, for instance, Janeen Baxter; Philip Blumstein & Pepper Schwartz, American Couples (1983); Arlie Hochschild, The Second Shift (1989); http://www.fiu.edu/~westl/family.ppt; Pamela Smock and Mary Noonan’s “Gender, Work, and Family in the U.S.: What Do We Know From Social Science” Research? Someone is not doing his own laundry.

Much of what Hirshman talks about has to do with power. I always tell my students in women’s studies courses to look for the money if they want to look for the power in a situation. Hirshman feels the same way: “The best way to treat work seriously is to find the money. Money is the marker of success in a market economy; it usually accompanies power, and it enables the bearer to wield power, including within the family.”

I also, however, talk to my students about sex and about how multiple euphemisms for male masturbation indicate not only acceptance of male sexual pleasure, but appreciation of it, while the scarce ones for female masturbation indicate social stigma against female sexual pleasure. Women are not to experience pleasure in sex, nor are they to talk about it. It isn’t even funny. A postfeminist grrl, however, can not only like sex, she can go after it, and she is as likely to play a dominant role in sexual encounters as a man is. These Waves of Girls by Caitlin Fisher, for instance depicts the childhood and early adolescence of a girl who is recognizing herself as a lesbian. This electronic novella (what DO we call these pieces?) is permeated with sex, the sex of the sensuality of the summer day and cotton candy, as well as that of playing doctor or spin the bottle. It is o.k. here for girls to have sex, but even more so, to want it openly and to like it.

Many of these grrls, though, are all alone, fighting out their mission to bring power to the female masses. Like the star of the movie Tank Girl (described in this issue of ebr by Elyce Helford), Stella Vanderzee of Elisabeth Sheffield’s novel Gone is a loner warrior, a warrior in charge of her own destiny. In fighting patrimony and sexual power Stella almost succumbs to Uncle Bucko’s seduction of her. When he comes on to her and she feels a frison of response, she says, “But I don’t have to be like she was those days are long gone just have to remember I’m in the saddle now yeah I’m a space cowboy and this is a whole new world” (197). The new girl, the postfeminist one, still has to remind herself that she is in control, but she is able to do that now and her perception of herself is as someone who is in charge, someone on her own mission, someone on the new frontier.

Do you have self-respect?