Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Feminism: the third wave?

Part one of two.

Given that the feminist movement has been around for decades, and that so much progress was made by society through the 1960s and 1970s towards establishing equality of women and men in Western society, it seems strange that issues of concern to feminists have fallen way from the public’s attention over the past few years. There doesn’t seem to be much literature produced by great feminist leaders these days, nor, if we are to believe the media, do young men and women of today seem particularly with the topic.
Michelle Doege is a Professor of English and Women’s studies at Fanshawe College where she teaches the university level course: Introduction to Women’s Studies. Doege says the suggestion that feminism is either dead or dying is not correct; it’s merely changing form. “When I think of the younger generation of women’s attitude towards feminism, I think of two things: One is that they believe that everything is OK between the genders, and the other is that some are very aware that whatever activism they want to engage in will be very different from that of the older feminist movements.”
Doege points out, for instance, that even a basic issue such as whether or not a woman should take her husband’s name in marriage is not one that seems to be very troubling to her class of almost exclusively female students. “It’s not even that I would ask them to consider changing a societal norm. That there might be a problem at all doesn’t seem to occur to many of them.”
According to Doege, it’s is generally thought that there are three waves of feminism: “The first takes us back to the turn of the last century and is concerned primarily with access issues such as getting women the vote, property rights, and access to education. The second runs through the 1950s to the 1980s, and includes the acceptance of women in the workplace and in positions of authority in government and society.
“The third wave is what we’re in now, and what I am seeing is young women who do want some change, but who experience their sphere of influence more locally. How this group expresses itself is very creative. They use poetry and music, or they think about how they can publish their thoughts in small college and university publications, but their sense of power is very localized.”
One problem is that there is still a real stigma attached to the term “feminist.” The old notion so familiar in the 1970s - that feminists were a bunch of man-hating lesbians - is still surprisingly prevalent today. “For some of my students, even taking my course and showing up for class takes courage. This is even more true for the few young men who take the course.”
Another part of the problem is that there appears to be little awareness of feminist issues in society at large. There are more women graduating from post-secondary institutions than men, for instance, yet women are still paid less, and they are still hampered by institutional glass ceilings. “My concern is that people are considered these things non-issues these days, as though the problems have gone away.”
Young people of both genders are also up against an almost insurmountable obstacle in the form of popular media. “The central issue for young women is body and beauty. They may be critical of the idea that beauty is important, but they buy into it. They are perhaps not strong enough within themselves to take a stand against it – not confident enough. They are aware and critical, but societal expectations of femininity are so strong, they often feel unable to address it within themselves.”
And the demands and restrictions of popular culture do not affect only young women; young men are also swayed by the same influences, and hold the same notions that the issues related to feminist thinking have passed into history.
In all of this, the question remains: Where are the leaders? Where are the great thinkers and writers who did so much to lay out the path towards true equality between the sexes, and to set the example?
“Perhaps this generation doesn’t really need the kind of leaders we identified with in the past. I know that out of a group of some 60 students, most of them female, only a small handful will have even a passing familiarity with the writings of the first and second wave of feminists, usually from a course they took in high school. Perhaps there is power in that individuality and the need to start over again on some level, but I’m not convinced that’s true.”
It would seem self-evident that the messages of feminism are still needed, and that these messages needs to reach both young women and young men. But how? Through high school courses? Through poetry and music of pop artists? Where will the third wave of feminism go from here?

Next month, we will take a look at trends in third wave feminist writing.
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