Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Post-Wave Feminism

After watching a post grow to 10,000 words in two days, it seemed best to write a short and concise summary of what it is, post-wave feminism, as opposed to post-feminism, which is a different thing entirely.

There are two pillars of feminism: the first, rooted in the reality of our psyches as demand for equality, the second rooted in both physical and social facts, the need for recognition of our gender. In its full and balanced form, feminism is the twin assertion that we, as women are not valuable because of our gender first, but that our gender is valuable in itself. We value it, and our lives are, and have, as much of their purpose expression of our gender among all other things. But this cannot define us alone.

There are labeled three waves of feminism. The first beginning in the late 18th century with the tract by Wollstonecraft among others, but gaining real traction starting in 1869, and having as its drive reform of voting and marriage laws. The second beginning after the second world war, with the writing of Simone de Beauvoir, among others, which reasserted the primacy of the body, and its demands, and its effects on our psychic existence. Mere formal equality was not enough, and there needed to be root and branch equalization of laws, as well as the creation of rights specifically recognizing the realities of fertility specifically. Men don't really need, a right to abortion. The second begins with the assertion that being equal in a male normative society is not enough, and that there must be a redesigning of society, so that the values of women and the values of men are balanced in the very structure of our language, science, politics, and economics. The third asserts that women are entitled to the same personal social freedoms as men, including the recognition of our vision of ourselves, the need to take risks for our own growth, and the structure and meaning of our existence.

To which I will add that there is a pre-wave feminism, and a post-wave. Pre-wave feminism is rooted in gender feminism: in creating a sphere for women, where inside it they have powers and claims, social, legal, and personal, against the power of men, both personal and organized. We see it in myth, and in the rise of exceptional women before the arrival of organized presses for women's rights.

And there is, post-wave. To be post-wave is to assert that the specific tactical battles of the age do not define us, any more than our gender defines us. It recognizes that each previous wave had to adopt stances, ideas, and assertions, which are contrary even to what was known at the time, and had to accept bargains which were rooted in one kind of inequality or another. For all that has been done, there has been a two steps forward, for one step back, and the back was often larger than the forward. Going forward, there must be a core of understanding of the inner life of women, and our needs in society.

Pre-wave feminism's structure can be seen in the myth of Hathur, from Old Kingdom Egypt, where they wrote a myth of Ra becoming angry with the people for disobeying his laws, he turned a goddess into the eye of Ra, and let her slay. She filled the river with blood, and would not stop, until he tricked her into drinking beer and sleeping for three days. At which point he could turn her into the loving maternal goddess, who had no name: Hathur and all the other terms, are titles, not names.

This myth structures around reality: strained beer is how to kill parasites and bacteria in water, and civilization really can be said to start, after the climate became more stable, and then humans began to adapt to the realities of a settled existence. One of these, is disease.

Disease, technology, and intoxication, form a matrix of feminist struggles. Disease is the great destroyer of human endeavors, and women, in particular, must control it by controlling cleanliness, and the sanitation of the home. Technology, because each technological wave produces a demand for a new social contract. The invariable pattern is that women are offered an inferior social contract in the new order, and must fight for the better one. The inferior contract often plays on the notions of the previous wave of feminism. Intoxication and violence are the great lies that are at the heart of every inferior contract. They are the asterix which gives men the right to toss aside whatever rights and privileges have been granted. Alcohol is the birth of society, even before writing, because it allows people to drink the water that their own activities soil, and to store the grain that they need for worse times. Intoxication is the great male prerogative, which makes good women into bad women, and bad women into good ones, as in the Hathur myth.

First Wave feminism is equality feminism, and it's ideas and contradictions are visible already in the 1797 tract by Wollstonecraft, where she argues for co-education and equal rights for women, and against the view that women are emotionally unstable and weak. The contradiction is, of course, that such a creature did not actually exist, and instead women who worked in that age through the aristocratic system used their wits, talents, and skills. Often it was the men who behaved with scatter brained emotional headlessness. A good example of this is the way du Barry and Marie Antionette navigated their way through the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, while men followed their hormones into the wrong beds and the wrong decisions.

Her book offers a bargain that women will abandon emotionalism, in return for equal rights. This is the great defect of first wave feminism: the right to be men, or like men, is by definition not an equal right, and a natural right deriving from a male god, is not a right which is safe against male pseudo-rationalism, since its foundation is still masculine prerogative and power over nature.

First Wave feminism takes off progressively starting in 1848, but gains permanent form in 1869, with the establishment of the late 19th century. Over the next 50 years, it would gradually fight for suffrage, gaining it piece by piece through America and the European world. Again, technology and alcohol are essential: in 1830, the perfection of continuous distillation, created an endless river of potent alcohol at a low price. While distillation had been done for centuries, and the pot stills of the 1600's and 1700's had radically expanded access, from thence forward, distillation could produce more alcohol than people could drink.

The First Wave feminist movement was associated with prohibitionism, because for all of the historical and biological acumen of the anti-suffrage position, exemplified by Helen Kendrick Johnson's short book against suffrage, where she more accurately describes history, politics, and biology than the over-simplification of history as one long pure enslavement of women, intoxication is the great disproof of the contract they offered. That HKJ knows more about the politics of oligarchic slave societies around the beginning of the current era than the suffragettes is in the classic file of saying things that are true, but irrelevant. When not in Rome, pay only passing attention to what the Romans did.

Proof that proof was on the minds of everyone, was the first legal goal of suffrage: changing divorce laws to allow divorce for drunkeness. The Victorian social compact was to grant men political power in a far more powerful state, and for the risks of empire, greater profit, along with a home, and a woman in it who would, when push quite directly came to drunken shove, give them all they needed. The First Wave Feminism of Equality was faced with the argument that women could not cope with the violence of war, and became established fact against the reality that women always face pain and violence, in the home, and that the entire political structure as it was could not cope with the wars that it could create.

It was the Great War which made suffrage an established fact, and followed it with prohibitionism. The paternalism of anti-suffrage arguments rested in two assertions: that women were safe, and that men knew what they were doing. Drink and war disproved each of these.

The death of First Wave Feminism is the twin death of prohibitionism, and pure pacificism. The Second World War proved that pure disarmament and pure isolationism, and pure pacificism were not enough. The social contract of empire had won out in Japan and Germany, and they attempted to impose it on the world. The failure of this attempt rested, to no small extent, on women. It was women in industry in America, and in Soviet Russia, who allowed those states to finally drag Japan and Germany to defeat.

Second Wave Feminism begins in the ruined aftermath of that war, and its outline is in Simone de Beauvoir's Le Deuxieme Sexe. Her book is existentialist: it is the personal and inner life which is important, it is the personal life which exemplifies the self, and it is the presence in that life, in that body, which makes us who we are. Second Wave Feminism worked as much through the establishment of a new relationship between both genders in the area of sex. First Wave Feminism, though it was often accused of bringing with it "free love" was really the assertion that the home could not be secured separate from national legal rights from the reality of men, their intoxication, and their violence. Second Wave Feminism argued that that home itself was still a male construct, and that its laws, its norms, and its barriers to women entering into full economic, intellectual, and social life, could not be maintained.

But Second Wave Feminism, like the first, ran into the imperial grand bargain: men run empire, and women receive trickle down benefits from it. The failures of American empire were blamed on giving too much to the weak, who should have been grateful for anything. Instead a reassertion of a rationalist, or rather pseudo-rationalist foundationalism held sway. The return of the imperial bargain lead to the triumphalism of Reagan and Thatcher.

Third Wave Feminism begins then, from a position which is in contradiction: that the rise of women economically is bought at the price of the fall of men economically, and that even the most liberated of women rises because she is of use to the patriarchy in its own project of humiliating and humbling men. Second Wave Feminism rode a wave, of neo-conservatism. Each right granted to work and to rise, was at the cost of the wages and position of men. Those men were taught, and wanted to believe anyway, that women were the source. Hence fat drug addicts screaming into microphones about Feminazis, when, in fact, academic feminism had nothing to do with the falling wages of working class men, and the exploitation of natural resources. They burned witches back in the 1500's and 1600's for similar reasons.

Third Wave Feminism asserts that the male privilege of waging personal violent war against women can, and must, be eradicated. It begins from the assertion that hidden structural barriers, social conventions, and even ways of forming intersubjective knowledge, hold women out more effectively than overt laws. The third wave feminist has brought the struggle to the seminar room, the lunch table, and the ordinary discourse in the quiet of the bedroom.

The victory of Third Wave Feminism, is much like the First Wave: the right to take risks. Women are entitled to strive and fail, and need this right, or there is no actual safety. The right to have others keep you from danger, is the right to live in precarious protection, and no more.

But third wave feminism is a failure. At the end of 20 years of it, we have more war, more destruction of the ordinary rights of ordinary people. We have higher rates of rape. We have lower rates of solving murder of women. We have a state even more based on the imperial bargain of men at war, giving back to women who should be grateful for whatever sliver of the spoils they choose to provide. Even as ordinary men have fallen, the rise of women in careers is merely a relative one within a static share of wealth. Feminism, while more crucial to the success of society than ever, while more entrenched and established, is also more ridiculed, less relevant, and more the production of consumer goods designed to cater to biases, than ever.

Thus a post-wave world.

The post-wave world begins from the understanding that there is no seclusion, and, from the days of the Hathur myth, never really was one. Men consume the environment, and husband only to the extent than they must. Women cannot stay hidden in houses from the parasites of the Nile, or global wars, or the realities of environmental devastation. Where Third Wave Feminism over and over again privileged the needs of privileged career women, being "about" the entre into the world of money and success, it has done less than nothing for women who are not so privileged, and nothing for the world at large. It has not reduced sexism in public places, as any woman who ventures into a discussion with men rapidly finds out: it is acceptable, right now, right in the English speaking world, to drive women from a discussion, by asserting the untrammeled right of men to harass women for sex.

Post-wave feminism declares that the advancement of the rights of women, globally, is essential to ending the vast gulf of wealth disparity around the world, and that with the rights of women, comes the possibility of development. That when technology creates opportunity, men will use it first for dominance, violence, and an over eager pillaging of that which they can carry away, and only by giving women formal rights, tailored to the realities of gender, that end with an equal claim to all goods, can there be success at dealing with the great problems which hang over us. It looks upon the billions of women who live in poverty, under the threat of rape, in the reality of illiteracy, war, and arranged marriage, and sees that if feminism is not concerned with this, then it is concerned with little more than bargaining for a slice of the patriarchy.

We will, from here on in, have our tactics, but we will no longer pretend that a tactical bargain represents our reality. No single act will end this, because, as two centuries of modern feminism shows, each establishment of women's rights, is met by a new form of the imperial bargain, where men take, and the women who provide them with their needs, are given a favored place in their empire.

I fully expect those who have some privileged place in Third Wave to attack, to proclaim, as zealots always do, that if you are not with us you are against us. That I don't understand the force of sexism, and sexual harassment. Against this I offer my own writing and my own experience. I have tirelessly documented the way which a sexist rapism underlies our technological endeavors, how men constantly demand the only freedom which really matters to them: the right to use violence to force women to submit to them. I present the dozens of times I have documented the way men attempt to use women, and the ways that their activities are protected by corporations and academia. Any one who says that I have not mined constantly the vein of lava that runs under our so-called enlightened and equal society, needs to walk a few miles in my sandals, high heels, and pumps.

But it is precisely for this reason that I do not believe in the acres of critical theory, which provides women with not one word, not one idea, not ones story, that allows them to cope with this reality. Third Wave Feminism has failed me in particular, as it fails millions of women every single day. Outrage, however potent, is a feeble force, in comparison with organization, and the creation of power. It is in this creation of power which Third Wave Feminism fails. When men drive a woman out of the discussion, there is no where to appeal to, and no means to do anything about it, except in quiet corners.

Waves crash into the beach, we need, instead, to realize that the force of feminism, is like the force of the feminine in evolution, a constant pressure on the pattern of life, which is always challenged, must often yield, but is never less than half of the world.


  1. The one premise I am getting hung up on your argument, Lillie, is that one "feminism" would serve us, day or night, in 1848 as well as in 2009. It's as if you are refuting an argument about how frog's see or how an elevator works--some Objective Truth out there called "Feminism"--rather than a very subjective body of work that has been, at times, shuttled off into the ghetto called "feminism." A body of work that has its own historical subjectivities and assumptions.

    Lift it out of the assumption of objectivity, join the age of slippery slidey post toastieness and stop blaming it on men. Stop blamimg. Call it a structure, acknowledge that men are as subject to it as women, that straight white males are as abused by it as much as transexuals are, that all people are given advantage and opportunity as well as oppression and pain from it.

    It's when I allow myself this that I am able to buy a beautiful dress and sexy stilettos and enjoy them for their aesthetic value and cultural meanings without wearing a hairshirt and practical shoes and blaming myself for enjoying the advantages of my sex.

  2. I agree, that's why there has to be a balance between equality and gender. We are not valuable just because of our gender, but our gender is valuable. Many of the rights we seek are so that we can express ourselves, in all of our aspects.