5 Jan 2009

Feminism in 2009 - Go Fourth!

It's the New Year and time to Go Fourth for Feminism! You'll be relieved to know that I did take a day or two off of campaigning over the winter break to gorge myself on cheese and crackers, but now I'm back and fitter for the fight than ever. And what better way to shift a couple of Christmas pounds than grabbing a hammer and smashing patriarchy? Lift, and smash! Lift, and smash!

So it's a new year and so much is still to be done for Feminism before we leave the noughties altogether and I hit (whisper!) 38.

100 years since Joan of Arc was beatified in Rome, 100 years since Alice Huyer Ramsey became the first woman to drive across America, 2009 is hardly a big centenary year for Women. But we can make this year our own by making it the year that Fourth Wave Feminism was launched in the UK and spread across the globe like a tsunami. Have you seen Akira? Imagine the blob Tetsuo expanding to engulf Tokyo. Now imagine me doing the same with patriarchy. Pretty impressive, n'est pas?

But a brave new ideology needs some intellectual wrangling. What's more, it needs RULES. At a drinks party last weekend, glowing from the convivial atmosphere and one too many Gin Fizzes, I found myself trying to describe the four waves of Feminism to an Homme Non Partisan (that's one-off from a chauvinist, the kind who says "I think women should be equal with men but there's no need for Feminism anymore". Well, I say there's no need for you anymore. Now leave existence, petit homme!) .

Explaining Waves One to Three was a doddle, but when I came to Wave Four, I found myself a little lost for words. For the solitary architect of Wave Four to be so at a loss in describing her own revolutionary movement was a far from acceptable predicament. I've now sought to right this on the blog, having provided him with a link to follow at his own leisure.

So, Barry, this is for you.

Fourth Wave Feminism is not merely a rebranding of the Third Wave. This is no Pasta Hut gimick. Fourth Wave Feminism aims to resolve the empty soul-searching of Third Wave Feminism and return us to a juicy state akin to the passionate militancy, de jure inequality-bashing and sharp-tailoring of the First Wave. This is What a Suffragette Looks Like is our motto. The Second Wave was all well and good and the Third Wave had it's moments, but I say we are now in a stage akin to a Late-Third Wave, where even Feminists have lost the plot.

For educated and 'experimental' sex-positive practitioners, developing ideas such as gender queer, womanism, transgender and that-sort-of-thing, life couldn't be better. But outside of educated and bohemian circles, women who are encouraged to be sex-positive are being pushed into cycles of self-denigrating oppression no more fulfilling than the submissive existence of a Playboy Bunny.

Sex-Positivity only works when you're doing something terribly unusual and if you've read an awful lot of Judith Butler. For everyone else, it's a massive mixed message that leads to twelve year olds in G-strings and teenage girls who want nothing more than to be dishonoured on a dance floor by a stranger.

The Third Wave was about personality politics and individual choice, under the auspices of consumer capitalism. It began innocently enough. "Yes, I can be a Feminist and buy lipstick", women cried. Indeed, I personally swear by Dior #999. Then came the likes of "I can be a Feminist and get breast implants." Serious? I'd say that's less easy to call. Why do you need those breast implants? Do you feel as strongly about the breast implants as you do about Feminism? Didn't think so.

By the time we reached, "I can be a Feminist and be masturbated by robots on the bonnet of a pink Chevy for cash and on film," we knew things had gone too far. Why? Because Feminism isn't the same thing as doing exactly what you like. Feminism is about asking why it is you like the things you do and then deciding whether those likes are truly original to yourself, as far as is possible in any society. Feminism is as much a critique of individual desires as it is of the societies in which they flourish. Treating each degrading and vain desire as if they are equal to noble or uplifting wishes is cynical, damaging and idiotic. What's worse, it's making someone a lot of money somewhere, probably in the head office of Ann Summers where you buy your candy handcuffs and cherry scented lubes, foolish woman!

Finally, fundamentally, Feminism is about improving the quality of life of WOMEN. Anything that conflicts with that is not Feminism. That is being a hedonist, an egotist, a sadist and a pornocrat. Feminism can't be all those things, silly!

So, this is not a manifesto. It's a reconnaissance mission. The Femifesto will follow, once I've really worked out what I'm up against. Watch this space!


  1. Do you honestly think that's what third wave feminism is about? I'm 23 and consider myself a third wave feminism. One of the most important things third wave feminism did was finally bring race and class issues into the spotlight. Where is your analysis of this in "fourth wave feminism"? How can you possibly leave race and class out of a comprehensive analysis of gender and sexuality?

    I disagree with your definition. Feminism is NOT solely about improving the quality of life for women, but everyone. "Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression." This means oppression and exploitation for all, not just the white middle class female feminists.

  2. Hi, and thanks for taking an interest! As I said, the post wasn't a manifesto for Fourth Wave feminism so wasn't at all comprehensive. It's great to address these thoughts now so when the manifesto comes out (I'm thinking a Spring debut) it'll be truly 'universal'.

    I mentioned in my post that many advances in Third Wave feminism took place in academic circles and hence risked alienating women who don't engage with academic writing or discussion. I wouldn't call this a class/race divide - there were plenty of people of various ethnicities, cultures and 'classes' (massive scare-quotes there!) being educating with me when I was at university in London, and I'm sure this is even more so the case now.

    Mostly the Third Wave annoys me because it comes hand-in-hand with a postmodern/ post-structuralist anxiety about the proliferation of multiple identities and the risk of saying anything negative about anyone else's (this is so NOT a veiled right-wing point, btw, I *heart* postmodernism/post-structuralism, read on!). Firstly, this involves defining someone else as ‘other’ than yourself, which is always uncomfortable, especially over coffee. Secondly, it’s unsustainable, because feminist critique continues to attack (and rightly so!) feminine identity 'forms' that are enforced on women by culture, mainstream media and traditions which are better left in the past. This methodology allows patriarchs and cultural producers (capitalists) to respond to feminist calls for change with the snide reply that in their tawdry and chauvinist output they are representing women’s wishes and merely appealing to ‘a kind of woman’ unlike ‘humourless’ feminists but nevertheless ‘real’. So apparently there are women out there who fit the mainstream model of ‘womanhood’. I bet they’re miserable.

    An attack on a false identity becomes an attack on all forms of identity and therefore unsustainable within our current form of thought. I have read an awful lot of Foucault but this really takes the biscuit. They (patriarchs) take leftist academia and use it against the left! And we let them, for pity!

    I definitely don’t want a return to Second Wave essentialism. I just wish women in the Third Wave would use all their excellent insights into identity construction to make a concerted effort to counteract mainstream and vested cultural essentialism. It’s well enough to have made these changes in your private life and in feminist forums, but I just don’t see it translating into the wider world. Plenty of people are still alienated from feminism and still think feminism is ‘unnecessary’. We’ve spent too long perfecting our rhetoric to preach to the converted. How can feminism reach a broader audience?

    In terms of 'class' (which I hate thinking of as upper, middle and lower, and hence I just won't) it tends to be vulnerable women in lower income brackets with less access to education and opportunities who are most damaged by the expectations of consumer culture and identity formation which target women. Perhaps this is what people think of as 'lower' class, but I think this is massively reductive and, as the daughter of a fishmonger and a plumber, I disagree with the assumption that the working classes need "their own kind of feminism" as the nasty middle class one can't apply to them. This is a critique of feminism as much as it is of the middle classes, and I think third wave feminism fails us by being too (Anyway, I'm a socialist, so I loathe the middle classes. Why do you assume I'm middle class?)

    I agree that feminism is about improving the quality of life of women who aren't just middle class, that's why I said "women" rather than "middle class women". I also agree that this will involve improving the quality of life of everyone, but only because the well-being of women is good for societies and will entail massive social change. Feminism (practised my men and women) surely can only have situations that involve women's issues as a goal - and that TOTALLY involves gender deconstruction of both sexes and such legal battles as parental leave for partners of either sex. Perhaps this will change in the future when more battles have been won, but I think feminists are too busy now with feminism to take on other issues - although I'd love it if we were all Greens and socialists! But I'm not going to get my way too soon and let’s face it, we're not Charlie's Angels!

  3. Sorry, in the second-to-last paragraph I sort of forgot to add in an adjective. Here's the quote.

    "This is a critique of feminism as much as it is of the middle classes, and I think third wave feminism fails us by being too"

    I'm not sure what I was going to say, probably something like "too patronising, middle class and crap".

  4. I believe the focus for New Feminism is about not taking the rights you have for granted. Women have NOT always had the CHOICES they have now - and it wasn't that long ago....

    Did you know that women in France didn't even have the right to vote until after WWII? When I grew up, women (if they were to have their own incomes at all) became either teachers or nurses (I subsequently became a lawyer - but that was breaking the mold).

    Early feminists told us women needed two BASIC things - (1) an equal economic playing field with men (that assumes equal access to education) and (2) control over our reproductive systems.

    You can divide feminism into as many 'waves' as you like, but the fact of the matter is that TODAY a large majority of women in the WORLD (and that includes 'middle America' do NOT have these two BASICS.