“I am not a postfeminism feminist. I am the Third Wave,” proclaimed Yale senior Rebecca Walker in January 1992. She was calling on her generation via Ms. magazine to claim their place in feminist history and to reanimate a women’s movement that had seemed dated, if not defunct.
The daughter of novelist Alice Walker and the goddaughter of Gloria Steinem, Walker had grown up with a feminism as normal and invisible as fluoride in the water; but even those contemporaries who lacked her exceptional opportunities had lived their entire lives in a culture shaped by the women’s movement.
Coming of age with contraception and legal abortion, they took feminism for granted, or dismissed it as irrelevant.
But that attitude changed, Walker wrote, when young women were outraged by the spectacle of Anita Hill testifying on sexual harassment before 14 skeptical white male members of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings.
By naming her feminist generation the Third Wave, Walker followed the standard historical description of periods of American feminism as intense surges of political activism followed by tranquil decades of consolidation, backlash or retreat.
The first wave was the suffrage movement, culminating in the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Fifty years later, in the second wave, women came together to fight for equal rights to education, employment, housing and protection under the law.
“Feminism Unfinished,” however, points out that the wave allegory obscures the history of a continuous American women’s movement sustained by labor activists, civil rights advocates and social-reform campaigners, who may have looked placid on the surface but were paddling like hell underneath.
Each of the three authors contributes a chapter to their history of American feminism, and they hope that uncovering the “multiple and unfinished feminisms of the twentieth century can inspire” the women’s movements of the 21st. The book’s position on the potential for another American women’s movement is more cautious and qualified than the title suggests. The real surprise is that the authors believe the U.S. “no longer serves as a world leader when it comes to gender equality” and that the future of feminism may well be global rather than American.
In her chapter on “Feminism After Suffrage,” Dorothy Sue Cobble, professor of history and labor studies at Rutgers, explores the history of American women in the labor movement and civil rights organizations in the decades after the 19th Amendment.
In 1966, when the National Organization for Women was founded by Pauli Murray and Betty Friedan as an “NAACP for women,” many social justice feminists resisted an alliance overtly based on women’s rights.
A “feminism” that dared not speak its name was hardly a women’s movement.
In her chapter on “The Women’s Liberation Moment,” Linda Gordon, professor of history and humanities at New York University, gives long-overdue credit to NOW for its stability, discipline and longevity.
She also explains the importance of consciousness-raising in the 1970s. Many women were unaware of their own limited opportunities or secondary roles as a political problem. Small leaderless groups, in which women came together to talk about their lives, led them to realize that “the personal was political,” their intimate and private experiences in the family, school, the workplace, sexuality, marriage and divorce were shared by millions of other women.
These epiphanies were then channeled into political organization, coalitions and effective action. The women’s liberation movement also educated further generations through women’s studies programs, books, manifestos and magazines.
In 1973, two major Supreme Court decisions — one that banned sex-segregated employment ads and Roe v. Wade, making abortion legal — had an immediate and lasting impact on women’s lives.
In the most instructive and challenging chapter, “From a Mindset to a Movement,” Astrid Henry, professor of women’s studies at Grinnell College, traces the development of American feminism since the 1990s.
Twenty-first-century feminism is multiracial and multicultural; it links to LGBT groups and protests the global issues of sexual oppression and violence against women. At the same time, it enjoys and endorses new images of women in pop culture and plays with fashion, makeup and personal style as self-expression.
“Unlike my first- and second-wave predecessors,” one fashionista explains, “no one force-fed me femininity. … I had to fight for it tooth and nail.”
“We began our activism online,” another notes. “Blogs are our consciousness-raising groups.”
But Henry also admits that “the most defining feature of this generation of feminists is its inability to be defined by any single political goal, ideological perspective, or way of being feminist.”
Hashtag feminism “runs the risk of being merely an identity to claim without any political content.” Perhaps, Henry suggests, the diversity and flexibility of “a million little grass-roots movements” are stronger than “one singular vision for social change.”
She points to demonstrations, foundations and fundraising as examples of 21st-century feminist activism. Still, she acknowledges concerns that “feminism as a concept is now so watered-down as to be meaningless.”
Some contemporary feminists are concerned with the major American failure to implement family-friendly policies like state-subsidized child care and paid parental leaves.
As the Washington, D.C., writer Ann Crittenden has pointed out, “this is the big unfinished business of the women’s movement.”
Elaine Showalter is professor emeritus of English and humanities at Princeton University. She is writing a biography of Julia Ward Howe.
Feminism Unfinished: A Short, Surprising History of American Women’s Movements, by Dorothy Sue Cobble, Linda Gordon and Astrid Henry (288 pages; Liveright; $25.95)