Wednesday, May 01, 2013

nostalgia for the second wave

The history of feminism is usually defined by waves:  the first wave was the era of the suffragettes, women fighting for the most basic rights--the right to vote, to own property, to hold a job; the second wave was the feminism of my college years, the era of fighting for equality--a woman can be just as good as a man at anything she wants to do; the third wave started somewhere around the 90s, and acknowledged that women's rights come in all different sizes, shapes, colors, races, and ethnicities.

In the 80s, we were all about getting rid of the trappings of femininity that had limited what we could do--the traditional women's roles of cooking and housekeeping and raising children took up so much time that you couldn't do anything else.  We were all about convenience foods and day care and streamlined plans for cleaning the house (or not cleaning at all) because suddenly there was a whole world of things we'd rather do--write a software program or go for a hike or become a potter or work overtime to advance our careers.

All the old female pastimes seemed like a cage that was designed to hold us back.  We wanted to be taken seriously, because we hadn't been before; we wanted to be judged on the merits of what we could do, not on how we looked or what we wore or (worst of all) what our husbands/bosses did.  We wanted a level playing field with the men.

The obvious outward sign of this was clothing.  When I was in early grade school in the 60s, girls were still required to wear dresses or skirts to school.  The boys could run around the playground, hang from the monkey bars, and slide down the slide, but if you were wearing a dress, there were serious limitations to what you could do.  Some of us figured out how to wear shorts under our dresses (Danskins were perfect because they fit snugly and didn't show), but even then you ended up with a bunch of fabric wadded up around your waist that boys just didn't have to deal with.

So when the second wave came along, most of us were overjoyed to switch to jeans, pants, gauchos (remember those?)--anything that didn't restrict our movement.  Skirts and dresses became something that you wore to weddings, funerals, and job interviews.  High heels were seen as a torture device designed by patriarchy to keep us looking good but unable to move. Fussy clothing--ruffles, lace, bows, puffs-- UGH.  I wanted nothing to do with any of it.

So it was with a great deal of surprise that I and many other second wave feminists watched the third wave take up girl-y clothing and make it into its own kind of power.  Girl power, grrrrl power, however you want to spell it-- you had the Spice Girls wearing 5-inch platform shoes and even though they were all adults, being unabashedly girly.  Manicures that had to be fussed over, mini-skirts that kept you from being able to lean over, stiletto heels that would break the ankles of lesser humans--instead of signs of weakness and subservience, these became signs of female power. We can kick ass and look good doing it.  We bring men to their knees.

There were, of course, many great things about this.  First of all, it meant that this generation of women could take it for granted that they would be taken seriously, which is is something so profoundly wonderful that it brings tears to my eyes to think about it.  They could wear flirty, feminine clothes, dress like an eight-year-old, a vamp, or a diva, and it didn't even seem to occur to them to worry that someone would ignore them or accuse them of sleeping their way to the top.

And there were lesser positives, too-- when I was in high school, having your bra strap showing was enough to send you red-faced and embarrassed to the restroom to stow it away again.  By the mid 90s, camisoles were designed specifically to show your bra strap, and underwear came in vivid colors and animal prints--the whole intention was for it to be seen.  And it was lot of fun to play dress-up and feel powerful doing it.

But there were also moments when I just shook my head--like one time I was wandering around the women's clothing section at REI and came across a bunch of tops intended for rock climbing that tied with a bow in back.  Seriously?  How can you be taken seriously as an athlete if your clothing ties in a bow? What if it came untied and presented a climbing hazard?  But of course times had changed.  No one thought about it like that anymore.  I can already hear how a third waver would respond:  Just because I climb with the guys doesn't mean I have to look like one.

Recently I've wondered if things have finally come full circle.  I've been increasingly disturbed at the pictures that women post of themselves--or parts of themselves.  Cleavage shots, shots of their butts, torso shots where their only coverage is an arm across their breasts.  It's the same thing of course-- women feeling powerful in their bodies, and proud of how they look--and there's nothing wrong with that. I will admit to some prudish, eyebrow-raised reactions, but usually even I can tell that this isn't about prudery.

But it has struck me recently as a little odd that we've gone in the past thirty years from women being outraged that they might be judged for their tits and ass to now being insistent on being judged that way. If you use a cleavage shot as your profile picture, it almost demands that people see you as a pair of boobs.

It's not an observation that they would appreciate.  They see it as a claiming of their own power to be able to revel in looking good.  But as a former card-carrying member of the second wave, it just strikes me as odd.


  1. I want women to be able to do what they want, but, I too see where you're coming from.

    1. Hmmm. I hope I didn't sound critical- I meant to just point out the difference in mindset.

    2. The phone version of blogger drives me nuts! Wasn't finished. It really struck me recently looking at the pictures that women post on fitocracy.

  2. I missed this yesterday, and then I saw an e-mail update tonight that you had a new post. Oh no, it turns out, you had DONE SOMETHING to an existing one. Lol, I adore that these notices show up!

    This is such a concise, and yet personal, post.
    Well done.
    (Now, leave it the hell alone.) :-)

    1. It must be some weird thing about being on my phone- I posted this one on Wednesday while I was still at home and edited it once right after because there was a huge typo, but I haven't touched it since, I promise. The phone interface is a huge pain and the wifi at this hotel is $12.95 per day!!! So maybe I will just wait till I get back to update. I'm in DC with my sisters - a trip we've been planning for

    2. See what I mean? Geeze. Anyway we've been planning it for years. :-)

  3. Lol, gotcha.

    Traveling with siblings! Have fun, and hug a sister for me, 'kay?
    (Any one, I'm not picky.)

    Also? I totally get the "huge typo" thing!

  4. I'm third wave and I, too, cringe at the cleavage and butt shots on fb. Because as long as someone will pose with her top off (hello, kate upton) someone will look and even pay for the privilege. I've been wearing minimizing harness like bras for ages to try to conceal my assets so I can have freedom of movement and not look like the prow of a ship. So keep your boobs in your top and I'll take you seriously, people!! (rattles cane against fence rail in crotchety manner)

    1. I know it's funny how to some women it is an expression of their personal power to post revealing photos of themselves, but to others of us, there's no quicker way to guarantee that you're not going to be taken seriously for your brains and who you are than to start up front with your ummmmmm..... physical assets. I suppose the first group would argue that they want to be sexy AND smart and whatever, and more power to them. I guess the reason why I've been thinking about this so much is that it's a conflict for me personally with the way I was raised, which I don't want to condone, but on the other hand, well, I think I've already said all that. Sorry to go on and on. I was on a plane and in airports, etc for 12 hours yesterday, not to mention that the Kate Upton cover shot is still on every newsstand in every airport, so I probably spent more time thinking about this issue yesterday than it is worth. I think there has to be some sort of middle ground where you can be smart and sexy and not have to post a picture of boobs as your profile picture, as if that's all you are. OK, I'm stopping now. :D