Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Second Wave Feminism, Beauvoir, and me

Simone de Beauvoir is often credited as the foremother of second wave feminism. The Second Sex, which came out in 1949 in French, and 1953 in English, long predates what we think of as second wave feminism, all that 1970's style agitation over equal pay for equal work, etc. But Beauvoir gets it, 20 years earlier.

I'm teaching it in a class for first year students right now, and as we were walking to class yesterday I heard one of my students (a young woman) say to another (also a young woman): "She really makes me hate being a woman. I never hated it before, but she really makes me see how it sucks."

I told Mark this last night and he wondered what planet she'd been on. But I've actually never really met an 18-year-old feminist. Not in this country. American girls may indeed face discrimination (indeed, I'd argue that they do) but they often don't see it. Especially the high-achieving ones I teach. They have, after all, succeeded at the thing that matters most in one's youth: school. They have faced little or no discrimination there, at least not overtly. They have been offered the same courses as the boys in their schools, the same (or, usually, at least equivalent) opportunities for athletic competition, the same extra-curricular activities. They have not been told that their brains are too small for them to study science, or that they're too emotional to understand math. They have not been told, in other words, that their biology is their destiny. All of this is, in fact, the result of seventies feminism, of Title IX and heightened awareness of gender discrimination in schools and consciousness-raising among teachers. So when Beauvoir hits them with this right up front, they are taken back to a place they thought was long gone, and they don't like it. And she spends a good bit of time on biology, and some of it is hard to take: "woman is the victim of the species," for example. That's an interesting way to think about your mom in the minivan, isn't it? And not a pleasant one.

So. Because they have been offered these equal opportunities, if they have failed to make use of them they take it personally. That is, if they have stopped being interested in math they have not blamed the teacher or the way math is taught; they have simply stopped being interested in math. (Like Barbie, maybe?) In America we prefer to think of ourselves as autonomous individuals, after all, which means we prefer not to engage in analysis of systems: when someone stays home raising children we frame it as a choice, not a result of systematic decisions and social constraints (see yesterday's post and comments for a little more on this). I, too, want to think in terms of autonomy (so does Beauvoir, ultimately), but a little systematic analysis allows for a more fruitful discussion of it. Only when we see how our choices are constrained can we finally analyze the ones we can and do make.

So I put the text of the equal rights amendment up on the board. Not one student recognized it. That, to me, is a failure of seventies feminism, and every feminism since then.

If we have time, I want to come back to it and discuss Phyllis Schlafly as well. As many others before me have pointed out, Schlafly took advantage of any number of "second wave" advances for women, to deny them to other women. She argued for keeping our "privileges" as women over advancing our rights. But those "privileges" cease to operate as privilege in a time of economic scarcity, as we all know. And so as long as those second-wave battles are not yet won, I don't really know how we can call ourselves any sort of a "third wave."


Claudia said...

Libby (2nd attempt - first comment vaporized!) - I have been pondering these issues lately as well. Have you read Rosalind Miles' The Women's History of the World (also published as Who Cooked the Last Supper?). Eye-opening and confirming. Clearly lays out the history of women and our loss of the "upper hand" - matriarchies, etc. - right around the time of Christianity. Men suddenly discovered they played a part in the creation of the species and the "worship of the phallus" began. We've never fully recovered. My husband is also a part-time instructor and part-time stay-at-home dad; I'm the 'breadwinner' and hope my daughters' work/life balance has many more options to choose from than I have. Claudia

Sandra said...

It's probably hard to find an 18 year old who calls herself a feminist these days in part because feminism isn't something that's often discussed in a serious way lately. It seems as if it's been reduced to public squabbles over Maureen Dowd's love life and whether a woman should work or stay home.

When I was an 18 year old who considered myself a feminist, the news was about the ERA and women entering the professions in larger numbers. In jr. high, we asked each other "Are you for women's lib?" It was something kids talked about.

But even back then, older feminists complained that younger women took the movement for granted, and they were right. Younger people just don't have the longer view, the perspective to see the bigger picture. I remember reading, in college, that marriage and motherhood radicalize women, and I didn't truly understand how and why that would be.

I'm constantly surprised at how little has changed in children's lives because of feminism. My daughter started kindergarten in 1998 and the first thing the teacher did was divide the students into a boys' line and a girls' line. I was shocked and at first I thought she was joking (she wasn't).

I just heard my high school is being remodeled. That means for the last 25 years the girls have had the crappy locker rooms and the small gym. When I was in school, I didn't even realize that was a feminist issue, and I question how many who came in the years afterwards saw it or talked about it.

Things have changed on the surface. There are a few prominent women in high positions, but all the underlying assumptions about gender are still there under the surface. Every profile of a public woman includes a discussion of her family life, and the same is not true when we read an article about a prominent man. When the NYT publishes an article about unruly children in coffee shops, it's mothers, not fathers, who are criticized and scrutinized.

Libby said...

Sandra, this: "marriage and motherhood radicalize women"-- is so true. For me, anyway. I was a feminist before I married, but raising children has only intensified that. And, Claudia, I'm glad I'm not the only one married to a part-time stay-home dad (Mark's home full time right now, but would rather be part time...). I haven't read Miles but it sounds like background for The Red Tent and other things I've read. (Though The Red Tent takes the demise of matriarchy back to Judaism, long before Christ...) The thing is, Christianity doesn't HAVE to be patriarchal--or, at least, Jesus-ism doesn't--but the history is pretty bleak. I do think the best thing we can do is show our daughters--and our sons--different models. And if I reach a few of my students along the way, so much the better.

kate.d. said...

yes, yes, and yes. this post is fantastic.

i picked up "the second sex" on a whim the summer after i graduated college. i already had many feminist inclinations, and understood a lot about systematized discrimination and prejudice, but that book changed me. say what you will about de beauvoir's theories (and i recognize they're up for debate and discussion in terms of relevance), that book revolutionized the way i saw things.

the ERA - sheesh. the fact that no one seems bothered by the fact that we couldn't pass it is shocking to me.

Jami said...

"They have not been told that their brains are too small for them to study science, or that they're too emotional to understand math."

I heard a new variation on this -- "estrogen makes you stupid" -- just a year or two ago, and you may have noted the Harvard Larry Summers "innate differences" brouhaha a while back. They find new ways to say it, but it's the same thing.

tekanji said...

Interesting article. Feminism has always been part of my identity (although my expression of it has changed throughout my lifetime) and when I was younger I took it for granted that everyone (minus the Bad People) was a feminist. How shocked was I when, at the age of 19, I discovered that not only did most people not think of themselves as feminists, they thought feminists were somehow "bad"! I've never quite gotten over that blow.

And so as long as those second-wave battles are not yet won, I don't really know how we can call ourselves any sort of a "third wave."

You're looking at the "second-wave" vs. "third-wave" stuff from the wrong angle, although I suppose the names themselves lend to such a reading. Third-wave feminism didn't spring up because second-wave had "finished" its fight, but rather it was one natural divergence from a school of thought that many feminists felt didn't meet their specific needs. Third-wave feminism fights many (if not all) of the same battles that second-wave feminism fights, just not always in the same way as second-wave feminism. I guess what I'm trying to say is that it's not such a black and white reading as you imply with your statement.

Libby said...

True enough, Tekanji. I was being sloppy about the waves.

And, I'm glad there are young feminists (or formerly young feminists) out there. I never did claim the identity at that age myself, believing it irrelevant. Ha!

And I have just spent a week or more teaching Beauvoir to students who tell me she's not relevant, who make all kinds of claims for how women are equal now, but who still expect to stay home with their kids and take their husband's names and be "taken care of." I know there are feminist SAHMs, and feminists who change their names (I did), but the whole taking care of thing, the whole package, truly concerns me.

tekanji said...

I know there are feminist SAHMs, and feminists who change their names (I did), but the whole taking care of thing, the whole package, truly concerns me.

It concerns me, too. I hate it how since women have earned the "right" to "act like men", people suddenly think that we're equal or something.

Oh, yeah, men and women are totally on equal footing. Which is why:
1) being called "girly" or a "sissy" or "pussy" is one of the worst insults you can give a guy;

2) a lot of men won't walk through a door I hold open specifically for them;

3) many women will have no problem taking their husband's name but many men still balk at the idea of even considering adopting their wife's name;

and 4) women (even those with careers) are still expected to do 90% of the home/childcare, while the media whines how mothers "can't have it all" but would never levy the same complaint about fathers (who should, in an equal world, be just as burdened).

True equality would be valuing women, and traditional women's work, as equal to men and traditional men's work.

Ha, sorry for the diatribe. It's just the whole "but men and women are equal now!" BS really burns my butt. ^^;

Alee said...

My name is Alee and I'm 16 years old.
I'm currently doing a research paper on Feminism in the 1960's and 1970's (aka: Second Wave Feminism).
I came across your livejournal by searching the web for valid resources that do not simply copy Wikipedia.
Blah, good luck to me!
Anyway, I really liked reading your entry. I'm not a feminist but I appreciate the values women have fought for. I suppose the younger generation does not really think about their freedoms and such. I know I'm too busy trying to make it by in chemistry. But the gender differences are very noticeable. Take a random rap song (a fallacy on my behalf to pick on rappers) - their lyrics are absolutely obscene. They are so derogatory when they describe women! It's enough to make me gag. But some girls are so BLIND. They listen to the music, quote it, sing it, and claim it's harmless.
Hm, well, I could go on ranting about today's society, but I'll get to the point. Thank you for showing me the tragedy of the second wave feminism - society failed to remember.

Anonymous said...

I believe it is taxing for people to be feminists. I think that some feminists in the 70's gave up because they were exhausted of the fight. They were either exhausted or satisfied with the way society had advanced for women. Many of the "third-wave" feminists are under the impression we have come a really long way. In many respects this is true, but in many other respects this is false.

Sydney said...

As an 18 year-old woman-identified feminist I have to disagree with your point. There are many more of us, we just may not choose to label ourselves as such because the label is just so limiting. The idea of a "feminist" communicates an image of the 2nd Wave Feminist which in itself carries such a negative connotation (i.e. historically the movement has ignored minority women's unique problems, it also seemed to create a new elitism, among many other issues) While it is true that the movement has done so much for girls today, just ask any young girl out there a series of questions, and you will see that while the girl may deny "being a feminist" she will identify with feminist ideology and confirm her status as equal to any man. I think that that shows the REAL work that feminists strived for because it shows that the idea of female equality is so INGRAINED in our culture today that to think otherwise would be ludicrous.

Chimbles said...

People need to open their eyes. Unfortunately, as you have mentioned some women just further along the stereotypes that men use to disadvantage the females.