Feminism: The next generation?

Caroline Moseley



Princeton NJ -- Professor of History Christine Stansell is a specialist in the history of gender in the United States. On the faculty since 1982 (and at Princeton before that, as a member of the class of 1971), she teaches "Women and Gender in America," "Sex and Sexuality," urban history and, next fall, a new course in the history of women's rights. She is the author, most recently, of "American Moderns: Bohemian New York" (Metropolitan Books, 2000) and is, in addition, a frequent contributor to the New Republic.

Her review essay, "Girlie, Interrupted: The Generational Progress of Feminism," appeared in the New Republic of Jan. 15. In the essay, she discusses "Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future" by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards; "Dear Sisters: Dispatches from the Women's Liberation Movement" edited by Rosalind Baxandall and Linda Gordon; and memoirs by Betty Freidan and Brenda Feigen.

She shared some observations on the status of feminism today with the Princeton Weekly Bulletin.

What is "feminism"?

Feminism is a variant of a very long tradition of thinking about the condition of women that can most easily be dated to Mary Wollstonecraft's "Vindication of the Rights of Women," published in 1792. The movement actually goes back before that to the writings of a number of aristocratic European women. The term appeared first in France in the 1890s, and was adopted in England and the United States. It denoted a particular concern with self-expression and individual self-realization that had not been present in the earlier women's rights tradition.

What is "first wave" feminism?

What we call the first wave was the movement that began in 1848 in Seneca Falls, N.Y., with the first gathering in the world devoted specifically to women's rights. Out of that meeting came what was at first a very small group of women -- for example, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth -- concerned with righting the wrongs society imposed on women.

After the Civil War, that movement broadened and diversified, so that by the 1890s it became arguably the most broad-based social movement in the country. It culminated with winning suffrage in 1920.

Then, the discussion of women's rights went into abeyance. It's as if suffrage solved everything, though, for example, women were routinely excluded from juries, because of their domestic obligations, until the 1960s.

And the "second wave"?

The second wave of organized feminism we can date -- depending on which you chose -- from 1962, and JFK's Commission on the Status of Women, or from 1965, and the founding of the National Organization of Women. These events began a debate that was then carried forth in the context of the civil rights movement.

We still live in the midst of that movement, it seems to me.

Who are the Elizabeth Cady Stantons and Lucretia Motts of the movement of the '60s?

There are a lot of well-known names -- like Gloria Steinem, Alice Walker. But to me, the most interesting participants are the more hidden women, those in the professions and the workplace who crossed what were nearly insurmountable sex barriers when they started out. These women made some kind of lives for themselves as doctors, lawyers, academics, plumbers, carpenters, in what were initially very unpropitious circumstances.

The lawyers are the ones who litigated things we now take for granted, such as better treatment of rape victims. The doctors among them were the ones who made medical care far more congenial to women.

To me, there is much that is hidden in the second wave, much that is not captured in Ms. magazine.

Is there a "third wave"?

There are a number of young women writers who are calling for a third wave -- or something, at any rate, with a new name, something they can identify with their own psychology of independence -- women like Jennifer Baumgarten and Amy Richards, whom I reviewed in the New Republic. The young women take equality for granted, and don't want their mother's dusty old feminism.

To me, the problem is not that there is a sharp break with earlier feminists, but, rather, that there is so much continuity, so much contact between the generations. It's harder for younger women to cohere as a separate force, and they are looking for some kind of identity of their own. It seems that feminism is old enough to have produced its own vexed family dynamics.

We read a lot about backlash. What's happening?

I don't think much of anything is happening. The media love to play up the backlash because it creates a cat fight. They love cat fights -- they are spectacular, and seeing women go after each other panders to a lot of popular stereotypes. The media like finding women who will say feminism is out-of-date -- take Laura Doyle, who wrote "The Surrendered Wife: A Practical Guide to Finding Intimacy, Passion and Peace with a Man." There's a media niche for the antifeminist writer or pundit. But you can't have more than two or three at a time because they compete for talk show space.

So what does the future look like?

The great problem no one has really addressed is how to create public social arrangements that allow for women's full presence in the world, that support women in not having to take on so many of the burdens of life at home, and to do so in such a way that still allows intimate life to flourish and families to flourish. Child care will keep on being an issue, abortion will keep on being an issue.

There has been some fresh thinking. For example Ann Crittenden's "The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World is Still the Least Valued" suggests, among other financial and tax arrangements, a "family income" that exists as long as there are dependent children, even in the event of divorce.

As an alumna, and a faculty member, are you encouraged or discouraged by contemporary feminist consciousness?

If you compare universities in 1971 to universities in 2001, you are looking at two entirely different societies. When I came to this campus as an undergraduate, a woman couldn't walk across campus without encountering leers, snickers and funny looks. Now our women move with complete ease, not only around the campus, but around the world.

Sometimes I think I'm too sanguine, because I've lived through such a change in this incredibly male environment. Certainly, much remains to be done, but the most debilitating assumptions and suspicions about women are no longer operative, and this is a cause for joy.

Actually, universities are a paradigmatic case of second wave feminism with a third wave constituency. Those of us who began in the '70s in difficult circumstances are playing before an audience of young women who think our presence testifies to the fact that there is no problem.

It's a peculiar kind of moment.


April 30, 2001
Vol. 90, No. 26
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University trustees honor Shapiros
Trustees vote to revamp residential college system
Students go to the head of the class
Scientists pinpoint neurons as source of 'body sense'
Auditors are learning and teaching
Glass slipper tale is perfect fit for Cotsen

Leader in plasma physics dies
Feminism: The next generation?

By the numbers: Financial aid
Nassau Notes
Calendar of events

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