by Yvonne Abraham
Bell hooks calls this the patriarchal pulpit," says Rebecca Walker, by
way of introduction, as she steps up to the lectern at the front of Faneuil
Hall for a Ford Hall Forum in late March. "But I hope to create a more
interactive experience. I hope we can have a real time of sharing together."
Walker, editor of an anthology of writing by young women and men called To
Be Real (in its fourth printing), and head of the women's activist group
Third Wave, is tall and hip, with curly hair cut close to her head. Her silver
rings catch the lights whenever she moves her hands, which is often. She seems
completely at ease before the hundred or so mostly young, mostly rapt women
looking up at her. She sprinkless her speech with pop references only the
younger folks in the audience would understand. They nod and laugh
At age 27, Walker is already a veteran of such appearances, one of
magazine's 50 future leaders of America and a face of late-'90s feminism. "I
want to tell you a bit about what was going on in my life when I put this book
together," she continues. "I realized that not only would people in my
generation have to redefine feminism, but I would, too. That terrified me."
Traditional feminism is mostly about women. Third-wave writing, by contrast,
is mostly about feminism. As a critique of the second wave, the third wave
makes enough sense to be appealing. And by repackaging it for younger women,
third-wave writers give feminism serious style and accessibility points.
Which it apparently needs quite badly. A 1992 Time magazine survey
found that although 57 percent of respondents believed there was still a need
for a women's movement, only 29 percent thought of themselves as feminists.
When Toni Troop, president of the Greater Boston branch of the National
Organization for Women, talks to young women in high schools and colleges,
"More than 80 percent of them come down unequivocally in favor of women's
rights," she says. "But if you ask them if they're feminists, they're not so
"It felt to me like younger women felt discomfort identifying with feminism
general," says Walker. "And from the older women there was a lot of disdain and
a real lack of understanding of the perspective of the younger women."
Walker is more respectful of the feminism of her mother, Alice Walker, and of
her godmother, Gloria Steinem, than some of her contemporaries are. Both she
and Naomi Wolf hold more-traditional feminist positions than do Denfeld,
Roiphe, and especially Lehrman. But they share a fundamental complaint: they
feel oppressed, to varying degrees, by traditional feminism. Despite its many
achievements, second-wave feminism has become a thorn in young women's sides.
For some of Walker's contemporaries, it has even become the enemy.
Backlash, The Beauty Myth, feminist lawyer Catharine MacKinnon,
antipornography activist Andrea Dworkin, NOW, Ms. magazine -- they're
all selling a brand of feminism, and a view of women, that doesn't quite fit
anymore. Too political, overly pessimistic, stuck on conspiracy theories, not
mindful enough of women's individual experiences. By contrast, third-wave
writers put women's private lives -- particularly their own -- front and
"There's this continual need to overpoliticize many issues I now feel are
personal issues," says Lipstick Proviso author Karen Lehrman. "That
takes the responsibility off women and puts it on society and government, and I
think women themselves need to do it."
Even Naomi Wolf, whose The Beauty Myth has been much criticized
by third-wave writers, has modified her tune. "The thesis of books like
Backlash and The Beauty Myth are true," she says, "but that's not
the whole truth. The mindset of the second wave is far more primed to lead a
young writer like me to do the conspiratorial analysis of how women are
victimized rather than how we can end our victimization." Second-wave
feminism's us-versus-them mentality, Wolf says, "is not very spiritually
Walker reads from To Be Real, from her own introduction: "A year
I started this book, my life was like a feminist ghetto. Every decision I made,
person I spent time with, word I uttered, had to measure up to an image I had
in my mind of what was morally and politically right according to my vision of
female empowerment." Then she reads from several essays, including
one by a
woman guilt-ridden about liking misogynist hip-hop, and another by Naomi Wolf
about her discomfort with her own white wedding. All of the essays are about
their authors' struggles to apply feminism to their lives a generation after
the women's movement as we know it began.
And they seem to agree that the struggle is harder than it should be --
precisely because the previous generation of feminists achieved so much.
Traditional feminism is still spouting fire and revolutionary zeal when --
hello Roe v. Wade, Pat Schroeder, Hillary, family leave, soccer moms --
lots of good stuff has already happened for women. Second-wave feminism, they
argue, needs to chill out, and stop telling women what to do and how to act to
qualify as good feminists.
Traditional feminism, says Roiphe, raised awareness of date rape, but it went
too far -- making all women into powerless victims, taking the fun out of sex.
Feminism has rightly exposed the wrongs of men, says Denfeld, but now
persecutes them, and relegates women to the quasi-Victorian status of
long-suffering victims. Feminism has successfully introduced women's studies in
colleges, but classes have turned into kooky, back-rubby, group-therapy
victimhood sessions, says Lehrman, who also argues that feminism denies women
their femininity. Feminism has put the kibosh on chivalry, a fact both Lehrman
and Roiphe lament. And it has devalued motherhood, making women feel as if they
have to combine high-powered careers and family even when they don't
really want to.
For younger women who reaped the benefits of the women's movement, such
criticisms make sense: women's studies can be overly therapeutic; some
feminists do see women as helpless victims and all men as potential rapists;
and some traditional feminists do underestimate the gains women have made since
the '60s and '70s. For those women, a feminism based on the assumption that
women can't take personal responsibility for their own lives is mildly
And third-wave writers, eminently marketable in a publishing climate where
marketing is all, present women like themselves with an attractive,
free-to-be-me alternative to traditional feminism. Mostly in their 20s or early
30s, stylish and cool, these writers stare out from moody black-and-whites on
their book jackets. They infuse their work with pop-culture references, writing
refreshingly, candidly, and optimistically about sex and clothes. They
celebrate young women's freedom, and are comfortable assuming they have plenty
What's not to like?
Yvonne Abraham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.