by Yvonne Abraham
During question time, Rebecca Walker gets plenty of gushy softballs. A skinny
young man from McGill reverently asks her, "Where are we supposed to come out
of all this?"
"There's no rule book that tells you what it means to be a feminist," Walker
replies. "I'm hoping that To Be Real gives people their own space, to
dig around in their own psyches. I'm looking for a feminism that is
Next, a young black woman, who looks to be about Walker's age, steps up to
microphone. "We've been passing your book around, the four of us," she says,
pointing to her friends, "and we really love it. My question is, what do you
think qualifies you to put this anthology together?"
Walker puts her hand to her chest, gives the woman a quizzical look,
recomposes herself. "That's an interesting question," she says. "I'll try to
take that as a gentle question, and not an antagonistic one. Um, that's pretty
interesting. What makes you ask that question?"
It was simple enough, really, and innocently meant. But it requires a shift
thinking that many of Walker's contemporaries seem to have difficulty making.
Third-wave writers are central to their own works; they're qualified to hold
forth on the fallout from second-wave feminism, and on the situation of women,
because they're living it. Period. No one, after all, would ask what qualifies
someone to write a memoir -- a form to which much third-wave writing comes very
"Well," Walker replies. "I've been thinking about this stuff for a long time,
and I'm as entitled as any other artist or thinker."
As a critique of traditional feminism, third-wave writing makes sense for
women. But a critique of feminism does not a women's movement make. As much as
they criticize second-wave feminists for being overly prescriptive, and for
failing to appreciate each woman's uniqueness, third-wave writers allow their
own lives and experiences to determine their view of where feminism's
priorities should be. And their own lives and experiences are vastly different
from most women's.
To Be Real is composed almost entirely of first-person pieces by
writers digging around in their own psyches, as Walker puts it. Roiphe's The
Morning After, about date-rape hype on college campuses, also draws on her
own experiences (of hype, not rape). Her Last Night in Paradise is about
sexual repression, again drawing heavily on her life, and on that of her
HIV-positive sister. Naomi Wolf's latest, Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle
for Womanhood, about the torture of girls' sexual awakening, goes into
great detail about her own San Francisco adolescence. And Karen Lehrman, who in
a March 30 Washington Post article derided the current memoir epidemic
("Gratuitous displays of a woman's sexual proclivities or emotional angst
aren't necessarily empowering"), begins each of her chapters in The Lipstick
Proviso with an episode from her personal life.
As the swarm of Prozac-, alcohol-, and incest-laden memoirs foisted on the
American public lately shows only too well, that kind of thing sells -- or at
least gets airtime and ink. And these books are riding that trend. Those
marketing folk don't get the big bucks for nothing.
Naomi Wolf, for one, maintains that personal details make feminist books more
accessible to women. But there's a danger in it, too. Self-absorption in a
memoir, tiresome or no, is kind of the point. In some of these feminist books,
though, the writers use their own experiences to drive their arguments, drawing
from them major conclusions about women and feminism, apparently believing
their own experiences to be distillations of all women's.
To wit: in The Morning After, Katie Roiphe challenges the statistics
for acquaintance rape on college campuses: if so many women are being raped,
she asks, wouldn't she know some of them? In The Lipstick Proviso, one
of Lehrman's main arguments is that sisterhood -- the idea that women have
common political interests, a linchpin of traditional feminism -- is a myth ("I
am a sister only to my brother," she writes). To start that chapter, Lehrman
tells the story of her friend "Nena": "tall and thin with cool retro glasses,"
spouter of anti-patriarchal proverbs, roommate of Lehrman's boyfriend. You can
see where this is going: when Lehrman breaks up with her boyfriend, Nena
promptly snatches him for herself. "Since then, I've been far more alert to
women who treat other women with less than sisterly affection," Lehrman writes.
"Artificial sisterhood is not only a crock, as Nena demonstrated," she
concludes. "It is also not especially empowering."
Both Lehrman and Roiphe might have perfectly good points about date rape and
sisterhood, but where they run aground is that, having subjected the reader to
their misty watercolors, they then take the next step and say, "As I go, so go
But Katie Roiphe is not like all women. She grew up in an Upper West Side
brownstone, with Up the Sandbox author Anne Roiphe for a mother; she had
a Princeton education, and a book contract before age 25. Rebecca Walker's
mother is an even more famous writer; Naomi Wolf's parents were ultra-liberal,
and liberated, San Francisco academics. None of this means that their
experiences are any less valid than other women's, but it does seem scary to
suggest that conclusions about the lives of American women -- the welfare
mother in Lawrence, or the housewife in Quincy -- can be extrapolated from
those of Roiphe et al.
This is hardly a novel criticism. Second-wave feminists have been criticized
for being similarly out of touch with ordinary women. But second- and
third-wave feminists were born into very different worlds, and are out of touch
in very different ways. Second-wave feminists faced the same legislative and
political obstacles to their rights as poorer or nonprofessional women did.
Third-wave feminists, who reaped the benefits of the movement politically, do
not face many of the problems their less lucky counterparts do.
Before 1973, for example, no woman could get a legal abortion, whatever her
economic situation. Now it's just poor women who can't get them. Before
protections were in place against sexual harassment, all women had little
choice but to put up with it. Now, that's true only of women who lack the
resources and knowledge to pursue harassment claims.
But from where your garden-variety post-feminist sits -- i.e., at the
center of the universe -- things are looking pretty good. "There will always be
a need for vigilance," writes Karen Lehrman, "But many of the problems that
plague most women (in the West) on a daily basis now fall in the personal
realm: government can do little to solve them."
Yvonne Abraham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.