There is much wrong with Naomi Wolf’s clever selling out of her basic feminist principles to get a book review published in the Washington Post. She retreads every tired stereotype about feminism—that “second wavers” are a bunch of humorless harridans, that “third wavers” are frivolous ninnies, and also that “The Feminine Mystique” is the only second wave book of any note. But I thought much of the intellectual vapidity of her piece could be summed up in this line, towards the conclusion:
Feminism had to reinvent itself — there was no way to sustain the uber-seriousness and sometimes judgmental tone of the second wave. But feminists are in danger if we don’t know our history, and a saucy tattoo and a condom do not a revolution make.
I have tattoos and spend much of my time on frivolous, humorous activities like music, video games, and bullshitting, but somehow I’m going to be able to muster a judgmental tone and aim it at Naomi Wolf. This will be seen as “humorless”, because unless a woman is laughing at a man’s jokes instead of making jokes of her own, then she is “humorless”. Though I suppose if I pop a clown’s nose on while I type this, that could help.
Look, I’m not going to defend tattoos as a feminist innovation, as much as I like them. But I can’t stand here and let Wolf take a dig at condoms, especially one where she plugs into right wing tropes about how women who promote safe sex are sluts who cannot be taken seriously. To wave your hand at condoms as if they were mere accessories, and not deadly serious in the second wave style is to ignore some serious realities. First of all, condoms (along with all other forms of contraception) are a major threat to the patriarchal order, which is why the Catholic Church and the Christian right are so hell bent on dismantling women’s access to contraception, at least if they’re unmarried. I’m sure Wolf would dismiss me as someone who is saying we can fuck our way to liberation, but that’s not it at all. If you can quit clutching your pearls at the fact that young women have sex for a moment, and focus on what contraception is designed to do—prevent unintended pregnancy—then you can see why it made such a huge difference for feminism. By granting women the right to control their own bodies, legalized and effective contraception and abortion created this huge mental shift for American women, whether they identify as feminist or not. If you’re not helpless in the face of pregnancy, then there’s a lot of things you were told you couldn’t decide for yourself that you get to decide now, and I suspect that the sharp rise in single motherhood had something to do with this paradigm shift, as did the growing belief that women can have careers, and that having our own income was a right that couldn’t be taken away by a foot-stomping husband. And the shift towards a more liberated, pluralistic sexuality created the pathway to gay liberation. Plus, there’s the practical realities. Unintended pregnancy interrupts life paths in so many ways—you end up having to marry some guy that may not be suitable, your ability to stay in school or a career path was uncertain.
Wolf is comparing the second wave revolution-style feminism with the Helen Gurley Brown “girls are doing it for themselves” style feminism, but neither kind of feminism would be possible without reliable and legal contraception. So, apparently we have more in common than Wolf is letting on. I’ll add that despite the “frivolous accessories” status that Wolf assigns condoms, they are currently the best hope we have of curbing the AIDS epidemic, and, as an added bonus, they require male cooperation. Last I checked, getting men to do their fair share of things like take responsibility for contraception was a major feminist goal. So, perhaps condoms are the revolution. It’s true that a great deal of condom promotion is silly, fun-loving stuff (like the recent condom couture show I attended). But that’s because people have sex for fun, and if you don’t allow for that, the people you’re targeting with a safety message won’t listen to you. Given a choice between being an effective advocate for safe sex and making Naomi Wolf think of you as a serious person, I’d say take the former every time.
Wolf is reviewing “Bad Girls Go Everywhere“, which is an intriguing-sounding biography of Helen Gurley Brown. It also sounds more nuanced and complex that Wolf makes it seem, but she’s too busy taking potshots at feminist attempts to embrace nuance to embrace nuance herself. Like this:
Though sometimes marred by a fondness for such PC terms as “problematic” and “oppressor,” this primer on our pre-feminist days tells a story worth retelling, and one whose implications are worth reconsidering.
Way to bite the feminist hand that fed you book royalties, Wolf! Well done. No one can accuse you of being humorless now, and so men who are perhaps interested in dating you know where you stand on the issue of body hair. Perhaps I’m too harsh. I also recoil at the word “problematic” (though no doubt I’ve succumbed to the temptation), but mostly because it’s hedging and inexact, plus many writers who use it need to consider the “use verbs, not adjectives or adverbs” rule. Wolf’s thesis is that Brown is the true foremother of third wave feminists, who are sassy, sexy, and fun, but our brains are pickles compared to our no-fun, humorless second wave foremothers.
Second wave theory and practice tended toward humorlessness. The movement often saw men and women in opposition (rather than seeing sex discrimination as the enemy). It sometimes viewed domesticity and family life as a trap rather than a potential source of joy for both sexes. It could be puritanical about sexuality, and it often cast a skeptical eye on what it saw as women’s frivolous pursuit of romance, fun and fashion…..
But that very individualism[of third wave feminism], which has been great for feminism’s rebranding, is also its weakness: It can be fun and frisky, but too often, it’s ahistorical and apolitical. As many older feminists justly point out, the world isn’t going to change because a lot of young women feel confident and personally empowered, if they don’t have grass-roots groups or lobbies to advance woman-friendly policies, help women break through the glass ceiling, develop decent work-family support structures or solidify real political clout.
So, what neat little box do I fit into? I’ve no doubt that most people would call me a third wave feminist, mostly because of my age and the aforementioned frivolous tattoos. I have subscriptions to Bitch and Bust magazine, which Wolf puts up as evidence of third wave frothiness and light, even though Bitch leans towards being academic-ish in its tone, and even criticizes Bust for its ridiculous attempts to refashion as empowerment cooking, cleaning, and fussing over getting married and having babies before it’s too late. But I subscribe to both and I know how to use a condom and I own more than 15 pairs of shoes, so I must be a frivolous feminist intent on individual solutions to everything, and pretending like anything from nudie modeling to walking around behind a guy cleaning up after him can be refashioned as empowering, right? Well, no, and I resent the implication that the hard-working feminist writers and activists I know in my own age group are somehow unserious people, when they dedicate their lives towards making the world a better place through actual structural change, instead of doing whatever they want (or feel they have to do to please a man) and calling it feminist.
I also resent the implication that second wave feminists were all humorless, hairy harpies. Granted, they weren’t humorous by the patriarchal definition—they told their own jokes, instead of merely giggling at those men tell, funny or not. My generation has Bitch, but they had “The BITCH Manifesto“. We have Babes in Toyland and Good Vibrations (though who says older women can’t shop there?!), but that sort of pro-sex feminism wouldn’t be here without the pro-sex feminism of the second wave that produced “The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm“. Doesn’t get more pro-sex than that, unless your definition of “pro-sex” is “unwilling to confront sexism in the bedroom, even if it means that you’re faking orgasms while the almighty penis never goes without”. Sure, they had their humorless harridans who don’t get why so much fuss about sex back then, but we have ours in the third wave, too. For instance, we have Naomi Wolf.
Well trolled, Naomi. You got my attention. You also made it clear what it takes for feminist writers to get that kind of writing work—pretend to be ignorant about the very thing that got your name out in the public in the first place.