- Talking About a RevolutionNew Approaches to Writing the History of Second-Wave Feminism
Babyboomers who remember a time before the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s transformed U.S. society know how recently it has been since women have obtained basic civic, social and economic rights: things like the right to vote, to hold political office and to serve on juries; the right to bring criminal charges against violent husbands; the right to terminate unhappy marriages; the right to open a checking account in one's own name; the right to borrow money from lending institutions without having to get a male relative co-sign for the loan; the right to attend colleges and graduate schools on the same basis as men; the right to practice the so-called "male" professions—like law or medicine; the right to appear alone in public, without male escorts and not be subjected to catcalling and verbal abuse; the right to work in an environment that is free of sexual harassment; the right to earn equal pay for equal work. Ask students to raise their hands if they agree that women are entitled to these rights, and all the hands go up. Tell students that feminists are responsible for the widespread change in social attitudes that made such rights possible (although gender discrimination is still widespread) and looks of surprise or puzzlement will appear on many faces. Ask who would call him or herself a feminist, and most of the hands go down. [End Page 219]
The discussion that follows invariably begins with the statement, "I'm not a feminist…. but"—a sentiment often attributed to the backlash against feminism that grew in virulence during the 1970s and 1980s and which is now common among a younger generation of students who grew up during a so-called "post feminist" age. In the 1960s and even more so during the 1970s, the media used the label "feminist" to mock, criticize, belittle, and antagonize women who were challenging sexist and heterosexist norms. In common parlance, a feminist connoted a man-hating, angry, ugly, aggressive woman. It was not unusual to hear that feminists despised men so much that they chose to become lesbians. In a phrase, feminists were constructed as selfish, castrating bitches—selfish for making their own rights and wellbeing their first priority, castrating for insisting that men respect and satisfy women's sexual desires; bitches because they would not massage male egos, instead challenging men for access to arenas from which women had previously been excluded.
Yet as the books under review here make perfectly clear, the refrain "I'm not a feminist but," has had a long and anointed history. Many women who organized among themselves to bring about social and political change also disavowed the feminist label. In Stephanie Gilmore's words, "feminist activisms" occurred "in places we do not expect and among women who do not necessarily embrace the term but who do the work of feminism" nonetheless (3). Or, as Anne Enke concludes in her remarkable study, the history of feminism is not just "a history … of established institutions that bore the name 'feminist' and left records to that effect. Feminism was in fact constituted … [by] people who eagerly identified as feminist, people who uncomfortably identified as feminist, and people who disavowed political identification altogether" (254).
The historiography on second-wave feminism has been a rich and growing field since its inception, emerging along with the diverse social and political movements...