Manifesta : Young Women, Feminism and the Future

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  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2000-10-04
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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A powerful indictment from within of the current state of feminism, and a passionate call to arms From Lilith Fair toBuffy the Vampire Slayerto the WNBA--everywhere you look, girl culture is clearly ascendant. Young women live by feminism's goals, yet feminism itself is undeniably at a crossroads; "girl power" feminists appear to be obsessed with personal empowerment at the expense of politics while political institutions such asMs. and NOW are so battle weary they've lost their ability to speak to a new generation. InManifesta, Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards show the snags in each feminist hub--from the dissolution of riot grrrls into the likes of the Spice Girls, to older women's hawking of young girls' imperiled self-esteem, to the hyped hatred of feminist thorns like Katie Roiphe and Naomi Wolf--and prove that these snags have not, in fact, torn feminism asunder. In an intelligent and incendiary argument, Baumgardner and Richards address issues instead of feelings and the political as well as the personal. They describe the seven deadly sins the media commits against feminism, provide keys to accessible and urgent activism, discuss why the ERA is still a relevant and crucial political goal, and spell out what a world with equality would look like. They apply Third Wave confidence to Second Wave consciousness, all the while maintaining that the answer to feminism's problems is still feminism.

Author Biography

Jennifer Baumgardner is a former editor at Ms. and writes regularly for The Nation, Jane, Glamour, and Out. Amy Richards is a contributing editor at Ms. and heads the Third Wave, an activist group for young women.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi
Introduction to Jennifer xv
Introduction to Amy xxiii
Prologue: A Day without Feminism 3(8)
The Dinner Party
What Is Feminism?
Feminists Want to Know: Is the Media Dead?
Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon
Barbie vs. the Menstrual Kit
Thou Shalt Not Become Thy Mother
Who's Afraid of Katie Roiphe?
What Is Activism?
Epilogue: A Day with Feminism 315(8)
Appendix 1: Manifesta's Timeline 323(16)
Appendix 2: A Young Woman's Guide to Revolution---Chapter by Chapter 339(46)
Appendix 3: How to Put the Participatory Back into Participatory Democracy 385(6)
Notes 391(8)
Manifesta's Lexicon 399(4)
Bibliography 403(8)
Index 411


Chapter One

The Dinner Party

The First Supper

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was Consciousness. Feminist consciousness--understanding that women can and should be whole human beings, not measured in relationship to male supremacy--is, was, and will always be the soul of feminism. In the seventies, Jane O'Reily called this experience the "click," as in women "clicking-things-into-place-angry." In the nineties, on celluloid, Thelma's moment of consciousness came when she said to Louise, "Ah feel a-wake," and for the next hour these two women had the power of clarity and righteousness--the kind of righteousness that makes you blow up a leering truck driver's eighteen-wheeler or lock a macho policeman in the trunk of his squad car. Epiphanies about sexist injustices don't happen in a vacuum (though they may be caused by a vacuum). Women often see that an experience was a result of sexism only if another woman, or group of women, says, "Yeah, I get told to smile by random men as I walk down the street, too. Why are they doing it, and why do I apologize for not smiling?" Reading women's real experiences in books and magazines can provide the same click of recognition.

    All of us begin our life with a child's sense of fairness, but it's soon socialized out of us. Raising our consciousness is something we have to work on--and what comes out of that work is the very foundation on which social-justice movements are built. In the sixties and seventies, women across the country woke up their consciousness, often realizing that the civil-rights movement and the peace movement were led by men and didn't give a thought to women's human rights. They knew suddenly that there needed to be a cultural revolution to purge women's heads and men's hearts of the notion of male supremacy. Then our generation came along, and took its first breath of air in a new atmosphere, one where women's expectations and freedoms were soaringly, thrillingly different.

    It's poignant to look back, seeing how much harder the lives of the women who came before us were, and to imagine the clicks that erupted during other generations. Making a big leap through history, what if this clicking of consciousness had begun at the beginning of Western history? With feminism added, would the women in the Bible have put up with being unliberated scapegoats who got blamed for most of the evil in the world yet don't even merit a listing in the Good Book's index? Imagine how the Bible would read if these women had had a chance to get together for dinner, just the girls, and talk.

After the ladies loosen up around the table, Mary Magdalene would begin by talking about sex workers' rights, and returning belly dancing to its origin as an exercise for giving birth. Leah and Rachel would resolve their longtime sisterly competition by ditching Jacob, the man their father married them both to, and agitate for women to be able to inherit their own property. Rather than being synonymous with evil, Jezebel would be lauded for her business acumen. Hagar would receive palimony and child support from her lover, Abraham. Sarah, Abraham's wife, might even befriend Hagar, Abraham's concubine and Sarah's slave; at the very least, she would empathize. Bathsheba, tired of looking for love from a poetic boy who couldn't commit, would have the presence of mind to leave King David. Delilah would teach them about orgasms and exhort her friends to make sure they got what they needed in bed. Lilith would be full of first wives' club advice for Eve, and Eve would be pontificating about the politics of housework. Eve would also recognize that she had been framed, and refuse to take the Fall for her man or her God. Ruth wouldn't be saying "Whither thou goest, I will go" to her mother-in-law or anyone anymore; she'd be blazing her own trails. Meanwhile, they'd all begin to question why the hell Lot's wife was turned into a pillar of salt when her husband was busy offering up their virgin daughters to the marauders. (And why the hell she didn't have a name.) Perhaps they'd start a Mothers Against Raping Children chapter in Judea. After they realized that they could change their lives locally, they'd hunker down and organize with other women. Their daughters would be born into a whole new world. Who knows what greater good would come from future dinner parties?

The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.


Thirteen men got together for the most lauded dinner party in patriarchal history: the Last Supper. However, thirteen women around a table tend to be regarded as something a bit less positive--a coven comes to mind. (Of course, anyone who knows anything about Wicca knows that covens are benevolent, that thirteen is a lucky and powerful number, and that spells work like karma: whatever you send out will come back at you.) Women breaking bread together has probably always been a sort of consciousness-raising group with food--a time to vent, learn from one another, and organize.

    In the 1970s, groups of women began coming together intentionally to focus on consciousness-raising, or CR, which was a staple of Second Wave feminism, pioneered by Redstockings, an early New York radical women's liberation group. At these informal meetings, usually in their homes, women shared their secrets, stories of injustice, and mundane frustrations--most of which could be chalked up to sexism. They sought to become aware of male supremacy, and to politicize their lives. For example, a woman might tell her CR group that she never had orgasms, something that she had blamed on her own "frigidity." The other women in the group would offer their own tales of not getting satisfaction, and they'd think, We can't all be neurotic and frigid. At a subsequent meeting, they might read Anne Koedt's article "The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm" and realize there was no such thing as frigidity, only inattention to the clitoris. CR was designed to be a radicalizing process, a way of spurring women to change the world and of transforming the personal into the political.

    The feminist implications of this sort of gathering were clear to the artist Judy Chicago in the late seventies, which is why she called her most famous installation "The Dinner Party." In Chicago's work, a triangular table the size of a neighborhood swimming pool was set with customized, labia-inspired place settings for thirty-nine of the most iconic women in Western history, thirteen on each side of the triangle. Dinner guests such as Sacagawea, Sappho, and Susan B. Anthony weren't even contemporaries, yet Chicago brought them together the way disparate men of note always come together in the history books, forming a narrative of accomplishment.

    In addition to being an ideal concept for one of the most famous pieces of feminist art, the women's dinner party is an appropriate setting for brainstorming about the state of feminism. Whether it's volunteering at a women's shelter, attending an all-women's college or a speak-out for Take Back the Night, or dancing at a strip club (an arena in which the only authentic relating goes on among the ladies--just ask anyone who has worked at one), whenever women are gathered together there is great potential for the individual women, and even the location itself, to become radicalized. This was probably the most important, but least appreciated by the media, benefit that came out of Lilith Fair, the all-women's music tour that played summer shows across the United States from 1997 to 1999. Audience members could meet new allies, for instance, and were often introduced to the feminist organizations in their community. Also, performing on that tour was the first time that women like Bonnie Raitt, Me'shell Ndege'ocello, and Sinéad O'Connor met each other. Before Lilith, these musicians had felt, perhaps, isolated from other women in the industry. After Lilith, many of them began playing on each other's records and sitting in on each other's tours. A whole new women's music community was created out of the ladies' space that was Lilith.

    Today, the feminist movement has such a firm and organic toehold in women's lives that walking down the street (talking back to street harassers), sitting in our offices (refusing to make the coffee), nursing the baby (defying people who quail at the sight), or watching TV shows ( Xena ! Buffy !) can all contain feminism in action. For women of the Third Wave--that is, women who were reared in the wake of the women's liberation movement of the seventies--a good dinner party (or any gathering of women) is just as likely to be a place to see politics at work as is a rally. It's a place to map a strategy for our continuing liberation, because, as with every wave of feminism, our politics emerge from our everyday lives.

The concept for this chapter came out of a fierce faith that this honest communicating among women is a revolutionary act, and the best preface to activism. Of course, not all dinner parties are intentionally subversive. Women also use these gatherings as an excuse to sit down and talk with some interesting stranger they admire, or to develop ideas by having intellectual trysts with other women. (As we did for years before deciding to write this book.) This need to get together for girl talk begins over soggy Tater Tots in the grade-school cafeteria, continues through endless confabs on the phone or on sports teams during high school, and is grabbed throughout adulthood in book clubs or beauty parlors, while lifting weights at the gym or running through Target or at work.

    The two of us have had a dinner-party circle together since around the time we first met as peons at Ms . magazine in 1993. For two years, we had a makeshift coven to which we invited a revolving group of eleven other women. We'd drink wine out of big purple goblets and consume huge potluck meals while we cast freestyle spells. (The spells consisted primarily of lighting candles and sending a kiss around the circle; we were novices.) Most of us had left our own religion or allowed it to lapse, and we were searching for spiritual rituals that had meaning for us. We were also searching for the kind of community, held together by shared morals and values, that many people get from religion. After casting the circle, we'd dive into some serious CR--discussing our deepest fears, for example; anxieties we had never shared with anyone. Because everyone was equally vulnerable, no one was really vulnerable, and the honesty poured forth. The wine poured forth, too, so much so that on one humid night we ended up singing to the moon from a New York City garden apartment, ecstatic in our drunken sisterhood, until the neighbors yelled down at us to shut up. After a while, we realized that the covens were mostly an excuse to get together and talk about intellectual and personal ideas in a concentrated way. So we ditched the Wiccan stuff but continued to have dinners with interesting new batches of women. Intense friendships were born at these parties, business deals conceived, ideas sparked, and contacts exchanged. Generally, we got energy and support to initiate all of the projects and ambitions we secretly, or proudly, held. Together, we bore witness to all manner of coming-of-age moments: getting an abortion, landing record and book deals, breaking up, tying the knot, becoming or owning up to being queer, leaving a first job, losing a parent, preparing to have kids, becoming or owning up to being straight, miscarrying, coming out about being rich or poor, and falling in love--all were mourned or celebrated or hashed out at our dinner parties.

    The ideas for this book began to unfold around that table, and the questions that came up at these gatherings confirmed its premise: that feminism is out there, tucked into our daily acts of righteousness and self-respect. Feminism arrived in a different way in the lives of the women of this generation; we never knew a time before "girls can do anything boys can!" The fruits of this kind of confidence are enjoyed by almost every American girl or woman alive, a radical change from the suffragettes and bluestockings of the late nineteenth century, and from our serious sisters of the sixties and seventies. We also have the benefit of knowing from recent history that consciousness-raising must precede action, just as research precedes a breakthrough. In exchanges with one another, women learn that we are the real experts--often more so than the paid experts, who have studied but not experienced the subject at hand. If a woman has gone through a divorce, for instance, researched the best way to get an abortion, asked for a raise, or is having sex at the age of sixteen, she knows something that could help another woman. For these women, and for anyone born after the early 1960s, the presence of feminism in our lives is taken for granted. For our generation, feminism is like fluoride. We scarcely notice that we have it--it's simply in the water.

    As our peers charge toward equality and liberation, we watch them contribute their defiance to a historic narrative. Third Wave feminism's contribution to women's history builds on the foundation of the Second Wave. It is the thousands of little girls with temporary tattoos on their arms, and Mia Hamm soccer jerseys on their backs, who own the bleachers at the Women's World Cup, just as much as the few writers and leaders who have attained prominence. Our activism is in the single mother who organizes the baby-sitting chain on Election Day so that all the housebound mothers can vote. Our revolutionary act is in the twenty-nine-year-old woman's challenge to her doctor's blithe directive that she get a hysterectomy to deal with fibroids in her uterus.

    The only problem is that, while on a personal level feminism is everywhere, like fluoride, on a political level the movement is more like nitrogen: ubiquitous and inert. There is still no Equal Rights Amendment, so women are not equal to men within the Constitution. The wage gap is still wide (a twenty-six-cent-per-dollar discrepancy on average). Women and girls E-mail Ask Amy, Amy's on-line advice column, every day, brimming with stories of injustice at work, at the doctor's office, in their homes: a binational lesbian couple who can't legally marry and thus they can't both be citizens of the same country or live together permanently; an eighth-grade girl who can't join her school's wrestling team; or a longtime sales associate who deserves to be promoted to assistant manager at Petsmart but is told that a woman's place is at the cash register. These women know that these incidents are unfair. What they don't have is a sense that there is a movement that has changed and will continue to change marital law, wrestling, or the Petsmart status quo.

    What young feminist-minded people often lack is a coherent declaration that can connect the lives of individual women to the larger history of our movement. We need to transform our confidence into a plan for actually attaining women's equality. We were born into a feminist history. What we need is a Third Wave feminist manifesta.

The Personal Is Still Political

"Feminism has overpersonalised the political and overpoliticised the personal, and in the process has lost sight of its two great, longstanding goals: political equality and personal freedom," wrote the British journalist Natasha Walter in her 1998 book, The New Feminism . To be sure, "the personal is political" is the most used--and most abused--motto to come out of the Second Wave. But as a concept it's too important to be allowed to languish in misunderstandings. A buzz phrase of the early radical groups, "the personal is political" was invented by members of New York Radical Women and documented in an article of the same name by Carol Hanisch, a member of the group. Later, in Robin Morgan's introduction to her 1970 best-selling anthology, Sisterhood Is Powerful , she popularized the idea: "Women's liberation is the first radical movement to base its politics--in fact, create its politics--out of concrete personal experiences." One such shared "personal issue" was the fact that many women underwent illegal abortions and were made to feel ashamed rather than outraged that this common, and much needed, procedure was illegal and unsafe. Consciousness-raising groups and speak-outs transformed this shame into an acknowledgment that unwanted pregnancy was a systemic, sexist problem, as was the criminalizing of abortion.

    More recently, the witty Nation essayist Katha Pollitt reflected on the term for an April 1999 piece in The New York Times Book Review . In "The Solipsisters," Pollitt complained about the recent spate of self-absorbed books on women's condition. "The personal is political was a way of saying that what looked like individual experiences with little social resonance and certainly no political importance--rape, street harassment, you doing the vacuuming while your husband reads the paper--were part of a general pattern of male dominance and female subordination." Political action was needed to remedy these inequities. Almost immediately, this phrase was misinterpreted to mean that what an individual woman does in her personal life (like watching porn, wearing garter belts, dyeing her hair, having an affair, earning money, shaving her legs) undermines her feminist credibility and can be levied against her, like a fine. Thus it has sometimes been used to restrict women, rather than to free us. (Of course, for the same reasons that these once-taboo lifestyle activities shouldn't be held against feminists, these rebellious acts or personal choices shouldn't be construed as the same as political activism. Moreover, when you find yourself choosing what the patriarchy promotes, it's worth asking yourself if it really is a choice.) Gratitude is due to Pollitt for this part of her clarification, but she continues in her critique of this generation's feminist writers: "`The personal is political' did not mean that personal testimony, impressions and feelings are all you need to make a political argument."

    This is where we add a qualifier to Pollitt's analysis: It may not be all you need, but testimony is where feminism starts. Historically, women's personal stories have been the evidence of where the movement needs to go politically and, furthermore, that there is a need to move forward. Anita Hill's tale of being subjected to crass sexual overtures from her boss galvanized thousands of women in 1991, many of whom began to come forward with their own stories of egregious behavior from their employers. The media and even some feminists fail to apprehend this first step when they criticize, such as Pollitt appeared to be doing, the Third Wave propensity to explore women's personal stories in essays and memoirs. Recent Third Wave anthologies-- To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism, Am I the Last Virgin? Ten African American Reflections on Sex and Love , and Listen Up: Voices from the Next Feminist Generation , as well as The Bust Guide to the New Girl Order and Adiós, Barbie: Young Women Write About Body Image and Identity --are the foundation of the personal ethics upon which a political women's movement will be built. The maligned memoir--which when written by a woman is often referred to as "confessional"--is more than a diary entry that has been typeset. Memoirs like Mama's Girl by Veronica Chambers, Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel, and the memoiresque study of teen sexuality Slut! Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation by Leora Tanenbaum, are all introducing Third Wave women's experiences into the cultural atmosphere.

    The First Wave battles for the vote and later the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), and the Second Wave effort to establish reproductive freedom, job equality, plus the leftover goal of the ERA, overflowed into women's personal lives. Unlike the women who took part in the First and Second waves of feminism, young women today feel as if they live their feminist lives without clear political struggles, which begs the question What are the goals of the Third Wave? The core belief in legal, political, and social equality hasn't changed much since English writer Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792. Third Wave's goals are derived from analyzing how every issue affects this generation of young women. We have inherited strategies to fight sexual harassment, domestic abuse, the wage gap, and the pink-collar ghetto of low-wage women's work from the Second Wave, which identified these issues. Together, we are still working on them. And we have modern problems of our own. Prominent Third Wave issues include equal access to the Internet and technology, HIV/AIDS awareness, child sexual abuse, self-mutilation, globalization, eating disorders, and body image (witness the preponderance of Third Wave feminist writing that centers on the last issue, from The Beauty Myth in 1991 to Adiós, Barbie in 1998 and a handful of recently published anorexia memoirs). Sexual health is of special concern to young women, because we now tend to have more partners and to be more sexually active at a younger age (and are more likely than not to have a sexually transmitted disease). The choice of whether to have a baby is under siege for our generation. Teenagers and young women may have their children taken away from them based on any excuse; gay couples are often denied access to adoption and "couples-only" sperm banks as well as to legal marriage. We could go on, but rather than give a laundry list from our own platform, we decided to throw another dinner party, and document the resulting Third Wave conversation to demonstrate how feminism invigorates our lives.

We tackled the personal and the political on August 5, 1999, when we cooked dinner at Amy's apartment for six of our women friends--some new, some old, all of whom we thought needed to meet one another. Obviously, this random sample of friends (who live in New York City and mostly work in the media) can't represent all women. But this group of feminists who are observing and reporting on their generation, combined with conversations we have with young women across the country--women who write to Ask Amy or reach out to the Third Wave Foundation or respond to Jennifer's articles--gave us an idea of what a present-day political movement must tackle.


Copyright © 2000 Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards. All rights reserved.

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