Monday, February 06, 2006

First Wave Feminism vs. Second Wave Feminism

Betty Friedan's death has got me thinking about the two kinds of feminism.

The feminism of Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony, Carrie Chapman Catt, Alice Paul, and especially Elizabeth Cady Stanton was about recognizing the equal worth of the distinctive excellences of women. In particular, they did not want women as wives and mothers to be denigrated because they were wives and mothers. Of course, they fought against the discrimination that all women faced just because they were women. But their vision was of womanhood which was greater than simply being a person, of womanhood that was (at least) as excellent and necessary to society as manhood.

Now consider the most famous sentence from Betty Friedan's great book, The Feminine Mystique:

The problem that has no name — which is simply the fact that American women are kept from growing to their full human capacities — is taking a far greater toll on the physical and mental health of our country than any known disease.

I read The Feminine Mystique while my wife was studying for the bar exam. While she was in a class of prospective lawyers that was about equally men and women in 1985, I sat outside and read about the restrictions on educated women in 1963. I appreciated how many doors had been opened to women in between, and how far as a society we had come. It was a moving experience that, as you can see, sticks with me to this moment.

In the years since then, though, I have come to appreciate the downside of Friedan's kind of feminism. Friedan's brand of egalitarian feminism thought that treating women as different from and complementary to men would be denigrating to women, making them less than people. It is right there, I think, in the famous sentence quoted above. It is not surprising that Betty Friedan was the kind of egalitarian who saw any difference as discrimination. She was trained, after all, as a communist. In recent years, though, this Marxist vision that every one is the same (and the state will give you your equal due) has not fared well in politics both global and domestic.

First wave feminism, though, had a different vision. They saw womanhood as better than mere personhood, just as manhood was better than mere personhood. This difference feminism lives on today, though academic feminists would be more likely to cite Carol Gilligan than Elizabeth Cady Stanton as a source for their ideas. Of course men and women should be equal before the law. Of course, men and women live together in the most richly intertwined ways. To say that men and women are complementary is not to put one above the other. To say that men and women are different is not to say they should live separately, or even that they can live separately.

First wave feminism was about women as women. Second wave feminism was about women as persons. Being a woman is not less than being a person; it is more.


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Charlotte said...

I'm at a loss with those particular distinctions, which may be my ignorance or may be that I read the texts with a different hunger, looking for different answers.
I do know that Susan B. et al started with the problems at hand, and fought -- as an evolving group for over 70 years - facing a great deal of ridicule from both men and women. Many male commentators and cartoonists all during that the time either mocked them or predicted an end to civilization, marriage, motherhood and feminity. In cartoons of the time, suffragists were often shown as stout women wearing men's suits and smoking cigars while browbeating petite husbands.
They were, in their own way, tough broads and they had to be to endure what they endured and stick with the problem so long. Toward the end when they were nearing victory and had to persuade one state legislature after another to ratify the amendment, they adopted the yellow roses rhetoric and swept to victory. Bless their hearts, they were wonderful, but they were also, ultimately, brilliant political strategists.
As for the second wave, Friedan was the first big voice and her book defined a problem that we honestly had no words to articulate. I did not get that from the book. I had that problem already, and the book explained WHY and said it shouldn't be that way. "The Feminine Mystique" was pure oxygen for me at a time when nobody had even heard the words "feminist" or "sexist." After that feminism was many different things. For one thing, leading masses of women is pretty much like herding cats since women don't tend to be so ideological as men or so leader-oriented. The movement was in some factions full of revolutionary rhetoric and general craziness of the sixties and early seventies. Vanguards do tend to be strident, and women are seldom really forgiven for getting noisy.
My observation over a long stretch has been that as women have gotten into the work world and become stakeholders to a degree, they have not thought of themselves as feminists but as who they are, which is as it should be. I was most certainly a feminist. I would hope that my granddaughters will not have any need to grind their teeth that much or to feel as shortchanged.
During the real rush of the "movement," feminists ranged all the way from women interested in overthrowing the whole "male hierarchy" to women just struggling on their own to improve bad marriages, build careers or break through glass ceilings. There were also women flooding into politics -- both as candidates and as activists. I was a member of N.O.W. and of the hopelessly silly Alliance of Women for Equality (A.W.E.) but the League of Women Voters suited me a lot better because it was the real stuff.
On the other hand, I read just about all of the major books, and every copy of MS. for quite a long time and always kept up with the ERA battle and other big issues.
Friedan was considered a bit on the conservative side once the movement was in full swing and made herself politically incorrect at one point for urging movement leaders away from "sexual politics" She also moved on to other issues.
For myself, I don't care whether she started out as Marxist or a Martian. She was important in my life for the book she wrote. Personally, I think it was too late for my generation to do more than -- as a first wave feminist said - ask the gentlemen to take their feet from off our necks, but the real payoff was for my daughter's generation.
As for the critiques and even some of the rather sappy and half-hearted appreciations of Friedan that are going on right now, (I have even read wry commentaries on her shopping habits) I think that it may be a couple more centuries in this country before a woman can speak out forcefully as her own person without being Hilloried.
As for the family issues, I think one of the greatest results of the second wave, which the first wave certainly didn't accomplish, is the vast number of men who are good,involved fathers and husbands and encourage their wives to achieve their goals.
My view may be a limited one, and I have no statistics to back this up, but it seems to me that even though there's still a lot to be said for moms staying home with little kids if they can, the big problem facing families today isn't moms in need of a definition of womanhood, but dads who need to know that real men don't let their kids be born out of wedlock or grow up without adequate support and guidance, and don't expect their wives (or women as the case may be) to be "second."
Feminism is and was primarily, first wave and second, a reaction to guys behaving badly.

Charlotte said...

Excuse me for going on at such length, but the subject is a hot one for me. And here's an addendum -- a quotation from Elizabeth Cady Stanton (who wasn't, of course, mentioned in my American History books)
"Conservatism cries out we are going to destroy the family. Timid reformers answer, the political equality of woman will not change it. They are both wrong. It will entirely revolutionize it. When woman is man's equal the marriage relation cannot stand on the basis it is on today. But this change will not destroy it. As human statutes and state constitutions did not create conjugal and maternal love, they cannot annul them. We can trust the laws of the universe, even if the speeches and resolutions of a woman's rights convention seem to conflict with them. Is family life with the mass of mankind to-day so happy and satisfactory that it needs no improvement?"

Gruntled said...

I am grateful for real testimony from the Feminine Mystique generation. As I noted, when I read the book, twenty years later, the revolution had happened, to the benefit of every member of my family.

Your quote from Stanton makes my other point, too:

"As human statutes and state constitutions did not create conjugal and maternal love, they cannot annul them."

Conjugal love and maternal love -- and paternal love, too -- are rich and distinct goods which any full-orbed feminism, and indeed any worthwhile social theory, would want to preserve and honor.

Anonymous said...

It's interesting that you characterize 'first wave' feminists as difference feminists and 'second wavers' as equality feminists because in the standard political theory story it's the other way around. Wollestonecraft, Stanton, Mott, et al. are understood as the proponents of some version of the Lockean/Jeffersonian thesis about the natural rights inherent in each individual, while the later feminists (especially those wacky postmodernists) claim that women are not equal but different and, implicitly or explicitly, better. This is not really my area of expertise, however, so I defer to those who are in the know.

On a related subject, in a strange confluence of events, the New Yorker has an article this week combining the interests of higher criticism with the concerns of a variety of feminists. You might call this 'How Many Mary Magadelanes Can Dance on the Head of a Pin?


Anonymous said...

the link i posted doesn't work, but the article is on the new yorker website, for those interested.

Gruntled said...

The first wavers (and it was a long first wave, from the 1840 to the 1920s) were pretty much pro-motherhood.

Ampersand said...

Gruntled, I think you've got the positions of some feminists mixed up. Alice Paul was in favor of what I'd call radical equality, especially for her time; one of the things that separated her from other suffragettes is that she argued for equal voting rights on the basis of equal justice, whereas most other suffragettes argued that women, because of their femininity et al - that is, because of their differences - would improve politics.

Betty Friedan, on the other hand, was hardly against distinctions between men and women; if you reread the Feminine Mystique, for instance, you won't find her calling on men to contribute to housekeeping and childcare.

The problem with saying that men and women are "different" in some vauge undefined way is partly that it inevitably seems to be used by some to justify discrimination. It is also that the ideology of essentialist womanhood and manhood, once it has trickled down to the schoolyards and the frat houses, is used to torment those girls and boys who fail to conform to these allegedly natural and universal categories.