Outskirts online journal

Helene Bowen Raddeker

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About the author

Hélène Bowen Raddeker is a Senior Lecturer in the School of History, UNSW, where she teaches Japanese history, the history of women/gender and feminism, and feminist historiography. She describes herself as having been an indifferent sort of activist in the seventies when she was part of Melbourne Women’s Liberation, but was nevertheless involved in the first halfway house in Kew as a volunteer, in consciousness-raising groups that organized the odd public meeting, and in student activism in a feminist group at La Trobe University. She was also part of the push for more organization and democracy in the movement in the mid-seventies against the anarchist-influenced ‘tyranny of structurelessness’, but from the standpoint of libertarian socialist (i.e., anarchist) principles of organization.

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Volume 14, May 2006

Difference between the Waves versus the 'Eternal Return':
Today’s Students of Feminism

I Introduction

The question that prompted me to write this essay concerns the potential of contemporary, young, feminist-minded women to contribute to defending feminist gains and fight ongoing and new feminist battles. As the Convenor of the Women’s and Gender Studies program at The University of New South Wales from mid-2001 to 2005, I was called upon to coordinate the program’s core course, ‘Introduction to Feminism’, over a period of three years. My observations concerning young women’s attitudes to feminism will mainly draw upon those exhibited by students in this course, though another first-year course I have been coordinating since 2002 (‘Women, Gender and World History’) is also useful in this connection. This experience of teaching undergraduate feminist studies in a more direct way than hitherto1 has impelled me to contribute to the discourse on inter-generational difference in feminism. This is primarily because it led me to wonder about the common assumption that feminists of the seventies generation and many of those coming of age today are markedly different in their critiques of society and approaches to feminism, or in the depth of their commitment to feminism.2 If young feminists today are as different from the older generation as is often claimed, I wonder how I could so often feel in the classroom such a sense of familiarity. The discussions there often propelled me back to the old days of the Women’s Liberation Movement and consciousness-raising groups. The fact is that, in their feminist attitudes and concerns and the frustrations they express, these young women often reminded me of the seventies generation, and I was seldom aware of generational differences and tensions. Though I have of course wondered whether students would feel free to voice their disagreements with me, the obvious authority figure, if they felt my approach to be dated or out of touch with today’s realities, I would note that younger lecturers and tutors in the course tended to concur about a general lack of marked generational differences. Hence the title of the paper, ‘Difference … versus the Eternal Return’. Though the full phrase is eternal return of the ‘same’, suggestive of cyclical rather than linear models of time, I am not arguing that young feminists today resemble the older generation in all ways; nor that they should, in all ways, take the earlier generation of second wavers as their inspirational model. Not unlike in the seventies, their resistance can and will take many forms that are not, moreover, restricted to conventional activism.

Most feminist scholars appear to have abandoned by now the generation debate that was topical particularly in the latter part of the 1990s and styled sometimes even as a war.3 I could be seen to be the product of my own generation due to my contention that young feminist (or post-/third wave, power, grrrlpower, DIY or other feminist) criticism of the Second Wave has often been characterized by over-generalization, exaggeration, and either ignorance or convenient exclusions. The way I see it, there has been a marked tendency in feminist scholarship of late, and not only in works by ‘young feminists’, to homogenize the Second Wave. All this notwithstanding, one wonders if it might be more constructive to leave the generational debate behind us. I have no desire to contribute to what Chilla Bulbeck has referred to as the reductionist ‘trashing, countertrashing and metatrashing’ exhibited in the ‘oepidal dramas’ enacted in the generation debate (Bulbeck 2001). In fact, despite a few political concerns I will address below my recent experience of teaching feminism was uplifting—conducive to a faith in the capacity of many young women today not only to recognize but also resist gender bias and misogyny.

I should note here that the vast majority of these feminism students are young, mature-age students being comparatively rare. The average yearly number of students in ‘Introduction to Feminism’ over the three year period in question was eighty-six; and in ‘Women, Gender and World History’, ninety-six. I should also acknowledge that my account of student attitudes will necessarily be impressionistic rather than the product of a formal survey; and, furthermore, add a methodological caution. This is that, just as tertiary students cannot be assumed to be representative of the younger generation of women in its entirety, the attitudes of these first-year students are not necessarily representative of all tertiary students of feminist studies. I shall be discussing below some notable differences related to the fact that the similarities I detected between earlier feminists and these first-year ‘students of feminism’ are the product of critiques of society that they largely arrive at independently—not through any formal education in feminism, that is, but through their own experience. (This is obviously a good comment on whether we have come such a ‘long way’ and on the fact that much remains to be done). After all, most students enrol in first-year university courses in feminist studies, often with no more than a passing acquaintance with contemporary feminism—or, rather, ambivalent media representations of it—and no knowledge of academic feminism today. They are often heard to complain of not being taught feminism, gender analysis, and so on at high school. Thus, most first-year students exhibit attitudes to feminism and conventional feminist issues that are more reminiscent of the Second Wave than those of its contemporary feminist critics. Related to this, they are less inclined than students with more of a formal education in feminism to distance themselves from their feminist forbears. ‘Introduction to Feminism’, it should be noted, does attract a small number of students who are actually in their third year of study and have already done other Women’s and Gender Studies courses. (The same is true of the other first-year course mentioned above, ‘Women, Gender and World History’.)

II Student Accounts of the Backlash

I might begin with some of the pressures that those embarking upon feminist studies can encounter. It has largely been through teaching ‘Introduction to Feminism’ that I have been made aware of the disapproval or even harassment young women can meet with today if they identify with feminism, enrol in obviously feminist courses or express ideas taken to be feminist. It has not been unusual for students to mention family disapproval and, more often, peer group suspicion of feminism (from both male and female friends). Students often testify to how the charge of being a feminist can be used as a weapon, in an attempt to silence young women or dismiss their political views. One might object that this is little different from the 1970s, but at that time feminism had the advantage of being seen to be new (sic), radical or progressive (and all sorts of trendies might for a time, or in some contexts, profess sympathy for it). In the media these days political correctness is less a concern than something to satirize. Television chat-panels that lay claim to progressiveness often seem to resort to misogynistic or homophobic humour, though the particular cleverness of such humorists purportedly lies in being able to express such attitudes without being seen to be misogynistic or homophobic themselves by the average fan. In effect, they differ little from the most reactionary of our talkback radio hosts, constituting part of a not-so-new but growing tendency to trivialize radical politics of any sort. Chilla Bulbeck has also noted how like other left social movements, feminism has been losing legislative and media favour in Australia (Bulbeck 2001).

I, personally, have not experienced the phenomenon of feminist harassment for some years, perhaps due to my age, position and being immured in the ivory tower. However, in 2003 one of my tutorial groups was subjected to harassment over a period of a few weeks by a group of male students in a classroom nearby. They had apparently realized that it was a Feminism class, and first started hovering about at the (initially) open door trying to overhear the discussion and directing snide comments at individual students before the class. Abusive notes were then left on the whiteboard twice, the first being: ‘Bitches. Get back into the kitchen!’. We had decided to ignore them, but the last straw came during the student elections when a few students running on the women’s officer ticket or in support of it came to the class sporting ‘women’s power’ T-shirts. They were jeered by some of these male students who also seemed intent on blocking their path into the classroom. One of my students noted that wearing these T-shirts around the campus had been an education for the group in the depth of mostly male hostility and apparent paranoia concerning feminism. Naturally, they had their supporters, too, male and female, but felt that the experience had demonstrated that the backlash is alive and well, and perhaps gathering strength. Others testified during class discussions to the difficulties involved today in their identifying as feminists or trying to initiate with friends, serious discussions of feminist issues.

III Feminism Course Content: Rationale and Student Responses

The course that Ana Carden-Coyne and I put together in 2002, ‘Introduction to Feminism’, was designed to be just that: introductory. We tried not to assume any prior knowledge on the part of students beyond basic feminist ideas and we found most to be unacquainted with feminism’s history and feminist scholarship/theory. It had also been pointed out by the former Convenor, Anne Brewster, that hitherto the course had been too theoretical, pitched at too high a level or just too hard for many first-year students, and student course evaluations justified this concern. We feared that the course had been alienating a fair few rather than encouraging them to go on to do more women’s and gender studies at the upper level. Thus, we decided to simplify by offering an overview of mainly Anglophone feminism(s) since the First Wave, but included weeks on Russian and other European (socialist) feminism, Asian feminism, Indigenous feminisms or critiques of feminism (Australia and South Africa), and one week on religion (monotheisms) and feminism. Some knowledge of the traditional styles of feminism was obviously necessary for students to make sense of (and hopefully be able to assess critically) the wide-ranging critiques of them by ‘postist’ feminists introduced later in the course. Thus, we sought to do no more than acquaint students with well-known feminist writers and academic styles of feminism, past and present, since students have ample opportunity to delve more deeply into theory at the upper level.

However, possibly most of the students would have liked to hear more about conventional feminist issues and the everyday situations of Australian and other women today than we managed to squeeze into lectures or tutorial readings. Such topics generated the most interest during tutorials, and it was particularly when we were discussing them that I could not sense any substantial generational differences. I was rather struck by how little the concerns of feminist-minded women have changed over the years. As will be seen below, most chose to do research essays on such topics as: feminine body image, pornography, abortion, sexual violence against women, sexual harassment—in that order of popularity. Some opted for a question on feminist (literary, art, or theatre/film) criticism doubtless because it was related to their other studies or majors. Very few, on the other hand, did essays on postfeminism (academic and popular) or on feminist scholars today, some options being Judith Butler, the French Feminists and bell hooks, or on postcolonial feminism. Though the choice of essay topics can of course be motivated by various factors including their relative difficulty, the most popular topics seemed to reflect the interests of the majority as expressed also in tutorial discussions.

Concerning traditional styles of feminism, there, too, I found that writings I had assumed might be alienating were well received in the main both in tutorial discussions and short papers. One example that comes to mind is Emma Goldman, specifically her scorn for the institution of marriage as expressed in ‘Marriage and Love’ (in Shulman 1982: 204-13). The great majority of students did not seem to be threatened by this. Similarly, I might have expected more of a reaction against the ‘manhating’ of the SCUM Manifesto (in Roszak 1969: 241–50). Whilst a few expressed their disapproval, more could appreciate Valerie Solanas’s parodies on misogyny and relate to the anger and frustration expressed also by Robin Morgan in ‘Goodbye to All That’ (in Roszak 1969: 262–69), and her well-known poem, ‘Monster’. Most agreed with the anti-porn stance of Sheila Jeffreys, moreover, though a few were less sympathetic to conventional feminist opposition to pornography than they were to its feminist or sexual/civil libertarian critics (Jeffreys 1990). All in all, student attitudes toward feminist issues were more reminiscent of the Second Wave than suggestive of more recent styles of feminism, including the ‘power feminism’ characterized by Anita Harris as ‘committed to either individual empowerment or single issue groups’ focussed upon ‘material inequities rather than private concerns, such as sexuality and body image’. She adds that its proponents see the belief that ‘sexual violence, pornography and [the institution of] heterosexuality are modes of men’s power’ as mere ‘male-bashing’ (Harris 2001).

One type of traditional feminism that most students revealed a decided lack of interest in was socialist feminism, especially of the Marxist variety. Over the three years very few did their longer research essays on this. Most approved of Emma Goldman, as noted, perhaps due to her characteristically passionate style, but were suspicious of what they saw as Alexandra Kollontai’s authoritarianism and apparently also found Sheila Rowbotham to be forgettable (Rowbotham 1973). Despite our attempts to demonstrate otherwise, a common assumption toward the end of the course seemed to be that socialist feminists were only influential in the First Wave. In part it would seem that our students were exhibiting the same sort of historical blindness that attends many feminist critiques today of earlier, especially Second Wave, feminism. After all, who is invariably left out of the picture by those who focus mainly on liberal feminism in their critiques of humanism, individualism, interiority, the centred Self, and so on, and by those whose target is mainly radical feminism (though invariably without clear acknowledgement of this) in their critiques of the notion of a global ‘sisterhood’ and the universal ‘Woman’? The following quote from Ien Ang well illustrates the point: ‘In the early days of the second wave, feminist theory and practice were predicated on the assumptions of women’s common identity as women, and of a united global sisterhood’; later she also refers to the ‘insistence on the primacy of gender oppression’ as necessary to ‘the [sic] feminist project’ (Ang 1995: 58, 73. Actually, these are not necessarily socialist feminist propositions, but were certainly radical feminist ones. Similarly, in Elizabeth Grosz’s classic eighties critique of liberal humanism, ‘What is feminist theory?’, the analysis was mostly applicable to liberal feminists, even if socialists generally subscribed to a feminism of ‘equality, sameness, inclusion’ in some respects. However, the ways in which the latter did not fit the picture Grosz painted of earlier feminisms were not addressed (in Pateman & Gross 1986: 190–204). A more glaring example of excluding the socialists from the history of feminism, doubtless because in some ways they do not fit the modernist versus postmodernist model, can be found in Morwenna Griffiths’, Feminisms and the Self: The Web of Identity (1995).

One student, who was very bright and usually well informed, expressed it well in a class in 2004 when she opined that until very recently feminists, presumably western ones, had never recognized differences between women. Her implication was probably that earlier feminists had all been white and middle class, too. She was still lost, moreover, when I asked whether she hadn’t overlooked one rather important group of feminists—for whom class (and other) difference had always been central, and who had in fact often been criticized by Second Wave radical feminists for prioritising class over sexual oppression and emphasizing women’s differences. Not very surprisingly, I once received a research essay on the history of feminism from the First Wave that did not once mention the socialists in the so-called West or elsewhere. One wonders whom one should blame for the oversight: the student or her sources.

I found it difficult in the course to counter this relegation of socialist feminists to the ‘dustbin of history’. Doubtless, the difficulty stems from various factors including the ‘end of the age of ideology’ ideology (sic) and the relative unpopularity today of traditional Leftist creeds. Hence, the generalized lack of awareness of class conflict and differences amongst today’s students. This is found in students of feminism who readily recognize differences of race/ethnicity or sexuality; and can also manage to write essays on pornography or the beauty industry without any consideration of the workings or logic of capitalism. However, the penchant of today’s feminist writers, both academic and popular, to treat earlier feminism as monolithic surely contributes to it. No wonder popular critics of feminism, postfeminists and others, have come to see feminism as a ‘box that is limiting identity, dictating rules and enforcing conformity’, as Ann Sherry complained a few years ago (2000: 222). Thus, we hear students confidently repeating the absurd claim that Second Wave feminists believed that all women suffer the same oppression, when one need not look far beyond the covers of issues of, say, Vashti’s Voice (Melbourne Women’s Liberation), to say nothing of the general focus of Scarlet Woman (Sydney-based socialist feminist W.L. magazine), to suggest otherwise.

Undeniably, a focus upon ‘difference’ by feminists (excluding class differences) has become more generalized, and more theorized and refined over the years. However, it should be acknowledged more often that an awareness of women’s differences was in fact always there in feminism, most obviously but not only with the socialists. Feminism (even just Women’s Liberation) has always been internally differentiated. The publishing imperative for originality aside, whereby we go all out to distance ourselves from former (necessarily inferior) feminisms—thereby falling into the trap of exaggerating differences between the Waves— I would like to see more feminist writers today being as wary of universalizing feminism as they are of universalising women. I find this particularly ironic in authors who claim poststructuralist credentials who, one would think, would be more self-reflexive about intertextuality and exteriority (their debts to existing thought)—more critical, that is, of claims to ‘pure origins’ or original genius that stem from empiricism and humanist-individualism. This, surely, would encourage more of an awareness amongst the younger generation of women, including those intent upon distancing themselves from the constricting ‘box’ of former feminism, that one always has been able to choose one’s own brand of feminism, feminist identity and lifestyle, and issues to act upon.

I must confess to feeling some ambivalence now about the focus of ‘Introduction to Feminism’ on differences and debates within feminism. To be more precise, I wonder about the suitability of such an approach for first-year students. Perhaps more attention to the variety of feminisms, historically, was needed. What I have been suggesting is that for some students the net result of reading recent feminist critiques is an assumption that only today’s feminism is aware of and focussed upon ‘difference’—meaning in the context of this discussion differences between women and styles of feminism. Ten years ago Susan Magarey, Lyndall Ryan and Susan Sheridan predicted that women’s studies in Australia would be characterized by ‘the emergence of a richer and more constructive understanding of feminism’s heterogeneity’, its ‘differences within itself’’ (1994: 294), yet such an understanding of the heterogeneity of past feminisms does not seem to be forthcoming. The authors mentioned a subject taught by the British Open University Women’s Studies program where the emphasis was on debates among feminists rather than direct challenges to patriarchal ideas, citing Teresa de Lauretis to the effect that such shifts of emphasis reflect the fact that ‘feminism has come into its own as a critical and self-critical enterprise’ (Magarey, Ryan and Sheridan 1994: 294). Self-criticism and even ‘painful self-questioning’ are indeed necessary, so long as they do accompany adequate criticism of phallocratic ideas, patriarchal institutions and social inequities. This recalls my earlier comment that it was not uncommon for students in the Feminism course to express a desire for less discussion of ideas/theory and more about the situation/s of Australian and other women, past and present—that is, about problems affecting women.

With regard to feminist self-criticism, an imbalance not between ‘theory and practice’ but between an inward-looking and outward-directed approach is likely to be music to conservatives’ ears and may not be the most productive way of winning converts to feminism. We need, surely, to strike a balance whether it be in one introductory feminism course or in a program’s total offerings. It has not been unusual for students in ‘Introduction to Feminism’ to admit to being overwhelmed and, clearly, alienated by the sheer volume today of feminist criticism of feminism in academic and popular writing. One result of this can be that they become fearful of putting a step wrong or being politically incorrect, and more uncertain about what they could do to contribute practically to feminist causes. Such reactions are worrying, since I would not like to think that studying feminism in university courses might serve to contribute to a lack of commitment to it, or to a disinterest in political action when that is already lacking compared to earlier times.

That being said, Sarah Maddison’s point is well taken: that action by young feminists today may be less visible than in earlier decades but that there are, nevertheless, activists who are ‘performing an essential task for the movement’s maintenance by sustaining ideologies and networks that will be necessary for another strong wave of feminist activism to emerge in Australian society’ (Maddison 2004: 236). She discusses two groups: one involved in the Young Women Who Are Parents Programme based in a Campbelltown (Sydney) women’s health centre; and a group of student activists associated with the Cross Campus Women’s Network (also NSW). What I found remarkable about both groups was their similarity to former generations of feminists in some respects, but particularly in the experience and anarchistic attitudes expressed by those in CCWN who identified with women’s liberation and libertarian socialism—even if they did express ‘some ambivalence about the use of “traditional” feminist categories, such as “liberal, socialist or radical”', as the author says.

Some years ago Elizabeth Bird commented on falling student enrolments in women’s studies in the U.K., U.S. and Canada and a consequent decline in the number of Women’s Studies degree programs being offered. She saw this as partly due to a decline in feminist activism and in ties between that and feminism in the academy, suggesting that what is at stake may also be the future health of women’s/gender studies in the academy (Bird 2001: 475). (I should acknowledge, however, that student enrolments in the courses discussed here have actually risen in the past few years, while some other Women’s and Gender Studies courses at UNSW have also been as large or larger.) I am not suggesting that we adopt a triumphalist approach to celebrating past glories whilst overlooking weaknesses or failures, but simply that more of a balance between feminist introspection and social critique might bring more positive political results (such as encouraging activism) in a socio-political environment that is undeniably conservative, where backsliding can be seen in many an area.

The fact that certain tenets of feminist theory today can be problematic for a feminist political project was also demonstrated in our Feminism classrooms. The relatively few students in ‘Introduction to Feminism’ over the three years who were particular admirers of Judith Butler—who were often really third-year students doing the core course because of late decisions to do a WGS major—tended to see her critique of the male/female binarism and its implication in heteronormativity as necessarily more liberatory than the conventional sex/gender distinction (Butler 1999), but without wanting to consider the question of for whom it might be liberating. Intersex and transgender people, perhaps, but how about ‘women’? Such students fail to see any potential connection between the days when lesbians walked out of Gay Liberation en masse, due to the sexism of men in the movement, and queer groups today or in the future where the particular concerns of lesbians could well be dismissed by reference to Butler’s ideas. Yet, if the traditional Subject of feminism, ‘Woman’, is no longer legitimate as an identity or focus of concern for feminists, both because of a suspicion of male/female binarisms and because of its tendency to lead to notions of a universal woman, how would sexism in such a context be countered? What would a ‘feminism’ be that ruled out the possibility of solidarity as women, or of a political project largely by and for women? I am not suggesting that such problems are insurmountable. Obviously, one might object to being treated as a ‘Woman’ as defined by hegemonic patriarchal discourses and find solidarity with others raised and treated as such; one might embrace (strategic, shifting) ‘positionality’ and commitments to action in line with the recommendation of bell hooks who once pointed out that, ‘We cannot cavalierly dismiss a concern with identity politics. Any critic … would need to consider the implications of a critique of identity for oppressed groups’ (hooks 1990: 15ff). My point is simply that Butler enthusiasts in the classroom seemed unwilling to engage with difficulties associated with their critiques of identity politics.

Whether in connection with Butler or other post- feminisms, I did find a few students adhering to the sort of linear developmental notion of progress wherein later versions of feminism are seen necessarily to be superior in all respects. The occasional expression of explicit ageism aside regarding the ‘old hat old guard’, what was lacking in such essays was any consideration of the broad political utility of these (supposedly entirely) ‘new’ or ’young’ feminisms. There also seemed to be an overestimation of the influence of contemporary feminist theorists beyond the ‘ivory tower’. For example, notwithstanding the interest in Butler’s ideas of some inside and outside the university environment who identify as queer, I wonder what hope there is of mainstream society embracing her deconstruction of the ‘biological’, naturalized male/female binary when increasingly the popular media indicates that an awareness of even the conventional feminist sex/gender distinction is declining. Both in advertising of ideal presents for boys and girls and popular acceptance of it, we still see a predominance of training in competitiveness, leadership, ‘action’ and even violence for boys, and training in domesticity, nurturing, romance, relative passivity and absorption in beauty and fashion for girls. Examples abound of media commentators’ accepting social constructs of femininity and masculinity as natural these days, indicating an obvious regression since the 1980s in social awareness of conditioning in gender roles, behaviour and identities. A rare exception was a recent news item where Ellen Connolly reported on Chilla Bulbeck’s findings in a study of gender norms amongst high school students, to wit: ‘traditional male and female archetypes might be dressed in modern clothes … but woman the nurturer and man the hunter were not far from the surface’ (Bulbeck, in Connolly 2004).

IV The Eternal Return: Feminism Students on Feminist Issues

Cathryn Bailey observed in 2002 that, if there is a generation gap between (American) Second and Third Wave feminists, it is ‘not based so much on disagreement about particular issues as on a failure to communicate honestly in the first place’ (2002: 2). Focussing upon young women’s constitution of themselves as feminist subjects in the college classroom, she concluded that some criticisms by the younger generation—at least those ‘that do not necessarily require the falsification of earlier feminist claims or positions’—are legitimate. Yet she also notes the existence of:

a disingenuousness about the nature of power and resistance on both sides, one that not only results in gross misunderstandings as reflected in the popular media, but that also will affect the nature and quality of cross-generational collaboration in the academy (Bailey 2002: 2).

Though I have remarked upon a tendency amongst students to accept too readily and uncritically generalizations about the Second Wave (just as some older feminists have generalized wildly about the younger generation and been too dismissive of younger feminists), I do not share Bailey’s concern about the current existence or future of cross-generational collaboration in or out of academia. Whilst it is to be expected that some students will accept, at least at first, some of the stereotypes found in the popular media of feminism and feminists, in my experience most are well able to recognize its habitual trivialization of feminist concerns, and are also appreciative of the efforts of earlier generations.

Yet I do concur with her view that student critiques of society suggest that many issues of concern to feminists have not changed all that much over the years. Naturally, the stage of life of most students would contribute to their having a particular interest in some issues and not (yet) others; hence, the most popular topic for research essays was feminine body image, followed by pornography, with a fair few also exhibiting interest in issues such as abortion, sexual violence against women and sexual harassment. Over the three years, body image or the ‘beauty myth’ was, in fact, way out in front. Let’s not forget, however, that, whilst eating disorders were not then prominent, social pressure to conform to the ‘feminine stereotype’ was a central concern of early Second Wavers, too, most visibly with liberationists who thumbed their noses at it in their jeans or ‘ovaries’, with their short proto-punk hairstyles, unmade-up faces and so on. Some students today may object to the pressure to conform that can and did for a while arise from such rejections of normative dress (as did some feminists then), but recognize that it helped pave the way to more choice in dress for women and girls today. The irony is that, overall, the latter do not look so very different from the seventies generation of liberationists—as I am fond of demonstrating in lectures with pictures from old WLM magazines. But, concerning the ongoing media stereotypes of feminists, in a recent article Sarah Maddison cites one young mother on how she had come to realize through involvement in a feminist programme (and ‘consciousness-raising’) that she is a feminist: ‘it’s really sad that I didn’t know that. It’s sad to me that the community in general doesn’t understand what it is and that we’re all so focused on [the myth that] feminism means you’ve got a shaved head and you burn your bra’. (2004: 243). Students also often mention these longstanding caricatures. Although there is some historical basis for them (even if I can’t recall many of us shaving our heads!), the reductionism and attempt at trivialization is also clear. It is clear to many students, too.

I found some of the most passionate discussions in the classroom to be on the following: the beauty industry and the pressures upon women to conform to feminine (and ever more sexualised) stereotypes; sexual (especially street) harassment of women and other violence toward them; and the objectification and commodification of women reflected in the media, porn and advertising industries. One week specifically on sexuality (readings from de Beauvior’s The Second Sex, Greer’s The Female Eunuch, and Irigaray’s This Sex Which Is Not One) featured spirited discussions, too, with many students opting to do short papers in that week. Though there were individual students who seemed to want to distance themselves from some classic feminist critiques, for example, with respect to pornography, the majority spoke in terms that were very familiar. I recall receiving only once or twice a paper in which a student represented the old guard (i.e., the sexual revolution generation!) as ‘anti-sex’, prudish or Victorian, unlike today’s ‘sexually liberated’ younger generation. Tutorial discussions, on the other hand, often revealed personal/political frustrations with sexual objectification, pressures to be (hetero-) sexually active (in ways recommended by porn or the popular media), the high incidence of sexual violence, and so on—building up a picture of a generation that is not as liberated as some like to think.

One thing that came as a surprise to me, given the ongoing criticism especially of earlier feminists as ‘manhaters’, was how in the week devoted to the question of whether men can be feminists, most identified with seventies’ arguments against. The set texts were mainly written by individuals in North American ‘Men against Sexism’ or ‘Revolutionary Effeminist’ groups (Snodgrass: 1977). This, too, was a very popular topic for short papers. The majority voiced conventional feminist claims to experience: to one’s having to be born, or at least raised and treated as female/a woman to be a real feminist. Irrespective of current critiques of the category of woman and identity politics, most appeared to be suspicious of perceived attempts by men to appropriate feminism. In this or other connections, even those who approved of Butler’s critique of the Second Wave and identified with poststructuralism, or those who took on board blanket dismissals of earlier ‘victim’ feminism, could be seen to be ambivalent on such issues. It is not, it would seem, so easy to do away with an identification with or as women. Furthermore, though it was often argued that there needs to be space in feminism for sympathetic ‘profeminist’ men (which in itself is hardly a new idea), many did not seem to me to be markedly different from Second Wave liberationists in their acceptance of at least some separatism in the area of activism. Some saw the commitment to an autonomous women-only movement to be an historical necessity in the seventies but no longer; yet others were wary of ‘allowing’ men to participate in all or just certain types of feminist activism. Even in the comparatively rare cases of students who took a more poststructuralist approach critical of essentialism regarding womanly experience/identity, perhaps going so far as to accept that experience is not prior to (e.g., feminist) discourse, but discursively constituted (Scott 1992), this wariness might still be present. It was consistent with the widely expressed belief that a fully feminist consciousness is the preserve of women.

V Reflections

According to Cathryn Bailey, ‘What is needed from older feminists is a more realistic acknowledgement of feminist power that does not lead to a brushing aside of younger women’s complaints’—or their differences from, and critiques of the Second Wave (Bailey 2002: 2). I trust that I have not done that, nor misrepresented the concerns and attitudes of the majority of students with whom I have been in contact over the past three years. I am aware that my perceptions may be skewed by a number of factors. These include the possible inability of some to express views to me that they may share with friends, or their desire to say what they imagine I want to hear. Despite my emphasis on inter-generational ‘sameness’, moreover, I would reiterate that my focus is upon (first-year) student reactions to feminist thinking and classic feminist issues. I would not be much of an historian if I were to conflate two very different historical contexts. Nor, however, do I accept conventional linear models of change, the logic of which is onward and ever upward, for to do so with respect to feminism and women’s/gender issues contains obvious political dangers. Retrogression is not only a possibility but a reality today with respect to many things: the decline in government funding (now for ‘family’ rather than ‘women’s’ issues); to issues such as the ‘right to choose’ being put back on the agenda by conservatives; to the obvious backsliding in community awareness of gender constructs and inequities, and so on.

Cyclical models of historical change can be conservative, too, as Jane Long has indicated. However, like her, my emphasis on an ‘eternal return’ is partly meant to call attention to the problems with ‘formulations in which age and experience, the young and the new, are taken as necessarily synonymous’ (Long 2001). It is also intended to underscore a broader (less individualistic or self-centred) political awareness and potential for political action amongst today’s young women than has often been recognized in what Long termed ‘generational cleavage models’. This is not to say that our Feminism students blindly follow the lead of the older generation, but rather that many recognize their own personal experience and political frustrations even in some ‘old feminist’ social critiques. It was far from being the case that most fitted the contemporary stereotype of young women’s believing that the battle’s already been won and that they (or, indeed, women in general) can easily have it all. Concerning the potential amongst them for collective action today or in the future, I admit to having concerns at the shift over the years to a more individualistic (personal liberation) approach to politics. This is witnessed in classroom discussions at times, but I have more often encountered a classic libertarian approach similar to that of many earlier women’s liberationists that neither discounts the potential impact of many individuals’ resisting pressures to conform to social norms nor sees this alone as sufficient to bring about desired social change.4

Bailey called upon young feminists to engage with the women and work of the Second Wave in ways that are politically and academically serious, rather than token acknowledgements of its merely ‘historical’ importance. The first part of that proposition I have already recommended, though I see it as applicable to feminists, academics included, who may or may not be younger. I am often struck by an apparent ignorance of all that the Second Wave was, and not only in works of popular feminism or post- or third-wave feminism today. To some extent, those at fault must be taking their lead from formal academic works that homogenize earlier feminism, for example by conveniently overlooking the socialist presence in and influence upon women’s movements. An awareness of women’s differences and of what is now termed intersectionality was not the invention of post-Second Wave feminists. Yet, in that and other connections, I did find particularly amongst the small number of students with a commitment to postist feminisms, a tendency to take as given the newness or ‘origin-ality’ of contemporary theoretical works. No doubt, their failure to recognize intertextuality where it exists is partly due to an unwillingness to take earlier feminisms seriously, as Bailey complains. As to a token appreciation of earlier feminism as (just) ‘history’, students could be forgiven for their tendency to relegate socialist feminism to the dustbin even by the time of the Second Wave, though the reality is that its lingering influence in Australia, Europe and elsewhere still today can hardly be denied. A case in point is the materialist approach of some feminism (e.g., postcolonial) still today, but I am also reminded of the group of feminist students studied by Maddison (affiliated with the Cross Campus Women’s Network, NSW) who identified most strongly with the libertarian socialist side of the WLM. And it is not only historical facticity concerning the heterogeneity of earlier feminism that is at stake here, since the penchant of contemporary students to overlook differences of class and capitalism’s role in gender and other inequities is surely related.

One so often encounters the implication in the language used in feminist sources today (and in the classroom) that the Second Wave is dead and gone. Yet many Second Wavers, in and out of the academy, are still here, still active in one way or another, and not necessarily all that old. Nor do we necessarily lack sympathy for contemporary feminist approaches (as if we had not contributed rather a lot to them ourselves!). Also ‘still here’ and proving that feminism is alive and well, as Liz Conor emphasized not long ago in the pages of the Age newspaper, are many younger women who are embracing feminist causes. Conor styled herself as a feminist in her own right, not merely as one of the daughters of feminism who are wont to complain of how it has failed them or women. Daughters like these, she pointed out, ‘undermine [feminist] campaigns with inaccurate arguments about what feminism did and didn’t achieve, and … question the value of continuing the fight’ (Conor 2004). Noting the belittling ways in which feminists are often positioned in the popular memory today, Conor embraced a feminist identity whilst emphasizing that,

it isn’t because of the things that feminists won that I’m overwhelmed and overburdened [by care and career]. It’s because of what they tried valiantly to win, but lost. Can we pin the blame on feminists, or should we take a closer look at who and what stood in their way when they fought for workplace reforms that would accommodate women and men with caring responsibilities? It was the employers, the profit motive and legislators with full-time wives that obstructed them. Let’s take a recent example. Who was it that quashed Pru Goward and Sharan Burrow’s proposal for a national paid maternity leave scheme? By jingo, it was John Howard and not Anne Summers after all.

Conor joined her voice to the chorus of those who are insisting that feminism has a history which critics might consult more often—to wit, the fact that it was supposedly anti-motherhood feminists (with working mothers and, I would add, socialists amongst them) who won for working women what gains have been achieved.

VI Conclusion

I agree with Conor that generational divisions have often been represented, misleadingly, as the total picture of feminism today. She and many other younger feminists—journalists, academics, other writers, activists, students— illustrate how youth does not necessarily entail a rejection of all that previous generations stood for. If my reading of the attitudes of young women embarking upon feminist studies at my own university is accurate, what was not apparent was any generalized alienation from feminism, nor from their feminist forbears. I rarely encountered suggestions of this, even if some do accept as authoritative, blanket feminist dismissals of ‘the’ Second Wave as biased and benighted—the usual litany being white/Anglo, middle-class, blinded by class and racial/ethnic privilege, self-centred in prioritising their ‘own’ concerns, and so on. Concerning its putatively universal middle-classness, it is seldom recalled that, in Australia, WEL and the WLM were not the sum total of the Second Wave movement; and also that, even if the WLM contained a high proportion of tertiary students, this was in the days of free education. We were not, therefore, all from backgrounds indicating class (or even ethnic) privilege. Some of the other claims in such formulas can be challenged as well.

Despite the students’ recognition that much remains to be done, politically, I did not detect any tendency to blame their ‘elders’ for their supposed failures such as contemporary women being overburdened by care and career or the lack of a national paid maternity leave system. Nor did they blame feminism for the existence still of varying forms of structural discrimination against women (which are not, of course, based narrowly only on gender oppression unmodified by class differentiation, racialization, and so on), or systematic violence toward women. Nor, I might add, did they take a critique of such things to be synonymous with a ‘victim’ mentality, or shy away from using unfashionable terms such as ‘patriarchy’. I have little doubt that Elizabeth Bird is right in seeing the future health of feminism in the academy to be partly dependent upon maintaining its ties to activism, in and out of the tertiary education sphere. Indeed, some of these feminist students I have focussed upon have been quick to take up student or other feminist activism, whilst others reveal that they are searching for productive ways in which they can contribute to feminist struggles, individually or collectively. Rather than writing younger women off as hopelessly materialistic, individualistic, self-centred, politically unaware, apathetic, and so on and so forth, I’d say of these ones: Give them time! Many of the students I have been discussing exhibit the wherewithal—the critical abilities, the willingness to position themselves, and the commitment to social change—to contribute just as effectively to feminist causes as did women of the early Second Wave. In so doing, perhaps they will help to bring the Third Wave into sharper social focus.


1. My main field of expertise in research and teaching has been the history of Japan. In 2002 when I first coordinated ‘Introduction to Feminism’, the assistance of another lecturer then in the School of History, Ana Carden-Coyne, was invaluable. The input of Ingrid Tufvesson, who was then a WGS postgraduate and tutored in the course in later years was also crucial to the course’s success.

2. Many authors have addressed the question of generational differences between the early Second Wave and younger generation of feminists. One well-known example was the debate generated by the Ormond College sexual harassment case and Helen Garner’s book, The First Stone (1995). Naturally, claims as to generational differences also feature in works on Third Wave or post-feminism, as discussed for example in Wendy Parkins, ‘Bad Girls, Bad Reputations: Feminist Ethics and Postfeminism’, in Australian Feminist Studies (1999); and Camille Nurka, ‘Postfeminist Autopsies’ in AFS (2002). See also Anthea Taylor, ‘What’s new about the ‘New Femininity’? Feminism, Femininity and the Discourse of the New’ in Hecate (2003). Anthea Taylor was a WGS postgraduate at UNSW until last year, and I must thank her also for educating me on the intergenerational debate. Her doctoral thesis was titled 'The First Stone as Media Event'.

3. As late as May 2001, however, Issue 8 of the Australian online journal, Outskirts, was devoted to the debate on feminist generational differences, contributors being Chilla Bulbeck, Anita Harris, Jane Long and Rebecca Stringer. A more recent contribution to the debate in which the author regrets its abandonment by scholars and the media, yet seeks to avoid what she calls the reductive noose of generationalism is Sarah Maddison's ‘Young Women in the Australian Women’s Movement: Collective Identity and Discursive Politics’ in International Feminist Journal of Politics (2004).

4. Kate Bower (the abovementioned tutor in 2004, who also researched the political styles of WGS majors for her Honours thesis in 2003) differs a little from myself in seeing the individualistic/personal liberation style to be a bit stronger amongst the students. In my own experience, this has been less obvious in connection with the need for collective political action than with student acceptance of sexual libertarian (sex radical) views that prioritise individual desires without due recognition of those on the receiving end of the individual’s freedom. This acceptance may be seen to be ‘libertarian’ (civil libertarian or individualistic anarchist in style), but the latter has been a classic concern of traditional collectivist anarchist and feminist libertarians.

I would like to extend my thanks to Sarah Maddison, Sally Cove and Kate Bower for their insightful comments on an earlier draft of this paper. Kate’s honours research project in 2003 (in Sociology and Women’s and Gender Studies, UNSW) was on the approach to feminism of WGS majors, and she also tutored in the course discussed below, ‘Introduction to Feminism’, in 2004.


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