Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Waiving Off the Second Wave

Was the second wave of feminists who ran rampant in the sixties and seventies all washed up before they got going? What did they actually accomplish other than try to change the balance of power in the name of women’s rights? Does the current Minister of Family in Germany pay them homage or does she have her own view on why women can do what they do today without their help?

When in an interview published in 2009, I expressed my differences in ideas with Simone De Beauvoir, I found not only Indian feminists, but some western feminists came forward to protest my comments. One of known second-wave western feminists also asked me what I have done in my lifetime before protesting such eminent feminist like Beauvoir.

But recently an interview with German Family Minister Kristina Schroder, which made a wave of controversy in Germany, made me more enthusiastic that a whole new kind of struggle is emerging throughout the world. What attracts me first from the interview of Schroder is that she hints at this new struggle with the following words:

“I don't agree with a core statement by most feminists, the statement by Simone de Beauvoir: ‘One is not born a woman, one becomes one.’ Even as a schoolgirl I wasn't convinced by the claim that gender has nothing to do with biology and is only shaped by one's environment.”

In my book Sensible Sensuality, I have described in my essay “Bicycle & Me” that from my childhood, I could feel how the upbringing as a male child did not make any effect in my life and the legendary quotation of Beauvoir “one is not born but rather, becomes a woman” did not imply to my gender, ideas and feelings.

In another one of my essays, “Beauty Dilemma,” I wrote: “Many times western feminists, especially the second-wave feminists, adopted these fanatics, falsified, or wrong determinations to challenge the patriarchal hegemony of the ‘sex/gender system.’ Simone’s ideas made the feminists of the second wave keep themselves away from the masculine world. They refused to make themselves instruments (objects) towards masculine sexual pleasure and even kept themselves away from heterosexuality. As a result, we may assume the feminists of that time were either bisexual or lesbians. The result was that many women who generally supported feminism were not prepared to fully accept the ideological underpinnings proposed by these radicals and socialist feminists. Linda Scott, a pop singer feminist, admits in her book Fresh Lipstick: Redressing Fashion and Feminism that feminism had suffered a lot because of its views on beauty and fashion.”

Describing her opinion about the current dress code, Schroder reported, “I never wanted independence by mean expressing that I am very masculine or very casual dresses occur…..I never wanted to express my independence by dressing in a particularly masculine way or appear particularly boyish. For me, emancipation will only be truly reached when women wear skirts and makeup and as can be, without doubt, the reason of competence.”

The criticism Schroder faced from other feminists, especially from second-wave feminists, was that being a minister, she argued against feminism, which has played a vital role in her making political decisions. In my opinion, she never uttered a word against feminism and when the last but serious question was asked of her as, “Would a career like the one you've had be possible in Germany if it weren't for feminism?” she replied with a ‘no’ and admitted that had it not been for the feminist movement, that would have been impossible. What she has expressed is that the ideas to meet the challenge for feminism in the present relate to how they respond, ethically and politically, to a global context that is at once geared toward total control and fragmentation.

In the Western world, feminism became an organized movement in the eighteenth century as people increasingly came to believe women were being treated unfairly. The feminist movement was rooted in the progressive movement and especially in the reform movements of the nineteenth century. Mary Wollstonecraft had already argued against the injustices suffered by women and had published one of the first feminist treatises, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), in which she advocated the social and moral equality of the sexes, extending the work of her 1790 pamphlet, A Vindication of the Rights of Man. Her later unfinished work "Maria, or The Wrongs of Woman" earned her considerable criticism as she discussed women's sexual desires.

The feminist movement has successfully effected change in Western society including women's right to vote; in education; in gender neutrality in language; equality in payments for same job without any gender bias; the right to initiate divorce proceedings; the reproductive rights of women to make individual decisions on pregnancy (including access to contraceptives and abortion); and the right to enter into contracts and own property. The attempts and struggles made by these early activists largely responded to specific injustices they had themselves experienced.

In addition, they have successfully achieved the scope of higher education for women; reform of the girls' secondary-school system, including participation in formal national examinations: the widening of access to the professions, especially medicine; married women's property rights, recognised in the Married Women's Property Act of 1870; and some improvement in divorced and separated women's child custody rights in the United States.

Active until the First World War, first-wave feminists failed, however, to secure the right to vote for women. Women had won voting rights in New Zealand (1893), Australia (1902), Finland (1906), Norway (1913), the Soviet Union (1917), Poland (1918), Britain (1918), USA , Sweden and Germany (all are in 1919), and Ireland (1922). After World War II woman-suffrage laws were adopted in many countries, including France, Italy, India, and Japan.

First-wave feminism stretched up into the sixties, when Simone De Beauvoir’s well-known book The Second Sex inspired some of the feminist think tanks. Although it was published in 1949, it took almost 20 years to find its place in the minds of feminist think tanks. Then, feminism transferred to a more theoretical approach and was based on basic assumptions about gender, gender difference, and sexuality, including the category of "woman" itself as a holistic concept. Further, some were interested in questioning the male/female binary completely (offering instead, a multiplicity of genders). Beauvoir raised some questions on patriarchal behaviour with women and argued that men had made women the "other" in society by putting a false aura of "mystery" around them. She argued that men used this as an excuse not to understand women or their problems and not to help them, and that this stereotyping was always done in societies by the group higher in the hierarchy to the group lower in the hierarchy.

In the sixties, two women’s groups, Women’s Consciousness-Raising (known as CR) and the National Organization for Women (known as NOW) became active and public in the United States by stopping traffic and by breaking existing laws to provide a platform for safe and accessible abortions thus contradicting the older generation. Meanwhile, President John F. Kennedy had established the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women in 1960. The Commission was constituted in 1960 and in October 1963, the Commission issued their final report documenting the status of American women. The report criticized inequalities facing the American woman in a "free" society while paradoxically praising traditional gender roles as themselves being anti-communist.

This Commission’s report helped win various legal victories in the United States such as the Equal Pay Act of 1963, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX and the Women's Educational Equity Act (1972 and 1975, educational equality), Title X (1970, health and family planning), the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (1974), the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978.

In Western countries, the slogan 'The Personal is Political' summed up the way in which second-wave feminism did not just strive to extend the range of social opportunities open to women but also strived to change the domestic and private lives of women through intervention within the spheres of reproduction, sexuality and cultural representation.

Along with the victory over patriarchal injustice and providing freedom from the second-class status of women, second-wave feminists emphasised their theoretical base to different angles and very soon, the movement was no longer a unified one. Differences of opinion and philosophy caused splits between black feminism, lesbian feminism, liberal feminism, and social feminism. Though there were many successes during the effective life of the second-wave feminist movement, there was an undeniable idea also that it had failed.

Motherhood, parenting, and heterosexual affinity were blamed by the feminist think tanks of this time as the reason for the demise of the second-wave movement. They argued that throughout human history, maternal experience has been defined and written by a patriarchal culture. They further argued that not only motherhood but other myths such as marriage, heterosexual relationships, and family bonding had patriarchal roots and were the foundation for social practices that historically restricted women.

Jill Johnston in her Lesbian Nation (1973), called married women who were heterosexual females 'traitors.’ Kate Millett in her Sexual Politics (1970), redefined heterosexual sex as a power struggle, whereas in Kathrin Perutz's Marriage is Hell (1972) and Ellen Peck's The Baby Trap (1971), argued that motherhood blocks the liberation of a woman. These feminists always tried to paint marriage as legalized prostitution and heterosexual intercourse as rape. They came to the decision that men are the enemy and that families are prisons.

In my opinion, second-wave feminism, though it achieved some of its goals to make women more visible and successful in society also lost its direction as it traveled through its existence. The movement which was once started to protest sexism transferred itself to heterosexism and the solution was to dismantle the family -- not just the patriarchal family but the heterosexual family as well.

Later, after the nineties, many feminists found these ideas of heterosexism a hard pill to swallow and the feminist doctrine of women's victimhood was the major cause for the overwhelming public interest in women's issues. Here, I am reminded of the arguments between second-wave feminist Alice Walker and her daughter, third-wave feminist Rebecca Walker. I will not repeat those sequences here, as they have been repeatedly discussed in my different articles from time to time.

Why were our earlier feminists so critical against heterosexual relationships? Because, they argued, such relationships need submission during sex. Schröder responded to this argument that “it is absurd if something that is fundamental for humanity and for its survival should in itself be defined as submission. That would mean that society can't carry on without the submission of women.”

When she was asked whether feminists fundamentally oppose relationships between men and women, Schroder responded, “There was indeed a radical movement that argued in this way and saw being lesbian as a solution. I didn't find it very convincing that homosexuality should be the solution to the problem of women being disadvantaged.”

When asked whether she thinks feminism made women happier, Schröder replied, “The early feminism at least overlooked the fact that partnership and children can provide happiness. It isn't the only way but for very many people, it is the most important way.” Throughout the interview, she seemed to emphasise that there are differences between men and women and we have to accept the truth, not with an inferiority outlook, but to glorify the truth with all its potentiality.

Schröder might face strong controversy for her clear and loud statements, but I am sure she could raise a voice to let people know that feminism is not all what the second-wave feminists would have you believe it is. It would help people to re-identify and redefine feminism.

(The full interview with Schröder can be found at:,1518,728175,00.html)

Feminism has often been misunderstood as a bunch of stereotyped hysterical man-hating fanatics who seek power and control rather than true equality. It has further been characterized as anti-male, when in fact, it seeks to liberate men from the macho stereotypic roles men often have to endure such as the need to suppress feelings, act aggressively, and be deprived of contact with children. But ‘feminism’ is not just a movement for the liberation of women; it is a broad social movement which strives for the equality of each individual worldwide.

Feminism should emphasise the importance of such values as cooperation, tolerance, nurturance, and the freedom for each person to achieve her or his full potential. Feminism should not act in opposition to men as individuals. Feminism should be against oppressive and outdated social structures which force both men and women into positions which are false and antagonistic. Thus, everyone has an important role to play in the feminist movement. Let us emphasise our femininity rather than impose the so-called stereotyped feministic attitude of the second wave.