The 3rd WWWave -- who we are, what we see

by Janis Cortese

Are we or aren't we?

It's never occurred to me that I would ever have to defend myself as a feminist.

But that's apparently what's going on lately. I hate the most common versions of sex entertainment, but I'm against any form of censorship. I think Catharine MacKinnon is a fool if she honestly believes what she's saying is the truth. I'm pro-second-amendment and my educational web site on Women and Handguns is so well-known that I've found myself known as the Internet Gun Lady. And the women working at Ms. Magazine sure wouldn't call me a feminist.

What I'm hearing is a lot of complaints that young women my age (late twenties, early thirties, Generation X basically) won't call themselves feminist. "I'm not a feminist but -- " drives them up a wall -- and me, too. But to be fair, I'm hearing an awful lot of second wave feminists saying that, "Young women nowdays aren't feminists!" because we don't participate in activism the way they did. No, we don't.

But we do put up web sites that the entire universe can read, run for office in huge numbers and win, and get good paying professional jobs and promptly develop an "old girls' network" of handing consulting jobs to friends, just like the men have always done. (I've helped male friends of mine get positions, so it's not all one-sided, but I am completely unashamed about handing off employment and consulting opportunities to other women friends.) And what do we hear in return?

"Well, that's all well and good but it's not feminism."

So we don't call ourselves feminists enough for you, but when we are proud of what we've accomplished and call it feminism, you tell us we aren't feminist! After a while, we just don't know what you want from us anymore. Do you want us to be just like you? Because we're not -- we're different. You won a lot of the old battles, and as a result, we must move on to new ones. (And if we were still fighting those old battles twenty years later, that would mean that you weren't terribly successful.) We're moving forward quickly, closing the pay gap between men and women nicely while we're at it and filling the coffers of organizations like EMILY's List, and as a result, the field looks different to us. (Not to mention that the only other person to give me that "Oh, I'm sure that's all well and good, dear, but it doesn't really matter," upon hearing of the web sites I've helped put up is one of the most sexist men I've ever met in my life. When you say things like this, do you really know who you sound like?)

Why are we different from you?

We grew up watching most of the adults around us voting for someone who was flat-out losing his mind, hearing that "feminism was dead," while at the same time being the first generation to grow up taking reproductive choice as a given. You think that won't make us a little loopy, or at least different from you?

You accepted men (a lot more than history admits) as partners in the great struggle, while we inherited a generation of potential husbands who seemed to have stuck their fingers in their ears and hummed loud, hoping that feminism would all blow over and that they wouldn't have to pry their butts out of their La-Z-Boys, and thinking that marriage still meant free groping rights whenever they felt like it and never having to clean another dish.

You could afford to accept other hippie guys as partners in the struggle for justice. Our male contemporaries are a little different. We both heard the statistics about "women making 60 cents for every male dollar," only we rolled our sleeves up and set about improving things. They sat back grinning, and figured it was gravy time, that the world was their oyster because they had a penis ("We make more money than you, nyah nyah!"). After all, that's what they learned in the Reagan years: that we were all "post-feminist," and they breathed a sigh of relief, delighted that it had all blown over before they had to actually get off their lazy asses and change. Then Reagan gets voted out, Mr. Post Feminist graduates from college, and finds out that no, he wasn't going to be J. R. Ewing and he wasn't going to make a million dollars before he was thirty, and moreover, one of those babes that he thought he'd outearn without half trying just might be his boss. And guess who he resents for it.

You fought hard to recover women geniuses from the dusty racks of ignored history -- but do any of you really know how few girls in school are taught any of that? What would the second wave feminists think if they knew that in my own high school, a girls' high school, the women's movement and how we won the vote was completely passed over and ignored because "we don't have time for it?" And I'm hardly alone. Every woman I know my age has heard that in school. Even the battles you think you've won look very different to those of us who hit 30 before finding out that women were not "given" the vote and that birth control didn't fall out of the sky. Carrie Chapman Catt? Margaret Sanger? Who dat?

You worked to get Women's Studies departments and Women's Centers on university campuses, but speaking as someone with a graduate degree in Physics, I can say pretty firmly that the "mentoring" programs, and the work-study programs that the Women's Resource Center had at Cal Irvine, were approximately useless to me. Useless to damned near anyone in the sciences, as a matter of fact. Women's Studies was supposed to be some grand training ground for activists -- not for women who came to college to learn a discipline and get a degree, in other words most of us. For most women in college, the Women's Resource Center is a sort of Planned Parenthood that they can call in the event that they need counseling -- a valuable resource, to be sure, but nowhere near an academic one. Once after sitting in a circle of women who introduced themselves as activists and performance artists, or young women who were getting humanities and social science degrees, I remember all too well those sidelong looks that were exchanged when I introduced myself as a grad student in high-energy physics and made all those deconstructionists pop a mental clutch. "I'm sorry, but we don't know what to do with you," those looks seemed to say -- given by women who were artistes at complaining about the underrepresentation of women in the sciences. They bemoaned the lack of people like me in the sciences at the same time as they stared at me like a Martian. Sheesh.

The very accomplishments you seem to think are the most important are the ones that did the least for us.

You say you wanted to make a world where women could be what we wanted to be, and yet women like Hedda Nussbaum are enshrined as "inspirational" whereas women like us -- women who fought our asses off to get to where we are and who won't ever let anyone lay a hand on us again -- hear that what we're doing simply by achieving to the best of our ability isn't feminism. I see women who let their husbands beat the shit out of them taken to your bosom and fondled lovingly in the pages of Ms. (to which I once subscribed until I got too frustrated with it), while women who shot abusive husbands in self-defense are lambasted for falling prey to patriarchal thinking by buying a gun. You were all over Nicole Brown like she was the best thing in the world for your PR purposes, but if she had bought a handgun and defended herself, your pet bulldogs in HCI would have sneered at her as a poisonous example of violence in the home. It's either "Look at the poor abused dead woman, what a lovely martyr for the Cause she makes," or "Look at the woman who bought into the patriarchy."

The woman who dies is a Good Woman. The one who does what she needs to survive is a Sign of the Coming Apocalypse. You say you fought hard to enable us to succeed, but it just seems sometimes like we can get more lauds from you, or at least lots more positive attention, by failing than by succeeding.

This isn't exactly unusual, though. It's always been that way for women -- the only way we can get attention is by suffering. Look at your typical history books -- Joan of Arc, Amelia Earhart, Marie Curie. Dead by murder, dead by getting lost, dead by cancer from studying the very subject she got her Nobel Prizes for. I have no doubt that Shannon Lucid would also have been turned into some sort of sick inspirational fetish had she kacked in space, too. But alas, no. She merely succeeded brilliantly, came back home to her family and lots of applause, and set her sights on Mars. And in 20 years, nobody'll know who the hell she was. We remember Earhart, though -- who screwed up. Society only forgives a woman who challenges gender roles if she fucks up in the end.

It seems that women are only grudgingly accepted into the annals of history if they have died violent deaths and thus atoned for the sin of having outperformed men. Sure, they accomplished a great deal -- but they died in the process. History loves a dead woman. And history loves examples that illustrate to young girls that, yes -- success is all well and good, but if you try to fly too high, you'll Pay For It In The End.

Feminism shouldn't be teaching the same lesson.

What is wrong with this picture?

We say that we're in a more comfortable position now, and we want to start using the power that previous generations of women have worked for. You tell us we're being "overconfident" and that the rights and privileges we enjoy now can still be lost -- at any time. The truth is that they can't be -- not unless women roll over and play dead. They can't do any damned thing to us that they want anymore. Women sure as hell are victimized -- but it's no longer eternal, and it's no longer taken as a matter of course, and you can trust me on this one -- they'll get reproductive choice away from me when they pry it out of my cold, dead hands. For pete's sake, twelve years' worth of stacking on the Supreme Court by the Reagan/Bush nightmare wasn't enough to overturn Roe. v Wade! Stop casting us in roles that we don't fit anymore. Stop trying so hard to convince us, after raising us to believe that we can "be anything we want to be," that the world is hostile, dangerous, and can turn on us at any minute. You tell us on one hand that we should go out and do everything previous generations weren't able to do -- and then you make us schizoid with stories about how we'll get flattened by the Karma Truck of Life by trying.

And moreover, stop acting like the 60's and the 70's are the only decades we inherited. Stop acting like we're supposed to magically divine all the "groovy CR rap" you guys did telepathically, as if the 80's never happened. We didn't only inherit the second wave of feminism -- we inherited all the macho, posturing, lying, hypocritical bullshit that came after it, too, you know. We saw all of your fellow 60's radicals who honestly thought that dropping acid and fucking anything that moved in Max Yasgar's alfalfa field had some sort of "social relevence" turn into the most money-grubbing acquisitive lying bastards ever to come down the pike for ten long, painful years. No, we don't trust you. Would you trust you, if that was what you had seen?

\ There's a distinct possibility that the 3rd WWWave exasperation with second wave feminists is one more facet of the way our entire generation is sick of hearing about how yours invented social justice, and that we "aren't doing it right." We're not just slamming on feminism. We're slamming on all of the 60's political entities, from NOW to the Democratic and Republican parties, both of whose current political beliefs were set in stone during the same decade.

Make no mistake -- this is a generation gap.

What annoys us about the second wave

Most of you will read this while jumping up and down and wanting to yell, "That's not what it was!" No, it's not. But it's what it has become -- for us. When you guys were doing far more sane politics twenty years ago, we weren't even part of it. We were running around skinning our knees or drooling, or we weren't born yet. Your experience with the second wave is different from ours. You hear "second wave feminism" and think of the activism you did, and the feeling of togetherness that you got, the feeling that one always gets when one is doing something important and vital with people you care about, female bonding while slaying dragons. That is your memory of second wave feminism. But by the time it got to us, filtered through the Reagan era, it had become something else -- (Could it be that I'm familiar with these because I'm an erotica-writing, handgun-owning bisexual dominant woman with an MS in physics? Naah . . . )

No, this isn't the second wave that you remember. But it is what it has become in some ways, for us. Maybe it's not what you were doing in 1971 -- but I was 5 in 1971. Ask me instead what the hell Andrea Dworkin was doing in the same political corner as Jerry Falwell when I was in my twenties. To us, that's a lot more relevent.

I know that isn't what you fought and worked for. I know that part of the problem lies with the media for painting you guys as anti-sex manhaters. I know that anything you did would have been turned into castration by a male-controlled media that seems damned anxious to be castrated in the first place, and I know that whatever you were talking about in the 60's wasn't about calling bisexual women traitors and erotica writers "house niggers." But by the time it got to us, that's what it became.

You can no longer say, "But, that isn't what we meant!" because that is what it has become, regardless of what you meant. You can no longer demand that we telepathically divine what you meant to happen and ignore dealing with the problems of what has happened to feminism and the culture in general. It's not your fault. No cataclysmic social change ever goes where the founders thought it would. If you brought Thomas Jefferson back from the grave and showed him the modern United States, he'd probably collapse in horror.

For what it's worth, the feminism you remember is not the one we inherited. You remember the feminism of grown women getting together to rap and realizing things for the first time, the feminism of lobbying so we could get credit and get access to birth control and other things that the world had no right to keep from us. We remember the feminism of the college campus that tried to convince us that Beethoven was sublimating rape fantasies in his music, that said things to us as gunowners that Randall Terry has said to women who have had abortions, and that sneered at us if we didn't come out in the approved politically-correct way. You fought for equality and fairness (and made incredible, worldchanging strides), but today when we cast an eye toward feminism, we see women demanding that pornography be banned as hate speech on one side, and the pro-sex camp on the other saying that if you don't feel, like, oh so totally sexually liberated by dancing naked on a tabletop while a bunch of paunchy creepy forty-something males gape at you like lobotomized baboons, you're obviously a repressed anti-sex bluenose.

What you did has become, in the intervening twenty or so years, distorted. We have to shove it back on course.

And add in some deviations of our own, because our job as feminist isn't simply to make feminism into what you wanted it to be. It's to make feminism into what we think it should be, for ourselves, and our daughters, and our sons to come.

What do we want to say? or, "Gen-X vs. Boomer, yet again"

We're grateful -- believe me. When I think about what it must have been like to not be able to go to school, not to have the job I have now, or the independence it's brought me, not to be able to get access to birth control or abortion if I should need it, my skin blanches. (And in too many places in this world, women are no better off, or considerably worse.) I read some sections of "The Feminine Mystique" and I thank whatever deity that I'm presently holding dear that I wasn't born even one measley generation ago, or else I would have been one of those valium-sucking housewives screwing vacuum cleaner salesmen or hanging herself in the basement of her split-level ranch. I'm not a fool -- I know what my Silent Generation mother sacrificed to raise me and my brothers -- Rosalie Costanzi was one of the best violinists of her age group in the entire city of Philadelphia before marrying, and I know how it bothers her. I know the battles that still need to be fought, and their enormity stuns me. Trust me, please -- I'm grateful.

But I'm not you.

Oh, I know that the feminism that you remember isn't about making women into men -- I'm well aware that that nonsense is a by-product of the "post-feminist" 80's and that you had nothing to do with it. I am a career woman who loves her job, and I'm going to achieve my way -- I don't want the heart attacks and ulcers, I refuse to accept them, and I know that that wasn't what you fought for.

But a lot of the other things that I fight for are things you want nothing to do with, and moreover you act betrayed when I do fight for them.

I feel like just by being born after you, I've somehow signed some contract somewhere that says that I have to do everything you say, live up to your expectations, achieve what you wanted to achieve, or else it's a betrayal of some sort.

I feel like your generation thinks it's entitled to measure every crusade for social justice for the rest of time against what you did.

And I'm angry that you don't understand that the 60's/70's of feminism aren't the only decades that influenced us. We aren't capable of magically absorbing what you guys were talking about in 1971. Pour the second wave of feminism through the filter of the Reagan administration, and that's what we got dumped on us. That's what we're trying like hell to reconstruct.

But we're also adding some things that are unique to us, because like it or not, you made mistakes. Your all-out opposition to the things I've mentioned above (private firearms ownership, BDSM, and sex entertainment) is, to my way of thinking, a set of huge, screaming mistakes. So we need to fix a few things -- we need to recover what you did, and we need to fix your mistakes as well, and add the things that are uniquely us.

Am I unaware that gun ownership comes with a large number of issues attached, many of which are problematic? Of course not. Am I unaware that some practitioners of BDSM, particularly dominant males, are smug and clueless as to the arbitrary nature of their power? God, no. Am I ignorant of how the constant crushing, nauseating tidal wave of naked women while men remain safely clothed screws up the ways that real life men and women relate to one another? Hell, no.

I don't hate guns -- but I sure do hate the way that a lot of sexist men view them. I don't hate BDSM, but any dominant male who assumes that I'll submit to him just because I'm female is going to get a Janis-shaped hole through him. I don't hate sex entertainment, but I sure do hate the current incarnation of it, where the bimbos are naked and cute and the men are paunchy, unattractive, and clothed. (A picture of a naked strong women doesn't say nearly as much about powerful, autonomous female sexuality as a picture of a naked, pliant man, and someone should inform the pro-sex groupies of this fact. Forget the Spice Girls version of "Girl Power." When I see five fabulous-looking effeminate boytoys prancing around in latex and spandex, dressed like my sexual fantasy, that's when we'll have "Girl Power.")

I'm promoting gun education -- and I'm fighting against the Drunken Billy-Bob attitude about guns. I'm raising awareness of BDSM sexuality -- at the same time that I'm knocking down the hoary old belief that male equals dominant, and female equals submissive without exception. I'm publishing and writing erotica -- and simultaneously demolishing the hideous belief in this country that porn is only and ever composed of bouncy Nekkid Chicks.

I'm not a sellout -- I'm a revolutionary.

And this is the very sort of confidence and tenacity that you always wanted women to develop. Why can't you celebrate this -- the fact that you worked your asses off, fought against tremendous odds, and created a world where we can feel comfortable and confident enough to fight for what matters to us? I couldn't have any of the things I have now -- the education, the lucrative job, the confidence to get together with a bunch of friends and toss up a web site, or even maintain my own. I wouldn't have the motivation to help other women achieve the same. I want to present these accomplishments to you as a gift. And you don't want them.

Do you know how it feels to have parts of yourself that you are proud of flapped in other people's faces in a game of Ain't It Awful? I celebrate the realizations that I'm worth defending, that sex and sex entertainment need some serious overhaul, and that I need to spread this to other women -- feminist revelations! -- and you wring your hands and talk about how terribly misguided we poor dears are. I don't want to blame all of you for the puritanical extremism evinced by Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin. But I don't want you to point to my every deviation from accepted 70's rhetoric as an example of how we're screwing up, either.

This generation of feminist women wants to reach outward, to raise awareness and educate other women and men about the things that matter to us. This generation of feminist women wants to show you how proud we are of what we've done -- and so often, the second wave of feminism looks at it says, "This isn't really feminism," and turns away, rushing to enfold the woman who lets her husband beat her kids to death while ignoring those of us who are self-sufficient and accomplished. Do you have any idea how frustrating that is? To offer our accomplishments to the women who made them possible, only to be brushed off? It hurts.

We're not you, and we won't try to be. But we are feminist. Never doubt that.

Copyright 1997 by Janis Cortese