The 3rd WWWave: Who we are, and why we need to speak

by Kim Allen

For the Second Wave: We are not you (and that's not a bad thing)

The spiral goes on. A new generation of women is emerging into the adult world, the first generation who knew about the ERA and "Women's Lib" from early childhood. Many of our mothers went back to school to get higher degrees that were postponed when they had children; many worked outside the home; many were divorced or separated. We grew up hearing "you can be anything you want to be," and yet we knew also that the world didn't welcome high-achieving girls as it did boys. We knew women had the right to have any job that a man could have, and yet we saw few female auto mechanics, engineers, and athletes. We heard about valuing everyone for their contributions-- including stay-at-home dads as well as career women-- but nonetheless we observed men going to work, pooh-poohing the concept of raising kids, and women either staying at home exclusively or holding a job and doing all the housework on top of that.

Clearly feminism is not "finished" now that women have moved into the workplace and everyone knows to say "chairperson" instead of "chairman."

And yet even though a majority of women support the goals of feminism, a majority of those will not call themselves "feminist." Feminism has a problem. It has come to be associated with the academic feminists of the university Women's Studies departments. It has come to represent a rigid "agenda" and a fixed set of beliefs which more and more women are not comfortable adhering to. Feminism used to have so many faces, but now only one is considered "legitimate."

What about women who want to get married and have children even though they believe strongly in equal opportunity for men and women? Have they bowed down to the patriarchy? Can they really claim to be feminists?

What about women who want to make money? Who work hard for that promotion, manage their money in the stock market, and use their financial power to get things they want? Have they bowed down to the evil capitalist empire? Can they really claim to be feminists?

What about women who like to shoot guns, who write pornographic short stories, who use the Internet instead of sending out hand-written flyers? Do they "qualify" as feminists?

Yes. If they want to.

We proudly call ourselves feminists, and we are! It seems that young women these days are getting a lot of criticism from old-guard feminists who call their efforts puny and invalid. Our main crime seems to be that we are not replicas of the 60's activists who started the second wave. Some of feminism's image problem is being created by second-wave feminists themselves! It is a shame to disown people from your own movement just because they don't conform to your exact model. Times have changed; we need new strategies. We are happy to learn from what you did, but we also need to move on to new efforts that fit the way women live today.

Maybe you just need the question asked in a different way: Do you think the suffragists of the first wave would have enthusiastically supported the 1960's counterculture and the sexual revolution as a logical extension of their feminist efforts? No? So why do you want us to be just like you?

The third wave is gearing up. We know it's unfair that women work just as hard as men outside the home (indeed, harder than men just to be considered competent), then come home to do 75% of the housework. We sense that our very value system still rewards men's achievements simply because they are done by men, and that women will never "measure up" on the male yardstick. There's plenty more to do in the name of feminism. We of the third wave are more hard-boiled than the second, lacking the idealism of the 1960's. But we are just as angry, and in a better financial position. Don't underestimate our drive and clout.

Now don't get me wrong. I for one am very grateful to the second wave for helping me get to this point. I have opportunities my mother never did. I am protected by laws that it took sweat, blood, and tears to pass 30 years ago. I will never suffer through some of the humiliating and painful experiences that members of the second wave endured to bring women the rights and priviledges they have now. I am not taking you for granted. But I am champing at the bit to fly off in my own direction with these wings you helped me gain! Don't tell me where to fly!

And don't lament the loss of your "Movement"! It's not dead; it's been reborn in a new form appropriate for the 90's. It is moving off in new directions that you couldn't have anticipated 30 years ago. We are not you, and that's not a bad thing. (Are you just like your mother?) The third wave has arrived.

For the women: "But isn't feminism a thing of the past?"

I hear this all the time from career women. These are smart women, with college degrees or beyond, often in the midst of a tricky balancing act between job, children, and personal pursuits. They landed a decent job, got a promotion in a couple years, had a family. They "have it all", just like the magazines promised they would. Who needs feminism? Aren't feminists just a bunch of angry man-haters who see sexism in everything and want to add new pronouns like "hir" to the English language?

Sigh. No.

Did you ever ask yourself, why do I get up at 5:30 am so I can get the kids dressed and pack their lunches and send them off to school, then rush off to my job from 8 to 6, then rush home to cook dinner, do a couple hours of cleaning, catch up on reading for work, then collapse in bed? Is this "having it all," or is it merely "doing it all"?

We don't deny that you have much more than your mother did. A better education, a higher-paying job, more laws protecting your rights-- all these things are crucial advances that we have made because of second wave feminism. But it's a very different thing to say that feminism is over, that it's finished, that nothing more needs to be done, or that everything will "work itself out" now that the first bricks have been laid.

There are questions you can ask yourself. Why do women who hold outside jobs still do 75% of the housework? Didn't feminism enlighten all the men to regard sharing a home as genuine sharing? Why do most high school kids still learn that history is a series of wars, kings, pacts, and economic movements? Didn't feminism enlighten educators to the existence of important women and their impact on culture? Where are the female athletes, scientists, auto mechanics, and construction workers that feminism was supposed to create by showing that "girls were as good as boys"? Where are the househusbands who no longer tie their egos to supporting a family, but find joy instead in raising children while their wives work? Where is the respect for women or men who choose stereotypically female pursuits?

The last question is the key. Feminism has not broken the gender stereotypes that imprison men and women in fundamentally unequal roles. It has allowed very specific women to gain respect because they follow certain rules. Let me say loudly and clearly that I am not criticizing these women-- heck, I'm one of them!-- and that I firmly believe our recently gained economic freedom from men is the best advance we've made.

But the stereotypes persist. Part of the problem is that the Reagan years reentrenched these gender roles like a tick diving back down under flesh. When it comes right down to it, men do pretty much the same things that they ever did: get an education, get a job, have a family, earn money. The difference now is that women have broken into the job arena. But we still do the lion's share of housework, emotional upkeep in relationships, raising children, caring for elderly family members, and supporting men psychologically.

This was not the goal of the second wave, nor is it especially good for women. Do you really like spending all that money on daycare, rushing around to ten places at once-- all so your boss can pay you less overtime, decide that you aren't as "committed" to your career as a man, and subtley decrease your earnings compared to men over the long haul? Do you really think that the male lifestyle of sacrificing personal development and relationships for a career is the only lifestyle worthy of rewards and respect? Do you get the feeling America has no concept of "healthy balance"?

Some people are starting to decide that feminists are to blame for this situation. Women say, "I'm not a feminist", by which they mean, "Don't worry-- I won't be out there waving a sign that might hurt my position in the company. And by the way, I have to leave at 4 to pick up Bobby from daycare." Translation: feminists are troublemakers and who has time for that anyway when I'm booked 20 hours out of 24? Men say, "Feminism failed. My wife is miserable with all the stress from her job and then having to take care of the kids on top of that." Translation: why can't you women just stay home like you're supposed to? (*Share* the childcare? What does that mean?)

If you're unhappy with the way work and family balance (or fail to balance) for women, that's a clue that feminism is not "a thing of the past." The working world has grudgingly allowed us to enter, but we haven't had a say in the rules! Why can't we have more flexible work schedules, more on-site child care, more telecommuting? Why can't we respect men who want to stay home? Why can't we respect women who want to stay home? People are shifting around in the worlds of work and family, but somehow, the old edifice remains in place. The old values, the old structures. Feminism of the 90's-- or at least part of it-- is about making new structures that fit the way women live now, not the way men lived in the 1950's.

It will mean that men have to change too. We address that in other parts of this site. The point is, feminism isn't a "thing of the past." It's here now, from the present into the future, in a new form than you remember it. And it can help answer all those nagging questions we asked above. The third wave has arrived.

For the men: How does third-wave feminism relate to you?

Too many men get 100% of their emotional support from women. Sure, you've got your buddies and your coworkers and your online friends. But when you are nervous about an upcoming job interview, unhappy with your boss, or concerned about your mother's health, you turn exclusively to your wife or girlfriend. When was the last emotional, vulnerable, heart-to-heart talk you had with another man?

You get all your support from us, and almost none from other men. This is an incredible burden to place on another human, and it isn't fair. We have our own emotions to manage, and it is downright tiring to manage yours too. Everyone needs support from their friends and relatives, and of course we care about you as lovers and friends, but please don't ask us to be the only person in your life who fulfills that role. So many men are absolutely cut adrift when their relationships break up. Suddenly you have no one you can talk to because you only talked to your girlfriend!

I believe this is why men are so often compared to children. You are emotionally needy. I think it is also why so many murders are committed by men who have just broken up with their girlfriends or wives. Losing that special person makes you absolutely despondent and isolated because you have no other close connections. It is unhealthy to structure your life that way.

Many years ago, women were totally dependent on men financially, which in some sense "balanced" the total dependence of men on women emotionally. (Obviously, it was an unstable equilibrium). Now we are learning to support ourselves money-wise. We can't count on a lifelong income from our husbands-- and we can't even count on alimony or child support. We have jobs. We work to live, just like you. (And I happen to think this is a good thing!)

Now you must do your share. Learn not to depend on us for 100% of your emotional support. We just can't do that for you anymore. It's too exhausting when we are trying to deal with our own jobs and lives at the same time.

The third wave of feminism is about helping women learn to use their freedom, power, money, and influence wisely and for the common good. We have no desire to leave our brothers, boyfriends, husbands, and male friends behind because we care about our relationships with you. But we will not do your work for you. We cannot be your surrogate Mom now that you are all grown up. Run alongside us! And please start helping each other.

Copyright 1997 by Kim Allen