Third Wavers Turn Forty: New Interview

I can remember buying my copy of Manifesta some ten years ago. I shouted Amen, Sister a few times, gnashed with frustration at others, and continued to pine away for a future job at the Third Wave Foundation in general. I shelved the thing for posterity, in between my Inga Muscio reading and a book by Rachel Bagby. So when Nell called to see if I’d like to interview Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards for the Faster Times, guess what I said? I’m re-posting it here…with a special post-script.

It’s the year 2000, and you’re embroiled in a heated debate over the salience of Second Wave feminist organizations while on a car ride to catch that summer’s Lilith Fair. The book shoved in the space between the emergency brake and the passenger seat? MANIFESTA: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future. Like so many inspired ideas, the book was conceived over a few glasses of red wine between two friends who had met each other in their heady post-college days; Jennifer Baumgardner was a young editor at Ms. and Amy Richards was Gloria Steinem’s assistant. Both were struck by the different ways the young women around them were “living” their feminism in a culture that frequently proclaimed the F-word as a dirty one and the Spice Girls as paragons to contemporary women’s lib. Their female friends were often sexually liberated, empowered in their jobs, and pursuing activist goals in their downtime. So why, they asked, is a generation leading revolutionary lives best known for saying, “I’m not a feminist, but…?”

They identified a different breed of movement from the one their mothers had imparted to them, which the older generation had learned from women’s groups against the backdrop of the civil rights and anti-war struggles. If the imprecise terminology held that the First Wave was the Suffragists and the Second Wave was the modern women’s liberation movement, then the Third Wave seemed fractured and potentially ungrateful for it all. Baumgardner and Richards wanted to explore and extend this tenuous drawbridge; aware of the achievements secured by Second Wave feminists, the post-Judy Blume generation didn’t always relate to its every letter, and grappled with its limitations: “Ms. wasn’t effectively getting the news out there to our peers; nor did we necessarily feel represented by the fresher, younger, Jell-O-shots versions of feminism,” Baumgardner wrote in her original introduction to the book. The hefty and sprawling volume that resulted from their collaboration was eventually endorsed by Gloria Steinem and Eve Ensler, debated by their fellow daughters of the Second Wave (who didn’t always agree with its vision of “everyday feminism”), and read in Women’s Studies classes across the country. MANIFESTA: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future is being reissued this month with updates and a new preface by the authors, who will be appearing in New York at the Brooklyn Museum of Art on March 20th and the 92nd Street Y Tribeca on April 21st. I talked with co-authors Amy Richards and Jennifer Baumgardner about activism, formerly righteous rage, and why they don’t give a hoot about Twitter.

In the book, you attempt to address the relationship between older generations of feminists and younger feminists. What kinds of criticism and feedback did you get from the older generation after the book was published?

JB: At the time, Amy and I were just barely thirty, and the second wave feminists in our lives loomed larger than they do now. But just simply by having this book, this serious thing, we were treated differently—or we treated ourselves differently—out in the world. Some of my most fraught relationships with older feminist writers changed a lot by being able to argue, by being old enough to write a book that seemed significant.

AR: From that demographic, we get criticism mostly from professors now, since we had our friends then who were second wave feminists who we had sent the book to before it was published. But now we see the feedback from professors, who, more often than not seem to say, “My students love your book.” Yes—they’re sort of saying, “I’m not sure that I necessarily agree with everything in your book, but it does seem to make feminism relevant to my students, so I teach it.”

Does it still read as relevant when you kick your feet up and flip through it, or does it feel like a trip back in time?

AR: The sadness is in some ways how relevant the book still is. One of the reasons we wanted to write the book was to prove that young people—young women in particular—were connecting to feminism, and were living feminist lives and weren’t resistant to feminism, which had been the assumption at the time. There’s still an assumption that young people still aren’t living feminist lives to the extent that they should be, given the history that has preceded them.

Were you tempted to recant anything from the first publication?

JB: A lot of our ideas have evolved in the last ten years. For example, there’s very little mention of trans issues in the book. After the book came out, organizing around trans/transgender/transfeminist issues became so much more visible, and the Third Wave Foundation, which Amy co-founded, now states in its mission that it’s for young feminist and trans activists. It became twinned with younger feminists in a way that we didn’t know would happen, but now it’s a really big part of what we talk about.

AR: Looking at the media chapter ten years later, we thought, well, maybe the internet has helped solve these problems of what sexist traditional magazines have been, but it hasn’t. You can take the same standard of analyzing a Glamour and a GQ and apply it to what’s on the internet today. With the exception of the Spice Girls and Monica Lewinsky—

JB: Every TV show we mention is no longer on.

AR: Although Britney Spears made a comeback from the time we wrote it until now.

JB: There have been some technological innovations that are significant to organizing—blogging wasn’t happening yet, and Twitter—but they’re not really being pioneered by us. Amy and I aren’t innovators when it comes to things like Twitter, and we don’t want to be. We don’t want to be afraid of it, but it’s not our thing.

AR: But the analyzing of it is the same analyzing we did in the media chapter. Who has access to it? Who is more popular? Why? I think you can apply the same analysis and get the same answer. If anything, blogging has only reinforced mainstream assumptions about women writers. ‘Oh, they only write about themselves. And they only write about personal things.’ And frankly, the majority of blogging does not pay—

JB: And women do things for free all the time.

AR: It’s wonderful that some women get to say, ‘I’m a writer now, I have a column,’ but they’re not getting paid for it.

In the original introduction, I was intrigued by your discussion of the rage that motivated you and your activism. Is your work now inspired less by rage? Is that part of the youthfulness of the book for you?

JB: I had more righteous anger then, and what I was trying to do was make sure my righteous anger wasn’t just expressed by bitching, but actually feel like I had some power that could be translated into social change. I think the more privileged and older I’ve gotten, the less I feel that sense of rage; the more I have things that could ostensibly make a change, the less I see what that does.

AR: I feel the opposite; I feel more angry. I see certain things come true that I was told would come true, and I always thought it wouldn’t be the case with my generation—child-rearing will be shared 50/50, or women will make the same as men. I look at the majority of my female friends, and most of them are not working, but are ostensibly supported by their husbands. Has it really changed all that much? In all of these women’s instances, they had very raised expectations for what they wanted for their lifestyle. And I’m not sure that any of these women could have actually chosen a career path that could have sustained that for them and had kids. So I look around, and I say, “yes, that’s their choice, and I’m happy that women have that choice,” but I’m increasingly angrier at the system that makes women have to choose at the end of the day, making choices that are not feminist choices to me. Women taking care of their aging parents: if there’s a brother and a sister, the woman is frequently taking far more responsibility for that parent. That’s what happened twenty years ago.

JB: When I was standing on the outside as a younger person, I had more faith. Now, the more I’m actually within some sort of cog of change and probably have done more than I did back then, I have less faith that it’s actually going to make a big difference. This is getting too depressing.

I was just thinking that.

JB: But there’s a slightly more positive way of looking at this, which is that while it was true that we used to think that trans issues were so marginal, it’s not that we didn’t care. We now realize that they’re not marginal at all, but are central—so some of our rage has been diluted by expansiveness. Students on college campuses ask us a lot about how to interact with people who didn’t agree with feminists. We always say, ‘do you have an actual relationship where you can talk and have coffee with other campus leaders?’ Often they haven’t built a relationship. That’s being youthful. It would be very hard to maintain the energy and idealism of youth without that. If you were so empathetic, which you hopefully gain with age, maybe you would never have the imagination of things being really clear. But I have a lot of— not exactly shame— but remorse about different assumptions I made while I was in college, even though I was a very gung ho feminist and am proud of it. There were a lot of assumptions I made then; “Oh, so and so said they liked the book Lolita!” Now I recognize it as a very important book, and then I was like, “You’re a date rapist.”

We were on a depressing track before. What’s the work that’s exciting to you now?

JB: We’re working on another book, called The Family Bed: Is There Sex After Kids?, about how people are creating relationships nowadays and parenting simultaneously. I’m also working on a documentary film and rape awareness project right now; there’s always a bunch of issues that we work on individually or as a team. I rarely feel that I have the blahs. As depressing as it is that these things keep not getting better there’s always new and interesting ways to deal with them. We own a feminist speaker’s bureau together, called Soapbox Inc.: Speakers Who Speak Out, to handle our own speaking engagements, as well as other people.

AR: Soapboax hosts a Feminist Winter Term, where students come from around the country and we take them to see feminist activism in action around the city. To be with twenty twenty-one-year-olds for a full week— we get such energy from them. It always reconnects us to groups and organizations that we have relationships with, and it connects us to our own feminism really intensely. And reminds us how much we love the city.

FSG, New York, 2010. 240 pp.


Here’s my P.S.: a friend of mine wrote me after she’d read the interview to say this: “As an insignificant member of the Second Wave, I didn’t relate much; too much self-absorption for me, but what else is new?” It was my favorite comment of all.

Thanks to Jennifer and Amy for being such gracious hosts and interview subjects for my non-journalist self.


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