Feminism: One Movement in Four Waves (Part 3)

This is part of an ongoing series. In case you missed them, here are Part 1 and Part 2.

Wave Three: 1990 – 2016 – Women Fight for Multiple Ideas and Individuality
Key Figures: Anita Hill, the Riot Grrrl bands, Sarah McLaughlin, Hillary Clinton, and others.

By RockCreek [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

With the advent of the Internet, the agenda of the feminist movement became fragmented as the world became smaller. This was a time when many issues were brought to the fore, including (but not limited to) gender violence (including rape and rape culture), reproductive rights, the meaning of derogatory language (such as bitch and slut), equal pay, and gender expectations. A key feature of the third wave of feminism was a focus on intersectionality, recognition that the movement should include women of all races, nationalities, religions, and sexual orientations. These women were the daughters of second wave feminists and they were determined to learn from their mother’s mistakes.

It can be argued that Anita Hill’s testimony against Clarence Thomas before the Senate Judiciary Committee was the beginning of this wave, as it brought high profile sexual harassment into American homes through the nightly news and newspaper headlines. The Pacific Northwest punk movement that came to be known as Riot Grrrl is also credited with starting the third wave. These bands helped open a discourse on feminist subjects through their unabashed lyrics that took on rape, the patriarchy, sexuality, women’s and empowerment. In addition, the divisive issue of sex and sexuality blossoming into the so-called “feminist sex wars” in the early 1990s was another force driving feminism into a third wave.

The popularity of the all-female music festival Lilith Fair and the goddess movement of the 1990s placed a cultural emphasis on Girl Power (Spice Girls, anyone?) and gave women safe havens (both spiritually and at traditionally male-dominated music festivals) that were difficult to ignore. At the same time, The Vagina Monologues drew attention toward female sexual desire and raised money for support services for battered women.

The late 1990s and especially the early 2000s were marked by a backlash against feminism, which caused some in the media to name it the “post-feminist era.” Within the realm of popular imagination, feminists had gained a reputation for militancy and man-hating, which many women wanted to distance themselves from and Rush Limbaugh famously termed “feminazis.” Celebrities came out as openly saying they did not identify has feminist, even though they were for equal rights. It many ways, it began to look as though the movement was dead.

Controversy stalked the third wave in the form of accusations of creating a “culture of raunch,” which grew up around the sex-positive aspects of the movement. Pornography, strip clubs and risqué fashions were taken by many feminists and turned into symbols of female sexual empowerment, rather than being seen as degrading. In a similar vein, in 2015 and 2016, women sought to take back the word “slut” and to end the practice of “slut shaming” through public “slut walks” in which they proclaimed their sexuality and spoke out against victim-blaming and rape culture.

It was into this chaos that Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign marched, reigniting the hopes of many and reviving the call for women to vote. Clinton’s election to the presidency was seen by many as the inevitable crowning achievement of the feminist movement. While she was certainly not universally adored and many societal issues still remained against women, the idea of finally having a woman in the highest role in the land – 144 years after Victoria Woodhull first tried – trumped (no pun intended) those concerns for those who viewed her election as the strongest victory for women, perhaps since we were granted the right to vote nearly a century before. This sense of optimism reigned until results started coming in and the unthinkable began to suddenly appear unavoidable.

Women in Politics and American Society: A Tale of Two Firsts

You may have seen this article in The Huffington Post, but in case not and because I’m so proud of it, I had to republish it here.

Victoria and Hillary

When we think of women in politics, their inclusion in places of power seems to be a recent occurrence, but women have been raising their voices since the 1840s in support of women’s suffrage. For some, this led to running for office even before their fellow women could vote for them. In 1870, less than a decade after the Civil War ended and 50 years before women would be granted the right to vote, Victoria Woodhull announced she was running for president in the 1872 election, a move never before attempted by a female in the United States. In 2016, we have our first female running for president on a major party ticket in Hillary Clinton. Let’s take a look at what’s changed and what hasn’t in those 146 years.

1872: Women didn’t mettle in business or political affairs. It was unthinkable for a woman to vote, much less run for office. As anti-suffragist Catharine Beecher once wrote, “the Holy Scripture indicates for women a sphere higher than and apart from that of public life because as women they find a full measure of duties, care and responsibilities and are unwilling to bear additional burdens unsuited to their physical organization.”

Victoria Woodhull set out to prove this mindset was flawed. She and her sister Tennie opened the first stock brokerage on Wall Street owned and operated by women and were successful at it. Women weren’t allowed at the New York Stock Exchange, but Victoria found a way around that, relaying her business transactions through men, and making millions of dollars.

2016: Women are regularly leaders in companies and are elected to office, but not on par with men. We have a long way to go before we see equal representation. While 46.8% of the total labor force in the United States is female and women hold 51.5% of management and professional positions, women currently hold only 4% of CEO positions at S&P 500 companies and only 19.2% of all board seats at those companies. (See Catalyst.org for more.)

According to Rutgers University, “in 2015, 104 women held seats in the United States Congress, comprising 19.4% of the 535 members; 20 women (20%) served in the United States Senate, and 84 women (19.3%) served in the United States House of Representatives. Four women delegates (3D, 1R) also represent American Samoa, the District of Columbia, Guam, and the Virgin Islands in the United States House of Representatives.” The Nation estimates that “at the current rate of progress, it will take nearly 500 years for women to reach fair representation in government.” More optimistic researchers have estimated “it will be 2121 before women reach gender parity in Congress…and [the estimate for when we’ll reach] pay equity is like 2058.”

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1872: Women weren’t supposed to run for office. In the nineteenth century it was not even considered proper for a woman to speak in public because it was believed by doing so, she drew shame upon her father/husband, much less run for elected office.

That didn’t stop suffragists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Victoria Woodhull joined them in speaking out for that right, but she also vehemently supported workers’ rights, the humane treatment of prostitutes, and the rights of women to not be sexually subservient to their husbands within marriage. From 1871 on, Victoria was a regular fixture on the lecture circuit along with famous women like Anna Dickinson, traveling around the country to speak her controversial ideas. Victoria took the idea one step further by running for the highest one in the land in 1872. That same year, her sister Tennie ran for Congress as part of a small district in New York. Neither woman won, but they set a precedent thousands later followed.

2016: Women can run for office, but are still discriminated against. In the 21st century, the “woman card” shouldn’t even exist – all candidates for office should be evaluated by voters (and other candidates) based on their experience, platform and positions. Yet, as Mr. Trump’s now-famous quote shows, women are treated differently when they run, though not in the way he seems to have implied with his statement. The media are more likely to talk about a female candidates’ appearance, specifically her hair and clothing, than a man’s (the exception may be Mr. Trump’s hair.) While some argue that bias is all in our heads, nearly three in four of the women interviewed as part of a report recently released by Political Parity said they had felt discriminated against in politics. (See also Men Rule: The Continued Under-Representation of Women in US Politics for additional reasons why women may feel discriminated against.)

According the Political Parity report, women often lack funding and support from their political parties. “Two-thirds of women say it is difficult to raise the money needed to run effectively and nine in ten women saying fundraising influences their decision to try for a national or statewide seat.” They have the confidence and ability to ask for it, but having the network to ask is a roadblock. Could this be the remnants of the “old boys club” in politics? While the report doesn’t say, it stands to reason.

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1872: Women did not have the right to vote. Even though women had been campaigning for suffrage since the Seneca Falls convention in 1848 and the Nineteenth Amendment was introduced in Congress in 1878, it wasn’t ratified until August 18, 1920. Even then, it took 12 states (not counting Alaska and Hawaii) anywhere from another month to 64 years to ratify it. (Mississippi was last, finally ratifying the Nineteenth Amendment on March 22, 1984). In some Southern states, African American women were harassed, attacked and in other ways prevented from voting into the 1960s. On August 6, 1965, The Voting Rights Act was signed into law, finally allowing all women, regardless of race, to vote as full citizens.

2016: Women have the right to vote. Victory! According to VoteRunLead, 53% of voters in the 2012 election were women.

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1872: The media attacks female candidates by calling them names and digging into their personal lives. Newspapers analyzed every move political candidates made, including, in the case of Victoria and Tennie, their clothing, bearing, family lineage and suitability as public figures. Just as today, the candidates attacked one another in the papers and were in turn attacked by them. When Victoria’s mother, Anne, sued Victoria’s husband in 1871, the newspapers lapped up every dirty secret that came out in court, often blowing them out of proportion. In 1872, Harper’s Weekly published a cartoon dubbing Victoria as “Mrs. Satan” because she urged women to fight back against sexual slavery and mistreatment within marriage.

2016: The attacks have moved to TV and the internet. Since the 1990s, we’ve watched the media dig into Hillary Clinton’s personal life, even going so far as to attack the then-teenaged Chelsea Clinton, which prompted Hillary to ask the press not to cover her daughter. Of course, throughout her husband’s sex scandals, Mrs. Clinton’s every move and word was chronicled and her motivations and thoughts speculated on in both mainstream media and tabloids. In this most recent campaign, Donald Trump has dubbed Hillary as “Heartless Hillary” and “Crooked Hillary,” because she came out in favor of gun control and because she was attacking him in ads.

This is a long way of showing that while women made some great strides in some areas of politics and society, in others, the more things have changed, the more they have stayed the same. Perhaps that will change over time naturally as more women run for office and attain power. Perhaps if Hillary Clinton wins the November election and becomes our nation’s first female presidential candidate, it will happen more rapidly. But as a female, I find it sad that our advances haven’t been greater in a century and a half. But then again, that gives my generation something else to fight for. Maybe someday our daughters and nieces will be asking us why such issues ever existed.

What are your thoughts? How do you see things having changed or not changed? What change do think is most pressing?