The Loneliness of the Post-Feminist


JohnR has an excellent and touching entry at FMH on the lack of male feminists in the church. While I am not convinced that not claiming the label “feminist” means that one supports wife-abuse, date rape, eating disorders, or sex trafficking (I thought that Mormons opposed all of those things regardless of whether or not they were feminists…), nor do I think that the Vagina Monologues ritual is really all that great for anybody, I am sympathetic to the sentiment of the post. However, the lack of “male” feminists is not symptomatic of a lack of interest in justice, but a product of the very divisive politics of second-wave feminism.

Second-wave feminism located its ideology in a kind of gender essentialism, where men were men and women were women. Women were uniquely valuable as women. The comments in JohnR’s post are filled with these views. Don’t get me wrong…this kind of strategic essentialism was incredibly powerful politically and perhaps will remain so for a long time. No doubt there is still a lot to do in the second-wave agenda. However, French Feminism managed to be just as successful as American feminism without appeals to essentialized gender, so I am not convinced that essentialism is necessary for a political agenda.

The problem with essentialism is that it is not descriptive of any reality, but a construct that produces certain kinds of gender binaries. The critiques of this essentialism have become increasingly vocal. Voices from different races, the Third World, lesbians, trans, and intersexed persons noted more and more that “feminism” was not made for them. It had a preconceived notion of who was a “woman” that excluded many others. I suspect that the lack of many male voices in the feminist movement is because of the gender essentialism which excludes their experiences a priori. Third wave, post-feminism, queer theory, and other movements fractured traditional feminism and it is in many ways still trying to find a central voice again.

As it relates to Mormon theology, second-wave feminism posed a number of important challenges to institutional Mormonism. However, it is interesting to note that on the theoretical level of gender essentialism, Mormonism and second-wave feminism are actually quite compatible. The issue simply becomes one of working out what makes up the essential female identity. Many Mormons today are able to inhabit both worlds quite comfortably now. This reconciliation is made possible, I think, because of a shared ideological backbone. Sadly, both still exclude the voices of lesbian, Third World, other races, and others.

If ever Latter-day Saints start paying attention to the challenges of third-wave feminism, it will have to grapple theologically with the central tenant of essentialized gender. The ramifications of such an examination are yet to be seen. Since Mormonism survived second-wave feminism with relatively minor bruising, perhaps it can survive third-wave feminism unscathed as well. However, at least in the academy, second-wave feminism was dealt a powerful blow. If traditional feminism couldn’t survive, can traditional Mormonism? For now, we will just have to stay tuned…

Update: JohnR has added a much appreciated post on the varieties of feminism.

  • Anonymous

    really, I must leave full answering this post to someone else. I must just leave whoever reads the above post with this: John here knows nothing about feminism. Lesbians were excluded from the second wave movement? peuleeeze.The second wave is essentilist?Puleezze.Are you writing through your lower orifice my friend?Greg.

  • Anonymous

    really, I must leave full answering this post to someone else. I must just leave whoever reads the above post with this: John here knows nothing about feminism. Lesbians were excluded from the second wave movement? peuleeeze.The second wave is essentialist?Puleezze.Are you writing through your lower orifice my friend?Greg.

  • Anonymous

    You know nothing about feminism “John”

  • Derichttp://www.woodenmanrecords.com

    John,Please read more radical feminist thought and, in the future, do try to avoid butchering it. There is no monolithic theory called “second wave” feminism. While I’ll concede that SOME radical feminist writers were guilty of many of the things you suggest (i.e. gender essentialism, edging out marginalized groups, etc.), there are many radical feminist writers who did NOT. To suggest that there is one monolithic “second wave” and lodge this kind of critique is either blatantly dishonest or a host of assumptions based on partial evidence.Open a book or two this winter? You might just learn something.-Deric

  • TrailerTrash

    Deric and anon,Are you responding to me, the author of this post, or to John, the author of the posts at FMH? I am confused about exactly who you are insulting.I agree that there is no monolithic “second wave”, hence the term “wave”, which indicates a certain momentum of thought, not necessarily a strict ideology that every single feminist in the 1960′s-1980′s adhered to. As for what books to read, would you like to suggest some? I admit that I mostly know about American feminism before 1990 through the critiques of queer theory and gender theory. Are you suggesting a revival of earlier feminist thought? Are you defending it? Are you just trying to describe a more full history? Just what is your point?

  • TrailerTrash

    To anyone who is interested, I just decided to check out the wikipedia articles on second wave feminism http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_wave_feminism and third-wave feminism http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Third-wave_feminism. Everything that I wrote in my post here is confirmed in those articles.

  • Derichttp://www.woodenmanrecords.com

    “Are you responding to me, the author of this post, or to John, the author of the posts at FMH? I am confused about exactly who you are insulting.”Oh, hell. I was hurling my insults at you. Sorry. I should have been more clear.”I agree that there is no monolithic “second wave”, hence the term “wave”, which indicates a certain momentum of thought, not necessarily a strict ideology that every single feminist in the 1960′s-1980′s adhered to.”Good. Then perhaps you can clear up your post by mentioning that this is not a critique of “second wave” feminism. Rather, a critique of SOME of the second wave (and not even the majority).”I admit that I mostly know about American feminism before 1990 through the critiques of queer theory and gender theory.”That much, at least, is clear. Perhaps avoid evaluating without a decent amount of knowledge and evidence next time? It might lengthen your career…”As for what books to read, would you like to suggest some?”Sure. You might start with “Love and Politics”– a radical feminist reader that details the breadth and diversity of radical feminist thought. It also pays close attention to lesbian separatist theories and the politicization of lesbianism STARTING WITH THE SECOND WAVE.”Are you suggesting a revival of earlier feminist thought?”We could only wish to be so lucky in today’s world of sexual liberalism, post-modern confusion, and the de-radicalization of feminism.”Are you defending it?”Like I said, there is no monolithic “it” to agree with. I agree with some radical feminist theorists and disagree with others.”Are you just trying to describe a more full history?”Kind of. The larger point I am trying to make is that these critiques of the bogey(wo?)man “radical feminism” are based on the same one-sided essentialism that radical feminists are accused of. There is no monolithic radical feminism any more than there is some monolothic, essential woman.”Just what is your point?”Mostly just to blow off some steam in between reading a bag or four of books. But, dare I hope, it would be nice if someone maybe learned a little bit in the process.Cheers.

  • Derichttp://www.woodenmanrecords.com

    Might I also suggest looking somewhere other than wikipedia for susbtantive “evidence” to support your wild assertions?No where in the article on the “second wave” are any of your accusations supported. But (surprise surprise), they do seem to be in the “third wave” article (which, according to you, is where you get most of your information on American feminism–How strange!).You might try actually reading a good deal of radical feminist theory before making blanket accusations about its merits. I know, it’s a lot to ask, especially when evaluating without all of the evidence can be so convincing and fun!

  • TrailerTrash

    Deric,I am glad that you are blowing off some steam (we all need to sometime), but I think that you are making too much out of the generalizations that I make about the “second wave.” In any case, I would like to respond to some of your points. “Then perhaps you can clear up your post by mentioning that this is not a critique of “second wave” feminism. Rather, a critique of SOME of the second wave (and not even the majority).”I have already conceded the point that not every single pre-1980′s feminist adhered to an essentialist ideology. However, that essentialist thinking is the majority thinking about feminism in this period I think is a pretty easy claim to make. If you can point to some specific thinkers that are not guilty of this, I will be happy to look into it. I am still waiting for something that is more than an assertion.”[In regard to my knowledge of feminist theory from 20 years ago] Perhaps avoid evaluating without a decent amount of knowledge and evidence next time? It might lengthen your career…”I might add that you should keep up on current feminist theory. I apologize if I haven’t read all of the outdated thinkers from when I was 5 years old, but I am not so worried about my career since I am aware of what every feminist worth his or her salt has said since then. “You might start with “Love and Politics”– a radical feminist reader that details the breadth and diversity of radical feminist thought. It also pays close attention to lesbian separatist theories and the politicization of lesbianism STARTING WITH THE SECOND WAVE.”Are you sure about the title? I can’t find it on Amazon. I will definitely take a look at it when I get the full reference. In any case, no one ever said that lesbian politics didn’t begin during the second wave (which I thought you said doesn’t exist…). All that I said is that lesbian thought has critiqued traditional feminist rhetoric. We don’t seem to disagree on this. “Like I said, there is no monolithic “it” to agree with. I agree with some radical feminist theorists and disagree with others.”Here, you again use the term “radical feminist”, which is obviously some subset of feminism that you are committed to. You haven’t really defined this (it is not exactly a descriptive term), so I am interested to hear what is so impressive about it for you and why you think that it avoids the critiques of contemporary feminist thinking. If the wikipedia article on this is representative of what you think, it is simply an extreme example of exactly what third-wave feminism has criticized. “Kind of. The larger point I am trying to make is that these critiques of the bogey(wo?)man “radical feminism” are based on the same one-sided essentialism that radical feminists are accused of. There is no monolithic radical feminism any more than there is some monolothic, essential woman.”This isn’t really a very interesting point, so I don’t see the need for your arrogance here. We agree that there is no essential “woman”. If you just want to say that there was no essential feminism in the 60′s-80′s, so what? Who cares? This is an interesting historical artifact, but has very little impact on the contemporary conversation. “Mostly just to blow off some steam in between reading a bag or four of books. But, dare I hope, it would be nice if someone maybe learned a little bit in the process.”Wow, you must be so smart since you read books! Thank you for condescending to us lower mortals to instruct us on the ways of old-school feminist theory that has nothing to do with anything.”Might I also suggest looking somewhere other than wikipedia for susbtantive “evidence” to support your wild assertions?”Well, I am still waiting for actual evidence of any “wild assertion” on my part. I referred you to wikipedia for your benefit, not mine. But, if you are asking for a bibliography to add to your “bag of books,” start with Foucault, then Butler, then Gatens, then Hollywood, then Fausto-Sterling, then back to Butler.”You might try actually reading a good deal of radical feminist theory before making blanket accusations about its merits. I know, it’s a lot to ask, especially when evaluating without all of the evidence can be so convincing and fun!”Again, I have made no claims about “radical feminism,” but about general trends in the feminist movement as a whole during the 60′s to 80′s. If radical feminism is so great that it avoids the critiques of feminism during that time, then hooray, we agree and you have made an arcane point about the history of feminism. If whatever you mean by “radical feminism” can’t answer the critiques of contemporary feminist thought, then it your point is even less interesting.

  • Derichttp://www.woodenmanrecords.com

    “However, that essentialist thinking is the majority thinking about feminism in this period I think is a pretty easy claim to make. If you can point to some specific thinkers that are not guilty of this, I will be happy to look into it. I am still waiting for something that is more than an assertion.”Dorothy Smith, Nancy Naples, Catharine Mackinnon, Martha Ackelsberg, Carol Ehrlich, Peggy Kornegger, Iris Marion YoungThere’s a decent start. Happy reading.”I might add that you should keep up on current feminist theory.”I do and have. What you’ve written above is a pretty standard critique of Second Wave feminism (also known as “radical feminism”–you might want to look into it since you’re critiquing it and all) from the so-called “Third Wave”. It made me just as indignant when I read it in the writings of these theorists because it contained the same sweeping narratives that you construct above that serve to distort rather than describe what was actually happening at that time in the feminist movement.”I apologize if I haven’t read all of the outdated thinkers from when I was 5 years old, but I am not so worried about my career since I am aware of what every feminist worth his or her salt has said since then. “How can you critique writers as “outdated” if you’ve never even read their work? I mean, just step back for a second…Doesn’t this seem like a decent idea?–To actually have a first hand account of the writers you wish to criticize? Sure, there were Second Wave theorists who were essentialist. But to argue that it was a “majority” trend among feminists “during the 60s to the 80s” is not supportable. Look at the theorists I mention above. Most of them lodged critiques of essentialism and even created new categories for feminist thought outside of radical feminism–some were Marxists who attempted to find common ground between marxism and feminism, others were anarchists who tried to bridge the gap between women’s oppression and other types of domination and control. All were active in the women’s movement “from the 60s to the 80s”.”Are you sure about the title? I can’t find it on Amazon. I will definitely take a look at it when I get the full reference.”Check here: http://www.akpress.org/1997/items/loveandpolitics“Here, you again use the term “radical feminist”, which is obviously some subset of feminism that you are committed to. You haven’t really defined this (it is not exactly a descriptive term), so I am interested to hear what is so impressive about it for you and why you think that it avoids the critiques of contemporary feminist thinking. If the wikipedia article on this is representative of what you think, it is simply an extreme example of exactly what third-wave feminism has criticized.’You can substitute “radical feminist” for “second wave feminist” anywhere you like. It’s pretty standard in feminist theory. You might try reading some.”If you just want to say that there was no essential feminism in the 60′s-80′s, so what? Who cares? This is an interesting historical artifact, but has very little impact on the contemporary conversation.”I disagree. The critiques of the “third Wave” are chock full of sweeping critiques of an essential category of feminism that never really even existed. “Thank you for condescending to us lower mortals to instruct us on the ways of old-school feminist theory that has nothing to do with anything.”I’m reading for an area exam, you turd, not trying to flash you my credentials. You seem pretty smart. It wasn’t my intention to imply otherwise (other than the occasional insult to keep the internet argument fun, anyway).I’ve read Foucault and Butler. Some of the theorists I mentioned above use both in their analyses. I’ll look into the other suggestions, but I’m not a big fan of the po’mo. It seems more like a morass of defeatism and liberal apology to me than a radical theory stressing the need and possibility for social change.

  • TrailerTrash

    Deric,Good luck on your exams. I know how stressful they can be. At this point, your argument has completely collapsed. You have conceded that SOME second-wave feminism was essentialist, but that ALL second-wave feminism is identical to “radical feminism.” However, you have also argued that ALL radical feminism avoids the critique of essentialism. Therefore, even if I accepted all of these premises (which I don’t), your argument is logically flawed. As for the first premise, that some second-wave feminism is essentialist, we have both conceded this point. The only question is whether or not it was the “majority.” I think that you don’t understand what the critique of essentialism means. Since you elsewhere poo-poo post modernism and post-structuralism, it is hard to imagine how else essentialism can be avoided. You still haven’t explained how radical feminism avoids this critique. Look, every single second-wave effort, from the ERA to “Bitch” magazine to NOW are rooted in essentialism. Seriously, to argue that all of the major feminists over the last 15 years have simply misunderstood their predecessors is not only a bold claim, but I think quite demonstrably wrong. As for the second premise, that all second-wave feminism is also radical feminism, I’m afraid that this is simply factually incorrect. First of all, it doesn’t make sense that every single movement that falls under the umbrella term “second wave” is also “radical.” Second wave is the genus, and radical is a species. What would be “radical” about it if it described every kind of feminism for 30 years? Something has to make “radical feminism” different from the regular feminism, no? The term “second wave” describes regular feminism.As for your final argument, that radical feminism avoids the critique of essentialism, I am still waiting for some actual evidence. Since you have only cited “radical feminists” who use Butler and Foucault, I am sorry to say that these feminists likely belong to the Third Wave. Further, since you are citing feminists writing in the 1990′s, they are likely influenced by the critiques of the second wave that began during that decade. Butler (1990) is widely considered the turning point that started the third wave (an anachronistic term for her, however). My theory is that you have been reading third-wave people all along mistaking them for second wave people. However, the “Love and Politics” reader that you suggested uses the phrase “women’s liberation”, which is a decidedly “essentialist” term. So, I think that you are just confused all around.


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