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Riding the waves of feminism
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Riding the waves of feminism
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Riding the waves of feminism
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Articles
6 April 2018

Riding the waves of feminism

On being a young feminist and giving thanks to those who paved the way

Written by Tegan Sullivan

This story originally ran in issue #49 of Dumbo Feather

Image: Betty Friedan by Fred Palumbo

I live in a sharehouse of four. We are aged 19-26. We are vegetarians and vegans. Our shower is streaked with technicolour hair dye. We compost. We are educated, connected and politically engaged. And we are women. We are living independent lives, pursuing careers, studying economics and architecture, and travelling the world. We don’t know where we’re going, but we’re excited by the endless potential.

There was a time not so long ago when these lifestyles would have been unimaginable for young women like us. If we had been born middle class in the first half of the twentieth century, we would likely be wives, mothers and homemakers. During our teenage years, we’d be taught to be “feminine”—gracious, beautiful, maternal. Our primary objective would be to find a husband and have his children while we were in the pinnacle of our youth. Beyond that, our rightful place would be in the home, and our purpose would be to serve our families.

When we talk about the progression of feminism, we talk about it in waves. In the first wave, during the late 19th century, women fought for the right to vote, to own property and to have access to higher education. The second wave catalysed in America during the tumultuous sixties, and sought to broaden the equality debate to include issues of sexuality, the family, the workplace and reproductive rights. Since the 1980s, we’ve seen feminism turn inward, with feminist factions splintering over issues of intersectionality, the sex industry and queer politics.

Earlier this year, Tara Moss spoke to Dumbo Feather about her own experiences as a woman battling bigotry in the public eye—particularly in the form of online abuse. When asked how she stays hopeful in the pursuit of equality, she told us to look back at how far we have come. She even dedicated her book Speaking Out “to all the women who got us here.” One of those women undoubtedly was Betty Friedan, whose 1963 book The Feminine Mystique is credited for sparking the second wave of American feminism.

When Betty passed away in 2006, the New York Times described her as “famously abrasive.” Germaine Greer, another pioneer of the second wave, said that Betty would become breathless with outrage if she didn’t get the deference she deserved. This applause seems completely justified when reading her account of the suffocating sexism of mid-20th century America, introduced so damningly in the chapter, “The Problem That Has No Name.”

At her 15-year college reunion in 1957, Betty found that many of the female alumni were dissatisfied with their lives. They felt trapped and inadequate, failing to meet society’s expectations of women, or what Betty referred to as “the feminine mystique.” She noticed themes of isolation and silence around this nameless problem, and she decided to speak out. Betty wanted women to break free from traditional roles and find fulfillment of their own, challenging those who endorsed the existence of an inferior sex.

The Feminine Mystique was meant to be a short article, but when no magazine would publish it, Betty expanded her research into a book. She consulted with housewives, professors, mental health experts and editors of women’s magazines to investigate the cause of this prolific misery. When it was published, it sparked a revolution. Betty became the first president and co-founder of the National Organisation for Women (NOW), which brought women into the political sphere to lobby for paid maternity leave, child care, the legalisation of abortion and an end to job discrimination.

On August 26, 1970—the 50th anniversary of the 19th amendment which gave women in the US the right to vote—Betty organised a nationwide Women’s Strike for Equality, drawing a crowd of 20,000. In 1971, Betty joined forces with feminist leaders to establish the National Women’s Political Caucus, with the fabulous catchcry, “Make policy, not coffee.” For the millions of women riding the wave, Betty was their leader, and she has gone down in history as the “Mother of Feminism.”

As a young feminist sitting atop the third wave, I can certainly see the merit, and also the flaws in Betty’s brand of feminism. Her writing only ever acknowledges the plight of white middle-class housewives, thus ignoring the significant discrimination faced by lesbians, women of colour and those living in poverty. In her senior years, as the social tide changed around her, Betty publicly confessed that she had softened her attitudes around same-sex parenting and lesbian feminists. Similarly, this year we saw Germaine Greer apologise for publicly questioning the right of transgender women to call themselves women. But rather than invalidating our feminist heroes, these blind spots should help us to see the many deep-rooted dimensions of discrimination and inspire us to keep fighting for equality. We have come a very long way after all, and we still have work to do.

Tegan Sullivan

Tegan is a Dumbo Feather reader from way back with a love for spreadsheets and to-do lists. She looks after our subscribers and keeps the stationery cupboard well-stocked. She also writes, dabbles in photography and surrounds herself with cats.

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