Book Review

Whatever Happened to Feminism?

By Lilian Calles Barger

Feminist scholarship is in an introspective mood attempting to save the feminist past for a liberating future. Within a narrative of onward and upward that is useful for inspiring social change a new wave of historiography is less concerned with triumph and more willing to admit its failures and embrace fragmentation and small scale. Historians have begun recovering forgotten women who lived out feminist ideas in their everyday lives as in the hope of offering relevancy to a younger generation. But other theoretical and cultural forces may make this task all but impossible.

A turn in the historiography of the late twentieth century was marked by Daniel Horowitz’s unmasking of the “mother of feminism” in Betty Friedan and the Making of The Feminine Mystique: The American Left, the Cold War, and Modern Feminism (1998). In the public mind no one was more central to the narrative of the women’s movement than Betty Friedan and the National Organization for Women. Her book The Feminine Mystique (1963) was said to have single-handedly released white middle-class women from what she called the “comfortable concentration camp” of housewifery and launched a revolution among career-minded women. Subsequently, in the last quarter of the twentieth century, conservatives laid the blame for divorce, single parenting, looser sexual mores, abortion, and the decline of civil society at Friedan’s feet.

Much of the earlier reflection on the women’s movement was built on the legacy of Friedan as one of many bored housewives with egalitarian sensibilities and career aspirations, which amounted to a myth she herself help construct. Appealing to the broadest swath of the liberal tradition, challenged by radicals, the nemesis of lesbians, and the bane of cultural conservatives, Friedan carried more historical weight than she could support. The liberal feminism she represented hid other structural forces shaping women’s lives and the heterogeneity of the women’s movement.

The new millennium saw a flood of books seeking to re-frame the movement after the low political tide of the late 1980s and ’90s, and to answer the nagging question, “Whatever happened to feminism?” Feminism appeared either as the victim of its own success, or as the victim of a virulent backlash. The newly chastened feminist history aimed to give the movement a future among the young rejecting the feminist label.

A story that remained to be told was of the silent majority, ordinary women who did not protest in the streets, write legislation, or figure among the leadership, but who nevertheless changed their assumptions and behavior. The field expanded to take in the experience of these unrepresented women in books such as Feminism in the Heartland (2002) by Judith Ezekiel, or Stephanie Gilmore’s Groundswell: Grassroots Activism in Post-War America (2013) focusing on local NOW chapters. Others hope to inspire a new generation by looking toward the movement’s global destiny as in Estelle B. Freedman’s No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women (2002). Many of the histories have a memoir quality. Ruth Rosen provided both a history and personal account in The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America (2000). Sara M. Evans followed up with Tidal Wave: How Women Changed America at Century’s End (2003), focusing on the feminist activism of the 1970s and casting the movement’s fragmentation as a positive release of vital energy necessary for growth and adaptation. All of these authors tell a story of feminist activism in a narrative of political and social progress.

In juxtaposition with the often-hegemonic historiography, minority scholars began telling the story of a multicolored feminism. Monographs such as Kimberly Springer’s Living for the Revolution: Black Feminist Organizations, 1968–1980 (2005) recovered black feminism from the historiography of the civil rights and women’s movement and demonstrated that it had an agenda of its own. In a revisionist mode Maylei Blackwell’s Chicana Power! Contested Histories of Feminism in the Chicano Movement (2011) is the first full-length study breaking new ground and places feminists within the earliest activism of Chicano nationalism. While small in scale, Chicana Power! performs the heavy work of setting the theoretical and historiographical contours of Chicana history. Minority movements are no longer seen as offshoots of the white women’s movement.

Beyond the necessary work of inclusion, the expansion of the boundaries of feminism may weaken its political salience.  Feminism Unfinished: A Short, Surprising History of American Women’s Movements (2014) brings together the work of two formidable scholars, Dorothy Sue Cobble and Linda Gordon, and a new generation of historians represented by Astrid Henry. The aim of the book is to recapture feminism as a social movement addressing a diversity of issues and to demonstrate its ubiquitous influence in changing American society over the last 100 years. The authors’ definition of feminism, or feminisms, is capacious—seemingly all progressive advocacy taken on by women is cast as feminist. Feminism is also defined an “outlook” (xv) rather than a set of ideas. This allows the authors to consider those not self-identified as feminist as standing within the movement.

By focusing on less well-known women the authors seeks to challenge the assumption that the movement was largely made up of white upper-middle-class women. By emphasizing intersectionality, they bolster the idea that women have differing critical concerns in an ever-advancing agenda. By exploring a complex of affected relationships, they challenge the notion that feminism is only about women. Finally, they examine the myth that gains experienced by a few elites represent a victory for all women.

In the last section of Feminism Unfinished, Henry discusses the revitalization of a feminist mind-set among a younger generation of women into a new social movement for justice and equality. Post-1990, Henry notes, feminism was “everywhere and nowhere” (167). Cultural “success” meant that gains were taken for granted by Generation X and the Millennials. For them, feminism was “like fluoride. We scarcely notice we have it—it’s simply in the water” (158). While it may have been in the water, Henry argues, a “ feminist identity, like any other political identity—still had to be claimed” (161). Henry notes significant events that awakened young women to what had been left undone and moved them from a mind-set to a movement.

One was the 1991 Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas televised Supreme Court nomination hearing that outraged young women for what they viewed as a public sexual humiliation of a successful woman. Many entered the political fray with the slogan “I am not a post-feminism feminist. I am the Third Wave” (151). The wave metaphor served to tie the movement to previous generations yet still demonstrated change. This new generation focused on issues left unaddressed in the areas of sexuality, media representation, work–life balance, violence against women, and economic disparity.

This revitalized movement was connected through ’zines, blogs, and social networks. Reading text, rather than public protest, became the means of participation in the movement. A new group of writers addressed the concern of an unfinished or threatened feminism, books included Susan Faludi’s Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women (1991), Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women (1991) and Rebecca Walker’s To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism (1995). New magazines such as Bust and Bitch addressed a new generation. Many, to the shock of their elders, embraced traditional expressions of femininity and critiqued their mothers for careerism, devaluing motherhood, and for lacking a sexual sense of humor.

Most significant to late feminism is the lack of a coherent ideological perspective. Henry identifies three core principles for feminism in the new century: It must be polyvocal, acknowledging multiple perspectives; intersectional with other identities and social justice movements; and non-dogmatic, recognizing the complexities of life. To many, the third wave asserted the autonomy of a woman’s choice, creating what Time magazine described in 1998 as “Feminism: It’s All About Me!” In this way, late feminism was accused of being no different from the rest of American individualism wrapped up in consumerism. Its insistence on intersectionality has also tended to dilute gender as its central core. Its lack of dogmatism led to choices that a previous generation considered anti-feminist such as the embrace of beauty culture and sexual display.

The feminism of the new millennium, however, was more than media flash, and Henry provides a glimpse into the continued social activism taken up by young women through “a million little grass-roots movements” (189). Other women falling under the authors’ expansive feminist definition include Sheryl Sandberg with her book Lean In: Women, Work, and The Will to Lead (2013). This is a feminism reconciled to capitalism, making the argument that as women step up to the table and grab what is available, they will secure positions of power. As Henry observes this is a highly individualistic trickle-down feminism benefits mainly a group of elite yet it remains within the feminist tent.

From activism in the streets to negotiations in the boardroom, the authors of Feminism Unfinished have expanded the meaning of feminism and recovered a wide social movement. Yet the expansion of feminism to include just about anyone involved in social justice activism or personal advancement makes me wonder if gender even matters. Feminism as an undefined “outlook” remains politically unsatisfying in the face of entrenched economic disparity and multiple forms of violence.

In a field where a political vision has been a driving force for intellectual production, I am left to wonder whether feminism has any place to go. With new theories that have destabilized sex and gender, feminism built on the category of “woman,” a biological and culturally defined subject has been undermined from within. Recent historiography has demonstrated the multiple ways that the exigencies of race, class, ethnicity, religion, region, and mass culture modify gender rendering it a less useful political category. With sex and gender no longer stable and the recognition of intersectionality new possibilities open up for understanding a feminist past; but feminism as a political or social movement, consider the ideologically diffused Women’s March on Washington, lacks a clear way forward in a globalized world where the category of woman still matters to millions.

Lilian Calles Barger,, is an independent scholar working in Taos, NM. Her interests include intellectual, cultural and gender history. Her book tentatively entitled The World Come of Age: Religion, Intellectuals and the Challenge of Human Liberation is forthcoming from Oxford University Press in 2018.