Op-Ed: Who are you calling a ‘second-wave feminist’?

People raise their hands to signify #MeToo during the women's march Jan. 21 in Salem, Ore.
(Anna Reed / Associated Press)

Our times have been blessed in one limited way: After decades of refusing and shrugging and avoiding, women want to be called feminists. I don’t mean to sound glib about that, or about women’s newfound forthrightness. It’s a wonderful thing that what might, in another era, have been kept as private anger is now out in the open. And it’s nice to feel we’re making history. It’d be even nicer, I promise, if we all knew a little more about the history of feminism.

Jezebel, a site that helped kick open the door to the wave now washing over us, recently published a piece by Stassa Edwards titled, “The Backlash to #MeToo Is Second-Wave Feminism.” OK, I thought, when it flew by me on Twitter. I’ll click.

Edwards was angry with a number of women who had stepped forward to say that #MeToo had gone too far, including the actress Catherine Deneuve and the writer Daphne Merkin. Edwards called them “liberal second-wave feminists” and put them out to the curb on that basis.


Days later, another fleeting reference to the second wave popped up in an intemperate note that the writer of the Aziz Ansari “exposé” sent to Ashleigh Banfield, who had criticized the piece on television. “I hope the ~500 RTs on the single news write-up made that burgundy lipstick bad highlights second-wave feminist has-been feel really relevant for a little while,” she wrote.

Woof. I agree that Deneuve and Merkin are perilously wrong. Banfield, you can’t pay me enough to watch. But these women aren’t second-wave feminists. Banfield isn’t old enough. Deneuve is French, and that’s a whole other kettle of fish. As for Merkin, before her recent essay her name wasn’t associated with movement feminism.

Clearly, I’m overthinking this, already putting more time into parsing differences than these casual references were intended to spark. On the internet, arguments unfold at light speed, and people are quick to lump a bunch of different things together under some catchy label. When young women toss off insults at second-wave feminists, they’re often speaking in code about something deeper: a resentment of their forebears. Women have trouble with their mothers.

But most of us actually know something of our mothers. The same does not apply to the mothers of modern feminism.

So let’s talk about the second wave.

Lesson the first: 1960s feminists came up with the term “second wave” to distinguish themselves from the “first wave” — the suffragettes, more or less. It wasn’t exactly a disowning, but second-wave feminists thought of themselves as liberating women personally as well as politically. They also thought of themselves as more sexually free than their predecessors, though historians might disagree.

It’s simply not the case that the importance of inclusivity only occurred to feminists recently.


Lesson the second: The second wave wasn’t a monolith. No one could claim full ownership of it. Sure, some locate its origins in the work of Betty Friedan, who published “The Feminine Mystique” in 1963. Others point to a collective called New York Radical Women. It didn’t have formal leadership, but its most famous figureheads were Shulamith Firestone and Robin Morgan. Still others are interested in the strain of literary-intellectual feminism that flourished among writers such as Adrienne Rich and Kate Millett. And, in the popular imagination, Gloria Steinem gets the second-wave feminist crown, standing astride Ms., bringing radical thought to the masses.

These women didn’t necessarily like or agree with each other. Nora Ephron (who called herself a feminist but also was plainly exasperated with “feminists” writ large) wrote a famous piece for Esquire about second-wavers’ attempts to organize themselves at the 1972 Democratic Convention. In it she described Friedan’s view of Steinem as follows: “It’s her baby, damn it. Her movement. Was she supposed to sit still and let a beautiful thin lady run off with it?”

Friedan hated the “lavender menace” of lesbianism and had no time for the major rethinking of women’s roles that Rich espoused. New York Radical Women collapsed under the weight of infighting when some of its figures became more famous than others, which undermined their whole nonhierarchical mood.

Lesson the third: Although second-wave feminism was racist in the sense that its public faces were predominantly white — as contemporary feminists often mention — it was not unaware of this fact. When Audre Lorde sent an open letter to the Christian feminist Mary Daly, she wrote from a place of frustration over what she saw as the movement’s blind spots. She also wrote from a place of optimism that she could get herself heard: “For me to assume that you will not hear me represents not only history, perhaps, but an old pattern of relating, sometimes protective and sometimes dysfunctional, which we, as women shaping our future, are in the process of shattering and passing beyond, I hope.”

This shortcoming in particular, I suspect, is what’s behind the common dismissal of the second wave. It is honorable to want to keep holding feminism to a higher standard of anti-racism. It’s written, as Lorde says, right into the very premise of feminism that we should always be in the process of working to shatter old exclusions. But it’s simply not the case that the importance of inclusivity only occurred to feminists recently.

Which leads to the fourth and final lesson: Although many of them are dead now, I bet quite a lot of second-wave feminists would have loved #MeToo. After all, we have the second wave to thank for sexual harassment laws.


Young feminists tend to dislike Catharine MacKinnon, the law professor who took on pornography, for perceived offenses against the 1st Amendment. They may not realize that it was also MacKinnon who, in the 1970s, wrote the legal theory later adopted by the Supreme Court when Mechelle Vinson sued her employer because her boss demanded that she sleep with him. Vinson and MacKinnon opened the door to countless women who would henceforth claim that their bosses’ actions created a “hostile work environment.”

At the time, the mainstream worried that the whole “sexual harassment” thing was going too far. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission initially sided with the employer against Vinson, saying that if every person who felt uncomfortable in the workplace could make a claim, businesses would founder.

Not only does the activism of the present movement build on the past. For a lot of second-wave feminists, what’s going on right now must sound awfully familiar. The relationship between the two generations may be tricky and fraught, but isn’t it always that way with mothers?

Michelle Dean is a journalist and critic. She is the author of “Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion,” forthcoming in April.

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