This is the second of a five part series exploring how the Left in the United States moved from a politics of building and challenging power to a politics of aesthetic, through the example of the feminist movement. The second wave of feminism introduced us in the last chapter to almost all of the component parts of modern feminism — Shulamith Firestone challenging the primacy of class that had long dominated the Left, the performances of W.I.T.C.H. creating an aesthetic politics, and the anti-pornography fundamentalism of Andrea Dworkin moving away from materialism to a politics centered in violence and the need for safety. We ended with the crashing of the second wave due to the inadequacy of even the fiery Dworkin feminism to deal with the intersections of oppression at play in circumstances like the testimony of Anita Hill and push back from Justice Clarence Thomas.
The term “third wave” came from a manifesto by a young woman named Rebecca Walker in response to the travesty of these hearings. She wrote:
Turn that outrage into political power. Do not vote for them unless they work for us. Do not have sex with them, do not break bread with them, do not nurture them if they don’t prioritize our freedom to control our bodies and our lives.
While Rebecca was only 22, she was an adept feminist writer because of her upbringing as the daughter of Alice Walker. In recounting her arguments with her partner in the piece, she reveals a struggle by Black feminists that has been waged for centuries, but is most famously depicted in “The Combahee River Collective Statement.” The concerns of Black women were subsumed in whatever movement they worked in — white women telling them to focus on “women’s issues,” and Black men telling them to focus on “Black issues.”
But Rebecca was not merely using the term “third wave” to describe a new type of intersectional feminism. She was also pointing to, and attempting to resolve, the crashing of the second wave:
I am so angry that thoughts of murder, of physically retaliating against them, of separatism, engulf me. I am almost out of body, just shy of being pure force. I am sick of the way women are negated, violated, devalued, ignored. I am livid, unrelenting in my anger at those who invade my space, who wish to take away my rights, who refuse to hear my voice. As the days pass, I push myself to figure o u t what it means to be a part of the Third Wave of feminism. I begin to realize that I owe it to myself, to my little sister on the train, to all of the daughters yet to be born, to push beyond my rage and articulate an agenda. After battling with ideas of separatism and militancy, I connect with my own feelings of powerlessness. I realize that I must undergo a transformation if I am truly committed to women’s empowerment.
Here Rebecca evokes the kind of rage at the violence of men that embodied the politics of Andrea Dworkin. But rather than rejecting it as many of Dworkin’s liberal contemporaries had done, she instead sought to “push beyond” and “undergo a transformation.” While Rebecca Walker’s piece was not a full break from the traditional politics of building and challenging power, it carried the seeds of an individualistic aesthetic politics. “Each of my choices,” Rebecca wrote, “will have to hold to my feminist standard of justice.” Rebecca was attempting to incorporate a politics of individual aesthetic with the traditional politics she knew were needed to create change. She advocated for a feminism that “search[ed] for personal clarity in the midst of systemic destruction” (individual) and “join[ed] in sisterhood with women when of-ten we are divided” (collective).
It is unclear whether Rebecca was prescient of the rising aesthetic politics and sought to bind it to a traditional politics to make it actionable or whether she was a true believer in aesthetic politics being just as important as traditional politics. There’s plenty of circumstantial evidence to infer the former, because aesthetic and individualistic politics was quickly gaining popularity and not to the benefit of Black women and the working class more broadly. The decline of the second wave of feminism in the 1980’s and 1990’s saw a group of white women using feminism to achieve individual success while leaving working class women of color behind. A 1995 Department of Labor report found that 6 million women had advances in their job due in part to affirmative action. Various state studies around that same time suggest that these women were disproportionately white.
These women consequentially saw feminism as a means of personal achievement. This was represented by the somewhat tongue-in-cheek term (explicitly called out by Rebecca Walker as what the third wave should not be) “postfeminism feminism.” The point of feminism, as these women saw it, was not to destroy patriarchy or even to fight for the rights of all women. Rather it was a tool for individuals to be equal with the men in their respective socio-economic classes.
It is important to understand the difference between this “postfeminism feminism” and the modern “lean-in” feminism. The “postfeminism feminism” had the focus on individualism as feminist, but it spent little to no time cultivating an aesthetic of feminism. To the contrary, it cultivated an aesthetic of not-feminism, that feminist self-achievement would put women into positions where they could be just like the men within their socio-economic class. This was typified by “power dressing,” a fashion trend in women’s office wear focused on creating masculine shapes through shoulder pads and roll-neck sweaters.
This era also saw the rise of consumer-oriented politics in general, as well-depicted in the documentary “The Century of the Self.” In this kind of individualistic politics, the middle class white woman could reconcile a vote for someone like Ronald Reagan. She was acting in her self-interest, and after all what is more feminist than a woman doing what is best for herself?
Ironically this individualism would be mirrored in a feminist counterculture, made possible by aesthetic politics. The creation of the “Rebel Girl” ideal by the riot grrrl music scene was to Rebecca Walker’s third-wave what W.I.T.C.H. was to Shulamith Firestone’s materialist feminism. Riot grrrl was an offshot of the punk music scene in the 1990’s. Punk music, with some notable exceptions like The Clash, epitomizes the turn to individualism as rebellion. Obsessed with clothing, makeup, piercings, and tattoos, punk was about wearing “Anarchy in the U.K.” more than say starting an anarchist cooperative in the U.K. Punk as a political phenomenon is often misunderstood as cynicism, but most of punk was not at all cynical.
However, even at its most moralistic, punk was still about aesthetic and individual identity. A good example of this was the straight-edge movement, a subgroup in the 1980’s punk music scene that adopted an ethos of rejecting sex, drugs, and alcohol. Adherents drew black “x”s on their hands akin to the markings given to underage people at concerts. It was a “movement” entirely about choices and conduct of the self, as laid out by the Minor Threat song “Out of Step With the World.”
Riot grrrl brought this aesthetic politics to feminism. The band Bikini Kill led the way with the subgenre’s anthem “Rebel Girl,” an ode to a person who had perfected their individual aesthetic of feminism:
When she talks, I hear the revolution
In her hips, there’s revolutions
When she walks, the revolution’s coming
In her kiss, I taste the revolution!
Bikini Kill came out of not only the punk music scene but a broader “do-it-yourself” culture. Internalizing the individual consumer-oriented politics of neoliberalism, Bikini Kill defined riot grrrl as a movement to deal with what was essentially an untapped market wanting women’s music and not satisfied with “boy band after boy band, boy zine after boy zine, boy punk after boy punk after boy.”
But in addition to the aesthetic politics, and ironically given that they were on opposite sides of the infamous “feminist sex wars,” riot grrrl also adopted the centralizing of violence and safety put forth by Andrea Dworkin. However, rather than promoting safety by traditional politics as Dworkin attempted to do with congressional hearings, legislation, and protest, riot grrrl instead focused on the creation of its subculture and “safe spaces.” For all its performance of fierceness and rebellion, riot grrrl’s solution to male violence was not to end it by political force but to retreat and withdraw away from it. Molly Neuman, one of the creators of the zine Riot Grrrl that introduced the term, admitted the narrowness of their political ambitions by saying, “We’re not anti-boy, we’re pro-girl.”
To be clear, this focus on safe spaces was not cowardice. Few bands in the U.S. were as reviled and constantly threatened as Bikini Kill and their riot grrrl contemporaries. Their advocacy led to near-constant harassment, from having things thrown at them on stage to being sexually harassed by music journalists in published columns. While safe spaces may not have confronted patriarchal power, it certainly confronted the everyday instances of individual male power that women are faced with. But this oppression engaging with the aesthetic individualistic politics of riot grrrl created a negative feedback loop. It seemed to confirm the need for riot grrrl, for women to create their own punk aesthetic to fight for their safety.
Riot grrrl of course was not a mainstream phenomenon and one could understandably respond to what has just been laid out with “So what? Did that really have that much power over how feminism developed?” The answer is actually “yes,” because while not exerting that much of an influence over the contemporary mainstream (note: some disagree with this), riot grrrl’s provision of safe spaces drew to it many queer women and gender nonconforming people who would concurrently begin to radically shape academia.
While early “queer theory” did not break from traditional politics, the appeal of aesthetic politics as shown by riot grrrl and other feminist phenomenon like the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival led to academic theory focused on cultivating a radical aesthetic. Poststructuralism replaced the Freudian psychoanalysis and materialism of feminists like Shulamith Firestone, leading to a modern feminism built on a foundation of sand. Without such an anchor, the politics of Rebecca Walker were spurned as corporations poured unlimited money into creating aesthetics that “DIY” movements like riot grrrl could not compete with. But that will be the subject of the next chapter.
For Chapter 1 of this series, click here. Thanks to all my supporters on Patreon: Brian Stegner, Sarah Jaffe, Winona Ruth, Michael Rosenbloom, Red_Rosa, John Michie, Jay Schiavone, Daniel Hafner, Aaron Marks, Eli, and my anonymous donors. For $1 a month you can join this list and support my work/help me survive bar study.