A young woman's guide to talking to second wave feminists


Maeve Marsden

Germaine Greer in 1975.

Germaine Greer in 1975. Photo: Getty Images

Ahhh, feminism. What a year you've had. I mean, you're a complicated beast at the best of times, but in 2015 your intersections of social theory and activism saw some mind-bending ignorance pouring forth from your ranks. Feminists of my mothers' generation have been airing their dirty laundry in quite spectacular public forums all year; from the foot in mouth variety to what can only be described as the worst sort of dehumanising rhetoric (HI GERMAINE, HI JULIE, HI SHEILA).

There was that Oscars speech where Patricia Arquette took a moment to activist. "It's time for all the women in America and all the men who love women and all the gay people and all the people of colour that we've fought for, to fight for us now"... because of course we've solved racism and homophobia.

There was the cast of Suffragette in their "I'd rather be a rebel than a slave" t-shirts.


And stalwart second waver Germaine Greer? I refuse to give word count to her litany of offences. Whatever your position on 'no platforming' as a response, the way she speaks about transwomen does not bear re-reading.

It would be disingenuous to suggest that White Feminism™ has only showed its non-intersectional fangs in the last 12 months. Despite the incredible work done by those with less privilege and exposure, public discourse about feminism has long been dominated by the needs and wants of white, middle class ladies. Women like me, and my mothers, both of them life-long feminists. I am the spawn of the Second Wave of feminists, which, in case you're not up on your waves of feminism, is the one with all the socialists and lesbian separatists in it, not the one with all the slutwalking queers.

By age, I am third wave, but in an era of social media activism, with increasingly vocal and passionate young feminists taking charge, I'm told we're entering the fourth. Feminist discourse is an ever-evolving text, but much of what we now hear from second wave circles makes it seem like the last 20 years of feminist thinking didn't happen. And, much of the rage that radical feminism inspires in my contemporaries discounts the fact that our 'wave' of activism wouldn't exist without theirs.

I can't reconcile the echo chamber of feminists like Greer with the brilliant, smart, insightful women I grew up around. I am dismayed that their wisdom is being lost in a climate that forces the most sensationalist soundbites to the surface. And so, in order to not throw the baby out with the bathwater, here is a handy guide for those of us who inherited the privileges second-wave feminists fought for, compiled by a woman who was raised by them.

1. Ask questions. Have a conversation.

The battles that rage between these 'waves' of feminism have incredibly important issues at their core: intellectual, social and political approaches to gender and sexuality, inequality and suffering. These are not small things. According to the stereotypes, when I pop round to visit one of my mums, we should be going into battle over intersectionality, the legalisation of sex work or whether a particular group of women actually exist. But, while we differ greatly on how much I should drink on a Saturday night, our politics are remarkably aligned: because we talk to each other. And, while I have vehemently disagreed with many of their friends and contemporaries on certain issues and strategies, we have often found a middle ground.

Debates online often dissolve into ageism and misogyny, from both sides. I understand the rage and hurt a person feels when their identity is questioned or criticised, and I want to make it abundantly clear that tone-policing marginalised groups is a dick move. Critique can and should be passionate and angry, but when we attack people based on their age or appearance instead of their views, we're part of the problem.

"I admire young feminists and I value the fact that the women's movement is growing again after a period of decline. I hope they learn a lot from my wisdom and are able to build on historical struggles. But I don't identify with the notions of second wave and third wave feminism. I think these are divisive classifications and don't add to our understanding or practice of feminism."  - Helen (63)

2. See people's beliefs in historical context.

I did much of my feminist learning online, rather than on the picket line. While I credit writers and bloggers for teaching me about cultural appropriation, gender identity and intersectionality, my mother, Louise (68), credits protests against the Vietnam War for her activist awakening. It's patronising to suggest older women don't have access to online resources - they do - but older feminists are less likely to be trawling Tumblr or watching social justice YouTubers. While it's easy to resent the boomers for their free education and home ownership, check your own privilege - we have an incredible amount of knowledge in our pockets and the online habits to match.

"With the triumph of neo-liberalism we can no longer assume an expanding welfare state; the unions, which were once the vanguard, have now descended into faction fights and corruption. With significant gains made, the opposition has become harder to pin down. So new ideas and strategies are needed - obviously the ability to work with digital technologies is crucial."  - Rosemary (69)

Having been raised by this generation of women, I have more patience for their fuck-ups than I do for my peers. When Lena Dunham signed a petition opposing Amnesty International's new charter that proposes decriminalising sex work as best human rights practice, I was much angrier with her than I was Meryl Streep, and not just because Meryl's a better actor. Streep is a few years older than my mother, Teresa, and a story she told me recently puts her feminism – and Streep's – in some context. It also demonstrates that people can evolve.

"At our university the Rugby Club organised regular stripper nights. These were the same guys who sexually harassed us on a daily basis. So we disrupted these events anyway we could - mostly by standing outside and yelling. But one time we got inside and threw blankets and our coats over the strippers.

At the time we thought we were blocking the objectifying male gaze. And if truth be told there was a definite prudishness in what we were doing.

I look back on it now in amazement that we never gave a thought to the women involved. Did they get paid if we disrupted the event? Were they safe? Did they enjoy their work? If so, we must have thought they were living in a false consciousness - we certainly didn't credit them with any capacity to make their own choices.

I've grown since then. I've certainly come to celebrate sex and the expression of sexuality in all its glory. For me now it's a feminist principle to try to understand other women's lives and choices and pleasures, even when, or especially when, they are very different to my own."

- (Teresa, 60)

3. Educate yourself.

A lot of us, when pushed, probably don't know as much about the 'waves' of feminism as we think. The bulk of feminist activism across the ages consistently deals with what one of my mothers refers to as the "basics": equal pay, child care, access to education, representation in leadership, a woman's right to choose. Many of the divisive views held by radfem figureheads have complex histories that grew out of the an era when these basics were being identified; rather than simplifying their views as pure bigotry, trying to understand the path they took to their ideals is a worthy intellectual exercise. We don't have to agree but at least we can understand the arguments so we can do a better job of engaging in debate.

It's easy to deride older feminists as middle class and out of touch, but supposedly third wave movements aren't without their detractors. Focusing on a shared enemy can stop us from examining our own activist networks and communities. All debates could do with participants willing to back themselves up with knowledge and self-reflection.

It distresses me that we get stuck battling between the generations, when intergenerational friendship, education, networking and community organising could go a long way to bridging the divide and progressing feminism. While you're at it, don't just stop at conversation. Sarah Paulson and Holland Taylor could tell you bucketloads about "intergenerational understanding". While whispering sweet nothings to each other or being adorable on the internet, you're both likely to learn something. Log off and go pash a feminist. Let's stop giving our word counts and platforms to the most divisive figures and find potential allies and educators. Feminism is essentially about advocating for change; that means making space for each other to change too.

"I think there are many men who would be happy for the status quo to remain unchanged. I think that only women really understand their own oppression and it is women who will demand and make the changes. So as a woman I think I have no choice but to be a feminist and to actively involved in a feminist movement."  - Louise (68)


Maeve Marsden is a freelance writer, director, producer and performer. She tweets from @maevegobash. Support her work at patreon.com/ladysingsitbetter