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The Naked Anthropologist · Second-wave feminism: Revolution, not Rescue | The Naked Anthropologist

Second-wave feminism: Revolution, not Rescue

In some country far away, in a box I left in someone’s attic or garage decades ago, there is a copy of this newsletter, which I bought in June 1968. I can see myself holding it, in a tiny apartment on Bank Street in New York’s Greenwich Village, when it was not the hyper-chic area it is now. The single-burner hotplate sits on a shelf, the bathroom sink is cluttered with dirty dishes, and it is all for me alone.

In Notes from the First Year Shulamith Firestone asked:

What does the word ‘feminism’ bring to mind? A granite faced spinster obsessed with a vote? Or a George Sand in cigar and bloomers, a woman against nature? Chances are that whatever image you have, it is a negative one. To be called a feminist has become an insult, so much so that a young woman intellectual, often radical in every other area, will deny vehemently that she is a feminist, will be ashamed to identify in any way with the early women’s movement, calling it cop-out or reformist or demeaning it politically without knowing even the little that is circulated about it. . . Notes from the First Year. The New York Radical Women, 1968.

Are you surprised anyone would say that in 1968? I discovered Firestone and I were the same age when she died the other day. We also looked superficially alike: granny glasses assured that, though my own hair would never lie down Rapunzel-like (no extant photos of me, though). I met her once briefly but never attended the meetings where her particular feminist theory was made.

Nowadays people talk as though all women interested in liberation in the 1960s were thinking the same thing, but it wasn’t like that. It was a movement of women, with all sorts of ideas being bandied around simultaneously. There weren’t any leaders. The material in Notes from the First Year was exciting, but I did not think that I was outside the cool centre because I did not sit in rooms with serious theorists calling themselves radical. My ideas were ill-formed, and I couldn’t have written a book about them, but I wouldn’t have wanted to, either – I was too busy living.

Some people cannot abide anything about what’s now called second-wave feminism because of how some of its ideas have panned out all these decades later. Maybe it’s easier for me to distinguish all the variety because I was there at that particular beginning. Most feminist ideas from that period are now accepted as obvious; few people would argue with them. But some were provocative and mind-bending, such as Firestone’s idea that women were a class – an underclass subordinated to men because of biology. But it was also only one of a lot of ideas flying around.

When I nearly ran into Catherine MacKinnon a couple of years ago in Basel, I commented that we are more or less the same age, too. Her ideas have not changed over all these decades; she goes on saying the same thing over and over, in the case of prostitution still citing a study from 1976 that proves all prostitutes were abused as children. It is very annoying that a few fanatics claim to speak for everyone interested in women’s movements in the 60s and 70s, as I wrote in Extremist Feminism: Something Dark.

At New Slave Trade or Moral Panic?, a panel on trafficking at London’s Battle of Ideas in 2010, I said contemporary ideas about women’s innate sexual vulnerability are a big step backward. Firestone thought biology was key and so do today’s victimising fundamentalists. But Firestone and friends advocated revolution: women seizing power, achieving autonomy, throwing off their chains, taking responsibility, taking risks. The Rescue Industry, in contrast, has infantilised women by inserting itself between them and the forces oppressing them, supposedly in order to protect them

The full panel and some audience interventions are on the Battle of Ideas’s website. Thanks to Carol Leigh for putting together this Naked Anthropologist clip.

I still cannot get over how a gender expert hearing me speak at the International Development Institute in Sussex exclaimed, in some distress, that it is irresponsible for me to talk like this. I’m supposed to have betrayed original, fundamental tenets of feminism. Sigh – the ideas flying around during this era certainly don’t thrill me, that’s for sure.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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  1. It has seemed to me for a while that most movements (left- or right-wing alike) are more based on an “idea”, i.e. a “vision” of reality, reality-as-something, rather than on pure reality. Statements and viewpoints are often not judged on how they are (or aren’t) supported by facts, evidence, and research, but on how they conform to that idea of reality. (The American public political debate provides a striking example of that.)

    Curiously, some supporters of these movements appear to be aware of that; but they don’t think this is bad, because the reality-as-something their movement espouses is “better” in some abstract way, so the difference between it and reality is not something objectively out there, but part of the opposite worldview, part of the “battle of ideas” or “clash of civilizations” that should be fought against. To actually mention these aspects of reality, as you did, is to forget “all the good (intentions?)” in the movement, is to fight against its (obviously good?) ideal of harmony and happiness for all. So they justify to themselves knowing that these aspects of reality are true, but should not be mentioned (“it’s irresponsible”).

    It’s been said that the tragedy of science is a beautiful theory slain by an ugly fact. At least in political activism, and in the spheres of academia connected to it, part of the intellectual effort has gone to an effort to make this tragedy impossible. Truth suffers — but ideal is so much prettier (and makes so much more sense) than chaotic truth!…


    1. Do you think this might be true because everyone believes in Progress? That is, everyone takes it for granted that we are supposed to be constantly improving, going towards the utopian state or as close to it as we can get. I agree that most political rhetoric everywhere deals in abstractions, notions about what utopia looks like. To talk about the abstract big picture is to debate What is Art, Beauty, Truth, Justice and so on – without translating them onto the ground.

      For some reason I have never been attracted to utopias and am more interested in how we might make things better in small ways for more people. I see that this is not attractive, so good thing I am not trying to get elected to anything.


      1. I think it’s more a question of personality than of the idea of Progress. Let me elaborate.

        The opposition between “reality/fact-driven” and “thought/theory-driven” is important in all sciences, isn’t it? From experimental vs. theoretical physics to abstract vs. interpretive literary theory. It seems to me that these two poles go with two different kinds of personalities, for which the ‘stereotype’ labels (not really correct, but…) would be Platonist and Aristotelian.

        Platonists want to know more than simple facts: they want to know something deep about reality, what’s behind the facts, what it all means. They can be cavalier with facts here and there, because it’s the big picture that matters, we want to know where the river is going, not the occasional little whirlpool. The professional hazard for them is becoming so enamored of an idea (which for them is so easily confused with ‘the (deep) truth’) that the beauty they see in it leads them to disregard facts more and more — like being seduced by the proverbial siren’s song. ‘It’s so beautiful, it feels so true, it must be true!’

        Aristotelians tend to find ‘theories’ and ‘big truths’ suspect, because they make you relax and stop observing reality (‘I already know what’s going on’). Aristotelians are the nit-pickers, those who raised their hands in highschool when the teacher made some general remark to say ‘but what about fact X’, thereby disturbing a perfectly well-planned class. The more starry-eyed their interlocutor, the more they want to check the facts and find counter-examples. They like details, specifics, histories; they dread general statements, which they fill with hedges and disclaimers (‘it appears as if, under certain circumstances, one might say that a workable analogy would be…’). Their professional hazard is becoming so enamored of the details, of the specific differences between every case and every other case, that they actually end up drawing no conclusions, seeing no consequences, no parallels, no lessons to be learned: everything is pure observation, pure description, independent from everything else. ‘It’s so unique, nobody can tell me this is “just like” or “a case of” something else!’

        I think that the theoretical/radical wing of second-wave feminism is very Platonist. Yes, because of the idea of Progress; but more importantly because of what their Platonism does with it. After all, Aristotelians usually also want progress; but they see progress in improving specific conditions, solving specific problems, moving little by little towards a better situation (which is not clearly defined; “we’ll see what it’s like when we get there”). Let’s say Platonists want capital-P Progress, while Aristotelians want lowercase-p progress. That means Platonists get impatient at Aristotelians who they see as doing nothing of significance (“Why are you worried about this little detail, when our Big Theory shows us a Big Picture where there is a Big Problem that we should be tackling instead? By thinking so small, you’re helping Evil achieve a final victory!”), whereas Aristotelians think Platonists are misguided and self-deceived (“While marching towards your impossible/unlikely Worthy Goal, you’re absent-mindedly stepping over the bodies of real people who become the victims of your Big Theory! By being so blind, you’re helping Evil move towards victory!”).

        It’s very difficult to find some sort of intermediate approach, one that (like the ideal of science) accepts facts and reality as the most important thing, while also using theory and Big Pictures as tools to move forward. Because it’s so easy to fall prey to some sort of us-versus-them vision (a Big Picture…) — “they’re all just pimps trying to justify the exploitation of young women!” or “they’re all just traumatized old maidens who believe in conspiracy theories!….” With everything, especially in the social sciences, quickly becoming some sort of battleground opposing “good” and “bad” people, it really takes quite an effort to avoid gravitating towards one of these extremes.

        As far as I can tell, you’ve managed to navigate these dangerous public waters without yielding to the temptation of becoming an extremist. I hope you’ll be able to go on like that. Given how irritating some “opponents” can be, this takes a lot of effort and self-restraint. You’re more courageous than I am in that respect.


        1. While reading the above I was wondering where you were going to place me. I see too clearly that facts cannot describe the situations I have been talking about since the beginning and in fact have come to feel that an absolute attachment to ‘evidence’ is a bit loony and definitely lacking in understanding of the ‘deeper’ issues here.

          Many people wonder how I manage to keep my cool. The thing is, I figured out long ago that these attacks on me mostly come from people who don’t understand what I am talking about. The human-rights barrister pulling faces beside me in the video above is a perfect example. I’m not going to get angry at her – it was more than obvious that she was completely out of her depth. So actually I am not exercising much self-restraint or showing courage, either.


          1. But it often gets a little worse than that — because the little barrister out of her depth may not realize that she is out of her depth; she probably think the opposite is true. If all she does is make faces, that is still OK… It’s when emotions fly and counterarguments become attacks that one really needs to keep one’s cool.

            You’ve probably already been in situations in which people hurled angry attacks at you. What is your way to deal with that, without letting it sap your energies or eventually change you into an ‘angry arguer’ too (which may be the goal of the angry attacks: to create more people making angry attacks and raise the general emotionality level in the discussion)?


          2. This is true Cath. I just decided to have bloied eggs for breakfast, a feminist decision if ever there was one. Unlike patriarchal breakfasts of old, this nutrient rich meal means I am fully equipped to fight patriarchy, and there’s a minimum of washing up. And it fits the most important criteria of all of feminism, which is that a woman somewhere, likes doing it.


          3. This is what happens when ideitnty politics starts to eat itself: you get all of the ideitnty and none of the politics. Hahaha! Thanks Mary Tracy9. The image of a snake eating its tail sprang to mind! And that’s exactly what’s happening: CIRCULARITY. Which is the bane of my existence and the root of my mental instability.


          4. I find the mainstream feminist discourse distressing; The rhetoric is still one of objectification, victimization and degradation. People my age (20′s) still spout lazy Dwarkin-esque claptrap because, what, it’s cool?

            I think the feminism of Gayle Rubin is a much better model for young people than what musters for feminism in most of academia right now. She’s a reminder (as are you) that not all feminism needs to adhere to a rigid, unbending dogma of protectionism.


            1. I am glad you find these ideas relevant. As I said at the end of this piece, the present period is lacking in thrilling, revolutionary ideas about feminism and gender.


            2. Then again, I’m told by those who have taken women’s studies in the last few years that Dworkin and MacKinnon aren’t even taught anymore, and radical feminists complain about being drummed out of academia. Of course, much of this is probably exaggeration and sour grapes, because you can certainly find plenty of rescue industry types like Donna M. Hughes and Gail Dines who will loudly trumpet their academic credentials and “expert” status.

              In any event, that kind of incredibly puritanical, condescending style of feminism is certainly alive and well even some years beyond the heyday of the Third Wave. We saw plenty of this in the debates around Slutwalk for example, which got a lot of opposition from within feminism, and not just from ossified reactionaries like Gail Dines and Gloria Steinem.


              1. au contraire, mackinnon is a major figure in women’s law – women’s studies being a fading phenomenon itself. mackinnon invented the concept of sexual harassment and is one of very few feminist-law theorists. she does talks at big-cheese places with large audiences, visiting professorships and despite her fundamentalism gets big hands. i am actually glad i didn’t run into her in basel: http://www.lauraagustin.com/me-and-catharine-mackinnon-on-prostitution-gender-patriarchy-and-sex-not-two-minds-with-but-a-single-thought

                and there are young people calling themselves radical feminists in this tradition, i don’t think it’s dying out.


                1. I’m probably a bit out of touch with the goings on in academia outside of the science departments, which is the world I’m thoroughly ensconced in.

                  You’re correct about the MacKinnon and harassment law – she did pretty much author much of current sexual harassment law. And while I think such laws are needed, I think it’s very unfortunate that such a malicious figure was behind it and left her trace all over “hostile environment” concepts.

                  It’s become an interesting contradiction in current post-Third Wave feminist circles that it’s perfectly fine to question MacKinnon’s ideology on porn and prostitution, but don’t you dare question any aspect of sexual harassment rules. I’ve run afoul of this myself, and am currently a pariah in certain “sex positive” circles for for questioning the more prudish aspects of the “Geek Feminist” model anti-harassment policy for conventions. (Which, true to MacKinnon, include bans on “sexualized imagery”.)


                  1. The original concept and impetus were progressive for these legal ideas, pointing out the invisibility of so much behaviour toward women. It’s the proliferation over time, the extrapolation from one idea to ever more, farther and farther out, that appall – so that everything becomes Violence or Harassment. Personally I think it’s contemporary folk doing that, egging things on, and then inviting old war horses to come and say exactly the same things they said 30 years ago. She’s a good speaker but why do all these audiences applaud wildly when she merely spouts ideology? Rhetorical question.


                  2. I do think part of the problem is really the Platonist “desire for perfection” that one finds in some of the more exaggerated versions of sexual harassment “theory” (at least in the discussions I’ve seen — I am no legal expert).

                    In principle everybody agrees that sexual harassment is bad. The point is only when it actually is happening, where the border is between “acceptable joke” and “harassment”. When one attempts to create legislation to deal with the matter, whatever decision one takes, whichever principle one follows, there are bound to be gray-area cases which will make them look bad.

                    The theory now seems to be (and in a certain way this is very quintessentially American) that avoiding and punishing evil is extremely important, even if this means accepting a few (?) cases of innocents being unjustly punished. Also, since evil is so very evil, we want to exaggerate on the side of avoiding it — even if this means a lot of “spoil-the-fun” constraints in the workplace.

                    Also, again to try to avoid all evil, one tends to accept the definition that harassment is defined by how the victim feels, not by what the (true) intentions of the perpetrator were (assuming these can be defined).


                  3. Violence against men is not tealkd about enough Ladies and gentlemen Europeans. Yes, it is essential to fight for gender equality and oppose the acceptance of violence. But this must include all forms of violence! Yes, we must rise up to the physical violence against women, but this will not exclude male victims of female violence. It would be wise to consider that when women are in leadership position (see hegemony) by social power they exercise, particularly in the judiciary of the Family and their corollaries, there is a wide disparity of treatment for men and children victims. This psychological violence against men and their children is as unacceptable. It is high time it stopped for putting together the two genres back to back is involved in social unrest in all areas. Violence only begets violence, every form of violence must be punished with the same determination and just. psychological abuse which many men are victims is the cause of a number of annual deaths exceeds those of physical violence, men and women equal rights, yes certainly, but in all areas and in the same spirit of fairness Universal! What seems today to be forgotten by these psychological abuse women! Is that we are born female or male, in comfort or poverty, we have all been designed in the same manner and we are above all human beings as such deserves some respect and dignity. Knowing whether voluntary or unconscious discrimination affects, equal rights, equal opportunities, but also to equality of everyone’s duty. I knew that and I suffer more do I end my days because of the psychological abuse I suffered. ?


                  4. It’s true, it’s sometimes pretty nasty, though not usually. When I say I know they don’t understand I am understating. I mean, it’s true – they don’t understand – but they also don’t want to. At that BBC World Debate in Luxor, Mira Sorvino was quite furious and blaming me volubly for ruining things. The producer edited this so she looks more reasonable, but she was on the attack. This is why the Interpol guy has that weird line about granting me the right to have an opinion. What they show of my reaction is all there was: I’m bemused. I get much more annoyed when listening to claptrap like Siddharth Kara’s – then I have to make an effort to control my visible reaction. I’ve never lost my temper, which is presumably also why I have not become more well known – I don’t engage in the ‘debate’ format satisfactorily.


                    1. That’s exactly an example of what I meant as a Platonist approach. Ms Sovino sees the evil so clearly, she must think those who don’t see it are either dumb or have bad intentions (because of the Big Picture: women are exploited, because men see them as sexual commodities to be purchased and trafficked, and the forces behind it are so strong that it takes a lot of commitment to fight them, yes maybe there are some iffy gray-area cases but they are so few in comparison to the bad ones that anyone paying attention to them is, willingly or unwillingly, aiding and abetting evil).

                      It’s not about truth to her anymore; she already has “the truth”. It’s about defeating evil, and deciding whether given people are on the side of good or evil.


                      1. I completely agree: they feel the truth has already been revealed. This comes out also from those who say ‘Aw come on, can’t we all get along? What do a few differences of opinion over the numbers matter, surely we all agree that trafficking is evil?’

                        So the critic becomes the quibbler, the party-spoiler, the pedant – trivialised.


                      2. It don’t know about the platonism but it does seem that the fact that so many protestant christians from Europe settled the US early on has led to this reductionist vision of Evil related to sex in the present day.


                      3. People like Mackinnon assume any sort of transgressing of socially constructed taboos is intrinsically traumatic to the so-called “less powerful” party” (i.e., brown people, prostitutes, woman in general and so on).

                        What they don’t realize is that they manufacture their own victims by instilling shame in people (like sex workers) were it would otherwise not exist– shame that they assume to be intrinsic but is actually an extrinsic social artifact, foisted on others without their consent, rendering them passive victims.

                        The bottom line is, these types of feminists manifest their exploited folk through their own malignant brand of late-modernist story telling and labeling.


                        1. This aspect of what the Rescue Industry do escapes them completely: the way that their prejudices actually produce and exacerbate stigma that was not necessarily there or important before.


                        2. Interesting. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy. How often does it happen that people sincerely interested in solving a problem actually make it worse (or create a new one) in the process of tackling it? I’m reminded of a story I heard once (I don’t know if it’s true, but se non è vero è ben trovato…).

                          It seems one of the first ecological groups, back in the time when they weren’t still called “ecological”, once wanted to help the population of gazelles (or antelopes or some other big herbivore) by killing all the predators in that area. Of course, as we now know from the principles of ecological equilibrium, this led to a catastrophe: the gazelles multiplied beyond the capacity of that area to feed them, then ate all the available food, and then starved to death. I can imagine those first activists’ bewildered looks when then considered the starving herds of gazelles — the same ones they had wanted to help thrive — and wondered what exactly had gone wrong. Their intention was so good, their hearts so pure; how could this have happened?

                          I sometimes wonder if something so simple as the willingness to consider the possibility that one’s beliefs might be wrong, no matter how much one cherishes them, would be enough to significantly improve the situation of the whole planet.


                        3. By the way, I was reading Radio Free Europe (I like to accompany the policial situation of post-Communist Eastern Europe) and I came upon an article on human trafficking, an interview with OCSE special representative for combatting human trafficking Maria Grazia Giammarinaro. I thought it wasn’t bad, since at least they don’t define it mostly in terms of sexual trafficking, but I also noticed she didn’t mention the migration-trafficking continuum. I wonder what you’d think of her position. The link is here.


                          1. I think the absence of migration is terrible, lamentable, misleading and sinister. I note she uses the word migrate finally in the last line, but how could she leave it out here – ‘young people have dreams and aspirations and [if] they don’t find opportunities to pursue their aspirations at home, they are sometimes ready to leave, even in unsafe conditions’ – unless there is a deliberate attempt to exclude it? Shameful EU cover-up.


                          2. something like my friend takes pole dacinng classes and it’s her choice so it’s feminist’ (as an example). and i would turn the page waiting for a discussion on what that statement meant with none forthcoming. because it’s all very well saying that a choice is feminist because a woman chose to do it, but we don’t live in a cultural vacuum, and with a lot of the areas she addresses in the book and quiz, the behavoiur is just that. the questions just aren’t asked. and then of course, that statement means being anti-choice is a feminist choice. etc etc.feminism, to me, is about making life better and more equal for women all over the world, from all backgrounds. it is about fighting oppression on all sides. it isn’t about making life better for me, just me and only me. and people like me.



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