Linda Nicholson (ed), The Second Wave: A Reader in Feminist Theory

Cover of the book The Second Wave Reader

In between everything else, I’m working my way through The Second Wave: A Reader in Feminist Theory, edited by Linda Nicholson.  The book leaves out a lot because it’s limited to more highly theoretical feminist writing, but it contains some very influential work. I’ve only read the first section ‘Early Statements’ so far, but I already feel like I’m gaining a better understanding of how we got to where we are today.

One interesting factor, which Nicholson draws attention to in her introduction, is the division between the ‘Woman’s Rights Movement,’ which emerged in the early 1960s, and the Women’s Liberation Movement, which emerged out of the New Left in the later 1960s. The Women’s Rights Movement was basically what we now call liberal feminism.  It was largely made up of professional women who put pressure on organisations to end discrimination against women in the work force. It drew on the dissatisfaction felt by a lot of middle-class housewives at the time.  The Women’s Liberation Movement developed the approach now known as radical feminism.  It was concerned with getting women and men ‘to recognise the importance of women’s oppression, its presence across large stretches of history and its fundamentality as a principle of social organisation.  This meant developing a theory that explained the origins of women’s oppression and the means by which it has been sustained’ (2). Of course these different strands were not completely independent of each other but they represent quite radically different approaches to the same problems and it’s important to be aware of them.  While much of the creative thinking (and therefore most of the essays in the book) came from the Women’s Liberation Movement, the Women’s Rights Movement has been hugely influential in determining the feminist agenda.  These days you quite often seem to get people working with a combination of the two strands in ways that can be problematic.

The first chapter is the ‘Introduction to The Second Sex’ (1953) by Simone De Beauvoir. In trying to account for the historical oppression of women as a group, De Beauvoir argues that physiological differences between men and women gave men the opportunity to define themselves as subjects and women as ‘other.’  Biology therefore became elaborated as gender:

‘It amounts to this […] there is an absolute human type, the masculine. Woman has ovaries, a uterus; these peculiarities imprison her in her subjectivity, circumscribe her within the limits of her own nature. It is often said that she thinks with her glands. Man superbly ignores the fact that his anatomy also includes glands, such as testicles, and that they secrete hormones.  He thinks of his body as a direct and normal connection with the world, which he believes he apprehends objectively, whereas he regards the body of woman as a hindrance, a prison, weighed down by everything peculiar to it.’

I love the opening quote: “For a long time I have hesitated to write a book on women. The subject is irritating, especially to women; and it is not new. Enough ink has been spilled in the quarrelling over feminism, now practically over, and perhaps we should say no more of it’ (11).

The quarreling about feminism over? In 1953? Oh how we laugh now!

The second chapter is from Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex (1970). Drawing on Marx and Engels Firestone continued the project of trying to account for women’s oppression by locating the problem in biological differences, specifically reproduction, arguing that women’s capacity to bear children put them in a relation of dependence on men which allowed men to oppress them.  The solution:

‘to assure the elimination of sexual classes requires the revolt of the underclass (women) and the seizure of control of reproduction: not only the full restoration to women of ownership of their own bodies, but also their (temporary) seizure of control of human fertility – the new population biology as well as all the social institutions of childbearing and childrearing.’ (24).

Is that all then?

It’s a powerful argument, but also a problematic one.  As Nicholson notes in her introduction to the book: ‘Are not all of us dependent on each other in some way or other?’  Does the existence of relations of dependence really explain the oppression of more than half the human race?  What about all the women who have never born children with men? And why should reproduction automatically be interpreted as a reason to oppress women?  Why was it not interpreted as a source of power, as seems to have been the case in some early societies? Perhaps Firestone answers these questions in the rest of her book, but I think her argument also puts women with children in a difficult position with regard to feminism because under current conditions there is no way they can seize total control of human fertility.  In having children with men at all, they are doing something arguably anti-feminist.

I prefer Gayle Rubin’s argument in the following essay, ‘The Traffic in Women’ (1975), which locates gendered oppression in the exchange of women which takes place within kinship systems.  I also love this essay for its sheer audacity. Rubin manages to weave together Marx, the anthropology of Levi-Strauss, and the psychoanalysis of Freud and Lacan.  I’m going to write a separate post on  this one because I think it deserves a more in-depth discussion than I can provide here.

The next chapter is The Combahee River Collective’s ‘A Black Feminist Statement’ (1979), which I also think deserves a post of its own.  Basically, the statement defends identity politics, rejects separatism and insists that gender cannot be abstracted form race and class:

‘The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives.’ (63).

More on that when I have a moment

The final essay in this section is the ‘The Equality Crisis,’ the one Women’s Rights Movement piece in this section and I haven’t read it because… I can’t get up much energy for liberal feminism at the moment.  I may go back to it later, but right now I have skipped to the next section which is on feminism and Marxism and interests me more.