Simone De Beauvoir and Generations of Feminists

By Bulbeck, Chilla | Hecate, January 1, 1999 | Go to article overview

Simone De Beauvoir and Generations of Feminists


Bulbeck, Chilla, Hecate


Simone de Beauvoir and Generations of Feminists

As Germaine Greer notes, when women's liberationists signed their letters `Yours in sisterhood,' they were identifying their shared identity in terms of a notional common generation.(1) Now, according to some commentators, the generation of women who signed `yours in sisterhood' weighs heavily on the younger generation. Catharine Lumby describes an institutionalised feminism of femocrats and women's studies academics who take up the space in the movement, denying access to younger women and enthusiastic amateurs.(2) Even Greer claims that `our society is even more rotten with ageism than sexism.'(3) This new generation of `young' feminists is a group of women who vary in age from their late teens to their thirties, variously labelled `third wave feminists,' `new feminists' or `power feminists.' They challenge the `second wave' of women's liberationists or baby-boomer feminists. Differing because it belongs to a different generation, third wave feminism is characterised as a `break with the past.'(4) Third wavers, it is said, are not interested in discovering their foremothers, nor would they `be impressed on finding them.'(5) Theirs is a brand new feminism in which second wave feminists are consigned to the past, no longer capable of change and development, as good as dead.(6)

In words like these, second wave feminists complain that third wavers are not grateful for the gift they are handing on. Thus Anne Summers' `Letter To the Next Generation' wonders whether younger women would feel `gratitude, a debt, a responsibility' to the older feminists and their movement.(7) Her letter made `hundreds' of young women `angry and increasingly curious,' `insulted that there was a transcendental feminist position, an imperative that denied all room for subjectivity and difference.'(8) Thus generational feminism is constructed in terms of a `gift' from the older generation to the younger; rarely is reciprocal gift giving identified.(9) In response to the `ageism' of third wavers, the young feminist academic Devoney Looser attacks the `youthism' of second wavers.(10) Second wavers dismiss the intellectual interests and contributions of third wavers as naive, merely because young women have not lived long enough to have anything profound to say. Younger feminists, too, are frozen -- if not in time, in a stereotype of inexperience. Looser claims: `Very little indeed has been published on the caricatures of each generation and on the basis of these, if any, in fact.'(11) Nevertheless, a simple formula captures many of the discussions of generational differences. Younger feminists have a greater sense of individual rights while second wavers have an interest in the sisterly unity of a movement. Third wavers are much less likely to use the homogeneous category `woman,' and have a more sophisticated understanding of differences between women that produce fluid and contradictory identities. Third wavers adopt a plethora of cultural practices, in contrast to second wave feminists' interest in the crude weight of economic or political inequality. Third wavers are also more optimistic and relaxed about sex, claiming that heterosexual sex need not be oppressive. Young feminists are more likely to be bisexual, queer, lipstick or S&M lesbians rather than the earnest `vanilla lesbians' of Amazon Acres, escapees from the pervasive `patriarchy.'

The ageing baby-boomers, according to Mark Davis, have constructed an uncontrolled and alien youth who challenge the `good old days' when feminists burned bras, queer meant strange, literature meant Shakespeare, ethnicity was eating out, and clear divisions between high and low literature were accepted.(12) When young, the baby-boomers were the disruptive outsiders but, today, as the boomers age, it is youth who comes from `elsewhere' in their gangs, ecstasy and rave scenes.(13) In Davis' formulation, a new generation takes the place of the old in this otherwise unchanging pas-de-deux, although Davis fears that the baby-boomers will not leave the dance floor to make way for the alien youth. …

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