“Words, words, words” (Hamlet IIii)

by lisa st john

It was born
in blood, the word
grew in the dark body, beating
and flew through the lips and the mouth. (Pablo Neruda “The Word”)

Words have no power to impress the mind without the exquisite horror of their reality. (Edgar Allan Poe)

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I love words, yet I hate the way they can be used. I love their power even when destructive. I have loved watching and hearing them change over time. It’s exciting when new ones pop up or nouns get verbed. “I will Google this.”

But when did feminism become a negative thing? When did the belief of, and actions for, equal rights between the sexes get a bad rap? I was raised by older sisters—hippies who burned their bras and broke the rules and believed that we had to work twice as hard as men to get the same results. How did this change? I had to look, and I found this:

“The Waves of Feminism” by Martha Rampton, professor of history and director of the Center for Gender Equity at Pacific University.

1st Wave late 19th early 20th centuries: The goal of this wave was to open up opportunities for women, with a focus on suffrage. The wave formally began at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, when 300 men and women rallied to the cause of equality for women. Elizabeth Cady Stanton (d.1902) drafted the Seneca Falls Declaration outlining the new movement’s ideology and political strategies.

In its early stages, feminism was interrelated with the temperance and abolitionist movements and gave voice to now-famous activists like the African-American Sojourner Truth (d.1883), who demanded, “Ain’t I a woman?” Victorian America saw women acting in very “un-ladylike” ways (public speaking, demonstrating, stints in jail), which challenged the “cult of domesticity.”

2nd Wave 1960s-1990s : “The second wave was increasingly theoretical, based on a fusion of neo-Marxism and psycho-analytic theory and began to associate the subjugation of women with broader critiques of patriarchy, capitalism, normative heterosexuality, and the woman’s role as wife and mother. Sex and gender were differentiated — the former being biological, and the later a social construct that varies culture-to-culture and over time.”

3rd Wave mid 1990s – now: “The ‘grrls’ of the third wave have stepped onto the stage as strong and empowered, eschewing victimization and defining feminine beauty for themselves as subjects, not as objects of a sexist patriarchy. They have developed a rhetoric of mimicry, which reappropriates derogatory terms like ‘slut’ and ‘bitch’ in order to subvert sexist culture and deprive it of verbal weapons. Reality is conceived not so much in terms of fixed structures and power relations, but in terms of performance within contingencies. Third wave feminism breaks boundaries.

Where feminism will go from here is unclear, but the point is that feminism, by whatever name, is alive and well both in academia and outside of it. Some older feminists feel discouraged by the younger generation’s seeming ignorance of or disregard for the struggles and achievements of the early movement. They see little progress (the pay gap has not significantly narrowed in 60 years), and are fearful that the new high-heeled, red-lipped college grrls are letting us backslide.”

What saddens me are comments by young women today such as, “I am not a feminist because I don’t hate men.” I want to educate them. I want them to learn the history of the movement. I am going to take students on a field trip to see She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry in Rosendale next month. But that seems like such a limp effort. I am in the process of wrapping my head around how to raise awareness (even the phrase “raise awareness” sounds lame).

Did we raise awareness when “Healing the Hurt” conference changed its name to PrideWorks? Do young activists even know that the now famous NYC Pride Parade was first called “Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day” after the Stonewall Riots ?

I had to fight bureaucrats and bible-thumpers to get a Gay-Straight Alliance Club formed in a high school once upon a time. It was passed as long as we called it The “Rainbow” Club. It was a start.

Does knowing the history matter to the language?

“There is no more sexism,” a student told me once. “My mom is a lawyer, my dad is a doctor, and I am going to __________ for pre-med in September.”

“Excellent,” I replied. “When you are done with your undergraduate degree (or maybe it will take until grad school) I want you to come back and tell me how wrong I was; how you were treated just like your male colleagues.” She snorted and rolled her eyes, but she hasn’t come back. I wish she had. I wish I was wrong.

You can buy my first chapbook of poetry HERE at Finishing Line Press. It’s called Ponderings.

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