Guy Fawkes: Feminism and the Putative Fourth Wave

From a comment I wrote on WHTM, lightly edited for clarity absent its original context:

So many people have announced the beginning of 4th wave feminism. It’s not here.

The only way to begin a new wave is to make new ethical claims. The “first wave” feminists were actually acting on a relatively diverse mix of ethical philosophies, but the ones who’ve come to define 1W are the Susan B. Anthonys, and those were contractarians. Their claims were primarily about how women are treated by the government and the reforms they demanded were largely designed to make women equal participants in the social contract — which in a democracy is significantly defined by voting and participation in government.

Socialist feminism ran concurrently with contractarian feminism (and a smaller movement of not-well-defined sexually libertarian feminism), but since “wave theory” didn’t exist until relatively recently, it got lumped in with the 1W contractarian feminism in the earlier period and outright ignored during the period after the recognized end of contractarian feminism in the 1920s (leaving the appearance of a gap in feminist activism, though that appearance was deceptive).

2W feminism is largely existentialist in nature, and made claims about how women were treated socially, separate from the treatment of women by the government. This is a substantially different feminism that tries to justify negative ethical judgements of sexist behaviors on entirely different ethical grounds of an essential and universal quality of “womanhood”, and focuses on relationships women have with large institutions that are not the government and with whom we have no direct social contract and which have their own freedoms against which the claims of 2W feminism must compete. The language and form of analysis is completely different from 1W feminism.

3W feminism incorporates critiques of how women themselves are a heterogenous group. Though intersectionality comes to us through honest-to-goodness (not buzzword bullshit) critical race theory written by one of the two women of color who first introduced the term critical race theory (Kimerlé Crenshaw), feminism that acknowledges divides between groups of women and the need for a feminism that creates ethical demands on individual women towards other individual women has its roots so long ago that it actually is contemporaneous with 1W. (Remember Sojourner Truth’s “Aren’t I a woman?”) It further ran concurrently with 2W (Maxine Hong Kingston, the Combahee River Collective, Pat Parker, Shulamit Firestone etc., etc.).

What transitioned between 1980 and 2000 is that the critiques of feminism’s outsiders demanding an approach that acknowledge power differences, power abuses, and systematic privileges between women, falling on racial and other highly contested lines, finally reached the center of feminist activism and gender studies courses. Part of this is that even the relatively privileged white feminists of the 80s went through the so-called “Sex Wars”. In the Sex Wars, the Lavender Purge and other intrafeminist conflicts white feminists treated each other badly. This made them reflect on who was hurting whom, and why some people with bad ideas and harmful behaviors nonetheless maintained a respected and visible place within the movement. White, mainstream feminists suddenly had a number of people who reached to women of color feminisms to make sense of their contested, divided experience.

So now we have intersectional feminisms, which are quite old but are named for the metaphor that was coined right in the middle of this crucial period. And while old in philosophical tradition, it is new to the dominant position in feminist theory. Intersectional feminisms make different ethical claims than 2W feminism, though it does not reject the causes and claims of 2W feminism wholesale (much as 1W feminism was largely accepted by 2W feminists).

But ever since 2000 I keep hearing about people saying we have a 4th wave of feminism and every time I hear this I ask, “What is the new philosophy, not just the same ethical and philosophical approach applied to a new issue (like internet-based social media), but actual new method of analysis and new ethical claim being made by this proposed 4W feminism?”

There’s never a good answer.

I’ve heard 4W feminism is feminism informed by religion for religious women. But previous generations of feminists have been religious, often quite fiercely so. The 1848 Seneca Falls convention was held in a church by church-going women for church-going women.

I’ve heard 4W feminism is feminism that addresses behavior on the internet performed by feminists who use the internet. But that’s facile. We didn’t start a new wave of feminism when the radio was invented. Or the TV. It’s the same feminism addressing a new issue, as far as I can tell.

I’ve heard 4W feminism described as feminism done by people born (or coming of age) after 3W feminism had already been established. However if a mere passage of a couple decades required a new wave designation, then the 1W name for a period spanning 7-8 decades immediately fails. And if the 1W name is taken to be coherent, than the mere passage of 20 or 25 years can’t define a novel “wave” of feminism.

I’d be delighted for a genuinely new feminist methodology to arise that grounds genuinely novel ethical claims. But if we’re simply dealing with dehumanization over twitter instead of face to face or in the newspaper, then sorry. That’s still 2W feminism, focussed on the existentialist feminist priority of the struggle to place transcendent value on the authentic human experience. Dehumanization is a 2W concept. Addressing dehumanization that occurs in 280 characters or less isn’t suddenly no longer 2W.

So what is 4W feminism? What does it claim? On what body of thought does it rest its ethical claims about what is wrong with the world and what does it prescribe we should do about those wrongs? How is the logic by which it persuades fundamentally different from what came before? How is its vision of justice incompatible with that of the 3W?

Someday there will be a 4W feminism. It will be exciting and I’ll learn a ton from it and I can’t wait to read it.

But no one has been able to show me anything yet that’s not just a previously established school of feminism writing about a new issue — which is just as novel as a movie reviewer writing about this years’ movies instead of last. It’s not a whole new wave of movie reviews. It’s just the ongoing work you would expect the same movie reviewers to keep doing, so long as all movie reviewers don’t just up and die. If one movie reviewer retires and is replaced by a younger movie reviewer with different tastes, we still do not have a whole new “wave” of film studies.

Please educate me if I’m wrong and there really is a novel form of feminism out there that I should read. Until you do though, count me skeptical. Too many have announced a 4W before now for me to trust such claims without investigation.



Gender Identity and Your Stupid Ass

I just want to note here (after a frustrating conversation elsewhere) so I can link to this later in the midst of future frustrating conversations, that gender identity is not “new”. The concept is over 100 years old and the exact phrase is at least 45 years old in the scientific literature. Earlier uses of the two word phrase “gender indenti[$]” exist in the literature, but it’s not entirely clear when this transitioned (see what I did there) from simply modifying words like “identity” and “identification” with the word “gender” to a two-word term of art with its own definition.

In any case, if you think it’s a conspiracy that you never heard of gender identity until 2019 and now suddenly it’s everywhere in your life, that’s not a conspiracy. That’s just you being ignorant before 2019. Got that, Mr. gender critical SouthPark fan?

And I know that I recommend this book fairly often, but let’s do it again. The earliest, most complete study of what gender actually is that is still considered largely accurate and entirely relevant today is the Kessler & McKenna book, Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach.

Other investigations into the nature of gender exist that were written prior to Kessler & McKenna, but none that I know of created such a complete framework for understanding, analyzing, and further studying gender. While some bits may no longer be the most up-to-date or may even have proved inaccurate in light of later work, as a whole volume there’s nothing there that has been made irrelevant over the decades. You really can’t do better than to read G:AEA if you want to understand what gender is and has been across cultural, temporal, and individual differences.

This comment is not about the murders of MtF trans people

But I think you cissies can learn something from our experience.

The murders of MtF trans folk are very often rage-filled, with multiple stab wounds or gunshots, and these assaults preferentially target our breasts and our genitals. Our murderers wanted, as it were, to erase our transness along with our lives. They wanted to rid the world of transness. It’s a genocidal impulse made viscerally personal.

It is, of course, hideous enough that trans people have been subjected to such murders, but historically the media outlets reporting on those murders would deadname victims, would call us men in women’s clothing when our names weren’t to hand, and in other ways would work to portray us as anything but ourselves.

In short, our murderers attempted to erase us, and the media chose to complete the erasure. This wasn’t neutral reporting, news outlets were choosing to assist our murderers, even to the point of completing their genocidal work.

The United States and a number of other “Western democracies” are in crisis because would-be fascists are attacking democratic governance itself. To say, as Biden has, that such people are anti-democratic is to tell an obvious truth that the fascist-leaning themselves tell each other every day. The more outrageous and ambitious among them then pass that on to the rest of the US:

We do not trust elections

they say.

We will not tolerate the general rule of law, but we will use the law to attack our political opponents,

they say.

And in the face of these things, the media chooses to admonish the anti-fascists, the leftists, even the Democrats and other institutionalists for language that the media insists will sow distrust and spark violence.

Do not accept this narrative. Do not tolerate this narrative to be spread in your presence. The fascist and fascist leaning are working with vigor to blame their own division, hatred, and violence on anyone but themselves, and this media narrative does not report on fascist violence: it completes the fascists’ task of delegitimizing government and justifying its overthrow by any means necessary.

Apparent neutrality is not the same as actual neutrality, and the media have a particularly shameful history of adopting a guise of neutrality while forwarding the cause of violence.

When the authoritarian, anti-democratic mob assaulted the US seat of government on 6 January, 2021, it was with the intent of preventing democratic rule. When two thirds of House Republicans voted to oppose certification of the 2020 presidential election this seemingly separate event was another effort with the same goal: to end democratic rule. They may make noises of protest to dissociate themselves from the insurrection, but their own actions show them attempting to complete it.

Even now our media treat McCarthy and the other House Republicans who voted to oppose democracy as if they are correct to be offended when Biden calls out “extreme MAGA republicans” as anti-democratic and semi-fascist. Like the House Republicans on the night of 6 January, the reporters and commentators who accept and repeat this framing are not neutral: they are working to complete the fascists’ goal of delegitimizing the Democratic Party and of democracy itself.

What will you do to call the media to account? Will you be as outraged and as active as the trans people who protested the coverage of our murders? You should be.

Time is short. Choose to act.