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To Be Or Not To Be A Feminist? (That is Barely the Question.)

“People don’t really understand how strong ideology can be,” says Rebecca Walker. “I think sometimes of that group and that feminism as being close to a cult. I feel I had to de-programme myself in order to have independent thought. It’s been an ongoing struggle.”

These are Rebecca Walker’s feelings toward her upbringing in general, and toward her mother, in particular. Her mother is Alice Walker, cultural icon, champion of the feminist movement, author of The Color Purple. For her part, Alice Walker has never really said anything on the subject of her estrangement from her daughter. Her daughter, by the way, who is herself quite a prominent feminist. Confusing?

So who’s the real feminist? Frankly, it all reads like a math problem: If Alice Walker is a feminist, and her daughter Rebecca is a feminist, but the feminism each ascribes to contravenes the other, who is the true feminist? If Alice came first, does that make Rebecca an anti-feminist or just anti-Alice Walker? And if it’s true the elder Walker “resigned” as Rebecca’s mother, does that mean she is against mothering, or is this simply a family affair gone public?

The truth is nobody can, in all actuality, be against “mothering”. That would be like being against life. And no reasonable person can really be against feminism (especially when they advocate for women’s well being). That would be like being against equality for women, and nobody here is against equality for women. Still, herein lies the crux of the whole confusion. One way to clear it up is not to ask, is she a feminist? But rather: which kind of feminist is she?

The Wave Construct

“I must study politics and war, that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, natural history and naval architecture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, tapestry, and porcelain.”—John Adams

It’s generally accepted that the feminist movement has progressed—some would say “progressed”—in three waves. The first was during the end of the 19th – start of the 20th century when women stood up for the first time for their basic human rights such as property ownership and suffrage. The latter half of the 20th Century, from the early 60’s to the late 70’s, gave rise to a second, and more strident, wave of feminism. Second wavers sought equality as human beings, full stop. No longer satisfied with half a loaf, they not only sought to eradicate all institutionalized discrimination, but societal inequities as well. As Alice Walker, the embodiment of the second wave movement, put it: “The easiest way people give up power is by thinking they don’t have any.” Second wave feminists stood on the principle that the very idea of gender roles is a form of oppression. They rejected the status quo as women being nurturers, fated by nature to stay at home rearing children. Women and men were the same. And if women were treated the same way men are treated, and women behaved in the same way men behaved, they would have the same lives, the same power, and this, to them, was equality. This, of course, extended to sexual liberty. The greatest power they fought for, and won, is the power to choose their reproductive path. By the 1970’s The Pill had arrived, and the debate over sexual freedom—in all its facets—could now go into overdrive.

Though Rebecca Walker’s lifestyle and work seems to be an equal and opposite reaction to her mother’s lifestyle and work, it cannot be minimized as a solely personal experience. While the Second wave can be considered a continuation of the first, the third is a reaction to the second. The end of the second wave came about through the upheaval within the movement; it was fracturing from within, different groups ascribing to different approaches, or different philosophies altogether. The movement didn’t adapt, was not considered inclusive. The singular mindset of aggregating power by banding together could not accommodate other mindsets, different women.

In a way, the first, as is usually the case with firsts, was the easiest and the hardest. Hardest in that pioneering is always the most difficult. This is just to say the third wave, this current wave, Rebecca Walker’s wave, may seem to women like her mother as not really a wave at all. Where sexual revolution, empowerment, and battle of the sexes defined the second wave, the third, it seems, is largely defined by a refusal to accept one doctrine when there are so many different kinds of women in different circumstances. But then, where is the battle cry in that?

Susan Pinker is a journalist and psychologist, and the author of The Sexual Paradox: Men, Women, and the Real Gender Gap. She was 16 in 1973, and then out of college by the time Second Wave feminism had crested. Pinker is fully aware of how fortunate she is to have come of age in the time when a lot of the hard work had been done for her. Her “expectations diverged sharply from those of the previous generations.” Unlike her mother, she did not expect, nor did others of her peer group, to marry at nineteen, have kids, and then spend the rest of her life “wiping the same stretch of counter over and over.” Still, Pinker says, with all her privilege of birth and education, it never occurred to her to do the kind of work her father did as a garment sales person. Long sales trips, alone on the road hauling bags of product around from town to town. And there’s something in that, isn’t there? Even today, there is something in that. In fact, many argue, everything is in that. The crux of the argument, the line in the sand that now runs along the political party lines. For all that women can succeed at whatever profession they choose, what are the professions that women choose? And why do they choose those professions and not others? Why, in other words, is there still—after 150 years of feminist movement aimed at eliminating it—a difference between men and women?

Feminism Along Political Lines and the Raw Wage Gap

By now, the word feminism holds some unflattering connotations in both and men’s and women’s minds. The second wave, almost militant in their ways, often painted the picture of man-hating women, either out to get men for being men or at the same time they wanted to behave like men. Nowadays, while few people would argue with the fact that women and men are equals, probably even fewer people would outright label themselves a feminist. In fact, we’re in the age of non-labels, even non-gender. The Third Wave feminists are saying, yes, men and women are equal. However, the days of asserting that men and women are the same, may be soon over.

In 1963, the Equal Pay Act was passed to end gender discrimination in the work place. In 2010, Rebublicans in the Senate killed the Paycheck Fairness Act, despite the Obama Administration’s considerable efforts to get it passed. Based largely on the Census Bureau report that women earn about 77 cents for the every dollar earned by a man, the Paycheck Fairness Act was supposed to pick up what the Equal Pay Act dropped. Are all Republicans (and the one nay-saying Democrat) anti-feminists? Not necessarily.

CONSAD, a research corporation, prepared a report for the U.S. Department of Labor, which they published in January 2009. It was called An Analysis of the Reasons for the Disparity in the Wage between Men and Women. Based on the results, the Department of Labor has said:
“Although additional research in this area is clearly needed, this study leads to the unambiguous conclusion that the differences in the compensation of men and women are the result of a multitude of factors and that the raw wage gap should not be used as the basis to justify corrective action. Indeed, there may be nothing to correct. The differences in raw wages may be almost entirely the result of the individual choices being made by both male and female workers.”

So men and women make different job choices and therefore earn different wages. As Christina Hoff-Sommers, a feminist with conservative politics so aptly put it, women are not likely to want to “spend the best years of [their lives] planning air conditioning ductwork for luxury condos.”

A prolific writer and lecturer on the topic of women’s issues, Hoff-Sommers has consistently championed this notion: In all her writings and talks, she asserts that women and men simply are different and therefore make different choices in life. Women will choose, she says, jobs that will allow them to parent their children more effectively. They will take jobs with better working hours, for example, that will allow them to be home with their children at a decent hour. She doesn’t say this hour should be in time to cook dinner, and it would be facetious to claim this is her view. But she is equally consistent about the notion that children are the great sufferers of what she terms gender feminism.

By all metrics, women are out-numbering and out-performing the men across the board in academia. And, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women are now the driving force of the U.S. Economy: they make up 46% of the labor force, occupy 51% of managerial and professional jobs, and as consumers, 75% of women say they make the purchasing decisions.

These are good numbers, and may be explained by studies such as the one conducted by David Ross, a Columbia Business School professor, in which he found that among the 2000 largest U.S. companies those that had women in the management ranks performed significantly better, than those that did not. “On average women may approach management in a more democratic, less dictatorial, more collaborative manner than men. And on certain kinds of tasks that can have a significant impact on the performance of an entire organization.”

So the question of what can be done to improve the gender gap now becomes: what gender gap? If women are, in fact, outpacing men in all facets of life in the western world (and let’s just be clear on that: these numbers and opinions really only apply in the western world), is it time to change gears and make sure the boys don’t lag behind? After three waves, has the tide shifted?
Not quite yet.

Photo by Guillermo Ossa

In a recent White House report, which pulled data from half a dozen government agencies, Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to President Obama and chief of staff to Michele Obama wrote, “Women have not only caught up with men in college attendance but younger women are now more likely than younger men to have a college or a master’s degree. Yet, these gains in education and labor force involvement have not yet translated into wage and income equity.”

She goes on to say that “single-mother households are more common than those with single fathers, a big reason why women are more likely than men to be poor, despite higher unemployment among men.”

Does it really boil back down to this? Motherhood vs. Womanhood? To say women are more likely than men to live in poverty because they had children is an effective endorsement of the second wave push to question the inevitability of motherhood, to question if to be a woman is to be a mother. Women don’t get pregnant by themselves, and nobody chooses to live in poverty. If a woman chooses not to have a child, if a woman chooses to abort an unwanted pregnancy, that is a right she has today. That is what the second wave feminists, people like Alice Walker, ensured. So why is it so many women are “more likely than men to be poor”?

Perhaps this is the effect of a feminist movement that did not adapt, but rather tightened ranks to only include those who joined the cult, so to speak. And perhaps that’s all that can be done in one wave, maybe that’s why they are called waves—one is naturally always followed by another. Incomplete does not mean ended.

Photo by Julia Freeman-Woolpert

Rebecca Walker says her mother’s brand of feminism has “tricked her contemporaries into missing out on motherhood”. This is patently untrue. Women in America did not stop having children, if they wanted them, even second wave feminists. Alice Walker’s brand of feminism said women and men are the same. This, too, seems to be fallacy. If this mother-daughter relationship embodies the conflict between second and third wavers, then the solution should also be found in it. Keep talking about it, and keep talking to each other. Daughter wouldn’t exist without the mother, and the future is the point of the past, and don’t ever forget what our grandmothers did for us.


Mayra David
In addition to writing articles and book reviews, Mayra David writes short stories and novels. Well, so far, just one novel. But she does have several short stories and they are indeed short. She lives in New York City with her husband, books, and laptop.
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  • Merran Brown

    My comment: I agree with Naomi Wolf.

    Rebecca Wrote:
    “…Interesting take. Keep writing. Keep thinking. And…I wish the dozens of women who tell me they feel feminism instructed them not to have children weren’t real, but they are. What to do with them? In my feminism, they deserve to be counted.”

    Patronising don’t you think Rebecca? And… what ‘to do’ with the women who claim feminism instructed them not to have children? My response is that they may choose to do what they will. They still have/had a personal choice. This is a choice not so readily afforded many, many decades ago. Further, in your feminism, and your mother’s, they were, and are, also ‘counted’. To imply otherwise is simply wrong. Naomi Wolf says it best: Women need to stop whining!

  • Mayra

    Thank you very much for reading this and I’m honored you took the time to comment. I agree that nobody’s experience should be discounted. The article paints a picture in bold strokes and does not do justice to the complexity of the matter. For now, all there is for me is to keep thinking and writing, as you say… Thanks, again!

  • rebecca walker

    Interesting take. Keep writing. Keep thinking. And…I wish the dozens of women who tell me they feel feminism instructed them not to have children weren’t real, but they are. What to do with them? In my feminism, they deserve to be counted.

  • Marina DelVecchio

    Excellent post, Mayra. I’m from inContext, but I so enjoyed the way you began and ended with the mother-daughter dyad of the Walkers and included such an important history of the waves of feminism — their goals and even deficits. Women seem to be divided nowadays on issues that should be joining them — because motherhood is an issue that concerns all of us — whether we have kids or choose not to.

  • Mayra

    Thanks for reading! It is such a huge, fascinating, and controversial topic… This is just three tips of the ice berg.

  • Melissa

    Wow! You really covered a lot of ground in this article and made a much-needed summary of the three waves of feminism. Thanks!

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