Commentary Magazine


Manifesta by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards

Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future
by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 416 pp. $15.00

In the lore of modern feminism, the key advances for the cause of women’s rights have come during two great periods of agitation and reform. The first of these “waves,” as they are called, refers to the activities of suffragists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton toward the end of the 19th century. The “second wave” emerged in the 1960′s and 70′s, with the arrival on the ramparts of such feminist warriors as Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem and the founding of institutions like the National Organization for Women (NOW).

In Manifesta, Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, two thirty-year-old former lieutenants of Steinem, contend that a “third wave” is now gaining strength, or at least that one should be. Their book is a colorful account of their own rising cohort and its concerns, as well as a program for an “everyday feminism” suited for the world left to them by their ideological foremothers.

That world, as Baumgardner and Richards recognize, has not been very receptive to the feminist message of late. Part of the problem, they suggest, is the image of the dowdy, grim feminist of their mothers’ generation. Beyond that, the organized movement has been a victim of its own success: young women see access to higher education, the professions, and birth control as part of their “cultural DNA” rather than hard-won accomplishments of the sisterhood.

If feminism is to flourish, contend Baumgardner and Richards, it has to break from the mold formed by the “serious sisters” of yesteryear. Instead of adopting a militant, man-eating stance, feminist women should feel free to “be whoever you are”:

You’re sexy, a wallflower, you shop at Calvin Klein, you are a stay-at-home mom, a big Hollywood producer, a beautiful bride all in white, an ex-wife raising three kids, or you shave, pluck, and wax.

But—and this is key—you also have to have “political consciousness,” i.e., a concern with the issues that touch young women’s lives in a direct way. These include marriage, reproductive rights, sexual health, and (above all?) body image. Or, as the authors themselves sum up the source of their political program: “all threads eventually lead back to food, sex, and hair.”

This focus on the narrowly personal does not mean that third-wave feminists are calling for the abandonment of the movement’s broader and longstanding political objectives. Manifesta contains an actual thirteen-point manifesto, consisting of such familiar staples as passage of the Equal Rights Amendment; legislation to ensure “comparable worth” in women’s wages; and expanding access to contraception and abortion. But the manifesto also holds out a number of novel goals, such as liberating adolescent girls from the captivity of “listless educators” or from having to endure “slut-bashing.” Additionally, it calls for practicing “autokeonony,” whatever that is.

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Manifesta is a maddening read; or have I somehow failed to convey that? Not only is it filled with hip patter and academic and pseudo-academic jargon, but it darts haphazardly from subject to subject. This is not altogether surprising—the project was conceived, we are told, “at a downtown bar” where the authors “got extremely drunk on huge glasses of wine.”

Still, the book is also refreshing in certain respects. Unlike some of their older sisters, Baumgardner and Richards do appear to recognize that women have made remarkable advances over the past several generations, and that the barricades no longer have to be manned (so to speak) with quite the same ferocity. And the encouragement they offer to feminists to be feminine—only if they want to be, of course!—is a welcome departure from the days of dowdiness.

At the same time, however, Manifesta is a deeply parochial book. Baumgardner and Richards seem to believe that the small enclave of ambitious, well-schooled, well-to-do women who constitute their circle are somehow typical of an entire generation, and that their own deep yearning for “a connection to feminism” has some significance that extends beyond the confines of their particular Manhattan zip codes. In truth, at least on the evidence of this book, the ideas of third-wave feminists appear no less out of synch with the real concerns of most women than those of their predecessors, and more incoherent.

The “everyday” feminism that Baumgardner and Richards purport to want does not, in its particulars, look very different from the tired policy pronouncements of groups like NOW, with abortion rights and the supposed glass ceiling of the workplace taking center stage. Beyond that, it exhibits a strong dose of contempt for the concerns that truly do animate many American women these days.

Motherhood, proclaims Manifesta, is “the opposite of liberation,” a state where you are “bound to your body, to your baby, and to societal expectations in which motherhood means always having to say you are sorry.” As for home life, it is still “the most powerful and primal seat of patriarchy.”

“Be whoever you want to be” is evidently a slogan that has its limits.

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