By Courtney E. Martin
Tuesday, October 31, 2006
Young women who might be described as third-wave feminists aren't necessarily satisfied with the term. A new anthology, a traveling exhibit and the International Museum of Women all probe the question of generational identity.
(WOMENSENEWS)--Outspoken young women in their teens and 20s sometimes seem prone to pull cast-off terms out of storage.
Thirteen years ago Laurie Henzel, Marcelle Karp and Debbie Stoller--all in their 20s and none with magazine experience--took an outmoded word for breasts and created New York-based Bust, "the magazine for women who have something to get off their chests."
Bitch magazine, founded by then 23-year-olds Lisa Jervis and Andi Zeisler in 1996 in the Bay Area, took the gender-disparaging b-word--abandoned by those wishing not to offend assertive women--and turned it back on the world in the form of a biting, gender-sensitive critique of pop culture now read by over 150,000 readers an issue.
But while happy to pull some words back from the brink, not so many women in their 20s and 30s seem anxious to preserve and perpetuate a relatively new term sometimes applied to them: "third wave feminist."
"We've reached the end of the wave terminology's usefulness," Jervis wrote in Ms. magazine in 2004. "What was at first a handy-dandy way to refer to feminism's history and its present and future potential with a single metaphor has become shorthand that invites intellectual laziness, an escape hatch from the hard work of distinguishing between core beliefs and a cultural moment."
Three current projects show that, like Jervis, many young women are not inclined to simply don a ready-made term for their generation. Instead they are putting concerted and collective energy into wondering just who they really are.
"We Don't Need Another Wave," an anthology published on Oct. 20 by Seal Press, offers essays by women in their 20s about experiences and issues that they see as defining feminism in the 21st century. (Disclosure: the author of this article wrote an entry called "Steam Room Revelations" about rediscovering a healthy body image.)
"It's a critique of the ways feminism gets discussed in the mainstream media, when it gets discussed at all," says Melody Berger, the anthology's editor. "There is so much focus on the packaging of our 'message,' that we hardly ever talk about what the actual 'message' is."
One of the clearest messages of the anthology is that to define their feminism, young women should adopt an age-old adage: "Do it yourself!"
Shelby Knox, for instance, the 20-year-old featured in the 2005 documentary "The Education of Shelby Knox," writes about her work battling abstinence-only sex education in Lubbock, Texas. Jennifer L. Pozner, executive director of New York-based Women in Media and News, writes about reclaiming the media for a feminist future.
"The only connecting theme I see," says Berger, "is: 'I'm a young feminist and I'm going to work it! Watch me enact my feminisms!'"
The Pittsburgh-based art collective Two Girls Working explores the significance of the term feminism for younger women.
The two principals are 33-year-old Renee Piechocki and 31-year-old Tiffany Ludwig. "We are serious workaholics, completely dedicated to the projects we put on," Piechocki says.
Two Girls Working's main project, "Trappings," is an ongoing multimedia exploration of female identity and appearance that began in 2001. On their Web site, Ludwig and Piechocki say the work is propelled by "dismay with the lack of dialogue about feminism."
In order to spark that discourse, they set out across the country with a camcorder and a question: "What do you wear that makes you feel powerful?"
"Clothing is just the way in," says Ludwig. "Starting there allows us to take a seemingly simple, daily event--getting dressed--and lead into complex analysis of an individual's movement through class and social strata, the use of sex as strategy in business and social settings and the use of clothing as a way to connect with cultural or personal history as power sources."
The two women also organize small group interview sessions with diverse women and ask them to come, prepared to discuss the question and to "perform" an answer by wearing something that makes them feel powerful. So far they have gotten over 500 responses and organized over 66 sessions in 16 states.
Women have shown up in outfits ranging from high heels and power suits to overalls and combat boots.
Ludwig says there are similarities between their process and the consciousness-raising sessions that women pursued in the 1970s. But their model was based more on Tupperware or Mary Kay parties.
"We wanted it to be really fun, like a party instead of a duty," said Piechocki.
Their traveling exhibit of "Trappings" will be at Central Wyoming College in Riverton from Oct. 30 through Dec. 12.
Another collective exploration of young women's generational identity is Imagining Ourselves, a project that asks the 1 billion women in their 20s and 30s across the world, "What defines your generation of women?"
Organizers have received thousands of films, photographs, essays, short stories, poems and spoken-word audio files from over 105 countries. The responses are fragmented and diverse. Paula Goldman, the Singapore-born 31-year-old founder and director of the Imagining Ourselves project, says, "The submissions were overwhelming, not only because of the volume, but the content. I never could have predicted we'd have women from Beirut creating art about sexuality, essays about the mother-daughter relationship from Somalia, and Spain, or actress Julie Delpy, of France, singing a waltz."
Goldman says she came up with the idea shortly after Sept. 11, 2001. "I felt helpless about the state of the world, and struggled with how to make a difference. The spark came during a casual breakfast with a girlfriend. We brainstormed about showcasing the vitality of our generation as a way of inspiring young women to action."
Goldman and the museum raised in-kind donations from corporate donors such as Hewlett Packard and Yahoo to help them publicize their global call for submissions.
Imagining Ourselves is operated by the 11-year-old San Francisco-based International Museum of Women, which exhibits women's work both online and on site and hosts a speakers series for women around the world who have improved the lives of girls and women. The Imagining Ourselves project includes an online exhibit of women's artwork from around the world and a visually arresting anthology recently published by New World Library.
The marketing and call for submissions for the project avoids any reference to feminism.
"Feminism tends to be a lightning rod," says Goldman, "and we didn't want to discourage women who didn't identify with the label from contributing. It's not ideology but results that we were most interested in."
When asked if she herself identifies with the word "feminist" Goldman hesitates. "Yes and no," she says. "It's not a banner that I wave, but I certainly believe that women should have access to manifest the full potential of their lives."
Courtney E. Martin is a writer, teacher and filmmaker living in Brooklyn. She is currently working on a book on her generation's obsession with food and fitness, "Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters," which will be published on Simon and Schuster's Free Press in spring of 2007. You can read more about Courtney's work at http://www.courtneyemartin.com/.
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