Saturday, September 12, 2015

Second Wave Feminist Meets Riot Grrrls

While in Portland, I went to a curators’ walk-through of an exhibit titled “Alien She,” a look at the art and artists of women who’d been involved with Riot Grrrl in the ’90s. I didn’t know anything about Riot Grrrl except that it was sort of punk feminism, which puts it right up my alley.

A giant banner of the “Riot Grrrl Manifesto” talked about women fighting violence, sexism, homophobia, negative body image, and labeling; reaffirming their value as women with the power to express themselves and make change. It sounded like me in a real out-loud way. I liked it.
The exhibit was full of wonderful art: a giant pink knitted barbed wire cage, women-created videos, lots of zines of print-it-ourselves writing. When it was all done, the curators asked if we had any questions. I raised my hand.

“I’m part of that old ‘second wave’ of feminism, and I really notice how much we agree here, especially about violence, but I’ve looked all over and don’t see anything about reproductive rights here, about a woman’s control of her own body. In the ’90s, did women think that battle was won? Now it’s under assault even worse, but was that not the feeling then?”

A few heads nodded, but one young woman spoke up: “That’s because the second wave of feminism was all about white, heterosexual, middle-class women from the suburbs. Poor women and women of color have other issues and reproductive rights don’t affect them. It’s not their issue.”

Disclaimer: I was so blown away by her remarks that I can’t guarantee that I’ve got it down exactly right. I gaped at her. She was a young woman of mixed race, I’d guess, and I wasn’t going to say anything in that moment.

The curators said they remembered workshops held at Riot Grrrl conventions teaching women how to do abortions in case a woman couldn’t get one. That there’s a Hot Pantz zine, Do it Yourself Gynecology, that’s included.

“Thank you,” I said. “That’s what I was hoping might be the case. I just hadn’t seen it.”

Afterwards, three older people approached me (including two women of color) to say they appreciated my remark. One liked the way I “deflected that response” I’d received.

So what exactly is so unsettling about all this?

  1. I moved to Alaska from San Francisco partly thinking it was time to live in mainstream America again, to know what was going on in the rest of the world.

  2. After 30 years, I am tiring of the “real” America. In Alaska, for instance, the response to my question could have been “Here we go, another baby killer shows up.” Okay, this is not fair, but the main thing is, I’m used to attacks from the Right, not the Left.

  3. I have been an active feminist since I was a teenager. I have worked in a health clinic and taught women how to do pelvic self-exams, staffed a Women’s Center, co-wrote a women’s guide for survival resources, worked in D.C. for Bella Abzug, mentored other women, written plays about women’s experiences. I believe in women and a world women can make possible.
  4. When I first moved to Alaska, I found it startling that there were only two genders here. In San Francisco, gender is sort of … fluid. We all pass in and out along the spectrum. I embrace this.

  5. I believe that in America, class and race are the main issues, the usually-denied but horrible underpinnings to inequality. Racism is part of America’s fabric.

  6. Yes, I know that Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was about the “click” that suburban housewives felt when they realized they were sidelined in life.

Why am I saying all this? Is this some sort of “radical cred” I feel I have to put out there? Why did I find the remark so disturbing?

Because I felt discredited. Maybe that woman didn’t mean this personally towards me, but I felt repudiated. Like, “you old women got it all wrong.” I admired Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony; we’ve stood on the shoulders of pioneering women. They didn’t do it all, but they got us the vote. We women of the ’70s made mistakes and failed miserably to get it all done, but does that make us Bad Guys?
My friend Shirley, who is Black, said when she participated in a reproductive rights event, protesters yelled at her “Black babies are being killed,” and she turned to them and said, “How many Black babies are in your home? What are you doing to take care of the ones born?” (Yay, Shirley!) But Shirley also said “control over your own body” is a larger issue for Black women, going all the way back to slavery. That it’s way more than reproductive rights. I get that.

If my Third Third is anything about a legacy, I like to think my work on behalf of women will be part of what I leave behind. And here it was so sneeringly put down – by someone I thought might have called herself a sister.

Maybe it’s a stage in her personal evolution. Maybe she’ll grow older and wiser. Maybe I look like her mother. Maybe she’s just a negative person. It’s no use. I’m not old enough or wise enough to stop stewing over it.


  1. I have to "beg to differ" on what that young woman's response to you was. I am a poor woman, and reproductive rights is a big and important issue to me.

  2. I recently read a quote attributed to Mohammed "When people throw garbage on you, remember that it's their garbage." Her garbage, not your.


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