by Kati Heng
Of course I was going to read this book. Why wouldn’t I? It’s game plan is simply: to clearly and concisely trace the American feminist movement(s) throughout the last approximately 100 years – or from the moment women gained the right to vote until today’s women’s emphasis on “leaning-in.”
Of course I was going to read this. Although a feminist, I’m completely ashamed of just how little I know about feminist history (funny how this stuff never made it into my history classes. Actually, it’s not funny. My history classes taught me more about The Great Gatsby than they taught about early women’s labor movements). I’m ashamed that when non-white women speak about their discomfort with the way historically, the feminist movement did little to help women other than the upper-class whites, I had little idea what they were talking about. I’m ashamed that I could name hardly more than a few feminist leaders from before the 1960s. If you’re anything like me, Feminism Unfinished offers a great, three-hour alternative than taking a Women’s Studies 101 class at night school (which doesn’t sound bad. This book is also cheaper, though).
Broken into chapters by what society would group as the “waves” of the feminist movements in America, the book starts off with the story of the 1937 Woolworth’s strike throughout Detroit, a byproduct of those first-wavers fighting for women’s labor laws and work-place equality. It’s an interesting concept, since I’m so young I don’t even really think about it, but the book talks about how, often the first step in gaining women’s rights in the workplace was not to get the women into men’s roles – it was getting the “women’s roles” to be desegregated. Of course, this goes into the whole step-by-step achievement effect that we are still experiencing today – to get better rights for women, we should focus on those women in the lowest position catching up first, then advance from there, so on, so forth.
It’s entirely changed my perspective, given me a slap-in-the-face reminder that, more important (or at least, as equally) than getting a woman into the Oval Office in 2016, we should work to get women out of abusive situations, out of the worst of the worst. In feminism, it seems, there is little to no evidence of a “trickle-down” effect. More on this later.
Anyway, the first chapter continues on with the story of early women’s rights victories and leaders that helped achieve them. There’s exploration into the power of WWII propaganda such as “Rosie the Riveter,” as well as a look into how, ultimately, this was not a success for women, since after the war was over, women did not move up from their wartime roles, but often, straight into the home or their old jobs.
The second chapter (again, exploring the “second wave,”) focusing more on the 1960s and 1970s movements to achieve women’s liberation on all front. Think the progress of Roe vs. Wade (which has, since the ruling ever increasingly come under fire). Think the creation of a Miss America pageant contest that increased the sway of a woman’s intellect and heart on the judge’s decision. Think fights against gender stereotypes, against the idea that women in graduate school was still uncommon, that it was common to think of a woman’s salary as “pin money.” All the stuff my aunts fought for (therefore, find myself finding a little more footing in this chapter than the previous, which had just blown my mind open that I had no idea).
Finally, the last chapter explores the “third waves,” a term coined by Alice Walker’s daughter, Rebecca Walker, as she wrote in a 1992 essay. “I am not post-feminist,” she wrote, “I am the Third Wave.” These feminists desired both to distance themselves from the feminism of their mothers, feminists who saw a dichotomy between enjoying makeup and high-heels and views on gender equality. In the third wave, choices were purely an individual choice. Actually, much of the third wave seemed individual.
The book does a great job tracing the third wave al the way to today – answering, actually, another one of my questions (whether or not we have begun a fourth wave (in short: naw)). There’s a look at the rise of the internet on the community of feminism, the way the internet has helped feminist writers find a home for much writing that would have been passed by from traditional media outlets (thank you, The Internet!). There are looks into the riot grrrl movement and Kathleen Hanna’s brand of screaming feminist rock (which, in my personal opinion, there could have been like, 80 pages more of, but that’s coming from the number-one girl bummed to be born in 1991.) Of course, they didn’t have room to mention everyone my personal feminism has found influential (no Rookie??), but overall, it’s a great summary.
OH, and what I was saying earlier about the trickle-down effect being especially relevant today! I’ve never read Lean In. I don’t plan on it, either. It’s aimed at corporate, HIGH-level female CEOs. I am not high-level. I LOVED that this book pointed out the flaws in the lean-in pressure many women now face in the workplace – for one, leaning in to our jobs is not helping the feminist movement. One woman becoming the CEO does not help the ladies getting passed over in the lower offices because of their gender. Two, for women in those lower positions, there are rarely opportunities to lean in. This is by no means a focal point of the book, but it’s a good reminder: slaving at your job does not make you a feminist warrior (unless your job is like, a rape crisis center worker or being Ruth Bader Ginsburg, then by all means, GO FOR IT, FEMINIST WARRIOR!!)
Basically, for any Women’s Study majors, this book may be more useful as a gift to give to people to help understand you. This may not teach you much about the movement, as it is a concise, like 250 page summary. However, if anything I’ve mentioned above doesn’t sound intimately familiar to you, this book will probably help you learn about the basics of our feminist history and is definitely worth your time. It was definitely worth mine.