Marxism and radical; postmodern. Recent feminist theorists, named by some as third wave, raise objections to the exclusive tendencies within feminist theory of the 1970s and 1980s arguing that the essentialism inherent in the first and second waves led to an eradication of differences. Through critiques of essentialism, third wave feminists resist the seductive promise of inclusive identity, arguing that, far from providing the grounds for political agency, the assertion of commonalities among women leads to the neglect, and even erasure, of differences.1 The force of these arguments has since led to ‘an increasingly paralysing anxiety over falling into ethnocentrism or ‘essentialism’’.2 One consequence of this anxiety over essentialism has been to delegitimate a priori any discussion about structural common grounds among women.3 The blanket description and rejection of feminist theory particularly of the 60s and 70s but also 80s as essentialist is a real problem. Aside from the political consequences, the occlusion of some very careful discussions concerning social relations, economic determinants and mediation, results in a rather peculiar account of culture; which actually needs the very analyses jettisoned. Here, then, I shall revive a number of the arguments within a stream of the second wave to demonstrate that if it can be counted as part of a wave, its currents and cross currents still impact.
Writing at the very beginning of the 80s, Lydia Sargant notes that history is being rewritten and replayed, that college students have never heard of Shulamith Firestone but they have heard of panty raids. Today we can concur with this, students will probably never have heard of Firestone - although they will have heard of Butler, Wittig, Gatens – and this seems to confirm the view of the history of feminist theory as undulating waves, one giving way to the next. But if the arguments located within these waves are incommensurable, or the social problems left unresolved, then there can be no sense to a linear historical progression implied by the wave
1 See M.Shildrick, ‘Sex and Gender’ in Third Wave Feminism: A Critical Exploration ed., Gillis, Howie, Munford (Palgrave, 2004) 67-71.
2 S. Bordo, ‘Feminism, Postmodernism and Gender Scepticism’ in Feminism / Postmodernism ed L. Nicholson (London, Routledge, 1990) 142.
3 See S. Bordo op cit., 135,142, 153.