Talking Waves: Structures of Feminist Moments and the Potential of a Wave Economy

Emily Hoeflinger

In 2006, scholar Meredith Berger published an collection of feminist writings rather provocatively entitled, We Don't Need Another Wave. Inter-wave tensions within the feminist movement are hardly a new phenomenon, so though this title is bold it seems to have already an established place in existing dialogues among feminists. What is intriguing about this title is the way in which it calls out our preoccupation with the rhetoric of the wave structure as the potential point of contention. The very title of Berger’s volume questions the function of wave terminology within contemporary feminism. Though the book does not propose literally following through on the promises of its title, it nonetheless speaks to feminists’ need to move past a fascination with words, in favor of promoting feminist action in the everyday. The title of Berger’s volume raises two major questions: what is problematic about the rhetoric of the wave paradigm, and is there another way of conceptualizing this structure that has played a major rhetorical role in feminisms’ past?

How does the way we speak about the wave paradigm limit the movement of feminism? In discussions of literal, physical waves, the focus ranges anywhere from Cathryn Bailey's research, in which waves “evoke images of both beauty and power” to Sara Evans' notion of the ‘Tidal Wave’ and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's cyclical wave. Any tensions surrounding the use of a wave system seem to lie not in the physical metaphor of the wave, but rather in the realm of rhetoric, as wave terminology has come to signify how we conceptualize and interact with moments of feminist history. While many white feminists in the ‘Second Wave’ feminist movement which emerged during the 1960s felt a significant connection to ‘First Wave’ feminists, who struggled for suffrage in the early 1900s, the contemporary landscape is significantly more complex. Contemporary conversations surrounding feminism have shifted into struggles for accurate representation, both from within feminist communities and externally from non-feminist affiliated groups—most notably from media organizations. What was initially associated with the historical impulse to recover former female-conscious social movements has now become to some something that signifies a certain ignorance of the multiplicity of feminist work, what Lisa Jervis refers to as “shorthand that invites intellectual laziness, an escape hatch from the hard work of distinguishing between core beliefs and a cultural moment” (Jervis 14).

Wave rhetoric evokes notions of generational or familial feminist tensions, and the exclusion or ignorance of certain feminist groups within feminism’s historical framework. It announces the ways in which feminists have sculpted their image, and the ways in which the media sensationalizes that image. In some ways, straight rejection of this cumbersome metaphor seems to be the next logical step. Yet, what remains to be addressed in the argument surrounding wave rhetoric is consistency regarding which wave movements have occured over periods of time and national boundaries, outside of existing notions of the First, Second, or Third ‘Wave.’ The language that has been consciously developed in conjunction with bouts of female consciousness in mainstream feminism in the United States has been conflated with a non-partisan physical movement that seems to care little about culture or temporal boundaries. Problematic, then, is the personal way in which feminism interacts with this rhetoric because its careful construction prevents the flexibility that waves seem to inherently embody.

Where did we begin this controlled articulation of the movements of women’s thinking and political action? Although the suffragists are generally labeled as the First Wave, this title was retroactively assigned, having been placed upon this particularly visible political activity by feminists in the late 1960s and 1970s, as a way to support their claims to being a ‘Second Wave,’ by bridging it to a noted female history. This wave metaphor, as it became commonly understood, suggested a unified first wave, which according to Astrid Henry, was not the case. She recalls a protest early in the Second Wave in which feminists ‘gave back’ their right to vote. She writes that:

feminist protestors at the anti-inaugural developed two distinct yet related accounts of feminism's history, both of which would profoundly shape the early writings of second-wave feminists and their relationship to the past. The first argued that suffrage had led to a meaningless victory, yet it simultaneously retained the notion of a nineteenth-century women's movement separate from suffrage. In effect, this allowed feminists of the late 1960s to salvage a segment of the early women's movement which preceded its perceived myopic drive for the vote. (Henry 54)

In fact, the basic notion of the ‘First Wave’ was to a large extent filtered by the Second Wave in order to control their own image as a social movement. Second Wave feminists were leery of being too directly connected with the suffrage movement, as they believed it had failed to incite significant change for the condition of American women. In their creation of the wave metaphor, Second Wave feminists acknowledged a multiplicity at play in the earlier moment, but consciously chose to limit their association to specific aspects of the movement, while rejecting others.

Much in the same way, the authors of Backlash, Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, as well as subsequent Third Wave feminists, tend to read the Second Wave in ways which highlight both continuities and changes between the Second and Third Waves. More importantly, such readings fuels a need on the part of Third Wave feminists to move forward and break away from their predecessors, much as Second Wave had done, with the First Wave. What becomes apparent in this analysis of how waves are articulated is that the metaphor itself provides considerable potential for controlling the feminist image. However, the inherent problem of the wave metaphor is clearly its tendency to establish an easily approachable, yet seemingly one-dimensional, rhetoric. Interestingly enough, one cannot dismiss the fact that with each use of the wave paradigm comes a desire to connect to some element of a previous female-conscious moment, implying that power lies in both embracing and rejecting the rhetoric surrounding each wave.

At the same time, the need for a relationship to other female-conscious work seems to speak to that organic element of the wave structure that bears little regard for the politics of discourse, an element that actually is born and progresses regardless of explication of any specific cultural utility. Returning to the initial question of whether or not feminists need wave metaphors, it seems certain that contemporary feminists do, indeed, need movement, and that somewhere within the macrobiotics of the wave is that desired movement. Considering that the wave, as a rhetorical device, was created and developed by the Second Wave, it is only logical to demand that we, as contemporary feminists, rethink our current relationship to the language of the wave metaphor. In seeking to rethink about we articulate past feminisms, there is both a sense of preservation (similar to that of the Second Wave’s recovery of female history) and a feeling of departure from the past.

True, the wave system, as a rhetorical structure, tends to establish binaries, blind spots, and inaccurate definitions in reading the feminist past and present, which risks the loss of histories not prominent enough to be readily factored into the common notion of the ‘Second’ or ‘Third’ wave. Also true, however, is the way in which the wave system, not as a rhetorical device as much as an economy, carries a stock of information from one feminist moment to the next, so losing or rejecting this structure seemingly poses a threat to feminisms’ collective history (or perhaps the better term would be ‘arsenal.’) It is the potential loss of the organic elements of the wave structure, the parts of it that exist outside of the politics of rhetoric, that need to be reclaimed for future feminist moments. Is there a way of conceptualizing the notion of the wave system that embraces a more supple structure, jellyfish-like in its flexibility of form and space, but potent because of the little structure it embodies? A way of allowing the rhetoric of the wave system to imply a soft unification rather than the hard-set definitions that it currently represents?

In “Writing the Waves: A Dialogue on the Tools, Tactics, and Tensions of Feminisms and Feminist Practices Over Time and Place,” Krista Jacob offers a jumping off point for such reconceptualizations, suggesting instead that we utilize “these models as a point of reference, rather than the beginning and the end of the discussion, we will do much better at addressing our issues. To be sure, the tensions are real and aren't going to go away simply because we stop referring to them for what they are” (Jacob 200). As she points out, wave rhetoric carries, if not requires, a certain amount of disagreement, yet it is how we approach these moments of tension that determines their effect on feminist work. Conceptualizing wave moments as monolithic, with clear, distinguishing parameters, allows us to create binary definitions, slipping us into ‘us and them’ dialogues. The need to embrace disagreement has been explored, so perhaps now we need to think about how we can soften our boundaries to allow the fuzziness of a multifaceted or fragmented discourseto embody our notions of wave movement. Would this allow us to approach intra-feminist differences less as attacks on any notion of ‘true’ wavist identity, and more as a way to keep the many voices of feminism active and heard?

A limited reading of the wave structureat once assumes nothing in the odd temporal lapse between the First and Second Wave, and complicates the overlapped existence of the Second and Third. Frequent interpretations of this wave metaphor assume a common cultural history in an extremely limited perspective. I am thinking, in particular, about international feminisms. Perhaps, as Jacob insinuates, the expectations of the wave paradigm need to be altered so that it no longer denotes the cultural position of each feminist moment, but instead embodies a more pan-feminist economic function, that can offer a plethora of tools and discourses from which groups can ‘shop.’ Of course, I draw heavily on Jennifer Purvis' notion of the ‘Third Wave moment’ from her essay on intergenerational tensions, perhaps in an idealistic way seeking to expand it into a more inclusive possibility of the wave moment that retains the history of the wave system and rhetoric while it adjusts to represent feminist work more accurately. In doing this, I think we need to divorce what is personal in our moments, so specific to a given group, and what is impersonal, and so therefore as a system useful, to multiple groups.

Thinking about the wave system as an entity of resources, an economic system, if you will, rather than specific cultural identities may offer the potential to relieve the ever-present, and ever necessary, intra-feminist debates of an unproductive tension. I turn to an essay outside of the feminist wave discourse to help conceptualize the wave structure as an economic resource and do so without intending to make comparisons or assumptions about or between the struggles of colonization and feminism. In his chapter, “From the plantation to the Plantation,” Antonio Benitez-Rojo explores the concept of a unified Caribbean culture or identity and the difficulties presented by both national boundaries and differing imperialist histories. The subject matter, i.e. the Caribbean, is what Sidney W. Mintz refers to as a societal area, that contains “more social-structural features than [it does] cultural features” (qtd. in Benitez-Rojo 38). In this sense, the focus is not the similarities of culture across national boundaries, but the economic similarities and its subsequent influence on the development of a non-partisan structuring element. Despite the varied pasts of each Caribbean country, Benitez-Rojo sees their common denominator as the infusion of the European Plantation System into all of their economies. He writes:

If we bear in mind that the Plantation was a proliferating regularity in the Caribbean sphere, it becomes difficult to sustain the idea that the region’s social structures cannot be grouped under a single typology. It is true that the Plantation’s model differs from one island to another [...]But it is precisely these differences that confer upon the Plantation its ability to survive and to keep transforming itself, whether facing the challenge of slavery’s abolition, or the arrival of independence, or the adoption of a socialist mode of production [...] But in all this I have in no way meant to suggest that these cultures are unities, in the sense that they admit a stable and coherent reading. (Benitez-Rojo 74)

What is of greatest interest for me in this argument is the focus on the way the Plantation System successfully perpetuates itself precisely because of its ability to accommodate the different cultural contexts of each island nation. Rather effectively, the Plantation as an economic system, removes any personal, i.e. cultural, elements from itself; therefore, it can cross both the physical and national boundaries presented by each country. What allows it to establish itself as an economy, and function over centuries of time, is the prominent way in which individualized cultures factor into its manifestation, creating what Mintz calls a “parallel socioeconomic structure,” where each system integrates into the existing culture to form a new economy based on the European Plantation model. The wave system on which Benitez-Rojo focuses, ripples out, carrying along effective economic tools, but doesn’t distinguish, necessarily, a hierarchy of moments. What the Caribbean is left with is a series of distinct cultures, all bearing similar structural components.

Notably, though, this parallel structure does not imply nor embody a notion of unity that would ignore the very real differences within each country. This is something that Benitez-Rojo attributes to a temporal introduction and development—that is the variants between cultures are in some ways dependent upon the time at which the Plantation economy is introduced into a national timeline:

The complexity that the multiplication of the Plantation--each case a different one-- brought to the Caribbean was such that the Caribbean peoples themselves, in referring to the ethnological process that derived from the extraordinary collision of races and cultures thus produced, speak of syncretism, acculturation, transculturation, assimilation, deculturation, indigenization, creolization, cultural mestizaje, cultural cimarronaje, cultural miscengenation, cultural resistance, etc. Which illustrates not just that these processes occurred again and again, but also, and above all, that there are different positions or readings from which they may be examined. (Benitez-Rojo 37)

The end result is the soft unification of a series of Plantation moments, which bind together via a social structure as they acknowledge multiplicity as integral to setting apart each specific society’s development, instead of a monolithic cultural identity that fails to recognize the many different cultural moments happening within any one given national border. Significantly, it is the citizens of each culture that verbalize their awareness of the multiplicity, thus speaking to the need for the individual to understand in what ways the development of the Plantation Economy is specifically their own identity.

In a way, the plantation turning into a Plantation Economy provides an interesting model for feminism and the struggle to distinguish between the rhetoric of a wave structure and the individualization of a feminist moment. As Berger points out, like the Plantation Economy, “in some form or another, [feminism] has been around for hundreds of years. Our methods of resistance are varied and plentiful” (Berger 20). As our methods vary, so do the identities of our groups and subsequently what they privilege as feminist issues, if they even declare them feminist. Both duration of time and moments of emergence are as important to a feminist identity as a Caribbean one. As the Second Wave researchers found in their searches for former moments of female consciousness, the feminist wave appeared rather consistently even before what they deemed the ‘First Wave’ and appears across national boundaries without the influence of American feminist history. These pockets of social awareness continue to emerge over extended periods of time, each being influenced by its individual cultural context as well as historical time period; thus, each one remains specifically different from other. Importantly, feminism within the United States demonstrates how the feminist wave structure, appearing within the same nation and the same general culture only at different historical moments, develops on vastly different terms rhetorically. Taking this to an even greater local level, within the same general ‘wave,’ it is evident that smaller community cultures affect the development of the greater feminist moment in that their rhetoric stands apart from that which is articulated by others. What we see developing now in the ‘Third Wave’ are the same kinds of blended identities of which Benitez-Rojo speaks.

Keeping in mind how personalized the wave structure can be, we must recognize the depersonalized elements, which Benitez-Rojo calls “dynamic regularities.” Despite offering up three different theories, Benitez-Rojo spends his time on what he calls the “reading of chaos […] where we detect the dynamic regularities—not results—within the (dis)order that exists beyond the world of predictable pathways” (Benitez-Rojo 36). In this, (dis)order, and the implication of possibilities within the confines of order or in that part of social makeup that is in no way structured, asks the analyst to consider not what it all equals out to meaning, but the possible continuity across systems. When analyzing feminist work, using the term “dynamic” speaks to those elements that fuel and perpetuate female political consciousness, those organic elements that exist within a feminist social movement regardless of how that particular movement articulates itself.

If we think about the wave structure as a series of individualized, freestanding occurrences of the same basic economy, perhaps, then, reading the chaos of feminist moments would render a soft unification of “dynamic regularities” in lieu a rigid wave rhetoric that attempts to speaks about more than its own context. In separating our moments from the economy of a wave system, perhaps we can more efficiently address the personal issues of feminism without the presence of unproductive, if not faulty, conversations based on territorial disputes. As a system of economy, we could perhaps be able to contribute to the possible tools and rhetoric of feminism without having to privilege locality or nationality.

What ultimately seems to be of the greatest importance in using reading the chaos of the Caribbean, is what this reading offers the understanding of a Caribbean identity. Benitez-Rojo believes that the Plantation “serves as a telescope for observing the changes and continuities of the Caribbean galaxy” (Benitez-Rojo 38). In reading the chaos of feminism, perhaps the wave structure, as an economy articulated as a medium for transporting methods and tools for fighting inequities, can also serve as a way to observe the ebbs and flows of female-consciousness across many boundaries—both cultural and national—instead of demarcating generational, familial, or national differences.

As it calls out the deficiencies of the feminist wave rhetoric, Berger’s work is mindful to the complexities that non-feminist oriented groups add to an already tension-filled discussion. "We don’t need another wave. We need a movement,” asks that we as working, thinking feminists, reject the media's demand for a ‘neat and nifty’ packaged feminism under the convenient title of ‘wave’ and the tendency to use this term to sensationalize intra-feminist arguments (Berger 22). Addressing problems with the media implicates our own issues with ‘wave’ discourse in perhaps a better way than simply tuning into intra-feminist discussions. The essentialist tendencies of media demonstrate how when definitions, enduring without continual reassessment, outlive their utility, they prove not only damaging, but also dangerous to the overall social movement. As the title states, it is time to not only reject the neat and nifty in the media realm, but the neat and nifty within our own work.

We Don't Need Another Wave is a provocative title, which for all intents and purposes, does the job it sets out to do. It both alarms and electrifies the feminist senses, challenging at once our comfort level with how we verbalize feminism as waves and asks us to consider in the present state of the mission, what could be holding us back, draining our energies and devouring our resources. Thinking about waves in terms of an economy, offers us a structure that gives us tools and discourses to sustain our work, but doesn't necessarily represent an assumption of culture or singularity. It is what it affords us, not how it defines us. When we speak of a wave structure as an economic system, we enter into a discourse of networking and tools for our fieldwork that doesn't devalue internal debates, but in fact privileges it for its work in promoting movement.

Works Cited

Benitez-Rojo, Antonio. The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective. James Maraniss, trans. 1996. Duke University Press: Durham, 33-81.

Berger, Meredith. We Don’t Need Another Wave. Emeryville: Seal Press, 2006.

Henry, Astrid. Not My Mother’s Sister: Generational Conflict and Third-Wave Feminism. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2004.

Jacob, Krista, and Adela C. Licona. “Writing the Waves: A Dialogue on the Tools, Tactics, and Tensions of Feminisms and Feminist Practices Over Time and Place.” NWSA 17/1 (Spring 2005): 197-205.