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Third Wave Feminism

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The artist Sharon Sloan, who lives within spitting distance of the Kings River Bridge--where Woodstock meets Livestock, some wag suggested--dropped off a box of books the other day and considerably complicated my life as a bookseller. In the box was half a dozen books on German philosophy (in German), twenty books on artificial intelligence and "whither" computers, and another fifty books or so with such arcane titles as Scottish Crofters: A Historical Ethnography of a Celtic Village.

Several of the books were written by "feminist" writers. Born directly after World War II, I have been a witness to or participant in a singular amount of civic turmoil: the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the liberation of El Salvador, the homelessness movement, and on and on. Concurrently and simultaneously, the Women's Movement unfolded with all of this other jazz, but unlike many of the movements it has had legs, and has stuck around well beyond the initial flash point.

An unintended consequence of the women's movement has been that men have become even more infantile and more self-involved. Before you launch into argument, consider first please the United States Congress, the Democratic and Republican Parties, the corporatizing of Christianity, Islamic fundamentalism, professional sports, and the growing number of abandoned children and their mothers here in the US, and world-wide. If the women's movement has freed women to have abortions and jobs, it has also allowed a lot of men to believe that fatherhood and steady employment are lifestyle choices instead of obligations.

I was thinking about this as I priced and shelved Dr. Sloan's very dense (and unsalable) collection in my tiny--but now larger--"Women's Studies" section. Among the writers and or subjects already there are the Peabody Sisters, Jane Hull, Dorothy Day, and the usual transitional trinity of Friedan, Steinem, and Greer. I own up to having a bit of docu-trash by Judy Collins, Gail Sheehy, Susan Faludi, and a few other pop psychology types, but I also discovered a complete absence of material that is being called third wave feminism.

If I get this wave business correctly, first wave feminism was driven by women seeking the vote, and second wave feminism--where you and I come in--was (and is) focused on creating equal access to opportunity and ending legal sex discrimination. Third wave feminism is of course much more complicated, probably for its adherents, and definitely for booksellers. A review of the literature informs me that post-structuralism, womanism, libertarianism, postmodernism, transnationalism, and queer, critical and post-colonial theory are all central to third wave ideology. Added to the mix is something my daughter admiringly calls the Riot Grrl Movement--about which I am too scared to find out any more.

I don't know what all this stuff means, except possibly for "postmodernism" which I mostly associate with a book, play, idea, or value that you carry in a hand basket on the way to the boredom of hell. One of the few postmodern writers that I enjoy, John Barth, himself says that he tries to get to know the person creating or standing behind the postmodern matter at hand--and if he likes the person, well then the matter at hand becomes less important. In any case, it is all very complicated, particularly for the bookseller who "organizes" new material, sees what he has--and sees what he lacks and doesn't quite understand but really (maybe?) ought to acquire.

What I certainly know is that Sharon Sloan--academic, computer scientist, artist, neighbor--is now volunteering at our local literacy council. As you might expect, I think helping people learn how to read, and the promotion of reading in general, is among the most important work we can do as a nation, community, and as individuals. Many thanks to Sharon, and to all the people who volunteer in our nation's literacy councils.

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