What Feminism Can Teach the Black Movement (And Vice Versa)

09/16/2013 03:16 pm ET | Updated Nov 16, 2013

Within a week of the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, my daughter in college shared some readings from her gender and women's studies textbook, Feminist Frontiers. Some of the most important aspects of the book involve a closer look at how social roles are constructed, and the interplay between those roles and patterns of formal and informal power. Those insights help a great deal when looking at the construction of racial "roles."

But I found myself particularly drawn to the historical and socio-political analysis the authors offered of the feminist movement itself, particularly in light of my disappointment with the Civil Rights Movement's current estrangement from the broad base of the black population. This analysis is sometimes called feminist "wave" theory.

According to the text, feminism has come in three waves. The first wave of feminism grew out of the abolitionist movement of the 1830s and peaked with the suffrage victory in 1920. The second wave emerged in the 1960s as part of the social upheavals of the period. We are now in the third wave, characterized by Internet activity. Between waves, feminism has gone into "abeyance"--a holding pattern during which activists from the previous wave maintain their ideology and forms of organization, but gain few new recruits. They focus more on maintaining themselves than confronting the established order. These are periods when resources are not available and the political structure is resistant to change.

It occurred to me, we might usefully apply wave theory to the Black Movement in the United States. First wave feminist organizations sought (and continue to seek) equality within the existing social structure, very much like the organizations of the Civil Rights Movement's first wave: the right to an education, the right to vote, and equal employment opportunities. First wave organizations tend to focus on redress from institutions--corporations and the political system--and they tend to assume bureaucratic form, with hierarchical leadership and decision-making (much like the entities to which they address their grievances). These are liberal groups (the NAACP, for example) whose strategies include gaining access to elite positions in politics and the workplace.

Although led at the national level by NOW, second wave feminism produced a burst of small, grassroots organizations that were collectively structured. Avoiding top-down configurations, radical, second wave feminists formed small peer-based groups instead. They made decisions by consensus, rotated leadership and other tasks among members, and shared skills to avoid hierarchy and specialization. While first-wave, liberal organizations focused on legal and political strategies, second-wave, more radical organizations fashioned alternatives, and functioned more at the individual and cultural levels.

The participatory democratic approaches of the 1960s second wave--pioneered by SNCC and sparked in the feminist movement--in many ways marked a return to a scale and style of operation that predates the first wave. Young, middle-class activists often rediscovered the cultural DNA, the traditional forms of problem-solving and association, of their own communities. The feminists adopted styles of work that women have followed since hunter-gatherer societies, sidelined by the patriarchal structures of social forms that came later. Black college students like Stokely Carmichael organized rural farmers to register to vote, but in turn learned important life lessons and democratic practices from these same people. Even the music of the period fit the general trend.

Whether because of COINTELPRO or simply the failure to take root, the second wave organizations of the Black Movement have all but disappeared. Even the childcare coops and shules (Afrocentric alternative schools) of the 1970s and 1980s, sustained by black, middle class women (often single mothers) seem to have winked out. Some black second-wavers were sucked into First wave organizations; some never saw the power of collective action; some were eliminated; some retired. (Mind you, though the black college students of the 1960s have moved on, there are many small, grassroots organizations focused on self-help or neighborhood improvement that remain in poor and working class black communities.)

In contrast, middle-class feminist second-wave organizations have continued their work and are still very much alive, though under the radar or off the grid in many cases. They engage in a wide range of collective action--bookstores, theatre groups, music, art and poetry collectives, publishing and recording companies, spirituality groups, self-help groups and a variety of feminist-run businesses.

Today, the third wave of both the Black and feminist movements are alike in that they are comprised of young people who cannot connect to first wave structures (typically because they are impatient with hierarchy and bureaucracy) and who are often unaware of the trajectory of second wave groups among the middle class or even at the grass roots. Estranged from the first and second waves, and from the community, their domain is the Internet. Third wave feminists use it to provide an individual perspective and connect personal experiences to a broad social network through blogs and the like. Black young people in the third wave have used the Internet to organize protests such as the "I am Trayvon Martin" manifestations. Twitter is especially popular.

The problem is that online activity, while it speeds up communication and transcends neighborhood, regional, and national boundaries, must be complemented by offline activity in order to bring about lasting change. For one thing, many constituents of both the Black and feminist movements still do not have access to computers, much less reliable Internet connections. Just as important, face-to-face contact is a better way to build the trust and social capital needed to confront established power.

This is where the remaining second wave organizations come in. They offer participatory, accessible decision-making models that young people may well find more attractive than first-wave bureaucracies. In other words, second-wavers model the off-line structures that third wave youth sorely need. This is something feminists can teach their own third wave, and perhaps ours as well, because of the decline in the Black Movement's second wave. (The Black second wave could also be rekindled if black grassroots groups connected with a new generation of college students, linking grass-roots issues such as racial profiling and unequal education to structural flaws in the system as a whole. This process could be facilitated with mentoring from a few of the grey heads left from the 1960s and 1970s, as Ella Baker advised the founders of SNCC.)

In turn, the third wave can teach the second wave something about networking. At the same time, grey-headed second-wavers bring an exposure to the first wave's appreciation of the larger social forces and structures at work. More, they can imagine a collective of small, traditional groups to engage these larger social forces and structures without losing--indeed by employing--their community's cultural DNA. Second wavers must reach out to third wavers, and pass on what they know, empowering third wave youth to combine their connectivity with collectivity and discipline the first wave, drawing it back from the threat of corruption.

Ultimately, all social movements will need a "civic infrastructure"--a participatory, "small d" democratic formation that is organized at a scale sufficient to respond to systemic social, economic, and political problems. This can be built by linking second wave organizations together and articulating them with the first and third waves. The Internet and social media provide important ways to do this, but virtual linkages must ultimately be complemented by actual ones--that's where the Citizen's Assembly comes in. In the Citizen's Assembly, all social movements would converge.

The fourth wave?