1990s Feminism – was there anything to it?

Well I’m sure there was, but you wouldn’t know by reading this bit of nostalgic Weekend Age fluff by someone who’s apparently planning to turn her reminiscences into a book.

I had the same response to this that I had reading Virginia Trioli’s little debut in the book market.  At least Trioli’s book was beguilingly well written, but alas had little to say – I can’t really remember anything of it other than the good impression it’s clean writing made when I first stated reading it. And my disappointment as I read on.

Naomi Wolf’s debut was similar – announcing the arrival of the author rather than any really grappling with the issues which might turn up something new, unusual or threatening to the author’s priors.  The issues it raised never really got dealt with – if I recall correctly the difficult issues always slid away into buck passing – it was all the fault of male domination. The role of women in the perpetuation of practices that were disapproved of (like extreme slimming in Naomi Wolf’s case and I know now what in Trioli’s case) was systematically minimised.  Anyway, it did them no harm. Naomi went on like the more serious feminists from the 1970s to involve us all in the dramas of her Next Stage of Life in the next blockbuster. Trioli’next popped up (on my radar anyway) on ABC drive chat doing a pretty good job.
I expected to enjoy the Age piece but got nothing out of it. It recites all the silliness as if it had some real value – well that’s being too harsh I guess – it’s just a bit of reminiscence she can share with the old girls.  So maybe it will sell which is why a publisher might publish it.  But it’s not got much to say to the rest of us.

Our bodies were the “site of power”, the place from which, according to some feminist theorists, all subjectivity emanated. In order to glorify her “site of power” one woman I lived with created a three- metre high sculpture of her vulva out of chicken wire and plaster of Paris. As symbols of a falsely idealised female form, our childhood Barbie doll collections were regularly humiliated, displayed in tableaux of subversive ruin and transgression. . . .

The sacred site of our activism was the Women’s Room, also variously known across Australian campuses as the “Wymmin’s Room”, or the “Wimmin’s Room”. These “safe spaces” were part of the “herstory” of the second wavers (a herstory that included a rich tradition of creative spelling), but they truly came into their own in the 1990s. They were places where we were safe from the patriarchal gaze, as well as being a one-stop shop for all your dental-dam and rape-whistle needs.

The ultimate rule of the Women’s Room was no man shall pass, and this was implemented with considerable zeal. At one university the garbage piled high as the male cleaner was barred from taking out the bins. At another, the women’s officer was forced to block the door with her body as an electrician attempted to cross the threshold and “penetrate the space” (also known as changing the light globes).

We were the generation of shocking slogans and gratuitous logos, post-modernity having given us a foul-mouthed freedom. Language was power, so our mouths weren’t in the toilet; we were just “reclaiming”, “subverting” and “reinventing”. As always, the focus of our sloganeering was our bodies, the genitals being a special favourite. “I love my c–t” was a stand-out, and both a badge and T-shirt were produced on one Melbourne campus. True believers proudly sported them to their part-time jobs, family Christmases and Uncle Ed’s funeral.

Sex posed a number of theoretical problems. It could be very bad (oppressive, patriarchal, a performance of power), or very good (a way to transcend our corporeality). But it was never just a bit of slap and tickle. Of course we were the queer generation, which meant that a rite of passage for most campus feminists was to declare themselves a lesbian at least once, often to the perplexity of their boyfriend.

Sex workers were fascinating to us – were they agents of subversion, profiting from the male gaze, or victims of a cruel patriarchy that reduced women to their sex?

Most of us were unsure, but while we were deciding, porn shops across the nation were wise to fear the wrath of the angry 19-year-old armed with a spray can. One protest march in the mid-’90s ended with women laying siege to a brothel, only to have the ladies come out screaming “Oi! We’re trying to work in here!”

So there you have it.  The article concludes thus.

[W]hile our youthful exuberance might have expressed itself in some misshapen activism, there’s one thing that was undoubtedly worth fighting for: a woman’s right to enjoy her own sexual experience.

In light of today’s raunch culture, with young women apparently more concerned about pleasing the opposite sex than themselves, perhaps we had it right after all.

I wonder how true it is that women in the 1960s didn’t feel they had the right to enjoy their own sexual experience?  In any event, here was me – silly me – thinking of sexual experience as an arena in which enjoyment can’t be got in any great measure except by giving it away.

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Kim
Kim
14 years ago

But she's not talking about the 60s is she?

I thought it was a good article. More of an impression about the culture of feminism and activism of the times rather than an analytical piece. As someone who's probably about the same age, and had similar experiences, it rings true to me.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
14 years ago

In its great, cliched, evidence-avoiding sweep, it's reminiscent of Bernard Salt on generationalism. is Bernard a woman?

Rob
Rob
14 years ago

Don't quite understand your negativity towards the article, Nicholas. It was very good, IMHO. Nice touches of irony and reflection.

Angharad
Angharad
14 years ago

It certainly resonated with me – if quite not my experience as the Women's Officer, certainly of many of my cohorts.  Was it trying to say anything to you Nicholas?  Maybe not, but it reminded me of lots of things.  Lesbians came out of the woodwork, even in Brisbane in the early 90s.  We painted "every man a potential rapist" at the bus-stop at uni and right outside the security guards office in protest against their harassment of women at night. We stood up to the blokes in various direct action things we were involved in. It's certainly the time I took up swearing with alacrity!I guess the personal is political. 

observa
observa
14 years ago

Not exactly cutting edge women's lit like the new wave about nowadayshttp://www.surrenderedwife.com/surrendered_wife_books_surrendered_wife.htmlPerhaps these old girls need to examine the influence of Islam on feminism in the unis these days.