Third-wave feminism is suffering a crisis of credibility. On the one hand, interviewers consistently badger actresses and celebrities to declare themselves feminists and lambaste them if they decline to do so.
“When talking about feminism, there are a lot of misconceptions about what the word actually means,” writes Teen Vogue’s Brittney McNamara. “At its heart, feminism is about choice. It’s the belief that everyone should have the equality that grants them the right to choose how they live their lives.”
Except when it’s not.
On Sunday, Joan Walsh, the author of What’s the Matter with White People, appeared on MSNBC to declare that Ivanka Trump cannot be a feminist because she wore an “incredibly ornamental” and “girlie” dress while representing the United States at a G20 summit meeting.
“That’s not a dress that’s made for work,” said Walsh. “That’s not a dress that’s made to go out in the world and make a difference. That is a dress that is designed to show off your girlieness, and you know, God bless her, show it off, but don’t then tell us you’re crusading for an equal place for women at the table, because you’re not.”
And feminists wonder why fewer than a fifth of Americans consider themselves feminist.
Consider, for a moment, the legal and social reality of women in America. We graduate college in greater numbers than men to pursue careers, and, for the first time in human history, have readily available, affordable contraceptives that give us nearly total control over when or if we choose to have children. Clearly, we like this state of affairs. If feminism were actually about choice, all women would embrace it.
But it’s not. Feminism has become a bully pulpit, from which its leaders deride successful women such as Ivanka Trump. Not, you will note, for embracing policies such as paid parental leave that will inevitably undermine the wages and opportunites of some women in the workplace. No, Walsh, with evident contempt, rebukes Ivanka Trump for choosing to wear “a pink dress with big bows on the sleeve.” Feminism is about choice. Sure.
Public opinion on matters related to women’s rights has never been more encouraging. Almost all Americans (97 percent) support women’s working even if a husband can support her, according to 2012 CNN/ORC International poll. Further, most women do wish to work. Most Americans also agree that having women in the work force is good for marriages (75 percent agree), good for society in general (81 percent agree), and good for the children of working women (52 percent agree). Nine out of ten Americans find birth control morally acceptable, A 2016 Gallup poll shows, and the same percentage believes that info about birth control should be widely available. Women have largely transcended the social and legal barriers that used to confine them to lives of a single mold; now they can choose their own paths. In short, second-wave feminism has been a categorical success.
Third-wave? Not so much. By vast majorities, women today are spurning the label of “feminist” — it’s become an antagonizing, miserable, culturally Marxian code word for a far-left movement that seeks to confine women into boxes of wokeness.
While second-wave feminism lauded the variety of choices a woman can have in her life, third-wave feminism excludes those who choose the wrong way or who present themselves in a supposedly un-feminist manner. For example, short skirts and bikinis once signified sexual empowerment. Today, “sexy” clothing signifies feminism only if worn by women who are not submitting to the male gaze (that’s feminist-speak for “not traditionally feminine”).
This rejection of traditional beauty while celebrating “body positivity” has spread far beyond obscure, feminist circles. In London, Mayor Sadiq Khan banned “body shaming” advertisements from public transportation, because “unrealistic” images harm women; depictions of overweight bodies evidently do not and are still permitted to adorn the sides of buses. The ban follows the same dubious logic that conflates Ivanka’s pink dress with the patriarchy while lauding Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits as the symbol of peak feminism.
Taking Ivanka Trump’s “girlie” appearance as proof of her purportedly un-feminist character exemplifies third-wave feminism’s compulsive need to control women’s appearances. BuzzFeed’s Anne Helen Petersen wrote on Election Day:
No amount of advocating for paid maternity leave can mask the fact that Ivanka’s understanding of the world is one in which white, thin, straight, traditionally beautiful, nondisabled, bourgeois women will always win — if you consider constantly molding yourself to the status quo and overlooking your second-class citizenship as “winning.”
One can make a legitimate argument that Trump’s lifestyle brand catered to upper- or middle-class women working in office jobs. But the assumption that Ivanka Trump cannot be a feminist because she is “white, thin, straight,” and “traditionally beautiful” demonstrates the paradox at the heart of third-wave feminism: It claims to be for all women while ousting anyone who does not fulfill multiple “intersectional” identities.
Third-wave feminists have made a sick sport of obsessing over Ivanka Trump’s appearance — judging her on the basis of her aesthetic conformity to the woke ideal.
Third-wave feminists have made a sick sport of obsessing over Ivanka Trump’s appearance — judging her on the basis of her aesthetic conformity to the woke ideal. Another BuzzFeed piece charges Trump with believing that women can “have a seat at the table” only so long as they “dress cute” and “stay thin.” (BuzzFeed can apparently read Trump’s mind and give voice to her inner thoughts, speaking for her in the public arena — something feminists used to decry.) Trump is not only denounced as a “white feminist” for failing to endorse Black Lives Matter. Instead this accusation is consistently and specifically tied to her appearance. As Dame Magazine put it in a cheap hit job about Trump and the first lady’s trip to the Middle East, Ivanka and Melania are “fake” feminists because of their “good looks, high fashion and displays of western white womanhood.”
This sort of bullying, exclusionary feminism is not exactly winning over many young people. Teen Vogue, the newly converted bastion of intersectional, third-wave feminism, draws almost no teen girls. (According to data from comScore, the overwhelming majority of Teen Vogue’s Web traffic comes from visitors 24 years and older. Less than half comes from the 18-to-24 demographic, and virtually no visitors are younger than 18.) Sure, third-wave feminism indoctrinated a generation of bitter Millennial women, but the next generation does not seem too keen to mock any woman who wears a “girlie” dress. Third-wave feminism fundamentally defeats the very meaning of feminism as defined by previous generations, and younger women will continue to reject it wholesale.
As a person working in the White House, Ivanka Trump should be subject to scrutiny for her choices in influencing public policy. But bullying women for wearing a cute dress is not only unwarranted. It’s also destroying feminism.