Feminism, fragmenting

A look back on the 3rd wave as we transition into the 4th.

There are moments in every person's life when they realise that they have officially gotten old. 

It recently happened to me; my 5-year-old niece Esme asked: "are the Spice Girls an olden-day band?"

The 'olden days' band

In 1990, Mandela walked, Thatcher withdrew, the Berlin Wall toppled and I was born. 

This means that I was very much alive and kicking when the Spice Girls were first propelled into the mainstream in ‘96. 

They were innocent while cheeky, dangerous while innocuous, and they entitled their first book- a manifesto by all accounts- Girl Power. It was a phrase, which sequentially became a concept that the band would become synonymous with.

A coincidence this was not. Lead singer Geri Horner (née Halliwell) has since spoken about how the band actively wanted to express the ideologies of feminism. They did so, however, by making the word feminism, which had by then become inextricably entangled with bra-burning and armpit hair, tastier. Feminism became girl power. "Sometimes you have to wrap vegetables in chocolate," Horner explained.

The Spice Girls wild success thrust GB flag dresses, ladettes and high kicks onto the shores of our little country.

Vegetable metaphors aside, what would have looked at first like a ripple in the water turned out to be a mega-tsunami. The Spice Girls wild success thrust GB flag dresses, ladettes and high kicks onto the shores of our little country. 

Today, they are widely cited as firing the starting gun for 3rd wave feminism.

Transition time

Fast-forward 21 years, and the Spice Girls are now a relic; an 'olden days' band, or a fond memory.

In the remaining debris of their long-receded swell, a rabble of thinkers, academics, bloggers, trolls, politicians and journalists are… arguing.

Transitional periods are always hard, and the current transition from 3rd to 4th wave feminism is proving no different. The rabble can’t even decide where in the transitional phase we are. 

Feministing founder Jessica Valenti has declared '09, but the glut of '14 feminist manifestos, like The Vagenda, Everyday Feminism and How To Be A Woman might lead you to believe it was actually within that year.

I make the case for the 21st January, 2017. 

No, not the 20th, when Donald Trump, a man who has called breastfeeding 'disgusting', mocked a disabled reporter and bragged about grabbing women ‘by the pussy’ became the US President. The 21st, when just shy of 5 million people attended the Women’s March. At least, that was its official title. Many regarded it as a march against Trump and his policies.

Trump is going to preside over a new wave of feminist activism

In the wake of the march, The UK chairperson for The Women's Equality Party, Sophie Walker, told Vogue magazine that Trump: "is going to preside over a new wave of feminist activism that could unite people around the world".

Indeed, Trump signalled a new dawn of activism for many, a renewed interest of what had come about, and what was yet to come.

So if we regard the 3rd wave as spanning from the entry of the Spice Girls to the charts to the entry of Trump into the White House, where did it achieve? Where did it fail?

 The 3rd wave

The wave was by no means a waste. 

Rather, a great deal of progress was made in challenging the status quo and dismantling sexism that paraded as tradition. 

In the media sphere, the No More Page 3 campaign was so successful that The Sun newspaper put an end to 44-years of topless women in its pages. Lads-mags Zoo, FHM, Loaded and Nuts magazine closed down altogether. 

Social media allowed for women to bare themselves with the #nomakeupselfie challenge, followed by global pop singer Alicia Keys stating that she was eschewing makeup altogether. 

Education prospects improved; women have outnumbered men in British universities for almost 10 years. Feminism was recently reinstated onto the A-level syllabus.  

Movements like Slutwalk, Hollaback and International Women's Day thrive. Girl Guiding launched body confidence, gender equality and campaigning and activism badges. Hillary Clinton became the first woman to accept a major-party presidential nomination in the history of the USA.

The conversations had begun; in homes, in chambers, in boardrooms. Feminists were less often perceived as haggard, bitter, white women, but confident, resilient women of all colours. 

Yet it was still the wave ridden by the police officer who said: "women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised." 

The newspaper editor who published an article listing all the female British politicians who hadn't had children. 

The male politician who said that: "A good wife doesn't disagree with her master in public."

It was this wave that shot Malala Yousafzai in the head, analysed Theresa May's outfit on her first day as Prime Minster, and of course, elected Donald Trump.

The 4th wave

The 3rd wave left many a misogynist standing perturbed on the shore, adjusting a skew-whiff tie and looking around for a lost shoe. 

After all, it came to a close with quite a bang. The USA might have a misogynist in charge, but the likes of Germany, Bangladesh, Chile and of course the UK all have females at the helm.

But it didn't stop a Polish MEP from stating in March that: "women must earn less than men because they are weaker, they are smaller, they are less intelligent".

It's understandable then, that the outlook of those in the know is a cautious one.

"I think we will be able to fight back effectively, but it won't be easy."

Jennifer Saul, author of Feminism: Issues & Arguments, tells me: "I think right now we're experiencing a bit of a backlash. Backlash is a sign of success, but it's still painful.

"So, it's become increasingly unacceptable to say openly racist and sexist things, which is good. But of course there are people who resent this, and unfortunately have been mobilised very effectively by the far right. I think we will be able to fight back effectively, but it won't be easy."

Indeed, for people right around the world, a great many issues remain unresolved.

After a short lesson on the Spice Girls, 5-year-old Esme grasps the concept of girl power quickly. I ask her to explain it to me, in her own words.  

She says: "I'm a girl so I have girl power. Girl power means you stand up to boys and say "we don't care if you hurt us because we'll tell you off.""

"Girl power means you stand up to boys and say 'we don't care if you hurt us because we'll tell you off.'"

The Spice Girls might be long gone, and Trump (and his supporters) might be here to stay. But the bands message remains, and rings as true today as it did over two decades ago. 

The 3rd wave wasn't perfect and the 4th will be a challenge. We may not have given the next generation equality utopia, but we gave them something precious and invaluable. We gave them girl power.