Literary Outlets of 2nd Wave Feminism

smash patriarchy
Latest posts by Alex Minshall (see all)

“The male has a negative Midas touch – everything he touches turns to shit.” Valerie Solanas

More often than not, the second wave of feminism – post-suffrage, from the 1960s until about the mid-80s – is popularly associated with a stereotype of an angry, outspoken, man-hating bra-burner who blames all problems in the world on patriarchy or, more simplistically just ‘men’ in general; the hideous term ‘feminazi’ would aptly summarise this impression.

The schtick that this wave of feminism gets lumped with started with Valerie Solanas, whose pamphlet, the S.C.U.M Manifesto, along with shooting Andy Warhol in 1968, made her infamous. The Manifesto (S.C.U.M stands for ‘Society for Cutting Up Men’) calls for women to ‘overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and eliminate the male sex’ on the basis that men are theoretically no longer necessary for reproduction and therefore no longer necessary at all. She also states that men are incomplete women, and their egocentric ‘screwing’ is rooted in the repression of a desire to be a woman. The Manifesto is, in essence a work of artistic satire which, along with other literature of its kind, was being published, read and reprinted within an artistically prolific community in the late 60s. Its satirical, fearlessly confrontational style would come to define a lot of the feminist fictional writing to come.

It’s a matter of opinion, but for me the most compelling author of this group was Angela Carter. Her writing combines a very seriously held belief system with a wild imagination tempered by keen literary technique, and the influence of the hyperbolic satire started by the Manifesto is clear in her earlier writing. In The Passion of New Eve, Carter crafts a nightmarish post-apocalyptic sci-fi story around the transformation of the misogynistic Evelyn into Eve at the hands of a self-made seven foot tall, four breasted matriarch called Mother, who introduces herself as ‘the great parricide… the Castratrix of the Phallocentric Universe, I am Mama, Mama, Mama!’ This frightening goddess-figure sounds a lot like Solanas in the S.C.U.M Manifesto – she directly refers to the idea of men being ‘incomplete women’ – and Eve, after her gender-reversing surgery, escapes before being artificially impregnated with Evelyn’s child, which will become a new Messiah. The craziness of Mother’s female-only cult and Eve’s escape shows a scrutiny on Carter’s part of the radical feminist ideas laid out by Solanas. The ideas in the Manifesto were satirical in the way that Jonathan Swift suggested eating children as a solution to famine in Ireland. Carter’s satire is, at least in her earlier more allegorical writing, wrapped up in a vivid fictional imagination and harder to take literally.

Nowadays, the main problem with 2nd wave feminist ideas is their ongoing exclusion of transgender issues and, in certain cases transphobia; Germaine Greer claimed trans people were a ‘delusion’ as recently as 2009. The root of the problem is the all too visible association between being male and masculinity, and being female and femininity. This comes through in fiction as well as more abstracted writing like the S.C.U.M Manifesto; in The Passion of New Eve, Evelyn’s unconsensual gender change is accompanied by alarmingly little of the transgender identity crisis you might expect, and it feels more focused on a man learning how to be a woman than learning how to be female. The novel is, however, allegorical not literal, and so this transition between genders highlights the important belief, central to Angela Carter’s philosophy, that appearance and essence are the same; Evelyn is able to become a woman because he physically undergoes a magically perfect physical transformation into one. This belief means that changing how you appear can change what you are, and can be swung both ways in a discussion of personal determinism, but, in the context of reality you are the one in charge of how you look and, therefore, in charge of what you are.

The aforementioned issues of transphobia are, although still pervasive, visible and therefore avoidable by anyone who would legitimately claim to be progressive. The writing and attitude of the movement, however, have left a lasting impact. Without Solanas, Carter, and many others mobilising a confrontational, cleverly satirical style, the trajectory of feminism would look very different to the one we now know, and we would be left without a lot of amazing progress. The artistic works made by women in this movement – I’ve singled out Angela Carter but there are many, many others – are how people initially become involved with the ideas, as it shows them in an engaging context, and so we should look to the literary representations of gender and society to take the pulse of 2nd wave feminism and its evolution since.