Second Wave Feminists & Older Feminists

by Guest Blogger

Guest Post by Vliet Tiptree

We have just lost some of our most respected radical feminist elders who were part of the Second Wave of feminism, namely, Mary Daly and Andrea Dworkin, but there remain alive and definitely kicking many more. Some of us who are over 60 and well-known include Germaine Greer and Catharine MacKinnon. Many of us have worked steadily over the years on reform issues or gone into scientific research or examined future feminist societies through the vehicle of science fiction. Many of us have entered the professions and helped women one-on-one in our careers.

Others of us were once very involved and our lives were changed by the Second Wave. Over the years we were unable to contribute much due to survival or other issues. But here we are again. What has brought us back?

For one thing, the period around the sixties is a fascinating time of life to be a woman for many of us. We are “retiring”, or at least, we have mastered our professions and our finances have stabilized. Our children, if we had them, are no longer dependents, and if we never had children, we have well-developed and fulfilling lives not focused on them. Many of us have found that in addition to a mature viewpoint with real perspective, we are at the height of our intellectual powers and have again an interest in exploring our situation on this planet as women. We may have other resources as well, but time to reflect and re-enter and engage with crucial issues is our greatest asset.

Many of us have had to deal with issues of male control over our thinking and livelihood during these intervening years. But a very large proportion of us who found ourselves married at some point are now divorced or widowed, and free in a way we have never felt free, free to think without hindrance. I think of it as being able to raise our heads above water and look around. We’re not flailing any more.

There are a couple of perceptions of older women that have bearing on my idea that older women are returning to radical feminism with some special strengths. We complain that we have become “invisible” to men, but that has advantages. We appear harmless. We aren’t noticed. We’re seen as quiet caretakers devoted to families or sad lonely women living alone in our homes. In short, we are not seen as threats or as part of the hurly-burly of political and social life any more. Men finally leave us alone (except for the occasional mugging when we’re out late and alone on the street).

It’s a wonderful cover. Most of us who live alone love it. Those of us who fought to get good educations and jobs are masters of our areas of knowledge. We’re much more healthy and independent and physically active than our forebearers. We look around and what do we see? When we started out in the working world, the U.S. Civil Rights Act hadn’t even been passed. The idea of full equality in the public world for women, until about 1968, was a joke. The private world, the domestic world, was not discussed and there were few statistics about how women fared in that world.

What we see is progress, real progress in the public world of education and employment (though not particularly in politics).  We also see an increased interest and research in that enormous shadowy layer underneath where women live their family lives. And we see in this private world that this is where the patriarchy is making its stand. This is the bedrock, not the public sector where law has some effect. When the public layer is stripped away, an ancient system based on coercions ranging from economic to religion to cultural mores to frank intimidation to homicide is revealed. There is no evidence that we can see that the violence is decreasing from its age-old ubiquitousness. In fact, it appears that the more women develop strategies to avoid the coerciveness of the traditional family system, the more vicious the coerciveness becomes. It’s the hard layer, the more stubborn, dangerous, intractable one.

We have been there. We know the score. We aren’t distracted any more, and we have the experience of decades living and working amid the struggle.

We older women used to barely exist. If childbearing didn’t get us, the witch-hunts would. Yet here we are in large numbers, and we do talk to our daughters and granddaughters, we do fund social action work, we do have computers and legal savvy, and that old adage that older people just get more and more closed-down and narrow-minded sure doesn’t seem to apply to this cohort I’m in.

We just may turn out to be the secret weapon of radical feminism.

old and strong
the oaks speak –
we endure

Vliet Tiptree is a writer, poet, and ex-attorney blogging at


23 Comments to “Second Wave Feminists & Older Feminists”

  1. I am in my 40s, and I also benefitted from Radical Feminism/Second Wave Feminism in the way I think about life and the fact that I was able to pursue things that otherwise would have been closed to me. I was in college during the whole “queer theory” devolution, and I am very pleased I avoided getting indoctrinated into that crap (I majored in English and Psychology – hooray for avoiding queer theory!). Great piece, Vliet.

  2. thanks for this vliet! i cant help but notice that this reality you describe here deals a devastating blow to individualist fun-feminism and all the sex-positivism and all of it really. you describe becoming free to think for the first time when men are no longer around, or arent central to your life. assuming that being free to think is important for womens liberation, *and* that you arent unique in your LIVED EXPEWIENCE (and none of us are) that means that centralizing (or perhaps participating at all in) heterosexual sex-positivism, BDSM, fuckability mandates, dating, lipstick-and-heels empowerment will not be liberatory for women, and arent feminist. obviously, it makes perfect sense that the only “feminists” that are acceptable to the mainstream, to the extent any of them are, are young women who havent learned and experienced enough to know better *and* are mostly unable to think unhindered bc they are surrounded by men at all times, and are still male-identified. it makes sense that older women are discounted and ignored and erased, bc they are the ones who really know whats going on and have something to say about it that might actually help girls and women, and undermine mens entitlement to ruin girls and womens lives to benefit themselves.

    in other words…its not the “fine lines and wrinkles” (or the craggy deep ones) that are the problem, really, those are just the warning signs to men (and other women) that this older woman just might be female-identified and just might know a thing or two about how the world works, and how men use every last thing to benefit themselves at womens expense. those fine lines and wrinkles and crags are the equivalent of about sixteen billion red flags, and older women being treated as if they are invisible has got to be one of the biggest reversals i have ever heard of. old women who are sound of mind and body must be terrifying to men and to patriarchy.

    We older women used to barely exist. If childbearing didn’t get us, the witch-hunts would.

    that is a really good point, and i hadnt thought about it before. thanks!

  3. I agree with you, FCM.

    Vliet- Thanks for this. I’m in my early thirties but I always love to listen to what older female-identified womyn have to say. 🙂 I was brought up in the ‘Third Wave’ backlash of the 1990’s. Once I was fully aware of this and became more and more female-identified, I couldn’t stop reading the writings of older feminists. I wanted to know all about what had happened before. I would have loved to see the late 1960’s – early 1970’s. It must have been great to be there during the Second Wave…

  4. LOve this post Vliet. Love it.

    And thanks for making me LOL, although I’m not sure why I found this line so funny, “Men finally leave us alone (except for the occasional mugging when we’re out late and alone on the street” (or maybe I do…)

    Love this comment too from FCM:
    “those fine lines and wrinkles and crags are the equivalent of about sixteen billion red flags”

  5. I’m thirty too, but the only time I feel safe in this world is when I’m curled up with a book written by one of the “older feminists.”

  6. Thanks, bugbrennan, fcm, and maggie,

    Your comments remind me of a poem I wrote about menopause. While writing it I was thinking about my idea of stages in modern women’s lives. To me, the first 13 years we are little girls. I was an athlete and ferocious learner and I’m not the only one who bore the control of the patriarchy fairly lightly (except for the propaganda and inculcations). Then came one-third century living closely with men. The pressure from men during those years was fantastically intense. Even so, in this time in the U.S. women began a revolution. Still, so many of the things we write about here have to do with that period of life in which many of us lose our freedom to think and forget who we are.

    Then, and this was what I had only then come to realize, comes another one-third century. This last one-third century hasn’t really existed for most women until the 20th century. The territory I was entering felt new. There weren’t many expectations of women for this time. I saw some women who continued to act as caretakers, but I saw many who seemed to wake up again, like when they were little girls, and to rejoice in an unanticipated and unexpected freedom. It’s uncharted territory, the territory of this cohort of mine who came of age around 1970. It’s as though the patriarchal system hasn’t quite caught up, has not noticed us slip through the grasping fingers. A renaissance is ahead for this group of women. The stereotypes no longer correspond with reality. I’m happy to be part of it.

  7. Beautiful, Vliet! Thank you.

    Even before I turned radical, I often wished to have a group of wise older women to turn to for advice. Even non-rads know instinctively that older women have so much valuable knowledge (and love) to share.

    If only all women had a group of caring women to turn to all times – for safety and help and advice – I think a lot of the psychological “power” men have over young women would dissipate.

    One of the ideas I have been knocking around in conversations is a Rad Fem network of safe houses, that we could slowly build into a massive worldwide female-supporting community.

  8. As a working class child born in 1946 my opportunities were limited. There was little or no expectation that me or my peer-girls would amount to anything much more than housewives and mothers and before that could legally happen we were cannon fodder for the factories and the low level doemstic work. Some of us gained jobs in offices but again at very low levesl of entry and if we had no short hand or typeing we were filing clerks, that was most of us. Boyz were an early distraction for all of us girls back then, from the age or 13 onwards. We left school at 15 to undertake these jobs while being kept on hold for the lower task of getting married. No one I knew lived with anyone before marriage and those who did not marry were indeed the town spinsters of which there were a fair few. At 22 I was the last to get married in my friendship group. I married ‘out’ as it was called and left the town 7mths afterwards and by the 10th month had a baby!
    However there were quite a few first in my early years.
    First girl to do a paper round, I was 11.
    First girl in my group to have an abortion, before it was legal, I had to pretend I was going mad!!!!!!
    First to be raped, we were all molested!
    First to enter a ‘real’ profession, SRN training at 19
    First in my family to get 2 degrees
    First to drive a car and buy one brand new…
    First to buy a house
    First to have a daughter who was not abused, molested or raped!
    First to be an active avowed feminist political and loud

    When did I become a feminist?
    I was always a feminist I resisted everything that said I was inferior or second class or second rate and I resisted on behalf of others with the consequences at school (when standing up for other girls against bulling teachers) being slapped in the face or sent for the cane or just running away from school.

    In marriage I found escape from harrowing parents who hated each other but learnt that men were dangerous and required one to be strong and stand up to them. I wore dr Martins and felt strong and still do..I fear nothing and no one…..better to die standing than live on ones knees was our motto…..

    I joined the womons movement here in UK in the early 70’s and spent time reading and learning all those wommonish things that had been denied us in our homes and schools.

    I rejected make-up, bra’s, sexualized clothing, and resisted and activated against all forms of sexism and porn…..

    I joined other womon and found a sisterhood and a group that was empowering and uplifting while I worked and raised my 2 children….I marched I sang I shouted I read I loved and was happy and still am…being a feminist is not about ones age it is a state of being……..its an ideology for womons survival in the war against men….

  9. i have heard it in other contexts, but i think its relevant here and was alluded to in the post…we were never meant to survive. *this* (whatever it is, whatever you want to call it, the P) was and is INTENDED to KILL US. many of us are killed and many more of us will be killed. the fact that there are any survivors at all is amazing.

  10. This post is pure *wisdom*….unfortunately its simple truths and reality-based knowledge are lost on far too many on the women of my generation–twentysomethings. Sigh. Perhaps if we did live in a culture that revered the crones, spinsters, and Hags a generation of women wouldn’t have foolishly sabotaged their own chances for a liberated existence, all in the name of fuckable-feminism.

  11. Bugbrebrennan, my sentiments exactly! I grew up with enormous influence from the Second Wave movement. It changed the way my mother raised me, and the way many of my teachers in public school treated us. I was athletic and played sports, and was only discouraged by some of the boys, not the teachers or my parents. I was the only girl on the cross country team (distance running) in the 8th grade, and petitioned the county and then organized a
    girl’s soccer team in the 11th grade. We had to coach ourselves and carpool to games, as they refused to give us any money, 9 years after Title Nine was already in place.

    The work of the Second Wave was so important – it may be the reason I am the only radical feminist in a family of four daughters. I was also quite lucky to have avoided the Sex Positive, Queer and Anti-woman aspects of recent waves. And the more recent Femininity Cult of the 1980s and 1990s.

    The best thing about aging is saying what I want and pissing men off! 🙂

  12. Wow, excellent post and comments! I’m 36 going on 5000, it feels like. I grew up during the second-wave, too- playing soccer, camping, reading science fiction, making homemade short-wave receivers… but my family (my dad, mom, and oldest sister) abuse me severely. I am so hypervigilant, it scares folks away from me… I wish, wish I had some older women friends to turn to- ANYONE that would even listen to me or believe me… and yes, I would be more than happy to live in a house with only women. Delighted. Maybe some men could visit me at my house, but they are NOT moving in. lol

  13. This is such a great post and i love the comments!
    I’m in my 40s and grew up during the second-wave and played soccer too.I wanted to become a car mechanic and they wouldn’t let me they said that it was not for girls,i hated that.So i became a Security Officer instead.Back in the 80s school was not funny for girls.
    My parents abused me too,still struggling with that every day.Sometimes i wish ,like Yisheng,that i had some older women friends or simply women friends who believed me and not telling me it was my own fault because they are your parents.Right now,life is not easy for me,my father maybe dead but he’s still haunting me.
    And men? Well most of my coworkers are men and i try to avoid contact.

  14. Yisheng and carpenter, what important comments. I, too would love to live w/ only women. It can be really hard to make friends w/ women and have those friendships last. It sounds like you have to be hyper vigilant in order to protect yourself.

    I wanted to take auto mechanics in high school. It was free and I had saved up enough money from working after school and in the summer to buy an older used car. My high school counselor, a man (although a man of color) was totally against it. I had to stand up to men so often that I was tired, and didn’t push it.

    Look who’s making money in this country, even in such difficult times – auto mechanics.

  15. Yeah, auto mechanics. I’m a self-taught mechanic- got sick of men ripping me off at the shop. NO, I DO NOT NEED A NEW JUPITER BELT OR VALVE OIL, lying mechassholes. I’d rather change out my own VW Vanagon starter in the driving snow drunk on whiskey (true story!) then ever again overpay a man to do a half-ass job. Then, it’s all about how “HOT” random d00ds think it is that I can change my own oil. UUUUGH!!! The urge to crack d00dskulls with a tire iron is very strong when these ‘observations’ are offered- unsolicited, of course.

    I want to work for- and with- women. It’d be the only way I know I’d get a fair shake, and fair pay. Learning, too- taught by a fascinating woman, Michelle…. her boss is a woman, too, so I may try to get a foot in the door there… I’m thinking I need to move to a new city. Where, I don’t know… but fixing stuff (cars, electronics) is a very important skill, and I am always willing to teach other women this stuff, no questions asked. Skill trade with other women is good, too, I want more! 😀 I want to make amazing things happen with women… the idea excites my brain.

  16. That is fantastic. With the horrible Depression we have coming up, your mechanic skills are going t safe your life, and probably those of others.

  17. Yisheng, I have looked hard for a woman mechanic. All of them are men. I can say that in parts of Western Oregon (Eugene, Portland, maybe Corvallis) women like to hire women. That is how I started working for myself as a landscaper and was able to quit working for a man. The most important thing is advertising where women go. The women’s locker room at the YMCA had a good bulletin board, and I made sure my fliers were always posted.

    I think lots of women would prefer to go to a woman mechanic.

  18. FCM and Vliet: thanks so much for this post. One sentence, so true for me as for large numbers: “Many of us have found that in addition to a mature viewpoint with real perspective, we are at the height of our intellectual powers and have again an interest in exploring our situation on this planet as women.”

    It astonished me to realize how little of myself I really tracked and how seldom I connected to the full-bodied resonance of the planet before re-engaging with second wave feminism’s ideas at this later life stage.

    For the New Year, I send strong energy from consciousness — all of us collected here — to the planet that She may be strengthened to heal and/or cast off all that would be needed for our Earth to survive with us on it. For example, if oil-drilling rigs everywhere were to be toppled by high winds, quakes, etc. before drilling began (and before anybody was killed, people and pelicans included), then the corporate costs of oil-drilling might exceed the ability to re-set those monstrosities and “deep water” drilling could cease.

    At every level of the mass corporate system that’s been going globally into place during my entire life, we can hope, and in the best use of spirituality, pray for Earth’s primacy to overcome patriarchy by the Elements.

    When I put an ad out in my community not even so bold as to solicit radical feminists but only ecofeminists for conscious raising, the only “takers” were queer rights activists more interested in m2f incursions to rest rooms than in living on a planet that can continue to sustain life. So thank you for being here! This radfem hub website serves an important purpose.

  19. Many of those inspirational women weren’t/aren’t just older feminists and second wavers, they were also lesbians. Lesbians have been a powerful voice within the rad/fem movement, often going courageously where none of us thought to go before.

  20. I absolutely agree! I find over and over again that the most powerful writers and voices are usually lesbian.

  21. Yes, lesbians are generally awesome and amazing, and it’s about time they got some positive publicity for all the great things they have done and continue to do for ALL women.

    It’s time het women started truly appreciating their lesbian sisters.

    I am a het woman and I would be lost without my wonderful, feminist, inspiring & supportive lesbian sister and friends.

  22. It’s hard to convey how glad I am to have found this blog! Partly because it is so hard to find other Elder Feminists who are still radical…and honestly much of the younger feminist crowd I’ve been discovering lately has me somewhat discouraged and totally baffled. And partly because it’s delightful to hear some of my own recent thoughts echoed here, by another post-meno womyn thinking about the wonders of ‘invisibility’ now that we are no longer ‘fair game in the meat market’ and are presumed ‘harmless’. Because all the while that I know how harmless I am NOT (to patriarchy) and how free I’ve become over the years of living, witnessing, thinking-for-myself, refining my understanding of how patriarchy lives in and all around us, imagining and creating a life in which I can be fully myself–a womyn on my own terms and more convinced than ever that this Earth and all its inhabitants needs feminism now more than ever. Now that I am post-children and post menopause, definitely post-need-for-a-man (more truly, post-silly-ideas that I needed one in the first place, or that it’s worth the trouble to try to make it work) I know that I am freer than ever before as well as being at the “height of my intellectual powers”. This is an intelligence informed by maturity and the perspective of long experience as well as long pondering on such works as Mary Daly’s, Sonia Johnson’s and others you’ve named…reflection honed by living, witnessing, experiencing, passing through various stages and out the Other Side.

    Yeah, sigh–today’s ‘fuckable feminism’… a feminism whose goal is getting a bigger/’equal’ piece of patriarchy’s pie. All I see is a culture built upon slavery (most especially enslavement of womyn) and war, on the hateful idea that humans own the planet and are free to exploit and poison it at will. I see the hegemonic institutions and how much damage they do to personal consciousness and collective life by the veneration of ‘rigorous objective rationality’ without noticing how directly this mono- focus leads directly to ‘objectification’ and makes us forget the interconnectedness of all (to our great peril). I see how ‘success’ is measured in testosterone terms while the New Feminist denies that womyn are any different in any way from men. Scarce few seem able to imagine that if womyn had been in full partnership with men in creating ‘civilization’, things would look very different in every way, for humans and the rest of life. While fiercely claiming that any difference between us is ‘strictly due to gender socialization’ (a totally true PARTIAL truth), they seem completely in denial of the general socialization that goes even deeper than ‘gender socialization’ in demanding our worship of the mensworld, male-think and male-speak we were born into. This ‘feminism’ seems to be only furthering a civilization that still controls womyn and maims and kills us (and our children) in body and mind more capably every day…now with the help of New Feminists who, in their hurry to have a piece of that pie, have stopped seeing how poisoned it is. Don’t see how much they, as womyn, are left out in essential ways and that the proof of this is everywhere…everywhere! (but why worry, because menscience will fix the ‘estrogen problem’ that leads to our far greater occurrence of depression and autoimmune disorders with another lovely PILL! which might kill you too, but don’t worry about that, either.)

    Ah me. Yeah, I’m glad to be On The Other Side of Menopause: no longer burdened by the urge to procreate (which I did, long and well, and mostly enjoyed in spite of the difficulties imposed by patriarchy) because it means I’m no longer burdened by any need at all to seek male company or mediate with their embodied privilege. No longer concerned with ‘what people think’ because in the end that is just their problem, which I allowed to be my problem far too often and too deeply. No longer wondering what I really want or think or feel, because I have plenty of time alone now to know for myself. Now I’m cranky enough about, and tired enough of, the menstream claptrap and bullshit not to bother thinking or speaking anything but the unvarnished truth of my life and being. And wise enough too, about the risks of anger to myself and those I love to know it’s better to avoid, when possible, the things that prompt my outrage than to live in a constant state of anger by fighting every battle every day. Hallejulah! And blessed be the other Wise Womyn of Elder Years who went out of their (patriarchal) minds to gain a mind of their own, and still live as feminists.

  23. Great article. Take a look at this book for more

    Sisters in the Brotherhoods: Working Women Organizing for Equality in New York City (Palgrave Studie
    Sisters in the Brotherhoods is an oral-history-based study of women who have, against considerable odds, broken the gender barrier to blue-collar employment in various trades in New York City beginning in the 1970s. It is a story of the fight against deeply ingrained cultural ass…..

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