The recent deaths of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and pop singer Helen Reddy provide an opportunity to take stock of the fourth-wave of the feminist movement, and how dramatically it has changed since the intial achievements of the second-wave (circa 1960-1990)
Ginsburg’s first major court case as an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) attorney was Reed v. Reed (1971), in which the ACLU argued that Idaho’s legalized preference for male administrators of estates violated the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, on the basis of sex. When the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote a unanimous 7-0 opinion striking down Idaho’s law. The Reed decision began the movement towards gender-neutral law and almost overnight required the rewording of hundreds of state and federal statutes.
Although the U.S. Constitution doesn’t include an equal rights amendment, the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment currently functions as a robust substitute. Almost all gender-based legal classifications are viewed as inherently suspect by courts today, subject to strict judicial scrutiny. The movement toward gender-blind law began with Reed v. Reed and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
While Ginsburg was advancing feminism legally, Helen Reddy was contributing culturally. Reddy’s breakout musical recording came in 1972 with her signature song “I Am Woman” which reached number one on the Billboard music charts in December of that year. The song’s opening lyrics “I am woman, hear me roar …” and its closing lyrics “I am strong, I am invincible, I am woman …” are a paean to female empowerment. And when she accepted the Grammy Award for for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance of 1972, Reddy notably thanked God “because She makes everything possible.” Reddy’s song enshrined the narrative that women are strong, independent beings who shouldn’t aspire to be clinging vines, their lives revolving around the men in their life.
Consequently, two pillars of second-wave feminism were that 1) gender-neutral law should replace existing gender-specific “protective” legislation, statutes which ultimately hindered the advancement of women; and 2) the sexual revolution, with its emphasis on reproductive rights (abortion) and female sexual agency, was a positive force for women’s liberation.
The year after the Reed decision in 1972, the civil rights law Title IX was passed in Congress to ensure that, “No person in the United States shall, based on sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Title IX reinforced the concept of gender-neutral law.
And the commercial introduction in 1960 of birth control pills (“the pill”), followed a few years later by women’s increased access to safe and legal abortion, ushered in the sexual revolution and granted women reproductive rights and control over their bodies.
Similarly, the late 1960s witnessed a broad movement across the United States towards coed schools, universities, and workplaces. Women joined police forces, fire departments, and beginning in 1976, the military, naval and air force academies. On college campuses, coed dormitories began replacing male-only dorms and female “virgin vaults,” the latter of which often implemented strict curfews, hours generally not enforced in male dorms. And the abandonment by colleges of in loco parentis, while facially gender-neutral, impacted women even more beneficially than men, acknowledging that females should be granted agency over their personal life decisions. Finally, during second-wave feminism, women began to exercise more autonomy over the selections of their romantic and sexual partners, including their partners’ race, class, gender and religion, choices which before were often overridden by the wishes of their family and parents.
In short, second-wave feminism embraced strong, independent women—females who could perform “men’s jobs” and women who didn’t need men “protecting” them by legally controlling their options over which career paths to pursue, for example, and which men (or women) to date, have sex with and marry. Second-wave feminists told the government to keep your laws off my body and out of my bedroom.
The heroic battles for these gender paradigm shifts were led by second-wave feminists, usually against the opposition of conservative societal forces.
And by any objective measure, today the feminist goals of 1970 have been completely realized. Today, 12.8% of police officers in the U.S. and 8% of firefighters are women, 16% of the U.S. military is female, along with 56% of college students, 53% of U.S. law school students and 50.5% of U.S. medical school students. Even the purported gender wage gap, properly analyzed, is now a relic of the past.
And although the #MeToo movement mourned the deaths of Ginsburg and Reddy, the battles currently being waged by fourth-wave feminists could ultimately reverse many of the hard-fought gains of second-wave feminism.
This is because today’s #MeToo movement has replaced the second-wave feminist view of women as strong, empowered females possessing agency with a depiction of women as the subordinate gender, oppressed victims in an inherently conflictual relationship with the dominant gender (men). For example, the views of law professor Catharine MacKinnon of the University of Michigan and the late feminist scholar Andrea Dworkin, perspectives which can loosely be described as critical gender theory, are now the reigning orthodoxy among contemporary feminists. In 1987, MacKinnon argued that “Politically, I call it rape whenever a woman has sex and feels violated…To me, part of the culture of sexual inequality that makes women not report rape is that the definition of rape is not based on our sense of our violation…” Later in 1989, Dworkin described male penetration of a female during consensual sexual intercourse as a form of “occupation” and a “violation of female boundaries.”
Consequently, to #MeToo feminists, whenever American women today interact with men, they always “get screwed.” Even during consensual sex. This is a return to the antiquated view of sex as something men do to women, instead of the modern notion of sex as something men do with women. And it’s a corollary to the argument made by many progressives today that workers, no matter how well-paid, are always “screwed” by owners and capitalists.
And if the woman is younger and less powerful than her male sex partner, even her ability to grant consent is now called into question. For example, the Clinton-Lewinsky sex scandal of the 1990s is now being re-interpreted through an intersectional lens, with Monica Lewinsky now portrayed as the victim of an older, more powerful male, Bill Clinton. This is despite evidence suggesting that it was Lewinsky who pursued a sexual relationship with Clinton, when she was 24, to “get her presidential kneepads.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, the #MeToo movement has not yet taken to task Brigitte Trogneux, the wife of current French president Emmanual Macron, who began a romantic relationship with Macron in 1994 when he was 16 and she was 41 and married to another man.
College campuses are where the impact of fourth-wave feminism is most acutely felt. The last quarter century has seen the rise at American universities of a Title IX industrial complex, even though females today are overrepresented at universities. And although Title IX was originally intended to address sex-based discrimination in American education, the issues of rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment have become the primary focus of today’s ever-expanding Title IX offices. This inspite of the fact that the overall rape rate in the U.S. has fallen by more than 25% since 1990, while during the same period the definitions of rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment were expanded. Evidence also suggests that college women today are underrepresented among rape and sexual assault victims in the overall 18-24 year-old American female population.
Critical gender theory is so pervasive in today’s Title IX offices that even the definitions of rape and sexual assault are now considered subjective enough to be in the eye of the beholder. In their much-overlooked 2017 book The Campus Rape Frenzy, KC Johnson and Stuart Taylor, Jr. cogently note that reports of rape and sexual assault are significantly higher at elite universities, which are more likely to teach critical gender theory, than they are at state universities and community colleges. This suggests that female students who are adherents of critical gender theory, which holds that the United States is a sexist, patriarchical society, are more likely to define as rape or sexual assault a male date trying to reach third base or home plate with them. On pp. 48-49 of The Campus Rape Frenzy, Johnson & Taylor note that in 2014, “…one in every 181 female undergraduates at Ivy League universities reported to their university that they had been raped…That’s more than three times the rate—one in 665—at nearby non-elite institutions.” Johnson and Taylor surmise that “[T]he difference in reporting rates is due to the fact that moral panic about sexual assault is most feverish at institutions where identity-politics activism is most prevalent.” This suggests that the subjects of rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment have become thoroughly politicized in the U.S. today, with even the terms and definitions of these subjects much less objective than in the past.
Third-wave feminism (circa 1990-2010) ushered in the transition from the second-wave feminist vision of women as strong, independent beings to the current fourth-wave view of women as the subordinate gender, oppressed by a patriarchal, misogynistic American society. Perhaps the first instance of this development was the 1991 Anita Hill testimony during the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Hill testified that Thomas had sexually harassed her when she worked for him during the early 1980s. She first worked for Thomas in 1981 at the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights and the next year she followed him to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission when Thomas became chairman in 1982. In her testimony, Hill claimed that the harassment consisted of Thomas asking her out for dates numerous times and Thomas discussing sexual matters in her presence.
Hill was the first prominent feminist to argue that a boss asking her out socially and/or discussing sex with her at work constituted sexual harassment. Before the late 1980s, sexual harassment was narrowly defined as quid pro quo sexual bribery, with payment rendered in the form of sex instead of money. In this conception of sexual harassment, instead of the most qualified persons being hired, retained, or promoted, a company’s jobs are filled by workers willing to pay their boss under the table through sexual favors. Consequently, in this scenario the boss is defrauding the company and honest workers should report him to his superiors. Like any form of private workplace corruption, if discovered by the company, quid pro quo sexual bribery almost always ends in termination for both the boss and the worker if the bribe was mutually arranged, or the firing of only the boss if s/he offered the bribe arrangement to an unwilling, incorruptible worker. Note that with this narrowly drawn definition of sexual harassment, companies have a built-in incentive to stamp it out since they want to employ the most qualified people. Also, workers shouldn’t feel hesitant about reporting what is essentially internal company fraud. And with this properly defined concept of sexual harassment, there’s no need for heavy government regulation of internal company practices.
But in 1986, in Meritor Savings Bank, FSB v. Vinson, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court—broadly interpreting Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act—added the vague, nebulous concept of “hostile working environment” to the quid pro quo component of sexual harassment. Since almost any statement or action of an overbearing boss or an unfiltered co-worker could constitute a “hostile working environment,” it was only a matter of time before someone like Anita Hill would claim “hostility” or “discomfort” from requests for dates or “unwanted” private discussions of sexual matters in the workplace, which is a daily occurrence at thousands of American companies. Also, many senators questioned the severity of Hill’s harassment claims since she followed Thomas from the Dept. of Education to the EEOC. Hill even stayed in contact with Thomas after she no longer worked for him. The Justice was eventually confirmed by a narrow 52-48 Senate vote.
Anita Hill’s charges were followed in 2002 by Rachel Witlieb Bernstein, a former Fox News producer who received a confidential settlement from Bill O’Reilly who made her feel uncomfortable as a woman for allegedly shouting at her while she worked for him at the O’Reilly Factor. Unlike other women who sued O’Reilly for sexual harassment, Bernstein didn’t allege that O’Reilly made sexual advances toward her. Unfortunately, Bernstein and her lawyers successfully argued that expressions of anger from an overbearing, demanding male boss like O’Reilly constituted “gender” harassment of women.
But the floodgates of the greatly-expanded conception of sexual harassment didn’t open until the advent of the #MeToo movement in October 2017 during feminism’s current fourth-wave (circa 2012-Present). Many powerful men were terminated from their jobs, often without much due process, for having engaged in consensual relationships with female co-workers, sometimes decades earlier. The firing of Matt Lauer, the former NBC News anchor, is a case-in-point. And the women making the allegations often sound like Howard Zinn or Bernie Sanders, with claims that the power asymmetries and power imbalances between themselves and their older male partners invalidated their consent.
Some surveys show that more than a third of Americans have dated someone from work, so it’s imperative that we settle on an objective, narrowly drawn definition of sexual harassment. If not, unmeritorious and frivolous claims of sexual harassment—subjectively defined, such as many made by fourth-wave feminists in the #MeToo era—will necessarily increase government intervention in the daily interactions between employees at millions of American businesses.
A few post #MeToo examples from millennial women further illustrate how many young females today are chafing at the freedom achieved by second-wave feminists like Ginsburg and Reddy as they stretch the concepts of sexual harassment and sexual assault to their breaking points. In this viral YouTube video from 2018, a 21-year-old Georgia waitress was “hailed as a hero” for attacking a male customer at work who pinched her buttocks. Since the entire incident was captured on the restaurant’s video camera, the police were called and the man was arrested. While murders, robberies, and rapes were occurring in other parts of Savannah, Georgia, the local police were arresting a man for making non-verbal advances towards an uninterested female. And in this opinion piece in a September 2019 issue of The Daily Texan—the student newspaper at the University of Texas at Austin—columnist Jennifer Beck argued that “[U]nwanted advances and stares [at females at the school gym] are examples of predatory behavior and should be treated as such.” Beck never explains how a man can discover whether a stare is unwanted or not until he advances, at which point it’s too late. He’s a predator even if he immediately backs off. So much for due process. Another opinion piece in the same student daily from late 2018 argued for a return to a female-only section of the school gym, utilizing many of the same “you gotta keep ‘em separated” arguments made by anti-feminist conservatives in the 1960s against coeducation.
The argument that “unwanted” advances make women “uncomfortable” and therefore requires government intervention into the most private forms of human interaction, including romantic and sexual relationships, is an attack on freedom itself. Freedom includes the freedom to fail and in the context of dating and sex in the post-sexual revolution age, freedom means that many women today will have to kiss a lot of frogs before finding their Prince Charming. Freedom also means that many desirable women and men will have to deal with an abundance of romantic offers and sexual advances from persons they have absolutely no interest in. Second-wave feminists, unlike today’s feminists, understood this. They remember the pre-sexual revolution days of chaperoned dates, with fathers and older brothers choosing which men were suitable for them. Maybe that’s why they fought so hard for agency over their relationships and sex ,and for coed colleges, dorms, and workplaces, realizing that this newfound freedom would often be accompanied by unwanted offers and advances. Freedom always does. It’s unfortunate that today’s fourth-wave feminists are so casually willing to toy with throwing away many of the hard-fought gains of second-wave feminists like Ginsburg and Reddy.
Also, many fourth-wave feminists don’t grasp the irony that if a young college woman today can study to be a police officer or a firefighter, attend one of the nation’s military academies and even fight in combat, then surely she can handle a date trying to get to third base with her without labeling it sexual assault and filing a Title IX complaint. And if she does file a Title IX complaint, certainly she is strong enough to handle cross examination of her accusations, ensuring some due process rights to her alleged assailant. And surely she’s not so delicate that even before her Title IX case concludes, her alleged perpetrator must be kicked out of the dorm she shares with him and be forced to drop any classes they are both enrolled in.
In the final analysis, both women and men today who are interested in long-term gender equality must work for a return to the central goal of second-wave feminists like Ginsburg and Reddy—a world of strong, independent women who favor gender-neutral law and wish for the government and college Title IX offices to keep their laws off their bodies and out of their bedrooms.
Clark Patterson is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.