It is difficult to discuss the female experience without acknowledging the female body as a site of struggle. In a digital era partially characterised by sex abuse scandals, devastating domestic abuse statistics, rape culture, and the #MeToo movement, the ways in which women and their bodies are restricted, abused, exploited, and sexualised has never been so globally visible. Yet feminism as a social, political and cultural movement is more fragmented than ever. While the first and second waves homogenised the female experience and the third divided the feminist objective by placing ‘notions of empowerment, choice, and the individual above all else’ (Miranda Kiraly and Meagan Tyler, Freedom Fallacy: The Limits of Liberal Feminism), the fourth wave is increasingly shaped by an understanding of intersectionality.
Defined by the International Women’s Development Agency (IWDA) as an awareness of the ‘interplay between any kinds of discrimination, whether it’s based on gender, race, age, class, socioeconomic status, physical or mental ability, gender or sexual identity, religion, or ethnicity,’ intersectional feminism bridges the gaps and conflicts of interest which have historically limited feminist agendas. Thanks to the first and second waves, feminist poetics no longer means ‘locating gender on the Feminist map of traditional literary concerns’ (Shira Wolosky, ‘Relational Aesthetics and Feminist Poetics’). What it means instead is giving voice to the female experience in all its breadth and depth of difference and placing an awareness and respect for diversity at the forefront of feminist objectives. It is always important for feminist writers and activists to bear in mind the battles fought by our feminist ancestors and the ways in which Patriarchal gender ideals harm women. But a particularly important consideration for fourth-wave feminist discourse is how women, through blindness to experiences and disadvantages other than our own, are complicit in systems of female oppression.
As a light-skinned, cisgender, heterosexual woman born into a secular family and raised in one of the most economically privileged and socio-politically liberal countries in the world, my existence in a female body is far less of a struggle than it is for many others. But in spite of the rights and privileges that I have personally enjoyed as a result of the previous waves of feminist activism, I am by no means immune to the systems of oppression that cause harm to women. My interest in feminism as a social, cultural, and political movement was initially sparked in my first year of university whilst learning about the sexual double standard that governed gender relations in the Victorian era. It wasn’t until I entered into my first serious romantic relationship the following year, however, that I realised the extent to which feminist objectives are relevant to my life in the twenty first century. Having waited until the (culturally) late age of 22 to lose my virginity, I was only just beginning when I enrolled at university at the age of 25 to learn about the realities of sex, the bodies that I was attracted to, and who I was in relation to both. Aside from the anxiety around sex that I had developed during my childhood after being taught about rape at too young an age, my delayed introduction to sex was largely due to the crippling insecurity that I felt about my body. At 14 years old I weighed a hefty 16 stone, and whilst my efforts to shed weight over the years that followed proved successful I would never entirely lose the body dysmorphia that had taken hold in my formative years.
When I did finally lose my virginity to a 36-year-old man on a snowy February night in 2007, it wasn’t sexual pleasure, gratification or even accomplishment that I experienced. What I was attuned to more than anything else at the time was disappointment that the experience hadn’t been more enjoyable, and a profound sense of shame not only about my body, which felt and looked to me uglier than ever, but about my failure to correctly receive or give sexual pleasure. When I met my now ex-husband four years later I began to make sense of why I’d felt the way I had on that cold winter night.
A particularly important consideration for fourth-wave feminist discourse is how women, through blindness to experiences and disadvantages other than our own, are complicit in systems of female oppression.
Through the experience of enjoying sex with someone I respected and cared about and who I believed respected and cared about me, I came to understand that my first sexual experience, whilst entirely consensual, had not occurred as a result of informed choice and authentic desire. The real motivation behind my decision to have sex was an intense cultural pressure to be sexually active coupled with a pseudo awareness of my body cultivated via a gaze that wasn’t mine but which I had absorbed to the extent that it masqueraded as such. As Laurie Penny points out in Meat Market: Female Flesh Under Capitalism, beliefs, expectations and behaviours which undermine women’s bodies ‘are necessary fetters in a superstructure of oppression that has become so fundamental to the experience of femininity that it is effectively invisible.’ Second-wave feminism taught me that the personal is political, and our bodies are as personal as it gets. Whether the feminist ideologies that are subscribed to in 2019 support or criticise the #MeToo movement, fight for or against female rights for Trans women, accept or reject women’s abortion rights, the female body–what defines it as such, how it looks and functions, what its purpose is, and how we think and feel about it–remains a subject of concern and contention across all feminist agendas. So too, then, must the female body exist at the heart of a contemporary feminist poetic.
At the height of second-wave feminism in the 1970s, Adrienne Rich was at the forefront of a radical and vastly inspirational literary movement which gave rise to a ‘new language of feminism’ (Rachel Ossip, ‘The World Split Open: Women and Poetry During Second World Feminism’). At this time, traditional poetic form was perceived as being reflective of rigid gender roles which assumed the poet to be male and the muse female (Ossip). The very act of writing poetry as a woman at this time, then, was both radical and subversive to gender norms and expectations. Thanks to the determination, resilience, and sheer disobedience of second-wave feminists, it is not uncommon today, at least in the West, to find works by female poets in books, magazines and literary journals. However, improved as the situation undoubtedly is for some women (mostly those who are white-skinned, heterosexual, cisgender and non-working class) many of the structures and beliefs that limit female power and success are still prominent in the home and the workplace, albeit more covertly and less legally.
During the commencement speech that she delivered at Smith College, Massachusetts, in 1979, Rich emphasised the necessity for all women, regardless of the privileges they individually benefit from, to retain an ‘outsider’s vision’ (Blood, Bread and Poetry). What an intersectional approach to feminism and to feminist literature provides is encouragement and facilitation of exactly this. By inheriting creatively and philosophically from the previous waves whilst acknowledging their limitations and the fourth wave’s ‘diversity of purpose’ (Ealasaid Munro, ‘Feminsm: A Fourth Wave?’), contemporary feminist writers can contribute to a feminist poetic which respects individuality at the same time as addressing what Simone de Beauvoir describes in The Second Sex as an ‘Othering’ of women by men, and the ways in which our acceptance and/or blindness to it continues to define and unite the female experience. While access to contraception and affordable childcare where it is available reduces to some extent the burdens through which woman is both ‘bound to her body, like an animal’ (de Beauvoir) and defined according to her physical limitations, recognising how we are each of us complicit in the systems which oppress us and others is necessary for female emancipation.
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