Surfing Feminist Waves: An Intergenerational Dialogue

by Teresa Beaulieu, York University

My name is Teresa Beaulieu, and I am a feminist.  Yes, I say it loud, and I say it proud, each and every time.  I feel as if that one word, FEMINIST, allows me to honor the great work and achievements of those before me, while also acknowledging the work to be done.  However, far more common among my peers are statements of support for feminist values but a refusal to claim that title.  Given my passion for women’s issues, as I was completing my undergraduate degree in psychology I decided to investigate an under-researched population in the psychological literature: young women who self-identify as feminist.  I set out to understand why, in the face of adversity and backlash, young women continue to claim the feminist title, and what their thoughts and reflections were on the current state of the feminist movement

As I was conducting this study, I was also working with Dr. Alexandra Rutherford on her feminist oral history project, Voices of Feminist Diversity: Preserving Psychology’s Past, Enhancing its Future.  As the research co-ordinator for this project, I met some of feminist psychology’s most distinguished scholars and was inspired by their journeys as feminist activists and professionals.  As my research with young feminist women came to an end, I was intrigued by the idea of exploring the similarities and differences between my participants’ views of contemporary feminism, and the experiences of Dr. Rutherford’s participants as “second wave” feminists.

The following intergenerational “dialogue” is a collection of juxtaposed thoughts from feminist women spanning the multiple generations of the feminist movement.  In the first column are excerpts from some of the oral history interviews conducted with feminist psychologists who experienced second wave feminism. In the second column and at the end are excerpts from my interviews with my peer group of self-proclaimed feminists. This “dialogue” is dedicated to those before us and to the betterment of life for those to come.

“Well there were a lot of issues. They were recommending day care and they were recommending maternity leave, all of the things the kids today just take for granted! We had none of it! And pension for housewives, which we still don’t have….[O]ne of the things that really impressed me was that no matter where we went in Canada, all people wanted to talk about was abortion… everywhere we went, they were organized.” “I think there are a lot of rights that women have gained from the first movements of feminism that need to be protected and I don’t think we can take them for granted, things like abortion.  Things like that need to be protected…I think there’s a sense of complacency and that there aren’t these BIG issues in the public that kind of flash at you, like, ‘Emergency, emergency, we need to do something about this now.’  And it frightens me to think that that’s what it’s going to take to get people going again.”


“I do think that the feminist movement started as a white women’s middle class cause in terms of looking for equity.  But for ethnic minority women, the primary emphasis has not been on the gender issues, but on the racial and ethnic issues related to oppression within U.S. society.  This was more prominent and much more influential to our very survival, both personally and professionally, because we are very much viewed as ethnic first, and women second. “What I see happening, despite the fact that there is this awareness that this shouldn’t be a movement of white middle class women, I think the issues that I do see people kind of rallying around are things like menstruation, things like birth control….And I do think these are very much the concerns of white middle class women who have access to those things in the first place.”


“I remember a conversation about advocacy as one of the feminist principles.  It was said that part of being a feminist was to be vocal and explicitly advocate.  Well that may not necessarily be what feminist women from different cultures might embrace.  Must one necessarily openly advocate to be considered feminist?” “I don’t get together with 10 women and go out and infiltrate the streets and put posters up together.  I think it’s dangerous almost.  I fear a huge backlash.  Physically.  Like very physically.  Encounters with other men and the police…somebody’s going to call the cops and we’re going to get arrested, or we’re going to get beat up, or whatever. I would be rioting in the street everyday if those threats weren’t there.”


“Why do we perceive feminism as dying, or maybe what are the new forms that it’s taking and what should we call it instead?  And are we misconstruing things to say it’s dying when what’s dying is a particular form that doesn’t make sense in people’s lives anymore.  I also think that if it’s dying, that death is quite regional.  I mean I think about South Asia and issues about women/gender and development and human rights are very, very, very alive.” “I just don’t think that people are doing old forms of activism, like walking in the streets with petitions and all this kind of stuff.  I think that people are using technology more as a resource… I do a lot of online writing for feminist columns.  And even my Myspace and all those kinds of things are littered with feminist propaganda.  And I do do the stickering, posters.  I have been known to deface a couple of ads.”


“I think the challenges are to keep renewing our understanding of what feminism is, to keep expanding it so that as we understand oppression and empowerment in new ways, that we don’t keep on having the same definition of feminism as we did thirty years ago.  I’m not the same feminist I was in 1972, and that’s a good thing.”

“I think I would characterize myself as a fourth wave feminist.  You know, a new generation, with new goals and that sort of thing…I think that something that I would call a feminist activity, I think, has been less available to our generation.  So you know, we don’t have great demonstrations or walks or big protests…I think my brand of feminism, at the moment, is more quiet and very personal.”

“It’s not like people in the government woke up one day and said, “You know what, I think we should let women vote, let’s do that today.”  Or say, “You know what, I feel like legalizing abortion, I think that’s on the agenda for today.”  I think people have this idea that history naturally progresses towards the betterment of humanity, and I don’t think that that is true.  People have fought enormous battles, people have died, people have sacrificed so much to fight for certain things that we’ve acquired and so I think having a knowledge of history and now wanting to expand that knowledge of history, and looking back and saying, “Holy shit, look what these people did.”  And they did it!  It’s not like it was easier then, but people fought.  They fought for it.”