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Now that Susan Faludi’s busy examining the plight of man and Naomi Wolf’s become a punch line for trying to make Al Gore more of one, the time seems right for some girl provocateurs to mount a formidable argument for continuing the revolution. Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards hope to give the movement a boost with Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future, equal parts state-of-the-union address and call to arms. Both 30 years old, they want their book to inspire navel-gazing Third Wavers of their generation to do something more for the cause than just buying Sleater-Kinney records.
Feminism is a well-worn topic, but Baumgardner and Richards here attempt to do something relatively new by closing the generation gap between Third Wavers and their more militant Second Wave mothers. The two have done an impressive amount of reading and research, and their conviction radiates from every page. They come out fighting with a prologue called “A Day Without Feminism.” It’s a parade of statistics that describes life in 1970—when the Miss America Pageant was still the largest source of scholarship funding for women—and it does a very good job of frightening younger readers into gratitude for the work of the Second Wave.
The authors pay homage to those Second Wavers throughout the book with references to old-school issues like the ERA and equal pay, but their real focus is on cultural criticism. They take aim at Condé Nast for paying its Glamour writers less than the men at GQ, and chastise Jane Pratt for failing to make her new magazine, Jane, as righteous as Sassy. And, in marginally provocative moments, they vindicate Barbie and defend date-rape skeptic Katie Roiphe for her willingness to critique fellow feminists. It’s a bit familiar, but Baumgardner and Richards’s nervy earnestness freshens it up. They care so much about what happens to the movement that they scold mentors and peers, and name names while they’re doing it (notably in their ringside analysis of a catfight between Elizabeth Wurtzel and Kate Millet).
Despite all this passion and some impressive institutional backing (both have Ms. pedigrees, and Gloria Steinem helped fact-check the manuscript), it’s hard to take them seriously. To begin with, Baumgardner and Richards display a disconcerting amount of junior-league behavior. Would Steinem or Faludi try to entertain us with a sub-SNL satire on Carol Gilligan’s work set to the tune of the Gilligan’s Island theme (“Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a girl’s grim fate/That started in her youthful bloom/ Around the age of eight”)? Or interrupt their analysis with gushing endorsements for the work of their close personal friends and favorite feminists, such as Wurtzel and Kathleen Hanna? As Baumgardner says in the introduction, she and Richards couldn’t afford to be “precious about language” if they wanted to get the word out. But the disclaimer doesn’t make it any easier to read sentences like “She is a political, omnisexual punk rock feminist who is also proficient in martial arts” with a straight face.
This urgency to get the word out may explain Manifesta‘s failure to chart new territory, because it prevents the two writers from settling on their audience. Young feminists do have amnesia where Seneca Falls and the ’60s and ’70s are concerned, but when the authors take it upon themselves to give a refresher course, it’s about as engaging as the history chapter of your Girl Scout handbook. When they deconstruct the “Girlie” movement, on the other hand, presumably for readers who are too old or too young or too Ann Taylor to understand the sociopolitical implications of a nearly adult woman carrying a Hello Kitty backpack, those who live it may find the heavy-handed exercise as illuminating as looking into a mirror while a friend describes their reflection.
Baumgardner and Richards are so busy being everything to everyone—apologists, historians, and grassroots ambassadors—that they often miss their chance to push an opinion into insight. They defend Third Wavers’ penchant for memoir writing as a political act and admit that right-wing women have a better-organized plan of attack than those on the left, but they never mention that the identity politics of academic feminism might have something to do with both of these phenomena. They praise Monica Lewinsky for defining her relationship with That Man as an affair rather than sexual harassment, but they don’t delve into the more complex issue of a young woman with a White House internship taking the casting-couch route. They hold up an “incensed medical consumer” as an inspiring agitator, but seem unaware that the future of activism probably lies in angry customers tired of big business’s Big Brother tendencies.
One of Manifesta‘s recurring themes is the Second Wave notion of the “click”—that moment when a woman gets wise to the inequality that’s around her. Baumgardner and Richards acknowledge that many young women haven’t yet run into anything that might occasion it. But their book is, in the end, too surface-oriented to give “click” experiences to young women who may be, as they say, “pre-sexism,” like college students who think it’s pointless to fuss over gender, or even us backsliding grads who find it easier, after a hard day at work, to just agree with male colleagues who tell us that we’re seeing things. How are we being subtly undermined at work, at home, in the mall, in bed? Baumgardner and Richards may know, but they’re not telling. A girl looking to Manifesta for directions to the revolution could get herself lost.