Third Wave Leader Outgrows Her Position
By Julie Leupold
The late 1980s brought about the end of fluorescent-colored leg warmers, the fall of the Berlin Wall and - according to many writers -- the death of feminism. By the time the Baby Boomer generation dominated the workforce, women could vote, register for credit cards, join the military, pile up higher education degrees and run multi-million dollar companies. In the most fundamental analysis, parity between the sexes had been achieved and wearing the badge of feminism was at best passe and usually reserved for shaved-head radical man-haters-which, quite frankly, very few people wanted to be associated with. In 1976 Harper's declared a "requiem for the women's movement" and by 1990 Newsweek announced its time of death reporting the "failure of feminism" altogether.
That's where Amy Richards stepped in. Sifting through the ashes for some semblance of a women's movement, this 32-year-old dynamo with wide, intuitive eyes and an indomitable spirit shrugged off a barrage of slurs and insults to reclaim the "F" word for a new class of young activists. Armed with an idea -- not of equality but of individuality -- and a passion to push it forward, Richards co-founded the Third Wave of feminism in 1992 by convincing one young woman at a time that she was indeed a feminist. After a one published book, a few national speaking tours and countless late-night phone calls to colleagues, Richards still stands as a dominant but fading force in a feminism that has moved away from equality in the workplace toward equality in the bedroom.
"The concept of Third Wave has given younger women permission to claim the word feminism and express it in ways that are unique to them -- such as music and culture," Richards says. "Younger women mostly come to feminism through their women's studies class that teaches them about a movement that happened in the 60s and 70s and 80s, which gives them little room to claim it for themselves."
For the past ten years, Richards's work and wit has elevated her to a level of fame within her circle of followers, but only placed her in the footnotes of feminism -- until now. On May 20, Women's Enews (formerly part of NOW Legal Defense Fund) will honor Richards as one of the 21 Great Women Leaders of the 21st Century alongside some of women's rights heavyweights.
"Women's Enews chose an awe-inspiring, reader-nominated group of newsmakers demonstrating extraordinary commitment to creating change on behalf of all women," says Jordan Lite, assistant managing editor of Women's Enews, the nonprofit female-centered Web site. "From Her Highness of Bahrain who empowered Muslim women to vote, to art philanthropist Elizabeth Sackler who created a new museum wing for feminist art, Amy Richards is in well-deserved company. After all, Amy defined the word feminism for her generation and now helps empower and embolden young women."
Richards grew into this role as the leader of a Third Wave, though she deflects most of the praise to her colleagues and predecessors, at the feet of the masters -- or in her case the mistress -- of feminism, Gloria Steinem. At 22, fresh out of Barnard College, Columbia University, Richards became the personal assistant to arguably one of the premier feminists of all times. Steinem, the founder of Ms. Magazine and leader of Second Wave Feminism, started traveling the country in 1969 as one of the first lecturers on women's rights and co-founded the Ms. Foundation for Women in 1987 as the first public fund for women and girls. Richards still works for Steinem and the foundation in what she calls her daytime job -- or the one that pays her.
Even though Richards got her roots from Second Wave Feminism, which focused on naming and eradicating injustices like sexual discrimination and domestic violence from the 1960s-1980s, newspaper front pages pit her against long-time second wave activist and chairwoman of the National Council of Women's Organizations Martha Burk as the voice of the next generation. Burk's current political baby is pushing the Augusta National Golf Course, which hosts the PGA Master's Tournament, to end its time-tested rule of barring women members from one of the last boys-only clubhouses. While Burk sees this as an affront to feminism, the New York Times held Richards as the poster-child for a "younger group of postfeminists" who dismiss "the issue as a discarded ordinance from a battle won long ago" in a Nov. 25, 2002 article.
Ten years ago at an idealistic 22, armed only with an art history degree and an interest in the women's movement, Richards never expected her name in print as the voice of the next generation of feminists. But in 1992, in her first year as Steinem's right-hand gal, Richards met her future writing partner and life-long friend and in effect shaped the course of her future. Jennifer Baumgardner started at the bottom of the proverbial totem pole at Ms. Magazine in 1992 where she bumped into Richards wandering the estrogen-filled halls.
"We were working as entry level feminists when I met Amy," Baumgardner says. "She immediately struck me with her vibrancy, energy, and friendliness--she's the kind of person who remembers your birthday and your mother's name and whether you drink herbal tea or double espresso. She's thoughtful, but more than that, she has a mind like a steel trap."
Richards attributes her attention to details not to a leak-proof mind, but hundreds of little sticky notes that litter her apartment and the notebook she always carries in her oversized Peruvian bag. This plethora of stickies proved invaluable when Baumgardner and Richards teamed up to lay out what they saw as Third Wave Feminism in Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future.
"My book is a larger answer to the question -- what is the current state of feminism," Richards says. "I see feminism everywhere -- in the women who fought to have a professional women's soccer league to the teen girl who organized a blood drive at her school, to the man who dares to say 'that's not funny' to a sexist joke. Feminism has now been woven into the fabric of our lives."
Although this book -- which has now become standard text for many women's studies classes and has a permanent home on the shelves of Barnes & Noble -- acknowledges that advancements like the publishing of BUST magazine and the widespread popularity of musicians like Ani DiFranco and Alanis Morisette as examples that the younger generation has reclaimed feminism, it also is quick to point out that "after thirty years of feminism, the world we inhabit barely resembles the world we were born into -- but there's still a lot left to do."
"Amy Richards and Jennifer Baumgardner have sorted out the fruits of this wave of feminism -- intended and unintended, media, mess and truth -- for a new generation," Steinem says. "With wit and honesty their work shows us the building blocks of the future of this longest revolution."
Manifesta received acclaim for its widespread inclusion of what is feminism, its embracing of homosexuality and its history of past events. However, critics of the text cite its convoluted organization and hard-line feminist doctrine without backing as Manifesta's shortcomings.
"This book had the opportunity to be a bridge, to explain the importance of feminism to men, to women who aren't involved, to lapsed feminists," says Jessa Crispin, book reviewer for bookslut.com. "Instead, Baumgardner and Richards never answer any criticism about feminism. They reply to every concern with the equivalent of 'Nuh-uh.' Immediately they put up a barrier around what they consider feminists. They will not win anyone over with this book."
The criticism has not daunted the duo who have spent the last two years -- after the 2000 publication of Manifesta-- touring college campuses and lecturing about Third Wave Feminism. Through these speaking engagements and fundraising efforts, Richards maintains a "Why Vote?" campaign that benchmarked the beginning of her career in feminism. For the '92 and '96 elections, she led a massive voter registration campaign and has since spoken about the women and politics at Rutgers University, Wellesley College and the U.N. Conference on Women in Beijing, China.
Even after a decade of being the poster child of postfeminism, Richards is best remembered in her individual relationships, as if she is the glue that holds a whole generation together. From always being able to find decent coffee and donuts on road trips to giving good toasts at parties, friends and colleagues paint a very accessible picture of a woman who led a movement.
"When we first met, I went on a road trip with Amy to DC for a pro-choice rally," says Elise Newman, coworker at the Ms. Foundation. "The car was packed with young women and we met up with more people in DC. Amy had a connection to each and every one."
Amy now maintains this individual connection with an online advice column "Ask Amy" posted on the increasingly popular site feminist.com. Here people write to Richards with myriad questions from homework help for a 7-year-old to a woman who was afraid she'd never have an orgasm to a man that didn't know how to protect a friend from an abusive husband.
"My online advice column Ask Amy is the most rewarding thing that I do," Richards says. "I field questions coming from around the world and a range of topics. I love Ask Amy because it's an outlet for those who don't have a formal network -- it's for every individual who has a question -- beyond the chorus."
Amy has replaced going to coffee with friends and talking with fellow activists on busses with quick return e-mails to both men and women who flock to this site in search of advice or just a friendly ear. Stuart wrote because he was worried about a friend in Hong Kong who was "berated for eating too much" and developed bulimia as a result. Amy responded with several help organizations and then added her e-mail address at the end so the friend could have someone else to talk to.
Not every e-mail is in magnanimous support of Amy's politics. An anonymous woman wrote that she felt a "woman's place was in the home" and "since women entered the workplace children have been without parents and love, which led to the society we live in today." Although Amy tried to be diplomatic in her response, the woman received a quick history lesson explaining why feminism did not cause the downfall of society.
"When I'm not on-line at two in the morning attempting to sincerely and thoroughly answer each question, I spend my time writing or watching over Third Wave," Richards says. "Who knows what tomorrow holds, but I hope more of all of the above."
Even though Richards's ideas and presence and vivacity are still in demand from the public, she is slowly pulling out of the limelight. Now at 32, she has exceeded the 15-30 age parameters that she herself established for Third Wave more than 10 years ago. An older, wiser Richards acknowledges that she has mellowed with age, seeing the grays of issues like abortion and political activism, instead of relying on such a black and white line that Manifesta portrays.
"I'm actually glad that Third Wave has a specific target range -- one, because it helps us to better serve people by having this defined range and two, it helps ensure that the movement always has a place for younger women," Richards says. "I would hope that I would have moved away from Third Wave gracefully anyway, but this age cut-offs ensures that our roles change with age. I know longer should be perceived as the 'leader' of Third Wave if I want to always be nurturing younger women's leadership. But, this doesn't mean I can't still help."
Richards is quick to say that she is definitely still part of the feminist movement; she is just ready for someone else to lead it. Where the movement is going, not even she can answer. Whether it is drifting toward a sex-in-the-city pattern of women's advancement in the bedroom or sinking back into a period stagnation is left to be seen, but Richards knows that even though "it's difficult to mark the movement, (she) is totally optimistic that it is present and it is vibrant and it is changing our lives."