Elevate Difference

No Permanent Waves: Recasting Histories of U.S. Feminism

As an undergraduate, my major was Women’s Studies, so I’ve read my fair share of feminist texts over the last several years. It’s hard to find one that offers a new perspective or, at least, a perspective different enough to satisfy both the expert and the novice. That said, I think No Permanent Waves does a good job of it by covering the fundamentals—women’s history, and issues of race, class, and sexuality—as well as topics like hip-hop feminism, religion, and sex work, which don’t generally make it to academic anthologies.

For example, the New York City tenant movement is something that I have very little knowledge of. This topic is something I encountered briefly in a couple of history courses and the occasional segment on television programs about New York City history. Certainly the role of women in this movement was even further from my mind, at least until I read the chapter by Roberta S. Gold about intergenerational feminism in the tenant movement. Although the piece centers on the tenant movement of the 1960s and 1970s, it does include some historical background information and lays a strong enough foundation to serve as context for New York City’s landscape in the 1980s and 1990s. I found it one of the most interesting chapters in the book, and one I didn’t expect in a feminist anthology.

Another thing I particularly enjoyed about the book is that, while it’s clear No Permanent Waves is more of an academic text than something like, say, Sisterhood, Interrupted, Full Frontal Feminism, or even Manifesta, the language is still very accessible. It’s possible that my reading of it is skewed because I’m used to academic texts that are dry, analytical, and dense, but I found that none of these words would accurately describe No Permanent Waves. Instead, most of the pieces in this book are easy to understand and follow, even as they delve into identity politics, intergenerational issues, women’s history, and so forth.

My one criticism of the book is that the chapters don’t flow very well. The book is divided into three sections: "Reframing Narratives/Reclaiming Histories," "Coming Together/Pulling Apart," and "Rethinking Agendas/Relocating Activism." While these titles generally reflect the pieces included in that section, they’re also very vague, and therefore, end up with a few pieces that could easily fit into a different section or that don’t adequately fit into any section. Part of feminism is the idea of rejecting labels and it’s difficult to categorize things that touch on so many cultures, philosophies, and moments in time, but it still seems a bit disjointed to go from reading about church women in the nineteenth century to President Kennedy’s Commission on Women.

I have to admit this is a small criticism about a great collection of writings. I learned much more from this work than I expected to, and enjoyed reading through No Permanent Waves more than any general feminist anthology I have read in some time. I could easily see this as the first volume in future anthologies, each looking at the role of women and feminists in various other movements and critical moments in time throughout history.

Written by: frau sally benz, May 11th 2010