Look at Michelle Obama: She has segued seamlessly from an active professional life as a highly paid hospital executive to her current incarnation as fashion plate, doting mom and demure sex object, posing for Vogue in a hot fuchsia frock that shows plenty of skin. What's most surprising about this metamorphosis? How few people are objecting to it.
And guess what? In the long battle between the two styles of feminism, Brown, for now, has won. Just look at the culture around us. Ms. Magazine, the earnest publication that defined feminism in the 1970s and '80s, has been replaced on college women's dorm room shelves by sexier, sassier updates such as Bitch and Bust. The four talented, smart -- and feminist -- women of "Sex and the City," who are intent on defining their own lives but are also willing to talk about Manolos and men, look more like Brown's type of heroine than "Sisterhood Is Powerful" readers. The stereotype of feminists as asexual, hirsute Amazons in Birkenstocks that has reigned on campus for the past two decades has been replaced by a breezy vision of hip, smart young women who will take a date to the right-on, woman-friendly sex shop Babeland.
Then third wave feminism came along, critiquing its staid mothers and reinvigorating -- while simultaneously giving some political heft to -- the kind of gestures Brown had set out in her 1962 manifesto. Third wave feminism is pluralistic, strives to be multiethnic, is pro-sex and tolerant of other women's choices. It has led to an embrace of what was once so politically suspect -- the notion that you can be a "lipstick lesbian" or a "riot grrrl" if you want to be, that you can choose your persona and your freedom for yourself.
But that very individualism, which has been great for feminism's rebranding, is also its weakness: It can be fun and frisky, but too often, it's ahistorical and apolitical. As many older feminists justly point out, the world isn't going to change because a lot of young women feel confident and personally empowered, if they don't have grass-roots groups or lobbies to advance woman-friendly policies, help women break through the glass ceiling, develop decent work-family support structures or solidify real political clout.
Feminism had to reinvent itself -- there was no way to sustain the uber-seriousness and sometimes judgmental tone of the second wave. But feminists are in danger if we don't know our history, and a saucy tattoo and a condom do not a revolution make.
The fact is, we know the answers to Western women's problems: The way is mapped out, the time for theory is pretty much over. We know the laws and the policies we need to achieve full equality. What we lack is a grass-roots movement that will drive the political will. "Lipstick" or lifestyle feminism won't produce that movement alone.