Until a few days ago, I was very excited to read Gail Collins’ new book, When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present. I enjoy, and often write about, Collins’ New York Times op-eds, and well, she looked like she was having fun on Stephen Colbert’s show – so I ordered her book.
Then I saw an open letter that Collins wrote on CNN – to me. Well, not just to me; Collins was writing to “young American women” (identifying a generation without a clear demarcation – how young do you have to be to qualify?). And she was scolding us. This prominent columnist, feminist and public figure was actually telling young women that they should be more grateful.
Collins writes, after dismissively outlining the issues facing young women today, “It looks like there’s plenty on your plate. And if you don’t feel like dwelling on the non-problems, if you automatically assume that a woman has as much right to have a terrific career and exciting adventures as any guy, that’s great. For the entire history of recorded civilization, people had ideas about women’s limitations, and their proper (domestic) place in the world. That all changed in my lifetime — came crumbling down. The fact that I got to see it, in the tiny sliver of history I inhabit, just knocks me out. You taking it for granted knocks me out.”
Well, Gail Collins, right back at you. This letter knocks me out. Rose Afriyie points out on Feministing that first of all, there has been skepticism about feminism from all generations of women – and blaming young women for that skepticism denies the fundamental ways that second-wave feminism failed many of the people it was trying to help, especially women of color. Rose continues, “this prototypical young woman you are writing to — the one who couldn’t care less about gender discrimination, who stumbles upon it at her first job in complete shock — is the biggest myth you have perpetuated since you tried to call the Black man in the presidential race ‘disturbingly Ivy League.’” Rose goes on to describe the young women who are actively involved in contemporary feminist activism, saying, “One can’t deny that the movement for gender equality is still alive.”
As a young feminist woman who recognizes that she is deeply indebted to the work of women before her, I take large issue with Collins – but I also disagree, to some degree, with Rose. I do see the young woman that Collins is talking about. I attend a school (Princeton University) where I am known as “the feminist.” When the newspaper needs a quote about so-called “women’s issues,” they call me. Gender Studies is still not a major at my school, and although I’m not mocked or criticized for my activist work (I feel respected by almost everyone), I am seen as an eccentric for caring so passionately about these incredibly fundamental issues. There are many, many women at my school who will not experience gender discrimination until they step out of our safe elite bubble and are slapped in the face with some hard realities. And although there are feminists at Princeton, we are a minority.
I worked briefly with Rose at the National Organization for Women when I interned there in 2008, and much of my internship was dedicated to making feminism more “relevant” to young women. My fellow interns and I spent hours discussing why “feminism” has become a dirty word. Because, in many circles, it has.
I wrote a review of Leslie Sanchez’s new book, You’ve Come A Long Way, Maybe, for Equal Writes last week. In it, Sanchez calls feminists “obnoxious” and castigates Gloria Steinem for speaking publicly against Sarah Palin. To Sanchez’s mind, the fact that Steinem disagreed with every single one of Palin’s stances was immaterial – the point was that all women should work together to get a woman elected to the executive branch, regardless of how anti-woman her policies were. I imagine that Sanchez is one of the women that Collins is addressing in her letter, because it’s certainly true that Sanchez would not have been able to become a high-level Republican political consultant and pundit forty years ago.
But I am horrified by Collins’ attempt to point the finger at my generation and blame us for thinking that the struggle of feminists past “actually doesn’t sound so bad.” First of all, there are precious few young woman who would like to time-travel back to 1960. That was before Roe v. Wade – before Griswold v. Connecticut – before the National Organization for Women. The question is not about our gratitude – and I would argue that Collins’ generation is equally culpable in molding young women’s negative attitudes toward feminism.
Yes, there have been amazing accomplishments since 1960. But there has been a disturbing trend recently, with both Collins’ book and the Shriver Report (which I wrote about a few weeks ago), toward celebrating the past while excluding the struggles of the future. Young women want more intergenerational dialogues about feminism. We want to hear from older activists who worked to change the system, because we are slowly grinding to a halt. And the reason for this slowdown – even, I would argue, a slide backwards – is because the people who started the movement did not keep the momentum going. A movement needs to keep progressing forward, reworking itself to fit contemporary problems and contemporary people. The issues of 1969 are not the issues of 2009, but that doesn’t mean we’ve “solved” gender inequality. Young women find feminism irrelevant because we’ve been told all our lives that sexism got “fixed” in the 1970s. In fact, I think we’re perhaps a little too grateful to Collins’ generation – which many times seems less interested in empowering young women than blaming them. And I have no idea why Collins is only blaming women here. Men are part of the movement too, and I think one of the great triumphs of contemporary feminism has been the attempt to draw more and more men into the movement.
Yes, we no longer wear stockings and girdles. But we do have Spanx, and overwhelming numbers of the women suffering from eating disorders are between the ages of 12 and 25. We still don’t get paid equally – and things are even worse for women of color. College-aged women still have a 25% chance of being sexually assaulted during the four years of their education – and these are just a few of the issues that young women face. And yes, many of us are afraid of the word “feminism.” But for goodness’ sake, letters like Collins’ aren’t going to make the smart, educated women of my university start writing for the campus feminist blog. It will simply distance them further from a movement that refuses to listen to us, openly excludes us from dialogue and leadership roles (just read about the latest NOW election), and tells us to be more grateful for what we have. And really, I’m just wondering – if Susan B. Anthony wrote an open letter to Gail Collins’ generation, telling them to be more grateful, how would Collins feel?
What do you think? If you’re a young woman, how did you react to Gail Collins’ letter? Is the movement Collins is talking about still relevant to young men and women, and how much progress have we really made?
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.