Why Ageism And Anger Won’t Help The Feminist Movement
EDITOR’S NOTE: This post is a response to one that first appeared on RH Reality Check. You can read the original here. We wanted them to be posted together to enhance the dialogue among women of different ages. tPlease read both and let us know what you think.
This fall has been the season of the feminist “generational divide.” I have seen – and, I’ll admit, contributed to – an unprecedented number of articles that begin with some variation of this theme: “As a member of [fill in your generation], I am unhappy with [younger or older feminists].” Rebecca Sive’s latest addition to the feminist Mad Libs fray, titled “Menopausal Militia’ to Young Women: It’s Your Body!” has already sparked several intelligent and somewhat pointed responses from Shelby Knox and Liz Kukura, who took issue with Sive’s suggestion that young women aren’t invested in the battle for reproductive rights.
I’ll reveal my affiliations: I am twenty-one years old, a junior at Princeton University, and thus decidedly not a member of the “menopausal militia.” And in my activism, I often encounter what seems to be a serious generational gap between young and older feminists, who have significant trouble understanding, and appreciating, other generations’ contributions to the movement. This is perhaps because it’s frightening to all of us to see backsliding, like the Stupak amendment, in women’s reproductive rights and freedoms.
But while there has been amazing energy from feminists everywhere over the past month, we’re all still fundamentally scared. And for some reason, we’re blaming each other. Rebecca Sive’s original post did come off as a lecture – and I agree wholeheartedly with Knox’s “advice” to our older activists that “it does nothing to build our movement when you channel frustration about the rollback of women’s rights in this country onto young women in general, as if we more than any other group can be considered a homogenous lump.” Sive’s article was eerily similar to another op-ed by Gail Collins, essentially telling young women that we should be more grateful for the achievements of second-wave feminists. The tone of Collins’ op-ed was similarly scolding. She wrote, “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.”
Many young feminists responded to Collins’ piece, including me, and we said mostly the same things that Knox and Kurkura wrote in their responses. As young feminists, we resent the suggestion that our contributions are not meaningful. And in many ways, we still feel excluded, or that we are not taken seriously. I was angry that I wasn’t allowed to vote in the National Organization for Women’s election over the summer, because I was out of the country, and probably wouldn’t have been able to attend the conference anyway. I’m angry at Collins and Sive for suggesting that I am unaware of feminist history, or that I don’t care about reproductive justice.
But the blame that’s being tossed around is unacceptable and I don’t want to participate in it anymore. My relationships with feminists who are not “of my generation” (and who even qualifies for my generation is unclear) inspire me daily. I know that my boss at Care2.com will promote my work tirelessly. I spend hours each week talking and emailing with the director of my university’s Women’s Center about feminist activism on campus, and I feel that she regards me as a colleague and friend. When I interned at NOW in the summer of 2008, Kim Gandy invited me over for dinner, and I know that she cares about who I am and what I do. I have countless feminist mentors who know that I don’t take their work for granted, but who also take the time to appreciate mine. They know that I admire them, but they also take great pains to emphasize the fact that they appreciate me. It’s not that the generational divide isn’t present – but it doesn’t have to be so overwhelmingly negative.
When I interned at the National Organization for Women in the summer of 2008, I struggled with all of these issues, and I still feel that NOW could be doing far more to include young women in its work. But I also never felt as though my fellow interns and I were not being listened to. The problem lay more in the hierarchies of NOW, which are not conducive to young women gaining leadership roles – and a certain amount of rigidity when it came to how feminism should be defined, and how young feminists could be incorporated into activist work.
But walking around the NOW conference that summer, I could easily see why we weren’t understanding each other. I was one of the few attendees present who was under thirty. And that lack of communication is a two-way street. Ageism isn’t just a problem directed at young feminists. I’ve been dismissive of older feminists for not immediately seeing the potential in Facebook groups or online networking; at the time, they seemed to be clinging to a movement that no longer existed. But my dismissal was unfair, and a little self-aggrandizing. We all want to be the generation that made equality happen. ‘
Even so, at the risk of sounding clichéd, we’ve got to do it together. What I’m suggesting is that we all start trying harder. It’s scary to see the Stupak amendment sliding into a historic healthcare reform bill; it’s distressing that many young women don’t identify themselves as feminists. But we’re not going to solve these problems by blaming each other. Young feminists are culpable too; we’re quick to point out the ways that second-wave feminism is no longer applicable to our lives, but slower to incorporate older feminists into a solution. And this anger and resentment are helping no one. They’re not helping us stop Stupak. And they’re certainly not making feminism more palatable for people who may not understand what feminism’s fundamentally about.
There is so much potential for cross-generational work, and we can use these differences in our ages and backgrounds to create a movement that is dynamic and inclusive. Feminists don’t agree on every issue – we don’t all look the same. Those are common misconceptions that are used against us all the time. But we’re not helping by promoting these sniping interior generational wars, when we could be working through our frustrations in a productive way.
A beginning step: ending the lectures, and angry responses. Another is to stop aligning ourselves with particular “waves” or generations. Feminism is a dynamic movement – it changes every day, not every generation, and it varies from place to place, from person to person. That wonderful hodgepodge can be our strength, if we let it. So why not give it a shot?
The earlier post appears here.
Alexandralee via Flickr/Creative Commons