Ageism At Work: Gail Collins Tells Young Women They Should Be More Grateful

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.


James Carpenter
Past Member 8 years ago

* Debbie S.

Why do I feel that your saying that young girl do not have any rights -- well they do you rights that you think the must have.

If a man was to say what you put on here, you would be jumping all over him.

I thank you and other women for the work you did in the past but do not take away any persons right to do as they wish!

Sarah D.
Sarah D8 years ago

In general, I can't stand the word "feminist." I believe that the women's rights movement is a slippery slope because although a lot of women are against women's rights in addition to a lot of women being for women's rights, even the women who are for women's rights aren't helping much.

James S.
James Schneider8 years ago

if Susan B. Anthony wrote an open letter to Gail Collins' generation, telling them to be more grateful, how would Collins feel? Grateful?

Debi C.
Debi C8 years ago

Ladies, don't take "Butt Ram's" bait. He is nothing more that a sad little troll with coming out issues (see his posts in the civil rights area) - consequently, his over-the-top, brain-dead macho commentary.

Megan S.
Megan S8 years ago

"As a man, I can understand that she intended no offense, but I acknowledge that women often take offense at things that other women may even just remotely imply or even just unwttingly mention, exactly as you have HERE (ask ANY man who has managed groups of women for the absolute HELL it is stopping them from backstabbing and squabbling constantly amongst each other).

So I have to say that I think your irritation at Collins is incomprehensible to me as her open letter is OBVIOUSLY "not personalized at you" and you should let it pass rather than angrily post about it. I guess being upset like this at someone who doesn't even know you exist is just a "chick thing" as they say, eh? I suggest you take the correct dosage of the appropriate hormone and calm down a bit."

No duh she intende no offense, I realize that too, and I'm *thankfully* not a man.
And I'm not easily offended, by the way.
And women tend to become friendly with one another in groups,
not 'backstab and squabble'
And a 'chick thing'? What does that even mean?
She is raising awareness on the letter, not ranting about it.
Maybe you should stop being so stereotypical.
Or go crash a car and get mad about it, or another "guy thing"

Megan S.
Megan S8 years ago

I am 15, and I would label myself as a feminist.
Whenever I hear somebody say "he's so cute!" about an animal, I'll ask them how they know the animal is a male,
I hate stereotypes, and discrimination of any sort.
I realize how far we have come, and thank the women (and men, too) who fought to get us where we stand today;
but I also realize that we are far from pure equality.
A few more generations, and hopefully things will be better,as women are being more strict when it comes to rights, and things are changing, maybe not as fast, but they are...
We just can't stop trying

Janet D.
Janet H8 years ago

Yo, do you young women/girls know how hard it was to work for what you have today? I mean, do you really. Please don't go back any further

Debbie S.
Debbie S.8 years ago

Wow! I see alot of valid points. I am part of the older feminist movement and what I see of younger women is not so much a lack of gratitude as a lack of self-esteem. Now this does not apply to all younger women. But it seems to be a growing trend.

There are way too many girls getting boob jobs and falling in line with present trends that objectify women in the worst way...from fashion to music to media examples. And rape and sexual abuse seem to be on the rise.Where is the outrage? And political activism? Why aren't younger women boycotting ridiculous fashions that make them look like sex toys and music, movies and TV shows that encourage men to objectify and abuse them?

But in all fairness I feel that we older women somehow failed our younger sisters. Perhaps instead of demanding more of our male counterparts, we tried too hard to be superwomen and do it all: the career, the kids, the house. I dunno...This is just my opinion...

But when I see mothers in Victoria's secret buying their teenage daughters lingerie that 30 years ago would have been considered a dirty joke for a woman's bachelorette party and paying for a daughter's boob job as a high school graduation present , I am extremely disappointed and disgusted.

But for those young ladies who are willing to take up the fight for women's rights I applaud you and would encourage you to educate other young women as best you can. We are all in this together!

Lisa L.
Lisa L8 years ago

We live in a culture which generally pretends to "idolize" youth. This pretense is largely a function of the capitalist need to secure the loyalties of consumers at an early age, but mostly the young enjoy the idea that they're the most valuable and attractive members of society, the ones with the promise, the future, the unwrinkled faces and the bodies least likely to be in need of medical care. That is a fact of American life. Another fact of American life is the tendency women have to compete with one another for little or nothing. An aspect of patriarchal conditioning which only benefits men, this tendency is not the same among men, who at least pretend to revere older men, and indeed when you see fossils like Boone Pickens still wielding tremendous power with all his money, you see the male magic at work, and the way it controls the world. Older men hand down power to younger men, and younger men do what it takes to become worthy heirs; and women fall in line. Women really haven't figured out how to escape this, on either end. But one thing that has really harmed feminism is the ongoing claim that second wave feminism wasn't fair to anyone but middle class white women. True or not, it's been said enough, and the problem now is larger: few women of color OR white women are willing to be called feminist. So maybe it's time to retire the well-worn criticism and think of something else. Or maybe "sisterhood" wasn't such a bad idea after all.

Danielle V.
Danielle V8 years ago

Young women do have it easier, but everything is far from peachy... It is true that our appreciation is often directly proportional to the price paid. Saying that "... 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." is akin to blaming your grandmother for slowing down when doing the laundry for all of the growing number of offspring coming after her. At some point, if younger generations or new people do not take over, of course the momentum will be lost. That is true for all causes, and the more involved you are, the more emotionally exhausting it is. How can you not know that if you are really involved? You have to have done it to really know. But let's remember that if young women are satisfied with the status quo and not vigilant about losing what women have so hardly acquired, they will be the ones with the consequences. When the older generation is gone, will the young ones still be blaming them for loosing the momentum?