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


Renee K.
Renee K8 years ago

"If we don't hang together, we will hang seperately." Can't remember who said that originally, but it sure is true. In any generation you will find people of all persuasions. An all or nothing position can alienate potential allies. Women are noted for the ability to achieve concensus; let's build on that.

While I'm headed for my 54th birthday in short order, I can remember from my youth other young women saying they didn't need to be feminists; equality had been achieved! A decade later, I ran into a few of them, and their opinion had changed. We're human and nothing we think has to be set in cement.

I like the idea of mass communication through Facebook, et al, but keep in mind that it is not ours to control. Think about China and Iran.

We need to keep our minds open, and never mind competing one generation against the other, one race against the other, one faith against the other. We are all women first.

I wish us all the best.

Judy Molland
Judy Molland8 years ago

Thank you, Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, for writing this wonderful response. To encounter ageism or youth-ism amongst feminists is depressing. We must all work together to create a movement that is dynamic and inclusive, or what's the point? I came of age as a feminist in the late 70s; I arrived in California, from the U.K., and became involved with a Feminist Women's Health Center. The experience of working with strong, committed feminists changed my life. We were young, middle-aged and older, all working together, all respecting each other for our different backgrounds. It was a very exciting time for every one of us.
Now I teach young women at high school, and I am thrilled to see how much more assertive they are than I was at their age. Yes, there are plenty more obstacles still in place, but let's applaud how far we've come, and plan to keep working together, women and men.

Betty Ann G.
Betty Louann8 years ago

I find it difficult to worry about a man who wants a baby while his female partner does not. I agree with the person who suggested adoption for such a man. Or a surrogate mother, if he prefers to use his own genetic material.
The fact that he wants a woman who doesn't want a child to carry one for him just shows that he is inconsiderate of her life and her soul.
Let him get a child in some other way, if he wants one so badly.

Betty Ann G.
Betty Louann8 years ago

I definitely fall into the post-menopausal category and have often been frustrated when young women tell me that discrimination against women has ended and we should just get over this feminist thing. I don't usually say much about it, but I am distressed when I hear this.
But I am lucky that many of the young professional women I know get it or start to get it after a while. I have often had them take me aside and ask me if the problems they are facing at work don't have something to do with gender. I always compliment them on figuring out what is going on. They don't always have a lot of courage in dealing with discrimination related issues at work, but recognizing the problem is important.
I do think some of these women, both young and old, who are silent about discrimination at work, do use their vote to support women, by electing more women to office and when there are no good female candidates, voting for men who have some recognition of the problems of women.
I am thrilled to see more women becoming courageous enough to run for public office and I am impressed with most of them in the performance in office. But we have to remember that they were largely put in office by women who can't afford to push against discrimination at work.
The system is moving ahead slowly. And I agree that black women have it especially bad and white women need to help black women more than they do now.
We must all support each other.

Sarah D.
Sarah D8 years ago

"But if the man decides he does want the baby, then what can he do? Nothing"

I should also add, if he forcibly impregnated the woman, should he still be allowed a say?

Jade H.
Jade H8 years ago

Wow - that was like listening to myself 40 years ago - verbatim! She's right - we need to stop channeling our mothers about what we know because we did, and start dealing with what is in front of us right now. We felt the same away about the older women 40 years ago, and look where we are today - not that much farther ahead. Time for a coming together of women - period. Blessed Be

Sarah D.
Sarah D8 years ago

"However, it IS still unfair to men. If a woman gets pregnant she could decide to have an abortion. But if the man decides he does want the baby, then what can he do? Nothing."

What if he just left the mother after he slept with her? Or he left the mother when he found out she was pregnant?

If men want kids, why don't they just adopt? It's the 21st Century, single men can be good parents just like single women can be.

Eve M.
Eve m8 years ago

@ erin

" I'm not saying to force a woman to have the baby, but at least force her to consider other options that are available to her. "

erin, what on earth else would that mean?

men are not getting shortchanged here. as a woman, i have no right to place demands on someone else's body. even if i'm dying i can't get the court to go get my sister's kidney to save my life. the notion that my husband or boyfriend could get me pregnant then force me to bear a kid is no more appealing than the idea that they could force me to sell my kidney on the black market.

i can feel for men who have had their children aborted or who have been saddled with a kid they never wanted, but you need to think about what you are advocating for and be specific, instead of promoting mysterious ways of making abortion more fair that you can't actually come up with.

Krystyna A.
Krystyna A8 years ago

I can see how scared and unsure of their value as human beings younger women are.Just a survival takes all available energy and courage. I had noticed a panic when someone calls them " feminist", emphatic denials follow. Feminist?. Oh, no I am not a feminist, absolutely not !. So, what?. Have " they" manipulated you into being against your all gender?. Nobody blames man for being on the side of their own sex, and they do not have to deny it in order to secure social approval. Since when being a feminist became a bad word?." They " imply, that you are not acceptable if you have solidarity with other women, regardless of age and culture. That IS the War on Women. Next, after reproductive right, will go voting rights, then just real shortcut to burka and domestic violence.You snooze- you loose.Sincerely. Krystyna

Linda T.
Linda T8 years ago

We all need to remember that things have not changed that much from my post menopuase age to my younger counterparts. Women are still paid less then men for the same work, Over 50 percent of all children are being raised in a single parent household by overwhelmingly women, and most single parent households women and children have no health care. These are the same common denominators that we have had for the last several generations. I actually think this generation may have it harder becuase grandma now works and is not their to help with the children when they get home from school. That is why I feel it is more important than ever for us to remain united on the womans right to choose. The larger burden of raising children still falls on the woman.