Feminism: generational strife edition
24 November 2010
In a brilliantly Onion-like way, Jezebel.com announced in a headline last week, FEMINIST GATHERING SADLY LACKING IN MATRICIDE. The story describes a public forum at the NYC 92nd Street Y on feminism hosted by Naomi Wolf and More editor Lesley Jane Seymour but manned primarily by much younger feminists; although Wolf apparently tried to drum up inter-generational sniping among feminists, perhaps in the spirit of Susan Faludi’s essay in Harper’s Magazine last month (apologies: the full essay is only available online to subscribers, but you can get a taste), the younger feminists didn’t bite. Here’s my question: why all this eagerness to find generational fault-lines amongst feminists, and what do those generational differences obscure?
It’s not that I think there aren’t distinctions by generation; it’s that I think those differences are more about style than substance, and that focusing on them permits pundits to write yet another eulogy for feminism. I visited with an old student not long ago who’s now trying to make it as a feminist organizer. She spoke quite a bit about some odd experiences she’d had with older feminists in their 50s and 60s. “Sometimes they don’t like my clothes,” she said plainly. “They think we younger activists dress too provocatively. They don’t like my tattoos, or when I dye my hair green.” Faludi mentions these differences as well; young feminists tend (justifiably) to turn up their noses at the mother-earth muu muus or drab professional suits of older women. Yet my former student hastened to say that the criticism she’d received had been mixed in with high praise for the younger generation’s enthusiasm. “I think a few older feminists think we’re taking the movement backwards if we want to wear high heels or tatoos, but ultimately it’s a minor issue. Honestly, I seldom feel that we’re working at cross purposes.”
She’s right. It’s not that generational identification doesn’t exist; it’s just not the doomsday scenario that Wolf and Faludi make it out to be. After reading Faludi’s agonizing series of anecdotes about such inter-generational strife, I felt that I could probably have written an article of similar length making exactly the opposite argument. Faludi’s case is just so histrionic:
…these external obstacles also mask internal dynamics that, while less conspicuous, operate as detonators, assuring feminism’s episodic self-destruction. How can women ever vanquish their external enemies when they are intent on blowing up their own house?
Oh for heaven’s sake. If anything, the 92Y forum described on Jezebel.com indicates that I’m not the only person to think these anticipatory eulogies for feminism are overblown. Do I wince when my feminist students wear short-shorts and boob tubes to class, dye their hair as blonder than blonde, and argue that sex work is feminist work? Yes. Do I think they’re dragging down the movement by doing so? No. If I look at my own history, I know that feminism is a process that has different personal meanings over the course of one’s life/career, and I’m perfectly happy to let them work through their own processes.
In fact (to use anecdotal evidence myself): I suspect that many young feminists don’t just admire their mothers more than older women do, they’re also far closer to their mothers; many of my 20-something grad students talk to their mothers every single day, and students in my classes express an affinity for their mothers that’s more “Gilmore Girls” than momist.
Now I would be the first to admit that not only are generational ties meaningful to many people, they’re meaningful to me. I’ve spent some of my blurrier hours irrationally preoccupied with sussing out how how old my favorite feminist writers are — that is, how close they are to my age. I spent way too much time, for example, on Snarky’s site assessing whether we’re the same age because I love her prose and her take on popular culture. (Answer: unclear, but we certainly watched all the same TV as kids.) Likewise with Twisty Faster (who’s a teensy bit older, I think, and way cooler, yet I still wish she’d be my new best friend because I’m convinced we live within 50 miles of one another). But I also read religiously the younger feminists at Feministe and Bitch Magazine, and I miss the teenaged Hell on Hairy Legs, who seems to be busy with her new university life. I’m hardly the only feminist who doesn’t just want to listen to people who are exactly like me in age.
As much as those identifications seem to tell us things about ourselves and our particular sensibility in history, they’ve been used by the media to create false distinctions by age, distinctions that are oh, so delicious when it comes to women (because, you know, we’re so afraid to get old!). Faludi’s own views reveal serious problems with sharp generational divides:
Sex is the movement’s Mason-Dixon Lin, now as it was in the Eighties, when battles over pornography were known as the “sex wars.” Those old skirmishes have now been reimagined by third wavers too young to have been part of them as a generational showdown — even though second-wave feminists were on both sides of the Eighties fight. Sex isn’t the source of the divide between feminist generations so much as its controlling metaphor, as when third-waver Merri Lisa Johnson casts feminism as “a strict teacher who just needs to get laid.”
So, just to get this straight: Faludi thinks that there have been battles going on over feminists’ differing embrace of sex/sexiness for 35+ years and that even back then older feminists were split on the question; yet this is in support of the notion that young girls today are divided from their elders? Stop me if this doesn’t make sense.
Here’s a radical thought: All this talk about generational differences is easy to back up with anecdotes, but it’s just a distraction from the real issues that women face — those “external obstacles,” as Faludi calls them, of lower pay, sexism in the workplace, lack of female role models in high places, and sexual and domestic violence. Stop describing feminist catfights or mother-daughter battles and start focusing on what Twisty calls the patriarchy.