Fighting the Feminist Generation Gap

by | January 5, 2010
filed under Feminism

Last week The Washington Post ran a piece by Anne E. Kornblut about the disappointment experienced by older women feminists like Geraldine Ferraro when younger women don’t vote for women political candidates:

How could anyone — least of all Ferraro’s own daughter — fail to grasp the historic significance of electing a woman president, in probably the only chance the country would have to do so for years to come? Ferraro hung up enraged, not so much at her daughter but at the world. Clinton was being unfairly cast aside, and, along with her, the dreams of a generation and a movement.

Of course Hillary Clinton was the target of sexism during the campaign and has been throughout her career-so are many if not most women politicians.  But does chastising younger women do the issue justice?

Women politicians unappreciated by young women? Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

And it’s not just Ferraro doing the lecturing. During the Primaries, Gloria Steinem took young women to task for “hoping to deny or escape the sexual caste system.” More recently, coinciding with the release of her new book this fall, New York Times columnist Gail Collins wrote an open letter to young women, which included such finger-wagging as this:

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.

There are a couple of issues here. In terms of the Clinton/Obama situation, arguments like those by Steinem and Ferraro make the assumptions that a) gender is more important than race and so a young woman should support a white woman over a black man, regardless of the young woman’s race and b) young women are apathetic towards feminist politics.

These points could be debated, yet none of these commentators acknowledges the complexity of the situation. Kornblut acknowledges in a slideshow sidebar on the WaPo page that there are good arguments to be made that Clinton’s loss was not definitively caused by gender, though she was definitely a target of sexist commentary just as Obama experienced racism on the campaign trail. As Jillian Hewitt asks, “Honestly, is it intrinsically more valuable for our country to achieve one milestone at the expense of another?”

We can’t treat women’s rights as if they exist in a silo away from issues of race, class, sexual orientation, and (dis)ability. We need equal rights for women to apply to more than just straight, white, middle-class women. We need to hook the feminist movement in better with the environmental movement. It’s a time to build alliances, not force young women to pick sides.

Then there’s assumption B, the belief enunciated by Collins, as well as Ferraro, Steinem and others, that young women are apathetic towards feminist politics.

Absolutely there are young women who are apathetic, or opposed to women’s rights. There are young women who don’t call themselves feminists. There are young women who voted for Obama, and there are young women who voted for McCain. There are young women who don’t understand how hard women fought for generations to get the right to vote, much less be elected to public office.

But lecturing young women who aren’t involved and condescending to the ones who are won’t help the situation.

There are young women who are involved, committed feminists, working hard to continue to struggle for equal rights. Shelby Knox points out how young women started the Hanger Project to mobilize college students for reproductive rights. About-Face has done a great job involving young women and getting them to challenge the body image pressures they get in the media. And more and more young feminists are blogging about feminism and using social networking tools to reach out on gender issues.

Then there are times, as Knox mentions, when young women try to get involved only to be tokenized or condescended to. In 2006 I went to national conference on Women’s Activism in Constitutional and Democratic Reform. The perspective offered by women involved in the 1981 women’s constitution conference was invaluable, but in the main part of the three-day conference, there were barely more than two or three young women speakers. The Youth Plenary happened on the last day, started at lunch, and was not televised, unlike the other proceedings. The attitude at this and some similar events sometimes seems to be that young feminists need to learn from their foremothers but not vice versa.

Younger and older feminists can’t keep pointing the finger at each other. Younger feminists should respect and value the work older feminists put in to push for the rights we have today, and older feminists should treat us as equal participants who have new strategies and ideas to offer the movement.


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