In which Lindsay questions feminism’s generational rift and wonders how Phyllis Schlafly gets her hair like that.
“Today’s feminists need to blog less and work more.”
So said Debra Dickerson last year in a Mother Jones piece that, as you can imagine, generated much chatter on the web. Few other second wave feminists have been as blunt about it, but as feminist blogs continue to proliferate and second wavers continue to, well, get old, plenty of anxiety bubbles up about how the new generation of feminism doesn’t fully embody the spirit of the past.
Which is great, because it shouldn’t. Being a young woman today is different from being a young woman in the 1970s — or the 1990s, or the 1910s — and, as always, the methods by which women express themselves and their politics have adapted in order to stay relevant, meaningful and effective.
In Big Girls Don’t Cry, Rebecca Traister provides an insightful account of the current generational rifts within the feminist movement. She lets each side air their grievances: Second wavers (though, of course, this is necessarily a huge generalization) believe that today’s young women have it to easy because they never had to get their hands dirty tackling really tangible instances of sexism or fighting for equal pay and sex discrimination laws. And then bloggers (ever ready with our artillery of retorts) list off the reasons the second wave petered out, usually starting with something about how it was a movement for rich white women that were uninterested in intersectionality.
Well as a young feminist, guilty as charged. I’ve never written a protest song about equal pay, I’ve never marched on the Capitol with an “ERA Yes!” sign aloft, and though a friend and I did once find ourselves alone for about ten minutes in Phyllis Schlafly’s hotel room (which is another story for another time, but, suffice to say I have pictures in which my haircut looks positively obliterated in the presence of that coif) and instead of trashing the place, we obediently set up the lights for the interview we were about to shoot. I have the utmost respect for the struggles and hard work of the feminists that preceded me. So I hope that they can return that respect when I say that my girls and me — we’ve known an oppression all our own.
On the topic of generation gaps, perhaps the most illuminating passage in Big Girls Don’t Cry recounts an interaction between second wave icon Gloria Steinem and young feminist Shelby Knox. Steinem took Knox in as a sort of protege, and Knox was living in Steinem’s house on the night that Hillary Clinton lost the Iowa caucus. Having been in the trenches for years, Steinem was able to take with a grain of salt the sexist jabs that the pundits were making on TV that night, but the simple revelation that Hillary Clinton was the victim of sexism — in 2008! post-feminism, guys! — reduced Knox to tears.
“My generation had been told we were equal all our lives,” Knox said later in an interview with Traister. “I was hearing young women on campuses internalizing this and thinking they were crazy, that something was wrong with them for seeing sexism.” And, sadly, I think this is the defining struggle of our generation. We’re not doing battle with tangible external forces; you can’t picket against the struggle that Knox identifies. It’s the opposite of consciousness raising, it’s an obfuscation of the simplest, most obvious truths about sexism and our own experiences with it. Our Phyllis Schaflys are within. And as much as the struggles of the 70s were hard, I speak from experience when I say that as a young woman today it’s fucking hard to suddenly realize how to fight your oppression if you’ve been told all your life it’s imaginary.
Blogs, it seems, speak to this generational need. Maybe a lot of the posts we feminist bloggers write are lacking in properly annotated sources and in-depth research, but I’d imagine a lot more of them would have those things if we ran our sites during full-time work hours rather than devoting most of our free time doing it for no pay (but make no mistake, we do it because we love it). Maybe feminist bloggers write in a language that diverges from the battle-cries of those who came before us, but if we want young women to have their own Shelby Knox on Caucus Night moments, we’ve got to write in a way that reaches them. While not every blogger is necessarily using the Internet to make social change happen, don’t diminish those who actually are. Twitter catches a lot of flack from older people in particular, but reading the tweets from the #MooreandMe Twitter protest that Sady Doyle organized yesterday has enlivened me with such a hope about the collective power of feminism on the Internet. Activism like this, even though it ostensibly “just” takes place online, should not be undervalued.
More than anything, though, feminism should not be about petty factionalism. It should be about respecting the work of the past, accepting the shifts of the future, and finding a common ground through which we can work together in dismantling all systems of oppression.