Katrina Brown is a graduate student studying Women’s History and has a particular interest in most things lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.
I have been feeling some growing pains, of sorts, in my relationship to feminism recently. I have been wrestling through some big questions about both the past and the future of feminist activism, and where I ﬁt in relation to the two. I donʼt know how often feminists who read blogs like this – feminists who call themselves of “this” generation – stop to think through the massive differences that seem to exist between the feminists of “then” and the feminists of “now.” As someone who is being trained as a historian (I am in my ﬁrst year in the M.A. program of Womenʼs History at Sarah Lawrence College), I realize what tricky territory Iʼm treading in using the words “then” and “now,” both in quotes and just in general so let me deﬁne my terms.
What I mean by the feminists of “then” is all those feminists that exist in our heads who “came before us” and “paved the way for us,” which I think means something different to each of us, as each of us has been touched and motivated differently by various feminist predecessors. And what I mean by feminists of “now” are the ones we feel we are “in the trenches with”: our best friends, other people our age, people we are in real-time conversation with in person, over the internet, in class, in our writing and activism and living.*
The distinction hasnʼt bothered me until recently. I donʼt think I bothered to differentiate “then” and “now,” because it didnʼt seem to matter all that much. Iʼm owning the term “feminism” more, recently, in a mentally committed “this is what I want to do for my whole life,” kind of way, which brings up a whole host of questions like: “That is nice, but how? What does that look like?” And in my search for answers in the reﬂections of some of the “then” feminists who have begun narrating their own political experiences, I have been a little disappointed.
I have found that the trigger points of my own feminist awakenings are missing from the previous generationʼs rendering of their own history.** I keep wondering: where are their existential crises, their Niezschean moments of hopelessness, their drunken, grief-stricken tirades? Where is their struggle to outgrow the adolescent surety that suicide is the only sane act in a world as insane and fraught as this? Where are their own questions of “Does any of what we do matter and will anything ever really change?” What about the self-conscious doubt that can come along with political participation, the wonder if one is participating in the right thing? And how about the utter dread of where the world is heading, and the sleepless nights spent trying to process the newest pictures and facts of human carnage that have crossed their paths?
I know this all sounds intense, and possibly unnecessarily melodramatic, but I rest in the conﬁdence that these sorts of things arenʼt just a part of my own story. I have had countless conversations with some of the most brilliant, compassionate, socially aware and motivated people – my closest friends – about grappling with both the content and the simple fact of all of these emotions. The common threads of our lives are found in discussions of how we deal with our existential fears, doubts and hopelessness; we share our humanity as we share our own tried and true methods of continuing to function despite it all. I have spent an unbelievable amount of energy and time with friends talking through how we navigate lives that are lacking the big picture hope about progress, change and humanity that we desperately wish we could have. The one large solace I have found in my life is that it is not just me. And that I canʼt ﬁnd it in the words or writings of the “then” feminists own historical narratives has honestly been making me wonder if it is, somehow, “just us.”
If I were permitted to ask “the previous generation,” anything, and have them acknowledge me and answer me, it would be this: “What about all the other stuff that I just mentioned? Was it just not there for you like it is for us? Or are you just not saying it?” I am tired of reading feminist history that is infused with this sense of “We knew exactly what we were doing! And did it! And amazing things happened!” I canʼt argue that amazing things happened: of course they did. But I feel like if the surety displayed here was consistently true and present, then my generation is screwed. If it wasnʼt always there, then I feel we are being shortchanged by them.
I personally feel as though I need to know more about the dark side of the previous generation of activists and scholars before I can be fully and unhesitatingly inspired by their stories. I need to know about more than just ideological skirmishes: I need to know where they got their hope, how they clung to the big picture, what their starting vision was. I need to know about the ﬂailing moments and jerky movements, the starts and stops, the times they bagged it all and picked it up again inside of themselves. I need to know not just what the previous generation did, and with who, and how. I need to know how they felt.
I am honestly afraid of how upset this issue makes me feel. I donʼt want to feel this little bubble of anger in my chest that reminds me – too much – of how I felt when I was a teen, and ﬁnally realized that explaining my perspective and my emotional experience of my life to my parents was as good as futile. The “they just donʼt get it!” feelings are terrifying to me. Iʼm beginning to see my feminist predecessors as the humans they were, and that is actually a very carnally scary thing to me. It makes me realize that the future of this shit is really on our shoulders. And that makes me say, “shit.”
But. I have also noticed that in the middle of these emotions Iʼm writing a lot more. Iʼm thinking a lot more. Iʼm producing a lot more, and Iʼm actually beginning to think in concrete terms about if I were to write a feminist manifesto full of feminist theory – what would it be? What are my theories, and my observations of life? Because the “then” feminists give me a lot to think about, but they arenʼt inside my head or my life or my experience of the world, like I am. I need to write my own theory and my own observations, or Iʼm not really going to survive very long as an activist, I donʼt think. I donʼt know if there is a nifty or profound conclusion to any of what Iʼve written here. I just know that marking off the boundaries of where “they” end and “I” begin is way more uncomfortable and fraught than I ever thought it could be. But Iʼm glad for the “now” feminists: more and more, every day, am I thankful that even though I might feel generationally isolated I am not isolated in my day to day life.
*I am not going to use terminology of the “waves” because I think that muddies the water here. I donʼt have a lot of energy for the conversation about where the second wave ended and the third started and what happened in between, if anything, and where the fourth might begin. I think it is much more realistic to think about this how we live it: we are here “now”; other feminists were there “then.”
**I am not citing anything specific in this post, but the works I have read recently that have prompted all these feelings and thoughts are primarily the intro and conclusion of Sue Morganʼs Feminist History Reader, and Living With History/Making Social Change by Gerda Lerner. I am also not discussing any theoretical texts, but texts by feminists writing speciﬁcally about the history of feminism. The intent of this post is not to name-call or ﬁnger-point speciﬁc feminists I am disappointed with. I am mostly writing this to work through my own feelings about the Big Picture of Feminism.