Feminist Mothers, Flapper Daughters?

Feminist Mothers, Flapper Daughters?

Young feminists aren’t disdaining the movement, they’re claiming it—but they want a bigger place in it.


Ah, the young. In "American Electra: Feminism’s Ritual Matricide," her cover story in the October Harper’s, Susan Faludi argues that young feminists are frivolous fashionistas who choose Lady Gaga over Gloria Steinem and consumerism over activism, thereby betraying the cause—and their second-wave mothers, real and figurative. Faludi thinks today’s young feminists are out to kill their mothers, much as young women in the 1920s rejected the Victorian matriarchs who had won them the vote: "Over and over, a younger generation disavows the women’s movement as a daughter disowns her mother." I admire Faludi immensely and consider her a friend. There is definitely something in what she says—why are we always reinventing the feminist wheel?—but I think she paints with too sweeping and too dark a brush.

Before we get to that, though, let me admit that I, too, find young feminists a bit trying on occasion. I’m tired of their constant use of teeny-bopper words like "amazing" and "awesome," the lazy use of obscenities and the way they refer to themselves as "girls" and "chicks." What’s wrong with "woman"? Is "woman" too fat for them? I don’t get their obsession with ads and women’s magazines and pop culture and celebrities—to me, feminism is about getting that stuff out of your head, not coming up with yet more reasons to object to it while remaining in its thrall. I’m tired of "body issues" getting so much more emphasis than economic and political ones, and the endless fetishizing of "choice" where anything a woman wants to do is sacrosanct, including stripping, prostitution and porn, which are simultaneously obscurely troubling and perfectly OK! Like Faludi, I resent their caricature of 1960s–’70s feminism as all-white, even racist, when as Sara Evans showed in Personal Politics, the women’s movement came out of the civil rights movement. Many second-wavers were intensely self-critical around race—Redstockings even decided it was unsisterly to black women for white women to date black men. Young women didn’t invent intersectionality, and it really annoys me when they wave it around like some kind of slice-and-dice Ginsu knife whenever an older feminist tries to talk about women.

And yet, a lot of what irks me about young feminists irked me about older feminists too. The oft-parodied specifying of standpoint—"As a half-Irish, half-Chicana, disabled, celibate bisexual, I…"—comes straight out of the ever more splintering identity politics of the late ’70s. Sex work, as Faludi notes, has always been a flashpoint of feminist politics, as have beauty and body issues. Faludi frames her piece around the most recent NOW election, in which 33-year-old Latifa Lyles was narrowly defeated by 56-year-old Terry O’Neill after a nasty campaign with generational insults both ways. If I had been voting I’d have gone for Latifa, because the boomer cohort that controls NOW needs a shake-up.

The fact is, these same young women (some of whom are not even so young anymore—Rebecca Walker, founder of Third Wave Foundation and famous hater of her mother, Alice, is 40!) are doing a lot of activist work. They start abortion funds and scrappy groups like Hollaback!, which protests street harassment; they volunteer at rape crisis centers; they mentor teens; they organize conferences; they write books by the dozen and blogs by the hundreds. Faludi seems to take a dim view of blogging, but the Jezebel blogger Tracie Egan, a k a Slut Machine, who made light of date rape, is hardly representative. Sure, blogging can degenerate into its own little hothouse world—but sites like Jezebel and Feministing and Pandagon and Salon‘s Broadsheet have introduced a lot of young women to feminist ideas and activism too. It’s how a lot of people, including me, keep up with the news on women.

Young feminists, in short, are not like the ’20s flappers who repudiated Elizabeth Cady Stanton or their "I’m not a feminist, but…" apolitical descendants today. They’re claiming feminism—they just want a bigger place in it.

To me the generational struggle is not about killing the mother in some deep and symbolic way—actually, lots of feminists, then and now, love and even admire their mothers and revere older figures like Steinem. It’s about young women jockeying with the feminist establishment for power and visibility. They want to sit on panels and make policy and give keynote addresses; they want attention for their books and blogs and recognition for their hard activist work. Their bad-mouthing or mocking their elders is part of this struggle, which has been going on for a while. Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, now 40, kicked it off with Manifesta in 2000.

At the same time it’s understandable why this maneuvering for position sometimes rankles the old guard. It may well be true, as Jessica Valenti, among many others, complains, that young volunteers and interns are treated like scullery maids at feminist organizations—lots of bosses aren’t so nice; lots of workplaces are dysfunctional. But you know what? People in their 20s and early 30s don’t usually get to run big established national organizations—groups with large budgets, and lots of staffers, and donors who need care and feeding, and certain set ways of doing things. In 2001, when Anthony Romero became executive director of the ACLU at 36, its first Latino and first gay leader, he was replacing Ira Glasser, who at 63 had been running the show since 1978! The changeover was a very big deal and rocked the organization for several years. It’s only natural for people to want to stay in charge of the movement they poured their life energies into—"Get your own damned torch," Robin Morgan famously told a young woman who intimated it was time to pass hers on. "I’m still using mine." As I’ve written many times, young women in a hurry should use their fabulous social networking skills to start their own organizations.

After all, that’s what their mothers—and fathers—did, not so very long ago.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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