I expect to be writing this same post when people are discussing the 16th wave
When I saw that Susan Faludi was tackling one of the most difficult issues in feminism to talk about—the inter-generational power struggle, often cast (and Faludi’s piece is no exception) in “mother-daughter” terms—I got really excited. Faludi often has an ability to cut through bullshit and bring genuine insight to sticky problems. A voice like that could bring a lot to a discussion that tends to end up in recriminations or denials more than it does any kind of productive discourse. And for the first parts of her piece, I honestly thought Faludi was going in that direction. She laid out a case that this kind of battling does exist. She puts out evidence that younger feminists are sometimes unfair and ungrateful to older feminists, and that older feminists are sometimes so afraid of younger women that they go out of their way to exclude them, all while complaining that younger women don’t care. She even kindly points out that this struggle owes a lot just general misunderstanding between generations, pointing out how second wavers often took swipes at their own, actual mothers for being subject to the patriarchy, even as they criticized the oppression that meant their mothers had little choice. She gives interesting context about how this sort of thing happened even with the suffragists and their daughters—and the media was as gleeful in the 1920s to declare feminism dead as it is now.
But then she flies completely off the rails, attributing this divide to the same, tired, evidence-free stereotypes of bimbo daughters and harridan mothers that you always get. The only way she updated it is by dismantling the “harridan mothers” part of the equation, sympathetically casting feminists older than her 51 years as hard-working activists being shoved out the door by ungrateful young’uns who never listen to their mothers. And she reinforces a jumble of often conflicting stereotypes on younger feminists to discredit us: that we’re obsessed with navel-gazing over activism, that our obsession with technology comes at the expense of actual work, that we don’t know our history and don’t care about systemic issues, that we’re materialist and unwilling to challenge sexual exploitation for fear of pissing off men, that we’re so busy cultivating our graduate degrees writing about Lady Gaga (using academic language that excludes most readers even as we have pretensions to pop culture appeal) that we can’t be bothered to worry about real world issues. She ends the story on a sad note, talking to a professor whose job teaching feminism has been cut as the entire women’s studies department at her school is being shuttered. The professor tried to include hip young writers on her syllabus, but her students treated her like an old bag anyway. Faludi implies that this struggle is why the department itself has gone under.
I was floored that these are the conclusions Faludi came to, even after she honestly notes up front that she has repeatedly seen situations where older feminists literally shut young women out of the conversation and then complain that young women don’t care. Stereotyping is a form of silencing—she’s doing it herself, even as she criticizes it (though far more gently than she does the younger women for being impertinent). I realize that a story that claims there are major priority and aesthetic differences between the generations is sexier than a story that posits that this is just the same old power struggle between young and old, but it’s less honest. Faludi admits that there was way more diversity in the second wave than is usually talked about, but then she drops that point and instead chases after a story that pitches hard-working activist elders against navel-gazing materialist youth.
Materialism is a big theme of the article. Younger feminists are supposedly all about it, and that makes us stupid heads or something. We love our high heels and lipstick and love to defend them, and that somehow means that we’re insufficiently anti-capitalist, in supposed contrast to our elders. (Never mind that some second wave feminists defended women against black and white anti-materialist ideology that has more than a hint of misogyny to it with its focus on consumer products mainly purchased by women.) That doesn’t resemble the younger feminists that I know! Many of us have walked exactly the path that Faludi denies we even see, starting with an analysis of how women’s bodies are commodified to joining up with critiques of capitalism—that’s why you have environmentalist feminists, animal rights feminists, etc. That some feminists are enamored of Lady Gaga doesn’t mean they’re incapable of holding BP accountable for the oil spill, you know?
As a perfect example of how Faludi’s critique is incoherent is the discussion of body image. Young feminists are obsessed with body image, and this makes us very silly and self-absorbed. We’re so worried that we’re not living up to some beauty ideal that it eats up all our mental energies we could be dedicating to overturning the capitalist patriarchy. Except, of course, that the writing about body image issues is a very specific assault on the capitalist patriarchy. Critiquing photoshopped images in magazines that make women feel like shit is a perfect encapsulation of the analysis that explains how capitalism and patriarchy work together: 1) Women are tasked with the patriarchal job of existing to please men 2) Part of our job duties is to always be striving to be better sex objects 3) Magazines set the standards impossibly high with technology to 4) Provoke anxieties that drive up sales of products. My main distaste for obsessing over this subject is that it’s kind of 101 and the realities are more complicated and nuanced that the analysis I laid out. But the feminist writers who do dwell on this subject do so in specific publications aimed at younger women for a specific purpose, which is that the appeal and immediate coherence of this analysis is the perfect gateway drug to feminism. Those on the ground doing the work of bringing young women in know from experience that this is true; nothing gets them like talking about how unfair it is that they’re bombarded with pictures of literally impossibly perfect asses, and made to feel bad because they can’t defy nature (and neither can a photoshopped Scarlett Johannson). Once they’re in the door, you can start talking about more uncomfortable stuff, like how widespread the notion is that women aren’t human beings (and therefore are suitable objects for violent torture). Needless to say, I think the fact that blogs like Jezebel take the time to hold men (and women) accountable for participating in a widespread misogynist assault on a teenager is a good example of how the younger generations are, in fact, willing to protest sexual exploitation. Even if it makes some men uncomfortable.
I don’t think the battles that erupt between older and younger feminists have anything to do with deep differences in outlook. Most of the ones that are cited are overblown. The fact that analysis about gender in terms of race, class, and sexual orientation has gotten more complex over time has more to do with the movement as a whole learning from experience than it does some moral superiority of younger women. The notion that the second wave had so much to worry about they couldn’t take the time to fight over lipstick or boyfriends is belied by their actual histories. The notion that third wavers are stuck behind their computers and never do any activism work is also a lie; any interaction with the actual activist community will demonstrate that the same young women are making coffee, organizing events, and making phone calls as there ever were. Sure, there are some (ahem) who spend most of our time writing, but that’s how it always was. Feminism has always had women with different talents putting them to different uses. Some of us are organizers. Some of us are writers. That was true in the 70s and it’s true now. There are only so many hours in the day. That’s why team work is so valuable. I’m intensely grateful to the women who do the often unseen work of organizing, which I don’t have the skill or bandwidth to do. But on the flip side, they’re often so incredibly kind to me as well. We all do our part.
All generations had their comedians and their earnest wet blankets. All generations have their down-to-earth pragmatics and their hysterics. All generations have their liberals and their radicals. All generations have some women who focus on reproductive rights, some who focus on violence against women, and some who focus on economics. All generations have feminists who believe feminism is inseparable from dismantling capitalism and gender as a concept, and feminists who are interested solely in simply expanding the opportunities men have to women without changing much else about society.
None of this means that the inter-generational struggle isn’t real, and that there isn’t hurt on all sides. Faludi makes this case, and I’ve seen it with my own eyes. But I think the causes are more mundane than dramatic differences in outlook between generations. I think women are basically like men have always been. We struggle for power…..because we struggle for power. Just like with men, older women are often so busy doing their thing they lose track of the changing times and get left behind. Just like with men, younger women sometimes are overexcitable and egotistical. Older people are worried, for good reasons, that our ageist society will push them out. Older people, for less honorable reasons, think they should be able to rest on their laurels a little bit and dismiss the opinions of younger people, who they see as less experienced and therefore uninteresting. Young people can be stubborn and not willing to learn from the experiences of their elders. Everyone’s self-interest gets in the way of communication.
But that doesn’t mean we have dramatic differences. In my experience, dialogue is perfectly possible in situations where said self-interest is removed from the equation. I talk to women older than myself all the time, and I feel like everyone has a good time and learns from it. I see a lot of young feminists who work cheerfully under the leadership of older women, and I see many older women who aren’t about to let the times pass them by. There’s more of this going on than you’d think. It’s just that battles erupt around the same concerns that old and young have always had, which is that older people want to protect their turf and younger people want to lay claim to it. And that’s always going to create strife. I don’t know why we expect women to be any different than men in this regard.