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I don’t want to start another round of the current feminist wars. There are plenty of skirmishes all around depending on your age or background or point of view, the latest of which has Millennial “third wavers” upset with some rather tone deaf remarks on behalf of baby boomer Hillary Clinton by some of her Greatest Generation “second wave” supporters.
In the days since, many activists and commentators have pounced on Hillary and her surrogates of “a certain age”, outraged at what they perceived to be condescension coming from the Clinton campaign itself. Oddly, those of us who were also feminists back in the day – the days when we weren’t sure our doctors would even give us a prescription for birth control pills, the days when management would turn a blind eye to sexist remarks and physical harassment on the job – got sucked into the criticism vortex as well, as if there is some sort of guilt by generational association. That blowback suggests that somehow everyone in the “second wave” is out of touch, even though I thought I heard a collective groan by women of all ages when Gloria Steinem told Bill Maher that young women were working on Bernie Sanders’ campaign just because that’s where the boys are.
I’m not suggesting that Steinem’s comment was minor or that former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and her “special place in hell” comment was appropriate. (Though at the time, I actually thought Albright was directing her remark at Senator Elizabeth Warren, since most of those sharing the stage with her at that moment were senators who have endorsed Hillary, while Warren is still playing coy).
But after days of online feminist warfare – and the prospects of more to come – I have to ask this: Can we all please take a deep cleansing breath and be willing to look at each other’s perspectives? I mean really look at them and try to put ourselves in each others’ feminist shoes?
One article in particular that I found especially worrisome goes so far as to lump all my second wave sisters and me (whether we are baby boomers or Gen X-ers or on the cusp of both) into the same category of offenders, suggesting that we owe it to our third wave compatriots to step off, pretty much implying that we should take a seat and let the youngsters drive the movement, however it’s described today.
And that’s when I had a thought that will probably have my head handed to me, but I’m just going to say it anyway and let the slings and arrows start – All feminists owe each other something, regardless of “wave.”
Why? Because the work that was started back in Steinem’s day isn’t done. That work has changed and, undoubtedly, will continue to change, as we address all the issues that intersectionality requires of us. But in one respect it is still the same. As my wise friend Gloria Feldt wrote, “Yes, Agenda Trumps Gender – But Women Leaders Still Matter.”
To get to a place where we finally have critical mass in women leaders, second wavers owe it to third wavers, and yes, to nascent fourth wavers, to listen to not only to their views, but also to understand that 2016 is a lot different than 1966. While we “have come a long way, baby,” there are many aspects of feminism that weren’t even on the radar when the first push for an Equal Rights Amendment was crushed, and it’s important for second wavers to acknowledge that and be open to those discussions about the successes and failures of the feminist movement, and how those have shaped the state of feminism today.
However, I believe that respect and openness should go both ways – third wavers and those who come after them also need to acknowledge that if second wavers owe a debt of listening to younger feminists and seeing feminism through a new lens, then they equally owe it to the prior feminist generations to have an understanding of the work that came before them and how that groundwork is important to the state of feminism today.
No one is asking for a thank you note or a dozen roses, but I found it a tad on the audacious side to suggest that older feminists owe something to younger ones, without talking about the flip side of that coin. We desperately need a feminist two way street.
Yes, these are broad generalizations of the themes that seem to be playing out in media coverage stemming from the recent one-two punch from Steinem and Albright. But if feminists, whatever their ages, keep attacking each other and accusing some of practicing exclusionary feminism, then feminism – however each one of us defines it – is doomed.
Attacking one’s fellow feminists is nothing new. I’ve endured personal attacks over the years from self-proclaimed third wavers because they couldn’t see past my current age and point in life back to the time when I was more like them – a young college student, studying feminism and political science, but in the 1970s wondering if I’d be able to get a prescription for The Pill without my parents’ consent and believing that I would see a woman president before the turn of the century. They couldn’t see me as a young woman who shuddered at the thought of women like Phyllis Schlafly and Marabel Morgan. They didn’t believe I once could have been a young journalist who fought off the sexual advances of her boss, only to find out later that he was telling lies about her to her male colleagues, and was subsequently told by a lawyer that while I could sue, I would never win a “he said, she said” war.
I’ve been judged by third wavers because they could only see me as I am today – a generation older than they, with the implication that I couldn’t possibly understand what they were talking about. But they’re not the only judgy ones.
We second wavers also judge younger women because we’ve lived more of the fight and want them to understand that things aren’t as settled in the world of equality as they seem to think, and sometimes we can’t understand how they can’t see that. And that’s something that second wavers need to take responsibility for. We “older” feminists, also need to appreciate the excitement and enthusiasm many first time voters have about Sanders. Whether we think he’s the best candidate or not, it’s important for us to appreciate that Sanders is at the very least getting a segment of voters interested in elections who often don’t care to participate.
But we’re not going to accomplish anything unless we all stop – stop with the backhanded remarks about looking for boys or going to hell, and also stop with the third wave eye-rolls about what second wavers need to be taught about the state of intersectional feminism and the belief of many third wavers that they don’t need a feminist president to be a woman president.
So here’s my plan. I’m ready to sit down over a really nice glass of Chardonnay to talk about how all waves can come together to work for the good of all feminists. I want to figure out how we can put down our feminist armor and discover what we can do to make sure that our daughters and granddaughters – the fifth wave – won’t be acting out this drama in the decades to come.
So how can Hillary Clinton make that happen to her benefit? Writer Tracy Thompson put this way:
“Hillary should say to Millennial women: ‘Okay, so I remind you of your mother. I get that. And maybe that’s not a good thing for some of you, since ‘mom’ to you may mean ‘nagging’ and ‘I know what’s best’ and ‘you have no idea what you’re doing.’ But think about this: ‘mom’ is a word that also means ‘I’ve lived and I have some experience.’ It’s a word that in its best meaning stands for compassion and empathy and practical know-how. You don’t want to be told how to vote, and I respect your power to make your own choice. But maybe you should respect my power, too–what it’s taken for me to endure and succeed and get where I am.'”
So, Chardonnay anyone?