Consider these four women:
Helen Thomas - 89 years old, a first-wave feminist who broke into the mens' club that was the Washington DC press corps, and has since covered every President since JFK.
Gloria Steinem - 75 years old, a prominent second-wave feminist, co-founded the National Women's Political Caucus in the early '70's, founded Ms. Magazine, and became a leading feminist icon, campaigning vigorously for the Equal Rights Amendment.
Dr. Ana Nogales - 58 years old, an Argentine-born health and human rights activist who immigrated to the US in 1979, founded Casa de la Familia to aid victims of abuses ranging from human trafficking to rape and domestic violence, and is one of the most well-known and respected Latinas in the United States.
Courtney Martin - 29, author, editor at Feministing (a blog with over half a million unique readers a month), and a frequent speaker on feminism, body image, and youth culture. She's a third-wave feminist and media darling, with appearances ranging from Today to The O'Reilly Factor to various NPR affiliates.
So what do these four women have to talk about? Are they on the same page or at each other's throats? The cross-generational cartoon stereotype depicts a 60-something, white, man-hating, frizzy-haired feminist sneering at a spoiled, bulimic, twenty-something slacker. And some pundits would have you believe there's a vast generational divide, with not only divergent life experiences, but rivers of misunderstanding and resentment flowing through it.
But Courtney Martin doesn't entirely agree, and points to the media spreading common misconceptions about younger women including "the notion that my generation, the younger generation, is entitled, and ungrateful, or out of touch with what feminism means. That is something I hear bandied about a lot, particularly in mainstream media spheres."
Thomas, who at 89 is a pillar of the mainstream media and still asking the tough questions at the White House, sees that the biggest misconception younger women have about older women is, "That they're old! That they are not attuned to any new ideas, and that they think only about the past, rather than the future."
Dr. Ana Nogales notes that young Latina women rarely use the word feminist: "They might use 'powerful woman' and lately 'wise Latina', as portrayed by Judge Sotomayor. It is a linguistic issue that was tinted by negative connotations in the past as: "women that do not want to be women."
Steinem, Thomas, Nogales and Martin, along with a host of other women, are going to sort through it all, face-to-face, in real time, at a conference convened by Omega Institute called "Women and Power: Connecting Across the Generations." In essence, the conference sets out to explore how to build bridges across generations that inspire and empower women to change the world.
The conference, organized by Omega's Women's Institute and scheduled for September 11-13 on Omega's beautiful Rhinebeck, NY campus, also includes trailblazers like award-winning novelist Isabel Allende; Jessica Mendoza, a gold and silver medalist with the US Olympic softball team; Charreah Jackson, blogger and editorial assistant at Essence Magazine; Lateefah Simon, the youngest woman to win a MacArthur fellowship; Alberta Nells, youth leader of the Navajo Nation; and many other remarkable women.
Elizabeth Lesser - Omega founder, author, and Oprah Network host - sees communication at the root of the generational disconnect:
"Over the past few years of organizing the women's conferences at Omega, we have come to understand that new language needs to be found to express what women are feeling in the world today. The feminist movement has changed as have opportunities and challenges for women. What worked in the 20th century will not necessarily work today in the 21st."
"Ask young women what they think about the feminist movement and many will not even know what you are talking about. They take it for granted that women are where they are today--at home, work, in society," says Lesser. "But look around the rest of the world. So many strides that women have made have been snatched away from women and girls, or have never been realized. We must safeguard the work that has been done and that is best accomplished by making history alive."
Dr. Nogales points out that different cultures pass along their wisdom in different ways. "North American/white/privileged women, mothers and grandmothers have different stories. Latinas have deep roots into their own different cultures, many expressed through music, poems and story-telling. Searching for women's family and cultural stories creates a new dimension of understanding one's own identity that cannot be transferred from other races." She adds that young Latinas may connect more easily with a family or cultural tradition: "...in the Latino community, words such as comadres, sisters, or any other that creates familism has been predominant and more accepted than feminist."
While Martin acknowledges that many young women are uncomfortable indentifying with a "feminist" label that they associate with their moms, that they see as rejecting men, or that originated primarily with women of a privileged class and race, she also sees plenty of young women doing the work. And not getting acknowledged for it by 1st and 2nd wave feminists.
"I know young women who are social workers, and teachers, and veterans who are testifying in front of Congress about their sexual assault experiences, and straight up protest activists who still believe in holding 24-hour vigils on the White House lawn - I mean, there are a lot of young women really out there being active," says Martin. "But for some reason it feels like it's very difficult for a lot of older women to see them... they are really invisibilized by that idea that all young women are just sitting around blogging about their sex lives."
And, Martin adds, "maybe older women aren't hearing how deeply grateful younger women are for the work that their foremothers have done. And we need to talk about how do we create spaces for that expression of gratitude, and in what ways do we as younger women need to say it, so that older women really hear it and internalize it?"
Gloria Steinem, who will be a keynote speaker at the Omega Conference, also points out: "We have to realize that young women's activism won't look exactly like ours because they've had different experiences - which is a good thing. One example would be safe and legal abortion - though many also recognize the threat to it, it's hard for them to imagine a world without it -- but they're mad as hell that there's no comprehensive sex education, that the morning after pill is in contention, that pharmacists can just on a personal whim refuse to fill their prescriptions. They're angry about all of that. We all get radicalized by what affects us." She adds, "Actually, younger women - just by the measure of public opinions polls - are more likely to support feminist issues than older women are."
Martin agrees: "In fact there's this huge population, as you know, of young feminists online. And our monthly traffic at Feministing, for example, and we're just one blog of a bazillion of them, is as high as Ms. Magazine's subscription's list at its highest."
"Unfortunately, particularly the way mainstream media covers interaction between intergenerational women, it often gets sort of framed as this antagonistic, incredibly judgmental conversation," Martin continues. "And I think that there's some truth in that - there is some judgment between the generations. And I think it stems exactly from the lack of spaces and the lack of time to really create these kinds of dialogues that Omega is trying to create. "
Lesser agrees that the conference is offered as a starting point that she hopes will inspire more communication between the generations. "Birds of a feather tend to flock together. That's understandable. So, it takes effort to break out of habits and meet new people from different backgrounds and generations."
Dr. Nogales also believes that when women bridge differences and learn from each other, they become stronger. "I had to do my own search to come to the realization of what it implies to be a woman in this world," says Dr. Nogales. "And I learn more about myself each year I attend the Omega Women's Institute. September became the month that I dedicate to myself in search of a meaning of my own. I could not be what I am today if it were not for the women in the movement."
Martin (who will be leading a workshop on blogging as well as liveblogging from the conference at Feministing) thinks younger women can teach older women about "the methods of how we are having these conversations - the blogging and the social networking."
Lesser agrees. "Younger women have the energy to take the threads from the past and weave them into the future. They speak the language of today and know the landscape better."
Thomas, who broke through all sorts of barriers for women reporters and who at 89 is still known for her boldness, derives her incredible energy and inspiration from "outrage and injustice... And a strong belief in better people and a better world."
Thomas advises all women: "Never give up, and always struggle against false obstacles." She further encourages young women to, "Go for it! Follow your dreams, and raise the bar for all people."
Lesser hopes that the conference will help women do just that, providing "celebration, entertainment, electrifying speeches and panel discussions from totally inspiring women from different backgrounds and generations." She adds, "My top goal is for women to leave charged up to make a difference in their own lives and homes and work. Each person coming to the conference has the power to uplift her world--her kids, her mate, her colleagues, her community. A conference is just a weekend; what matters is what the women do once they get home. My hope is that women will be inspired by the speakers--all of whom have done amazing things against a lot of odds--to let go of fear and inertia and to listen to their own wisdom and become bolder."
For more on Omega's Women & Power conference, click here.
Co-written with Patty Goodwin.